How to make it in podcasting, with executive producer Hana Walker-Brown
London-based producer and sound designer, Hana Walker-Brown can trace her love for music and sound back to a very young age. Having completed a masters in radio at Goldsmiths in 2013, Hana’s path has always felt certain. As a storyteller, Hana dabbles in various mediums to get her stories across, from documentaries to podcasts. Currently working as an executive producer at Broccoli Content and Sony Music, Hana is also a freelance maker, composer and author. We talk to the award-winning creative to find out what goes into making a successful podcast, learn more about Broccoli’s latest series Anthems Pride, and why Hana believes sound design provides a magical experience, unlike being in front of the camera.
Executive Producer, Broccoli Content (Jan 2020–present)
Amazon, Audible, The BBC , Bad House Films, Broccoli Content, The Guardian, David Guttenfelder, Narrator LA, National Geographic, The National Trust, Notion Magazine, Pottermore, Radio24syv, Slackwire Films, Sony Music, Squarespace, The Tate, Unilever, Warner Brothers
Executive Producer, Audible (2016–2019)
Falling Tree Productions (2013–2015)
Freelance Producer (2012–present)
BA Drama, Theatre Arts and Stagecraft, The University of Hull (2008–2011)
MA Radio, Goldsmiths College University of London (2012–2013)
How would you describe what you do?
Officially, I’m an executive producer for Broccoli Content and Sony Music, and a freelance producer, composer and author. I guess fundamentally I’m just telling stories, across all mediums. I make podcasts and audio documentaries, compose music for stage, screen or virtual reality, give talks and masterclasses, and I’m currently writing my first book, having signed a two-book deal with Hodder Books at the start of the year.
I’ve always been drawn to storytelling; I’m passionate about exploring the edges of vulnerability and courage and I’m also interested in how we can establish and maintain intimacy in our very modern world. It’s really nice to have different formats to move between – different worlds to dip in and out of – and different audiences to engage with
“I’m passionate about exploring the edges of vulnerability and courage, and how we can establish and maintain intimacy in our very modern world.”
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
I’m taking it one day at a time, being mindful of how much I use Twitter and which news outlets I engage with. I feel incredibly fortunate to have carried on working full-time throughout the last few months and being able to adapt as easily as I have done. I was freelance for such a long time, so working from home isn’t unusual.
It’s been trial and error at times – finding the right spot to work in the house, digging deep for inspiration or navigating recordings remotely. I miss not seeing the people on my team in real life and the people that are contributing to the work I’m creating, and it’s been harder to do documentary stuff – not being able to sit next to someone and hold space in that way but we’ve found ways through it, mostly with smart phones and determination.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
On a good day, I wake up early, do a yoga class or go for a long walk around Peckham Rye where I live. I need to move my body first thing. My friend Arthur Paulins runs a breathwork mediation session live on Instagram at 8am every day for 15 minutes, so I’ll do that and then make fresh coffee which has become a really grounding ritual for me.
Then I’ll check in with the team at Broccoli on a video call. We are all laughing by 10am at something or another which is such a tonic. Honestly, I don’t think there has been a day where we haven’t had a laugh. There’s only five of us and we’re a new company which means we’ve spent more time in isolation than we have together but we’re making it work and making the work (and still smiling.)
That’s when the ‘typical’ day ends, really, as no two are the same! Some days I’m writing or scripting, others I’m doing interviews with press or having calls with agents. On other days, I’m staring at a wall, anxious about the state of the world – but I have just finished producing our podcast series Anthems Pride in various locations around the house.
Anthems Pride was released daily across June (but we threw in an extra one for good measure). It’s a collection of podcasts written and voiced by exceptional people from exclusively LGBTQIA+ communities. Including singer-songwriter dodie [Dodie Clark], Great British Bake Off 2019 winner David Atherton, director of Black Pride Lady Phyll, writer and filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi, plus many more. I sound design every single episode and have migrated from the floor of my bedroom to the kitchen table where I’ve laid out my midi keyboard, speakers, mixer, laptop – the lot. My housemate was fasting for Ramadan for that month and was avoiding the kitchen at all costs until very late at night, so that worked out well for the both of us.
“Sound remains one of the most intimate and powerful forms of expression. Be it the voice of another human, musical composition or sound art and design.”
What is it like working in the podcasting industry, any highs or lows?
I love working in this industry for the most part. I started out in the radio industry before the podcast industry boomed. I’ve always tried to carve out my own path – which is hard anyway in the creative industry – but I was determined to make it work in a way that suited me. I did what I knew I was good at, that was authentic to me, and cultivated a space for myself within both industries. A lot of people were fuming when podcasts burst onto the scene, but you have to adapt and embrace the change. It’s good, it means we’re moving forward and making space for everyone.
I’d say joining Broccoli Content and Sony Music in January this year has been a real high and it’s been a real lifeline over the past few months. Seeing how the ANTHEMS series has grown over the last seven months has been incredible – in six months it’s gone from an idea in my head to three series, ninety three contributors, countless logic sessions, hundreds of thousands of downloads, critical acclaim across the UK press, and even made the cover of Gay Times Magazine which was a BIG moment. I’m incredibly proud of that, and we built it together as a team at Broccoli.
You tell stories in a range of different mediums, what differing powers do they each have when it comes to storytelling?
I believe that in our visual world, sound still remains one of the most intimate and powerful forms of expression. Be it the voice of another human, musical composition or sound art and design. My work explores collaborations between each of these through the careful choreography of editing, to stir something within the listener and allow them into the lives of others.
I absolutely love sound. I came from a family of musicians, so I’ve always been around it, but then I started making documentaries, and was blown away by how transportive sound was. I also buzz off interviewing, sitting down with a stranger and speaking until we’re no longer strangers. Holding a space for someone else, giving them permission to just be, and listening in its purest sense – not to respond, not to interject, but just to listen to what someone has to say. It’s powerful.
“I buzz off interviewing, sitting down with a stranger and speaking until we’re no longer strangers.”
How do you juggle all of the different work that you are involved in?
I’ve always been a juggler – a hyphen by name, hyphen by nature type. I’m very comfortable in chaos, so I have a tendency to take on too many things at once – but I need to be in the deep end to thrive. Having insomnia helps, although Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep sort of ruined the romance of that for me. Organisation and communication are key though, as is knowing when to step away and take a break – having a walk, phoning a friend or occasionally drinking some wine…
I have a process, which usually involves two or three days of “I can’t do this” followed by a burst of energy and getting it done. Every time I’m like “Why do I do this to myself?” So much of me flows through everything I put out into the world that I feel a bit like Voldemort when he split his soul into all of those pieces. Every time I make something new to put out into the world, I feel like a bit of me goes with it, which leaves me vulnerable again. But it’s good to go to those places, and as the famous podcaster Brené Brown says, “You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability.”
How I Got Here
Did you go to university? If so, do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
I did, I went twice, to Hull for my undergrad in theatre, and then again to Goldsmiths for my masters in Radio. I had scholarships and bar jobs throughout both which made them possible. I don’t think you need a formal education for what I do though; I chose both courses because I was fascinated by the subjects. Neither course was a sensible option for a ‘career’ but I didn’t go into them with that expectation. The support was unreal during my masters, and I loved every second of it. It shaped so much of where I am now, but getting your foot through the door and keeping it there takes a lot of graft and resilience – and they’re things you really have to teach yourself.
“Getting your foot through the door and keeping it there takes a lot of graft and resilience – they’re things you have to teach yourself really.”
What was your journey like when you first graduated?
It was a crazy ride, thinking back on it. My masters led me to work for Falling Tree Productions, one of the UK’s leading independent radio production companies. It was the greatest introduction to radio ever. Alan Hall and Ellie McDowall were incredible mentors, but also gave me the freedom to really harness my style, and I don’t think I would be where I am now without their encouragement and support.
After making a number of shorter pieces for the BBC Radio 4 Short Cuts series I made my first full-length doc with Falling Tree for BBC Radio 4, entitled The Fishwives’ Tale. It was a story about transforming tragedy and grief into music and hope. It’s a heartwarming tale of women overcoming grief through friendship and sea shanties (a type of work song) – proving that, even in the toughest of times, there is still light to be found.
I think it’s so important to find the people that are going to elevate you at the beginning of your career. So many people starting out are forced to do the menial office tasks or work their way up despite having all the skills and talent. Honestly, fuck that! Align yourself with the people that are going to champion you because they believe in you for you, not because they want to shape you into something else.
What is the most important thing to keep in mind when working in podcasting?
Always question whose voices are missing and why? Then strive to pass them the mic.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I truly believe you make your own luck. Of course, some people are afforded a head start, but I’ve worked my arse off for every bit of luck I’ve gotten. It’s not very glamorous but at the very start of my career, I was exhausted from working bar shifts alongside my masters, and I fortunately got a gig with a big beauty brand for a huge conference they were doing at the Roundhouse. I mixed some bubble sounds and cut some audio about armpits and a few other bits and pieces. The money from that job meant I could quit my bar job that month and focus on audio. I’d say that was my biggest break and I’ll always be thankful to Karl James for the gig.
“[When podcasting] always question whose voices are missing and why? Then strive to pass them the mic.”
What’s been your biggest challenge in navigating the industry, if any?
There are still way too many white-middle-class-male-shaped obstacles in the way. Like almost every industry on the planet, women and diversity are severely lacking at every level. We have to really look at the state of our industry, of the world – and not look away because we’re uncomfortable. We have to constantly educate ourselves, ask the difficult questions, get mad and ask: Who is being shut out? Whose voices are being turned down? We have a responsibility as makers, journalists and producers to amplify those voices; to use this insane privilege that we have and ensure that we are pointing the microphone in the right direction and leaving the doors that have been opened for us, unlocked.
We recently launched the Equality in Audio pact and called upon our peers in the industry to pledge five simple actions that would hopefully move us closer to equality. These are:
1. Pay interns, and stop using unpaid interns.
2. Hire LGBTQIA+, Black people, people of colour and other minorities on projects not only related to their identity.
3. If you are a company that releases gender pay gap reports, release your race pay gap data at the same time.
4. No longer participate in panels that are not representative of the cities, towns, and industries they take place in.
5. Be transparent about who works for your company, as well as their role, position and permanency.
Over two hundred companies across the globe have signed the pledge so far including the BBC, Bauer Media, Spotify and Radiotopia, but there are some notable names missing. There is still a lot of work to do.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work, or use their skills to tell powerful stories?
These are quite contradictory, but the first one is to leave your ego behind. It’s a huge responsibility to tell someone else’s story authentically, so there is no space to make it about you. But at the same time, you have to believe in your own sauce.
It sounds obvious but nobody can tell stories like you do, in the same way nobody can tell stories like me. All of our styles are authentic and inherent to who we are as people, and how we see the world. I think a lot of people get bogged down with the ‘right’ way to do something based on what they’ve seen before them or what is deemed as ‘successful’. Try and ignore that noise and find your own way through.
Interview by Siham Ali
Mention Hana Walker-Brown