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For a UK Studio, Long Distance… and Price Competition

Chalk & Blade, a London podcast production company founded by two ex-BBC staffers in early 2016, caught my attention recently when it announced several production partnerships with big outfits in the US, including Puskin Industries and the Rockefeller Foundation. Among their credits: the Malcolm Gladwell-hosted Solvable, Bethany McLean’s Making A Killing, which is on Luminary, and another paywalled series heading that way later this year.

It’s not every day that you get a small UK outfit working on big American shows like this. (Chalk & Blade has four staffers in their Shoreditch office, plus part time freelancers.) Ao I put in a call to co-founder Ruth Barnes to find out a bit more about these partnerships, and why they’ve decided to work across the Atlantic rather than focus on UK commissioners and regional outlets like the BBC.

Part of it came down to something she and fellow founder Laura Sheeter decided when they left their jobs at the BBC in 2016 to start the company, Barnes told me. She said: “We were very definitely not going to be a radio supplier, that was the one thing we decided. We wanted to be podcast specific.” They worked on branded podcasts and on editorial projects for places like the Guardian, but soon realized within the first few years that there just simply wasn’t enough money on offer in the UK for the kind of podcasts they wanted to make.

“We were just fed up with the world of radio… There was only one place to pitch your ideas, and that was the BBC,” said Barnes.

Then, when Panoply appointed another ex-BBC staffer, Ryan Dilley, to run a London-based production office in late 2016, Barnes and Sheeter sought him out. They pitched him Haunted, a series about the supernatural that won the hearts of US executives as a show where “British people talk about ghosts.” The success of that project convinced them to pursue work in America, rather than in the UK.

Barnes and Sheeter identified that there was a gap in the market for top drawer production talent at a slightly lower price. “Through the people that we were talking to in the industry, we realized that there were very few companies set up like us who weren’t going to charge you $25k-30k an episode,” she said. “The only other podcast specific companies were people like Pacific Content, like Gimlet — it’s just a fortune, you can’t afford it. And we obviously we are cheaper. I mean, that’s the truth.”

Working with Dilley got Barnes and Sheeter in the door at the newly-founded Pushkin Industries. Pushkin’s Jacob Weisberg and Mia Lobel, both former Panoply operatives, had been impressed with how Chalk & Blade had handled the Haunted series, and were keen to work together again. “We’re obviously saving them a bit of a penny in terms of the production,” Barnes said. “We work well together, and I mean, why not work across the time difference? There are lots of WAV files flying around across the ocean.”

Pushkin brought Chalk & Blade in on the production process for two shows they were producing for Luminary — Making A Killing, plus “an investigative foodie series” with Tamar Adler, due to drop on the app later this year — as well as the project that became Solvable, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Separately, Chalk & Blade also have a narrative series in production as part of a collaboration with First Look Media’s Topic Studios.

Barnes and her colleagues worked with Pushkin on pre-production, training hosts and fine-tuning formats. In particular, they worked with Bethany McLean, “turning her in from a print journalist into somebody who actually has a podcast”. The Chalk & Blade staffers travel to the US frequently, and listen in on recording sessions via Skype when necessary. Edits happen at their base in London, and then final cuts are sent back to Pushkin for tweaks, final mastering and delivery to Luminary.

It’s the big budgets that Luminary’s VC money has been able to support that has allowed Chalk & Blade to level up, Barnes said. “I do understand the controversy around Luminary and all of that, but we are happily making two shows for them which are going to be behind the paywall. It’s worked out very sweetly for us,” she said.

Meanwhile, podcast commissioning has suddenly taken off in the UK in a way it just hadn’t when the company was founded in 2016, largely thanks to the BBC’s recent efforts towards getting more involved with original on demand audio. Chalk & Blade can’t work directly for BBC Sounds — Barnes is married to Jason Phipps, the BBC’s commissioning editor for podcasts, so that would be “a huge conflict of interest”, she says — but are now working on a pop culture show called “Obsession With…” for BBC Radio 1, which acts as a companion to major BBC TV properties like Killing Eve, Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders.

“It’s great, it’s another avenue for us to be able to pitch content,” Barnes said of the BBC’s new enthusiasm for podcasts. She’s hopeful that it will translate into more commissions and better rates across the board for British producers (who, as this recent pay survey showed, can see wildly varying rates depending on what part of the UK industry they’re currently working in). Chalk & Blade are absolutely committed to paying their staff and freelancers fairly, Barnes said, and have chosen projects so far that enabled them to do that.

“I think it is changing,” she added. “I hope so anyway.”