Formats Unpacked: After The Tone

How voice notes changed phone-in shows

Hi Format Nerds,

Thanks for joining - especially all this week’s new subscribers. Like the rest of us, you’re probably here because you’re obsessed with how to tell better stories, you want to find out how to capture attention now that it’s really hard to do it in streams, or you just really enjoy taking things apart to find out what makes them work.

We’re not the biggest community on Substack, but this niche is driving Storythings’ vision to lead communications out of the content era and into the format era. Where one-off campaigns are replaced by multi-episode relationships, and where the subscribe button is the entrance to becoming a part of your audience’s life.

Today’s format is one that encapsulates so much of what we believe makes stories so powerful. It creates understanding around difficult subjects, connects people and builds communities.

Enjoy

What is it?

After The Tone (podcast)

What’s the format?

After the Tone describes itself as “A podcast for weirds and their friends”. Two mates, Debbie and Scottee lead ‘a gang of weirdos’ to create a weekly podcast made up entirely of voice notes sent by the audience to the show’s burner phone. Each episode is a 40 minute mash up of big questions and silly observations. It’s a bit like late night talk radio, but with nice people and more laughs. 

Performance artist Scottee is wearing a white long sleeve t-shirt, with short brown hear and a beard. He is holding his hand to his face but one eyes is peeping through his fingers. The backgroud is white. Above him, to the left are the words "After the Tone" in red letters

What’s the magic that makes it special? 

After the Tone doesn’t actually feel like you’re listening to a podcast or radio show. It feels like you’re going to a place. In fact, host Scottee actually refers to the community that has built up around the show as ‘The Pub’. Listening to the 40-minute show really does feel like having a pint with a bunch of old friends on the way home from work. Scottee’s ‘come on in and grab a seat with the rest of us weirdos’ style of hosting sets the tone, and takes podcasting to a new level of immersiveness. Who needs the metaverse when you’ve got Scottee and Debbie with a microphone responding to a load of voice notes?

As a working class self-taught artist who left school at 14 without any qualifications, Scottee uses art and comedy to talk about subjects that have touched his life. His multi-award-winning shows have tackled issues such as mental health, poverty, class and fatness. With After the Tone, he has created a space for other people to tell their own stories about their world.

When we hang out with our close friends, the people we really feel safe with, the conversation can go anywhere. Scottee has made these people feel safe enough to share their secrets, their shames, and their outrageous behaviour. After the Tone is a show that is about mental health and sausages. It’s about poverty and marital farting. It’s about class and singing vibrators. It’s about all the things we talk about when we feel safe enough to do so. 

Unlike most podcasts, contributors aren’t talking directly with the host, but having an asynchronous conversation with the whole pub. They respond to voice notes left in previous episodes or seasons, and often refer to other pub members by their nicknames. Themes emerge, disappear and surface again. It sounds like a TikTok stream, but with a bunch of lovely humans deciding what you hear rather than a dark and mysterious algorithm. As a recent piece on the BBC said: “It’s extraordinarily beautiful to hear strangers ‘meet’ in this way, and share similar stories. ‘Oh my god, I feel the same!’ they often say, linking around themes of queerness, exclusion and class.”

But it’s not just Scottee or the contributors that make this show so inclusive. The tech plays a really important role. Radio phone-ins have been around forever. But don’t mistake this for another phone-in show. The voice note format is smart because unlike phone-ins, the contributor has control. They’re not going to be tripped up by a smart-arse host live on air. They’re not going to fumble for the right words or speak in a clumsy way. They’re not going to say something that lands them in a mess. They can re-record their contribution until it’s exactly how they want it to be. They can be exactly who they are. 

At Storythings we believe that everyone has a story to tell, that the first step to understanding others is through stories, and that when you tell great stories in a format (rather than as a one-off campaign) you become a part of people’s lives. The format Scottee has created does all three so well. If I was to create a jealousy list of the podcasts I wish I had made I think After the Tone would sit right at the top.  

Favourite Episodes

Hard to choose but the recent end-of-season finale, and Scottee’s birthday, was particularly fun. 

Similar Formats

I used to listen to a lot of late night radio phone-in formats but Brexit (and Alan Partridge to a lesser extent) hammered a nail in that coffin. I have really fond childhood memories of listening to Alan Beswick on Radio Manchester and Pete Price on Radio City in Liverpool switching between love and understanding, and outrage between callers. They could tackle people’s large and small issues and make them feel equally important. Despite being from London, there’s something very northern about Scottee’s approach and I love it.

Thanks for reading.

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Til next time,

Hugh

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