Behind-The-Scenes of How the Flightless Bird Podcast is Made
I wanted to talk through how we make this weekly show: the challenges, fun bits, hard bits and logistics.
I did an Ask Me Anything recently, and one question that came up a few times was “How do you make Flightless Bird?”
It was good timing, because I’d been thinking about writing about this anyway. Part of Webworm is going behind-the-scenes a little, because I know plenty of people here are curious about how stuff is put together. Who knows, maybe you’re thinking about making a podcast yourself. This might help, or create some clarity.
So — today I wanted to pull the curtain back on how we make Flightless Bird.
Let’s get into it.
Flightless Bird is a weekly podcast that is probably one of the most simultaneously fun and challenging things I’ve worked on.
It all started when I got marooned in the United States back in 2021, as New Zealand closed its borders to keep covid out. After writing about an increasingly frustrating series of failed attempts to get back home, it was clear that I was to remain marooned in the mysterious, confusing, overblown land of the United States.
I’d originally come here to direct a new documentary (whilst finishing Mister Organ’s post-production remotely), but that film all went belly up for reasons I’ll explain another time.
With no job, my visa was no longer valid — and I couldn’t get back to the country I was born in. Enter Dax Shepard. Back in 2020, I’d been a guest on his Armchair Expert show. We hit it off and me, him, Monica and producer Rob started doing a monthly show about conspiracy theories called Armchaired and Dangerous (it’s not gone, we are just all very busy for reasons that will probably become apparent as I talk about making Flightless Bird!)
Fast forward a year or so, and I was now in America. And when Dax heard I was marooned, he basically said “pitch a show you can work on full time, and I’ll sponsor a new visa for you.”
I can’t tell you what a godsend this was. American visas are a nightmare, and someone offering to sponsor you for a specific job that doesn’t even exist yet was manna from the heavens. If I was Abraham about to murder my son, then Dax was God, swooping in to save my career (which is my son Isaac in this metaphor, I guess?!)
The next issue was coming up with what a weekly show would be.
Enter producer Rob Holysz.
Rob produces all the Armchair shows — “I work out of the attic, in the field with David, and my home studio in my basement, mostly soundproofed from my one and six year olds that are always running and crawling around upstairs,” is how he summarises his life to me.
Me and him were on a road trip talking over concepts for this new show, and at some point he just casually threw out a very simple idea: “Why don’t we just make a podcast about you being stuck here?” And Flightless Bird was born.
Figuring out what Flightless Bird would be:
Of course there was a lot more discussion than that. Flightless Bird needed a point of view, a perspective, and a format.
What I knew is that I was incredibly keen to make a show that wasn’t just a live interview for an hour, or a live discussion between hosts. That is a very specific skill and it’s very hard to pull off. There is a reason shows like Armchair Expert, WTF with Marc Maron and The Dollop work, and that thousands of podcasts involving chit-chat are insufferable and fall over. I knew that format wasn’t for me.
I also think if you make something that you expect someone to give an hour of their valuable time to listen to each week — you better make sure it’s worth their time.
I knew the main things I really like doing are writing and documentary, so I wanted that to factor into the show. I wanted to make a slickly-produced audio documentary as I tried to understand different parts of American culture. I wanted to pour some love into it.
We decided the show would include several pre-recorded interviews, some investigative elements, voice over, sound design and scoring. I knew I could not reach the dizzying heights of shows like This American Life or Heavyweight, but I wanted to take my cues from shows like that.
After a lot of discussion between me, Rob, Dax and Monica we settled on a final format.
Pre-recorded introduction (3 minutes)
As with Armchaired & Dangerous, each episode would start with a clear pre-recorded setup: What I am investigating that week, and some facts and figures to provide context that sets America apart.
Themesong — created by the one and only Bob Mervak (30 seconds)
Attic discussion (15 minutes)
We’d then open up on Monica and me in the attic (the name of the recording studio at Dax’s house), discussing initial thoughts about the subject. At some point during this I throw to some pre-recorded person-on-the-street interviews (aka ‘vox-pops’ or ‘voxies’) of the American public talking about that topic, to get a wider perspective. It was important this show was not just me judging America. It’s a diverse place and those voices needed to factor in.
The documentary: Part I (15 minutes)
The pre-made audio documentary begins.
Back the attic (5 minutes)
This breaks up the documentary and keeps things grounded and lively. Monica gives some reactions to what I’ve just learnt, and what she’s just learnt: about me, and the topic. This is the first time she has heard the documentary, so all her reactions and thoughts are real, first-time reactions.
The documentary: Part II (15 minutes)
The documentary starts back up.
Finale in the attic (15 minutes)
Again, it’s the first Monica has heard any of this, so we chat it out. She is so valuable here, as she will have thoughts on both my reactions as an outsider, and also the topic at hand (as someone who’s lived here a whole lot longer than I have). She’s not a tall white man so has very different thoughts to me.
Setting Up Flightless Bird:
Looking back on that car trip with Rob, I’m amazed at how quickly the plan all came together. We all got to work — creating 10 episodes (10 hours of “content”…. fuck I hate that soulless word) before we launched.
The idea was that when we hit “go” we’d have a runway of sorts. We were going to deliver this show weekly — each and every Tuesday (or Wednesday in New Zealand) — but inevitably things would go wrong and we’d miss making a fresh episode at some point. An interview might go wrong, or an idea might not pan out. So missing one show meant we’d have nine episodes up our sleeve. And so on. We never wanted to reach a Tuesday and have no shows up our sleeve.
Missing a week is a podcast sin. If you build up a pattern of release, you can’t drop the ball. I get sad and mad when my favourite podcasts aren’t out when they usually are. Imagine if The Last of Us or White Lotus just randomly missed a week? No no no. That’s not on.
Last year, the plan worked. We launched in May with Religion. By the time we hit Christmas (episode 32) — we only had two episodes left up our sleeve. Great timing, as it was a time for a month off. Well, sort of: It was time to make sure we had 10 episodes ready to go for when we came back on January 31st this year with Episode 33: New Zealand Summer Vacation.
Dax acts as a kind of EP. Sitting in on our early recordings, he’d give notes on tone and content. He found it very hard not to butt in with conversation, which was annoying because he’s smart and funny — but we’d have to cut him out: contractually he can only appear in a maximum of one Flightless Bird a month.
Looking back on that car trip with Rob, there’s another thing that comes to mind: I pitched the most difficult fucking show to make each week. Why didn’t I just pitch a show where it’s two or three people chatting to each other for a few hours? Why did I make this an elaborate weekly production?
Luckily I have help.
How The Flightless Bird Sausage* Is Made:
*contains traces of kiwi
Each episode of Flightless Bird contains three pre-recorded elements that need to be written and/or recorded: The intro, the voxies and the documentary.
The intro is simple: It’s a setup for the episode and it always comes first, because it really dictates how the episode will go. It usually takes shape as a two-page Google doc of my voice over, some clips, and some direction.
It looks like this:
Next element: voxies. For these man-on-the-street interviews I usually head to somewhere in LA that features a melting pot of Americans — so I get a variety of ages and accents. Griffith Park is a great spot, as people from all around America come to the observatory. Armed with a H5 recorder and a sennheiser mic, I wander around and talk to people. New York accent, Boston accents, Southern accents — they’re all there. Back at home, I transcribe the good bits and do a script — much like I do for the intro.
Then there’s the documentary.
This is the bit that takes the most work. After finding a topic (say, “shower curtains” or “toilets”) I do a shitload of reading to find out angles I may not have thought of — and to find good people to talk to about it.
Each topic needs to start with my confusion (“Why so many leaf blowers?” “Why is the water level so high in the toilet bowl?”) — but then expand outwards and get bigger from there. In the case of leaf-blowers: Why are Americans obsessed with lawns? Where did the idea of a lawn come from? And for toilets: Who designs toilets? Why are we stuck with the same designs and functions? Why does every toilet cubicle look the same? Who has access to restrooms? Why are we scared of restrooms?
To tell these stories, I need people who are informed and compelling (a difficult combo). I then reach out to those people, and if they say “yes” (plenty say “no”) then I book them in for a Zoom call.
Sound is vital, so we try and courier each interviewee a decent little microphone ahead of time. There is nothing worse than hearing someone talk through tinny AirPods.
Some episodes are better suited to me going out and meeting people in person — like in the baseball, football and cat show episodes. Other shows see a mix of field work, coupled with Zoom. It really depends on how the story is best told.
Those interviews get transcribed, and using that material I start to write the documentary script — which usually turns into 15-20 pages. That contains more research, clips, and various bits of creative direction.
Once all that audio is gathered and the scripts are written for all three elements (intro, voxies and doco) I send it all off to Flightless Bird’s editors, Jake Anderson and Billy Klein.
I listen to some heavy metal music to celebrate.
Post production Step 1: Jake
Jake lives in Niagara Falls, which I found very confusing at first because I assumed that meant he lived in Canada. Turns out Jake doesn’t live in Canada.
“I live in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, in Niagara county”, says Jake. “There is also Niagara, New York which neighbors the city of Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara Falls State park is in Niagara Falls, New York in Niagara County, not in Niagara, New York. And then there’s Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada which also calls their side of the falls… Niagara Falls.”
From Niagara Falls, New York, Jake throws together a basic assembly of the episode I’ve scripted — pulling sound clips and videos, and generally making sense out of my scripts.
“I like the freedom and creativity this work lends itself to, and every episode is its own little puzzle that I get to assemble,” Jake says. Technically, you could listen to Jake’s assembly and the episode would make sense. You could follow the story. But there’s still a lot more work to be done.
Post production Step 2: Billy
Billy is the lead editor on Flightless Bird. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his partner and 11-year-old cat Olive — “who loves to knock over my equipment and hiss at strangers.”
Billy edits all the Armchair shows, previously working with the likes of iHeartMedia and NBC. He also works as a producer, mixing engineer, and is a touring musician who also does studio sessions — recently playing drums on this.
He and Jake also have a band together called Dead Planets. It’s all very incestuous.
When it comes to Flightless Bird, Billy takes the assembly of each episode and elevates it — doing a fine cut, introducing space and room to breathe, before he starts scoring certain elements and adding sound design.
“My favorite part is learning all of the New Zealandisms David loves to say and the odd topics we Americans overlook. Can the US please get rid of sticky drafty shower curtains? They’re disgusting and need to go, it’s just simple maths,” Billy says about the whole process.
Once Billy has an episode locked — it’s sent to be scored.
Post production Step 3: Scoring
Jake does this sometimes (everyone who works on this show is way more talented than anyone has a right to be), or it’s sent to Matthew Logan Vasquez.
Matt lives in Austin with his wife, two kids and a cat. He’s also hideously talented, in two bands called Delta Spirit and as himself, MLV.
After the kids are dropped off at school — and assuming he’s not touring — he’ll sit down to start scoring. “Billy likes to give me some of the sillier ones. For example I scored the Juggalos episode. Making late 90s horror hip-hop sounds like a fun day at the office to me! That’s my favorite part of the gig, scoring such a topically varied show really scratches my creative inches.”
After Billy, Jake and Matt have all had their time — all the pre-recorded elements are ready for me, Monica and Rob to gather in the attic to listen, and record our live conversation around the topic.
All this fresh audio (about an hour’s worth between the chat and the ads) is then sent back to Billy — along with a few final creative notes from me (mainly things I fucked up that I just caught). Billy then assembles the final hour-long ish episode.
This of course also involves putting in the themesong — created by Bob Mervak, who composes all of the Armchair Expert themes. Bob lives just north of Detroit, Michigan with his wife and two kids. He writes music for ads, TV shows, podcasts and film. “I love finding parts, melodies, tones, frequencies, vibes that enhance and lift whatever artist I’m working with,” Bob says.
As for the Flightless Bird theme — that was one of the first things created for this podcast. It helped set the whole tone!
“Dax is a big influence on the direction of these themes, and for this he wanted a sound that was playful and American sounding. We ultimately decided it doesn’t get more American than the blues, and I approached it with a traditional stride guitar heavy blues sound. I’m a huge fan of Mississippi John Hurt, and I got Jackson Smith (son of Patti Smith) to play an amazing track for it, but it was on electric, and Dax and I decided we wanted acoustic. So, I had to Frankenstein my own performance of what Jackson did together (I am not a guitar player!)
So, ultimately what is heard on the final track is me on guitar, vocal, and percussion; Peter “Madcat” Ruth on harmonica, Isabel Nelson-Mervak on background vocals, and Rick McGregor whistling. Dax also wanted some train sound effects which came courtesy of the good folks at Splice audio libraries.”
Finally — with Bob’s theme inserted — the episode is then listened to by Monica, who provides a final round of notes to tighten things up. Billy then does the final sound mix — and boom, finally, it’s done.
A Note on Timelines:
If everything I described above happened one by one, it would take about a month to make an episode. But we have to make four a month — so each week, I am working on about six episodes at a time, all at different stages of production.
For example, each week I am coming up with topics for episode #6, finding interview subjects for episode #5, interviewing people for episode #4, writing the documentary for episode #3, recording the attic session with Monica and Rob for episode #2, and doing final edit notes for episode #1.
That way, all of us in sync (me, Rob, Billy, Jake, Matt and Monica) generate one fresh episode a week.
Oh, there’s one last big step. Deployment.
Rob Holysz produces Flightless Bird, so once everything is complete he does a final listen and quality check. Even though five people have heard it by now, dodgy stuff can still sneak through.
Rob catches it, before uploading the episode to our podcast hosting platform ready for Tuesday.
He’s actually there the whole way through the creative process: “As a producer on the show, my main job is just making sure everything is getting done and that we have a completed release and all the assets that go along with it each week,” Rob says.
“This starts from David coming up with episode ideas, brainstorming with him, mapping out the upcoming weeks and deciding what to release when to making sure the audio docs are happening, that we’re getting in the attic to record, and ensuring each piece of the post-production puzzle is falling into place.”
Rob also takes all the photos and videos we create for social media, and painstakingly makes the collages used to promote each episode (which often feature at least one easter egg).
Finally, talented animator Andrew Strelecki swings by and makes the animated clips we use on Instagram each week.
Okay. That’s it. That’s it.
And that’s how you make a Flightless Bird.
I hope my rambling — much like in the podcast — makes sense. Between Webworm (my main thing) and this show, my weeks are pretty packed, and it’s why there’s less Armchaired & Dangerous. There is not enough of me to make all the things!
I have to admit, part of writing this was a reaction to a few people I’ve met who didn’t understand why I was alway working on this show. They sort of thought the whole thing was recorded live over one hour, and then just uploaded to the internet. In a way, this is a good thing — I like to think something that’s made with love and care means that people aren’t thinking of how it’s made: they’re just listening, and hopefully enjoying.
Yes, I am aware that I am yet another white podcaster. There are so many of us it’s embarrassing. That’s why I like the documentary aspect, too — I can bring in a variety of voices and backgrounds into each show. It’s not just me rambling on into a mic.
I’m happy to answer any questions about the show, or podcasts in general, in the comments below. I will help if I can!
I’m still learning, by the way.
That’s what makes it fun.
I didn’t think it would be easy, but the sheer scope of work involved gives me second hand anxiety for you.
Making others believe it is an effortless project is a sign that you're doing a great job bringing together all of the complexity and masking it away to present a beautiful finished product.