Until early 2018, Becca Freeman listened to podcasts (an early favorite was The Great Debates), but never thought she would someday launch two of her own.
Bad on Paper is a chat show that Atwood and Freeman began on a lark. Atwood wanted to branch out from blogging with a podcast and needed a co-host. Freeman was thinking of leaving her full-time job running marketing for Lola, a feminine care start-up. She was in the mood to say yes, caught in a “new year, new me” moment. Freeman envisioned it as “more of a hobby, I thought it would be a fun way to spend time with one of my best friends and talk about books for an hour a week.”
They went in with no expectations. They bought microphones, recorded the first episode, and published it at the end of March, with no launch plan. “We were doing it for fun,” Freeman says. Listenership started to pick up in early 2019 as the pair grew more consistent and built relationships with listeners, authors, and guests.
The Meet Cute
RomComPods is a different story. The podcast is an original scripted fiction series inspired by rom-coms of all forms—TV shows, Hallmark Christmas movies, and contemporary romance novels, Freeman’s favorite genre. Rom-coms are a pillar of Freeman and King’s decade-long friendship. For the past three years, King had been asking Freeman to write a Christmas movie together. “I said no,” Freeman says. “I didn’t go into either of these [podcasts] proactively.” Despite jobs and other commitments, King persisted. They started a few Google Docs that didn’t go anywhere until last December.
Unlike Bad on Paper, which cost less than $1000 to start, RomComPods required an investment.
That’s when Freeman visited King in Los Angeles for the 2019 holidays, and, naturally, they watched some cheesy Christmas movies. The new year was on Freeman’s mind and she wanted to find more fulfillment in her work beyond consulting. She says, “I didn’t know where my career was going in 2020”. So King asked again, “What if we wrote a rom-com, but made it a podcast?”
Podcasts fit their skill sets as King runs Pod People, a podcast production studio that creates shows for brands like Netflix and Twitter. Freeman had started listening to audiobooks for Bad on Paper and saw room for improvement. “Most audiobooks suck,” she says. “They’re so long, and the narrators are boring or really cheesy, putting on voices to be many characters.”
They decided to go for it. The commitment was’t just one of time but of money. Unlike Bad on Paper, which cost less than $1000 to start, RomComPods required an investment. “There’s a lot more people involved, ” Freeman says. Production costs include editors, a sound coordinator, 30 actors, music licensing, and more. The two have yet to break even on the show, but were “shockingly on budget” for season one. It was a passion project that Freeman says, “we lovingly call our money pit.”
Finding the right story
Freeman and King knew having a good story was essential to their success. Armed with a stack of screenwriting books, the two learned the basics of plotting, hoping that listeners would stick with the story for all six episodes. They sent premises and drafts to a group of friends who stood in for the audience. When quarantine started in March, they already had a month of writing under their belts and decided to keep going, taking advantage of the extra time at home. Writing the script “kind of became a lifeline for us, ” says Freeman. Season one, “Honeymoon for One” launched in June. The story is set in Italy and follows Claire, a woman who cancels her wedding and goes on her nonrefundable romantic Italian honeymoon solo. Her handsome tour guide, Matteo, is also single, and sparks fly over bowls of pasta and vespa rides.
Listeners didn’t just stick with the story, they asked for more. Audience interest led to an epilogue episode to “tide people over between seasons, ” says Freeman. With commutes and summer road trips canceled, fans loved the chance to escape, with one review saying, “if you are disappointed that you can’t watch Hallmark movies and drive to work, this will get you through.”
A Podcast for Rom Com Fams
Podcast host Kate Kennedy mentioned RomComPods on a June episode of her Be There in Five podcast, praising Freeman and King for filling a white space with something that, to its audience, seems like it always should have been there. She elaborated on this saying, “I find the concept of RomComPods to be so intuitive as a listener, and I don’t say that to trivialize the content, rather to commend how astute it was to identify this white space. It’s almost like an entertainment-focused illustration of the transitive property; I love rom coms, I love podcasts, therefore of course I’ll love a rom com podcast. Successful people create things that people want but don’t know to ask for.”
“It’s almost like an entertainment-focused illustration of the transitive property; I love rom coms, I love podcasts, therefore of course I’ll love a rom com podcast.”—Kate Kennedy
The two had noticed and taken advance of a gap in the scripted market, namely that they aren’t other scripted romance podcasts. Scripted podcasts tend to feature horror—with shows like Full Body Chills and Scared to Death in the top ten—or comedy and drama.
Both Freeman and King would love to work on RomComPods full-time. Freeman says she receives messages suggesting that they make RomComPods a movie. “And we would love to,” she says. “I want to say, ‘do you know someone?’” They’re committed to staying independent and own 100 percent of the podcast, hiring help as needed, like an ad agency to try and break even on season two. Previously, Freeman and Atwood had met with podcast networks regarding Bad on Paper and didn’t see the value in the arrangement. This made the decision to not join a network easy for RomComPods.
Vote for Love
RomComPod’s second season, “Vote for Love,” began on October 12th (listen to the first episode here). Season one had been recorded remotely, while season two used studios in a limited way, with Freeman and King directing over Zoom. “Vote for Love” follows Lucy, a campaign staffer for the governor of Texas, who is currently running for President. His estranged son, Lincoln, now a famous musician, comes home to help his dad with the youth vote. Years ago, Lucy and Lincoln went on one perfect date, before he ghosted and left town, and now they are reunited on the campaign trail.
For the second season, Freeman and King applied the lessons they learned from the first. They adjusted to the needs of audio. “We realized too many scenes in season one were just two people talking,” Freeman says. “[For season two] we wrote shorter scenes and tried to have interesting sonic things happen.” The sounds of the campaign trail, cheers, boos, and late nights at hotel bars, bring the story to life.
Diversity was on their minds due to criticism they received for Honeymoon for One, which aired as they wrote season two.
Diversity was on their minds due to criticism they received for Honeymoon for One, which aired as they wrote season two. Season one has a Black best friend, a common trope, and a character Freeman admits that people were rightfully upset about it due to the character’s lack of a story outside of the white main character. The other guests on the honeymoon tour weren’t written with a particular race in mind, but all of them wound up being played by white actors.
For season two, the team put more intention into writing and casting diverse characters, bringing in diversity consultants to improve their portrayals of non-white characters.
“We were much more conscious to have more story arcs [in season two],” Freeman says. “There is a Black best friend/work wife and she gets her own love story later in the season and there’s a story arc between Lincoln and his father.” With voice acting, there are concerns about stereotyping, so casting was difficult, especially for older characters and characters with specific accents. To get things right, “we were much more strategic, and decided we’re going to start earlier, and find the right person.”
Season two’s lead is a musician, which was a challenge to cast, even though “all of Broadway is out of work right now.” They eventually found, with the help of UTA, a musician, Spencer Sutherland, who could act. He sings throughout the show, including a memorable Backstreet Boys cover.
Spreading the word
To find their audience, Freeman and King did crossovers with other podcasts such as Forever 35 and tapped their networks, asking friends and podcasters with large audiences to spread the word. On Bad on Paper, Freeman and Atwood promoted the new show by bringing on King as a guest.
Compared to marketing a physical product, Freeman says, “podcasts need totally different marketing tactics. More than 50 percent of women don’t listen to podcasts on a regular basis, so we need to find the women who are listening.” Only 29% of women have listened to a podcast in the last month. This was made more difficult since Apple Podcasts and Spotify didn’t have discovery built into their platforms.
“I almost see it as easily digestible escapist content that you could watch on Netflix, but better. You can multitask and just listen but get the same entertainment value.”—Freeman
One lucky break came when RomComPods was selected for a feature on Apple Podcasts and appeared in a big banner on the homepage as the first episode of season one launched. The show quickly climbed the fiction charts. “We told ourselves 10,000 downloads on the first episode would mean it wasn’t an embarrassment and we wildly exceeded our expectations,” Freeman says. The first episode got 10,000 downloads in just 72 hours. Season two climbed to 11 on the charts on its first day.
Season two will be seven episodes with some politics baked in in time for election day. Freeman says, “it’s like take a spoonful of social justice with your love story. I hope it’s a welcome reprieve from our political cycle, I don’t want people to use it as an excuse to bury their head in the sand, but just a break.” The first episode included reminders to vote and Freeman is proud of the values they incorporated into the story, which discusses healthcare and student debt.
Season three will air around Valentine’s Day 2021 and move across the pond (Freeman is a huge fan of British rom-coms). They have ideas for seasons four and five, too. Writing is a highlight for Freeman. “As we’ve gotten into this, I’m more primed to accept ideas,” she says. “It’s like attraction theory; now that I’m looking for ideas I see them everywhere.”
With each story there are hours of audio storytelling and characters that could live on in many different forms. About the format, Kennedy says, “I almost see it as easily digestible escapist content that you could watch on Netflix, but better. You can multitask and just listen but get the same entertainment value.” And listeners can never have too much of that.