Laila Oweda, Independent Audio Producer and Podcaster
thecnnekt is a digital hub for storytellers, and we love stories being told in various mediums like podcasts. Laila Oweda is an independent audio producers and podcaster with a distinct voice. You may recognize her from her latest project: Builders, a podcast by Betaworks Studios. Read about how an intimate conversation led her to dive into her audio career and how podcasts are not replacing blogs anytime soon, in today’s spotlight below.
Laila, what reeled you into podcasting?
Once upon a time, I felt stuck in a job I had grown to dislike with these really long, grueling commutes on the MTA between Brooklyn and Manhattan-for years. These commutes provided ample time to discover and listen to some pretty cool podcasts- like many, some of the first shows I’d ever listened to were The Moth and Serial. Listening to podcasts always felt to me like being in a room listening to friends chatting authentically. It was somehow comforting hearing the stories of strangers- I laughed and cried a lot during those commutes. It was also wildly different for me to be as excited to listen to something every day that wasn’t music. Music always has (and still does) hold a very special place for me. As dramatic as this sounds, those years spent working at a job I wan’t not very invested in caused me to enter into a full blown existential crises. I began questioning everything. The crises was usually heightened if I ever happen to forget to pack my headphones in the morning on the way out the door. Podcasts made the hellish commute bearable and if I didn’t have my headphones, I was miserable. I hated that it felt like I moved to NYC to chase a better life but in many ways it felt like I was settling somehow. Going through the motions of each day...I guess it kind of all just reached a point of culmination for me where I had to acknowledge that if you start and end each day trying to escape your own reality, something's got to give.
Coincidentally at the time, I was also contributing feedback to a few friends’ with podcasts in Brooklyn (aka ‘podcast land’). One day, they just invited me on to speak as a featured guest on their show. Being in studio turned out to be such an intimate experience for me, one I’ll never forget. We recorded in a cozy studio in the W. Village and I felt comfortable being amongst friends. We shared in this amazingly honest, open dialogue about some pretty hard subjects. It was intense. But it was also some of the most authentic conversation I’d had in a while. It was a cathartic experience to say the least. I just loved everything about it. From that moment forward I just wanted to get back in a studio and record again. My interest was sparked. At that stage, I knew I could hold a conversation and had been told I have a nice voice, but didn’t know the ins and outs of audio production and figured I should learn. I honed my skills at BRIC Arts Media House in Brooklyn, where I learned both field and studio recording, interviewing, and editing and mixing in DAW’s. Learning new skill sets was both challenging and exciting. I realized I hadn’t felt that enthusiastic about something in a while- so I tuned into that and just kept going. And haven’t stopped.
What inspires you to further your career in Podcasting?
I have always felt passionate about the power of good storytelling, but for a long time I didn’t know where my voice fit in. I never saw myself working on a podcast for a tech startup like Betaworks in a million years. But, life takes you places and sometimes you are surprised by the outcome. Tech as an industry is really something else. Being surrounded by makers and do-ers every day is incredibly inspiring and motivating- especially in the environment Betaworks fosters- it’s changed my life. It’s bolstered my confidence in what I do and the options seem endless. Outside of tech, I am generally moved by the stories I hear every day from others within the communities I inhabit.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how the voice of the tech industry is still largely white, male, and heteronormative, as are the main voices of the podcast world. I’m interested in disrupting that. I want to see more “othered” voices in the forefront. Voices that often feel like they don’t have a place. I’m talking about people of color, especially women, voices from the LGBTQIA community, and other underrepresented communities.
Giving platform to those voices is necessary and having presence and representation matters. Show’s like ‘See Something Say Something’ hosted by Ahmed Ali Akbar (Buzzfeed) and ‘Nancy’ hosted by Kathy Tu and Tobin Low (WNYC), among others have done a great job at it. But, there is still so much work to be done.
So we’ve heard through the grapevine that podcasts are the new blogs - does this make it a competitive space and perhaps, a “saturated market”?
(Oh check out my podcast on Spotify or iTunes);
Podcasting is without a doubt influencing how we tell stories. While I don’t inherently think podcasting will ever replace blogs, per se, I do think they’ve become very ‘buzzy’ in the past few years much like we saw happen with blogging around 2004. Remember when they were called ‘weblogs’ in the 90’s? Blogs have since become an integral part of online culture..
While back then, people were just typing their thoughts on their ‘homepage’ in the abyss of the word wide web largely to an audience of strangers or maybe a handful of friends via sites like Xanga or Dead Journal, now, blogs have a solid, respectable standing. I’d say podcasts are on their way, too. We’re somewhere past the ‘weblog’ phase, but not yet fully achieved pop culture status. Sure, everyone knows someone with a podcast. The market for podcasts is absolutely more saturated than it was even 4 or 5 years ago...but do I think the proverbial ‘cup runneth over’ just yet? No. Even with shows like Alex Inc. holding a spot on primetime TV (shameless plug: checkout ep. 13 of Builders feat. Alex Blumberg of Without Fail/Gimlet Media!) and 2 Dope Queens being picked up and turned into a TV special by HBO there’s no doubt podcasts are more mainstream than ever before. But even still, there are just as many people that honestly don’t even know what a podcast (‘It’s like, an audiobook, right?’ Baby Boomers, I’m looking at you). For many, it’s just another idle app in too many iPhones.
Additionally, just because anyone can create a podcast like anyone can create a blog or vlog doesn’t mean the content created is worth listening to half of the time. I have heard professionally produced crisp and clean sounding, yet very dull podcasts with boring content. I have also heard amazing podcasts recorded by amateurs using a cell phone with grainy sound quality. At the end of the day, it’s really about striking the right balance. It has to be worth listening to. The right combo of engaging and well produced with clear sound. If a podcast isn’t a decent enough combo of these things, the listener will inevitably click away and find something else to listen to- as they should. The consumer knows they have options.
All of that said, because podcasts inherently are an auditory experience and lack a visual component (unlike blogs and vlogs) I’m not convinced they’ll ever rise to fame in the same way. I remember when This American Life debuted Shortcut in 2016, this really neat open-source tool that lets it’s listeners turn their favorite podcast moments into videos that can be shared on social media (it’s kind of like making a GIF, but for audio). Now, we have audiogram making apps like Headliner and Wavve. It’s really cool stuff, but I think most folks living in the mainstream of pop culture still strongly prefer having video stimulus accompanying their audio content. I just don’t know that’ll ever change, audiograms and all. TV may not be as popular as it used to be but people’s desire to watch TV shows didn’t go anywhere- we just changed the way we watch. Most of us may have cut the cord with cable, but now we stream all day long and binge Netflix series’- The larger point here is I still believe the majority of people are still heavily invested in the TV model of video and audio together on a screen, be it tv screen or laptop. However, Podcasts are steadily gaining popularity and from the inside it’s an incredibly exciting time for podcast producers like myself.
Podcasting is a burgeoning storytelling medium and with recent developments in podcast monetization I think a lot is about to shift and were already seeing that take shape.
When it comes podcasting, what do you think some people overlook?
Just how much work actually goes into the production of a show. Companies, brands, individuals have all approached me over the years with their ideas to create a professionally produced podcast. They all like the idea of having one- it’s the thing to do in the creative community these days. But rarely do they understand the time and costs associated with it. They’re usually clueless to the fact many of their favourite podcasts actually take days and weeks in the making- sometimes for just one episode. Clients have said things like “Well, I don’t understand why we just can’t plug and play!” and my answer to that is always going to be ‘Sure. Go for it.’ And that is usually a project I will usually not sign on to. Anyone can press record, so to speak, but if you were doing that effectively on your own then you wouldn’t be seeking my professional services…like listen.
Lowballing isn’t cool. Professional audio and podcast production is a painstaking job that requires a lot of fact checking and meticulousness from soup to nuts. Listeners are discriminating about what they give their time to and with so many choices, why shouldn't they be? You have to give listeners reason to tune in- again, striking that right balance I was talking about earlier. refuse to make anything mediocre for the sake of having clients. If you want a professionally produced podcast but don’t want to pay for the hard work involved, I just can’t help you. I try to really encourage new independent audio producers to stand their ground during the negotiation process because it sets a tone and helps keeps the bar where it should be for all of us in the industry, collectively.
You’ve created an amazing career for yourself, what are some of the works you are proud of?
I am most proud of my most recent body of work on Builders podcast with betaworks. It’s actually the first time I am both hosting and producing a show. My boss, James, who is Head of Creative at Betaworks is such a cool dude to work with. He really has a creative brain and that makes all the difference during the assembly of an episode. He respects and trusts my process and gives me space to do my thing but also lets me know when something isn’t working as best it could or could use a bit of tweaking. I value that so much. Plus, the vibe at Betaworks Studios (the new space that betaworks launched earlier this year) is so great to be in. No day spent working there is a boring one!
Beyond my work on Builders, I am also really proud of my past work as editor for Naked Beauty Podcast. It’s was a lot of fun working on the that show and the lessons I learned there were really invaluable.
If you’re not working, where can we find you? What are some of your other passions?
You can find me running around New York city on any given day. This place is insane. There is just so much to take in and experience! I have a rule for myself though and that is I don’t go out or make plans on Friday night’s. I like to reserve that time for me. And on the weekends I largely prefer to stay in my borough (Brooklyn) and keep things a little more low key. It’s my version of ‘trying to strike balance’ you could say.
I also love traveling. I think if you have the ability to travel in your lifetime, you absolutely must. It offers perspective like nothing else I know. As for this year, I’m heading to California next week. For next year, I am traveling to Jordan and Palestine.
Another passion and thing most people don’t know about me is I have a strong passion for cooking. Before I got into audio production I worked many years as private chef. A nice meal and a good wine is the definition of a good time in my world. Especially when paired with great company and conversation. Really, what’s better? It’s the simple things!
What is next for you, Laila?
Without saying too much, I have a forthcoming project in the works that is very dear to my heart and has required a lot of vulnerability from me. More than I’ve ever had to give. I am creating it for the Queer SWANA (South west Asian and North African) community of which I am part of as a way to give back to the many individuals that have shown me a lot of love and support when I needed it most.
I can’t imagine what my sense of self would be like now if growing up I had seen and heard more people like me reflected in the larger society around me. So, I’m interested in contributing to that now, in my own way, for the younger generations to have. I think listeners will really get the chance to learn more about me than I have shared with the world so far and it’ll bring hilight to some of the most marginalized voices in the community. I can’t wait to share it with the world when the time is right. Stay tuned.