Artwork for podcast Pod Chat - Insights and Trends from Podcast Experts
AJ Churchill on How Apollo is Driving Podcast Findability, and the Future of Podcast Apps
Episode 415th April 2022 • Pod Chat - Insights and Trends from Podcast Experts • Danny Brown
00:00:00 00:36:27

Transcripts

AJ:

So we started out as purely a content company. We wanted to make fiction podcast ourselves, and we made Earth Eclipsed, we made the pilot. We raised some funding to make the full season after the pilot had some initial success. And then we realized know quickly through that entire process that the existing infrastructure and apps for fiction podcasts are massively under serving the medium. And we wouldn't have discovered this if we hadn't gone on that journey with our own show.

Danny:

Today. I'm delighted to welcome AJ Churchill to the show. Aj's background is in music production, and he's taken that into his role as the cofounder of the Lunar Company, a podcast production studio focused on telling timeless stories. As part of that, Lunar has released a free podcast app called Apollo, which has a rather interesting USP when it comes to the audience it's built for. Aj is also co-creator of Earth Eclipsed, a scifi audio adventure that does some really interesting things with sound. We'll be chatting about that and more in this episode. So without further Ado, the music composer who's looking to change the way we look at podcast, audio and apps. Aj Churchill, welcome to the show. Aj.

AJ:

Thank you so much for having me, Danny. I appreciate it.

Danny:

You're welcome. And you're in LA, as we mentioned earlier, just in the green room. You're in LA, so the right place for you, obviously, for your background, yes.

AJ:

There's only a few places you can probably be in the world to start out as a film composer, which is sort of how I began my career. So, yeah, La, New York and London. And La was where I wanted to go and where I could go.

Danny:

And speaking of that, you mentioned three cities there. I mentioned in the intro you've got a background in music composition and soundtracks with a really impressive collection of soundtracks in your back catalog. And getting there took you on quite a journey. You started in Sao Paulo in Brazil, came to the US and then London, UK. So how did all that come about? How did you take that journey to these three amazing places?

AJ:

Yeah, great question. I'm originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil. I lived there until I was 18. My dad is American and my mom is Brazilian and I went to an American school in Brazil. So I kind of always knew that the US was sort of where I was aiming to go for College. My grandparents were up here. I had visited them often. So it was just kind of the natural stuff. I wanted to live that kind of like residential College life that is less common in Brazil than it is in the US. So I ended up at Oberlin College, which is a College and a conservatory in rural Ohio close to Cleveland. And that's kind of where I started composing for Screen. I started with a few commercials that I found through Vimeo forums and different websites posting my music and posting that I was available. I eventually realized that maybe people were willing to pay for these services and I decided to lean into it. So I graduated and I applied to a few startups because I had also studied economics. And then I also applied to the Royal College of Music and I told myself if I got into the Royal College of Music then I would go there and if I didn't, then I would try to find a job at a startup someplace dynamic. So Luckily I got into the World College Music and I went there and did my Masters in Film Scoring composition for screen. I met some incredible composers and filmmakers while I was in London for those two years and then finished my course. And not an EU citizen or I guess now not a UK citizen. So I then moved to La to start my film scoring career in earnest and that's where I met my business partners. I met up with them, I guess I should say, because I kind of already knew Nick.

Danny:

And if someone also with a huge amount of experience in sound production space, where do you see? Because there's been a huge amount of changes obviously, and improvements with movie soundtracks and TV soundtracks, with all the advancements with Adobe Tch, all the special sound, where do you see podcasting currently on the path that TV and movies took to get to that whole Immersive soundscape? What do you think status to happen with podcasting?

AJ:

To be completely honest, I am a huge proponent of the power of just regular old stereo. I think that it is the most common format still for everyone to consume audio in. And I do see the value of Dolby Atmos and different spatial audio and different formats with more channels. But in the end I think for me the priority will always have to be stereo. I think stereo humans have two years is sort of how things have been. It's a proven format and for me I think you can do so much with stereo, which Earth eclipse our show, our fiction podcast with fully sound designed and cinematic sounding is just done in stereo and I think it's still quite powerful. So I can see, I think because of the technical limitations of RSS too, because right now it only takes MP3 and just the size of file formats. I think if we want to kind of maintain that open RSS ecosystem, we still have to keep dealing with stereo and MP3. But of course for premium offerings of shows, it's very interesting to look into, I think these other formats as well, but I do sort of see them as maybe like 3D glasses, that kind of thing. I think it's sort of analogous to that in audio. I think it will be slow for everyone to adopt that if ever, to be completely honest.

Danny:

And it's interesting, you mentioned 3D glasses. I know that was a huge push for TVs, and that never really took off. There was probably maybe two good movies made in 3D actually work properly, but it's like 4K. I saw someone I think it was actually a sound design. It was Ben Burton, actually, that mentioned we don't watch movies in 4K. Our eyes aren't up to the standard above 4K vision. It's interesting that you talk to the correlation between stereo and to the old Dolby and everything to check to what's in the motion side of it so you'll be able to see what comes down. And I'm surprised, actually, that you mentioned that air forclipse is actually mixed in stereo, because I want to speak to about that. I was blown away by the sound production on this. Very serious. It's seriously amazing. And I'll be sure to leave the link to the Africa Class podcast and to show notes so people can check it out. As soon as you open the first episode, it just envelopes you and it just drags you in. So to hear that, I say only take that back to hear that's mixed in stereo as opposed to lots of sound effects. How Pod chat whole process come about. And I know it involved a big team. So what was that like, putting that together?

AJ:

Yeah, it was a massive learning curve for me because I came from film scoring. So I was familiar with Daws digital audio workstations like Cuba or Logic or GarageBand Pro Tools, but it was all in the music realm. It was all kind of in how can we record this instrument? How can we make, how can we EQ this instrument? Music editing or it was all kind of related to music. So I think for me to translate all that into sound designing, it was a learning curve. And the first episode took us months to make, whereas the future episodes two through eight were a lot faster. So we started out with actually, honestly, it was just me on the pilot for sound design and music. My good friend and another excellent composer, sound designer Shane Rutherford Jones, who I met at the Royal College of Music, helped me. He came onto the project once we got the resources to do the rest of the season, and he really helped kind of I don't want to say professionalize because that kind of diminishes the work that I had done. But he definitely helped organize the project a lot more. And he brought his own expertise and his own background in Cubase and very deep background in that and kind of organizing and structuring the rest. So, yeah, it was a big learning curve. We sort of thought of it in three different parts. We had the dialogue, we had the ambiences, and we had the sound effects. And so we separated it in those three parts and sort of went from there. We ended up with hundreds of tracks of each in total. But in the end I tried to close my eyes and listen to the whole thing as if it were just one track. And here is the dialogue too loud here is the sound design overwhelming here? Can we still understand everything that people are saying despite all these deep rumblings and explosions in the background and whatnot? So it was a lot of just kind of not going overboard in any one focus and particularly the sound design. It needed to be expansive, but it needed also to have space for people to hear what's most important, which is the performances and the writing.

Danny:

Obviously it worked because it won a slew of international podcasts and awards for sound and audio design. And I'm guessing you must also have to keep in mind what people listening on. Obviously, we're headphones at the moment when we're speaking to each other, but are people listening to a smart speaker, they listen to their car while they're driving, etcetera. How much of that do you take into account when you're trying to your point, decide? How much volume do we put here? How much time do we put here, et cetera?

AJ:

Oh, I'm glad you asked that, because it's absolutely crucial to test your audio and everything that you've done on many different sources, ranging from high end super nice headphones to the cheapest $10 $5 earbuds. Everything has to sound. You have to be able to understand the words first and foremost, and then you have to be able to hear important sound effects. And then everything else, I think is kind of a bonus, like the music and everything else in the background. So it was vitally important for us to test that on many different sources, and we used reference tracks as well to make sure that we were kind of not. It's very easy for you to get caught up in your own sound world. I've had situations where I'm up late mixing, and then I turn off the computer, boot it up the next day, listen to what I did, and it just sounds like absolute trash. And so it's really weird how the human brain, you can kind of get used to anything, and so you have to be wary of that. And the way that you pod chat is just by testing it in different sources. So bouncing it out, listening to, listening to it on your phone, in the car, just all those classic mixing techniques to make sure you're not to make sure it's sounding good on as many devices as possible, because you never know where people are going to listen to it. Most of the time it'll be on probably cheaper buds or in the car, I imagine.

Danny:

And I'm wondering, is this the Lunar has a very specific goal when it comes to audio productions and what it wants to achieve with the audio of these productions. So is this something goal that you have like Africlips, where people listening to it will know it's a lunar production through their headphones or whatever. As soon as you hear that sound design, there's, like this signature sound design. Is that something that Lunar has gone for?

AJ:

Absolutely. I think we want to tell timeless stories. So first and foremost, I think we want the stories themselves to be something that stays with you and something that has meaning and something that's deep. I want people to think about the shows and the content of the shows that we make. But then also technically, we want every Lunar production to be something that, you know, is going to be very high quality and well produced and have a lot of scope and just feel big. And that doesn't necessarily mean that every story has to be an epic space opera, but it does mean that every story has to have this kind of baseline level of quality. So I think of sort of like the prestige networks, like HBO, that sort of thing where they sort of limit the number of shows that they put out, but the shows that they do put out, you can be pretty confident that they're going to be fantastic and high quality and enjoyable, and they're going to stay with you. So for me, I think that's the ultimate goal of our productions is to deliver something that is for our lunar brand, I suppose to be equated with that really high quality production value and timeless stories.

Danny:

And speaking, that's a nice segue, actually, because I want to talk to you about Apollo, because this is really intriguing. And you mentioned about HBO. They only have a limited amount of shows on their limited types of shows, so you know that the quality is going to be there. And I was chatting my first guest on podcast with Devoted, and he made me aware of the Apollo app. And as soon as he checked out, I thought, wow, this is a really cool idea. So it's a supernatural approach that you're taking. So for anybody that's not cared about Apollo at the moment, what is Apollo?

AJ:

First of all, I'm so happy to hear that Evo told you about Apollo. That's awesome. Thank you. Apollo is a fiction podcast app. It's an app that is open RSS. It leads into the open RSS ecosystem. So open podcasting, and it's designed 100% for fiction podcasts. It does not have any sort of nonfiction content, documentary content on there, the content that we, I think, normally associate the word podcast with. It has a library at the moment of nearly 8000 fiction shows that we've identified and nothing else. It doesn't have anything else for people to sift through. And so it's an app that's totally dedicated to serving fiction podcast, listeners, people that are interested in listening to audio dramas and want to have that kind of separation in their listening. So they have to be okay with having an app that is exclusively for fiction and perhaps they listen to nonfiction on another app.

Danny:

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Danny:

You can add Podnews. Net to your daily briefing on your smart speaker, too. Just search for it in your Smart Speaker app. And now back to this week's episode. And obviously it's very niche. You mentioned it's purely for audio fiction, but you've almost doubled down Pod Chat by keeping it so far to about 8000 podcasts, as opposed to, say, the 4.2 million whatever it is number that's out there on Apple or whatever. And I'm curious what the decision factor was in making it so exclusive. Did it go back to the whole thing about the HBO approach, for example? Or was this because they're all hand curated, aren't they? A lot of the podcasts are hand picked and hand curated by audio and fiction audio podcasters and creators themselves.

AJ:

Yeah. So one of the things we are most proud of is the curated playlist that we have. We've worked with a number of creators and fans of audio fiction to put together lists of their favorite shows, and these are just playlist list that people can browse and find shows that they probably haven't heard of or discovered yet. But to answer your first question about why did we choose to lean into this niche of fiction shows? It was very much to do with our trajectory as a company. So we started out as purely a content company. We wanted to make fiction podcasts ourselves. And we made Earth Eclipsed, we made the pilot. We raised some funding to make the full season after the pilots had some initial success. And then we realized quickly through that entire process that the existing infrastructure and apps for fiction podcasts are massively underserving the medium. And we wouldn't have discovered this if we hadn't gone on that journey with our own show. So right now, or I guess Pre Apollo, the only game in town for these fiction podcasts to ever truly make their money back is the IP game. And so essentially, you're betting on a very long term future for your show that maybe someday it's a bit of like a lottery ticket. Maybe someday your show will be picked up to be a TV show or a book or a game or a comic book or some other kind of medium. And so we realized that it's not sustainable that way because you have so many people that are releasing fiction podcasts now that are smaller than the Q codes out there, the bigger groups that are making fiction podcasts, and they just never get discovered. They just don't get seen because they don't have the connections to Spotify, they don't have the connections to Apple. They don't have the connections to those bigger podcast players. I'm not sure how it is exactly right now. But while we were working on Earth Eclipsed, we basically had to send emails to these big apps and apply and try to get our shows featured on there. And I know that for Spotify specifically, they had a period of time where the fiction section was one playlist, and it was basically all Gimlet media shows and some of the other shows from the groups that they own. And so it just, you know, it clearly wasn't working for the other 7900 fiction shows that were out there that wanted the needed exposure. And so what we want to do with Apollo is foster an ecosystem and kind of build awareness for fiction podcasting as its own genre without having to look into the future for revenue from IP and solely from IP. Maybe there's a way for us to make this whole thing more sustainable for the small indie creators. And Apollo, I think, is one path in that direction.

Danny:

And you mentioned, obviously you were looking at some of the apps and how fiction podcasts were underrepresented on the apps. And you'd mentioned that some of the bigger like Spotify and Apple have certain shows and only these certain shows that were really there for the fiction podcast genre at the time. Looking at some of the apps before you brought Apollo out and thinking, what features? What do I want to actually bring to a podcast app for the genre? What was some of the things that you felt were really missing on podcast, apps and platforms that guided your journey with Apollo and the features and how you want to lay that process out?

AJ:

Great question. I think the main one was the fact that let's take a show, the show Anomaly. So Anomaly was another show that the creator of whom we met at Tribeca where Earth Eclipse was also playing. It was a show that was critically acclaimed. It was a fiction show that was doing well. And if we went on Spotify to try to find Anomaly and sifting through not just the nonfiction podcasts that have Anomaly in the name or in the description or in the company name or anything, but also the music that had Anomaly in the name, you just couldn't find the show. And we knew what we were looking for. And so that was the main thing I think was just they are paying attention to fiction shows. What can we do to really improve that experience? So the way that we solve that was by making Apollo exclusive to fiction. It's way easier for you to sift through 8000 shows that are categorized and cataloged and tagged than it is to sift through the vast library of the other podcast apps. So the main thing we wanted to solve was discovery. We wanted to make sure that people could find the shows that they were looking for and that they could discover shows that they hadn't heard of. And so everything that we geared our MVP of Apollo, the minimum viable product of Apollo toward was discovery and listening. We wanted to make it so that the discovery process was enjoyable. One great reference for us was the app Letterboxed. Letterboxed is an online is a website where people can find and discover films that they want to watch. And so it's the social network made just for films. And people can share lists that they create with each other. They can catalog the movies that they've watched, and they can be recommended other movies. And so we were like, well, maybe we can borrow some of the great features from this and from other podcast apps that work really well and then develop, of course, the ones that we can come up with ourselves for Apollo and make it geared especially towards fiction shows. So, for example, one aspect of Apollo that we're very proud of is our tagging system. So we spent several months last year prior to Apollo's launch just tagging the shows and going through the list of I think it was 49,000 fiction tagged shows on RSS and then whittling that down to the 7900 or so shows that were actually audio dramas, actually fiction that we wanted to include an Apollo and then tagging every single one of those with genre Tags. And so if a show is Sci-Fi or if the show is romance or any of the other, I think 13 or so genres that we have, we may have more than that. I'm not 100% sure then we have format Tags as well. Sometimes you want to listen to something that has a narrator. Sometimes you want to listen to things that don't have a narrator, that are just the characters and are cinematic and have a full cast. So that's also a way that you can discover shows on Apollo too. And then finally we have additional Tags as well. So these are Tags like shows from Brazil would be tagged with the tag Brazilian. We have a lot of shows with LGBTQ representation that we tagged with that tag. And I think the power of the tagging system really came to life with the new feature that we launched just a couple of weeks ago, which is our filter search system, which is the thing I'm most proud of on Apollo, which essentially means you can use those Tags to find shows that only match the criteria of those Tags. So if you want to find a Sci-Fi show that is also a comedy and that doesn't have any bad language, you can do that with Apollo and that doesn't exist anywhere else, as far as I know, on any other podcast app. And it's due to the depth of our tagging system that we took the time to do last year. And we have a lot of other features that we are planning for down the line as well that are going to lean into how to better serve our community of fiction listeners and fiction creators.

Danny:

And I can definitely attest to the hard work you've put in from a development point of view. I was like playing with the app heavily over the weekend, getting used to and then just checking out shows. I love the little intro that you get new to fiction audio. Start here and your recommendations pop up, but then seeing all the different Tags and the search options. It's just such a well designed app. So kudos to the team for getting all in place. It's something that I think a lot of other podcast app developers are going to look at and probably start to implement on their own stuff because it's a really good intuitive system. Now, being a composer and musician yourself, what are some of the cool things that you might want to try do with Apollo when it comes to sound? Obviously there's limitations based on it. It's a mobile based app, I guess, but for some of the cool stuff that you want to offer, depending on does someone have to obey on my headphones, for example, can you get exclusive features for their Los any stuff that you want to try there?

AJ:

Absolutely, yeah. And you actually mentioned the specific thing that we are looking into. I think it is just to be completely honest, very long term because the technology is very complex and our team is excellent, but it's small and so we have to very much focus on kind of the features that everyone really needs and wants right now, like basics like the app not crashing for example. But we definitely want to eventually have Dolby Atmos support and so we want to create creator tools and create a relationships so that if a creator, for example, has their show in Dolby Atmos that we have the technology to deliver that through the app. And I think that would be an absolutely phenomenal way to differentiate ourselves from other podcast apps. And I said earlier that stereo is great and I do believe that stereo is great. I think it's probably for the foreseeable future going to remain the format that everyone emphasizes and listens to the most. But people want that. 4k sometimes people want to see things in 3D, people want the enhanced experience that comes from these different technologies, whether it be for the novelty factor or just the fact that they really prize that improvement in audio quality. And so Dolby Atmos support is definitely something that I think will look into. Certain other things that I think would be fantastic for serving fiction listeners would be subtitles. So for example, an automatic subtitling system so that you can listen to a show and watch the words on the screen at the exact same time. I think that would be very powerful and something that we've been requested already. But yeah, we definitely want to lean into some of these other technologies and I'm very excited to see kind of where we can go with that.

Danny:

I'm always surprised you mentioned the closed captions or subtitles on the episodes and the shows, and I'm always surprised that Amazon Music so the Amazon Music app, if you're listening to an album, for example, you can go into lyric mode and the lyrics will scroll up the screen as the songs playing really cool. And I'm always surprised they never have it yet anyway implemented that in the Amazon Music app when it comes to podcasts and have the words scrolling up as you listen. So that'd be kind of cool to see Apollo do that. It'd be almost like when you and especially because you've got so many different languages. You may want to listen to a Brazilian crime podcast because it's been so highly hyped everywhere. But you don't understand Brazilian, for example, Portuguese. So you want to have the substance. So that'd be pretty cool to see that implemented. Now you're working on some as I mentioned at the very start of the show, you're working on some really interesting and exciting stuff at Lunar, and you have a very direct and specific approach as to what you want to achieve with Lunar. But I'm curious what's got you excited about what's coming down in the podcast and space at the moment, either in your particular niche industry or in general coming down the line.

AJ:

I'm extremely excited for the massive growth in fiction podcasts that is coming, and that has already come in the past three years. So we did a lot of research for fundraising and the sort to figure out how many shows of fiction podcasts were released in 2008 versus 2018 versus nowadays. And the growth in the past four years has just been absolutely exponential. It's been incredible to see the number of fiction shows that are being released. So what I'm really excited for is the growth of this medium. I think that when we think of podcaster stories, we think of documentary shows like the Daily, at least that was. My introduction to podcasting was documentary shows and interview shows, which I absolutely love. And if you think about it in visual media, it's not like there's an overabundance of just documentaries. There's not just only nonfiction shows and visual media. There's a lot of fiction shows in audiobooks as well. There's a lot more the balance of fiction to nonfiction, and audiobooks is a lot more than the balance of fiction podcasts to nonfiction podcast is right now. I think that as people go on or as time goes on and as people discover audio dramas and fiction podcasts through the likes of Q Pod Chat, are making great investments. The Lunar Company, which are also putting making investments in the space. And of course, the indie players, as well as that gets better known. I think people are going to start associating podcasts with not just the dailies and the Joe Rogans. They're going to start thinking about podcasts. Hopefully, as both fiction and nonfiction. And we're going to hopefully see that growth in the space. So that's really what I'm what I'm most excited for. And I think that Apollo and the Lunar Company and all the fiction community, the people that are creating fiction now are very well positioned for the future of podcasting. I think that it's a space that not a lot of people know exist. I think of the example of my girlfriend's dad as an example. He is one of our product testers in the sense that we sent him the betas and we send him the newest Edge branch versions. And he tells us kind of what bugs he's experiencing and whatnot. But he didn't know that fiction podcasts existed. He kind of caught maybe the very end of the audio drama period in the past, in the 20th century. But he learned about fiction podcasting through Earth Eclipse and through Apollo. And now he listens to it. He listens to fiction shows. I see his activity because he shares it with us specifically, but we see it. And he's now listening to fiction shows on his way to work. And we've converted that person into being a fiction podcast listener. And I think that there's a lot of people out there like him who are just waiting to discover this medium and waiting to kind of realize that, hey, there's actually a lot of great content out there, fictional content for me to listen to right now. And there will be a lot more to come as well.

Danny:

And obviously, Lunar is driving you mentioned it there. I think Lunar definitely driving the way here because as I mentioned, I remain so impressed with Effort Eclipse, like the sound design Pod chat. I'm going to just congratulate again because I think that shows exactly what can be done to really draw you into a podcast. So you think that podcast a lot of people you mentioned there still think podcasts of either daily or documentaries or stuff like that. And there's such a huge variety of podcasts out there. So the more that companies like Lunar and your girlfriend's dad can come into the business, into space, the better and the more external be. So, yeah, we're looking forward to that for sure.

AJ:

Thank you so much for the kind words on Earth Eclipse. I will pass it on to the team. I do want to very quickly shout out Victor and Nick, my partners, who Victor is our producer and CEO, and Nick is our head of content and the director of Earth Eclipse. We also worked with Alexa Palifica was our series writer. She is absolutely phenomenal. She wrote episodes two through eight alongside Nick. Nick was the brains behind kind of the inception of Earth Eclipse. And then, of course, our two composers that helped me out, and Shane also Shane Rutherford Jones and Alessandro Pooloni couldn't have done Earth Eclipsed without their help. So I just wanted to quickly shout them out?

Danny:

No, for sure, because it's a big team also. What was it? Was it nine States and four countries, I think, and a 100% remote team that pulled us together?

AJ:

Yeah, it was something like that. It was bonkers. We were planning the whole thing prepanddemic, then COVID hit and we shifted to remote first, and then we decided to remain remote throughout all the periods since then. It was all fully remote production, completely international with people all over the world, and we're really proud of what we've done.

Danny:

So EJ, I've really listened to a hugely insightful chat and I can't wait to share this with our listeners. For anybody that wants to find out more about what lunar is doing in the audio production, podcast storytelling space. Want to find out more about Apollo and what you're doing with Apollo? Listen to perfect clips or connect with you online. Where's the best place for anybody to catch up with you and the rest of the team best place is probably apollopods.com.

AJ:

That's where you can download Apollo for iOS or Android. So the app is out now you can try it out and it's free. You don't need an account to start listening. So I would say the best place to learn about it is apollopods.com and just downloading the app. If you want to learn more about our production production company, I would say lunar FM is where we host everything on the lunar company and then Earth eclipse.com is where you can listen to the show and where you can learn about the characters, the cast, the crew, the background and the lore of the universe of Earth eclipsed. So yeah, apollopods.com lunar FM and Earth eclipsed.com. And if you want to follow me, I'm semiactive on Twitter. My handle is at AJ Churchill. Ajchurchill.

Danny:

And I'll be sure as always to leave all these links in the show notes. So you're listening to your favorite podcast app or you're listening to online on the web version. Just jump into the show notes as usual and the links will be there for you to be able to check that out. And I can attest to the website for air forclips got a lot of great information there about the journey of the podcast, the team behind it, how it came to be, the lore. It's a really cool, well designed site. So again, AJ, thank you for coming on today and looking forward to sharing an episode.

AJ:

Thank you so much, Danny, for having me. It's been a great honor. I really appreciate it.

Danny:

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