Emmy Award-Winning Actress Yeardley Smith: “Here Are 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Podcast”

Jason Hartman
Apr 14, 2020 · 11 min read

I think the best thing anyone has ever given me is an opportunity. And my experience is that no matter what your socio-economic background is most people want to carry their own water. So, I’d like to live in a world where being given an opportunity, and a chance to prove yourself doesn’t feel like such rare air.

As part of my series of interviews about “5 things you need to know to create a very successful podcast”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yeardley Smith.

Yeardley Smith is an Emmy Award-winning actress, novelist, and playwright who has appeared on television, film and Broadway. She has been the voice of Lisa Simpson on Fox’s hit television show The Simpsons since 1987. Yeardley also co-hosts and co-produces the hit true-crime podcast “Small Town Dicks.”

Film appearances include Gossamer Folds and All Square, the latter of which she also produced, and which received the 2018 Spotlight Audience Award at SXSW, New Year’s Eve, As Good As It Gets, Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, City Slickers, and The Legend of Billie Jean. Television appearances include The Mindy Project, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Fresh Off the Boat, Hot In Cleveland, Mad Men, the sitcom classic Murphy Brown, five years as Greg’s crabby secretary ‘Marlene’ on Dharma and Greg, and three years as ‘Louise Fitzer’ on one of the Fox network’s earliest sitcoms, Herman’s Head. She published her first novel, I Lorelei, through HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2009. In 2004 she performed her one-woman show, MORE, off-Broadway.

She co-founded the entertainment development company, Paperclip Ltd, with Ben Cornwell in 2015 because they wanted to be the people who say “Yes,” first.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of your “personal backstory? What is your background and what eventually brought you to this particular career path?

As an actress I’m lucky to be in the business of telling stories. Also, I’ve always been curious about why people do what they do, and how. I believe that everybody has a story. Everybody thinks their story isn’t that interesting. And everybody is wrong.

Can you share a story about the most interesting thing that has happened to you since you started podcasting?

Even though we never show Dan and Dave’s faces in our social media, and we don’t give their last names on the podcast or what town they’re from, if all the three of us are together and people listen to Small Town Dicks, they recognize Dan and Dave instantly! It’s pretty funny and a testament to our fans.

Can you share a story about the biggest or funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaways you learned from that?

When we first started selling ads on Small Town Dicks I didn’t know that you’re supposed to read the ad copy for the product every single time they buy a spot on the podcast. Even if the copy is exactly the same!

So, I recorded an ad for cat litter that first week we had ads and I was like, “Great! Check that off the list for the season.”

Au contraire! Our ad agency emailed as soon as we re-used my recording for said cat litter, and informed us we now owed the company a freebie because I hadn’t read the ad fresh for the subsequent episode. Who knew?!

Now I actually enjoy trying to come up with funny, different ways to sell cat litter or socks, or whatever it is we’ve been asked to plug during an episode. After all, the advertiser bought the time on our podcast so I’m not going to lower the bar just because it’s an ad. I’m going to give it the VIP treatment just like I do the main episode.

How long have you been podcasting and how many shows have you aired?

Small Town Dicks launched in September 2017, and with the exception of 2017, we produce 2 seasons a year. So far, we have 76 bingeable episodes in our library.

What are the main takeaways, lessons or messages that you want your listeners to walk away with after listening to your show?

There are bad apples in every profession. They’re the ones who trend on the Internet and make the evening news. But every detective we’ve spoken to considers law enforcement much more than a job; they consider it their calling. As well, the fact that they have the ability to take away people’s freedom weighs heavily on them. The detectives we’ve interviewed hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct than they do the rest of us. Shining a light on these aspects of law enforcement isn’t why we started the podcast, but it’s been a really wonderful by-product of hearing these cases from the very people who investigated them.

In your opinion what makes your podcast binge-listenable? What do you think makes your podcast unique from the others in your category? What do you think is special about you as a host, your guests, or your content?

People who are into true crime love stories from the source. And while you get a lot of first-person, law-enforcement narratives on TV, there were hardly any podcasts told from that point of view when we launched Small Town Dicks.

We also cover cases from small towns so most people haven’t heard these cases before. And if you are familiar with the case, you usually learn something new about it after listening to the episode.

Personally, I love hearing how these men and women connect the dots so that justice can be served. But I’m equally interested in getting to know them as people. I want to know, if you’re the person who willingly encounters the worst of humanity every day, where do those experiences live inside you? How do you manage having a family? How has doing that job changed you? And on and on… I want to know all that stuff!

Doing something on a consistent basis is not easy. Podcasting every work-day, or even every week can be monotonous. What would you recommend to others about how to maintain discipline and consistency? What would you recommend to others about how to avoid burnout?

I haven’t experienced any burnout yet. But at the outset, I highly recommend you have a passion for the subject you’re podcasting about. As I mentioned earlier, I’m genuinely interested in people’s stories. I also like the good guys to win so a true-crime podcast is perfect for me.

And on a practical level, enlist help! The less you have to do the stuff you dread or don’t like to do, the less burnout you’ll experience. :)

What resources do you get your inspiration for materials from?

Detectives Dan and Dave vet all our guests and their cases. And if a guest doesn’t know which case to bring us we just tell them to talk about the case they’re most proud of. We’re actually less interested in their most well-known case. We want the one that was most memorable and meaningful to them. Those often produce the best stories. Then I hear about the story of the investigation for the first time when we all sit down to record.

This format was more or less born out of necessity because when you file an FOIA to get copies of a police report about an investigation, you often have to pay by the page. Some of these reports are hundreds of pages long so that got expensive in a hurry!

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to the main questions of our discussion. Is there someone in the podcasting world who you think is a great model for how to run a really fantastic podcast?

Well, I don’t know how THIS AMERICAN LIFE produces their podcast, I just know I really like how clean and professional it sounds. So when we started Small Town Dicks that was the model we were trying to emulate. We had no idea how much work that would be, by the way! LOL!

What are the ingredients that make that podcast so successful? If you could break that down into a blueprint, what would that blueprint look like?

As I said, I really don’t know how they make their shows. But all the podcasts I like, that keep me coming back for more, have a few similar elements:

  1. Everything you hear in an episode has a reason for being there.
  2. There’s no gratuitous cross-talk, which can be hard to follow if you’re not physically in the room with the people who are talking. And which, if it’s full of inside jokes, can make the listener feel left out.
  3. The music fits the tone of the show.
  4. If it’s a true-crime podcast, it’s easy to follow the sequence of events. (This is so obvious and yet isn’t always executed well. Oy.)

You are a very successful podcaster yourself. Can you share with our readers the five things you need to know to create an extremely successful podcast? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)

  1. Edit, edit edit! However personal to you your podcast material may be, remember that this isn’t you sharing photos of your vacation with your friends and family. You’re sharing something with people who don’t know you at all. Cut out the fat.
  2. I always keep in mind that 99% of our audience is probably doing something else while they listen to our podcast: driving, cooking, walking the dog, etc. So I want to make sure the quality of our audio is superb and the storytelling is respectful of their time (read: lean!). People drop out when they can’t follow the story or hear the audio easily.
  3. Have some music that fits the tone of your pod. It’s great for transitions as well as the opening and closing of your podcast. Plus, your pod will sound instantly more professional and vivid when you add a little music.
  4. Invest in the best equipment you can afford and then find a quiet place to record. Or if your podcast takes you out onto the street where it’s noisy, make sure that whatever you record out there is easy to hear once you’re ready to publish the episode. Remember, you probably don’t have your audience’s undivided attention.
  5. Play the long game. We all want to have a successful podcast as soon as we press “Upload!” But there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there. So, your only job is to produce the best podcast you possibly can, on a subject that you’re passionate about. Because I believe: If you proceed with passion and integrity, success will follow. This mindset will also help you hang in there until you get noticed.

Can you share some insight from your experience about the best ways to: 1) book great guests; 2) increase listeners; 3) produce it in a professional way; 4) encourage engagement, and 5) the best way to monetize it? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)

  1. Detectives Dan and Dave vet all our guests and they choose the cases we feature on Small Town Dicks. So, in addition to making sure a potential guest shares the values of our podcast (reverence for the victims and their families), Dan and Dave listen to the way they give the Cliff’s notes version of their case to see what kind of storyteller they are.
  2. I’ve always believed the best way to increase listenership is to make a great podcast. Because once word-of-mouth, or your social media channels, or a shoutout in an interview you give drives people to your podcast, the only way you’re going to keep them is if your podcast is as good as they’ve heard it is.
  3. I’m sure different podcasts have different ideas about what it means to produce their podcast professionally. For us, it’s attention to detail. So, one of the things we do with each of our guests is we get a “Word Library” from them. This is literally them saying words like: “yes, no, because, but, and, now….” We also get them saying all the names we used in that episode. Because in natural conversation people use a lot of pronouns. But that’s not always great on a podcast when your listeners are most likely doing other things and might lose track of who’s saying what. So the editors and I always end up replacing a number of pronouns in each episode with the proper names we recorded for our guest’s Word Library. We also make little transitions using the more common connector words we get them from them
  4. The internet is crowded! And getting people to engage on your social media channels can be a slow grow. But posting often with new details about the episode you just put out, as well as answering the fans who respond to your social posts in the comments go a long way towards keeping your audience coming back to see what’s new on your socials.
  5. That’s the Question of the Day, isn’t it? How can my podcast make money? Most advertising agencies who sell the ads you hear on popular podcasts have a threshold of say, 50K downloads per episode before they’ll approach you about selling ads on your podcast. Small Town Dicks is independently owned by the entertainment-development company I co-founded with my partner, Ben Cornwell, called Paperclip Ltd. So we pay all the bills to keep the podcast up and running. And while we have had ads on our podcast for the past 2 years, they only partially offset the cost of producing Small Town Dicks. But if you have a great idea that interests one of the big companies that now produce podcasts like Wondry, Luminary, or Parcast, you can offset some — or all — of your operating costs. Those companies will want a chunk of ownership in your podcast in return, but that might be the perfect solution for you. Last, but not least, the other popular way to monetize is to launch a Patreon page. We launched one for Small Town Dicks in September 2019 for a $5 per month subscription fee. For our subscribers we create special weekly content that’s not on our main feed. It sounds like a lot of extra work, but it’s actually really fun! Our Patreon page has become the place where we post interesting tangents that happen in our recording sessions with our guests, and where we put things like extended suspect interviews or the full 9–1–1 call that you heard in the main episode. Our Patreon format is looser and more “snackable” — just a little bite. And we publish it every week, even during our hiatuses between seasons.

For someone looking to start their own podcast, which equipment would you recommend that they start with?

We use Shure SM7B microphones and Audio-Technica headphones. Then Dan, Dave, and I all have our own MixPre-3 audio recorders that we can travel with or do our pickups at home while an episode is being edited. We also use one of the MixPre-3’s to record little Patreon nuggets whenever we’re together and we have an idea. Those usually happen in my dining room.

Our senior editor, Logan Heftel, has a MixPre-10 audio recorder that we use when we travel to small towns and do the main recording sessions with our guests. Logan also uses Pro-tools to mix the audio together. To me, the microphones and a good quality recorder are more important than having a dedicated, sound-proof studio to record in.

Ok. We are almost done. :-) Because of your position and work, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think the best thing anyone has ever given me is an opportunity. And my experience is that no matter what your socio-economic background is most people want to carry their own water. So, I’d like to live in a world where being given an opportunity, and a chance to prove yourself doesn’t feel like such rare air.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on Twitter @YeardleySmith, and on IG @Yeardley_Smith. I, personally, don’t have a Facebook. Meanwhile, Small Town Dicks is on all three platforms at @SmallTownDicks.

Thank you so much for sharing your time and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.

Thank you for including me and Small Town Dicks! :-)

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