Radiotopia kicked off its annual fundraiser yesterday to a flurry of fan excitement. As of this post, we are up to nearly 900 donors and counting.
Radiotopia is like your podcast mix tape: all your favorite shows in one place. Back in the day, homemade mixtapes helped convey feelings words could not. Songs were meticulously arranged in a particular order, and each track told a different story. Decorating the tape case was as important as curating the content. Every detail counted, and sharing a mixtape with someone meant the world.
Radiotopia embodies the mixtape tradition. Our shows explore life, society and culture through illuminating and unforgettable stories. We focus on craft, value process, and champion good design—from the sounds in every episode, to each show’s logo and custom artwork. And we’re big fans of sharing what we love with you.
Head over to the Radiotopia website to check out the latest fundraiser and help the network hit its goals. We’ve designed a cool mix of gifts, sporting new branding and a fresh logo, including enamel pins, hoodie and t-shirt with fresh designs, and our first-ever Radiotopia challenge coin. Plus we’re offering a digital mixtape of our shows, hand-picked by producers.
An enormous thank you to our challenge sponsors. We had a terrific challenge to help us launch strong from Podster Magazine. If you have not heard about Podster Magazine yet, it’s a free bi-monthly magazine all about podcasts. Best of all it’s free. Head over to podstermagazine.com to subscribe.
We also have a new challenge from our friends at Freshbooks. FreshBooks is a cloud-based accounting software for freelancers, self-employed professionals, and small business owners. They’re on a mission to make billing painless and just launched a totally new product, redesigned from the ground up. They love Radiotopia so much that they are willing to kick in a huge $40K if we can get reach 5,000 new donors by the end of the campaign. Consider supporting us with a donation today!
On this edition of What’s in My Buds?, we chat with Dan Lizette, founder of The Podcast Digest. Dan is podcast-obsessed, and has been producing his show for three years… a long time in the life of the podcast industry. From Dan:
I feel as if I’ve always had a microphone in front of me. I began my career as a mobile DJ in 1999 when another DJ heard my voice making an announcement at a bowling alley. He said I should consider becoming a DJ. From that moment on, I fell in love with the microphone and for 17 years, I’ve worked hundreds of weddings and parties and truly love it!
Sometime around 2007, I discovered podcasts. They’ve been my constant companion while at my day job, working out, or watching TV. I fell in love with This American Life, Snap Judgment, and many of the technology shows from the 5by5 network. I was hooked! In 2013, after relocating to Pennsylvania from Virginia, I needed a hobby. Something to sink my creative teeth into, if you will. One evening in the summer of 2014, I popped an earbud out of my ear and said to my wife “You know what? I think I want to start a podcast”, and I was off and running! The Podcast Digest was born. Debuting on September 1, 2014, the show began with the simple idea of recommending great shows to my listeners. After the first few months, it evolved to an interview-based, weekly show. I’ve been fortunate enough to feature some of the best independent and professional podcasters from across the world. I’ve spoken to some of my favorite hosts from shows I’ve listened to for years, trying to embody all the listeners out there and ask the questions we’ve all wondered about. Now, over two years and 100 episodes in, The Podcast Digest has been recognized as one of the premiere destinations for hosts to share ‘behind the scenes’ tales of their wonderful shows!
What is your go-to podcast and why?
My go-to podcast would be one with a consistent release schedule, a rich back catalog, and one that rarely, if ever, disappoints! I love shows that both entertain and educate, so I’d have to award my go-to podcast to both Stuff You Should Know and 99% Invisible. I always come away from both shows feeling highly entertained and having learned something new. I constantly find myself hopping over to Google to dive deeper into episode topics. Both shows are great distractions from the day-to-day concerns of life, temporarily concentrating on a completely unique topic for 30-45 minutes.
What is your favorite listening environment?
I am fortunate to have a day job where I’m able to listen for most hours of the work day; it certainly makes the hours fly by! I love to sit on the deck in my backyard with my dogs and Bluetooth headset, enjoying the weather with some of my favorite shows in my ears.
Who is your favorite podcast personality?
There are so many wonderful personalities in podcasting! It would be very difficult for me to narrow this down to one, so instead I’ll mention a few. I’m a huge fan of consumer technology-based podcasts, and have been for years. One of my favorite commentators from the technology world is John Siracusa (Accidental Tech Podcast, Reconcilable Differences, The Incomparable). John offers up his opinions, takes, and input on a bevy of topics that are always eye-opening, intriguing and bound to get you to think more about the topic he’s covering. Next, there is a group of independent podcasters from a show called Couple Things Podcast from Cincinnati. Molly Mendenhall, Ben Mendenhall, Ray Lofflin and Michelle Von Hirschberg are the hosts, two couples in the late 20’s, who tackle four topics each episode in a ‘bar room’-style discussion. These are wonderfully honest, open, and hilarious people whom I challenge anyone to listen and not start counting as “friends”.
What do you think makes a great podcast host?
A great podcast host supports the goals of the show they are running. If it’s a comedy show, the host should be pretty good at making people laugh. If the show is interview-style, the host needs to bring out responses from their guests that are interesting to the listener and keep a conversation going. If a host is looking to shed light on a particular topic, they should be well-read and well-prepared for the subject matter. Generally speaking, a host should be entertaining to listen to, maintaining the audience’s attention throughout the episode.
What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot? Without a doubt, the podcast medium has several advantages over broadcast. First and foremost, it’s an accessible delivery vehicle for almost anyone. If you have a message or topic you want to get out, for a minimal upfront investment, you can launch a podcast. That’s terrifically empowering for all of us. Also, there are no standards or limitations. There’s nobody who has to approve your content—it’s message, length, how often you release it, etc. Again, completely empowering! From a listener standpoint, it’s on-demand’ audio. We now live in a Netflix world, where the consumer has the power of choice. What they want to listen to, when they want to listen to it, and for how long. The iTunes (or Google Play, Spotify, etc.) catalog is a huge virtual audio buffet catering to every single taste and preference possible. Unlike a broadcast radio station, where a program director has made those choices for their audience, podcasts enable the listener to be their own program director for an audience of one. From both sides of the equation, podcaster and listener, the medium offers a sense of choice and freedom that simply cannot be found in broadcast.
How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
Growing! Soon, it seems that most media properties will have a presence in podcasting. We’re seeing anyone with a message to convey coming en mass to the medium, from political figures, to authors, to branded content from non-traditional media sources. I expect this trend to grow exponentially. But we, the listeners and fans, will be all the better for it: more selection, more sustainability for the medium, and more high-quality audio entertainment, no matter what your preference.
Subscribe to The Podcast Digest in iTunes to hear more recommendations and interviews. Also! Hear Dan’s interview with Radiotopia EP Julie Shapiro in his latest episode.
Fall is here. And even as we think back to the warm, carefree months of summer, shorter days and brisk mornings pull us back to reality. So for this month’s PRX Remix picks, I’ve got nostalgia in wavelength form: stories about summer as a kid, the closing of an iconic New York City studio, and fantasy adventures as told through maps.
“The Neighborhood” from Rumble Strip Vermont
Three purple houses. A shortcut through the woods to Dunkin’ Donuts. Three graveyards, only one of which is known as The Graveyard. These are the defining features of Hospital Hill, a neighborhood in Randolph, Vermont. At least for the kids featured in this 10-minute audio postcard from producer Erica Heilman’s Rumble Strip Vermont podcast.
The piece makes it fun to learn about the intricacies of a game of tag: “When you don’t know where they are, you wanna act like you do and say things that make them think you’re close to them.” It’s also funny and heartbreaking to learn about the social dynamics of children: “I’m friends with Elliott, but we’re always friends…I was friends with Abby and Riley last Monday. But I wouldn’t say we’re that great friends right now.” The real trick of this story though is that the kids’ insights into their world, while cute, are often deeply relevant for us adults. “You need to know where your good places are and your bad places are,” one boy says, while describing the territory in which his friend group roams free.
As much as this piece is a vehicle for us to feel nostalgic about “a place we remember but can’t go anymore,” Heilman’s apt description of childhood, it also serves as a reminder of the immense capacity for humanity kids possess and the true complexity of their lives. It’s easy to hear the soft timbre of their voices and the happy sounds of a game of tag and conjure up an idealized version of childhood. But “The Neighborhood” digs deeper and portrays the kids as individuals with real struggles, relationships, and opinions that matter. Take the closing conversation, where Heilman asks one of the kids about growing up.
“Do you think you’re gonna grow out of the neighborhood?” asks Heilman. “No.” says the kid. “I mean eventually you’re gonna grow up,” Heilman pushes further. “I mean I’m probably gonna come back and see what it looks like in 20 or 30 years and see how much it has changed.”
The boy acknowledges he will grow up, but not grow out of his neighborhood. The implication is that childhood, represented here by this neighborhood, is not something one grows out of. It’s not separate from the rest of life. The three purple houses of Hospital Hill and the fact that tag is called manhunt when it’s dark outside are defining features, rather than trivial details, in the lives of these young people. Thanks to Erica Heilman for introducing us to these kids with sensitivity and respect.
“A Magic Door” from Gianluca Tramontana
A half-hour audio documentary doesn’t have an obvious place in PRX Remix, which is mostly filled with short-form stories, but I couldn’t pass up this engrossing look from producer Gianluca Tramontana at the closing of one of New York City’s last iconic recording studios: The Magic Shop. You’ll find it in Remix broken into two stand-alone segments.
Lou Reed, Norah Jones, The Ramones, The Foo Fighters, Arcade Fire and, yes, David Bowie, are some of the recording artists that used the studio, which achieved legendary status due to its vintage recording gear: the crème-de-la-crème of vintage recording consoles, custom built in the ‘70s for the BBC. Tramontana explains how the console isn’t flat. Instead, it wraps around the producer “like a half-moon” and has buttons and knobs that click and turn, instead of a shiny digital interface. It has clocked in over tens of thousands of recording hours and feels “like a broken-in leather jacket.” That broken-in feel is the real magic of the studio. It’s dark and moody, warm and intimate—it feels like a place you’d want to hang out, like a living room. The vibe is a far cry from the glossy, sterile studios that dominate the modern recording landscape.
Rising SoHo rents over the past three decades left studio owner Steve Rosenthal with no choice but to close up shop. Lucky for us, Rosenthal gave Tramontana full access to the studio during the final 48 hours of its existence. The result is a must-hear story about a symbol of a bygone era and what it means to say goodbye.
“Fantasy Maps” from Imaginary Worlds
Like a lot of great audio stories, this is a piece about a niche topic with broad appeal. You don’t have to be a Lord of the Rings fanatic or a fantasy cartographer to appreciate producer Eric Molinsky’s foray into the philosophical implications of fantasy mapmaking on his podcast, Imaginary Worlds. Molinsky starts by establishing why J. R. R. Tolkein did what no other fantasy mapmaker had done before him—map a world from scratch. Gulliver’s Travels belongs to a recognizable Europe and The Wizard of Oz starts in Kansas. Tolkein, on the other hand, had to name and place everything. His maps were more serious, intricate, and artistic than previous fantasy maps had been. They also reflected the psychology of the characters of the story they accompanied, in this case the hobbits traveling from the Shire out into the rest of Middle Earth. In other words, Tolkein’s maps told a story.
Molinsky continues to trace the history of fantasy maps and the craft of fantasy mapmaking up to present day. It’s all interesting on the surface but it isn’t until the last two minutes that we learn why any of it matters. Regardless of whether a map depicts a fantasy world or the real world, all maps are acts of creation. All maps tell a particular story. So even the most accurate map, like Google’s, reveals biases if you pay close attention.
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.
Attend ‘Remix Live,’ a listening event at PRX’s Podcast Garage in Boston on October 27th. Details here.
Josh Swartz is the curator of PRX Remix. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and suggestions.
This month for Inside the Podcast Studio, we go behind the scenes of The Truth podcast with host Jonathan Mitchell to celebrate the show’s new season launch. Read about how Jonathan and his team captures authentic sound, his celebrity encounters, and learn more about the audio fiction landscape.
On the Podcast
Tell us about how The Truth came to be I started The Truth in 2009, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I studied music composition at the University of Illinois. I took an experimental electronic music class and loved everything about it, especially editing tape and manipulating real-world sounds. Around the same time, I remember seeing “Sex Lies and Videotape” and being blown away—it made artful, thoughtful filmmaking seem so accessible and possible. Not long after that, I saw a book by the director Steven Soderbergh, a journal he kept while filming. I read it cover to cover twice. I loved it so much. It made me deeply want to make a film, but I didn’t have access to film equipment. But because of my music classes, I did have access to a recording studio, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film without pictures. I went to graduate school at Mills College, and my thesis was essentially a radio drama.
After graduating I worked in public radio for many years, and I always held onto the dream of making a radio show that would allow me to explore my interest in dramatic storytelling. Around 2009, I had an opportunity to pitch this idea to American Public Media, who gave me a little bit of money to make a pilot (which became our story Moon Graffiti). While spending a couple years trying to make that happen, I pitched a fiction story to This American Life, they said yes, so I started a podcast so that they would have a place to send listeners. After that piece aired, we had an audience big enough to justify continuing to produce the show, and about a year-and-a-half later, we joined the Radiotopia podcast network.
Tell us about your show and what makes it unique? Why are you so passionate about your subject matter? I think fictional storytelling in audio is an under-developed field, there are just so many things that can be done with it. And it feels like we are only taking advantage of a very small part of an area that has boundless potential. I want to see what The Truth can do in this space, and hopefully inspire others to do the same. My lifelong goal is to help create a world where making audio drama is something normal and valued in mainstream culture. I would like to see people abandon the notion that audio drama is inherently old-fashioned or from bygone era of broadcasting. I would like people to see it for the relevant, contemporary, and highly versatile medium that it is.
Where do you find story ideas for the show? We have a weekly writers meeting, where we pitch ideas and read each other’s scripts and offer feedback for episodes of The Truth. We can find story ideas anywhere. We tend to look for speculative fiction ideas, where there is one element that couldn’t happen in the real world.
Tell us more about what we can expect from your new season. Expect the unexpected! The Truth is like a Christmas stocking: you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s always entertaining and fun. This fall we are planning to post a new story twice a month.
How do you find actors? Any stories about famous people you’ve had on the show? A lot of stories for The Truth are made with performers from Magnet Theater, an improv theatre and school in New York. Beyond that, we just think about who we know and who might be best based on the character.
For example, Rachel Dratch was in “Santa for President”. She had worked previously with the writer of that story, Mario Correa, on a play he wrote, so that’s why we thought of her. We ultimately base who we cast on the needs of the story. When we were recording with Rachel, she was playing a political consultant, and in the very next studio just 10 feet away on the other side of the glass was Karl Rove, recording an interview for another show. That was pretty surreal.
Your Songonauts series is so unique. Can you give us the backstory? I got an email from co-creator Jonathan Mann saying he had an idea for a series, asking if I’d be willing to talk with him about it and give him feedback. Jonathan Mann has been writing a song a day for the past 7 years (you can hear them all on his website) and he’s a brilliant songwriter. He’s full of enthusiasm, and has a knack for writing a very catchy melody with a fun, positive vibe. So we met for lunch, he told me the idea and I thought it sounded really creative and unusual. It was very different from what we usually do, but it sounded like a fun challenge. I thought it would allow me to use more of my music background on The Truth.
On the Space
Where do you literally record or do your work? Can you walk us through that space? It depends on the story. Sometimes we’ll record in my apartment, or outside, or if the story takes place in a car… then we’ll record in a car. Sometimes we’ll record in a studio if it makes more sense for the story, like the Songonauts series. I edit each story at home. I have a little editing studio in my apartment and I use Pro Tools to edit the audio. I have lots of cool plug-ins, my favorites are Omnisphere and Altiverb. I’m hoping the companies that make those plugins will read this and ask me for an endorsement or something, because I could go on and on about how much I love them.
Do you have a thinking or reflection space– somewhere you go outside the studio to gather creative inspiration? I work best at my desk, where I put together the show.
What type of equipment do you use for recording your show? I usually use a Shure VP88 stereo mic, which records in MS format. I often supplement that with AKG 414s. I just bought a Roland 4-channel recorder that I record to.
What soundproofing techniques do you use for narration? I just record in my office. It’s pretty quiet in here, but then I put it through a denoiser made by Izotope. (Another plug for a plug-in maker! They rock!)
What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot? Podcasting has made it possible for anyone to distribute their work all over the world at a very low cost. That’s revolutionary. Podcasting is a very accessible way to get our work out to a large audience. And in podcasting, fictional audio storytelling and other lesser-known or niche formats have the opportunity to build an audience because they’re available to the entire planet at once. What podcasts offer us is the opportunity to prove that there’s an audience for what we do.
What do you think makes a great podcast host? Tell us more about what makes you unique.
I’m the guy who makes the thing you like, but I’m not the thing itself. Like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock or Colonel Sanders. Each episode is me sharing this new thing we made, and hopefully you will like it. Sometimes you won’t, and that’s ok, because next time! We’re really good at this!
How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape? Hopefully it will stay accessible to anyone and not devolve into a typical media landscape with three big companies who rule us all. I would like it to be completely normal and common for there to be audio drama, and I hope all of it will be amazing.
PRX is excited to announce Project Catapult, an innovative podcast training project with public media stations, made possible by a $1 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
Five stations will be selected to participate in a 20-week curriculum to develop new skills, which will include digital content development, cultivating diverse talent, audience engagement and monetization. PRX will provide technical training in key areas where broadcast and podcast strategies diverge. The training will take place at the PRX’s Podcast Garage in Boston and on-location at each station. At the end of the curriculum, each station, in co-production with PRX, will launch a new podcast.
The curriculum will be based on our positive experiences with Matter—a media accelerator started in 2012 by PRX with funding from KQED and The Knight Foundation. A key component of our training program is to apply an iterative process to show development in collaboration with the stations. PRX will take stations through a process of rapid content development and feedback or “creative sprints.” That is followed by a piloting process that involves additional supportive but critical feedback.
Public media is poised for this moment and many stations are ready to advance podcasts from their ‘shiny stage’ to a new, relevant and sustainable part of their content offering. Stations are already centers of solid audio production, yet podcast success remains elusive—the intimate storytelling styles, hosting and distribution options and monetization options can differ from the familiar broadcast know-how.
Stations bear considerable risk in the current podcast environment. Even the best intentions around new talent and topics can fail if marketing, promotion, staff expectations and sponsorship efforts are not mastered.
Project Catapultwill address these challenges head-on. Through an open RFP process, PRX and CPB will select the five stations with input from an expert panel.
Our focus will be on: Sustainable Ideas: An important objective of the curriculum is to establish support from the executive team. The bootcamp will focus on 2-3 station leaders, with at least one having responsibility for revenue. Creating sustainable shows is critical to the success of the training. PRX will be sharing expertise about sponsorships and fundraising from surveys, donor data, and other industry trends.
Identification and cultivation of talent. Finding talent requires a willingness to experiment and test ideas. Balancing openness with quality while creating the right incentives to foster talent is essential.
Support and skills training. While the barrier to entry in the podcast space is relatively low, today’s content creators have to have skills far beyond storytelling. While many may have personality and good hosting skills, we see particular gaps in technical/production quality and knowledge, promotion, feedback, audience focus and listening metrics and monetization know-how.
Industry linkages and community. PRX will develop a process to listen and guide this conversation with a small group of engaged, committed stations and industry teachers and leaders.
To learn more and to apply to the program, visit https://prx.submittable.com. The application process opens today. Participating station teams will begin work in January 2017.
Radiotopia is excited to announce a new addition to its podcast lineup: The West Wing Weekly. Co-hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway (of Song Exploder) and acclaimed actor Joshua Malina, The West Wing Weekly is an episode-by-episode discussion of the beloved serial political TV drama, TheWest Wing. Launched earlier this year, The West Wing Weekly podcast quickly built a vibrant and active fanbase as it covered season one of the television show, and is on the verge of tackling season two.
Bringing on The West Wing Weekly is an exciting development for Radiotopia. The decision is in keeping with our mission and support the best independent and entrepreneurial-driven talent in podcasting, and uphold top quality content across our shows. It also allows us to explore a new content direction, and evolve as a network. We’re thrilled to collaborate with Hrishi on this project alongside his other Radiotopia show, Song Exploder.
The West Wing Weekly does so much more than just recap and discuss a television show. The hosts cross into the real world quite often, to find a deeper understanding of the issues that come up on The West Wing. The podcast uses interviews to explore issues covered on the TV episodes (such as gun control or veterans’ health) framed in our current political landscape. Hirway and Malina have had segments interviewing Matthew Shepard’s friend, and now Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, about hate crimes in the wake of the Orlando massacre. They’ve interviewed a Rabbi about Talmudic interpretation and how it relates to actors interpreting the text of a script. They’ve even talked with an economics writer about the census.
The Podcast So Far
Guests have included:
West Wing stars: Richard Schiff, Dulé Hill, Janel Maloney
Plus Tim Matheson, Kathleen York, Liza Weil and recurring actors William Duffy and Peter James Smith (Ed and Larry), Melissa Fitzgerald (Carol), Bill O’Brien (Kenny)
Crew: Costume designer Lyn Paolo, Music supervisor Ann Kline, writer/producer Eli Attie
Real life DC figures: Press Secretary Jay Carney, Senator Chris Coons, Senator Bob Casey, Clinton advisor Ron Klain, Gary Indiana’s mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, former DNC CEO Amy Dacey, and the Under Secretary of the Army Patrick Murphy.
Season two will kick off on September 28th with a double episode, plus special guests Tommy Schlamme (series director/exec producer) and Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman). The double episode podcast premiere mirrors the season two television premiere, which also featured two episodes.
PRX has a new collaboration with Sky & Telescope magazine, launching today. Each episode of our space podcast, Orbital Path, will be featured on Sky & Telescope‘s website. Starting with our next new episode in October, the entries will include a special op-ed piece from our host, astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller.
Michelle will provide something different each time, from backstory about the episode to further exploration into a topic. Michelle travels the world for her work studying binary stars and as the Deputy Director for Science Communications at NASA, and her fascinating guests come from all fields of space science.
Sky & Telescope was founded in 1941 and has the most experienced astronomy staff of any magazine worldwide—check out the story of how they were founded.
Orbital Path looks at the big questions of the cosmos and what the answers can reveal about life here on Earth. Subscribe here and stay tuned to Sky & Telescope for Michelle’s editorials, starting with our next episode in early October.
Orbital Path is hosted by Michelle Thaller, produced by Justin O’Neill, and edited by Andrea Mustain, with direction and distribution from PRX’s Chief Content Officer John Barth and Content Coordinator Genevieve Sponsler. Support for Orbital Path comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance. More at sloan.org.
I’m Sean Nesbitt, Station Relations Director for PRX.
I guess you can say I took the path less traveled to arrive in public media. I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, a small urban community in central New Jersey. It’s a short Amtrak ride away from Newark. Or a longer Amtrak/Path ride to Manhattan.
My journey started at Norfolk State University, a historically black university. It was a launching pad for my sense of adventure. I learned about business and government affairs at Georgetown; studied the German language intensively at The University of Virginia; and studied in South Africa for three-and-a-half months. Did I say adventure?
After graduation, I worked at Grand-Am Road Racing, the sports car division of NASCAR. Media/Public Relations was at the core of what I did. It was a really cool experience! But I wanted a change of pace—some pun intended—and leapt at a marketing opportunity at PRI. Public media really captured my imagination.
I advocated for big names in public media: BBC, CBC, PRI’s The World ®, This American Life, etc. Exposure to this level of talent sparked my interest in growth. So I enrolled in an innovative MBA program at Western Governors University. A rotation of challenging projects for work and school was my life for 20 months.
Now, three months after graduation, I’m thrilled to help chart the future of public media at PRX. I believe in our ability to make positive change happen—for everyone.
More about me: I’m a very active volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters. (Ask me about it!) Plus, I love wheeling my Dahon C6 folding bike around the Mississippi River.
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.
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