Homebound at the start of the pandemic, Ain Aissa Mohamad found herself consuming more media than ever – some entertaining, some educational.
She developed a taste for listening rather than reading, finding it more convenient to multitask when her eyes were not glued to a screen of text.
As the founder of Seek to Speak – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that empowers people through speech – and a public speaking trainer, she was exploring audio essays for her blog posts and lessons.
“The pandemic gave everyone the time and space to do things and, for me, my audio consumption increased. If not for the pandemic, I don’t think I would have had the spark to start,” she says.
Unfortunately, the experiment did not pan out, as she felt her writing did not translate well into an audio format.
Not one to leave money on the table – or in this case, an already purchased quality microphone – she tried out another idea she had considered for a while: starting a podcast channel.
The first episode of Seek to Speak titled “How To Exercise Expression” came out in June 2020, a podcast Ain Aissa describes as “not a lot of planning and mostly me ranting”.
She planned season one on the fly, roping in any friend or connection she felt was fairly accomplished, getting them to share how communications skills propelled their careers.
A lawyer by training, and a public speaker and debater since her school years, Ain Aissa’s skill set did not make her feel prepared to start a podcast channel.
“I didn’t know how to market the show, I don’t have a media background, so I don’t really know how to interview people in a casual manner. It wasn’t an easy start,” she says.
Another fellow podcaster that also got a start during the movement control order (MCO) is Roeshan Gomez, a lawyer by profession who had been toying with the idea for years.
The lockdown made Gomez realise how he had neglected to pursue anything he was truly passionate about.
“I’m not a lawyer with a capital ‘L’, I don’t have justice running through my blood,” he jokes, adding that the job was a means to an end, but not something that defined him.
“In the past, I wished people had a platform to tell their stories, then I realised that a podcast could be the perfect avenue,” he says.
He released the first episode, “Of Podcasts And Beginnings” in June 2020, naming the podcast channel Rumah Roy after his father, whose house the podcast is recorded in.
“When guests come over, I tell them to tell the guards that they’re visiting Rumah Roy, as it’s easier than mentioning the house number. This ended up sticking as the name of the show,” he says.
Gomez emphasises the importance of legwork, particularly when researching a topic or seeking out speakers.
“Podcasters have to be thick skinned, sometimes people you reach out to will decline to be interviewed or just leave you hanging, and you may not always get the guests you hope for,” he says.
Occasionally, he says, luck intervenes and a prospective guest reaches out to him or may be referred to him by one of his acquaintances.
He recalled that Foon Junn Kitt, the guest of episode 52, “Of Macalogy, Snails, And Malaysian Limestones”, was a former classmate with whom he had lost touch since their school days.
Foon had reached out to him on LinkedIn to congratulate him on the show and ended up agreeing to be a guest, discussing his experience as a mollusc researcher, including field work in jungles and a snail conservation programme.
Style and substance
Gomez’s approach to podcasting is inspired by the style of late-night talk shows by the likes of Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson, as well as conversational YouTube channels, which he believes offer a different narrative style from traditional, restrictive interviews.
“I find doing an interview creates a wall that gets in the way of what guests want to say, while sticking to a particular format can become a crutch,” he explains.
Instead, he releases his recording in full without editing, leaving it up to the “podcast gods” to decide whether the episode will be interesting to listeners.
He has not yet encountered unpleasant or belligerent guests, though he mitigates this risk by conducting research on them prior to extending invitations to ensure they are a suitable fit for Rumah Roy.
“At worst, some guests may not be as engaging in person. However, personally, I’ve liked each and every chat. “In part, the podcast is for me, as a way to connect with people I wouldn’t have engaged with otherwise,” he says.
For audio quality, it took him around two months of tinkering to achieve the desired level of quality.
“It wasn’t tough for me – my father and brother are musicians, and I’m familiar with audio setups,” he explains. Mounted guitars lined one wall of his living room, revealing his family’s love for music.
Meanwhile, Ain Aissa began with a more iterative approach for her channel, evolving her show with every new season.
The first season was more of a learning experience, she says, having planned more carefully for season two, which alternates between longer episodes with interviews and shorter Speaking Snack episodes where she would go solo, sharing tips and tricks for public speaking.
Between seasons, she also upgraded her audio setup, buying two more microphones and getting an audio interface as a birthday gift from her husband.
An audio interface is a type of hardware that captures microphone and instrument signals and converts them into a digital audio format that can be processed with software.
Ain Aissa recommends reading a book by Eric Nuzum, an industry pioneer who worked at audiobook company Audible and US media powerhouse National Public Radio before founding Magnificent Noise, a podcast production company.
The book, Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide To Podcasting And Great Audio Storytelling, taught her the four important keywords to focus on before starting a podcast – them, what, you and why. They correspondingly refer to knowing who your audience is, what the podcast’s message is, why you are the best person to talk about the subject, and the goal of the show.
With a clearer idea for Seek to Speak, Ain Aissa chose to be more experimental and not adhere to any formats with the third season.
“I wanted to do specials reflective of topical issues, like an episode on Women’s Health Day, a Merdeka quiz and one on the recent topic of making schools a safer space,” she says.
She adds that beyond recording a show, podcasters also need to work on building an ecosystem.
Ain Aissa also worked on the NGO aspect of Seek to Speak, forming a speaking club, Women with Words, to build confident female speakers through speech practice, supportive community and group discussions.
The club grew into a community that helped plan and produce podcasts, an invaluable help when she found herself bogged down with no time to edit or host.
Asked about recording during the pandemic, Ain Aissa says she could only interview guests remotely and equipment failure was always a risk even with best practices in place.
During an interview with Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the politician’s enthusiastic speaking style caused the recording to peak although his team had provided a good microphone.
Peaking happens when the audio signal is too high, mainly due to loudness, causing the audio clip to become distorted. This forced Ain Aissa to use her backup audio from the Zoom recording instead.
For Gomez, the second MCO in mid-2021 pushed the recording sessions fully online, resulting in a drop in sound quality similar to that of a Zoom call.
Even worse, audio lags or drops during a call would break the flow of conversation, anathema for a show that doesn’t use editing to trim pauses.
The disappointing results and his day job picking up during that time prompted him to take a three-to-four-month break.
He initially thought listeners would be okay with the pause or become even more hyped while waiting for new content, but unfortunately, the show suffered a significant drop in listeners.
The Seek to Speak podcast is a passion project, says Ain Aissa, who is unsure how to respond when she gets emails asking for rate cards.
“I find it hard to put a price on the episodes and to count the number of listeners.
“I don’t ever want to have to worry if an episode’s content is at odds with a sponsor. I don’t want that on my mind,” she says.
However, this is a luxury, she says, as making podcasts is not her full time job and the equipment had been acquired at an affordable cost.
“We use a lot of free stuff, like the GarageBand audio editing software and a free hosting service. The only thing we pay for is the Descript subscription that converts audio into text,” says Ain Aissa.
For Matthew Durai, the general manager of podcast production company Zag Media, running a profitable podcast was essential to not only him but also a host of collaborators.
Zag Media produced Bahasa Melayu psychological thriller Malpraktis Universiti, romance series Hi Sayang, and murder mystery drama Dirty Datuk.
“I see these series as IPs (intellectual properties), which can be spun out to other mediums like a TV series,” he explains.
His inspiration was QCode, a podcast production company that hires famous actors like Rami Malek, Rosamund Pike and Gina Rodriguez to create shows that he calls “cinematic audio”.
Durai highlights that business-to-business opportunities are important to support the company’s main goal: producing quality podcasts and offering opportunities for independent players to get their stories out.
Though podcasts make it easier for individuals to get their content out, making it heard by a significant number of listeners is a different matter.
Durai surveyed when and why people stop listening to a series and improved his content accordingly.
“We try to be scientific as much as we can, considering that this is an art form,” he says.
He learned that podcasts are just like streaming services – listeners preferred a complete series to binge through rather than being drip-fed weekly releases.
Also, though the global standard for podcast duration is around 40 minutes, making shorter, 15-minute clips did not have any adverse effects.
Durai believes that podcasting is still in its infancy in South-East Asia, calling Malaysia “a Wild West with plenty of room for growth”.
“It can only go up from here as more local media companies get smart to podcasting and then advertising will eventually go up too, making it more sustainable for creators,” he speculates.
As South-East Asia has a pool of listeners that share some of the same cultures as Malaysia, podcasters who produce unique local content with regional appeal could break into the market of other countries, he adds.
Two podcast channels consistently in Malaysia’s top 10 include Malam Seram, a Bahasa Melayu horror series by Singaporean DJ KC Champion, and Rintik Sedu, a series of sad vignettes by an Indonesian team.
Ain Aissa urges anyone who has a desire to create a podcast channel to take steps to accomplish their ambition.
“If you’re passionate, don’t just wait for things to happen,” she says.
She says working on the Seek to Speak podcast helped her build a community and form an NGO, which would have been impossible if she didn’t have the guts to “put out that stupid first episode”.