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    Mignon Fogarty: Lessons from 15 Years of Podcasting

    Photo credit: David Calvert

    This year marks the 15th anniversary of Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl, the podcast that clarifies the confusion of language in minutes. You read that right — for a decade and a half, listeners from all over the world have tuned in to learn about grammar. 

    The show has branched off into other mediums to wide acclaim, including Writer's Digest's 101 Best Websites for Writers, multiple wins for Best Educational Podcast at the Podcast Awards, and an induction into the Podcasting Hall of Fame. 

    This Saturday, July 24 at 2:00 pm CT, Mignon will be recording a special 15th anniversary live episode as part of Podbean’s Storytelling Podcast Week. The event celebrating audio stories from drama to nonfiction begins today.

    We had the chance to discuss what she learns from her most passionate fans, how her partnership with Macmillan helped provide stability, and the simple secret to keeping things creatively fresh after 15 years of podcasting. 

    What you’ll learn in this interview:

    • Using Twitter to help find and expand your listener base
    • Handy tricks to improve your performance and save time in editing
    • How Mignon and her team use listener demographic data
    • How releasing more episodes of your show might actually decrease your downloads
    • What to consider if you want to start a podcast network

    Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and content.

    Doug

    I cannot believe it's been 15 years since you started the Grammar Girl podcast!

    Mignon

    I know, I can't either. I've never done anything else that long.


    Doug 

    This was back in podcasting’s early days. How did people react back then when you released your show?

    Mignon

    I definitely got skepticism from people outside the podcasting community, but within the podcasting community, and in the media, there was a lot of enthusiasm. 

    My family and friends thought it was pretty weird, especially when I was going to quit my full-time work and focus on the podcast.

    My family and friends thought it was pretty weird, especially when I was going to quit my full-time work and focus on the podcast. I was a freelance science and technology writer and doing quite well, and they're like, ‘You sure you want to give it all up for this podcasting thing?’ I thought it was really worth it and got to work.

    One thing that helped me early on: Writers love the idea that a grammar podcast is popular. I think that helped me get press in the very early days, which later snowballed.


    Doug 

    You had a following from your other writing projects. But how did you grow your audience after starting, essentially, from scratch?

    Mignon

    I got lucky early on because Apple featured me. But I had a different podcast before Grammar Girl. I did a show called Absolute Science for about eight months. And it had been featured and didn't take off like Grammar Girl did. So I think there was an audience that didn't know they wanted something like that. And once they saw it, they were excited and jumped on board.

    I also heard a lot about word-of-mouth. I’d get email messages from people all the time saying, “I just told everyone in my office about you.” Or, you know, “I told all my friends.”

    I remember going on Twitter and searching for people who were using the word “semicolon.” Little tricks like that helped me find my people.

    I heard from truck drivers who listened and even schoolgirls in China who were using the show to learn English. It was every kind of person you could imagine.

    To help grow, I started reaching out actively to the audience after it took off. And I remember going on Twitter and searching for people who were using the word “semicolon.” Little tricks like that helped me find my people.

    Doug 

    Audience interaction seems like a big part of the show. What's your process for that?

    Mignon

    It's changed over the years. The newsletter has always been a good way to interact with the audience, and people will reply to the newsletter with their questions and comments. It's funny, in the very, very early days, I did take caller questions. 

    I had a voicemail line for a period, and then it got really overwhelming because I didn’t have a lot of help. So I stopped the voicemail line in 2008 or 2009. And then four or five years ago, I started it up again when I realized voicemails could be transcribed, and I could more quickly scan and re-find them. That was another thing, you know, you get an email with a WAV audio file, but if it wasn't transcribed, finding it again, when you wanted it to use, was really hard. 

    I love featuring listeners’ voices on the show. I think a big key to success is just answering their questions and telling their stories.

    So now I can search my email while I keep a spreadsheet with the questions and stories I get, which has made it so much easier. I love featuring listeners’ voices on the show. I think a big key to success is just answering their questions and telling their stories.

    Doug 

    When it comes to grammar, I imagine plenty of people disagree with you on certain usages.

    Mignon

    Every day.

    Doug 

    How do you respond to that criticism?

    Mignon

    In the beginning, it was hard. I would believe everything people told me. After 15 years, I'm more confident in my own research. And I understand more now how much isn't black and white when it comes to grammar and language. 

    You grow up thinking there are rules. Then maybe you become a professional writer and learn more about styles. And then if you become someone who’s been immersed in it for 15 years, you learn that even the rules and styles often aren't based in any fact or logic, and they change over time — you really shouldn't get too attached to them. And some things matter, while other things don't.

    In the beginning, it was hard. I would believe everything people told me. After 15 years, I'm more confident in my own research.

    I feel like I can defend my positions and interact with people and just explain why I think something is one way or another. And also, if people are dug in, I'm not going to change their minds either. So I just need to let it go. If someone insists that their second-grade teacher was right and I'm wrong, that's just how it's gonna be.


    Doug 

    When you have to issue corrections, do you do that on the episodes themselves?

    Mignon

    It depends. If it's a big error, I'll go back and fix it. We have a partnership with Macmillan Learning and they feature Grammar Girl in their online learning product that goes into schools. And so I will fix things that go to them if it's a big error, like if I mispronounce an author's name or something like that, which happened recently. I'll just correct it. And the next episode that I record, which is usually the next week, I’ll mention the correction to the previous episode.


    Doug 

    So for the bigger oops, you'll go back and correct that in the recording and then re-upload the episode.

    Mignon

    We feel really strongly about being accurate. And credible. That’s really the whole brand of the Quick and Dirty Tips Network, so it's important.

    Doug 

    I love the Quick and Dirty Tips name. What drew you toward short-form episodes?

    Mignon

    Mignon’s temporary studio setup during her recent move.

    Those are the kinds of shows I liked to listen to when I started. Also, because the show I did before, Absolute Science, was an interview show with a co-host (and then often we’d also interview a scientist), the production work involved in putting that show together was more than I could keep doing.

    I was actually looking for something shorter and simpler to do that wouldn't take so much of my time. Which is hilarious because then it ended up being my full-time job.

    But I had come to love podcasting, and I wanted to stay in it. I was actually looking for something shorter and simpler to do that wouldn't take so much of my time. Which is hilarious because then it ended up being my full-time job.

    Doug 

    Do you ever get feedback from listeners about the length of the show, be it positive or negative?

    Mignon

    Both. When we survey listeners about what they want, they always say more and more and more. When Grammar Girl started it was probably more like a minute-and-a-half to two minutes long. And now it's probably more like 12 to 17 minutes long.

    The listeners, they like it because they’re the listeners. I don't know how many listeners I don't get because the show is too short. But the people who do listen like it because it's about the length of time it takes them to walk their dog.


    Doug 

    You were able to strategically and gracefully transfer the Grammar Girl brand from podcasting to books and other mediums. For readers also interested in expanding their podcast brand, what advice can you give them?

    Mignon

    Be consistent. The Grammar Girl brand is fun, friendly, approachable. Everywhere I am, from books to TikTok, they all aim for that brand consistency.

    Another thing is you really shouldn't be afraid of repurposing your content. Some people think, ‘Well, maybe I already did this in the podcast or on my blog.’ But from my experience, they’re likely not the same people consuming that content on different platforms. Even if they are, people appreciate getting the same information in a different format. 

    For example, my first book was essentially just transcripts from my podcast, cleaned up and organized into a book format. Probably 80% of it I had already covered in the podcast, but then those listeners went out and bought the book. And that book became a New York Times bestseller, which was so exciting. 

    I think a lot of people appreciate getting a free podcast. And when you give them an opportunity to buy something and support you, they're excited to do it because they appreciate your work.

    I think a lot of people appreciate getting a free podcast. And when you give them an opportunity to buy something and support you, they're excited to do it because they appreciate your work.

    Doug

    What’s the best podcasting advice you've been given?

    Mignon

    I think the best audio advice I've been given is, early on, I did a series of radio commercials for a back-to-school promotion. The audio producer for those commercials kept trying to get me to put more energy into how I was reading the ad. Finally he said, “Imagine you're talking to a group of children, like you're reading a story at storytime at the library.” That really helped me keep the energy in it. Before, I imagined I was talking to one person. And you don't always have a lot of energy. But if you're talking to a group and a group of children, you're going to give them more energy.


    Doug

    I think one thing we don't think much about in podcasting, especially when we’re new, is performance. And really digging into it by trying to understand the difference in the sound between reading something off the page versus performing.

    Mignon

    Exactly. Another thing a radio audio editor told me once is when you mess up a line in your podcast script, don't start at the beginning of that line. Go back at least half a sentence because you will never get the breath right between those two sentences. It just makes the audio editing so much easier and faster.

    The audio producer kept trying to get me to put more energy into how I was reading the ad. Finally he said, “Imagine you're talking to a group of children, like you're reading a story at storytime at the library.”

    Doug

    When it comes to the audience for your show, how much do you know about the demographics? And where do you get that information from?

    Mignon

    I mean, we do the same surveys that everyone else does. We put out the call to listeners a couple times a year to ask them to fill out the surveys, and then we're able to get a little bit more detailed information from visitors to our website. We get a lot of traffic to our website, probably more than most podcasters, although we don't know that there's much overlap between those groups.

    So we know that, from what we can tell, Grammar Girl skews a little more female, a little on the older side for podcasts. And you know, like all podcasts tend to be, relatively high income.


    Doug

    Is that data something you actually use when you make decisions about the show and its content, or is it something that's just nice to know?

    Mignon

    It's just sort of nice to know. When I'm deciding on the content, I think more about the interactions I've had with people on social media, the calls I've received from listeners, and things like that.


    Doug

    That’s interesting. Often we think about how the data is what we need to make a better version of our show. But by engaging with the people who are already listening, you're able to make the version that's better for the people who want to be there.

    Mignon

    I mean, the advertisers want to have the data. But I guess it’s that thing that happens in all aspects of life where the people you hear from are the people you pay attention to. Like in politics, there's the polls, but then they're the maybe 100 people who actually call their senator’s office and they probably get more weight because they took the time to call. And when you hear from someone personally, it just sticks with you more than when it's just a bunch of numbers on the page.

    Doug

    Your listeners sound quite passionate. With your surveys, do they get in-depth with their answers?

    Mignon

    They are very passionate. We always have a question that says, “What would you like changed about the show?” And they always say they just want more. For a while, we actually did two shows a week. I tried that twice, for two years, but two separate years. So early on. And then later, I did two shows a week. And both times after about a year, it just felt like it was too much. I wish I had more resources, I could hire more writers and more help. 

    We always have a question that says, “What would you like changed about the show?” And [listeners] always say they just want more.

    Doug

    Do you think that if you put out more episodes, if your frequency was higher, that people may not listen as much because then they start to get a backlog? And then listening to the show becomes another thing they have to cross off their to-do list?

    Mignon

    It's super interesting, because that's what happened. The first time I did two shows a week, we definitely saw a drop off in number of listeners per show. But when I did it the second time, it didn't happen so much. It was a much, much smaller decrease. People didn't seem to get behind and cause our traffic to go down as much as happened, you know, 10 years ago when I tried it. So that was really interesting because I was nervous about trying it the second time. Maybe it helps that the show is short.


    Doug

    That length casts a spell on me. It's like reading a book in bed that has short chapters. Okay, just one more chapter. And then it’s two hours later and you’re like, ‘Why am I still awake?’

    Mignon

    Or like with Netflix, I’ll watch three episodes of a TV show. But if I sit down, I'm like, ‘I don't feel like a movie tonight.’ That's too much time, even though three episodes is the same amount of time, sometimes more.


    Doug

    Exactly. What's a common question you get from other podcasters who come to you for advice?

    Mignon

    People often ask me about starting a podcast network. I think it's an entirely different skill set than doing a podcast.

    It's a great way to grow and a great way to build a business, but you also have to ask yourself: Do I enjoy managing people? Do I want to do bookkeeping, or hire people to do bookkeeping? Do I want to negotiate contracts? Do I want to think about business structures, and all those things that come with it?

    People often ask me about starting a podcast network. It's a great way to grow and a great way to build a business, but you also have to ask yourself: Do I enjoy managing people?

    Creating a podcast network is so much more than getting together a group of your friends or even a group of like-minded podcasters. If you're going to be a business, it’s going to take an extraordinary amount of your time managing the business aspect. So I always tell people to think really hard about why they want to do it and if they think they'll actually enjoy the work.


    Doug

    Did the business side of things take away your passion for your show?

    Mignon

    I wouldn't say it took away the passion, but it made it a little harder. I was really lucky early on, I partnered with Macmillan. They provided a lot of stability in the early days, but I still managed the whole network. I was very involved in the day-to-day until about 2009. And at that point, it had become big enough that the business side was taking far more of my time than the Grammar Girl side. And really it was just weighing me down. So in 2009, I decided I just had to focus on Grammar Girl. And Macmillan was focusing on the network because it was impossible for me to do both.


    Doug

    After 15 years, how do you keep things fresh and interesting for yourself as a creator?

    Mignon

    It's challenging. One thing that helps a lot is I work with guest writers now. They bring fresh ideas that I might not have thought of, or different perspectives. And that really helps. I probably write half to two-thirds of my shows now, but those other writers really help and bring an extra something special that keeps me going.

    I feel so lucky to have a job where people regularly tell me, “I really like what you do.”

    Also, I couldn't do it if I didn't hear from the listeners that they were enjoying it. I feel so lucky to have a job where people regularly tell me, “I really like what you do.” I mean, how many people get that from their work? It keeps me going. And I appreciate it every time I hear it.

    Doug Fraserhttps://www.dougfraserdigital.com
    If it's peculiar, you can count Doug Fraser in. From the voice of Porky Pig to bestselling author Lemony Snicket, his What We Do podcast explores the people behind the world’s most intriguing passions, hobbies, and jobs. He’s also the co-host of Curious State University, an upcoming podcast with crash courses on offbeat topics. Doug works as a freelance copywriter and filmmaker.
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