Grammar Groove – An Interview with Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty

While podcasting is still a relatively young medium, podcast listenership is growing steadily.  According to a recent forecast from e-Marketer, advertisers  will spend $240 million on embedded podcast advertising in 2008 and $400 million by 2011.  One of the hottest podcasts today is Grammar Girl, produced by Mignon Fogarty.

Mignon FogartyMignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network and the host of the award-winning Grammar Girl podcast.  Mignon earned a B.A. in English from the University of Washington and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. She was the top editor at multiple websites in the late ’90s, and worked as a science and technical writer before becoming Grammar Girl in 2006.

Mignon took time out for an interview with Future Perfect Publishing recently to discuss what makes Grammar Girl such a strong franchise, how she produces and manages episdoes, and what’s ahead for her popular show. 

FPP:  Were you always interested in grammar?

Mignon:  I bought all the popular grammar books as they came out over the years, but I can’t say I was always a grammar fanatic. I do love working on it now though; it’s fascinating.

FPP:  What inspired you to start the Grammar Girl podcast?

Mignon:  I was working as a science and technical writer back in 2005 and ended up starting a weekly podcast about science. That show did well – it won the Best Science Show category of the Podcast Peer Awards – but it became a huge drain on my time.  Each show took at least 10 hours to produce, and although the traffic probably put the show in the top 20% of all podcasts, it clearly wasn’t ever going to become my main source of income.

So I began to think about other ways I could stay in podcasting without it being such a time sink.  I came up with six or seven ideas for short tip-based shows, and as I was editing technical documents one day at the coffee shop, looking at grammar error after grammar error, I was finally inspired to choose grammar as the theme.  I scribbled down about four possible episode topics, threw up a website, and recorded the first Grammar Girl podcast..

FPP:  Grammar Girl is one of the most popular podcasts now.  Grammar seems like an unlikely topic to have such wide appeal. To what do you attribute its popularity?

Mignon:  I know what you mean; I was surprised by the popularity too.

The messages I receive from listeners and the interactions I have with people in general have led me to a few conclusions. First, there is a bigger population of language lovers than you might imagine.

Second, everyone seems to have a language question they’ve always wondered about but never bothered to investigate. I get a lot of e-mail messages that start out “I’ve always wondered . . .”

Third, because of e-mail and instant messaging, I believe people are writing more now than in previous years.  Whereas 20 years ago people would pick up a phone and call a business contact, today it’s more common to write an e-mail message. Schools don’t spend a lot of time on language rules, so people feel insecure about their writing.  When they see that there is an easy, fun way to learn the practical little rules, they get excited.

FPP:  What’s the makeup of your audience and why are they so interested in grammar?

Mignon:  Based on surveys I’ve done, my audience is about half male and half female. Listeners tend to be highly educated, have good incomes, and range in age from 25 to 45.

In general, the people I hear from say the show helps them do better at work or at school.

FPP:  Before you began podcasting, you were a writer.  What things did you have to learn when you made the transition to audio and first began podcasting?

Mignon:  I didn’t know anything about audio production or writing for audio when I first started, so I had a lot of learning to do. I had to learn what kind of equipment and software to use and then how to use it. I picked up everything I know from reading websites and forums and from experimenting. That’s probably why it took me so long to produce the science podcast!

FPP:  What made you choose audio vs. print as your format to teach people about grammar?

Mignon:  I was already committed to doing an audio show, so it was really more a matter of choosing grammar as a topic than choosing a format for teaching grammar.

Grammar Girl’s audiobookFPP:  You’ve created a new audiobook “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips.” Are you considering a print version as well?

Mignon:  I’m working on a print book that should come out in time for the back-to-school season next year.

FPP:  What is involved in putting an episode together and what is your time commitment on a weekly basis to the show?

Mignon:  First I choose a topic. The topics almost always come from listener questions, and when it’s possible I like to tie the show to a current event.  For example, when Hillary Clinton picked “You and I” for her campaign song, I used that as a jumping off point to talk about the phrase “between you and I,” which a lot of listeners had asked about.

Once I have the topic I do a lot of research. I have about 20 reference books and I also do Internet searches. Even if I think I know the answer, I check as many references as I can to make sure I’m not missing something.  Depending on how complicated the topic is, research can go quickly or it can take many hours. More than once I’ve abandoned a topic after hours of research because it ends up feeling too complicated to cover in a five-minute podcast.

Once I’m comfortable with what I want to say, I write my script and then send it to a copy editor for review. Sometimes when I get the script back there is some back-and-forth with the copy editor about minor points of grammar. And when the script is done I record the show.

I’d like to get ahead, but I’m not; so right now I tend to work right up to the Thursday night deadline. So depending on how late it is, I either send my audio file to my sound guy for editing or (if it is too late) I edit it and post it myself.

I’d say the whole process takes 8 hours for a very easy show and 20 hours for a very complicated show or when I have to abandon a topic and start over.

FPP:  What has worked well and what things have you had to change during the life of Grammar Girl?

Mignon:  When I was just starting out I didn’t always put references on the website. I put up references now because I found that doing so heads off criticism from people who think they know the rules but are misinformed.  I found that if I didn’t post my references, I would often end up going back and citing them anyway to defend my position.

FPP:  How do you measure the success of your podcast?

Mignon:  I track audio file downloads, web page views, rankings, and listener questions, and all of those metrics would support the idea that the podcast is successful, but for me personally it’s the listener feedback that makes me feel as if the show is successful.  For example, Grammar Girl is one of the most reviewed podcasts at iTunes; people seem to like the show so much that they spontaneously take the time to write reviews, and I’m very moved by that.

FPP:  How does Grammar Girl earn money?  Has it become easier to attract advertisers?

Mignon:  I make money primarily by having advertising in the podcast, and it has definitely been easier over time to attract advertisers. Not only has Grammar Girl become more well known over the last year, but advertisers are also becoming more comfortable with podcasting.

I also released an audiobook in March that’s done very well. It was originally available as a download from iTunes and Audible, and it came out on CD in July. The title is Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Clean Up Your Writing.

FPP:  Has the rapid growth in your listening population changed the way you do your podcast and handle your interactions with your audience?

Mignon:  The rapid growth was overwhelming at first because I was still working as a technical writer.  At first I tried to personally answer every listener question, but I get a lot of long, complicated grammar questions and answering them all quickly became impossible.

I started keeping a handwritten list of questions, which became a Word document with questions, which finally became a spreadsheet that I use to organize questions in a way that makes it easy to find topics I want to use for the show.

I was able to quit working as a technical writer in January to focus on podcasting full time, and it became more manageable after that. I still can’t answer every question personally, but I do try to answer as many as I can.

FPP:  What’s in store for the future of Grammar Girl?

Mignon:  My top priority is still putting out a new Grammar Girl episode every week. I’m just plugging through listener questions.

You might recall that I said I just threw up the original Grammar Girl website, so it’s not a surprise that it isn’t very pretty or user-friendly.  So I’m working on redesigning the website to make it easier to use and search. That should be done in September.  As I said, there is the print book that will come out next year, and of course, I’m always working on growing the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network.

This entry was posted in Interviews, podcasting, readership strategies. Bookmark the permalink.