Zara McDonald and Michelle Andrews have had a meteoric rise as hosts of Shameless, one of Australia’s most popular podcasts – but it wasn’t long ago their idea was rejected. They talk chasing success, trusting your instincts and “embracing awkward”.
Zara McDonald and Michelle Andrews, both 25, are still in a state of shock. Just last year, Michelle was a freelance writer, trying to cobble together enough work to make $50,000 a year. Zara was working full-time as a lifestyle producer for Domaine, covering interiors and homewares. They had a side hustle, a pop-culture podcast called Shameless, that they thought might look good on their CVs to employers, would help them upskill, and perhaps “boost their profiles a little”.
Just 18 months later, Shameless podcast has been downloaded four million times. Zara and Michelle sold out their first live show in under 10 minutes. They were crowned Australia’s Most Popular Podcast of 2019 at the Australian Podcast Awards, were named in Apple’s ‘Best of 2018’ podcasts, and recently got a nod from The New York Times, who said listening “feels like chiming into a conversation between two very up-to-date friends”.
The Melbourne journalists have been called the voices of their generation (though technically, it’s two – they’re either young millennials or older members of Generation Z) for their fresh commentary on everything from the latest Kardashian controversy to casual racism. With the tagline “the podcast for smart women who like dumb stuff”, they’ll unapologetically deep-dive into a celebrity cheating scandal, but offer a clever critique that’s less trashy, more sassy. They don’t shy away from unpopular opinion (they weren’t a fan of Instagram’s removal of ‘likes’), or calling out bad behaviour (such as former AFL players Dane Swan and Scott Cummings’ podcast, which made jokes about sexual assault), and they’ve also interviewed everyone from Georgia Love to our own Emma Isaacs. Plus, they have two other podcasts: She’s on the Money, and Love etc, a 12-part podcast with Bumble that’s just wrapped up. They’ve cultivated a loyal following, including a Facebook group with over 25,000 members and 45,000 Instagram followers, and they even have their own merchandise. “It’s been a surreal year,” says Michelle. “It’s pretty crazy. We’re still in shock, actually. It’s an exciting time.”
Just chase the thing
Millennials have a reputation for being driven, ambitious and not taking no for an answer; Zara and Michelle tick every box. It was the rejection of Shameless at media behemoth Mamamia that led them to go out on their own. The two met there as young writers, although they weren’t friends at first. “Media these days is a dog-eat-dog world and you need to fight for roles. I was stupidly competitive for the first few months of my career because I felt like I had to be the best and stand out to get full-time work,“ says Michelle. “We didn’t become close friends until we started working together. It was a slow burn, but a strong burn.”
The two would banter back and forth in the office, and soon got the chance to cut their teeth podcasting with Bach Chat, a 10-minute recap about The Bachelor. “We knew we had good banter even before we did Bach Chat,” Zara says. “We had similar interests but often different opinions on things that were happening in the pop-culture news cycle. These were conversations we were having at our desks every day.” As Bach Chat quickly became a hit, Zara and Michelle pitched more ideas to Mamamia’s podcast team, including Shameless. They strongly felt that, as 20-somethings, there was a gaping hole in content for their age group.
The pitch was accepted and Shameless kicked off, but it wasn’t long before they were told it was “untenable to continue”.
“We were backed into a corner,” says Zara. “We had two options: either chase the podcast with everything we have, or stay and not pursue it at all. We were young, we had no dependants … we knew it could fail, but we decided to just chase the thing!”
The two quit Mamamia, and the next steps were pretty “messy and uncoordinated for a while”, says Michelle. “Zara went to another job; I thought I’d be a freelance writer and have the podcast on the side. When we left Mamamia, we probably had a few thousand listeners every week. It was a definite side hustle.” Still, from the beginning, they were strategic about how they seeded the podcast, and resorted to old-school forms of advertising, putting up posters in university bathrooms and telling everyone to spread the Shameless message. When they had around 7,000 listeners a week, they decided to try to monetise it by getting sponsors. “I met Zara on her lunch break one day and we decided to go for it,” says Michelle. “I thought we could maybe get a few hundred dollars an episode. After I met with her, I walked around the supermarket, jotting down brands I thought we could reach out to; brands people our age would have an interest in, from ice cream to beauty. I came away with a list of 100, found their contact details, and started sending out cold emails.” Before long, they had their first sponsor. Michelle and Zara agree it was a “fantastic” feeling. “I’d been working full-time and doing Shameless on weekends and after hours. It was only a tiny amount of money in the beginning, but suddenly, it became a paid job,” says Zara. From there, things snowballed and, since then, they haven’t had a single episode without a sponsor. “The minute we had advertisers on our podcast, advertisers started coming to us,” says Zara.
Embracing the awkward
Shameless’s success didn’t come completely out of left field. Michelle and Zara say they had a strong feeling it would work. “It wasn’t just a case of throwing things at a wall and seeing if they would stick. We were strategic and wanting to grow it from the get-go,” says Michelle. “We didn’t give it a chance to fail because we were so serious about it. We came from working at a place where we saw how female-driven brands and communities were created, we implemented what we learnt from that. But we also tweaked it, too, because they were targeting women in their 30s and 40s and what we didn’t see was a brand targeting women in their 20s. A lot of strategy around Shameless was targeting ourselves: what do we care about, what do we want to hear; what’s the mainstream media not talking about when it comes to women in their 20s? What are women talking about at brunches with their friends or in group chats on their iPhone? While failure was on our minds, it wasn’t really a big concern.”
“Someone had to fill that gap,” adds Zara. “For years, I was genuinely confused why I couldn’t find any content for me. All these different sites were serving up content, but not for me.”
“Today, we create content for ourselves, for our friends, our sisters,” says Michelle. “It’s content we want to read and hear. That’s also been the case with our money podcast – it’s things I want to learn about. It comes naturally to us.”
Now they have a big following, they do feel a responsibility to call out poor behaviour – such as influencer Ashy Bines for partnering with DietBet – but their intention was never to be a “callout podcast”, says Zara. “We want to also lift people up who are doing the right thing – we want to pat people on the back. But because we’ve cultivated such a loyal following, we don’t want our listeners to think we’re dropping the ball on calling out behaviour which isn’t right.”
They’ve also learnt to “embrace the awkward”. They started a Facebook group early on, because they knew from working in digital media that a Facebook page alone wouldn’t cut through Facebook’s algorithm; it was prioritising groups. “It was so awkward,” says Zara. “We had, like, 50 people and they were all close friends or family members. Once other people started joining and commenting on the community, it was like a flick of the switch for us and we knew we needed to start leveraging it. We suddenly realised, hang on, this needs to be more than a podcast, it needs to be a community and further to that, a network too.“
Michelle adds, “I remember the first time someone joined who wasn’t a friend or family member. I was like, oh, my god! Who are you?
“And this is the thing we’ve learnt over and over in our careers. You have to embrace the awkward moments. If you want to start something good, it might come with other people looking at you and wondering what you’re doing; thinking it’s a bit weird or unusual. But being able to sit in that awkwardness and have that uncomfortable feeling is really powerful. Because it gives you the freedom to actually go and create things. If you let the feeling of doing something different that might fail eat you up, you’ll probably never create anything.”
Zara agrees. “It was embarrassing to be 23 and start a podcast about celebrities. I mean, podcasts weren’t mainstream even a year ago. People didn’t understand what we were trying to do.”
On the download
It’s safe to say now people understand. Michelle and Zara’s bouncy voices are in the ears of hundreds of thousands of listeners a week. Michelle says winning Australia’s Most Popular Podcast of 2019 was “wonderful”. “Originally the idea for Shameless was rejected because it wasn’t popular enough. It showed us our instincts were right. We knew we weren’t being silly. To win that within a year was a proud moment for both of us. To have that backing of community – because they voted for us – was pretty incredible. We owe a lot to them.”
Zara adds, “It made us feel like we’re credible and we can take on bigger media companies, rather than just being niche and serving a small group of people. I think young women by default aren’t often taken very seriously and I thought we might not be either; I had that insecurity. So anything where we get a pat on the back is so appreciated.” It seems their hard work is paying off – and by hard, that’s around 60 hours a week, Michelle guesses. “I can’t remember the last time I went home early and had a bath, or read a book and went to sleep early. There’s zero downtime.” They try and squeeze in dinners with their partners when they can, but they do put a lot of pressure of themselves, admits Zara.
“When it comes to running your own ship, when you have no idea what you’re doing, you have to make huge sacrifices. A lot of things have had to go for us to do this.”
Creating a podcast is not as simple as you might think. The two record out of Zara’s family home in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Sandringham. “There’s such a saturation of podcasts at the moment that the only thing I think that will separate us is hours and hours of preparing,” says Michelle. “For one Shameless episode, we spend an hour picking the topic, at least three researching, two hours to record, and three hours to edit – which we do ourselves.”
An all-nighter when you’re 25 often involves leaving a club at 5am, not tapping away on a laptop; but Zara and Michelle say they’re often up at all hours approving Facebook posts. “When you have an audience and a platform the expectations are high. Sometimes that comes with tricky terrain trying to keep 25,000 people in a productive, kind and constructive space [on Facebook],” says Michelle. Part of the reason they work so hard is because they’ve grown quickly – but their team hasn’t, although on the day I interview them, they’ve just hired someone to work part-time. Of course, they’re quick to say they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s lucky they’re great mates as well as workmates. “We have a strong friendship,” says Michelle. “We’re only one year into being in business together and the hurdles that have been placed in front of us are probably ones I never envisioned when we went into this.” Do they ever get sick of each other? “Sometimes, but when we do we both know. We both just shut up for a bit,” says Michelle. “If it gets too much we’ll call it a day and say let’s do the rest from home. It can be intense,” adds Zara.
“For example, Zara messaged me on the weekend saying, I’m going to drop off your suitcase, and I was like, you’re not going to come in are you? Just drop and run!” says Michelle. “I was like, no way am I coming in,” laughs Zara. When asked what they love most about each other, Michelle’s quick to answer. “Zara’s brain. She’s one of the most intelligent people I know. Her sense of logic and reason have prevented us from walking into a few fires.”
Zara says, “Michelle has the best ideas out of anyone I know. She has a stream of ideas coming all the time. Sometimes I have f**king nothing. I’m like, where do these come from? Our relationship gives me hope for the long-term because if she has all the ideas and I can put them into place, then we’ll always have work around it.” As for where they see the podcast going, they admit they honestly have no idea, but that’s the magic of it. “We’re still in this golden era of podcasting where it’s only become incredibly mainstream in the past six months,” says Zara. “Now everyone know what a podcast is. But we’re hyper-aware podcasting isn’t forever and we may need to pivot quickly.”
“It would be foolish to have a plan, because the goalposts in media change all the time,” says Michelle. “If we put concrete around those goalposts, we might miss something in the periphery. We’ll keep our eyes open to where the audiences are, where the women are … we want to adapt and be as agile as possible. We just want to keep making content that educates, empowers and entertains women.” For now, they’re happy to just ride the airwaves of success.
You can catch Michelle and Zara in action at our upcoming 9 to Thrive Summit in Melbourne, they’ll be co-hosting the Workshop stage and interviewing Susan Alberti and Moana Hope on the main stage too. Tickets are selling fast, grab yours here while there’s still a few left!
Images: Miranda Stokkel