By Dixie Laite, Dametown.com
Do you like good stories well-told? Do you like fascinating facts and unearthed behind-the-scenes treasures? Do you like secrets? Are you actually saying “no” to what are meant to be ridiculously rhetorical questions? (If you are, why are you even reading this? Get back to staring into space or whatever else it is you do.)
Naturally, you answered yes to all of the above. Now, if you also happen to be interested in classic movies, I am 100% certain you are going to LOVE The Secret History of Hollywood and Attaboy Clarence. (Can I add that the podcasts are narrated by a mollifying English accent, or would that just be too much? Because, it is.)
That bewitching British voice belongs to former sous-chef, Adam Roche. I say “former” because his series were soooo good that he was able to give up his day-job and devote himself to podcasting full-time. All without ads or sponsorships. His intelligence, exhaustive research, humor, and genuine affection for his subject and his audience made him such a success that listeners, subscribers, and the BBC came running.
Adam started his first podcast, Attaboy Clarence, as a way to share radio shows, songs, and tidbits from the 30s, 40 and 50s, woven through with humorous skits and his own sunny “disposish” (fans of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life will know where he gets the title).
I love Attaboy Clarence, and I’m an even bigger fan of his The Secret History of Hollywood ‘cast. If you enjoy classic movies as a beginner or as an obsessed nerd like myself, it doesn’t matter. Here’s an example: there’s a series that explores the life and career of Val Lewton, mostly known as the producer of RKO 1940s “horror” hits like Cat People. We hear about Val’s boyhood; Tom Conway’s beginning (and very moving end); his brother George Sanders’ lassoing rats in prison; silent star Alla Nazimova crushing it as a lesbian goddess in Westchester, NY; eerie Russian folktales; what an asshole Benedict Arnold was; how Hollywood screwed people over; how Zsa Zsa Gabor got her first break – and lots of other things I didn’t know that I needed to know until now.
This series was supposed to be all about Val Lewton, and it was. But the genius of his podcasts, for me, lies in the way Adam weaves the wonderful stories of so many other historical figures into each theme. I learned way more about John Andre and the American Revolution in his podcast about Curse of the Cat People than I ever learned in school.
As much as I love the tales Adam tells, I was eager to hear his own story. Anyone interested in podcasts and podcasting can benefit from how he went from big fan to fantastically big. Like the generous gentleman he is, he offered to take some time out of his insanely busy schedule to share his journey, and some advice, with me and OSSA…
DIXIE: OK Adam, I promise to keep the gushing down to a dull roar. It now seems like a match made in heaven, but what made you want to get into podcasting in the first place?
ADAM ROCHE: I was really into old-time radio. I used to drive for a living, so I listened to it for hours every day. I still do, actually. As I approach middle-age, and now that I’m focused on health and diet and things, I’ve started going to bed earlier. My favorite thing these days is to lie in bed and listen to old time radio on my speaker pillow and fall asleep at like 9:30. Heaven.
Anyway, as I’ve always had a thing for old movies, I decided to review some of the lesser-seen B-movies that weren’t getting any love anywhere else. But as I was writing the reviews for my website, I suddenly decided that I could probably make a half decent podcast by just reading them for audio. So, I bought a mic and did just that. Podcasting was popular in 2013, but nowhere near as popular as it is these days, so it was kind of the wild west. I’m proud to be one of the old guard.
DIXIE: Was it daunting to learn the ropes? How did you figure out what equipment to buy, how to get started, all that technical stuff?
ADAM ROCHE: It wasn’t until I started podcasting that I realized how obsessive I am… The first episode of Attaboy Clarence (which I leave up there as a reminder of my beginnings) was embarrassing. It was tinny, it was awfully scripted, it was a nothing, really. I was determined to do better on the next show. I learned that by recording in a dead area (padded), I could stop the tinny sound. I rigged up a weird little room beneath my daughter’s cabin bed.
Then I went after a better mic and began to look at alternatives to free editing software. And I just kept going. The cabin bed became an under-the-stairs cupboard. The mic became a broadcast quality mic. Audacity became Audition. I wanted to sound professional, and I’m glad to say I got there. And the best part is that I learned it myself. I didn’t read a tutorial or an article on how to do things. I looked at a problem and solved it. Nowadays you can throw a rock and hit a million articles on how to be a good podcaster. And most of the equipment coming out these days takes the technical issues away.
DIXIE: Adam, I’ve read in other interviews how much you like the research part. When you started, what kept you going? When did you first know your podcast had found an audience?
ADAM ROCHE: Well, this question really answers many of the questions I get asked, which is namely, “What’s the secret of being a good podcaster?” As I began to research, I developed a deeper love for my subject, and discovered that I have a real aptitude for investigation. I also discovered that I really love writing, and that I sometimes surprise myself by how it turns out.
The thing that kept me going when I began to work on my second and more successful show, The Secret History of Hollywood, was that I was suddenly becoming a storyteller. And the greatest thing about podcasting is that it’s a completely unregulated art form. If I want to talk about a person and then suddenly dive into an interesting side story about a witches’ coven and a famous case of grave robbing, then I can do it. And it’s all mine. And sometimes it might not work, but sometimes it does.
I’ve always found my own fuel in creating stories that I find entertaining. I would honestly make these shows even if I didn’t have an audience, because I find them interesting. And that’s also the secret of being a good podcaster, I think. Make the shows for yourself. Imagine that you’re creating these things for your own entertainment. Anything else is a bonus.
DIXIE: When did you first feel like a success at this stuff? (I’m sure it must have been even before you could quit your day job, right?)
ADAM ROCHE: I was heavily featured on iTunes in the first year. They ended up picking The Secret History of Hollywood as part of their “Best Shows in the First Ten Years of Podcasts” series (or something along those lines), and that was pretty thrilling. I was approached by Audible in 2016, and offered actual money for my back catalog. They wanted it for their Audio Shows service here in the UK, so to receive a large sum of money for something I made was something of a watershed moment.
Since then there have been other things, the craziest of which I’m not allowed to talk about right now, but it is insane that it’s happening. And the people I’ve met because of this podcast are unbelievable. I also have an agent now, which still feels unreal.
I think the most incredible moment, though, was when I stopped working to do this full-time. It was Christmas of 2018. I have a Patreon, and I always said that if it reached a certain level, I’d quit my job and make shows full-time. It hit that mark, so I took the plunge. And it’s all thanks to my incredible audience, whom I cannot thank enough. They are the sweetest, most generous people for allowing me to follow my dream. Honestly, I feel like George Bailey some days.
DIXIE: And now the cliché questions…What has been the most daunting part of podcasting? What’s been the most surprising?
ADAM ROCHE: The most daunting part of podcasting is the empty page. It’s giving yourself a subject and saying to yourself, “Okay, what are you going to say?” And instructing yourself each time to do better, because each time you send an episode out there, it has to be worth your audience’s time.
I work for weeks, sometimes months, on a script. I spend a week recording, then editing, then assembling the finished show. Then I hit upload and wait. It is agonizing.
The biggest surprise was hitting 40 and realizing that my life, and my career, were about do a complete 180. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would ever get to call myself a writer, a producer, or even self-employed. I never dreamed I would be in 6am meetings with people on the other side of the world regarding things I’ve made. And each day throws up new challenges and surprises and I love it.
DIXIE: In addition to the overwhelming wonderfulness of your podcast products, I’ve also been really impressed by how tirelessly responsive you are to your audience. How would you describe the role the audience plays in your success?
ADAM ROCHE: Well, I was raised with very good manners, and so if anyone ever asks me a question or sends me a comment, no matter which form it takes, I will always reply. My listeners are simply the best. They’re so supportive, they’re so kind, and they’re so much fun to talk to. They make each day so much brighter.
I host monthly film club nights as part of my Patreon, which basically means I give them all a choice of four or so films to vote on. We screen the winner online on a set day and time, and we all watch it together. Them we chat and swap stories and eat popcorn and make jokes all night. It’s like a real hangout with friends, and they are so, so funny. They’re the best and I love them to pieces. I can’t say enough good things.
DIXIE: Adam, I’m really curious as to how your audience finds you? You don’t really do a lot of marketing, do you?
ADAM ROCHE: No, I’m hopeless at marketing. I don’t really do much more than a simple tweet or Facebook post when I put a new episode out. But the word of mouth is very strong. People are very passionate about the shows, so they don’t just recommend the show to their friends, they insist that they listen, which is hilarious. I get so many stories about folks who’ve demanded that their spouse or friend listen to a The Secret History of Hollywood show on a long drive or something, almost at gunpoint…
I’m very lucky in that regard, because my marketing skills are not great. I feel awkward and shy asking for people to listen. I feel like I’m crossing a line. I know that’s ridiculous as I see other podcasters out there demanding that everyone listen to them. I’m sure it works, but I’m the reserved type. I prefer that people find my shows of their own accord, so I don’t feel so bad if they don’t like them!
DIXIE: What impact have your podcasts had on podcasting, other podcasters? Your audience? Classic movies fandom?
ADAM ROCHE: I have absolutely no idea. I get kind messages from time to time from folks who say they’ve been inspired to make a show because of something I made, which is very sweet. I love to talk about podcasting itself too; technical issues, writing etc., so I always try to help if I can, but part of the adventure is figuring that stuff out for yourself, so I remain at a distance.
As for impact on podcasting, I shouldn’t think so. My shows are successful, but they’re not as big as some. Marketing, you see…
DIXIE: Good manners AND modesty. Your storytelling and excellence have no doubt influenced both podcasters and fans. You’ve really raised the bar I think; I know now I expect a lot more from podcasters’ storytelling. You won’t call yourself a master podcaster, but I will. What’s your advice to other podcasters, especially beginners?
ADAM ROCHE: It all comes back to podcasting for yourself. Imagine that the shows you’re making are all going to be put into a wooden box and kept in your attic for 40 years. Would you be proud of them when you opened that box up? Would you find them interesting to listen to?
And pick a niche that you love. Not one that you think will be successful. Pick something that you can’t wait to talk about, whether that’s parachutes or car mechanics or pizza. Whatever makes you buzz with excitement. Because then you’ll never feel like stopping, even if no-one tunes in. And I guarantee that no matter how small the niche, there’ll be someone out there that feels the same way, and it’s far better to preach to that handful than to try and hit everyone.
For more from Adam Roche: