We crashed the office of these Philippine podcast pioneers and innovators where we learned the beauty of talking less and listening more
“Podcasting is hard,” Carljoe Javier is saying as we walk into the Collab Room, crashing a meeting at the PumaPodcast office on a Monday afternoon.
The office isn’t your boring old office—it’s a beautiful house in Cubao, the house the grandparents of Tricia Aquino, PumaPodcast’s head of content, used to live in. “Nung bata kasi kami dito kami naglalaro ng mga pinsan ko. So parang ngayon, naglalaro pa rin kami pero may money involved. Play pa din siya pero of course may halong stress,” Aquino says.
Aquino is part of the founding team of the podcasting and audio production startup PumaPublic Productions, along with multi-awarded journalist Roby Alampay, Mikkel Bolante and Janina Magundayao. Alampay, Aquino and Bolante had worked together in Interaksyon—Alampay was the news site’s founding editor-in-chief while Aquino and Bolante were reporter and editor. PumaPublic Productions is the company behind the PumaPodcast network of podcasts. “As early as Mamasapano (the clash in 2015), gusto na ni Roby gumawa ng podcast,” Aquino recalls.
Alampay, PumaPodcast’s CEO, has always been a big fan of radio features. “The first time I heard a feature from NPR, it was 1995, and it blew my mind. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, I knew we had nothing like that on Philippine AM or FM. Two and a half decades later, the technology, the platforms allow us to think maybe we can do this,” he says.
PumaPodcast was officially born in 2018 and in December of that year, they released their first podcast: The Story of Papemelroti hosted by Alampay. That turned out to be the last interview with Benny Alejandro, the patriarch of the Filipino stationery brand, who died in 2019. They also released two episodes of Playlist ng Buhay Ko—one with Lourd De Veyra and another with Manny V. Pangilinan.
“We actually started with really ambitiously produced podcasts, and I’m proud of that because that set the bar high for us from the start,” says Alampay.
Because it was founded by journalists, PumaPodcast began as a news team and that’s how they were functioning when Javier entered the picture as COO in January 2019. “Weirdly enough, this is a company where I am the suit,” says Javier, who was an independent publisher, managing editor of Anino Comics and who put up the bookstore/bar space Uno Morato. “I’ve been in all of these weird art things. But the team thought I might be a good fit—the mix of my understanding of creative process and my insane love for podcasting plus my minimal but fair training in management.”
Aquino says Javier brought with him organizational skills and tools that became integral to the way the PumaPodcast team works.
Javier says, “It was a small team and everybody was used to doing their stuff and I had to come in and introduce process. It became my mandate to transform this from a news team into an organization.”
That’s just one of the challenges he’s had to face. “Some people don’t get it. I’ve walked into rooms where people say, ‘What’s a podcast?’ We’re trying to create a public radio listening culture while trying to survive as a company. No one did it and we’re just crazy enough to try to be the ones to do it. It’s taking on all of the challenges of being a startup while taking on all of the challenges of trying to build a new media landscape.”
And then sometimes, the challenge is building a table. Literally building a table, like we are watching Javier do. How many companies would have a COO build a work table so the staff can use it? “It’s the startup life,” he says, smiling.
Today, PumaPodcast has multiple podcasts on its continually growing roster: “Te Talks by Ted Te”; “Usapang Econ” hosted by JC Punongbayan, Jeff Arapoc and Mayin Vital; “Conversations with Randy David”; Shani Tan and Gege Sugue’s “Booklaban”; and
“Conservative Ako” which is hosted by sex and relationships therapist Rica Cruz. Ceej Tantengco, PumaPodcast’s head of marketing, hosts “Go Hard Girls,” a show about Filipina athletes, and cohosts “What’s AP? Araling Panlipunan” Rebooted with feminist historian Sab Schnabel. A fictional romance podcast called Miss Connection is coming next.
Alampay hosts a number of podcasts including “PumaPodcast na Headlines,” “Huli sa Balita” and “Explainers.” “Tokhang sa Tokhang,” PumaPodcast’s audio documentary on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, will be out soon. The five-part special, which will feature the voices of journalists, statisticians, parents, spouses, PDEA agents and more, asks the question, “Kumusta ang tokhang?”
Complex story structures
Alampay says, “It’s not so much the subject that excites me, but the production. This has the most moving parts so it has challenged us. But it also taught us, and validated a lot of what we actually already know. What I’m proudest of are the projects that involve a lot of elements. Not just voices, but music, ambient sound, sound design, complex story structures… all handled properly in sound engineering and actual audio production.”
As the number of their podcast titles continue to grow, so does their team. There are three full-time assistant producers now (Christine Chung, Diosa Quiñones, George Ampil), audio editor Marc Casillan, social media manager Trix Casillan, plus a number of other producers and people who serve in various capacities.
Randy David, his daughter Kara and son CP arrive for a meeting with the PumaPodcast team. They sit in the living room, planning his show’s second season. Randy says, “Ako excited dito kasi I really thought that radio had died. I thought that the podcast might be a way of reaching and developing a different kind of audience… I want to politicize Pinoys and really raise consciousness. Otherwise, why would I develop a third career in podcasting?”
At one point, he asks, “Are we getting any international listeners?”
“Yes. But 70 percent of listeners are from the Philippines,” Javier replies.
People are listening. In the Focus Room is a post-it that reads “200,000 plays in 2020.”
Javier says, “If you go back to January of 2019, we were happily getting 50 to 100 listens on the Daily Newscast.” In 2019, their original target was 10,000 listens. “Then by the middle of the year, we had to revise that to 20,000. At the end of the year, we’d hit 37,000 out of the projected 20,000.” Barely two months into 2020, they had already hit almost 70,000 plays.
People aren’t just listening, they’re responding. “Te Talks” is being cited in law papers in law schools, says Javier. A lot of women—and even guys—are sending them messages about “Convservative Ako,” says Tantengco.
“Like any other Filipino podcaster, the only real challenge for all of us is discovery. I think there are so many good Filipino podcasts already out there. If only people could find out and sample them faster and sooner,” says Alampay. “You just have to start. You have to listen. Try it. Try a lot. Hirap i-describe what’s great and powerful about the experience. But once you’ve tried and found what you like, there’s no turning back, promise.”
Something for everybody
Javier says, “I just think that there’s something for everybody. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably something about it. It’s like the porn rule. If it exists, there’s probably porn about it. So yeah, if it exists, there’s probably a podcast about it.”
The members of the PumaPodcast team have become evangelists of the gospel of podcasts—and what wonderful gospel it is.
“There is joy, power and value in listening. Ngayon ang dami-dami nang ingay, mag-take naman tayo ng time para makinig,” says Aquino.
Imagine, she adds, if everyone in Metro Manila would discover the wonders of podcasts, maybe sitting in traffic wouldn’t be as unbearable. “Listeners tell us their lives have been enriched in some way… kahit yun lang mas sumaya ka sa traffic ng konti… It scratches this need to create impact and make things better,” says Javier.
In the living room is a fort that the team has built. “No adults allowed!” a cardboard sign reads. Inside, there are kiddie-sized chairs and a table with a makeshift mic. “Our guests can come here and try to podcast,” says Aquino. “Lahat ng tao kaya mag-podcast.”
Apart from producing their own shows, the PumaPodcast team partners with other companies and functions as an audio production house for them. Javier says, “The business play has always been as a production house. The vision is clear—to be the best audio production that is available with a journalistic background, with journalistic values and with a focus on storytelling. We’re interested in enabling people to tell interesting stories that they could not otherwise tell.”
Inside the studio in the Focus Room, WiseOwl PH’s Mika Ortega, Joza Myrene Nada and Oya Arriola are recording an episode of Give A Hoot, their strategy firm’s podcast. Why Give A Hoot? “It’s basically give a sh*t,” Ortega tells us later. “Give A Hoot is a podcast for people who are interested in communication and social change.”
Myrene says that they like working with PumaPodcast because they feel that their values are aligned with WiseOwl PH’s. “We are super picky when it comes to the relationships and partnerships that we build. But they’re also interested in the things we are interested in. It’s a magical partnership.”
“You feel kindred spirits with people who are both nerdy about something but who can also lighten up.. It’s a vibe,” says Ortega.
Give A Hoot’s first episode, which is about the call out culture, was released that day.
PumaPodcast also has collaborations with Quintin Pastrana, Project Vanity and Dsty Mnl. They’ve also worked with Smart and PLDT in creating content.
The Inquirer has also partnered with PumaPodcast in producing its own podcasts. The first one, Aux Lang, an OPM podcast hosted by the paper’s Business Features editor Tina Arceo-Dumlao already has two episodes out.
“We do partnerships very well,” says Javier. “The best work happens when we engage in creative collaboration.”
And because of their journalistic background, they provide way more than just technical know-how. There’s a sign in the Focus Room that reads, “Everyone can be a podcaster pero hindi lahat PumaPodcast.”
Not everyone realizes this but there is so much more to producing a podcast than just turning a mic on and hitting the record button. The PumaPodcast system is especially meticulous, one that we have experienced first-hand, as we have spent almost half a year working on another Inquirer podcast with them.
Javier says, “There is this intense focus on high quality content. There is a layer of editorial that guests and hosts have to go through. Our hosts don’t ever just walk in and go, it’s on. You go through a process before you’re allowed into the studio—a lot of pre-prod, a lot of discipline in terms of outlining. I don’t know if any other podcasters could do a writers’ room in the way that we do. We incorporate a lot of tools, a lot of mental tools that raise the bar.”
They hold internal listening sessions too and critique and reedit and reshape each podcast until the team is satisfied. “The listening sessions are super intense,” says Javier.
The process can hurt, says Aquino. “Gawa mo yun eh and hindi mo pa alam pano ayusin. Pero ang kagandahan nga sa collaboration, nagtutulungan kayo.”
“Ako I made something and after putting it through the listening session I killed it. It no longer exists,” says Aquino.
We ask: who is the Simon Cowell of listening sessions?
“Lahat kami,” says Aquino.
“But no one is mean about it,” Javier adds.
It’s Ampil’s birthday and Aquino is slicing cake. Food is a big part of the company culture, they all agree. “PumaPodcast, fueled by milk tea,” Aquino jokes.
But the group is bonded by more than just their love of eating.
“Magkakaibigan kaming lahat. Gusto namin ang isa’t isa. We have care and compassion for each other but we are also clear on what we expect of each other,” says Aquino.
Javier adds, “When it’s time to be intense it’s super intense. And then when it’s time to be chill we can be pretty chill. We are very mission driven. I think what we’re doing is so insane, it borders on stupidity. People could choose stable jobs where you clock in and you clock out and you go but then we decided to go and work in a startup where there is no sureness, you’re embattled all the time and you’re trying to convince other people to join you in your crazy quest. But it’s because you all believe in something that is bigger. It’s shared risk coming together to build something bigger. If you are coming in to punch a clock and gather a pay check, you would do better elsewhere.”
Aquino says, “Yun yung kagandahan eh. Lahat tayo may paki. Walang member ng team na ‘Kailangan ko ng trabaho eh, dito na lang.’”
For Aquino, the big joy of being part of PumaPodcast is the ability to tell stories. “Lahat lang kami gusto lang namin magkwento, yun naman talaga ang purpose. Gusto ko yung opportunity to tell stories in a different kind of medium. Na andun ka sa tenga nung tao na sobrang intimate, na parang, halika, sumama ka sa mundong ito.”
Listen to PumaPodcast’s shows on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Anchor, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.