As podcast ideas go, it was a cracker. Make a six-part show about Black Mirror and release the entire series for fans to binge on as an accompaniment to the show’s fourth season on Netflix. That was the genesis of Black Mirror Cracked, the brainchild of Trinity Mirror’s editorial trainer Suchandrika Chakrabarti. She also championed the idea of “mojo” thinking, which leverages relatively inexpensive and accessible tools to create compelling content.
“Podcasts have had a huge resurgence, as we all know, and the editors were looking for ideas for new ones, as this format attracts sponsorship and all media companies are looking for new sources of revenue,” she says.
“Having written about Black Mirror in 2016 when the first Netflix series came out, and had good numbers and SEO value from that, I thought a podcast would give us an extra edge, particularly in the US where the show has such a good audience and where podcasts are so popular,” she says.
To promote the podcast on Trinity’s text channels, Chakrabarti arranged an interview with Black Mirror’s creators, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. The interview was recorded on an iPhone, with a simple clip-microphone that can be bought online for $11, with a view to writing it up later.
But when Chakrabarti and her producer Daniel Jackson listened back to the recording, they felt it was good enough for a standalone seventh episode, as well as to provide content for the other six. “We decided to put a clip from it at the top of each of our podcasts, because it’s great to have Charlie Brooker’s voice as the first thing you hear,” she says.
Smart Phone Thinking
Using a smartphone was a radical move at Trinity, where most podcasts are recorded in a sound-booth with a professional microphone – but less radical for Chakrabarti and Jackson, who have helped pioneer ‘mojo’ at Trinity for capturing video and doing Facebook Lives in the field. The audio wasn’t perfect, but the pair crossed their fingers that the audience would forgive a slightly rawer sound in return for hearing from Brooker and Jones.
It paid off. Black Mirror Cracked went live on 29 December, the same day as the Netflix series, and went straight to Number 2 in iTunes. In all, it spent four months in “Bingeworthy.”
“The numbers were insane – 20,000 listens in the first week – far beyond what we were expecting,” Chakrabarti says. “They were listening very far into each podcast, too, not getting bored or switching off, so we were definitely doing something right.”
Chakrabarti says American audiences were more tolerant of the podcast’s raw sound than British listeners. She attributes this to the high audio standards set by the BBC, which consistently reaches over half the UK population each week.
“It’s totally understandable that anything less will attract critics. I’d say that we also suffered from putting all seven episodes out at once, because we improved our technique and sound as we went along with the production, but the audience got to hear them all at once,” she says.
“And no one pointed out the Charlie Brooker episode as having worse audio than any of the others, so it definitely wasn’t the smartphone. It was the learning we needed to do along the way.”
A Smart Investment
Black Mirror Cracked added additional episodes, for a total of 22, and completed its run last week. The other equipment used to make it consisted of a podcast microphone from the Blue Yeti range ($130-$270), and a Mac software program called Audio Hijack for recording Skype interviews ($59). Audio editing was done on the free, open-source editor Audacity.
“So our costs, minus our time, were just a shade over 200 dollars, US,” Chakrabarti says.
Other Trinity Mirror departments are now considering swapping the sound-booth for smartphone recordings in the field, particularly when a sense of ‘being present’ is part of the story, like sports matches. Chakrabarti says she wants to see more text reporters give ‘mojo’ – mobile journalism – a try.
As she points out, text journalists are recording interviews all the time and much of what they capture goes to waste. She recommends going into those situations at least thinking the audio might be good enough to publish on its own. Besides, “the combination of my phone and clip mic are small enough to stay in my bag all the time, and of course the device takes great photos and video – so if the chance for a great story comes up, you’ll never miss it.”
Corinne Podger is a digital journalism educator and consultant for media outlets, NGOs and businesses. She is a specialist trainer in smartphone storytelling for television, radio, online and social media, and has taught more than 2500 journalists and communicators to use smartphones for TV and social video, radio, podcasts and photography.
She has worked as a trainer with BBC Media Action, Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Financial Times, Fairfax Media, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung and supported learning for journalists from over 30 countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Australasia.
Corinne has also lectured on mobile journalism at universities and colleges in Australia, Europe and the United States, and speaks regularly at journalism conferences.
She runs bespoke consultancies and individual workshops on request. To contact Corinne, click here.