Very Fine Day #59: Andrew Law
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“You can see that there's a lot of people out there who, really, what they desperately want is to finagle the whole thing into a media career. And we weren't coming to it with that viewpoint.”
Hard to describe what Boonta Vista is. If you listen to it - you already know - but here goes: Boonta Vista is a podcast about weird shit happening all around the world (the more nescent or dire the better) born out of something that was once a politics podcast but pivoted due to, well… politics being depressing. It is funny (good), and curious (good), and includes some of the most bizarre and intricate cold openings around. Most recently, for example, an episode featured a 5 minute opening focusing on the (non) existent Johannesburg Saliva Production Olympics. It’s a lot of fun. If you’re ever referring a friend to them, you probably also include the words - at some point - “just stick with it through the opening that could be about what it would be like to animorph into a train.”
In their words, it’d be: The least consequential news from around the world from the least informed minds in Australia.
Andrew, our guest for this edition for VFD, was paramount in getting Boonta off the ground. In 5 years or so, he - along with other hosts Ben, Lucy, Theo, and a rotation of guests - have built something truly unique that is made in Australia but not locked in Australia. Which is harder than it sounds!
It was interesting to unpack what that project has built around it, and what the audience of Boonta Vista responds to. Likewise, it’s one of a rapidly growing group of things that is completely supported by its listeners - and that brings with it a whole bunch of interesting questions.
Also found it funny how Andrew realised pretty early on that watching - and trying to react to - politics all the time is incredibly depressing. Go figure!
Welcome to our new subscribers. And hello to all of ya’ll returning. Tell a friend about VFD today – it’s free to do and would mean a lot. This project sorta lives in a comfy, cosy vacuum of all of our sacred inboxes – and the biggest driver of new subscribers is you all telling other people about it. Appreciate it.
See you down the road.
VFD: Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Andrew Law: No problem! I’m always up for a chat.
VFD: Yeah. Where are you based? Are you in Melbourne?
Andrew Law: I’m just at home.
VFD: No, but are you in Victoria?
Andrew Law: Canberra.
VFD: Have you always been in Canberra?
Andrew Law: No, I grew up here and moved to Melbourne in my mid 20s. And was probably there for a year before I met my wife. I turned 30 on our honeymoon, and we had our first kid a year later, and after several years of having very small kids in Melbourne, we were like It’s kind of a huge pain in the ass.
Like, it's either you drive everywhere or you’ve got to drag prams and stuff on trams and into little converted terrace shops. Or if you don’t do all of that stuff, you'd have to carry your small children with you for hours.
We wanted to do something more rural. But I was also like, Where am I ever gonna get work in rural areas? And yeah, we ended up moving back here, and my wife really, really likes it because it's all so green, lots of green spaces, and everything's very easy.
VFD: Living the Australian dream, in the nation's capital, it’s the only way to do it. What is work for you?
Andrew Law: User experience design, so like, user testing, design, front end development.
VFD: Is that the perfect work from home job?
Andrew Law: Yeah, well, when the pandemic started, within the first week the company that I worked at said, Everyone, take all your shit and go home and take whatever you need. And I think it was quite a while before we went back in for even a couple of days a week. And nobody else was going in, it was just me and one or two other people, just working in an empty office.
I've been doing this new job since October last year, and I've been into the office once, maybe. Both of my last two jobs I've been in a team where the other team members are in Brisbane and Sydney and Victoria and all over the place. So it's kind of like you can go into the office, but you're commuting just to talk to people on a screen in a different location.
VFD: Which, y’know, sometimes it's worth it. I have a broken brain and have to be in an office space to be able to concentrate fully. I have no work from home capability. So I do that.
Andrew Law: I've never been a “work fun” kind of guy, going out for drinks and all that sort of stuff. I've always just been like: Yeah, I'll do my work and then I'll leave and have my life afterwards. And if there's people at work that I like and get along with and we want to hang out, we do that, we just don’t do it through work. And so I always sort of thought Oh, I'm perfectly placed to be a working from home guy, but after doing it for several years I've had some points where I've just been sad.
VFD: Yeah, yeah: I have this overbearing sensation, I can't describe it… Oh, yeah, it’s depression. Oh, nice.
Andrew Law: Yeah. Which I had never experienced before, at any other point. So for me it took me a while to register that that's what was happening. Like: Oh, I'm sad due to environmental reasons.
VFD: And lack of socialisation.
Andrew Law: Yeah, just not seeing anybody for ages. Like, we all got COVID last month or whenever it was.
VFD: Oh shit.
Andrew Law: So it meant that we had the domino effect of one of the kids getting it, and the other kid got it, and then I got it and then the wife got it. And then like a week or so later, a friend visited and we went to the Van Gogh exhibit. We just went out in the morning, went to see that, went and had some lunch and came home and me and my wife were both like, I am going to go into a coma. I'm so tired. I thought about it for a minute and I was like, I have not left the house in over a month. So I've been having stretches like that where not only am I not socialising or anything, I'm not leaving the house and I'm not going for a walk.
VFD: Yeah, there's a lot of people that self identified as loners, I think, and moody Bruce Wayne-esque characters before the pandemic, and then it happened and they were like, Oh, actually, it's nice to not be that.
I do want to talk to you about Boonta Vista, and how that came to be because. Thinking about describing a podcast that debates… I don't even know how you describe what it is…
Andrew Law: We have trouble describing it.
VFD: Yeah, and creating that kind of media brand, right, which was mostly you? Or is it kind of a group thing?
Andrew Law: The way I remember it — because it's been going for years - four or five years now - I think it was 2016 or 2017 when it started. And I think the original thing was that stuff like Chapo Trap House was really taking off, and it was clear that there was a really big audience for left wing focused political news for young people. And in a sort of comedic lens. And I thought, oh, there's this total vacuum of that sort of thing in Australian politics or Australian media. Because for me, Australian media has traditionally been such a sort of dinosaur dominated —
VFD: It’s shit, you can say shit.
Andrew Law: Oh just, so sort of behind the times, in lots of ways. Very parochial, that sort of stuff. And so that was sort of what I wanted to do, and I reached out to Ben and Lucy about doing it – who I was already kind of online friends with – and we chatted about that sort of stuff. And I also had the selfish motivation of going well, those guys already have big audiences on Twitter. So if we do a thing, at least some people will be interested in checking it out.
VFD: That's growth hacking, that's not selfish, man. That's having the mindset.
Andrew Law: Well, I've seen a lot of people over the years who just plug away putting out a podcast week after week, and no one's listening to it, and I’m like: I would have stopped, I would have stopped real early in the piece.
VFD: Yeah, yeah. Big time.
Andrew Law: Although we had Guy Montgomery on a while ago, who is a comedian and did The Worst Idea Of All Time podcast, and I sort of mentioned that to him about doing something that's painful for yourself for an audience. And I said, Well, it's a good thing that it's really taken off. Otherwise you'd be asking yourself, why are we doing this? And he said, No one paid any attention to it until like months and months into it. We'd been watching Grown Ups 2 every week for months and no one was listening to this thing. And I was like, Oh, I would have stopped.
VFD: Yeah. It definitely feels like a thing where there’s a moment. It’s months and months if you're unlucky, weeks and weeks if you're lucky, years and years if you're kind of stupid about it. People think there's a hockey stick graph of growth, but really it's a flatline and then a huge fucking curve, because you just nail it. At least a lot of the time.
Andrew Law: I think that's what makes our podcast kind of a weird outlier in terms of audience growth and loyalty and all that sort of stuff, because none of us are media people in the sense that, y’know — Ben has has written for media publications and stuff, and so has Lucy — but none of us have any kind of marketing or demographic analytics background, and we don't tend to look at stuff in that lens.
But I have found that a lot of podcasts seem to either have this explosion in popularity and then they're just set, or they sort of travel on forever, not really getting anywhere. And with us, it's just seemed to be this really, really consistent gradual growth — not at a crazy rate, but it's always going up, in terms of both audience and paying subscribers.
There's a website called Graphtreon, you can go and plug in any Patreon account and it'll show you over time how many subscribers they have from month to month and their income and stuff plotted on the chart. And ours is sort of one of the only ones that I can see where it is just this gentle growth going up forever. And that's been interesting, because it means that we've simultaneously never put off enough people to have a big exodus or anything like that - and we have had quite a large pivot in direction and that didn't lead to a big exodus of listeners or anything. And I think we have what me and Ben think is a core audience of maybe 6 or 7000 people that will listen to every episode the week it comes out, and we have maybe 2000 paying subscribers on Patreon. And me and him sort of look at that and go: One in three people who are regularly listening will go, Oh, I'll pay for that, or I want more of that, or I'll hang around. And that feels like a very consistent sort of conversion rate of people.
VFD: That’s healthy. How do you feel about having a brand or a podcast that -obviously, this thing of having audience directly support what you do is, in my mind, the preferred way of doing it, but then also there's this other side of it, where there's a stressor because you have a closer relationship. It's not like you can just make shit and be like, well, the advertisers are paying for it. So the money's coming in, if people don't like it, bummer, but whatever.
Andrew Law: Yeah, I think maybe in the first year or two, we definitely got a bunch of offers from sponsors. We had a very brief stint where I was contacted by somebody who said, Oh, we would love it if you would be part of a Podcast Network. You’ve got to put a little audio stinger thing on the front of your episode, and you get something out of it.
And we did that for a little bit, and after a bit I was like, Why are we doing this? We don't get anything out of it. Because we don't want to do ad reads on the show. Our thing was always, particularly when we were talking about leftist politics as a primary thing… It felt very incongruous to say, Oh, and now listen to this ad for koala mattresses. To us, we were always like, No no, that would just not at all gel as a vibe to be talking about anti capitalist stuff, and then stopping in the middle to do ad reads and everything.
So we always felt very uncomfortable about that sort of thing. We had brushes with that sort of stuff early in the piece, but I think it always just worked really well for us to say We'll just do what we do. We'll have a piece of free content and a piece of paid content every week. And if you like it and want more of it, and you want to support the show, you can pay for that. But I think we also had to have that experience in the first couple of years, probably, of finding the right balance between listening to feedback from people and caring about what people think of what you're making, but also not just being reactionary to individuals from your audience. Because there's always going to be times like that.
We got a letter from somebody a little while ago who was like, That's it, I'm done. I'm done. Fuck you guys. I can't believe I recommended this show to people. You know, I'm withdrawing my support, I’m withdrawing my money. I can't believe that, that you would do this. And what they were really mad about was us making jokes about British people.
VFD: I mean, you gotta be careful, man
I've recommended this to people who may put it on and they get told that they're from Pedo Island.
VFD: So it's a specific kind of joke, it's not the bad teeth kind of genre, is it?
Andrew Law: Well, it's like, we do also make a lot of jokes about Dutch people, because it’s funny.
VFD: Obviously, yeah.
Andrew Law: Like, Dutch people and British people. And this person was like, I'm British, my family is Dutch. And they said, Oh, would it be the same if you were making jokes about Chinese people? I was like, No, it wouldn't… but we're not.
I'm a white guy, I'm allowed to joke about white guys. So we've had not many incidents over the years of people writing in to say, Oh, I was unhappy about this thing. And there were times early on in the run of the show where we did respond directly to some pieces of feedback to say, Hey, you know what someone wrote in and said that this thing made them feel really shit. And I think they're probably right, that it was not great. But yeah, we are probably more in the lane of: Unless it's something really, really egregious that all of us would look at it and say, ‘I feel terrible that we have made someone feel this way’. Then our general thing is just doing what entertains us. And if you have an audience of 1000s of people, it stands to reason that occasionally several of them will not like a joke, or will not like the thing that you are talking about, or your tone, or whatever it is. But it is impossible to please everybody all the time. So I think that at this point, what people like is the dynamic between the hosts and our sense of humour, and that sort of thing. And the weird news stories that we talk about. And if we were forever trying to very self consciously calibrate what we were saying, to avoid any possibility of upsetting absolutely anyone, no matter how middle class and white or whatever, then I think you just wind up kind of getting a bit too in your own head about it.
VFD: Yeah. So what you're saying is: cancel culture is alive, and you will not succumb to it.
Andrew Law: I will not! Australians are sick of being worried that they're gonna say something, and they'll get put in the newspaper.
VFD: So I can't be offensive all of a sudden? Okay!
Andrew Law: No, I think it's funny because you do never know what somebody's going to get offended by, or withdraw their support for, or whatever. But, generally speaking, the jokes that we do make that relate to nationality and stuff like that are pretty much exclusively about white people. British people, Dutch people, South African people. So I'm not too worried about the lobby groups of those segments getting upset.
VFD: It's like that meme that's like, you can always joke about Italian people. It's never racist.
Andrew Law: Yeah, do the accent, it's fine, it's always fine. I think that our comedy is generally speaking quite gentle and good natured. It is occasionally gross but… I think like with a lot of things, a lot of types of comedy and that sort of stuff, people can generally tell where you're coming from, what your vibe is, whether jokes are coming from a place of actual dislike of people, that sort of stuff. To me, it's wild that anybody could listen to the show and go, This man has a deep and abiding hatred of the Dutch. It’s like, No, They got funny names, that's what I like.
VFD: How would you describe what Boonta is now, would you still say that it's leftie… government… politics? Because I wouldn’t.
Andrew Law: A couple of years ago, several years ago, I think we all got to a point where we felt really burnt out by having to monitor political news. And the need for there to be a specific class of news that you will be obliged to have an opinion about, right?
And the thing that we also found was that, having done that for several years at that point, it's also very easy to get the overwhelming sense that nothing is changing, that you can be mad about stuff or you can be positive, or you can say: look, think about this. And you can support different causes. And the Australian political landscape, particularly, it's a bummer to sit and look at it and think about it constantly.
It got to a point where some things I didn't have anything to say about, let alone anything funny. When most of the news stories that you're looking at are just talking about how nobody on welfare is getting a rate rise, and the police have been strip searching children, or child detention…
VFD: Yeah, it’s not comedy stuff.
Andrew Law: Yeah, and I think there was a point a couple of years ago where everybody briefly entertained these ideas that maybe Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders would lead a new leftist revolution. And then we all realised that wasn't happening. And not only was that not happening in other countries, but we didn't even have an equivalent to that kind of figure in Australia to harp about. So it really felt like we were constantly looking at news through this left wing lens, while also feeling like the left wing is just getting further and further away from having any influence in the Australian political sphere.
So yeah, after a period of time, it just started to feel quite exhausting. And we had a conversation about it, where I said, I'm feeling quite beaten by this. And we sort of proposed that we just start putting more things into the mix that we want to talk about, that they don't have to be specifically about political stuff. It doesn't have to be specifically Australian news.
VFD: Dutch people's names,
Andrew Law: Weird nature stories, bigfoot sightings, things we care about. And so we just started bringing in more of those types of stories. And after a while, we went We're having much more fun. So at this point, I think the focus for us now is basically like unusual - for whatever reason - news stories from around the world that have not been extensively covered in the prior week.
Generally speaking, if five people send in a story that sort of fits into one of those categories for us, or if it's been all over Twitter and stuff like that, then we won't talk about it, right? We kind of have a threshold of: if enough people have been talking about this story then everybody's already kind of seen that and have a take on it. Which is why we wind up with more and more obscure subjects and sources of news and that sort of thing.
I guess it also means that there's a relative lack of immediacy or timeliness to it, where it kinda doesn't doesn't really matter, because the stories aren’t hyper related to the people that were listening to them or anything.
But there's no necessity to be like: Oh, you have to talk about this within X number of days of it happening, otherwise you've missed that cycle. You've missed your chance to talk about it.
And I guess the other benefit as well is that, in a way, it also means that the show itself doesn't date as severely as stuff like political news. I would just have no inclination or reason or whatever to listen to a politics-based podcast episode from six months ago. You’d just be like Cool. It’d be like just finding an old newspaper and reading it.
VFD: Yeah, everyone does that.
Andrew Law: Yeah. Whereas we do seem to get a lot of audience members that will start listening to the show and then just make their way back through years worth of it.
VFD: I also think the other interesting thing about your show, which is not always the case, but my brain, when listening to the intros to your podcast — which are some of the most bizarre cold opens that I have heard — and this is not a sledge because it obviously works for you, but everything in my in my media trained head is freaking out. There was one I tried to get my girlfriend to listen to and it opened with a 10 minute thing on… I think it was Thomas the Tank Engine, and it was like an erotic…
Andrew Law: Was it Theo turning into a train?
VFD: I think so. But it was some of the most graphic, silly conversations about becoming a train and animorphing into it — and I'm just like, how does this happen? Like, how does that… how do you…?
Andrew Law: I feel like that was a thing that I just impulsively started doing at some point. I just started saying, I'm Andrew and I'm here in a hot air balloon, or whatever. About two seconds before we started recording, I would go Alright, picture a thing, and then just start talking about it… we're on a tandem bicycle.
And yeah, I would just improvise those things. And then over time, it's turned into something where we will each take turns writing those intros in the five minutes before we start recording. And it turned into this thing of… every show opens with a complete non sequitur introduction, it has nothing to do with any episode that has come before, it has nothing to do with the rest of the content after that point. And it's definitely something where we find ourselves thinking: if you're someone who has started listening to this show for the first time, there’s almost never a good episode to do that.
VFD: Yeah, I feel like there's a lot of people that probably recommend the show with the caveat of like, Just like, hang on, get through the intro —
Andrew Law: See if you can figure out what's happening.
VFD: Yeah, wasn't the latest one… I'm feeling like it was something to do with spit.
Andrew Law: It was the 2020 Johannesburg saliva production Olympics.
VFD: Oh, of course, that’s a big event.
Andrew Law: Yeah, so in the same way that changing the type of content that we were doing, I think that changing the type and the tone of the content and having things like those intros, all of the segment themes and all that sort of stuff. I think we've just naturally found areas where we all get to indulge creative aspects in different ways.
Like Theo - I think - really likes leaning into writing those intros and stuff now. I started doing more and more just little songs for different introductions and stuff. So the structure is very loose in that sense of: we have an intro, we might have a guest.
Something has changed with guests, we used to have guests on and say, Alright, we need to structure an episode around what this person is a subject matter expert in. And y’know, sometimes it would be someone you'd want to have on and you kind of struggle to go, How are we going to make this an episode that kind of works in context of stuff that our audience would want to hear us talk about.
And now, we basically just say, Oh, we just do an episode of the podcast, and you're here. You are here while we're doing it. And then we all just talk about the same stuff. So people don't need to prepare, and we don't have to have content that is specifically tailored to the guest or anything. We just do our normal segments with the same weird stories that Ben rounds up. And we'd just have people on who are funny and they’re nice to chat to.
VFD: And it works.
Andrew Law: So I think it's structured, but only in that sense of: we've got introductions, song intros and stuff, we've got the types of stories that we talk about. But then everything around that, we just get to be as creative as we like about that sort of thing.
VFD: Yeah. It sounds like you're onto a good thing, man, have been for a while.
Andrew Law: I think the other thing that maybe changes the dynamic of our show a bit, and it's place in whatever kind of media landscape we have, is that I don't think any of us ever really came to it with a desire to be media personalities, or looking for some kind of larger success in media or in the Australian or international media landscape or anything.
Because I think that gives a particular flavour and drive to the things that people produce. If people are looking to turn something into a financial success specifically, or if they're looking to very deliberately grow an audience to a size where they can leverage that into something else, or getting a TV show or being a guest on panels, or whatever it is — for some reason, I think of people like Gray Connelly, and stuff where he'll be on like, The Drum or Q&A, and I'm like, Why are you talking to this dude? He’s just some guy who posts too much. You can see that there's a lot of people out there who, really, what they desperately want is to kind of finagle the whole thing into a media career.
VFD: Yeah, notice me!
Andrew Law: And we weren't coming to it with that viewpoint of This is where we want to get to. And that's meant that we can produce the show in a way that is unmoored from audience expectation or any kind of external pressure like advertisers or trying to see the next thing and say: Well, how do I craft this content or build this audience so that it can get me into the next thing.
I think that none of us ever had any kind of next thing in mind and still don't really. Other than, like, I've got a full time day job, Theo's got a full time day job, Ben works a mix of gigs, and all that this meant was that as the podcast grew enough, he was able to stop doing some of his other side gigs and just do this. Which was really good, because he is a man with a very deliberately chosen lifestyle. He does not want to work in an office, and I think he ideally does not want to have a boss that he has to report to, or deadlines that he has to put writing in by and that sort of thing. So for him, it's meant that he can just do the bits of part time work that he wants to do. And this kind of funds everything else.
I think for the rest of us, we have the work we're doing anyway, so, money from this is nice. But at the same time, I could just stop doing it tomorrow and that would be fine. Like if I said, Hey, I'm really sick of this, or it's causing me a whole bunch of stress or something, I could just stop doing it, and it wouldn't be any dramatic financial impact. And again, that changes the complexion of the thing, because not only are you not desperately trying to grow it or get to the next thing, but there's also, I think you were saying earlier that kind of having any of those pressures of Oooh, if we do stuff that people don't like, or if the audience shrinks, or if the number of Patreons goes down, or if advertisers are unhappy with something we've said, it's all going to have this impact on me.
Whereas, yeah, I'm just kind of in a position where it's a creative outlet and hobby that also generates some income, which is nice.
VFD: Well, sounds good, man. I'm glad that things are working out. Thanks for talking, appreciate it. Continue to build it out as much as you're comfortable with. But yeah, it's been great to watch it grow and develop and become this insane thing that you can't really define. And that whenever I recommend to people I’m like: it's like, people who…
Andrew Law: Try and explain it.
VFD: Yeah. People who you'll like, trust me… they’re funny, and they talk about, like, regional towns in Midwest America, where there’s…
Andrew Law: People's weird names.
Andrew Law: Yeah, a lot of that sort of stuff we’re like, if you ever talk to a family member, or a friend that like I've known for years before doing a podcast, and they're aware that you do it, but people have this thing where they want to support you.
But I'm the same as anybody else where lots of people are doing all sorts of things, and you can't watch and listen to all of them. And I'll run into somebody and they'll say, Oh, I haven't haven't caught up on the podcast, or I haven't listened to an episode in however long and I’m like Good, fine. I don't want to talk to people in real life about it. I don't want someone at my job to be like, Tell me what it's about.
VFD: Yeah. Tell me about the spit Olympics, so how did that come around?
Andrew Law: I'm happy just having a relationship with an audience's that’s just through the internet, and and then having a personal life or my normal life.
VFD: I think that's healthy.