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At the Australia Podcast Awards this year, podcast Shameless – cohosted by Melbourne journos Zara McDonald and Michelle Andrews – was crowned the Most Popular Podcast of 2019. The pop cult-centred show has been downloaded more the 6 million times and has made Apple’s Best Of 2018 and 2019 lists – making it one of only four Australian podcasts to do so.

Not bad for a project that only launched the year prior, right?

In a market that’s now wildly oversaturated, we spoke to Shameless co-host and RMIT Communication alumni Zara on how she’s turned a passion project into a full-time career.

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PEDESTRIAN.TV: Being crowned Australia’s most popular podcast of 2019 is a huge achievement. How does it feel?

Zara McDonald: Pretty surreal to be completely honest. I think up until winning that award, we knew we had a solid product and a really loyal community, but as two young females working in the pop culture space, we knew it would take a while for people to see us as credible and to take us seriously.

So to be taken seriously not just by the women who consume our content, but the industry more generally, was a pretty heartening feeling. If nothing else, it gave us streams of motivation to keep working and keep producing thoughtful content, because clearly it was resonating somehow.

PTV: It’s an amazing feat considering your first episode was released just last year. How has the journey been from then until now?

ZM: Do I sound like an idiot if I repeat myself and say surreal again? Mich and I only actually started doing this in March last year, and both went full-time in the business in February of this year. It’s been stupidly hard at times (we are writers by trade, so try and imagine two writers try to learn the art of small business?), but it’s also single-handedly been the most rewarding year of our lives.

We knew when we started the podcast we wanted to speak to young women in a way we desperately craved to be spoken to ourselves – that is, having conversations about celebrity and pop culture that (hopefully!) weren’t stupid – but I think we underestimated the widespread appetite for it. So stumbling on thousands of women who didn’t want to feel stupid for loving the things we loved was, quite simply, the best.

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PTV: What was your career background before starting the podcast?

ZM: When I left uni I worked in women’s media for two years as a digital journalist, and then I spent six months as a lifestyle writer at Domain. 

PTV: Do you think coming from a journalism background was a factor in the outcome of Shameless’ success? 

ZM: I think so, absolutely. Podcasts are everywhere at the moment, and since the beginning, we have been steadfast in knowing our point of difference was always going to be spending absurd amounts of time on the show.

That means spending hours reading and researching, and attacking each segment with as much fairness and balance as we possibly can. That doesn’t mean we always get it right, but it does mean we always try.

Coming from a journalism background means we are trained in giving stories time and respect, which in turn respects the listener, by putting effort into a show they are giving their time and ears to.

PTV: You studied Journalism at RMIT – how has this helped shape Shameless into the podcast it is today?

ZM: Studying journalism at RMIT was the best introduction to journalism I could have asked for. Those basic journalistic principles I learned when I was 18, 19 and 20 still help Mich and I pick stories and segments for the podcast, alongside making sure we are fair in the way we broadcast.

PTV: Do you think it’s important for someone wanting to start their own side-hustle to have some level of study behind them? 

ZM: Given I only have experience in the field I’m in, it’s a hard one for me to answer more generally. But in the work that I do, I think my university degree was crucial in helping us craft what the podcast looks like.

It didn’t help so much helping me run a business (I’m sure a business degree would be a handy one for me to have up my sleeve now!), but it has helped me be conscious of the responsibility of having a platform and broadcasting to a sizeable audience. So, for the kind of niche work I am doing now – yes!

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PTV: The podcast really blew up in such a short amount of time. Do you feel like you were prepared for this outcome?

ZM: Absolutely not! We started the podcast in part because we thought there was a market for it, but if we’re honest, it was mostly because we felt we desperately needed to upskill in an industry that was changing dramatically.

At our age, and with spare time on our hands, there was no harm in trying. So for it to grow at the rate it did took us by surprise, but it also meant we really needed to focus and work hard to make sure we rode the momentum that was coming.

PTV: What was the biggest struggle or hurdle you’ve faced during this podcast?

ZM: The biggest thing we have had to make peace with the bigger the podcast gets – and at the time of writing, we’re getting about 200k downloads a week – is that there’s no reasonable way every listener will love every single thing you say.

Feedback can be overwhelming, and while it often makes us smarter and better at our jobs, it has been hard sifting through the feedback to work out what kind of feedback is helpful, and what kind is harmful. I think we are getting there, though! But it certainly takes time and a whole lot of adjusting.

PTV: Aside from being a co-host, how involved with the podcast are you?

ZM: Put it this way, the podcast is far more than a full-time job for both Mich and I. We wanted to build a community around the podcast, and an online community never sleeps, so therefore neither do we. (Joking! Kind of.)

Mich and I – save for our legend community manager Annabelle Lee, who works two to three days a week – are doing everything ourselves. We research, script, record, produce and edit two episodes of Shameless weekly.

We also publish a weekly newsletter, where one of us will write a column and give read, watch and listen recommendations for the weekend ahead. We are our own social media managers, across both the Shameless podcast Instagram account (60k followers) as well as both of our Shameless Podcast Community Facebook groups, which together have over 40,000 members in total.

We have a podcast network too, having produced two bespoke, branded podcasts this year, one with Bumble Australia called Love Etc., and another called She’s On The Money. Between the two of us, I think in total we have planned, produced and edited about 120 podcast episodes in 2019 alone. It’s been a big year!

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PTV: If you had any advice for anyone wanting to start a podcast of their own, what would it be?

ZM: To start. One of the most confronting aspects about learning to podcast as you actually podcast is the concept of practicing publicly. We had zero (and truly, I mean zero) idea what we were doing in those early days. We just jumped in front of the microphones, pressed record and practiced as we went.

It probably took us about 30 episodes to find some kind of rhythm, which is funny to look back on, because people were literally listening to us as we learnt on the job. It’s humbling for sure, because some of those early episodes are totally rubbish!

But I am so glad we started. And I am so, so glad people can see we weren’t total naturals at this from the start. We just started, and worked as hard as we possibly could to make it great.

Image: Instagram / @zamacdonald