Swindon businessman Neil Cowling spoke to Swindon Link about his own personal success story with his lucrative podcast production company, Fresh Air Production.
Neil founded the award-winning Fresh Air Production back in 2003.
The podcast production company works with businesses of all sizes and offers a number of different services. The company can produce anything from a simple podcast (for example two people sitting in a room talking) to a whole in-depth documentary series.
The Fresh Air Production team prides themselves upon appyling broadcast quality production to podcasts. Their aim is to help businesses stand out from the crowd within an increasingly crowded market.
The production company's producers are able to join in at any stage within the client's podcast creation process. The team say the early idea generation and strategy stage is both the hardest and the most enjoyable, as they feel they can be the most creative; helping a business set a tone of voice and tell a story.
Neil said: "Some clients come to us and say they already know what they want to make, but want it done professionally. We also have businesses that come to us with no clear idea of what they want. This can be more fun for us because we get more creative input, and can help with the creative format.
"Additionally, some of the stuff we create is really niche. Our clients may want to target and make content for an incredibly small and specific demographic. Businesses are not always looking to be top of the iTunes chart or mass-market but for that particular group that are valuable to them, it will make a huge difference. That’s the strength of podcasting.”
The Fresh Air founder splits his time between working in his office in London and his Swindon office located in Old Town.
Prior to creating Fresh Air Production, he worked for radio stations and did freelance projects, producing aural media.
He explained: "I started out doing work experience at BBC Wiltshire. I worked for six months unpaid. I thought it was magical watching the presenters and seeing how a radio show was put together. I did some of the travel news, or the ‘what’s on’ trails, and got to take a microphone out and do some recording pieces.
“I knew that radio and audio was what I wanted to do from then on. Podcasting didn’t exist at this point – this was around 1995. After this I went off to university and did some university radio work – the breakfast show host at my university at the time happened to be Stephen Merchant.
“I then returned to BBC Wiltshire after university, and then moved on to work for BBC London and Radio 5 Live.
After working for the BBC and doing freelance work for around ten years, Neil then set up Fresh Air Production. He described it as 'ten years of being me - or me plus the people I would be bringing in to help me on certain jobs."
So why podcasts? Neil explains what attracts him to the aural medium.
He said: "What I love about audio over visual is that you can do it all yourself. The beauty of audio is that you can have an idea and all you need are words and sound, to create pictures in people’s heads. You can create something that is intimate and special to listen to."
The Fresh Air founder said the change really came for him in 2016, when podcasts started to take off in the UK. The National Trust came in as the company's first big client.
Neil added: "We pitched ideas to them and persuaded them that they should make a podcast. They now have a full department making podcasts, and telling their amazing stories.
“We then got another job off the back of this with the Houses of Parliament, and with Historic England. Our business then really started to take off. Even now, we’re still riding the wave as the medium is still new for a lot of people."
When asked why podcasts have become increasingly popular from 2016 onwards, Neil had the following to say:
“They’re really popular because they are really in-depth. The average listening time for a podcast is around 26 minutes. That is locked off time where people are focusing on what they’re listening to. Most people are not scrolling on their phones, reading, or watching a video while listening, they’re driving, or at the gym, or in bed. They’re a way for people to absorb themselves in a topic.
“Podcasts have the highest attention level – apart from cinema – of any media. The ability to listen to a podcast to help understand a topic in depth is really appealing. If a brand can deliver this to a consumer – that’s a great medium for them."
Following the new-found success with these two major clients, Neil decided to concentrate squarely on podcasts for brands. Fresh Air Production focused its attention on helping businesses tell their stories, and engage their consumers, by using and utilising aural media.
Neil explained: “No one wants to listen to a long advert. We strive to create podcasts that people like to listen to, and that are entertaining and informative; but that also communicate the message of the brand – our paying client."
Fresh Air's production prowess was recognised in 2019 at the UK Audio Production Awards. The business won Audio Production Company of the Year. The judges were said to have described Fresh Air as a company 'combining creative flair and commercial nouse.'
Over the years, Fresh Air's list of high-profile clients has continued to grow. The company have worked with Audible, BMW, Sky, Universal, WWF, BBC, Avon, Barclays, the National Grid, Legal & General and many more organisations.
Neil said: "We’re here to try and help companies to use the medium of podcasts in an effective way. We, in the journalist mindset, try and push that kind of attitude that says ‘use the platform as a way of creating something more than just propaganda.’ It’s a space for businesses and brands to answer the questions that people may want to ask them.
“In the world of podcasts, a lot of people seem to ignore this branded space, and it has become something we have set out to own and become knowledgeable about. I think lots of our competitors have become distracted by making a true crime podcast or a celebrity podcast. I can see the draw as these types of series are popular, but we believe being single-minded about our intentions and aims is really important.
"However, when it comes down to it, for us, making a great podcast is the main thing – the fact that it does some great promotional work for the brand is the business aim, but if it’s not a great show, no-one will listen."
Aside from Neil, the Fresh Air Production team is made up of around 24 other producers. The company's founder says he is still involved in the projects that the business takes on, but is less present than he used to be.
Now Neil tends to be more involved in bringing in new business, giving talks at corporate events, and joining his team to help out during the 'idea creation stage' with clients.
He added: “My team are very self-sufficient and we at Fresh Air train our producers to not just make great podcasts, but handle the client conversation side of things.”
Fresh Air Productions makes around 80 podcasts at any given time, and demand for its services is said to be high. The team say the business has grown by 50% year on year, over the course of the last four to five years.
Over these last few years, the team have been fine-tuning their craft and making sure they are creating the best possible finished product for their clients.
Neil said: “Something we have gotten better at over the last few years is not making anything until we understand what the clients and the project wants/needs to achieve, and then being able to prove that the aims have been met at the end. It has been important for us to use the analytics to say ‘you set us this target, and we’ve met it.’
“We also talk to businesses about how they use their existing network and their socials. We can also help them to improve their promotion and create promotional material for their podcast. If you promote a good show well, then you can really make an impact within an increasingly crowded market.”
He added: "Everyone knows the logos and the visuals of the big clients we work with, and so it is our job to help them figure out what they want to sound like – what message or story they want to get across, and what their tone of voice is.
“What we don’t want to do is to just turn up and press record. We want to bring some creativity, knowledge and expertise within the medium to the clients, rather than just make what the client tells us to.”
Despite working within the podcast field where the market is becoming increasingly popular and flooded, Neil remains positive and believes in the value of adding to the pool.
He enthused: "I don’t believe the podcast market is a saturated one, and people shouldn't be put off making one – you just need to have a good story to tell, know who is going to listen to it, know how to reach them, and then make something they would enjoy listening to. Know your audience and know your message.”
More information about Fresh Air Production can be found online at https://www.freshairproduction.co.uk/
Fresh Air also have a blog sharing tips with the public about what they will need to do to grow a podcast. It can be found at https://www.freshairproduction.co.uk/blog/2021/12/6/the-six-things-you-need-to-grow-a-podcast