The Secret History Of Hollywood podcast

In a recent edition of my newsletter I covered a wealth of great podcasts and related resources, one of which was my new podcast app of choice, Pocketcasts.

The Pocketcasts ‘Discover’ feature has since led me to find a podcast called The Secret History of Hollywood. I thought I might need to get my eyes checked when one of its episodes – ‘Hunting Witches With Walt Disney’ – was listed as coming in at 171 minutes. Then I noticed that another episode, ‘A Universe Of Horrors’ – which tells the tale of Universal Studios’ iconic horror movies – ran to 429 minutes. That’s over seven hours.

As a man who once catalogued every articIe I read in a year, the level of dedication & obsession involved here piqued my interest.

Having listened to ‘Hunting Witches With Walt Disney’, and thoroughly enjoyed the wry tone and detailed historical context (it looks at the HUAC witch-hunts and how they affected Hollywood stars – plus the social conditions that led to them), I decided I had to learn more about the people who produced it.

Only, there is no collection of film journalists or content production behemoth behind The Secret History Of Hollywood. It is but one person: a chap called Adam Roche. And he has no background in radio, or audio of any kind. In fact, he’s a chef.

Adam kindly agreed to answer lots of my questions, and did so in great detail.

When did you start producing your podcasts – and why?

I started off in January of 2014 with a simple website, where I wanted to review the old movies that no-one was talking about, such as ‘The Brighton Strangler’ and ‘Quicksand’ – the kind of movies that helped to shape cinema in very small increments, but didn’t get the credit that ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Casablanca’ were getting.

I soon found that writing reviews was okay, but didn’t come naturally, and so I decided to podcast them, as well as present episodes of old-time radio, of which I am a huge fan. I named the podcast Attaboy Clarence, the last line from my favourite film, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.

I started off quite slowly. My first show was at the end of January. I bought a cheap USB mic and sat at my desk to record the thing, but it sounded terrible. I put it out, but I resolved to make it sound better the following week.

I spent that week experimenting with recording environments, and ended up recording the next ten or so episodes under my daughter’s cabin bed, which made it sound much better. From there on in I just applied myself to improving things, and now I’m very happy with my sound quality. I actually have my own recording room/cupboard now, and a great mic. The rest is all in the editing.

The Secret History Of Hollywood grew out of that show. I decided early on to do a bumper episode about the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, which I’ve always loved. What began as a string of reviews turned into a biography of sorts, and people went crazy for it. So from there on in, I just chose subjects that interested me, researched the hell out of them, and wrote the stories.

I’ve since split the shows apart completely. I still record Attaboy Clarence in five-episode blocks every other month or so, but The Secret History of Hollywood shows are always being worked on whenever I have a free moment.

The Hollywood episodes are incredibly detailed. How do you gather all the information you include? Have you considered providing a ‘bibiography’ of sorts for listeners to do further reading?

I always set aside two weeks, during which I collect everything I can: biographies, autobiographies, video clips, audio clips, interviews, articles, anything I can lay my hands on. Then I go through it all intensively, and note anything that jumps out at me. I’m always looking for the oddball, interesting stuff, because most of these people’s stories have already been told time and time again.

The odd little facts are what keeps it interesting, such as The Iffland Ring, or the Algonquin Round Table, or the Baby Burlesks – these peculiar little things that keep the story from going stale.

So then I start to assemble the story. There are certain keystones or characters that I know will appear, so I make a big list and then assemble a timeline and start to research as I write. I usually finish writing the first draft  about six weeks later. It’s just a case of reading as much as I can get my hands on, but also rooting out any little-seen interviews, where they dropped a fact that can sometimes lead to a whole new branch of research. It’s a fun process, but very, very time consuming. During the first Hitchcock special, I remember spending several hours trying to find out which restaurant he visited on his first trip to America.

After that I usually take a week off and then it’s about a week to record it, a week to edit out all the clicks and flubbed lines, and a further two weeks to assemble the finished show. The whole process takes about three months per show. A Universe Of Horrors took four months as it was much longer. The third and final part of The Adventures Of Alfred Hitchcock is shaping up to be another big one. Maybe another four month job. I’m hoping it’ll be finished by October 2015.

I could include a bibliography, I guess, but sometimes even I lose track of where a fact came from. Usually, if someone wants to delve further for themselves they’ll email me, and I recommend the books or links that I found the most useful.

Did your fascination with old movies have an outlet before you started writing reviews/doing podcasts? Or was it a bit of a secret obsession?

I had no outlet before I started these projects. On average, I watched two old movies a day, usually when I was cooking for my family. It kind of became a ritual that I really enjoyed. Unfortunately/fortunately, I cook professionally now, so I don’t get a chance to watch as many movies as I’d like to. I watch perhaps one every night now, when I get home from work, while I’m writing the next podcast.

What does your family think about all the time you spend on the podcasts? Do the kids understand what Daddy’s spending his time on?

Yes, they get it. We all have our creative outlets. For a long time, I was trying to find one, and now I have one. They’re cool with it. Plus, they’re all at school, so I mainly work on stuff when they’re not at home and late at night, when they’re all in bed.

During the school holidays it gets harder to work on the podcasts, such as right now, because I want to spend time with them whenever I can.

They’re my biggest fans too. They prefer the Attaboy Clarence shows to The Secret History Of Hollywood, as they’re more humour-slanted, but they are always running in and excitedly telling me they saw my shows on some blog, or on Twitter, or that I’m going up the iTunes charts or something. I don’t think I’d know half of what happens sometimes unless they told me.

So you’re a chef in your day job, correct? Do you have any aspirations to make a living from podcasting?

Being a chef is very hard, and takes up a huge amount of my time. But I do enjoy the creativity, and I’m paid well, plus my boss is very cool. I would like to make a living from podcasting one day, but I am a security freak, and can’t gamble when I have a family to support. I have a donations page on the website, which, to my surprise, people use quite often! I was on the cusp of joining a network a couple of months ago, who were promising a generous income from advertising, but at the eleventh hour I decided it wasn’t a fit and withdrew.

It sounds pretentious, but I spend so much time on these things that any monetising must fit – it must be in keeping with the show itself, and I haven’t yet worked out what that is. It would be easy to put an ad on at the beginning and end, and charge someone $30 per 1000 downloads, but I would potentially piss off the audience I’ve worked hard to attract.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is.

The network you nearly joined – was that a UK or a US operation?

It was a U.S. operation. Very flattering, but not a fit…

I read an article by the host of The Broad Experience in which she quoted someone else who said that when it comes to podcasting, “motivation is more important than time”. I guess you’d agree with that?

Good article, and a lot of truth in there. Motivation is the key to podcasting, without a doubt. You have to be not just passionate, but rabid about the subject you’re podcasting about. Only a select group of podcasters have a boss to gee them on. The rest of us have to find the reasons to carry on within ourselves.

I podcast about old movies and the history behind them, because I find it a genuinely fascinating subject. My chosen subject turns a hell of a lot of people off, but I’d rather be enthusing about that than pretending to like the latest film release, or trying to say everything I want to say about comedy movies in one hour flat. So my shows run on until they’re done, and I tell the stories I want to tell, and because of that, I am always eager to create more.

So having started in January 2014, what have been the developments since that time that have noticeably increased your audience? Do you spent much time actively marketing your podcasts? Are there any tactics you’d suggest to newbie aspiring podcasters out there?

I think the greatest development since I began is that podcasts are being taken more seriously these days. They’re really gaining credibility. You have President Obama on WTF. Serial became the world’s favourite pastime. And people are genuinely learning from podcasts. Science, history, mathematics, film theory, quantum mechanics, cooking, you name it. Podcasts have become legitimate, and that’s wonderful.

And again, the more narrow the niche, the better. If I want to know about sports clothing, or woodwork, or pipe music, or about true crime, then I can be educated about that within a few clicks. How lucky are we?

As for marketing, I am terrible. I use social media only lightly. I mainly use it to chat with people who’ve found the show, or to tell people about new episodes or developments. I really should use it better. I have a mailing list, but I only use it when I absolutely have to, because I cannot stand petty emails myself, so wouldn’t dream of subjecting others to them.

I’ve been very lucky in that word of mouth has been great, and I’ve been featured on iTunes four times this year already. My subscriber number is always growing, and I am often directed to forums or Facebook pages where my shows are being discussed. I was featured in The Telegraph at the beginning of August, which was a watershed moment for me, because it was something I could physically show to the less technical folks in my family. It was quite a moment.

There are certain suggestions I’d give to new podcasters:

  • Don’t try and pander to a large subscriber base. Make the show you really want to make, and make it your own. Don’t try to sound like other people. Try to sound like yourself. I know that sounds like a fortune cookie, but it’s absolutely true. Imagine the show you’d want to listen to, and make that.
  • Really try and give a fuck about your sound quality and production. Bad sound quality and an abundance of vocal tics really infuriates a lot of people. If you’re in this for the long haul, then invest in a decent mic. I use a Blue Yeti. Experiment with recording environments. Try padding on the wall behind your mic to reduce echo.
  • Experiment with software and develop a flair for editing. It may sound fundamental, but it will make you stand out. And bear in mind that the world is managing just fine without your show right now. It can wait for you to get things perfect, so don’t feel pressure to get it out the day after your mic arrives (like I did the first time!).
  • If you’re podcasting alone, as I do, don’t waste time talking about yourself. If people came to hear about movies/hockey/crochet, then talk about that. Nobody wants to hear about your boundary disputes with the next-door neighbour. Similarly, if you have a co-host(s), don’t spend the first ten minutes asking each other how you are, or what you’ve been doing over the past seven days. Talk about that crap before you start recording.
  • Be as ambitious as you can be, and always look for ways to improve. Again, motivational speaking, but perfectly true.

I think the overarching tip I would give to anyone just starting out is to give as much of a damn as possible about what you’re doing, because the more work you put in, the better the end result.

On the subject of developing a flair for editing – what software do you use? And can you recommend any resources that helped you improve your skills in this area?

I work on a Mac. I record in Audacity, which is free to download. Then I take the recording and edit in Adobe Audition. There are a ton of Audition help guides out there, but I’ve found that the most useful ones are the Music Radio Creative guides on YouTube, made by Mike Russell. I don’t think I’ve had a question yet that he hasn’t covered in some way.

Were there any podcasts in particular that inspired you when you were getting started?

I think my main inspiration was Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which proves that you don’t need to have a show out every week to be successful. You can produce longform podcasting, and people will go to your back catalogue if you put the time in. He showed that four-hour podcasts can be exciting and stimulating, and so when my running times start growing, I don’t worry about it.

There seems to be an attitude that suggests all podcasts must be bite-sized and commute-friendly, but people are quite capable of pressing pause.

The longform thing is interesting. There’s been a resurgence in interest in longform (written) journalism over the last few years, and when I started listening to your podcasts I wondered if the same might happen in audio. What may feel overlong and indulgent in video – which most people tend to watch in one sitting – can work well in audio, as, like you say, people might be listening on the move and can press pause.

And I feel like if I saw an hour-long show about old Hollywood advertised on the History channel or equivalent, I’d have to be prepared to lose at least 5 minutes to recaps and repetitions that end up making the viewer feel like they’re being treated like an idiot (plus ads, of course). There’s something alluring about the pure, uninterrupted flow of longform audio storytelling.

Anyway… Do you feel like you’re part of a community of podcast creators, or does not belonging to a network impede on this? Do you even need to feel part of a community – you’re clearly motivated enough to produce content as it is…?

Thank you. I agree about longform. I’ve been asked quite a few times if I can break up my shows into ‘easily digestible sections’. But surely people can press pause…

I kind of am part of a podcasting community. Aside from all the podcasters I regularly chat to from around the world over Twitter and email, I was actually invited to join a group of other podcasters that call themselves the #PodPals, which includes A History Of Misunderstanding, Stinking Pause, Nerd Church, Weekly Geek Speak and others, and we basically trade tips and stories in a little Facebook group, which is nice. If one of us has any kind of success, then we help get the word out, or if we’ve done something particularly notable, we make sure it gets mentioned. It’s completely non-profit, and non-obligatory, but it’s cool to be able to vent your frustrations to a likeminded group of fellow podcasters who’ve all gone through similar agonies.

I’m also part of a few other podcaster groups on Facebook, and as I say, I’m always chatting to other podcasts on social media. It’s great fun.

A network is quite similar, I imagine, but a lot more professional and organised, and obviously they can help you find advertising, or cross-promote, etc. I think podcasting as a whole is one of the most supportive endeavours when it comes to social support. I haven’t met any podcasters who are overly critical of others. Everyone seems genuinely willing to support and build anyone else’s show, so long as they’re taking it seriously.

Do you have any concrete aspirations around podcasting? Do you say ‘within 2 years I’d like to achieve X’?

My only concrete, absolute aspiration is to create a valuable body of work. I don’t need to make money from it in order to eat, so that’s not foremost in my mind. It’d be nice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not everything. I just want to tell these stories, and leave them there to be shared and heard by everyone.

I remember when I hit my twenties, I had these mild panic attacks about the fact that I hadn’t achieved anything notable with my life – and then I got married and had children. All of a sudden those little panics stopped, because I’d finally created something that was going to live on after me.

In a weird kind of way, that’s how I feel about these podcasts, albeit in a very diluted form. I would seriously love for these things to still be downloaded in years to come, and have a life of their own. I know I’m sounding pretentious again, but the thought of these shows existing out there without me is curiously exciting. That’s why I have to work hard on them.

Weird little fact: A Universe Of Horrors is currently ten months old at the time of writing this, and yet it’s still being downloaded hundreds of times every day by people who never get in touch, and who live in the smallest corners of the Earth. How they heard about it, I’ll never know, and I also won’t know if they liked it or not, but the fact that something I’ve made is being beamed out to all these people on a daily basis is peculiarly exhilarating.

And that, I think, is the thrill of podcasting.

Do you check your analytics/statistics obsessively? Can you tell what part of the world downloaders are in?

I sometimes check my stats obsessively… I don’t check them every ten minutes or anything, but if something big’s happened – such as if I get featured somewhere – I’ll check every now and then to see how it’s affecting things. It’s cool to know if it’s worked out well for the show. I guess normally though, I check maybe once or twice a week to see how things are going.

I host pretty much all my Attaboy Clarence episodes on my website, where the audio file size limit is 160mb. They’re generally way smaller than that. To begin with, I hosted my Secret History Of Hollywood shows there too, because they just squeezed under that size, but when I did ‘A Universe Of Horrors’ it was waaay bigger, so I hosted it on Dropbox.

Okay, here’s another tip for podcasters. Never host your show on Dropbox! Hands down the worst experience I’ve had since I’ve been podcasting. I think the show was about 400mb in the end or thereabouts. It’s seven hours long, so it was way bigger than anything I’d done before. I decided to host the thing on Dropbox, and posted it up in my feed. About an hour after I’d released it, I had an email from Dropbox telling me that due to excessive downloads, they had put a stop on my account, and would only release it if I upgraded to a Pro account, which allowed for a larger number of downloads.

So I upgraded, and a day later the same thing happened. This meant that nobody could download that episode, which was quite horrifying to me, as I’d worked on it for four months, and there was a genuine buzz around it on Twitter.

So I had to split the thing in two, reduce the sound quality to 96kbps, and host it in two parts on my website, which made me look like a complete amateur.

Ever since then, I’ve hosted all my specials at Libsyn. I recently glued ‘A Universe Of Horrors’ back into one piece and now host it there too.

Libsyn is excellent, because you get a very detailed breakdown of where in the world your show is being downloaded. It even shows you which areas in said countries are proving the most popular. So, the short answer is yes, I can see where in the world the Libsyn-hosted shows are being downloaded, but not the ones being hosted on my website, which unfortunately doesn’t provide the same analysis.

When you first started, did you do much research on how best to write/structure a podcast script – or did you just learn as you went along?

God no, I did no research. If I had, then they’d definitely be in one-hour chunks. In fact, I still don’t listen to any storytelling podcasts. I listened to a lot of audiobooks, and so I think I’d compare The Secret History Of Hollywood episodes more to audiobooks than podcasts. Podcasting is the distribution method.

As for the Attaboy Clarence shows, they’ve evolved from very information-based, brief little things, into a sort of stream of consciousness. They’re organised, don’t get me wrong, but I often have conversations with adverts, or hear Big Ben bongs in my head when I’m reading bullet points. They are almost like my mind as an audio file. In the ‘Good Lawd’ episode, I put Coolio’s ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ alongside clips of Mickey Rooney trying to be a badass in the movie ‘Quicksand’. That was honestly what was happening in my head when I watched that movie.

I remember in an early episode, I mentioned my friend’s mother misremembering the name of ‘Interview With The Vampire’. She called it ‘Appointment With Dracula’, so I made a little ‘Appointment With Dracula’ skit for the show. How mundane would it be to have an appointment with Dracula? What if you were trying to make an appointment, but couldn’t get one?

If I was just reviewing a couple of movies and sticking a radio episode on the end, I would have bored of it a long time ago. Other people probably don’t find all these little side roads amusing, but you have to inject your own personality into your show.

What technical innovations do you think the medium of podcasting could benefit from? I often think back to an episode of StartUp when (I think) Chris Sacca was talking about the ability to search within podcasts – which sounds impossible to most people, but so did videophones once upon a time…

Yeah that’s a good idea, and perfectly feasible if you think about it.

I don’t know about technical innovation, but I think podcasting could do with a few more breakout hits to really cement it as a viable form of entertainment. And I think iTunes should have two charts: one for independents, and one for radio-originated network-backed shows. For example, the absolute deluge of BBC shows in the chart makes discoverability of smaller shows nigh on impossible.

On that note: are there any other current podcasts you’d recommend?

I’d definitely recommend Hardcore History to those with even a passing interest in history. Dan Carlin is a genius at making the inaccessible accessible. He has such a wonderful way of making you see things differently, of turning a statistic into a human tragedy. He is so very talented.

As for other podcasts, I used to subscribe to about 30 or 40 as I drove all day for my job, and could get through eight or nine hours of listening a day. My work life has changed dramatically now. When I’m not working, I’m writing the podcast, so my listening habits have unfortunately suffered.

The shows I never miss without fail are:

Those are kind of the only shows that I’ll allow to back up into a queue if I miss them. I have loads of others that have been recommended to me, but I just haven’t had a chance to dive in yet.

What podcast doesn’t exist in the world yet that you would like someone to start? 

Someone told me their idea for a podcast a few months ago, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It is such an awesome concept, and I wish I could tell you what it is, but they would absolutely kill me. They’d better do it soon though, otherwise I’m going to do it instead…

Thanks to Adam for sparing his time to answer my questions. Check out his podcasts here:

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