Award-winning podcaster Martin Zaltz Austwick is fond of describing himself as a recovering physicist, but that doesn’t begin to tell his whole story. While podcasting has become his main passion, he has fallbacks should that particular pastime no longer keep him occupied.
Austwick’s résumé includes doctorates in quantum computing, carbon nanotubes, and nitrogen-trapping fullerenes, and a first class undergraduate degree in physics. As a teacher he’s lectured extensively on data visualization, and his research has covered everything from cycling and freight transport to digital humanities.
But through all the time he spent in academia, Austwick never lost his love of music.
“Once you get out of your 20s it becomes harder to find and listen to new things,” the U.K.–born 41-year-old says, on the line from Virginia. “You have to actively look for it. I started off listening to rock music as a teenager, when I had my first band. Then I really started to like grunge music, and after that died off, sort of guitar-y stuff. For me, that’s where it all began, and continues today.”
Austwick makes music under a number of banners—Pale Bird, Martin Austwick, Dr Martin Austwick, and The Sound of the Ladies—his output suggesting that he’s as fascinated with lo-fi folk and low-key postrock as he is with ambient noise and glitched-out electronica. But it’s arguably his podcasting—bringing him to the West Coast for the second Vancouver Podcast Festival—that he’s best known for.
Over the past decade or so, Aust-wick has had a hand in creating and/or hosting podcasts focused on everything from technology (Global Lab) to education (Brain Train) to horizon-expanding comedy (Answer Me This!). His Vancouver Podcast Fest appearance will see him teamed up with Helen Zaltzman for an episode of the series The Allusionist, which explores language and the way that humans use it.
“It’s about language, but it’s way more fun than that sounds,” he says. “It’s not a recording—it’s a live show. It’s not someone sitting there talking into a microphone. I’ll be playing live music, and there’s text adventure games and stories.”
One of Austwick’s most celebrated ventures might be Song by Song, which was honoured with a British Podcast Award in 2017. The show has found a devoted audience for dissecting the recorded works of Tom Waits in chronological order.
Austwick traces his interest in podcasting back to the days when he was making music as a starving student.
“I listened to the first Foo Fighters album and heard that Dave Grohl had recorded it all by himself with one guitar setup,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool—I wonder if I could do that by myself?’ It was a great time because all this software was starting to become available to make that possible. All I needed was a laptop.”
He eventually realized that the same was true for podcasting.
“By 2007 I had a small amount of gear—enough to make music,” Austwick recalls. “My wife was like, ‘Why not use it to start a podcast?’ I thought, ‘Sure—that sounds really easy.’ And so we did.”
Today, he’s a firm believer that anyone with a DIY ethic can launch their own podcast. His advice for those starting out begins with simply taking the plunge.
“It’s spoken word, so if you’ve got a microphone it’s quite hard to get it wrong,” Austwick says. “It’s all about getting into a headspace. There’s a lot of people out there doing it, so even if you don’t have the confidence, you have to remember that they’re not necessarily any better at it than you are.
“A major thing is that people aren’t confident about the way that their voice sounds,” he continues. “Everyone hates their voice when they first start—that’s part of the process. You’ll get over that. Also, don’t worry about what kind of microphone you need at the beginning—that sort of stuff shouldn’t hold you back. If all you’ve got is a laptop or an iPad or even a phone, that’s all you need to get going.”
The Allusionist is at the Rio Theatre on Friday (November 8). For more information on the Vancouver Podcast Festival, check out its website.