HPN Interview | A Few Words with Conor Reid, Creator and Host of Words to That Effect

Words To That Effect is back for its sixth season on the HeadStuff Podcast Network. The new season promises a host of literary experts, bonus content, and fascinating untold stories about literary movements and characters central to popular culture. I spoke with Conor Reid about how the podcast has changed since it first started, what listeners can look forward to this season, and why vampires are the most flexible mythical creatures.

Can you tell me a little bit about the show’s origin story?

Conor Reid: So Words To That Effect started when I had moved out of academia but I wanted a way to keep in touch with the books and research I was interested in. I was listening to a lot of podcasts around the time, and I thought I had some of the skills that you might need to start a podcast, because I’d been an English language teacher and a literature teacher, but I didn’t really know a huge amount about audio editing. That was the bit I needed to go away and learn how to do. So I read a lot about it, found lots of useful websites and podcasts, and then started making my own episodes and then started making episodes. 

How has the show evolved since you first started?

CR: So I think, in a couple of ways. I thought originally that I might set up something which was not just podcasts. There still is a website. But I thought I might do accompanying articles and various other things and podcasts would be the main part, but just one part of it. I quickly realized that was absolute lunacy–I had not even nearly enough time to do just the podcast. So I kind of eased off on a lot of that stuff. 

But the podcast itself, I think, has become much more ambitious in terms of how I record it, and particularly how I produce and edit it. When I started it, it was a hobby, and then after several years I became a professional Podcast Producer. So in my day to day job, I’m editing all the time anyway. I use Words To That Effect to experiment and try out different things that I wouldn’t necessarily do in my day to day podcasting work. 


The show got a little bit longer, it started off being–maybe on average, about 15 minutes. Most episodes now are around 25 to 30 minutes. I don’t tend to or really want to go too much longer than that. I found, the more I did, the easier it was to make a 30 minute episode, just because I could edit more quickly and get things together more quickly. That meant I could make them a little bit longer, which is kind of what I’d wanted from the beginning.

What’s your process for picking guests and deciding on episode themes?

CR: So sometimes I pick a guest because I know they’re good, and they are researching interesting things. And then I pick a topic for that guest. Sometimes. More usually I pick a topic, and then I try to find the guests. Some of the guests I’ve had on I know personally, or I have read a lot of their work or have been in contact with them in various ways. Most of the guests I’ve never met before. 

So usually I pick a topic first. I have this sort of tagline, “stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture”. If this topic has a good story, then that’s a good start as opposed to just being–a list of interesting facts or you know, something that doesn’t really progress–that has no start, middle and end. All of the episodes involve books in some way or another. Lots of them have only passing connections with literature, but they’re important passing connections. And then some of them are really on, you know, a single novel or a single genre. And then it needs to be about popular culture in some way, very broadly defined. So they’re usually about things that most people know, but the much less well known story behind the thing that they know. 

What episode of the podcast would you recommend for new listeners? People just tuning in?

CR: The most recent episode, the first one of season six on dragons, is fairly representative of the show in that it features an academic expert, my three year old daughter, and a friend of mine reading some Latin. It’s also sort of a self contained history, I suppose. Everybody knows what a dragon is…but dragons have quite a long and interesting history. 

I did one on steampunk before, which I really liked making. That was one of the more ambitious ones– it ended up being a double episode. I talked to two podcasters, who make a kind of a steampunk podcast, a scripted podcast called Victoriocity. And I talked to a burlesque dancer and a “chap hop”, hip hop artist, and an academic. That’s maybe an idea of the kind of deep, deep, deep dives into a particular subculture. So I guess that those two would be the ones to get started with.

I’ll have to listen to the steampunk episodes. So you have new artwork this season but the format is more or less the same. What can listeners look forward to, especially the bonus stuff that’s going to be on HeadStuff+?

CR: Yeah. I decided to mix things up a little bit for the new season in a couple of ways that are immediately apparent, like the lovely new artwork, and a couple of ways that will roll out in the next couple of weeks or months. 

So the website, which I was talking about at the beginning, which I still update, has a lot of information on it. I put out all the full transcripts, links, a list of all the works mentioned in the episode, details about the guest speakers and artwork, and all that kind of stuff. I find that a lot of people visit the website and find the podcast as opposed to the other way around. So I’m going to revamp that a little bit with a new design and artwork and things like that. 

The other thing I’m going to get going is a new mini series of podcasts which are going to run for supporters on HeadStuff+ called “A Word To That Effect.” It’s going to be very short–maybe three minutes–and the episodes will cover a literary word that has a pop cultural connection. So a bite-sized version of the main podcasts which will be me and some sound design, but without a guest speaker. I’m going to put some of them out on the main feed to get people interested. Then the rest of them will be just for supporters. So hopefully, people will be intrigued enough to come and have a listen.

What are you reading-slash-listening to at the moment?

CR: Right now I am reading Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, because I’m going to do an upcoming episode on that as the Gothic text that began it all. I bought a couple of books recently, which I’m hoping will be episodes, so I won’t necessarily say what they all are–it depends on who’s available and so on. I have been recently reading lots of sensation fiction from the mid-19th century, and there will be an episode on Victorian sensation fiction. 

What I’ve been listening to most recently, podcast wise…so on the HeadStuff Podcast Network, I’ve been listening to Blackbird [The Bootsy Boys’ Blackbird], which is great and very funny. I tend to listen to a lot of comedy podcasts. I was happy to see that Phoning It In came back for a new season as well. So I’ve been listening to that too. I listen to lots of HeadStuff shows but outside of that…there’s a show from BBC called The Lazarus Heist, which is about Korean cybercrime starting with the massive hack into Sony studios. I’m about halfway through. It’s sort of a gripping thriller-type listen, but it’s also the story behind a lot of different aspects of North Korea, that almost nobody knows about, because, you know, it’s such a closed-off country. There’s two reporters and one of them lived for a number of years in North Korea as a journalist, so she has really interesting insights. I’ve been enjoying that, as well as my usual roster of good comedy podcasts and other similar shows to Words To That Effect…narrative storytelling type shows.

In the spirit of your latest episode, what would your favourite mythical character or monster be?

CR: So Tony Cantwell and Marc Jago used to have a show on the Network called Sexy Beasts and they went through a different mythological beast each episode which was great. And loads of them I’d never heard of. That show is no longer running, but it’s still available to listen to. I love finding out about those sort of weird ones. I do, you know, I like dragons, but I don’t think they ever had the same draw for me as maybe some other mythological beasts. I do love a good vampire. I think of the sort of horror type ones, your Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, I think vampires are the most fun. They’re the most…flexible in terms of how they can be used and represented.

You can catch up on all 5 seasons of Words to That Effect, and tune into the newest season on the HeadStuff Podcast Network at headstuffpodcasts.com, or wherever you normally get your podcasts. You can also access a wide range of bonus content from Words to That Effect and other shows on the network by becoming a HeadStuff+ member today!