Nobody’s Home: The Story Behind the Podcast That Won the Top Prize in B2B Journalism

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The 2019 Jesse H. Neal Awards, which recognize the best in B2B journalism, provided no shortage of highlights at this year’s ceremony in New York City on March 29.

More than 200 B2B editors and executives celebrated 51 prizes spanning 21 categories, including Strategic Insight’s Chief Investment Officer winning Best Media Brand (Overall Editorial Excellence) and Subadhra Sriram, editor and publisher/media products at Crain Communication’s Staffing Industry Analysts, receiving the Timothy White Award, which honors an editor whose work displays courage, integrity and passion. See the full list of winners here.

In the first year that podcasts were a Neal’s category, American Banker’s Nobody’s Home, a 10-part podcast produced by reporter John Heltman that examined vacant housing blight in the United States, won the overall top prize, the Grand Neal.

It was an ambitious effort both in scope and use of a new medium (in what’s been dubbed “the year of the mediocre podcast,” Nobody’s Home was anything but). Heltman worked for nearly a year, traveling coast to coast to find out how concentrated pockets of vacant housing are hurting U.S. communities and endangering the financial system. He provided art, links and transcripts for each episode, spliced and mixed each podcast himself, and even wrote its theme song.

“John’s innovative, exhaustive podcast series tackled tough subjects including discrimination in mortgage lending, gentrification and whether home ownership itself is a good idea,” said Tara Welty, VP and editor-in-chief at Scholastic Teacher Resources and a member of the 2019 Neal Award judge’s selection committee. “John’s powerful work has also been recognized by media outlets Politico and Axios for confronting an often ignored yet growing problem.”

It’s work that showcases what B2B journalism can be and required a reporter’s commitment and willingness to take risks. It also required the support of that reporter’s team and bosses, who signed off on an ambitious effort that could have been dismissed as tangential to the brand’s mission and gave the reporter the resources and support that he required.

Here, Heltman, who was also selected as the 2019 McAllister Editorial Fellow and will serve as an advisor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, talks about the realities of podcasts as a tool for B2B journalists and what it took to bring a passion project to life.    

A Team Willing to Take Risks

Heltman, a Washington, DC native, had been pitching a look at the effect of housing blight in Baltimore and Washington, DC to some national media outlets without success.

He saw an opportunity closer to home when American Banker’s former editor-in-chief Marc Hochstein told staff to pitch passion projects—if the project made sense for the brand and the audience, the American Banker team would see about giving staffers resources and time to follow up.

Heltman had toyed with idea of a podcast. “By the time that call for pitches came around the concept had evolved into thinking of this as broader issue beyond D.C. and Baltimore.”

Soon, Heltman settled on the idea of vacant housing as a way to make his idea relevant to American Banker. “Podcasting is so expansive and comprehensive that it gives you the room to take the story wherever it leads instead of sticking to the securitization of mortgages -- stuff that’s in our wheelhouse. It takes readers on little bit of a detour from where we might normally take them.”

He received the green light but admits he wasn’t sure where to start or what to say. Hochstein left a few months later and was replaced by editor-in-chief Rob Blackwell, another podcast fan. “We knew what it could be even if we didn’t know how to get there,” said Heltman. “It helped that I wasn’t trying to explain this to someone who didn’t get this.”

Heltman originally pitched 4-7 episodes of about 25 minutes each. He started doing background interviews in the summer of 2017 but by the fall of 2018, “It became apparent that if I just tried to do this in my spare time, would take a million years,” Heltman added. “Vacant housing isn’t a hot, in-the-moment topic that would lose its relevance but it wasn't so slow moving that I could take forever.”

To expedite the process, Heltman pitched an idea of doing a story on all 12 regional federal reserve banks, which gave him the opportunity to work in interviews for the podcast around his other business travel.

Guerrilla-Style Gets You Only So Far

Heltman was able to leverage some equipment that SourceMedia already had in-house (American Banker editor-at-large Penny Crossman was already doing a podcast interview show) and bought his own recorder. “If I’m doing interviews anyway, why not just mike them up,” he said. “I had gotten used to the foibles of the equipment.”

But there is a limit to what can be done guerrilla-style. “A trope about podcasting is that if you have an iPhone, you can do an interview,” Heltman said. “That’s sort of true, but one time I was at a coffee shop working on contacting people and called someone who said, ‘I’m right around the corner from where you’re sitting, come on over and we’ll do the interview.’ I didn’t have my gear with me so I did it with an iPhone.”

Heltman and his contact went for a drive through a revitalized neighborhood. “It was a great interview but when I listened to it later it was garbage because the air conditioner was running full blast,” he added. Back in the studio, Heltman cleaned up the audio with dynamic noise reduction.

The lesson there is be prepared, said Heltman. “You can overthink the gear but you can underthink it as well—the right gear makes a difference. You’ve got to understand how it works and how levels work (to keep things from peaking which makes it easier to clean up later). It’s more technique than technical. It is a different process and you’re dealing with things you don’t have to think about when you’re doing a print article.”

As Heltman was nearing the end of the project, he faced an even bigger challenge when Source’s in-house AV tech left the company. “At first, I would write the scripts and someone else would splice it together,” he said. “That guy left and there was someone else who could do it but that person was overwhelmed with everything else that SourceMedia does.”

Heltman suggested that he learn the process himself, thinking that would be dismissed as a bad idea. “Instead, they said go for it,” Heltman added. 

SourceMedia uses Adobe Premiere as its editing software and a Zoom H5 as the recorder. For voiceover work, Heltman used a condenser mic that he picked up on a flash sale on Amazon. “The most expensive thing was me—the whole time I was doing this, they were paying my salary and I wasn’t writing briefs about something like TLAC rules, someone else was doing it,” Heltman said.

Know What You’re Getting Into

While Heltman says the process got easier as it went on, it took a long time to pull together with his other responsibilities. He started writing scripts in December 2017 and the project went into post production in August 2018.

“Now, to make a 20-minute podcast show, it probably takes a couple weeks to schedule interviews, conduct interviews, write the scripts and do the production,” Heltman said. “A lot of it is getting up to speed on how it works.”

#20 in iTunes and Enjoying a Long Tail

A landing page created for the podcast generated tens of thousands of views in its initial release while downloads also numbered in the tens of thousands, according to Heltman.

Nobody’s Home charted on iTune’s business podcasts at #20. “We debated the launch strategy—do we put it out one-at-a-time serial style or drop all 10 at once,” Heltman said. “We decided on splitting the difference by dropping the first four and putting out the next six serially.”

Heltman said the first four episodes did the best then response dropped slightly. “That’s partly because of Hurricane Florence, which made the news cycle chaotic. If we had to do it over, we would have put them out at the same time. It’s had a pretty good tail—the Website still gets several hundred views per week six months after the last episode. It’s kind of evergreen, the subject doesn’t cease to be relevant.”

Gimmick or Lasting Journalist Tool?

Heltman says he has conflicting thoughts on what podcasts mean for B2B journalism.

“There are a lot of different kinds of ways of telling stories,” he said. “Snackable video content was the hot thing 10 years ago, and a lot of these supposed pivots are gimmicks. The pivot to video is the best example of a shiny new thing that everyone was all about but it didn’t change the face of journalism the way some people expected it to. People who think podcasting will change the face of journalism or change the way people consume news are similarly misguided.”

However, “I do think it’s here to stay, and whereas video and print require you as the consumer to pay attention to them and only them, you can consume a podcast while doing something else,” said Heltman. “For that reason, there is demand for quality podcasts that there isn’t for snackable content.”

“Is this a new tool for B2B?” said Heltman. “It should be. Because it’s a new way of telling stories. A lot of the stuff we cover, we tend to write about the new thing that just happened that moves the story incrementally forward.”

“What I kind of wanted to do with Nobody’s Home, is tell the whole story," Heltman said. "There was that cool story about trench collapses as the leading cause of deaths at construction sites that won a Neal (Death by Trench, Randall-Reilly's Equipment World). I want to read that story. I can see you doing a podcast about that. There are stories in our space that need more room to breathe and more craft to tell and that’s a way to bring in not just your regular readers but also those people who don’t know what you do and why it matters.”

Editor’s Note: Hear John Heltman and a selection of 2019 Jesse H. Neal winners share tips and best practices for new types of journalism, from podcasts to infographics to social media and best use of data, on a Connectiv webcast on May 23 at 1pm ET. Details will be posted soon.  

Matt Matt Kinsman is vice president of content + programming at Connectiv, the only association focused on the integrated b-to-b model—including publications, events, digital media, marketing services and business information. Prior to joining Connectiv's predecessor American Business Media in 2011, Kinsman was executive editor of Folio:, the leading information provider for the magazine industry.