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  • Writer's pictureSarah Myles

HOW I GOT HERE: Ella Watts

(How I Got Here Artwork)

Connect with this season’s guests:

Special thanks to: Alex Court, Graeme Woodcock, Heleen Kist, Kate Bullivant, Maria Passingham, Mark Loftus, Natasha S. Chowdory and Tin Hinson for providing question recordings.

Artwork by Jack Jewers-

RISE & SHINE is about giving everyone a voice within the podcast and radio industries regardless of income.

Find out more about RISE & SHINE through the website- and twitter-



Music: (description used on audio library) A playful blend of cheeky brass, retro grooves, funky licks. Plays underneath

Sound fx: Keyboard typing, internet dial up sounds

Voice 1: How would you go about getting into audio if you had to start all over again today

Voice 2: What are the things you have to learn after getting into the industry?

Voice 3: what's the one piece of advice you'd give to anyone starting out in audio?

Intro speaker: Getting your foot in the door of the audio industry can seem like a bit of a mystery cant it? Should you….. go to university?

Guest 1: and just sort of by chance, I got involved with my student radio station. Um, I had a friend who was part of it and that's where it all started

Intro speaker: Work in community radio?.

Guest 2: I think it's some of the most useful experience you can get

Intro speaker: Maybe start your own podcast?

Guest 3: I say “I'm not, well, I'm not with anybody. It's my own personal show.” And he goes with equal enthusiasm he goes, Oh yeah, sure.

Intro speaker: How I got here is a podcast from rise and shine, showcasing brilliant people from across, audio, radio, and podcasting

We’ll be hearing their stories.

Guest 4: I learned that I can do more than just specialist radio. I'm able to do mainstream sounds. I'm able to do that

Intro speaker: Tips

Guest 5: You know what, make an Excel spreadsheet. It's one of the best things I ever did for my contacts

Intro speaker: and words of wisdom.

Guest 6: If you wanted to, you could do all this yourself, but for me, you can gain so much from doing it with other people

Intro speaker: all about breaking into the audio industry.

Guest 7: Your time will come when you have loads of projects that somehow are all being released at the same time and you get to be that person.

So just don't let it freak you out too much.

Intro Speaker: So let’s get to this episode’s guest shall we?

Music: ends

Ella Watts: I'm Ella Watts. I'm a podcast producer at BBC studios and my pronouns are she her. I got into audio at university when I started volunteering with the local community radio station. At the time I was also working for the RAF reserves, where I was learning how to fly and I was directing a play.

And weirdly audio was the place where those two interests sort of came into one beautiful hole. I could be in control of a big machine and at the time I was presenting and producing live radio, which meant that there was a kind of sense of I suppose risk or excitement to it and at the same time I could be creative and I could creatively direct ideas and I could work with other people as part of a team to make something artistic, which I also really enjoyed.

It helps that the people that I was volunteering with were amazing. And we got to do a lot of wonderful things, including a night at the museum live broadcast across like six different museums that I organized and I got to broadcast live from an armory. So, you know, that was a peak for me.

After that, I finished uni. I started working for a local lifestyle magazine, did that for a while, then had a brief stint at a really terrible company that sold data research, did a couple of odd jobs,. I did some waitressing and worked in a call centre for the city council.

And I ended up in Bristol. And having moved there, having worked for a community radio station before, I'd kind of become convinced that the best way to get to know somewhere was by volunteering at its local community radio station. So I did, I volunteered at BCFS, which is an amazing community radio station. And I started producing the one love breakfast show in the mornings.

I started producing and presenting the Saturday edition, an arts show, and I started presenting on a show that is still very, very dear to my heart, which is called shout out, which is the biggest LGBTQ plus show in the Southwest. Where I did a kind of series on queer history. I did some news reading. I got to do some producing and just generally get to know a really amazing community of people.

So having volunteered with BCF, um, for a while, I managed to get some experience with BBC radio Bristol. And then I also applied to and got some work experience at BBC radio two on the Jeremy vine show and having done all that, I kind of started to realize that this was really what I wanted to be doing.

I wanted to work in audio, so I did some research into it and my undergraduate. Degree was in medieval history. And I kind of kept bumping across the fact that a lot of job applications needed me to have a BJT C qualification or a driver's license or both. And I had neither. So I looked up where I could get BJ TC qualification, which is a broadcast journalism training council qualification, and eventually decided that.

I felt like the quickest way for me to be able to start working in media professionally full-time would be to do a master's degree in broadcast journalism. At the time, I didn't have a lot of money. I was already in debt from my first degree. So I took out two different loans and then applied to a bunch of universities.

And eventually I. Was offered a place at Goldsmiths university to study that master's degree in radio, which was really what I wanted, because I think that TV is really cool, but it's not something that I've ever been particularly passionate about. Whereas podcasting and radio are very much my job. In fact, in particular, I was, and still am really excited about fiction podcasts.

I'd started listening to fiction podcasts in 2012 at the beginning of my undergraduate degree. And then when I went to do this Mia radio, there was an element that focused on audio drama, and I was really excited to try and study more fiction podcasts and see if I could sort of write academically about them and think critically about them.

I studied with a really wonderful group of people at Goldsmiths, talented people from a range of different backgrounds and perspectives. And I learned a lot there, mostly about media law and journalism, but also just, you know, working to a deadline and what makes good sound design because of that course, I moved to London, so I started attending.

Audio networking events like the UK audio network meetups, obviously before the plague and also sort of mingling with people who made fiction podcasts, because I was realizing more and more, that that was the kind of thing I wanted to do. I volunteered to be a runner on season three of wooden overcoats, which is a comedy drama podcast.

And then from there, I Started working as a dialogue editor for the orphans podcast, which sci fi drama and as a producer for the unseen hour, which is a horror comedy, all of this was unpaid work, but I was excited to be doing it because it was the kind of thing that I wanted to be doing. And I was able to support myself with my postgraduate loan and with some part-time tutoring work I was doing.

And then I finished my degree and through, she is our deputy at a UK audio network meetup. I met Jason Phipps who was going to be the commissioning editor at BBC sounds. And this was just before the app had launched. And I got talking to him about drama and he said that that was an area. He felt like his team didn't specialize in.

So he asked me whether I'd be interested in doing some consultancy with them. I said yes. And I started consulting for BBC sounds, which was amazing and really fun. It was a little difficult to sustain. So I was couch surfing on my friend's sofas for about eight months in order to be able to do the work.

But after about eight months I met. Julia McKenzie, who was the head of radio comedy. Now head of audio at BBC studios. And I did this presentation, which by that point I'd rehearsed pretty well. That was just a kind of crash course and fiction podcasts that it built off the back of a ten-year survey of the international industry that I'd been commissioned to do for BBC sounds.

And I did this presentation at BBC studios and as a result, Julia. Was sort of interested in and impressed by my work and asked me to come back and do some more consultancy for them about different areas of podcasting, slightly more obscure areas of podcasting. And so I did. And then after that, a job came up at BBC studios for the role of podcast producer and I applied and I was lucky enough to get it.

And I have been working there part-time for nearly two years now. And I've worked on a bunch of different podcasts, but also radio programs like quote-on-quote, which is a radio series that's been running for 46 years. Things like the funny from the fringe podcast, which focuses as the name implies on a number fringe and a lot of other kinds of fun things in development.

So that's how I got into audio.

Why audio?

Ella Watts: I grew up listening to the radio. I grew up listening to Terry, Oregon, like many people did. Um, and I also moved around a lot. So my dad is a pilot. My mom is a university lecturer and because my dad was a pilot for the military and then commercially, we moved a lot.

We moved countries, we moved continents. I grew up in Australia and Hong Kong and all across the UK. Wherever we went. One thing that my parents would do would be to play BBC radio 2 whenever possible. And it became this sort of living, breathing connection. I had to like any sense of identity. Especially sort of, I suppose, a national identity and we would travel a lot.

Um, partly because of my dad's work, partly because my parents were great believers in the power of road trips. And we would listen to the radio. When I came back to the UK, I was catching the school bus every day and our bus driver constantly played the radio. I really understand what people mean when they talk about how the radio is company, because for me, for a great deal of my life, The radio was the company that I had the consistent friend.

So the idea of being able to make that was, and still is really magical to me. I also think when it comes to audio fiction, I just love stories. I love storytelling. I love drama and there's something so uniquely, beautifully magical to me. About the way audio fiction constructs realities inside people's heads, the way you never show the monster.

And the romantic lead is the most beautiful person you could think of. And you can go look at a supernova or, you know, a magical alternative dimension, and it is exactly as beautiful and wondrous as your imagination can manage. And, and I still just find that completely breathtaking. And I don't think a week goes by that I don't listen to a new piece of audio drama that does that again to me in a different way that makes me physically stop in my tracks.

That makes me catch my breath. That makes me cry. That makes me laugh. And it's just this, the only thing I want to do, it's more than anything else. I just want to be able to make that, do that.

How would you go about getting into audio? If you had to start all over again today?

Ella Watts: I would do an undergraduate degree in some kind of broadcast journalism. I think I'd do that for two reasons. First of all, it would save me the additional 20,000 pounds of debt from the post grad, but also because. The undergraduate degrees that, that is, they have up to date training on things like video editing, which is increasingly useful, even in audio and optional courses and things like coding, which again is so useful.

I would also maybe consider doing a technical degree. A lot of my friends who have technical degrees in sound engineering often know a lot more about it. Just the business of sound and the physics of sound more than I do. And they're able to apply that to a bunch of different work opportunities so they can get work doing sound for live TV or for concerts and venues, and then they can also get producer work.

So I think that that's another really good investment, just like a technical degree. I have been working in the audio industry now for about five years. And I've been trying to get into it since 2012. I think it's very much the case that we live in an overinflated economy. And I think it's really difficult to get work without.

Any training or any kind of certificate. So I think I still would go for some kind of like either an undergrad or a BTech. And then from there volunteer with a local community radio. I stand by that. I think it's some of the most useful experiences you can get either with hospital radio or prison radio, which are again, just like incredibly useful experiences that you'll learn a lot from.

And then if you can volunteer with your local BBC branches, most local BBC stations are very happy to have someone come in to shadow a bit, and that's often all you need to do to get started. And I would just make a podcast. I would just start making a podcast, ideally in whatever genre I wanted to go into.

So I love drama. I would make an audio drama. And I would use it as an excuse to talk to people in the field of audio drama. And I would use it as a sandbox and a way to experiment and learn. I would also invest in decent equipment early on, especially like a zoom H four N um, a decent mic, probably a rode mic of some description, maybe a Samsung QT, depending on what my budget was.

And I would start recording a sound library and itemizing my sound library. And if I was young enough that I had the time and money to sort of run around recording sounds, I would definitely, definitely do that. And I would stop just building hard drives of sound effects because it is so much more useful.

I would also, if I was doing this all again, Make a point to learn how to compose music, because I find that that often trips me up is that I'm not a composer and I really do need to learn how to do it. So I think if I was able to sort of restart from scratch, I would make a point to if I had the option to learn from anyone anywhere, just some basic stuff about composition.

I would either get a technical degree in sound engineering. Or I would get an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism. I would make sure that I got video editing skills, coding skills, and learned how to compose music. I would invest in some good equipment early on and I would start building sound libraries now.

And then otherwise I would volunteer at community radio stations, hospital, radio, prison, radio, and then from that local BBC radio. And finally, I would just stop making a podcast and start releasing it in whatever genre I wanted to do it in, in my cast drama.

Tell us a secret about breaking into the audio industry.

Ella Watts: For me, the big secret about breaking into the audio industry is just talking to people, which I don't think is a secret, but I think maybe a better secret is if you're talking about podcasting and breaking into the podcast industry, because data around podcasts is still so vague and unreliable.

And because people are very secretive about their data, it's very easy to just walk into a room and say, hi, I'm a big deal. Like, I think that it would surprise a lot of people to know the exact figures that, you know, big companies like Spotify and global and audible and BBC sounds are actually raking in.

And I think a lot of the time smaller podcasts can really compete. And I've seen a lot of people. Who've had very small podcasts and kind of really humble beginnings get really, really far just by having the gumption to say, yeah, you should listen to me. My show is good. So I think that that's. A real kind of secret sauce is just having the confidence to walk into a room and believe that you're supposed to be there also something that I was taught on my radio degree, which honestly was really helpful to me at the time as a 23 year old was don't tell people that you want to be a producer, just tell people you're a producer.

And I think that that is crucial. It sounds obvious, but. Just introducing yourself to people and saying, you know, hi, I'm a podcast producer or radio producer or whatever it is you want to be really helps people on the side of what you want. And also helps you, I don't know, I suppose speakers into being, um, and I realize that sounds very fluffy, but I do think it's true.

You need to own up to and admit what you want and then go after it openly. And if you do that often. You'll be able to get there.

What's the best mistake you've ever made?

Ella Watts: Agreeing to record a live audio drama monthly, and then turn it into two podcast episodes every month. Indefinitely for no money. At the time, I did not realize what a commitment that would be and the fact that they also wanted to live musical acts. And that I wouldn't be given information about the musical acts until the day of recording.

Sometimes an hour before recording would often be working until past midnight on the live shows. And then in terms of the podcast itself would be working in the middle of the night, not given any holidays, no breaks that said. I really loved the show itself. I loved the performance and I got to know the people who came to the show and they were amazing people and people who I shared interests with.

They introduced me to a lot of friends and collaborators that I know now. And I do think that I learned a lot from producing the show, especially about live recording, but also about post-production and sort of making do amending when things go wrong. I think as an adult, looking back on it, agreeing to.

Recording a two hour long live show with two musical acts and Ventana and two podcast episodes every month indefinitely for no money was a bit of a mistake and I probably should have set some boundaries.

What are the things you have to learn once getting into the industry?

Ella Watts: I think the biggest thing to learn after getting into the audio industry is that you need to set boundaries.

You need to set boundaries around your working hours. You need to set boundaries around pay and how much you're willing to do for how much money you need to set boundaries over like exactly what it is you're going to be doing for someone. Because I think that. Especially when you go from radio into podcasts, when it becomes a digital medium, a lot of people will blur a lot of work and a lot of really three people's jobs into one job.

And you can often find yourself stuck in a situation where someone's expecting you to do, you know, all of the digital marketing and all of the social media. Um, the directing and the editing and the producing and the recording. And before you know what's happened, you're working at significantly less than minimum wage for a massive project, and it's killing you.

And you're not even doing a good job because you're exhausted and you're overstretched and you're not working in the areas that you're specialism. So I think that the thing that I see a lot is people burning out. People getting stressed, people being taken advantage of people, not getting paid on time, not getting paid fairly.

And I think that a really important thing to do is just clearly set your boundaries, figure out, okay, what financially can I afford? What will break me? What can I do? What can I not do? What can I commit to? What can I not commit to? What am I good at? What am I not good at? Identifying your kind of strengths and weaknesses, deciding which areas you want to get better at.

And if you don't want to be good at social media, that's fine. But you need to make sure it's clear in your contract or wherever you're working, that you're not going to be doing social media management and just setting expectations. I think that. Employers and colleagues really respect anyone's ability to clearly set expectations.

You can't let someone down if you've told them at the start, okay, this is what I can do. I've clearly communicated that to you and you can do things to the best of your ability. Part of that setting expectations is also, you know, not replying to an email at 2:00 AM because you should not be working at 2:00 AM.

That's insane unless you are literally working on live radio and there is a national emergency. If you're working on a podcast or if you're working on a radio program that isn't live, you should not be working at 2:00 AM. You should be stopping work or you should be charging significant overtime.

That's the biggest thing I would say, making sure to set clear boundaries.

Tell us about the person in the audio industry who helped you most when building your career.

Ella Watts: Undoubtedly, the three people who helped me the most when I was getting into the audio industry are Jason Phipps, Julia McKenzie, and Andy Goddard, Jason Phillips first and foremost was a person who went to the UK audio network drinks and took the time to talk to someone he'd never met before.

And let me talk to him about audio drama, and then commissioned me to write a report on audio drama and introduced me to a lot of very interesting and influential people, which has allowed me to build a career. I would not have a career without Jason Phipps. So without his sort of leap of faith to work with a 23 year old, who just graduated without his guidance and compassion, when I was starting out, I really just would not have a career.

Similarly, Juliet McKenzie was the first person who actually gave me a job in audio. If she hadn't decided to go out on a limb and give me. An actual salaried position. I don't know where it would be right now. I don't know if I would be working in audio, but because Julia frequently takes the time to meet and listen to people who are outside of her comfort zone or outside of her area of expertise.

And because she invited me in to tell her about it. This thing, because she felt like she didn't know about it. I was able to start doing a job that I love. And then I am ridiculously lucky to have a lot of that is down to the fact that Julia McKenzie decided to take a chance on me. So I think that the fact that Julia consistently makes an effort to learn about her industry to try and work on things like accessibility, to meet people, talk to people, listen to them.

Really means a lot. And she has, for me personally, just being a really great mentor, she's very, very kind, but she's also a woman who's been working in the audio industry for over a decade. So she's also a bit of a badass and I'm a person that can get very anxious and very nervous. And Julia has taught me a lot about standing my ground and respecting myself as well as other people.

And. Making sure to sort of stand up for myself. So I wouldn't be here without Juliet McKenzie. And then finally, Andy gods has done so much for me in the audio industry. I, I mean, Andy got out as the person who taught me how to do sound design. When I took over a podcast from him and I came around to his house at like 10 o'clock at night and we had beer and he just talked me through how he edited an episode of the show in audition.

And then from there we just. Constantly compared notes he'd come in and helped me. If I was panicking, I remember calling him in a live show recording in an absolute panic, and he had someone else on the call with him and he was driving and he's on the phone to me while he's driving. He's like, okay, don't worry.

It's all right. So just look at the button. Okay. Right? Yeah. Click that one. I would not know without him really how to do my job, because a lot of what I've learned is from him directly. He's a person that I look up to a great deal. And again, he's someone who has taught me how to stand up for myself and someone who's taught me that I can believe in myself and respect myself.

And that respecting myself is not the same as disrespecting other people and that you get a need to respect yourself as well as other people. So I only got out, has done a huge amount for me in terms of getting into and staying in the audio industry.

What's the one piece of advice that you would give to anyone starting out in audio?

Ella Watts: make a podcast. Where at a point in time now, by where it is no longer true that making a podcast is going to be your magic meal ticket to millions of subscribers and everyone's going to care about what you say. Likelihood is that your first podcast will be listened to by maybe a couple hundred people, a couple thousand, if you're lucky, but.

What making a podcast can do more than anything else. More than what people tell you more than what you read more than what you study is just teach you how to do the thing. It will teach you what works in audio and what doesn't. It will teach you what you like in audio and what doesn't. It will teach you how to work with sound effects and how to work with music and how to book guests and how to record and how you like recording.

It'll teach you how to market yourself. And it also gives you the opportunity to meet and talk to a lot of amazing people. Because there are millions, if not billions of people making podcasts right now, and everyone wants to talk about it. It's a talking piece, it's a business card. It's a learning opportunity.

It's a sandbox. You can get creative. I really do think that everyone should just have their own podcast and play with it. Like it does not need to be a huge business venture. It will not make or break you. It will not be the best or biggest thing that you ever make, but it will just be a thing that you can toy with and experiment with and learn from.

And I think that that is invaluable. So my big piece of advice to someone starting out their career in audio is start a podcast.


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