To celebrate Criminal‘s 50th episode, we asked host Phoebe Judge and producer Lauren Spohrer to share their favorite episodes. Phoebe writes: “Over the last two and a half years, we’ve learned that you should never walk into an interview thinking you know what you’ll get. We’re always amazed by how open people are to discussing horribly sad or strange periods in their lives. If anything, making Criminal has shown us that crime (like all things) is infinitely more interesting than it first appears, and that people are remarkably resilient.”
Check out their favorites below, and subscribe to the Criminal podcast in iTunes here.
Phoebe’s Favorite Episodes
Episode 4: Call Your Mom
There are plenty of things we don’t share with our mothers. Dark, sad
things. Unless of course, you’re both in the business of death.
Episode 14: The Fifth Suspect
In June 2014, authorities released information about a massive child
pornography ring being conducted in North Carolina. Four suspects had
already been arrested, and the police were asking the public for help
finding a fifth suspect. But they didn’t need to look very hard — the
suspect was about to turn himself in, almost by accident.
Episode 23: Triassic Park
The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona has the largest
collection of petrified wood in the world. The beautiful wood is more
than 200 million years old, and visitors to the park often take a
little piece home with them as a souvenir. But stealing the wood has
serious consequences, both legal and, some say, supernatural.
Lauren’s Favorite Episodes
Episode 25: The Portrait
More than eighty years ago, a North Carolina family of nine posed for
a Christmas portrait. Two weeks later, all but one of them had been
Episode 36: Perfect Specimen
The 500-year-old Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas was once called “the most
perfect specimen of a North American tree.” But in 1989, Austin’s city
forester realized that the Treaty Oak didn’t look so good, and began
to wonder whether someone had intentionally tried to kill it.
Episode 18: 695-BGK
Police officer John Edwards was patrolling a quiet neighborhood in
Bellaire, Texas when he saw an SUV driven by two young
African-American men. It was just before 2am on December 31, 2008.
Edwards followed the SUV and ran the license plate number. His
computer indicated that the SUV was stolen, and Edwards drew his gun
and told the two men to get down on the ground. It wasn’t until later
that he realized he’d typed the wrong license plate number into his
computer. He was off by one digit. By the time he realized his
mistake, one of the men had already been shot in the chest at close
On this month’s edition of Inside the Podcast Studio, we turn the tables on Michael Ian Black and his producers, Mary Shimkin and Jennie Brennan, to get the scoop behind their podcast, How to Be Amazing. Learn about how the show was conceived, memorable guest moments and, of course, Michael’s own Fav 5.
On the Podcast
Tell us how the podcast came to be
Michael Ian Black: I wish I could take credit for this idea but I cannot. Although I had done some interviewing in the past, and had fantasized about having an interview show, I really didn’t take any steps towards that goal until Jennifer and Mary approached me with their idea of creating an NPR-type show, with me as host. We batted around some ideas about what the focus should be and ultimately decided to concentrate on process: why people do what they do. We don’t stick to that exclusively, because we also want to get to know our guests on a more personal level, but that remains the show’s central conceit.
Where do you find stories or guests for the show? Michael Ian Black: I do almost nothing other than make occasional suggestions to Mary and Jen who rarely do the bulk of the booking.
Mary/Jennie:We try hard to mix things up- pop culture people, journalists, academics, athletes, etc. Once we have a hit list we just ask, and ask, and ask, and ask until we get a final “Never gonna happen so quit bugging us.” We’ve been very lucky to have our guests so far, and that is in no small part due to Michael’s name and reputation. We have too many favorite guests to pick one. I know, a cop out, but true.
We love the ‘Fav 5’ section at the end of each episode. How did you come up with that? What are the most memorable answers you’ve gotten?
Michael: From the very first episode, I wanted to have a signature moment at the end that revealed something new about the guests, something they probably hadn’t discussed during the interview, and something they might not have answered in other interviews. Plus, I thought it would be a good way for listeners to connect in a more personal way with the guests: it might give them something to check out they hadn’t heard of before. As far as answers, Elizabeth Gilbert’s food recommendation of “bone broth” sticks out, as does Daniel Kahneman’s “not Mexican.” A lot of people recommend meditation and somebody—and I’m blanking on who—recommended getting a humidifier.
How do you think the podcast can complement other parts of Michael’s career, like acting gigs and books he writes?
Mary/Jennie: One of the things that was apparent from the get-go was what a great interviewer Michael is. He in genuinely interested in every person he talks to, wants to delve deep and isn’t afraid to ask “those” questions, but in a very respectful manner. We already knew he was a good writer, his introductions for each guest have been terrific. I think both of these show a side of him that surprised many people.
How do you find a balance between humor and seriousness? How does Michael manage to pull such personal facts out of people, like David Sedaris’ income?
Mary/Jennie: So many big moments come around the half way point in the sessions, I think it’s because the guests feel relaxed and safe by that point. Michael isn’t a “gotcha” interviewer and because he is such a good listener and asks great questions, there is a level of intimacy that happens in the booth. It’s like a great first date, it just seems natural to reveal such personal info.
Michael: Right from the beginning, we discussed the tone of the show falling smack dab in between “Fresh Air” and Marc Maron’s “WTF,” an earnest show with moments of humor. I try to keep things light, but when I see opportunities to ask tough and serious questions, I try to do that. With Sedaris, it was a matter of turning the table on him. He’d just finished talking about how people are willing to tell him highly personal information during his signings—like how much money they make—and I wanted to see if he would answer such a personal question himself. I honestly didn’t expect him to.
Tell us about your show and what makes it unique? Why are you so passionate about your subject matter?
Michael: Look, there’s a lot of interview shows out there and we don’t pretend to do anything new. What we’re trying to do is draw from a large pool of professions and life experiences to give a much broader look into creativity, motivation, and persistence. It would be one thing for me to exclusively interview people in show business, and it would be easy, but I hope the listeners appreciate that we are as likely to have a statistician or astronomer on the show as a comedian or actor.
I’m trying to get at the common core that drives people to do the things they do in the hopes that listeners will recognize their own passions and set off on—or encourage them to continue on—their own creative path.
What makes the show ideal for the podcast format?
Michael: Clearly, the ability to conduct long, probing interviews without much interruption makes podcasting so valuable. We can take all the time in the world with our guests. Although we tend to keep our shows around an hour, there’s nothing preventing us from doing a two or three-hour episode, or a half-hour episode. A podcast’s flexibility is the perfect venue for a conversation. When I watch TV interviews now, I get so frustrated as a viewer because they have to jump from topic to topic so quickly in order to make their commercial breaks. It makes for a very frenetic experience.
Michael, we want to turn the tables on you and find out your own ‘Fav 5’
Michael: Ok, my fav 5 of the moment (always subject to change):
Food: Baked potato with salsa
Music: Ingrid Michaelson “It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense”
Book: Michael Chabon “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”
Movie/TV: “Don’t Think Twice”
Misc: Hot tub. I bought a hot tub and I love the hot tub.
On the Space
Where do you literally of your work? Can you walk us through that space
Mary/Jennie: We record at Argot Studios in NYC. It’s a great space, large but cozy. The booth is big enough that both producers can watch the interview. Paul, who runs the studio, is great. He’s super friendly and easy to be around. We’ve tried a couple other spaces and there’s nothing that has everything Argot offers. It’s a great fit for what we do. We were certain from the start that we wanted a high-quality recording, which is why we went to a studio. It’s not the kind of show that could be done out of one of our homes, or in a coffee shop.
What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot?
Michael: With a podcast, you can make, literally, tens of dollars.
Mary/Jennie: He’s not joking.
How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
Michael: This is a tough question. My guess is the quantity and quality of podcasts will continue to expand over the next several years. Because the barrier to entry is so low, the ability to experiment is so high so we’ll probably see some really fun and innovative work being done in this field. PREDICTION: The Grammys will add a podcasting category in the next few years.
Subscribe to How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black in iTunes here.
Welcome to the second edition of our PRX Remix picks. This month, I’ve got three totally unique stories for you this month. They’ll take you from a roller rink in Wisconsin, to an improv comedy troupe in Tennessee, to a dangerous intersection in Massachusetts where a controversial road proposal pits local government against townsfolk.
This might be the first-ever podcast episode hosted by someone wearing roller skates. Yes, you read that right. The episode begins with the host, so-called “Mad Genius”, roller skating around a rink. From the sound of it, he’s only learning. It’s a fitting way to open a story about the sounds of a roller rink, guided by roller derby star Jeanne Du Snark, a blocker for the Vaudeville Vixens in Madison, Wisconsin.
The story comes into its own when Mad Genius remixes the sounds of the roller rink into a song reflecting Du Snark’s experience. This is the calling card of Where@bouts—exploring a sense of place through found sounds, then remixing those sounds into a song. Mad Genius describes the show as an “art popcast,” but whatever you call it, it’s incredibly unique and well-produced.
Through song, we learn about how the roller derby offered Du Snark a new kind of challenge and thrill after finishing her Division I soccer career, not to mention a louder, more devoted fanbase. We hear about her intense tryout process just to make the team, and about how she has narcolepsy and feels more awake, literally, while skating than doing anything else. All this is set to an incredibly catchy rhythm, anchored by the sounds of fans chanting and skates scraping the rink. Even Du Snark’s voice somehow feels melodic in the hands of Mad Genius. The remixed composition actually adds to the story. I’m curious to hear more from Mad Genius and Where@bouts in the future.
“Genius” is a term thrown around lightly whenever someone does anything intellectually impressive. Michael Kearney, however, is one of the few who actually fits the definition. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Kearney is the youngest person ever to graduate college, at just 10 years old. But neither Kearney’s genius nor his fame are the crux of this story. No, this is an entertaining and thoughtfully told account of an extraordinary person on a familiar journey—a journey to find community, to feel a sense of belonging, and to figure out what it means to be successful. Kearney isn’t an obvious fit to run his local improv comedy outfit. But it becomes clear as the story progresses, both Kearney and his fellow improvisers are better off because of it.
This episode comes from Nashville Public Radio’s Neighbors podcast, which started out as an independent show from producer Jakob Lewis. Lewis is also the creator of The Heard audio collective. Neighbors was recognized with an award for this episode from the Academy of Podcasters at this year’s Podcast Movement conference in Chicago.
Traffic engineering is not typically a topic that inspires much excitement. A proposal to replace a traditional intersection with a roundabout is not an obviously interesting story. Somehow, producer Martine Powers has defied all odds and turned a story about traffic engineering into this piece that takes a fascinating look at human psychology. She made a controversy about road design in a small town feel as high-stakes as a Jason Bourne chase scene—more high-stakes, actually, if you consider how terrible the new Jason Bourne movie is.
Roundabouts are in vogue these days with local governments and public works departments. There’s data showing they decrease crashes and crash severity, and they’re cheaper to maintain than traditional intersections. But townsfolk, like the ones at the center of this story, can be reticent to change a system that mostly works fine. The roundabout seems like total chaos, with no signs indicating when to stop and go.
Formerly of The Boston Globe, Martine Powers is now a metro reporter for The Washington Post. According to her bio, she has a self-described knack for “making boring stuff interesting.” I can’t help but agree.
How To Listen to PRX Remix:
Download the PRX Remix app or go to prx.mx and press ‘play’. If you’re a satellite radio listener, check out channel 123 on Sirius XM or XM radio. If you’re a traditionalist and stick to the radio dial, check these listings to find PRX Remix on a station near you.
Josh Swartz is the curator of PRX Remix. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and suggestions.
We are so excited to announce the opening of our Podcast Garage, the first community audio and media arts training facility in Boston. The space will provide low-cost recording studios, free co-working space and educational, listening and networking events. The educational tracks will include media arts training, networking, and community storytelling. The space is meant to foster knowledge sharing and community connectivity, plus develop partnerships with the Allston-Brighton neighborhood. We can’t wait to connect more closely with local audiomakers, both amateurs and veterans alike.
Local to Boston? Come celebrate with us tonight! We are throwing an opening party at 5:30 pm at the Garage home, 267 Western Ave in Allston, MA. Come mix and mingle with PRX, the City of Boston and local podcast personalities including Megan Tan from Radiotopia’s Millennial. We’ll also have a guest appearance from Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. You can tour and demo our podcast studios, plus taste Aeronaut beer and local food truck snacks. Visitpodcastgarage.org for a calendar of events, pricing information and more. Check out pictures of our space on Instagram @PRXOfficial and under the hashtag #PRXPodcastGarage.
Get all the details below in our press release:
PRX Opens the ‘Podcast Garage’, Boston’s First Podcast Studio
With low-cost recording studios, free co-working space, and educational and networking events, the PRX ‘Podcast Garage’ provides an affordable resource and community hub for local audio storytellers
Cambridge, MA (August 3, 2016) —PRX, the award-winning public media company, announced today the grand opening of the Podcast Garage, the first community audio and media arts training facility in Boston. The PRX Podcast Garage will serve as a recording space and educational center, dedicated to the craft of audio storytelling.
At the Garage, emerging and experienced podcasters will have access to low-cost recording studios, free co-working space and educational and networking events. The sound-isolated studios include high-end recording and sound equipment from companies like Shure, Sonos and Sennheiser, plus hardware to record phone interviews. Audio editing tools like Hindenburg and Pro Tools will also be provided. The space includes a larger studio that can record up to four people, plus a smaller sound booth for vocal tracking. Producers are welcome to bring an engineer or self-operate the control room.
“As a global leader committed to growing audio content, talent and technology, we’re thrilled to bring our mission to life in a physical studio that serves our very own community,” said Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX. “The Podcast Garage will be our skunkworks—a laboratory where diverse voices can hone their stories and talent.”
In the community space of the Garage, PRX will program events within three main tracks: media arts training, networking, and community storytelling. It will offer a calendar of diverse events including:
Audio production and narrative skill-building workshops
Podcast training sessions and mentoring opportunities led by veteran radio producers
Free networking events focused on technology, distribution, and marketing lead by industry thought-leaders
The Podcast Garage will also work to develop partnerships with the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to collaborate on community-focused storytelling projects and workshops. Located at 267 Western Ave in Allston, the PRX Podcast Garage is an exciting addition to Zone 3, a Harvard-sparked initiative to explore experimental programs, events, and retail along Western Ave. In crossing the Charles River to set up a home in Allston Brighton, PRX is putting down roots in one of Boston’s most dynamic and diverse neighborhoods—one that is brimming with energy and becoming a go-to creative destination for experimental art and retail.
By tapping into expertise from PRX’s partners like Transom, Center for Documentary Studies, Center for Investigative Reporting, Radiotopia, AIR, Women Audio Makers, WBUR, WGBH, and the Harvard community, Boston’s independent podcaster community can learn new skills, get feedback on their work in a safe space, and use professional-quality technology to create their own audio content.
“As an independent producer, I know you can’t make great work by yourself,” said Megan Tan, host of Radiotopia’s Millennial podcast. “You need a village. You need honest feedback and people who will guide you as you stumble through the creative process. I’ve collaborated with people remotely, but the dream is always to be together in one place, so you’re not alone during the frustrating moments or the victory dances. The Podcast Garage is going to be that place. I’ll definitely be making use of the space.”
The Podcast Garage is now open for public use, Monday-Thursday from 12-8 pm, and Friday from 12-5 pm. PRX is also accepting reservations for studio time and ideas for public programming. Visitpodcastgarage.org for a calendar of events, pricing information and more. Check out pictures of our space on Instagram @PRXOfficial and under the hashtag #PRXPodcastGarage.
This month on Inside the Podcast Studio, we go behind the scenes of the Outside Podcast from Outside magazine. Learn more about how the show came to be, and about it’s funny, charismatic hosts Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver (with cameos from Mike Roberts, Outside magazine’s executive editor).
On the Podcast
PRX: Tell us about how the podcast came to be
Pete: Basically we got super lucky. Robbie and I had been doing a very infrequent, outdoors-focused podcast, 30 Minutes West, for a couple of years. PRX approached me to do science work with funds provided by the Sloan Foundation. Right around that time I started doing print work for Outside and really liked working with those folks. I had coffee with our editor, Michael Roberts, and pitched him the idea of Outside launching a podcast. He said that they already had some podcast stuff in the works, but the ideas he outlined didn’t draw on Outside’s reputation for longform storytelling. I played him a couple of episodes from 30 Minutes West to show what I had in mind, and I think that worked. Meanwhile, we’d kept in touch with PRX and knew that they had funding for science stories, so it made sense to pitch both entities on one project.
PRX: Tell us about the team behind the show Pete is a freelance writer who went to SALT a couple of years ago, just trying to add more tools to his storytelling toolbox. Robbie went to grad school for nonfiction writing and we met at a John Jeremiah Sullivan reading. It’s nice to share many of same favorite authors, it gives us a common vocabulary for talking about things we’re trying to do on the podcast.
PRX: Where do you find story ideas for the show? Robbie: The first two episodes of the Science of Survival series came from stories in Outside’s archives. We really wanted to begin with a close connection to the magazine. So we sat down with a bunch of back issues, and just started reading. Mike sent us stories as well, and a few pieces seemed like they would benefit from an audio treatment, so we jumped on those. We worked with the original authors, but also tried to make it our own.
Pete: The rest of our stories just sort of fall from the sky. We don’t go looking for them, we just recognize stuff that’s surprising and interesting and seems like it might have a built-in narrative arc. Sometimes it’s an article I’m reading, sometimes it’s a matter of realizing that a subject is way more interesting than I thought, or sometimes I hear a story at a party and laugh along with everyone, then later corral the storyteller for more details. Makes you really popular.
PRX: We love the theme music on the show, how was that created? We’d seen a short outdoors video that was focused purely on the sounds of outdoor adventure, and really liked it. That served as the general inspiration, and from there we began sketching out a small scene that would capture both the feeling of outdoors and survival. We set up a tent in Robbie’s basement to get a good zipper sound, and then started pulling it together with music Robbie created. The most entertaining conversation centered around how much of this one wolf sound to put in. It went like this:
Robbie: We need more wolf. Pete: I don’t know, it seems like there’s too much wolf. Robbie: I added an extra wolf, what do you think? Pete: I took out the first wolf but you can keep the second wolf. Robbie: Fine, but we’re keeping the drums. Pete: Deal. By the way I made the wolf quieter.
PRX:How do you think the podcast can complement your magazine articles? Mike: First off, let me be clear: we developed this podcast to be a standalone storytelling platform. If and when it can complement a piece in the print magazine or on outsideonline.com, great. But that’s not the goal. That said, there are opportunities to use the podcast to mine elements of stories that work better in audio format. A great example is the second episode in the Science of Survival series, which told the remarkable tale of Phil Broscovak, a man who seemed to be chased by lightening wherever he went. Broscovak was a central character in a 2014 Outside print feature about lightning strikes, and we included a short video interview with him in the online version of the story. But when Peter and Robbie reached out to him, they uncovered a remarkably powerful emotional element that was best conveyed through Broscovak’s voice, the voices of his family members, and the terrifying sound of approaching storms.
PRX: What makes your show ideal for the podcast format? Pete: For starters, a lot of our pieces run 30-45 minutes and it’s hard to get those on traditional radio. But more than that, Robbie and I are both hardcore literature nerds, and we approach the different elements of sound as tools for storytelling. If you’ve ever taken a literature criticism class you’ve probably heard a lot of conversation about high-minded rhetorical devices like allusions, metaphors, tropes, and the like. Audio has all those things, plus music and sound effects and thousands of little microemotions communicated through the voice. So we do our best to harness all those things and get them working together. Some days we’re better at it than others.
PRX: Your show is so sound rich. Can you describe the most interesting scenario you’ve yourselves in to get authentic sound? Pete: The craziest scenario was definitely the time we drove to Mount Hood, skied into the woods, stripped Robbie down to just rain pants and buried him in snow. Since our piece was on hypothermia, we wanted truly authentic freezing sounds, and we got them. (Listen to the episode here)
Robbie: I got my revenge a few months later when we did something similar to Pete, sitting him in a 67 degree hot tub, with a wetsuit on, for two hours to see how quickly his core temperature dropped. His mom got so nervous she intervened. (Listen to the episode here)
On the Space
PRX: Where do you literally do your work? Can you walk us through that space?
Pete: I rent the top floor of a big house in Portland, and there’s an extra bedroom up there that I turned into an office. I migrate between a sitting desk, a standing desk, and a hammock that I bolted into the wall. Sometimes in the summer I take the hammock to the park and work there.
Robbie: I used to have an office but now I have a kid, so I’ve staked out a corner of the basement and filled it with audio gear and “music composition for dummies” manuals. Keyboards and guitars sit on top of a futon that Pete let me borrow but now won’t take back. Since the basement is underground, the acoustics are fantastic, so I’ll probably stay there.
PRX: Do you have a thinking or reflection space– somewhere you go to gather creative inspiration?
Pete: I go on runs, and will sometimes just sort of pace around the house muttering things, but I travel so much that I’ve really tried to untether myself from feeling like I need to work or think in a specific physical location. Otherwise I’d always have that excuse and wouldn’t get anything done.
Robbie: I go on long bike rides. That’s definitely where I do my best thinking.
PRX: How do you record your show? What type of equipment does your team use for at home recording vs. in the field? Pete: Pretty much everything goes into a Marantz PMD 661. I like it because it’s really easy to use in the field and there’s only a few buttons to press. I can hand it to someone and teach them how to record in just a few minutes. In the field we use a Audio Technica 897 shotgun microphone for almost everything. At home I narrate into a Audio Technica 4040 mic. We edit most of our stories in Hindenburg, but for really complicated sound design we’ll use Reaper since the sound effects are a lot more nimble and precise. Robbie makes music in Logic and uses an electric guitar—our secret weapon—to get sounds that he couldn’t get out of a keyboard.
My desk is a mix of ponderosa pine and some sort of ceramic composite. My chair is also pine.
PRX: What soundproofing techniques do you use for narration? Pete: I would have answered this question very differently a few months ago. I used to duck into closets and throw blankets over everything trying to get better sound. But over the last few months of recording narration I’ve found that as long as it’s quiet and the mic is very, very close to my mouth, people can’t really hear the difference between being at my desk and being in a room with foam on the walls. That’s one advantage of intense clutter. It deadens the sound. Seriously.
PRX: What do you think makes a great podcast host? Tell us more about Pete and what makes him unique? Mike: All the best hosts share one ability: they hold your attention and artfully guide you through a listening experience. Peter does this with an incredible combination of talents. He’s a dyed in the wool investigative journalist. He knows how to structure a story. He’s damn good audio engineer. He has a fantastic voice for audio. And—this is key—he clearly has fun doing the work. That comes through in every episode. Oh, and he lets his mom call the shots when it comes to safety.
PRX: How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape? Mike: I think we’re just about at the peak of the podcasting bubble right now. There are so many projects and experiments coming together at the moment that I think we’re going to have a couple of years of a really crowded audio space, and then some of them are going to start dying off and going away. The trick will be to figure out a way to stand out among an increasingly large crowd of talented audio producers.
On the lastest edition of What’s in My Buds? we chat with David Brancaccio. David Brancaccio is a master of the industry: he is the former host of NOW on PBS, and current host and senior editor of American Public Media’s Marketplace Morning Report, where he runs two related podcasts per morning. He also hosts the Esquire Classic podcast from Esquire Magazine and PRX (check it out if you haven’t listened yet!). Find out what David is listening to now:
What show do you wake up or fall asleep to?
You want to hear my guilty pleasure? I mean, besides those sleep podcasts that bore you into unconsciousness (not by accident; the ones specifically designed to bore you to sleep). For something energizing, riveting and informative, often charmingly so, I listen to a podcast from the BBC’s domestic service, Radio Four. It is a great podcast that does obituaries, mostly British obituaries. Last Word is a series of profiles of fascinating people whom we lost over the previous week. These are people who had fascinating lives, often previously unknown to me. A punk poet; A Taliban leader; a British physicist who was expert on the electromagnetic properties of nuclear isotopes. Plus the podcast has a great title: “Last Word“.
What show do you rave to your friends about?
Besides my Esquire Classic podcast—which I ceremoniously stream into a big Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen while we are cooking, so there is no escape—my favorite podcasts are those produced by my buddies. They include Brendan and Rico on Dinner Party Download, Actuality with Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour, and Codebreaker with Marketplace’s Ben Johnson.
If you were to start your own podcast, what would the subject be? Last Word inspires a podcast I would like to host someday: How about an obituary show about people who are just fine and very much alive? We could could borrow from Monty Python and call my podcast “I’m not Dead!”. Readers of this blog are welcome to suggest a more respectful title.
How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
I must tell you the word “podcasting” will go away. Subscribing to a series of podcasts, in the way one subscribes to a magazine, will go away. But on-demand audio will not go away. Audio storytelling, both factual and fictional, is woven into our DNA. We’ve been doing it since we lived in caves. The future version of “podcasts” will all be available at the flick of a finger or an iris-scanned flick of the eye. Audio had a great advantage: it can be absorbed as we do something else, cooking dinner, driving our not-quite-autonomous vehicles. For both audio creators and listeners, I believe, it will be a lush future.
The audio storytelling landscape is a vast, potentiallydaunting place for amateurs and radio veterans alike. Questions frequently arise like: How do you find your new favorite show? How do you listen to great pieces that aren’t part of an ongoing series? How do you fill your day with high-quality content with which you aren’t already familiar? How do you cut down on time spent browsing and get to listening faster? Cue PRX Remix.
The Solution: PRX Remix
Remix is a never-ending, highly curated storytelling channel from PRX.
We believe people fall in love with shows by listening to, not reading about, them. With Remix, all you need to do is hit ‘play’ and we do the rest.
What you will hear on this “never-ending storytelling channel”
This piece comes from PoetryNow, a series from The WFMT Radio Network and the Poetry Foundation. The show is an audio immersion into the concept behind a single poem. You’ll hear the poet read his or her poem and then discuss the (often surprising) motivations for writing it. It’s a simple, short (four minutes), and effective format that delivers poetry to listeners in a way that feels both relatable and compelling.
“Ode to Coffee” is a wonderful installment in the series. It focuses on a rhythmic poem about the pleasures of coffee, how different cultures affect that pleasure, and what coffee means to poet Urayoan Noel. It’s charming, and gets at the deeper tensions that arise from identifying with multiple cultures and speaking different languages. It made me crave a steaming cup of joe, even though I’m not a coffee drinker.
This piece is a documentary about a reporter’s experience dealing with cancer at a young age. She features powerful tape captured in the hospital when she first became sick, mixed with her reflections 10 years later. Moments when Ibby shares her diagnosis with her dad or describes the “chemo tree” next to her bed give listeners raw, heartbreaking and wonderfully specific insights into an unexpected struggle. Even seemingly mundane actions, like ordering room service, feel profound under the circumstances.
We should all be thanking Ibby for sticking with this piece and giving listeners access to such a personal part of her life–the result is quite beautiful. Ibby is a Boston-based journalist whose work has aired on a huge variety of programs, from WGBH’s The World to Australia’s Radiotonic.
Yes, this piece is exactly what it sounds like: famous actor Alec Baldwin does a dramatic reading of the side effects of the sedative Ambien. It’s pretty amazing, especially considering Ambien is a slightly terrifying drug that can cause side effects like giant hives, sleep cooking, and even a loss of one’s own sense of reality. It’s a silly, surprising, thoroughly entertaining diversion that made me literally laugh out loud in the middle of the PRX office.
This is just one of many installments from a series called The Phone Book, featuring other well-known people doing dramatic readings of mundane things, like Dick Cavett reading newspaper corrections, Barbara Rosenblat reading a list of Roman Catholic patron saints and Garrison Keillor reading reasons for admission to a 19th-century insane asylum.
As Remix curator, I’ll be back next month with more features. For suggestions, or to have your work featured, you can reach me via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @joshbswartz.
How To Listen to PRX Remix: Download the PRX Remix app or go to prx.mx and press ‘play’. If you’re a satellite radio kind of person, check out channel 123 on Sirius XM or XM radio. If you’re a traditionalist and stick to the radio dial, check these listings to find Remix on a station near you.
I’m pleased to announce that Hindenburg Systems has created the next generation of PRX MP2 audio encoding software, for immediate download and use, for free, by all broadcast radio producers.
“Supporting great audio storytellers is our biggest passion. When we met PRX, we knew we had found a kindred spirit. Since then we have worked hand-in-hand to create solutions that make the technical side of storytelling via PRX as easy as possible. This free MP2 encoder is one example, and there are loads more in our apps on our website”, said Chris Mottes, CEO of Hindenburg Systems.
Like Hindenburg, our goal at PRX has always been to help producers connect with their best audience. When we first started, we faced challenges that have largely disappeared, like will a producer have enough bandwidth to upload their audio files, or even be able to play an mp3 on our site? Other challenges have persisted, like correctly encoding audio to public radio’s broadcast standard: the beautiful, exotic, but esoteric MP2.
While widely used in broadcast for its balance of brevity and accuracy, the MP2 format is not otherwise well known. When PRX launched in 2002, the public radio system lacked an affordable solution to encode MP2s. To clear this roadblock preventing producers from uploading to PRX, we built and gave away MP2 encoders for Mac and PC.
Fast forward a bit, we are now lucky to have Hindenburg as a partner. Hindenburg is focused not just on music or audio editing in general, but on radio production, and specifically on journalists, storytellers, and podcasters. This is the same community PRX is dedicated to serving. It makes perfect sense for these masters of production software to create the successors to the PRX encoders, and it’s consistent with their ongoing commitment and generosity to public radio to offer them up for free.
When I first met Chris, Preben and Nick (I think at a Third Coast years ago), I could tell we’d get along. Their small but focused team was working to take the pain out of audio production, just as ours was working on removing the pain of distribution. The Hindenburg team boasts some of the most forward-thinking and creative technologists I’ve worked with. They are good partners who have supported a multitude of projects like Radiotopia’s Podquest, not to mention excellent company and storytellers in their own right.
With their successful track record of creating audio tools, and making complex editing simple, I trust them to make software that transforms every audio file in public radio.
I look forward to PRX working on more projects with Hindenburg, but in the meantime, get ’em while they’re hot! Head over and download the new MP2 encoders now.
Earlier this year Radiotopia launched Podquest, an open call for new podcast ideas. 1,537 people from 53 countries submitted ideas about every topic under the sun. Check out a portion of those topics here.
Radiotopia Executive Producer Julie Shapiro led a committee of 11 PRX staff and Radiotopia producers in reviewing the entries, ultimately narrowing the field to 10 impressive semifinalists. 99 Radiotopia donors also reviewed the top 50 entries, weighing in with their top choices for the semifinalists.
In the beginning, we intended to choose three finalists, awarding them each $10,000 and additional editorial and technical support to produce three pilot episodes, and then inviting one show into Radiotopia at the end of the year. But… we couldn’t choose just three (we wanted to choose all 10!). In the end, we settled on four finalists, the PQ4:
Ear Hustle brings you the hidden stories of life inside prison, told and produced from the perspective of those who live it. (Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams, Earlonne Woods)
Meat,a podcast from Europe about our bodies and the lives we live because of them (Jonathan Zenti)
The Difference Between dives into the world of “information doppelgängers”—the stuff you always confuse for that other thing—to find out what makes them truly unique. (Jericho Saria and Hadrian Santos)
Villain-ish, a show about gaining new perspectives on dubious figures we’ve been taught to revile, and exploring the hidden details we may have never considered. (Vivian Le)
“The range of ideas and talent represented by the PQ4 kind of blows my mind, and showcases exactly what we were seeking through Podquest—new voices and ideas not yet represented in Radiotopia”, said Julie Shapiro, executive producer of Radiotopia. “I can’t wait to hear how their pilot episodes develop in the next few months.”
The PQ4 will be introduced on stage on July 7th at Podcast Movement in Chicago, and will then spend July through September working on their pilots. We’ll announce our final winner (or winners—we’re committed to inviting at least one finalist into Radiotopia) before the end of the year.
Learn more about the PQ here, and read some thoughts and feedback from our judges below.
On The Difference Between: “It’s just so enjoyable to listen to Jericho and Hadrian. They have great on-air chemistry that you don’t hear that often. Add to that their imagination and intelligence, and all together you’ve got a very promising combination.” (Helen Zaltzman, The Allusionist host andPodquest judge)
On Ear Hustle:“Prison fiction has been popular for years, but it’s time to hear real stories, and I expect these to be even more enlightening. One of Podquest’s goals is to give voice to under-represented groups, and Ear Hustle definitely achieves that.” (Bruce Ryan, Radiotopia donor and Podquest reviewer)
On Meat: “This show’s premise is deceptively simple, but Meat is digging into the most vulnerable corners of what it’s like to be a person. It’s a reminder that the world sees us differently than we see ourselves, for better or for worse. Audio is such an intense, perfect medium for stories about how our lives are shaped by our physical bodies, and Jonathan’s super creative use of sound makes this show one-of-a-kind.” (Lauren Spohrer, Criminal producer and Podquest judge)
On Villian-ish: “From the first time I heard Villian-ish pitched, I could imagine the endless stories the program could tell: from nerdy, sociological reportage to sweeping narratives, all about the very essence of conflict and storytelling. And after talking with Vivian, I could tell she had the spark and passion to pull it off. I’m eager to hear what she creates.” (Roman Mars, 99% Invisible, Podquest judge and partner in Radiotopia.)
Steve Riccio is a teacher at Oriskany Junior-Senior High School in Oriskany, New York, near Utica. This past school year, he used both individual episodes of Radiotopia’s Criminal and the first season of This American Life’s Serial in his forensics class for juniors and seniors. I talked with Steve about how he used the shows, and his advice for other teachers hoping to make use of podcasts in the classroom. Here are excerpts from a recorded interview:
Genevieve Sponsler: Let’s start with an overview of what you did.
Steve Riccio: We listened to an episode [of Serial in class] every Monday, and I had the students write up a little summary: what was new in the episode [compared with] the previous week, specifically trying to address forensic evidence. There was a heck of a lot of forensics discussed, and specific things the case missed. I tried to have the kids focus on the forensics side. Some weeks were better than others: when the show talked about phone calls, for example, there wasn’t a lot of forensic evidence, like physical evidence you would find at a crime scene. Every week we listened to another episode, which was cool because it kept the kids on their toes. They enjoyed it.
GS: Did some of them try to skip ahead and listen at home?
SR: There was one girl who, after the second week, had listened to the whole thing.
GS: That’s great they were so into it.
SR: Yeah! With Criminal, I would listen to [episodes], write up short summaries, and turn them into questions for exams. We also listened to an episode in class as part of an exam. I have two students who are looking to go into science, one definitely criminal justice and possibly forensics. Another student is thinking of biology, but possibly forensics as avenue. Both are female. To have two young ladies who have said hey, I want to do science, and possibly forensics, is pretty cool.
GS: I agree. Since Serial and Criminal both have excellent women hosts, I wonder if that inspired the students. It’s interesting for them to listen to, I imagine.
SR: Absolutely. I think it subliminally makes a huge impact. I think there are a lot of little tiny things that we don’t really recognize that have a on significant impact on our culture and the way students think. When you told me you wanted to chat about [podcasts in the classroom], I asked my students: what do you think? What did you like? What did you dislike? What should we do differently next year?
They said they really liked listening to the podcasts. One student said she didn’t like writing summaries every time [we listened to Serial]. She said she’d rather have a project on it. Which made me think: Is there some way I can design a project around this? I might be able to work with one of our history teachers, who does a government class, to perhaps host a debate examining the legal aspects of the show. A couple kids said that instead of listening to an episode of Serial every Monday, they would’ve rather listened every day for a couple of weeks. I’m wondering if I can do that as a real short unit. I could also have the students listen at home and come in the next day for an activity or a discussion. That way we’re not actually using class time to listen to it but they’re listening on their own.
GS: Having them listen at home sounds good, but it’s a tough choice because listening to audio together and watching people’s reactions is a unique and bonding experience.
SR: It’s funny that you mention that because I know exactly what you’re talking about. When we would listen to [Serial] together as a group, I knew what was coming since I’d listened ahead of time, but I’d watch the students’ reactions at the end and they would say, “No! What happened?!”
GS: If you knew another teacher in a different school who was interested in using podcasts in the classroom, what advice would you give?
SR: It’s a good way to engage students, and a different style of learning. A lot of times students will hear teachers talk, but they’ve never listened to just straight audio. It’s a really beautiful thing, because they’re bombarded by images all day, every day on their phones. [With podcasts] they’re taking a step back, listening and coming up with images in their own heads, and stimulating a creative part of their brains they don’t often use because they don’t have to. Take a chance — I did and I think it went pretty well. It wasn’t part of our curriculum, but it parallels the curriculum pretty well for forensics. It was a really good change of pace for the kids.
Ed. note from Genevieve: I’ll check back in with Steve in the fall to see how his new class is going. He has 20 kids signed up for fall, instead of the nine he had this past year! (Some were missing from the photo above.)