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Podcasts are an incredible storytelling medium. They’re intimate, they’re accessible, and they make chores go by in a hurry.
The issue with them, though, is that most popular podcasts are American. It’s difficult to find South African podcasts of quality that are equally as entertaining. But just because they’re hidden doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Memeburn spoke to the creators of some of South Africa’s best podcasts about their shows and the medium itself. Here’s what they had to say.
Meet Alibi: South Africa’s answer to Serial.
Journalist and author Paul McNally produces this long-form investigative podcast that follows the story of Anthony de Vries, a man who’s been in jail for 17 years for murders he says he didn’t commit.
The first episode introduces you to de Vries as he details how the police have a grudge against him — a grudge born during apartheid. He believes the cops are the reason he has been unjustly imprisoned for so long.
The story unfolds over the course of eight weeks, as McNally grapples with de Vries’ defense — much like Serial producer Sarah Koenig did with Adnan Sayed’s. Also like the US podcast, McNally says he didn’t know how the story would end while it was being made.
“I was committed to following this story before I knew an ending. That’s the nature of the beast,” McNally says.
It’s difficult to find South African podcasts of quality that are equally as entertaining, but they are there, waiting to be discovered
But by telling a story in a similar manner to Serial, Alibi runs the risk of falling prey to the same criticism it received. Serial created entertainment from a story of suffering, and set up cliffhangers for a real-life tragedy that saw a teenage girl murdered. It often had to walk the line of entertainment and ethics.
“I would say that the majority of journalism is guilty of using people’s pain as a device to educate or entertain,” McNally says. “People don’t like feeling manipulated, but they do enjoy having their opinions shift if it feels organic. The entertainment hopefully comes from people wanting to know what is next — and this is contrived by the journalist because he or she knows, but isn’t telling.”
Serial comparisons and the future of podcasts
Though it may bear strong resemblances to the hit US show, McNally assures that Alibi is bringing something unique to the world of podcasts.
“I think by being a different story, in a different country made by different people is enough to make it distinct, but I am happy with the comparison if it draws people to the content and the issues.”
McNally has won his fair share of awards for journalism, and even wrote an investigative book The Street, but he chose to tell de Vries’ story through podcasts because it allows for an emotional impact that other forms of media don’t provide.
“I believe the future for mainstream longform is in audio. Washing up. In the car. That’s where we are alone and need this company,” he asserts.
When asked about what to look forward to in the upcoming episodes of Alibi, McNally details how the team went back to the scene of the crime.
“The third episode is one of my favourites when we visit the shopping centre where the murders took place and see how it has changed/stay the same,” he tells us. “And six — we go into how the police investigate themselves, that’s an interesting one.”
Alibi is currently taking submissions for a second series.
After Serial had the US “abuzz” for podcasts as a medium, Jayne Morgan — who has extensive experience in both radio and podcasts — was commissioned by Kagiso Media to create a cast that told South African stories. She, in turn, joined forces with Marianne Thamm and they realised they wanted to hear about “people who weren’t celebrities or politicians, people you would never know about otherwise”.
And so, two years ago, Morgan and Thamm began “batting around ideas” when they realised, during what Morgan describes as an “alchemy of conversation”, that Thamm had a knack for getting people to tell her intimate details.
And so First Person was born: a podcast that finds the extraordinary details in ordinary lives. An amateur detective, a woman who partakes in BDSM, and a man who loves his pigeons so much his wife is worried — these are the South African stories First Person divulges with care and curiosity.
According to Morgan, one of the things that makes podcasts different from live radio is that the the content isn’t so restricted by tight formatting.
“Content can be more niche and it can be edgier,” she points out.
Morgan believes this should be the reason sponsors flock to podcasts, rather than shy away. She says that sponsors win because they are connected to amazing work that people love, not because the content is uncontroversial.
Growing podcast awareness
And, she says, the medium is only getting more popular. Morgan recalls a time in 2011 when no one at her media training sessions knew what a podcast was — now she estimates around fifty percent of attendees do.
“Podcasts are a different kind of audio content,” she tells us. “People respond to it.”
First Person tells stories you’ll struggle to get out your head, and Morgan promises a second season that will deliver even more.
“We have an episode about a woman who opened a brothel to get back at her husband,” she teases of the upcoming season.
Lesser Known Somebodies
Simmi Areff started Lesser Known Somebodies last year when his radio station bosses wouldn’t put him on air, and he decided to screw it and do it himself.
“You’ve got equipment, you want to have your own show… start a podcast,” was all the pep talk he gave himself before diving into the now 41 episode deep podcast.
Lesser Known Somebodies sees Areff interviewing a new guest every week, from tech gurus to comedians to bloggers to ventriloquists. What’s great about the show is that Areff doesn’t just introduce you to talented South Africans you may never have heard of — he also makes you feel right at home, like you’re spending time with friends.
According to Areff, it isn’t difficult finding new talent to interview: he’s surrounded by it.
“I have many, many, many interesting friends, I guess,” Areff tells us. “At the moment, I choose one that isn’t famous or madly popular or in the public eye. I mean, I’ve had a few celebrities, but even then we speak about something the public won’t know — thus making them a Lesser Known Somebody.”
Should you use a phone for recording podcasts?
But while Lesser Known Somebodies has been going strong for a year, Areff sees his biggest obstacle as one that he can’t control: the expensive data costs in South Africa.
“It’s hard to drop 50MB on a podcast in a country where data is expensive,” he says. “Another challenging thing is promotion. I love the content I make, but I am absolutely clueless about promoting it.”
This isn’t out of the ordinary for South African podcasters. In the US, podcasts are a part of daily life for many, but in South Africa few even know what they are. This means local podcasters don’t just have to sell their product — they have to sell the medium as a whole.
But Areff won’t let this deter him. He is currently working on a sports podcast, and is keen to help out any South African who is serious about starting their own.
“Some guys just think their phone is sufficient but the quality of the audio is so bad,” he warns. “If need be, contact me on Twitter and I’ll lend my equipment for a day to you.”
“We just started,” creator Rasmus Bitsch says. “We thought that there was no real documentary podcast in South Africa, and we thought there should be one, so we decided to start.”
Founded in 2015, Sound Africa is a podcast that aims to capture some of the dizzying complexity of South Africa and the continent.
“There’s a huge gap, right?” producer and operations manager Neroli Price asks. “We have so many stories that need to be told, but aren’t.”
For her, podcasting is merely an extension of the centuries-old tradition of oral storytelling. Sound Africa sees the medium as a natural progression that makes sense for the continent considering its relationship with oral history.
The podcast’s first season features episodes that follow stories like that of a man who fled war in Burundi as a child, occult crimes in South Africa, a married couple who were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda and the life of a Capetonian jazz composer.
“We wanted to tell people, ‘this is who we are, this is what we do’,” Price says of their debut. “And then hopefully draw people into that.”
Future plans and limiting factors
For their second season, Sound Africa was commissioned by the Heinrich Boll foundation to create a show called Nuclear SA. The mini-series told of the past, present and future for nuclear in South Africa, giving detailed insights into a topic that affects millions of human lives, but few know much about.
So far, Price says the response to Sound Africa has been “slow, but consistent”.
“We’ve been quite encouraged because we’ve gotten quite a lot of good feedback,” she tells us. “But it doesn’t happen overnight, you know?”
One of Sound Africa’s main objectives is to grow podcast listening in South Africa.
“Our audience doesn’t exist,” Price says. “We’ve had to create our own audience.”
Like Simmi Areff, Price asserts that high data costs are a big reason podcasts haven’t taken off in South Africa. She notes that a love for oral storytelling and a large commuting community should create the perfect audience for the medium — if it weren’t for limited access.
But Sound Africa persists in pushing podcasting in South Africa, and it hopes to one day become a platform like Radiotopia that houses other podcasts within its greater network.
“We believe and we hope that podcasting is going to grow in South Africa,” Price says. “We would ideally like to be a platform for other storytellers to tell their stories.”
Your own podcast
If there’s one thing South Africans do well, it’s tell stories. But podcast listening won’t grow until podcast creations do.
So if you’ve been toying with the idea of starting one, if you think you have an original and interesting story to tell, then there’s no better time than the present.
We asked the podcasters what advice they’d give to fellow South Africans who want to get into the world of podcasting, and they had some sound advice [lol – ed].
“Find something people can’t get elsewhere, something you’re passionate about and be authentic,” Jayne Morgan advises. “People respond to authentic, genuine content.”
Not everyone is going to like what you like, but Morgan says that doesn’t matter. She assures that if you push forward with passion and enthusiasm that you’ll eventually “find your fellow travellers”.
Thinking about starting your own podcast? There’s never been a better time than now
Neroli Price agrees that a passionately told story is the best story.
“You have to make a story interesting. You have to make people care,” she says.
When it comes to tech, you’re more than capable to start with your phone, but your fellow podcast enthusiasts are eager to help out with better equipment.
“Come to us!” Price enthuses. Sound Africa has a small studio in their office in Cape Town, and are more than willing to show you the ropes of podcasting from recording to editing to publishing. You can contact them at email@example.com.
And, as mentioned before, Simmi Areff suggests sliding into his DMs to loan his equipment for a day — anything to keep you from using your phone.
But, if you’re not near any local podcasters, Jayne Morgan is quick to point out that using your phone as a starting point isn’t the worst place to start. Interesting content is the backbone of all podcasts and if you build it, they will come.
It’s time South Africans told their own stories — and we can’t wait to hear yours.