Freelance Journalist

May 20, 2024 (Updated )

From her career beginnings in local and regional news to spearheading The Telegraph‘s audio programming as head of podcasts, Louisa Wells has had a diverse path through journalism.

We caught up with Louisa in 2023 at the Student Publication Association’s National Conference to learn about a day in the life of an audio journalist for a national newspaper, what it takes to create quality daily content, and why she believes audio is the most intimate medium of journalism.

What’s a typical morning like for you?

We’re office-based, so I do go to the office every day. I have to be on time for The Telegraph’s meeting every morning at 8.30am, which is our morning conference where all of the editors from the different desks will get together and think about the stories we’re covering that day, and also look ahead to the next day’s paper.

I will wake up at about 7am, to get ready for work. I will listen to Radio 4 to get a bit of what they’re talking about today and I’ll listen to a couple of news podcasts, but done by other publishers to get a sense of what they’re looking at. Then I’ll head into work for that early morning conference.

When you were growing up, did you think that you’d go into journalism?

I didn’t realise I wanted to be a journalist until I went to university. A lot of people know from a bit earlier than that; maybe they watch the news a lot and from about 12 they’d been interested in it. I was interested in news, but I don’t think I really considered it as a possibility.

I wanted to be all sorts of things. I think I wanted to be a vet at one point, then realised I was rubbish at science. Then later on, I knew I liked writing and thought perhaps I might be an author or a writer — then I realised that another way into that would be journalism.

I’ve always been interested in people’s stories; whether that was from a writer’s perspective or a journalist’s, it’s all still people’s stories. I landed on that when I was about 20 after doing some student media, which is very important and I encourage lots of people to do it.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

While at the University of Nottingham, Louisa wrote for Impact Magazine. (Image Credit: Archive)

So what does your typical day at The Telegraph involve? As Head of Podcasts, what do you get up to?

After that early morning meeting, I will be looking at our quick turnaround podcasts. We’ve got a daily Ukraine pod at the moment, a weekly politics podcast, and a couple of weekly sports shows. I will be catching up with the producer that makes those about what we’re going to talk about on those shows today and if we’ve got any interviews they need my assistance with.

[Things like] just having a listen after they’ve done the interviews, helping decide what the news lines might be. If I think there’s a news line, I’ll go and talk to the appropriate member of staff at the paper.

So maybe for our Ukraine pod, we’ve done a really interesting interview. We don’t just want it to live on the podcast, so I’d go and talk to the head of foreign and say: “We’ve done this amazing interview with a really interesting woman in Ukraine, I really think it would be a good write-up for the paper.” I’d arrange for someone to transcribe the interview and get it all written up.

On another day, I might be going out and recording myself. I might be calling a politician with one of our politics reporters, I might be travelling to a charity that does mental health work for one of our mental health podcasts, or I might be having meetings or doing interviews for one of our big documentaries. That involves a lot of pre-planning work — we might be working on that for over a year — so that would involve a lot of pre-researched interviews, and I might be sitting in on one of those.

So it’s really, really varied. I get to do lots of different fun things, which I really enjoy. I might also be meeting with some of the big bosses at The Telegraph to talk about audio strategy and what new things we want to do in the future. So yeah, lots of different things.

What’s the most surprising thing about your job and podcasts?

I think what surprises me most about podcasts is the different stories you can get versus other mediums — I would say that because I work in podcasts — but I think people are much more relaxed in audio. Everyone who works in audio always says: “Oh, it’s an intimate medium.” And I really, I really believe that.

If you’ve got a camera in someone’s face, they’re very aware that they are being filmed. If you’re interviewing someone for a written piece, that can be quite intimate, but often you have to get rid of a lot of their words because you’ve only got a 500-word count to play with. Even if you’ve been gifted 2,000 words, if you spoke for an hour and a half you’re still gonna have to get rid of a lot of the stuff they’ve said to you.

Journo Resources
"[Don't] be too caught up in big legacy media brands. The BBC [is] a fantastic place to work, but when I was first looking to get into radio, I thought it was the only place I could work and that's not true. It wasn't true then, and it's even less true now.
Louisa Wells, head of podcasts at The Telegraph

In audio, it can be very intimate for the person you’re interviewing and they can relax more and tell you more. But also, it’s much more personal for those listening. If you’re reading someone’s words that can be powerful. But, if you’re hearing them and really hearing how something affected them, or hearing how angry they are about something, or hearing them just tell their story… That’s a really powerful thing.

I’m constantly surprised by how willing people are to give you their time to talk for these stories and how much they’re willing to share in that medium, because they’re relaxed, and you’ve made them feel comfortable.

Why have podcasts become so popular?

I think they became popular because they are hands-free. You can listen to them at all times — if you download them before you set off, you can listen to them on the tube. You’re not limited by having a signal anywhere and you can listen to them whilst you’re doing other stuff around your house. The added benefit of a podcast versus radio is that it can come with you really easily — you don’t have to be in range of a signal.

Also, it gives you more time to play with journalism. Like I was saying before, you can have a lot more in an hour-long episode than you can with one written piece.

It’s cheap to make [too, which] is a big thing. Traditional publishers can have a podcasting arm because it’s relatively cheap (on the scale of things) to make a fairly good podcast versus if you’re making videos. To make a good video you need a much bigger crew and a lot more people involved. You can make a fairly good podcast with literally two people and a couple of microphones.

The reason why it feels like everyone’s making a podcast is because once one publisher makes one, everyone else feels they should be making them. We’re in a bit of a boom, at the moment.

What makes a good podcast?

I always say: “Have a think about what you’re trying to achieve with your podcast first.” If you don’t know that, you’re gonna make a bad podcast. A lot of people just go in thinking: “I want to make a podcast because I feel like I should be making them,” rather than because they want to achieve something in particular.

So, know what you want to achieve with your podcasts; whether that’s a space for a really specific conversation or telling a particular narrative or story. Or, for me, I work for a news publisher, so maybe I do a podcast because we get news lines from it.

Then I would say find what audience isn’t being served and make the podcast for them. There are a lot of people doing the same stuff over and over again — try not to be the 15th podcast to talk about a particular thing.

Then the rest of it — some of it is just basics in terms of making everyone sound nice. If you’re asking for someone’s time, like an hour of someone’s time to listen to something, at least make it pleasant to listen to.

Want To Delve Into The Daily Lives Of More Journalists?

What do you say you’re most proud of in your career?

I am probably most proud of our daily Ukraine pod that I’m currently making at The Telegraph. The reason for that is we weren’t making a daily podcast beforehand. We are quite a small audio team at The Telegraph and the daily show is a lot of work.

The way we found a way around that is that the show starts as a live show on Twitter/X spaces. That gets rid of some of the barriers to entry — it means we can talk to Ukrainians in Ukraine very easily, they just need a Twitter/X account. We don’t have to go through long recording negotiations, they literally can just join us on Twitter/X and talk to us. And then we turn it around and put it out as a podcast later.

We made it quick and easy to do a daily show and [so] we haven’t stopped doing it. It’s been over a year and a lot of our rival publishers have stopped doing quite as much Ukraine content. We kept going and our numbers keep getting bigger, which means people still want to hear about that conflict. I’m really proud that we didn’t stop and we’ve kept that space going and given Ukrainians the opportunity to tell their stories.

Also, it’s just proven that podcasts are a really good way to use a whole newsroom. Almost every reporter has now been on that podcast, because in some way what they do could be related to it. We’ve had our energy reporter talking about the impact on energy, we’ve had our foreign reporters who go to Ukraine all the time. We’ve had our digital, internet, and tech reporters talking about the impact of the war on the tech space. We’ve had so many people involved. It’s been a really lovely example of cross-newsroom working. I’m really proud of it as a project.

A headline in Press Gazette reads: With 16m listens, Telegraph’s daily podcast shows UK audience still wants to hear about UkraineThe Telegraph's Ukraine: The Latest is the UK's only remaining daily audio offering about the war'
The podcast is now the UK’s only daily audio programme covering the Ukraine war. (Image Credit: Press Gazette)

What advice do you have for budding journalists or those looking to get into podcasting?

There are so many ways you can podcast from home — have practice and have a play. If you’re applying for work and don’t have an example where you’ve tried doing something like this, that’s a pitfall because everyone can make a podcast now from home.

The microphone on your smartphone is a good microphone, you don’t need to pay for fancy equipment. Use that, have a play and make your mistakes that way first. It means you’ve got examples you can show people rather than just rocking up and being like: “Oh, I can do this I promise.”

On pitfalls — this is more journalism-based than podcasting-specific — but if you’re approaching a story, don’t have the conclusion already in your head, because that’s not journalism. You’re going to find out the story when you’re working on it, don’t go in with preconceptions. That’s easier said than done, I definitely did it at the beginning, but I’d say that’s a big thing to try and avoid. Don’t have a notion in your head already, because it will stop you asking the right questions.

Journo Resources
"Have a think about what you're trying to achieve with your podcast, first. If you don't know that, you're gonna make a bad podcast. Find what audience isn't being served and make the podcast for them."
Louisa Wells, head of podcasts at The Telegraph

In terms of how I got to where I am today — practising. Do stuff with student media or places like hospital radio, which will often take on people with no experience. Or like I said, making podcasts in your own free time. There are lots of easy free editing tools on the internet.

Then I did a lot of work experience. I emailed around a lot of regional press and asked for opportunities to come in and watch them and get stuck in. The reason I recommend local and regional news is because I’m biased; I worked in it for many years. But they’ll get you working when you turn up, you’ll be on a job straight away. In some of the bigger newsrooms, you might not quite get that same opportunity.

And just be persistent. It’s very easy if you get a few rejections to feel deflated. But these people are just busy. There’ll be someone who says yes eventually and you’ll be able to build up those contacts when you have work experience, who can then put you in touch with more and more people.

Why do you think you’ve got the job that you have now?

I worked for a really long time in regional radio stations, properly getting to know the patch that I was working on. If you work at BBC Berkshire, one of the places I worked at, you have to really know Berkshire like the back of your hand — know the people who live there and their stories, know what appeals specifically to them, and what they want us to get out into the world. I think knowing an audience really well helped me get the job that I have now.

I moved from radio to podcasts; part of that was because I could do audio editing and I listened to podcasts. But I think the big thing that got me the job was knowing how to make quality journalism for a specific audience. Also, just knowing how to sell the work that you do, and catering it for each place you apply.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

Louisa (L) and a podcast she worked on at The Telegraph (R). (Image Credit: Twitter)

Is there anything you would have changed looking back at when you first started?

I think I would not be too caught up by the big legacy media brands, thinking that’s the only place I could work to do journalism. I love the BBC, I will not say a bad thing about the BBC, I think they’re a fantastic place to work. But I think when I was first looking to get into radio, I thought it was the only place I could work and that’s not true. It wasn’t true then, and it’s even less true now.

You can make amazing journalism-focused podcasts for a small production company or off your own back and just put it out into the world. There are a lot of different places if you make the effort to look at places like Journo Resources and other similar websites. You don’t just have to stick to the big newspapers or the BBC. Realising that sooner would be the one thing I would change.

Is there something that you’d like to change about the industry?

It’s not a huge thing — this is quite a personal bugbear — but I think there’s absolutely no excuse to have bad audio and podcasts anymore. It’s so easy to get everyone recorded in a quality line, even if it’s on their phone. Cleaning up internet phone calls is really easy now as well.

There’s absolutely no excuse for me to hear what is clearly a Zoom recording on a podcast. I think because people have got a bit more used to remote working over the pandemic people who make podcasts think people are okay hearing that. Personally, I don’t want that. I’d rather everyone made everything sound a bit nicer.

So, what’s your favourite podcast, outside the ones you make?

No Such Thing As A Fish which is a really basic answer, because they’ve been around for a really, really long time. It’s a fun facts type of show, and it’s really good. It perks me up if I have a bad day.

What do you do to relax after your work day?

Well, I’m really sad because I do listen to a lot of podcasts, which is a ridiculous thing to say when that’s my actual job. But not news ones, so I’ve got a bit of balance, something a bit more fun.

I also really like going to gigs — I make a point of ensuring that my free time is not all news-based because that can get a bit much. So having silly fun, in an unrelated way like going to a gig… that’s up there on how to relax.

Waseem Mohamed
Waseem Mohamed

Waseem Mohamed spent more than a year as the news editor at Durham’s student newspaper Palatinate, covering breaking news, investigations, and interviews. He also has numerous bylines in The Guardian, The Observer, and The Telegraph.

Waseem’s interests lie particularly in foreign affairs, politics, and data journalism.