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new voices

'A hit US podcast is a life-changer - in Ireland it might not even have a sponsor'

2017 has seen the world of podcasting grow in Ireland – we talked to the people behind the Headstuff Podcast Network.

THIS YEAR, IRELAND saw its first major podcast festival. Some of the biggest names in podcasts – shows like S-Town and My Dad Wrote A Porno – got the chance to connect with their Irish audiences, and inspire future podcast makers.

The line-up showed just how varied the international podcast world is – there were shows about crime, fictional locations, movies, and what happens when your da writes an erotic novel.

But it also demonstrated that here in Ireland, our podcast community may be small, but it’s strong. Podcasters here are not just taking their cues from what’s going on abroad but are coming up with their own fresh ideas.


Some of the longer-running Irish podcasts, like Jarlath Regan’s An Irishman Abroad, have paved the way over the past number of years for people to take to the mic and create their own shows. What podcasting offers is a chance to step away from the usual ideas around broadcasting, and really drill into the niche subjects that are rarely covered on radio. There’s even help out there in getting started from Podcasting Ireland , which offers workshops to teach beginners podcast skills.

So if you’re a sports fan, there’s not just a general podcast for you, but one about your particular sport, or even your love for fantasy baseball. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you can listen to one of a number of weekly podcasts dedicated to analysing everything about the film universe.

Like Jarlath Regan, Maeve Higgins is an Irish person living abroad – and her experiences as an Irish immigrant to the US led to her creating a podcast, Maeve in America. She wanted to explore why “the differences between my immigration experience and that of most others was so marked”.

“Also, every immigrant has a story, a journey, a life left behind and a new one begun, so I knew there was a fascinating well of material to draw from,” she told  “Myself and my producers were, like the rest of the US, keenly aware of the narrative often pushed around immigrants. Deportations were at an all time high during Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump announced his election campaign by besmirching Mexicans and calling for a Muslim registry, so we felt it was essential to provide some truth and clarity around the issue of migration, which is arguably the biggest issue facing the human race today.”

Though she’s a comedian, she “didn’t want to do the usual comedy podcast where comedians interview each other”.

Higgins said that she believes podcasts “should be pretty democratic and allow for all voices, since costs are low and material is endless”.

“That said, to make a good one takes a ton of work or else some magic, often both. I listen to Alison Spittle’s show because I’m a fan of pretty much everything she makes and lately was delighted to hear Louise McSharry is making her own podcast too,” she said (the comedian was a guest on the show and left wondering why McSharry didn’t have her own show, wondering if it was down to gender).

Higgins pointed out that podcasting offers a more balanced playing field for women. “Men have such a choke hold on Irish media, it’s wonderful that podcasts have come along to even out the playing field a little,” she said.

Of course there are less resources but in time that will change. It’s important to support fledgling talent, particularly women and minorities, because we are under-valued by mainstream broadcasters, they’re on the way out anyway, but it will take a while.

Podcasts clearly offer freedom – and a look at Irish podcasts demonstrates that here, people are eager to exploit the new medium. But compared to other countries, like the USA, podcasts are only at the beginning of their life in Ireland. We don’t yet have our This American Life – but that isn’t stopping people from trying.

‘On radio a lot of people can’t say precisely what they mean’

One of the leading lights in the Irish podcast world is the Headstuff Podcast Network - which organised the above-mentioned Podcast Festival with Aiken Promotions – run by Alan Bennett of Headstuff. It’s home to shows like Sparking Change with Dil Wreckramsinghe (it gave her a new home after she was dropped from Newstalk), the Alison Spittle Show, Juvenalia and Motherfoclóir.

The podcasts get a combined 160k downloads a week, Bennett told, when we chatted to him about how Headstuff is making it all work.

Bennett studied Fine Art and creative writing in college, and conceived Headstuff initially as a personal blog in early 2014. By the same time a year later, he had brought on new writers and also launched Headstuff’s first podcast.

“It was a podcast for the website so it was conversations with people we found interesting or creative,” he explained. A year after that, Headstuff started its own podcast network. It began making more unusual shows, like Juvenalia, where people chat about significant pop culture moments from their teens.

Now Headstuff has over 20 podcasts in its audio stable.


Why are people so drawn to podcasts? “The draw is you can have whatever you want – you don’t have to wait for your show to come on, and it’s not once a week and restricted by ad breaks and precise schedules,” said Bennett. “On radio a lot of people can’t say precisely what they mean or what they say, that kind of thing.”

Of Sparking Change with Dil Wickremasinghe, Bennett said it’s an example of how quickly things can move with podcasts – and how Headstuff was able to take on someone dropped in a controversial manner from a commercial radio station.

“That is one of the things that is good about having a network like ours – it might have been difficult for her to get into other media in Ireland but it was our platform for her to get her ideas out there and tell her side of the story.”

Headstuff rents out its studio to people who want to make podcasts. It isn’t paying anybody’s full-time wage yet, but Bennett said that “hopefully 2018 is our year for that”.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer that they are taking off,” he said of podcasts. “There are a lot of terrible podcasts out there but a lot of them are very good and [the presenters] are nice to each other – there’s a lot of promotion, cross podcasting, appearing on each other’s shows.”

But he added:

“I think they have a long way to go in Ireland – technically they have taken off here, but we are not at the perceived level as in the States or the UK.

The market [there] is a completely different game. A hit podcast in the US is a life-changer, whereas a hit podcast here… you might not have a sponsor.

He said talking to successful US podcasters at the Podcast Festival “was like talking to someone from a different planet”.

“The market is so big, which means the budget is so big, and they can make the likes of S-town and Serial and that’s a normal podcast to them.”

“I think we are on the same cycle, we are just a bit behind.”

Empty ad space

According to Bennett, there’s “nobody owning podcasting ad space” in Ireland – and as people who listen to a lot of US podcasts will know, sponsors are ever-present on them.

“It would be really good for [brands] as well because whenever you mention a podcast people will mention Squarespace [a common sponsor on US podcasts],” said Bennett. “I think people here are still a little in a mainstream frame of mind – they throw money at TV, radio.”

One of the contributors to Headstuff is Alan Maguire, co-presenter of Juvenalia (alongside Ellen Tannam and Sarah Griffin) and the Christmas podcast Roast Chestnuts alongside Jeanne Sutton.

He agrees with Bennett that there is a huge space open for advertisers or sponsors. ”Getting the word out is the big thing because advertisers aren’t particularly interested in Irish podcasts yet, which is a shame,” he said. He sees Irish podcasting as still being in its infancy.

“I don’t think it’s fad, I think it’s a format that’s here,” he said.

Giving people a voice

For him, one major positive to podcasts is that they give people a platform whose voices we might not normally hear on air.

“[Podcasting] lets people hear voices that aren’t on the radio; because I know how I talk and my style just isn’t suitable for radio. But there’s so many women’s voices especially – over 50% of presenters on the Headstuff network are women,”  he said.

It gives you a range of all these voices that are never in a leadership position in radio.

“Irish radio tends to be centre/centre-right and that’s seen as the default. Whereas with the podcasts Echo Chamber and Oireachtas Retort  you get to hear the other side as default because we don’t get to hear them on the radio.”

IMG_2231 (1) Emily Glen and Elaine Buckley.

Two of the female voices on Headstuff belong to Emily Glen and Elaine Buckley of Fair Game, who have only recently moved to the network. They occupy a particularly interesting space in Irish podcasting, having effectively paved the way for female-led sports shows in a country that traditionally has a pretty weak reputation for discussing women’s sports on the same level as men’s sports.

The idea for Fair Game came to Buckley as she was listening to a sports podcast. “I just thought I’d really love to hear women talking like this about female athletes, and that’s basically where it came from,” she recalled.

The podcast focuses on longform interviews with Irish sportswomen – but not just household names. Buckley didn’t just want to hear from athletes when they got the trophy – she wanted to hear about the journey to that point, the highs and the lows.

Their podcast is monthly, so it’s on Twitter that they keep up a daily stream of content.

“That includes encouraging people to go to women’s sports events, which is such a big part of it,” said Buckley .

There is a disconnect between talking about it and actually getting out and supporting it, and I think that’s what we’re really striving towards bridging.

“When we first started it out I felt that women in sport was one of the last areas in which out-and-out sexism was still tolerated,” said Glen. “You could still say something like ‘of course we are not going to pay her the same as her male counterpart because it’s a different sport – she’s not worth it’. Whereas if you’re looking at someone across the same desk as me you can’t say that.”

“There were so many outright excuses that didn’t really fly with us,” she added. “That tide has changed a little bit. The focus on women in sport has become so much more of a zeitgeist. What we’ve started to focus on is the quality of the interview.

When you’re interviewing a woman there are questions that should come as standard: How does your menstrual cycle affect your training regime? For tennis they don’t get toilet breaks and wear little white shorts. What happens? If it wasn’t new to talk to female athletes, those questions would be completely as standard.

They focus on these issues, but also have noticed that female athletes are generally a little bit less supported than their male counterparts. “They have to come home and cook their own dinners, which makes an impact on their training regime. I want to know how many tupperware boxes they have at home,” said Glen.

They also don’t want to be patronising, said Glen, by saying things like: “‘Great girls, you got to the final there, well done’, even if they played like shite”.

Fair Game has helped to usher in a new wave of female-focused sports podcasts, and broadened the online discussion on women’s sports in Ireland.

“Since we started this podcast the quality of coverage across the board in that two-year timeframe has improved so much,” said Buckley about sports podcasts, name-checking Cliona Foley’s Off The Bench podcast in particular.

“We were the first Irish woman’s podcast about [sports] and now I think there’s two more which I think is great,” said Glen. “I think there’s been a bit of a cultural shift and we’ve absolutely benefited from it – I’d love to think we played some role in it, even things like it’s not acceptable to be patronising.”

Buckley believes people really connect with podcasts because they slot so easily into busy lives – you can always multitask while listening to a podcast.

“I think the media platform that’s grown will hopefully amplify the audience and that will in turn change the attitude of sponsors and more media,” said Glen. “There’s much more of them, I think the quality of them is increasing.”

Irish podcast recommendations:

What are your favourite podcasts? Tell us in the comments below.

Read: How this conversation between Maeve Higgins and Des Bishop illustrates the obstacles facing women in comedy>

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