Brexitcast creator Dino Sofos on quitting the BBC, working with Warp Films and Sheffield trees

Sheffield’s Dino Sofos helped transform the BBC’s political coverage – now he wants to make his mark on the wider podcasting industry from his home city. Chris Burn reports.

After rising through the ranks at the BBC, Dino Sofos did not decide to leave the corporation lightly.

From starting as a roving reporter at Radio Sheffield, he became the editor of BBC News Podcasts after creating its hugely-popular Brexitcast, Americast and Newscast formats starring many of the country’s best-known political correspondents.

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But after 14 years at the BBC, Mr Sofos has decided to take the leap into the commercial world by setting up his own podcast production company, Persephonica, with a friend and fellow Sheffielder, Tom O’Hara.

Dino Sofos has left the BBC after 14 years to set up his own podcast production company. Picture: Tony Johnson

"It was really difficult because I love the BBC and if you cut me open, I’d have the BBC through me like a stick of rock,” he reflects.

"Working for that fantastic organisation is the only proper job I have ever had and I knew I would miss representing the BBC. To be able to go anywhere in the world and say you are a BBC journalist, I felt proud every time I said it. Every time I walked through the door I felt proud and I have got nothing but respect and admiration for the organisation. I hope the door is always open.

"But 14 years is a long time anywhere and I think I needed a new challenge and I didn’t want to become institutionalised anywhere, which I think is very easy – especially at the BBC. It just felt like a right time for a change and I’m really looking forward to what comes next."

After doing a Politics and French degree at the University of Sheffield while also getting involved in student radio, Mr Sofos started journalism training at the prestigious course run by City University in London. After impressing on work experience at Radio Sheffield in 2007, he was offered a job there.

Dino Sofos will be working with Sheffield's Warp Films in his new venture. Picture: Tony Johnson

He went on to get full-time jobs at the BBC’s national radio stations and pursue his passion for covering politics, producing programmes including Radio 4’s The World at One and PM and then becoming a senior political producer on 5 Live, where he helped create and launch John Pienaar’s popular Sunday show Pienaar’s Politics.

“That was my first kind of foray into creating a format from scratch and building something new,” he says. “I realised, this is what I really like doing."

He says the chemistry and mutual respect he shared with John Pienaar was key to the success of the show.

"I’ve always worked with really lovely broadcasters and there are broadcasters I have been offered jobs with but I’ve actually gone I don’t want to do that because they have a bad rep or whatever.

“I think you can hear the shows where there is good chemistry behind the scenes. John and I were mates then and we are still mates and we just had a real laugh making a politics programme that was completely unbuttoned.

“We realised we were up against The Andrew Marr Show and the Sky News Sunday programme and we would not get the big guests every time. We had to offer something different.

“We did Snog, Marry, Avoid with MPs and we got some great news lines from that.

“But it was kind of creating an environment which I went on to do with Brexitcast and Americast of creating a space where you allow politicians to be human and journalists as well actually. We let people in and gave them a glimpse behind the curtain.”

How Brexitcast came into being

After going on to work for the BBC’s social media operations, Mr Sofos realised there was great potential to launch a political podcast through sitting in on daily conferences in which BBC correspondents discussed the stories they were working on.

He says: “You’d have these kind of big beasts of political journalism sat around the table just talking about what’s going on and why we should be broadcasting this and that.

“I learnt more in that meeting than I did the rest of the day. I thought this stuff could actually go out – they’re impartial BBC journalists and they are behind the scenes as well and they’re not revealing their sources in the newsroom either.”

After some initial resistance from BBC bosses, he eventually launched Electioncast to coincide with the 2017 election campaign.

"There was a bit of pushback from some of the suits as to whether this was the right way to do it. But we launched Electioncast as a kind of daily roundup of what was going on in the campaign.

“Nobody really listened to it in huge numbers but it was received positively and we learnt a lot making it about how to do things differently and that not everything has to be a shiny package and we can talk like normal human beings about what is going on.”

Mr Sofos went on to launch Brexitcast in an attempt to explain the negotiations between the UK and EU amid the Brexit saga. It initially featured Political Correspondent Chris Mason and Brussels Correspondent Adam Fleming, with Europe Editor Katya Adler and Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg featuring as occasional guests, but who soon becoming key figures for the programme.

"They were initially people who we would knock on the door of their office and say, can we grab five minutes? A bit of that I think was us thinking maybe this format isn’t worthy of their time, they are really busy people.

“But actually, the more they did it, the more they loved doing it. They then actually became the stars frankly - although Chris and Adam might not like to hear that!

“The chemistry between all four of them was absolutely amazing. We created an audience of people who were coming to us to hear about the Brexit negotiations in detail but they were also coming to us to feel part of that little club and family of people who were really engaging, funny, warm and people wanted to be part of that.

“People would send us emails and tweets and were really involved in it and we fed off their feedback.

“We had a really broad audience. The presenters would get messages from the people at the top of the Government in the UK and actual negotiators who would tune in to find out what the other side was thinking.

“They were really senior people and then we had students listening, in all parts of the country including Yorkshire who were using it as a kind of a study aid.”

The podcast went on to win the Listeners’ Choice accolade at the British Podcast Awards and its success was such that the podcast was also broadcast on television on Thursday nights.

“It did really well and we peaked at 1.1m viewers at 11.45pm on a Thursday. I remember having a BBC networking lunch with the head of BBC Drama and when I told her the figures, her jaw hit the desk.

“We didn’t change the podcast when it went to TV. It was a fly on the wall cameras. We didn’t suddenly create a fake podcast studio in a TV studio because then you have runners and directors. What worked about it was the intimacy of just having four people in a room and me behind the glass.

“We managed to keep the magic.”

Mr Sofos says the show’s informal style has had an impact more broadly on the BBC’s politics coverage, adding: “When you speak to BBC editors now, I think there is an acknowledgement that the general tone of how correspondents deliver pieces to camera or how they have a chat with a presenter has really shifted.”

But he adds the conversational style of approach was already something that was prevalent on 5 Live.

“The tone on 5 Live is basically people speaking normally most of the time. It wasn’t rocket science - people wanted to talk normally, not in kind of weird news talk.

“You can be even more informal in a podcast space and you have the safety net of it is pre-recorded. That safety net is really helpful because you can push the boundaries a little bit.”

Praise for real listeners 'outweighed social media abuse'

He says the show gave listeners and viewers a chance to know presenters like Laura Kuenssberg better - and equally highlight how much their work is genuinely appreciated by people.

“It’s no secret Laura obviously gets incredible amounts of abuse on social media. You just have to look below any tweet she posts and it is shocking. Other BBC journalists do too. I had my fair share of abuse for making a podcast.

“What we all realised very quickly is Twitter isn’t the real world. We would get hundreds and thousands of emails - especially during the pandemic when we made the Coronavirus Newscast - of people engaging with us and a lot of the time thanking us for being a companion.

“They really felt they got to know the journalists and they almost felt they were their mates.

“Laura gets all the abusive tweets but actually she gets loads of people going ‘I’ve got a story here, I think you should know this about my business, my care home, what’s going on in the real world’ and Laura is really good at getting back to those people.

“We had somebody who had emailed us about the fact her mother had died in a care home and she couldn’t be with her when she died. Laura and Adam read that email out and it was incredibly moving.

“That gives you faith that 99.999 per cent of people aren’t Twitter bots or registering Twitter accounts under weird names to send abuse.

“You have got to filter it out. I can’t speak for Laura, she gets a lot of it. When she mentioned me in a tweet, you see it all and you think, blimey it is really tough. Journalists do not deserve that for doing their job and I feel very strongly about that but I take solace in the fact that it isn’t representative of real listeners.”

Taking on Treegate

In addition to making Brexitcast, Mr Sofos carved out time in early 2018 to head back to Sheffield and spend several weeks working on a report on the city’s tree-felling debacle. At that point, the issue was at its height, with dozens of police officers and security guards being sent out to support council-backed felling operations in response to growing protests.

“Treegate was happening in Nether Edge where my parents had lived for a while. That story fell in my lap a little bit and I pitched to my bosses that I think we should be doing this,” he says.

“It was indicative of big PFI contracts, local people pushing back against what they saw as corruption and people power. There were so many elements to that story that were just incredible - seeing pensioners locked up and bundled into the back of police vans.

“I was really lucky the BBC had the resources to deploy me and I spent a good few weeks based at the heart of the tree-felling, talking to people and seeing with my own eyes what was going on.”

His film was viewed by millions of people after being put on the top of BBC News website and shortly after it was broadcast, the council announced a pause to the felling programme.

Mr Sofos says: “I got a message when I left the BBC from a councillor in Sheffield who wished me all the best and said one day I’ll tell you about the full impact of your piece on the Sheffield trees and the train it set in motion. I’m really proud of that film. Very quickly, the felling stopped. It is nice to feel as a journalist with a connection to a place that you are able to report on your own city.”

He says he hoped to increase the BBC’s coverage of places like Sheffield and says the corporation is getting to grips - albeit gradually - with the issue of being more representative.

“The thing for me and I think the current leadership of the BBC really do get this is the BBC really does need to represent the whole of the UK.

“That is not just about shifting people, you have got to hire people who represent the whole of the country.

“In my time as an editor at the BBC, I tried really hard to make sure there was diversity in all areas but especially social diversity and trying to employ people who had come from non-traditional backgrounds into the BBC. Bluntly, working class people.

“I think the BBC does need to work harder to represent working class audiences. That starts by employing working class journalists. There is a challenge in that because the journalism school I went to in London unless you are on a bursary, the fees are high. There is an access thing. The BBC is doing really good work on getting people from non-traditional backgrounds into the newsroom and reflecting their approach on it.”

He says he hopes that his new company Persephonica will be able to build on this approach - having a base in Sheffield and working to find new talent in the city and elsewhere to appear on podcasts, as well as working with big names.

“I want to try and continue creating successful podcasts like the ones I’ve created at the BBC, which are habit forming podcasts that people want to keep coming back to daily or weekly audiences that grow over time and they feel that ownership they feel that’s a space that they kind of want to keep coming back to.”

Sheffield flavour to new company

The first podcasts from his new company are due to come out next year but he reveals he is working with Sheffield company Warp Films, the company behind hits such as This is England, Four Lions and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

“The company started in London but we are going to have a base in Sheffield.

“We think it is really important to be telling stories that come from a different perspective. In Yorkshire, there are lots of amazing stories and characters that can be translated into the podcast space.

“We’re working with Warp with developing some titles together, which is really exciting. They are at the top of their game but haven’t really ventured into audio yet so it will be interesting to see what comes from that.

“It’s early stages and we are developing ideas at the moment so it is too soon to say what will materialise but I’m really excited and I’m sure whatever comes out of it will be groundbreaking.

“I’m really looking forward to discovering great northern talent and we are going to be hiring people in the not-too-distant future.

“There are so many stories out there, ready to be told and told in a different, exciting way. I’m looking forward to try to do that.”

Praise from presenters for Dino Sofos

The name of Dino Sofos’s new company Persephonica is both a nod to his Greek roots and his daughter Persephone who was born earlier this year.

His new venture has also won the support of former BBC colleagues.

Fellow Yorkshireman Chris Mason said: “Dino is perhaps the greatest innovator I’ve come across in 20 years in broadcasting. Anyone working with his new venture will be working with the very best.”

Emily Maitlis, who grew up in Sheffield, said: “Dino creates standout podcast formats people want to feel a part of. The concepts are smart, the execution brilliant and the tone invariably warm and welcoming to the listener. Best of all, he is an utter joy to work with.”

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