In 2022, FRQNCY Media won two Best Podcast awards for the same podcast – More Than This, which we produced for our clients Vox Creative and StraightTalk Wireless. More Than This is a narrative interview podcast that celebrates the extraordinary stories of everyday people who took a leap of faith to live life on their own terms. So how did we do it? How did we walk away with Digiday’s “Best Podcast” award and “Best Branded Podcast of 2021” by Adweek for the same branded podcast?
Bringing a branded podcast to life is no easy task. The producers must strike a balance between meeting the needs of both the brand as well as the podcast’s intended listeners. This can be a winding road that can only be navigated successfully with strategy, dedication, and steady hands on the wheel.
Using More Than This as our example, Vox Creative approached FRQNCY with a broad concept for a podcast that they had already pitched and sold to StraightTalk Wireless — a show that would center and celebrate everyday acts of boldness. Vox Creative also brought a talented host (Danielle Prescod) and the six guests who would serve as the focus of each installment of the six-episode season. We took it from there, combining these disparate elements and working magic to make an award-worthy final product.
1. Center the listener
The key to a branded podcast’s success, according to our founder & CEO and More Than This executive producer Michelle Khouri, is subtlety. “A branded podcast should have a whisper of the brand in it — like a watermelon seltzer has just a whisper of watermelon.” The best branded podcasts aren’t directly focused on the brand they represent. Instead, they build from that brand as a strong foundation, highlighting the values and concerns of the client through powerful storytelling. In the case of More Than This, the goal was to capture the ethos of StraightTalk Wireless by centering the company’s mission of living free with no strings attached.
Members from across FRQNCY’s Strategy, Production, and Post-Production teams collaborated on refining the original concept into a unique, intentional structure that would allow the host, guests, and brand to shine while offering the listener a sense of surprise, wonder, and heartfelt connection.
Working within pre-established parameters always presents obstacles. “We got into the equation with certain guideposts already set, and that can be challenging,” says Khouri. “We weren’t able to influence the editorial lineup, for instance.” But Enna Garkusha, FRQNCY’s Supervising Producer, finds that those same challenges can also open up opportunities: “When we already have pieces of the puzzle, there’s so much more we can do with them. Constraints push us out of the box.”
When we already have pieces of the puzzle, there’s so much more we can do with them. Constraints push us out of the box.Enna Garkusha, Supervising Producer at FRQNCY Media
2. Your location should be a character
One such constraint was the need to interview and record guests located across the U.S. FRQNCY met the challenge by hitting the road, embarking on a truly coast-to-coast journey: from Florida (Tampa, Jacksonville) to California (San Francisco, Jenner, and San Moreno) to Portland, Oregon. To capture the best audio of real people living free from constraints, the team knew they would have to record on location. “Not every production requires field recording,” says Khouri, “We do it when we need conversations to have a certain intimacy, and especially when the location is a core character in the story.”
Traveling with the show’s host, the team met each guest on their home turf, where they would be most comfortable and authentically themselves. “I loved being able to capture people in their homes, creative spaces, or out on the streets of their home city. That level of intimacy simply cannot be manufactured,” says Matthew Ernest Filler, FRQNCY’s Lead Audio Engineer and the field engineer, composer, sound designer, and mixer for the podcast.
I loved being able to capture people in their homes, creative spaces, or out on the streets of their home city. That level of intimacy simply cannot be manufacturedMatthew Earnest Filler, Lead Audio Engineer at FRQNCY
According to DonTaé Hodge, who managed field engineering for half of the episodes, recording this way “was a healthy challenge because every environment and situation was so different.” But these challenges shaped the show’s narrative and gave the audio a uniquely grounded feel. “The on-location element became a key backdrop for each story, helping us set the stage and better paint a picture that would’ve been hard to bring to life in a studio,” says Hodge.
On-location recording can present its own obstacles. When recording outdoors, for instance, sometimes even Mother Nature might stand in the way of capturing perfect audio. “I had a lot of fun figuring out how to properly record an interview within 50 feet of a big waterfall,” says Filler. As evidenced by the absence of the thundering sound of crashing water, the team met these challenges with both a deep understanding of how sound works, as well as a slew of creative decisions.
3. Remember: It takes a village
One important decision was the choice to use original music and sound design for the podcast instead of relying on pre-made audio resources. While licensing music and sound effects is a great option for many shows, Filler knew that this particular podcast, with its varied emotional swells and crescendos, needed a highly tailored score. Filler custom composed every piece you hear in the podcast. His music and sound design — full of hazy guitar riffs, energetic drum beats, and ambient soundscapes — guide the listener through every narrative twist and turn, including an immersive and heart-pounding slog through the Everglades with Carla La’Vette in Episode 2.
Another critical decision surrounded how to approach each episode’s structure. These same six narratives might have been told in any number of structures or styles. The writing team’s job was to tailor their scripts to the tone of the client’s brand, as well as the intended audience the client was hoping to reach. In the case of More Than This, they wanted to emphasize the shock-and-awe moments of an average life. To best accomplish this, they opted for a nonlinear narrative, which would allow them to delay the reveal of the turning point and build interest, tension, and suspense as the story unfolded. Each episode would begin at the story’s end, then rewind to its beginning, and finally arrive at its central juncture of change — the “More Than This Moment.”
“The writing team kicked ass,” says Garkusha. This team included Isabel Moncloa Daly, Becca Godwin, Jessica Olivier, and Khouri. After transcribing the hours of audio recorded in the field, the writing team deftly wove it into engaging, nonlinear scripts that captured host Danielle Prescod’s voice and views.
The writers weren’t alone in deserving praise. “Enna kept me on the rails during the post-production phase. I was juggling a lot of moving parts. She made sure I stayed grounded,” says Filler, highlighting the importance of an organized, kind, and steadfast producer.
Just like the lives it chronicles, More Than This faced twists and turns throughout the process. Fortunately, the team had Michelle Khouri at the helm as Executive Producer. The Executive Producer is present— in part — to use their bird’s eye view on the entire project to ensure the client’s vision and voice remain considered and consistent throughout. Without the cohesion provided by this kind of guiding hand, that watermelon flavor of the brand’s presence in the podcast seltzer might tilt in either direction — either too much flavor so that it becomes overpowering or so little that it fails to stand out. “I have to shout out Michelle because, regardless of the challenge, she pushed through to ensure that we were able to create exactly what our clients and team had envisioned,” says Hodge.
Will Cagle is a writer with a passion for magical realism, environmentalism, Shakespeare, and unanswerable questions like, “Who really created the cave art at Altamira?” or “Will the world ever recover from the one time that big boat got stuck in a canal?” He received a Bachelor’s degree in both Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and is currently completing an M.F.A. in Speculative Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. As a writer for FRQNCY, Will brings his many years of experience scribbling scripts and telling tales, as well as a nigh-indefatigable sense of wonder for our weird, bewitching world.