How They Made It: Ross Sutherland of Imaginary Advice on podcasting's parallels with poetry

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Ross Sutherland’s Imaginary Advice podcast changes every month. You might start tuning in because of Six House Parties, “a story of revenge told through the medium of fancy dress,” only to find that the next episode in your feed is Exorcist Dave Stewart, “where hauntings are revealed to be demonic art installations.” 

The only common thread between installments—which might include stories, monologues, essays, or “an unholy combination of all three”—is the wild reach of Ross’ imagination. The AV Club has called him “one of podcasting’s brightest lights,” while Vulture praised his “sublime turns of phrase.” 

So we navigated the time difference between London and Los Angeles (a full 8 hours!) to Zoom with him about how poetry led him to podcasting, and how budget constraints led to his signature style, among other topics. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Ross Sutherland

I’m excited to talk to you about doing a fiction podcast, because I’ve mostly been interviewing non-fiction people so far. 

I think fiction is particularly hard to do on a low budget. I feel for these shows where they have big casts—the more people that you have involved in the production, the harder it is to assume that everybody can work for little to nothing. 

One of the reasons that Imaginary Advice is the way it is, is because I couldn't pay for any voice actors. It automatically took on the form of being more like sound designed short stories, because I couldn't pay for anybody else to be in them. Even the style of the stories—I don't necessarily want to be doing a bunch of voices, which means that the recurring theme is a person on their own, wandering through various types of bizarre architecture and thinking about stuff.

Whereas other things are really easy. It's just like, oh, you want to catapult someone into a black hole? The budget for that in an audio drama is exactly the same as the budget I would require for two people sitting in a cafe having a conversation. 

How did you get started as a writer and storyteller?

In my twenties, I wrote a lot of poetry. My main creative outlet was doing spots at poetry nights, and then publishing poetry, and making theater: essentially a one person poetry show. Poetry exists entirely outside the flow of capital. No one starts writing poetry thinking, eventually I'll scale this up and become one of those really high profile, well paid poets.

In the early days, a lot of my risk was being underwritten by the English Arts Council, and being able to put in grants, get money, and then fritter it all the way on performing to small black box theaters in the regional cities around the UK. That at least sets you off on a mindset where you can concentrate on the work, when the risk is underwritten and you don't have to worry. You can stick to your guns, in terms of having a creative mission. 

But funding to the English Arts Council is always in decline—gets chunks gouged out of it every single year. It's not a reliable way to continue to make money. I was looking for other ways of being a live performer.

In 2015, I decided that I was gonna get an RSS feed and start putting out pieces of work which already existed in other forms. The first three or four years of Imaginary Advice are mostly existing pieces, reformatted and rethought. A lot of it went through a process of translation, because it's completely different doing something on stage…and then suddenly it has the intimacy of audio, which is just so incredible.

Imaginary Advice podcast cover art

And how did that work technically? What were you using to make the podcast at that point?

I had to teach myself how to do the audio design work. I wouldn't necessarily recommend anybody go back and listen to the opening—as it is with all podcasts, pretty much. To begin with, I used GarageBand, and then about four or five years in, I switched to Hindenburg. 

A lot of my learning curve was, to begin with, I thought that audio should be quite syrupy, and everything should blend from one thing to the next: one scene should slowly fade out and then a new scene would fade in. I’ve actually learned to be quite aggressive in cutting and moving between things quite quickly, just to sort of speed things up a bit. 

My ambitions for the show have gotten more elaborate as time goes on as well. The early episodes, sometimes I was adapting something that I would have done at like, a cabaret night, and so it was a 20-minute bit. In the last three or four years I've gone insane with trying to do more elaborate, complicated stories. I've just written a piece that's a five hour story in total. And trying to find ways of disseminating on my feed…

I swear I do try to make 30 minute episodes. I really, really try hard to do that. If I had more time, I could get them down. But brevity costs a lot of time. It's the hardest thing to do. 

Were you promoting the show at all? Trying to form a community of listeners around it?

Somewhere in the first year I did set up my Patreon page. I had about 20 quid coming into it. Nothing that great. 

I had maybe like, 100 people listening that first year. But like I said, I come from the world of poetry readings, if you had a poetry gig that had a hundred people at it, that would be the best poetry reading of your career, you know? So it already felt like it was working for me, even if it wasn't making me any money yet. 

I didn't do a tremendous amount of promotion. Through previously being a theater maker and a live performer, I already had a small amount of followers on social media. The process of building an audience has been slow, but coming from the background I did, I didn't worry too much about that side of things. To this day, I don't do very much more.  

It’s definitely helped having other podcasters listen to the show and then repost it. On a chart, if I was showing you my listenership, I could basically say: that is when Helen Zaltzman of The Illusionist reposted an episode of my show on her podcast feed. Here’s where the podcast got put in an end of year roundup by Vulture

Because the show doesn't have a format, it does mean that sometimes you'll just have episodes that are wildly popular, and then you don't get retention, necessarily. But if you get to the point where you're comfortable with the fact that the theme is me, and you trust me enough to come back and see what I'm doing—that core audience has been super loyal over the years. According to someone at Patreon, they said that the Patreon page for Imaginary Advice did have unusually high retention for a podcast. And I can only put that down to the fact that it is such a one person show. 

And now you make a second podcast—kind of a meta podcast, called Imaginary Reprise. How did that come about?

I think a lot of people set up Patreons thinking that they’re going to be appealing to fellow artists who are looking for a behind the curtain, “here's how the sausage is made” type thing. That was the perceived wisdom. I don't think that necessarily holds up. Actually, I think if you're an artist who's looking to set up their own version, you don't have the money to be funding other people's Patreons. You're probably broke, right?

So initially, that’s what I was going for. As time's gone on, I've realized, actually, this needs to be more like a hangout space. I'll still have a guest on, and we'll still talk about writing and creativity, but it just becomes a lot looser.

Also, as the story ambitions get bigger and bigger, it pushes more of me as a presenter into the margins. It used to be a lot more like a combination of an essay with some piece of fiction dropped into the middle—almost like fiction is a dream sequence in this essay. But as time's gone, I disappear a little bit. And so the sister podcast, that's how I'm envisaging it now: it's actually a chance for me to talk unscripted to someone. Which I almost never do on the main feed, because I'm terrified of any form of spontaneity. 

Imaginary Reprise podcast cover art

That’s so funny, because I think most people think of chat podcasts as like, the lowest common denominator. The easiest thing to produce. 

Do you think I became a poet because I was really comfortable chatting about my feelings? No! I like going away into a dark room, meticulously crafting my emotions to a point where they're almost obfuscated, and then reading them out to a room full of strangers, where they can't respond and have to applaud me. That's how I like to express myself.

Is your ambition for Imaginary Advice to be a full-time job? How do you integrate it with the other work that you do?

I was born in 1979, so I’m technically Generation X. I read the book Generation X when I was 14, like a cliche. And at the time I found it very inspiring: the idea that you don't have to do what you love for a living. You can do something that you hate, and put absolutely zero thought into it. You push all of your enthusiasm to the margins, and what you really care about, you can run it secretly from inside your day job. So you can go be a temp and write: get an Excel spreadsheet and write your magnum opus into the cell. It did influence the way that I went about being an artist, in terms of never really worrying about being financially solvent. That way, you don’t sell out. 

To look back on that mindset now, it's kind of pessimistic to automatically assume that you couldn't do what you wanted for a living, that you had to do something else. I feel weird about it now—I feel differently about it now—but it is still the model that I have. 

I have done other creative projects on the side, working as a dramaturg in theater. That’s quite nice because it tends to be short form projects.

The tricky thing is, lots of the work that I did to supplement in the early days of my podcast—that work just doesn't exist anymore. I used to be a creative writing teacher and go into schools. I was paid from various pots of money to work with school kids, and get them to write poetry and stories. All those pots of money just don't exist anymore. There is no English speaking and listening assessment now for teenagers. They are no longer required to be able to prove to anybody that they can verbally articulate something, because they're not being trained to be thoughtful. So all that work disappeared. 

Post-pandemic I’m still redefining what I'm supposed to be doing. I have done several longform audio series for other people. I did a 10 part series for the BBC on the poet Arthur Cravan, which was a nice hefty project. 

During the pandemic, I got hired by Gimlet to write this big audio drama, which I was about halfway through at the start of this year. I was about to go on paternity leave, and then [America’s] interest rates changed. And I guess Spotify didn't want to borrow money anymore, so all those projects at Gimlet and Spotify all got culled. They still retain the rights to the IP, so I can't do anything with it. 

A nice business model would be to be able to do half a year of Imaginary Advice, and then take a few months off to make something limited for somebody else. We’ll see if the future of podcasting allows for that.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to start an independent podcast now?

I think about the way that people used to talk to me when I was thinking of making a new theater show. Someone would say, “You want to do a show about this subject, right? You've got to care about that subject so much. Because occasionally, you're going to turn up and you're going to have to do it to an empty room. You have to care about this subject so much that you still want to do that.” 

When you're choosing your subject, you can’t allow yourself to worry too much about  what you think audiences want to hear. You gotta think about what you wanna talk about, 'cause you'll find your audience. You concentrate on the passion, and that will sustain you.

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