It’s hard to believe that podcasts were added to the iTunes store only ten years ago. With the mainstream popularity of Sarah Koenig’s real life drama, Serial, the format has seen a surge in popularity. Tech podcast Note to Self has been riding that wave.
One of the most popular tech podcasts on iTunes, the WNYC podcast is also in iTunes’ top 100. And for good reason: hosted by Manoush Zomorodi, the show explores everything from Lego kits to government surveillance to reading on paper versus a screen. The show is geek meets everyday life, making it accessible to techies and noobs alike.
— Note to Self (@NoteToSelf) August 20, 2015
Previously named New Tech City, the podcast recently rebranded.
“Some people thought we were a show about urban infrastructure or sensors or something,” Zomorodi explains. She continues: “I think we are the kind of tech show that sneaks up and grabs listeners who don’t think they would ever be interested in hearing a show about tech. We needed a more stealthy and human name to go with our MO! You’ll be walking around and you’ll remember a fact or tidbit from the show and think, huh, that new name really does fit.”
We caught up with Note to Self’s host, Manoush Zomorodi, to find out more about the inspiration behind the show and what goes into recording an episode. We also found out a little bit more about the Bored and Brilliant project – a series started by Zomorodi challenging listeners to spend less time with their phones and more time with their thoughts.
Describe your podcast in one sentence
The official tagline is “finding balance in the digital age” but to elaborate and make this a run-on sentence, I’d add that it’s a tech show where philosophical questions meet practical solutions with lots of anxious self-deprecation sprinkled on top; we also laugh a lot.
Why did you choose podcasting as a format rather than a blog/website/video?
My first job in media was as a producer for BBC radio 20 years ago so this is going back to my roots. Audio still feels like storytelling at its purest to me.
What one episode of your podcast would you recommend for new listeners to get to know the show?
One of people’s favorites is “9 Things I Learned About Phones from a Teenager.” She puts me straight on sexting and leaves me momentarily speechless.
How did you get into podcasting? What made you realize this is what you wanted to do?
I was a news reporter for a long time (tv and radio) and I always had trouble squelching my personality to just give the facts. The bosses at WNYC heard the real me bubbling underneath my news delivery and decided to set me free.
How fast did the podcast take off? Did you feel discouraged when you first got started? What did you do to get past that?
Oh my god, it took at least a year for me to comfortable being my true self in front of the microphone and THEN for the audience to find me! If you play in podcasting you have to play the long game.
Can you tell us a little bit about your standard setup – what goes into recording one episode of Note to Self?
I record anything out in the field with a standard Sony recorder and then do studio interviews and tracking at WNYC. Each episode usually has 2-3 interviews and you’ll often hear me (or listeners) experimenting on themselves. After we get a rough cut together, the audio takes over and makes it sound amazing.
How do you come up with individual episode ideas? What’s your creative process? How do you prepare?
I try to pay attention to all the random questions that pass through my mind. Are my kids going to feel neglected because I don’t post pictures of them? Why can’t I read a book anymore? Are surveillance conspiracy theorists ever right? Is tech REALLY giving us ADHD?
Chances are if something is piquing my interest or bugging me, it’s also on the minds of my listeners.
— Annamarya Scaccia (@annamarya_s) August 13, 2015
If there was one person, dead or alive, that you could interview – who would it be?
Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Bored and Brilliant and how it’s been received? Any particular responses from listeners that have really stood out? How has it impacted you on a personal level?
The Bored and Brilliant Project was a HUGE surprise. It all started when I realized I hadn’t been bored in years because anytime I felt a hint of boredom, I looked at my phone. I went on a journey to understand what happens when we get bored and what could the potential consequences be of NEVER being bored.
It turns out boredom is vital to creative thinking and problem solving. Over 20,000 people signed up to track their phone use and then do daily challenges that modified their behavior in an attempt to get bored and jumpstart their creativity. It was crazy how into it people got. And also extremely gratifying! Teachers started using it as a curriculum, business people reported work breakthroughs. One guy told me he felt like he was “awakening from a mental hibernation.” People are still doing it around the world and we have plans to bring it back even bigger. We weren’t anti-tech, we were promoting purposeful use of tech.
You have a great way of including content direct from your listeners. What do you think this adds to your show?
Listeners’ voices add so much texture and perspective and they should be heard because they really are a key driver of the show. A beautiful feedback loop has emerged between the podcast, our newsletters, and our listeners. Recently, we started doing a bi-weekly segment called “Question of Note” where we take a listener question and dig to find a useful, non-judgy, usually surprising answer.
Any sneak peeks you can give us into upcoming episodes we should look out for?
Such amazing stuff coming up. We are tackling digital clutter, experimenting with an app that wants to solve the issue of women leadership (is there really an app for that?!), we also, of course, have some incredibly moving, personal stories about how tech has rocked people’s worlds, for good and bad. But I shouldn’t give too much away? Oh, and I am also determined to keep making people more aware of privacy issues WHILE entertaining them. So listen for that!
What are your favorite podcasts that you listen to?
Radiolab, Longform, SciFri [no longer available], How to Be Amazing, On Being, Double X, Reply All, Here’s the Thing, Working, Startup, Criminal, Theory of Everything, Longest Shortest Time, Sporkful, Death Sex & Money, Ted Radio Hour, WTF, 99% Invisible, On the Money, Love & Radio, The Heart, Planet Money, HBR Ideacast. I want it ALL!
Is there an app that you prefer your listeners to use to listen to your podcast?
Well, iTunes. Because that messes with their algorithm and keeps us high on the iTunes chart. And that’s important (along with rating us) because it helps with listener discovery. And podcasts, as many know, have a discoverability problem!
— Maria Popova (@brainpicker) July 29, 2015
Is there anything else that keeps you busy when you’re not podcasting?
Two very intense and funny children.
Any advice for someone looking to start their own podcast?
Don’t over think it. Go out and talk to people over and over and over again. Understand that you gotta love the process and making the product otherwise it’s not worth it. So far no one is getting rich by podcasting.
— Day One (@DayOneNY) August 13, 2015
What question do you wish people would ask you about Note to Self that you don’t get asked?
Ha! I don’t know! Hmmm….how about, what makes you feel the most edgy when you are making your show? You’ll need to do a follow-up interview to get the answer.
What’s the one app, gadget, or piece of technology you ‘make use of’ on a daily basis?
I could not live without Todoist, Pocket, and my Calendar. They make up the proverbial Bermuda Triangle of my home screen. I get lost there everyday.