The Final Frontier: Exploring 13 Minutes To The Moon

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I have become obsessed with the moon landing this summer. With 2019 being the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s epic history making, it’s been hard to avoid it. Three of the five main UK terrestrial TV channels dedicated time to documentaries on the day. Channel 4 even replayed the original broadcast from 1969. While the TV shows were great, the thing that really grabbed my attention was the podcast 13 Minutes To The Moon.

‘We choose to go’

From the BBC World Service, the 12 part series delves deep into the final 13 minutes of Apollo 11’s descent to the moon’s surface. The content itself isn’t all new of course. Presenter Kevin Fong does add his own interviews with people who were involved at the time. But a lot of the content, as you’d expect, is from the archives.

Each episode is dedicated to a different part of the story.

Ep.01 ‘We choose to go’ starts at the beginning, focussing on President John F. Kennedy’s rousing speech from 1962. Attempting to persuade the American public to support the Apollo program, JFK uttered the words - “We choose to go to the moon.”

Other episodes delve deep into the story of the moon landing. The scientists in the control room and how they were all so young. The first digital portable computer which powered the space rocket. The forgotten astronaut, Michael Collins, who remained in orbit around the moon whilst Armstrong made that giant leap for mankind.

Every episode is a fascinating insight into one of the most amazing achievements accomplished by the human race.

13 minutes to the moon

It isn’t just the story of the moon landing that captured my attention though.

13 Minutes To The Moon is perhaps one of the most complete podcasts ever. The BBC have spared no expense. The production values are through the roof with an original score by Hans Zimmer interlaced with archive recordings provided by NASA. There are new interviews to add a new dimension to the archives. And whilst you never hear from Armstrong or Aldrin, you never feel like they’re missing.

‘We’re go for powered decent’

Even before the podcast was originally released it caused a stir. Trailers for the podcast were released throughout April 2019. Applying the same tactics as they would a new series of Peaky Blinders, the BBC pulled out all the stops. 4 trailers were released in total. All counting down to the launch of the series.

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Trailers are a hugely important to a podcast but not every series has one, let alone four! Most podcasters use a trailer as a marker. Something to tell Apple Podcasts et al that a podcast lives on that RSS Feed. They’re practical but once a series begins, forgotten about.

The trailers for 13 Minutes To The Moon are a part of the series. They aren’t just there as an online bookmark. They aren’t even just about advertising the series. They are introductions to every element that make up 13 Minutes To The Moon. Without them, you don’t get the full experience of the show. Every detail immerses you into what is to come. They named them ‘T-minus #’ for goodness sake! For me, they are the perfect way in to the series.

The Eagle has landed

What’s the first thing someone sees when they find your podcast? The artwork, right. 13 Minutes To The Moon yet again doesn’t disappoint.

Standing out amongst the 700,000 podcasts on the internet is tough. The space provided for logos is minimal and often viewed on a tiny phone screen. Remember that old saying ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’? It’s rubbish. A podcasts logo is the first thing that people see about a series. In some cases it’s the last.

The artwork for 13 Minutes To The Moon is brilliant. Not only does it stand out amongst the masses (how many podcasts use monochrome as their go to colour?) it also gives all the information you need to know. Perhaps most importantly it teases you and makes you want to find out more.

Tranquility Base

It’s not just the work done outside of the episodes which caught my eye, or ear. The format of the episodes themselves are a wonderful piece of engineering. Every episode sets the scene and informs the listener of what they’ve missed in previous ones. It’s the classic ‘Last time on Lost…’ beginning. When the series was originally released, it was a weekly affair and so this reminder of the previous episode worked well. Now, with the entire series available to binge on, it works in a slightly different way. There are parts which relate to previous episodes more than others and this catch up acts as a link to what is to come.

As you’d probably expect, there is also a preview of what is to come at the end of the episodes. What I like about it though is the way it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. There is no "Next time on…” sting. Rather, Kevin Fong stays with his usual narrative and simply informs the listener that we’ll hear more on that next time.

The self promotion doesn’t end there. Throughout every episode the listener is reminded of previous episodes or future ones are promoted. It is a lesson in keeping your audience hooked that every podcaster should learn. The relaxed nature of the plugs blend in in such a way that they are almost unnoticeable. I’d suggest that they are almost subliminal.

‘One giant leap’

A lot of people, myself included, have been critical of the BBC in the past when it comes to their podcast output. On this occasion though I simply cannot fault them. 13 Minutes To The Moon is a marvellous telling of a story that we already know quite well. The way it delves into parts of the story that the TV documentaries don’t have time for. The decision to focus on the people (and machines) who aren’t lauded over as heroes. The calm yet excitable narrative delivered by Fong that hooks you in and keeps you there. All of it adds up to a podcast which will rightly go down as one of the greats.

Whichever genre and style of podcast you might be making or thinking of creating, 13 Minutes To The Moon has lessons for us all.

You can listen to all 12 episodes of 13 Minutes To The Moon on BBC Sounds, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.