Inside the Podcast Studio with The Truth

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
the_truthI 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.

The Truth podcast
Recording session for “Good Meeting”

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.

The Truth Podcast
Rachel Dratch with Karl Rove in the background

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.  ezgif-2662252328

On the Space

The Truth podcast
Jonathan in the field

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.

The Truth podcast
Jonathan’s desk

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!)

On Podcasting

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.

The Truth podcast
Jonathan recording

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.

Inside the Podcast Studio: How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black

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 beHow to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black
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 Ian Black with Tavi Gavinson
Michael with Tavi Gavinson

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.

Michael Ian Black with David Sedaris
Michael with David Sedaris

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.

Michael Ian Black with Bob Odenkirk
Michael and Bob Odenkirk

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

Michael Ian Black with John Leguizamo
In studio with John Leguizamo

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.

On podcasting

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.

Inside the Podcast Studio: the Outside Podcast

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

outsidelogo
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.

Outside Podcast
Robbie in the snow for episode #1

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)

Outside podcast
Peter in the hot tub

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.

IMG_2795

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.

On Podcasting

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.

Check out the Outside podcast in iTunes.

Inside the Podcast Studio: HerMoney with Jean Chatzky

On this month’s edition of Inside the Podcast Studio, we sit down with Jean Chatzky, financial editor at NBC’s TODAY Show and creator of the HerMoney with Jean Chatzky podcast. Learn more about how Jean got into podcasting, and why her longtime television format has translated so well.

On the Show

Tell us about how the podcast came to be.
It came up in a brainstorming session with some terrific hermoney-3000x3000women I’ve been working with at Fidelity Investments. We were talking about ways to get more women talking about money, not just on special occasions, but on a regular basis. Someone (not me!) said podcast. And off we went.

What is your team like? How do you work together?
My internal team consists of a very small but dedicated and collaborative group of women. We get together to brainstorm show ideas, guests we want to book, topics we need to cover, then divide and conquer to make sure that we cross off every item on our lists.  What I love most about my team is that every person is willing to dive in and do whatever is needed to get the work done!  This is important because the podcast is just one of the things we do together—we produce a monthly in-school magazine called Your $ for two million fourth through sixth graders, research and write segments and stories for TODAY and Forbes.com, and created educational financial content for our corporate partners including Fidelity Investments and Pepsi-Co. On the podcast side, we’re highly supported by (and grateful to) our colleagues at PRX.

Where do you find stories for the show?
Life. Friends. Other media. The Internet. Seriously—I learned a long time ago to always have my ears tuned to that frequency. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been out to dinner with friends telling stories about their older parents, or insurance woes, or college tuition challenges or the fabulous TED Talk they saw, and I think: Story!

Tell us about your show and what makes it unique. Why are you so passionate about your subject matter?
HerMoney with Jean Chatzky is a continuing conversation to learn about money. Asking the questions I had to in-the-know people put me (as a woman) in the driver’s seat of my own financial life. It made me feel more confident, comfortable and in control. I want to help our listeners through the exact IMG_0184same experience. What I’ve also learned is that money is like a thread that winds through pretty much all aspects of life. So we won’t just talk about 12B-1 mutual fund fees and other boring minutia—we talk about relationships, kids, parents, work, life, fun, fear, challenging situations and using money as a tool to get what you want.

We love the fan questions section of the podcast. What questions do you get asked most often? What worries people the most?
I get a lot of common questions. Some of them include:
Do I have enough for retirement, college, emergencies, my first home (fill in the blank(?
Who can I trust to help me? And how can I find that person?
What’s the smart way to repay my student loan, mortgage, credit card bills (again, fill in the blank)?

Women are most worried about running out of money before they run out of time.

Spring Clean Your Finances
Jean on The TODAY Show

How do you think the podcast episodes can complement your presence on the TODAY Show?
I love the fact that I have more time! The wonderful thing about podcasting is that although we try to stick to a clock, we aren’t slaves to it. We can give our interviews time to breathe. In addition to answering the questions, I get to ask them. I’m a very good interviewer (three decades of practice will do that), but you don’t get to see that on TODAY!

Arianna Huffington
Jean with Arianna at HuffPo

What makes your show ideal for the podcast format?
The podcasting format gives us freedom to keep asking questions until we actually get a satisfactory answer—that’s very important in the world of money. Also, we’re featuring fascinating women—Arianna Huffington, Gretchen Rubin, Joanna Coles—we want to hear their stories, and we have plenty of time to do that.

On the Space

Where do you literally do your work? Can you walk us through that space?
I’m laughing because I work wherever I am. My most important tool is my MacBook Air. I bought my first one—when Apple launched it—because it enabled me to replace the six-pound laptop I was never without with a three-pound laptop. It saved my shoulder. I do a lot of different things, but they all involve writing: books, scripts, etc.

Do you have a thinking or reflection space—somewhere you go outside the studio to gather creative inspiration?
I like to tell people I get my best ideas when I’m on a run or in the shower.  Interestingly, I learned from this week’s episode that there’s science behind the fact that people get great ideas in the shower. Linda Kaplan-Thaler and Robin Koval, authors of the new book Grit to Great (and inventors of the “Aflac duck” among other campaigns) explained that when there is hot running water hitting your head, the blood vessels in your brain open up and you get creative.  That was the inspiration behind their commercial for Herbal Essences where the woman stood under the shower saying, “Yes, yes, yes”. (Well, that and other things).

IMG_0199
Charles de Montebello of CDM Sound Studios

How do you record your show? What type of equipment does your team use for in-studio or at home recording vs. in the field? 
We record in CDM Sound Studios in Hell’s Kitchen—unless our guest needs us to come to them. Charles de Montebello of CDM does our editing. We’ve been in the studio at AOL on lower Broadway with Arianna Huffington, a WeWork conference room with a freelance producer to interview Giada DeLaurentiis, and at Milkboy The Studio in Philly with Jennifer Weiner.

On Podcasting

What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot?
Intimacy. It’s just me and you (and my guest) in your car, or in your ears, while you’re walking the dog (or swimming, or IMG_0178running). That’s very helpful when you’re talking about an intimate subject… and money is nothing if not intimate.

What do you think makes a great podcast host? Tell us more about what makes you unique as a podcast host?
A great podcast host is someone you want to jump out of the headphones and sit down with you for a cup of coffee. I think people see me that way — they feel like they know me from 20 years on TV. This is our opportunity to take our relationship to the next level.

How do you envision the future of podcasting landscape?
I think the future of podcasting is so exciting because it’s one more step in the democratization of content. My father ran network affiliated television stations during my childhood and there was such limited capacity that there were always terrific programs either never making it on the air or being cancelled too quickly.  Today, there are so many more homes for content that good programming has a greater opportunity to make it on the air initially and find its audience.  I am hopeful that we’re headed toward a rise in quality content that is more meaningful to the people who tune in.

Follow Jean Chatzky on Twitter @JeanChatzky. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes here, and look out for new episodes every Wednesday.

Inside the Podcast Studio: Reveal

On the latest edition of Inside the Podcast Studio, we sit down with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR)—the team behind the Reveal podcast and broadcast show. Reveal is an investigative journalism show that uncovers hidden stories, reveals injustice and holds the powerful accountable. Kevin Sullivan, the show’s executive producer, walks us through how and where Reveal is created.

On the Show

Tell us about your show and what makes it unique.
Reveal combines gritty investigative reporting with on-the-edge-of-your-seat storytelling. Our stories expose wrongs and bring about real change. We report on stories that matter and give people a reason to care.

Why are you so passionate about your subject matter?
I’m passionate about our show because we are uncovering stories that no one is following. Our stories touch people’s lives around the country and around the world. We call out people in the wrong and shine a light on those who are fighting to make things better.

What makes your show ideal for the podcast format?
I love podcasts because the stories are just the length that they need to be, and you can listen to them on your own schedule. Those are both great reasons why Reveal is ideal for the podcast format.

Wide shot
The team in their office

How does your remote team work collaboratively?
Video conferencing is huge in our office. We have team members located around the country and it’s important to stay connected. We use video conferencing for meetings big and small, and stay in constant contact. We also use tools to collaborate on scripts, which allows us to have a running conversation on all the work we do.

How do digital teams work in the context of a radio show?
We have a dedicated digital producer, who heads all of our digital content. She works with producers to come up with the best online features for our stories—from photos and illustrations, to interactive quizzes and embedded videos. Our digital content is a huge part of the planning process and we see it as an extension of the podcast.

What is your relationship with fellow news organizations? What is the value of those relationships in producing your episodes? Any interesting stories there?
We have strong relationships with dozens of news organizations, so we are able to break stories with them. These relationships are extremely valuable and have led to some of our best shows. Last year, we worked with several partners, including Frontline, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, KQED and Univision to produce an investigation into sexual assault against female janitors. We called it Rape on the Night Shift. Since that show first aired, a grassroots movement has sprung up to change the laws in California to ensure better security for women who clean offices at night.

We also collaborated with New Hampshire Public Radio to produce a one-hour show investigating allegations of abuse and neglect at a neurorehabilitation center. As part of the show, we uncovered the roots of the company, and discovered a disturbing cycle: these types of facilities would get in trouble, shut down and then re-open under new names. The show was a finalist for a Scripps Howard award and brought to light a problem most people never even knew existed.

On the Space

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Cozy town

Where do you literally do your work? Can you walk us through that space and how it is laid out? Why is it designed the way it is?
I work in a beautiful office with high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows. It’s open, bright and invigorating. The office is about half a city block and is a combination of cubicle space, an audio/video studio, open conference rooms, and offices. The kitchen area is the center of the space, and is affectionately known as “cozy town.” People break out of their offices and cubicles to work together in cozy town and in other nooks around the office. It’s a great space to work.

Do you have a thinking or reflection space—somewhere you go outside the studio to gather creative inspiration?
I’ll take a walk around the block and soak in the California sunshine!

How do you record your show? What type of equipment does your team use for in-studio recording vs. in the field?
Reveal is fortunate to have a built-out studio and separate control room at CIR that accommodates recording of up to four people on individual mics.10688258_738954426195478_2720193502000008427_o Our host Al uses a Shure SM7B partnered with a CL-1 Cloudlifter to help get this low-gain, excellent broadcast dynamic microphone to a more useable level for our audio interface. We also use Electro-Voice RE20s for our other broadcast voice mics. In the studio, we record 2-ways with Al onsite, and guests in-studio or over ISDN. At times, we will record a guest over the phone, and sync up tracks recorded at the remote studio. Sometimes Al will be at his home in Jacksonville where we record over the phone, and he’ll share his tracks with us via Dropbox.

For remote situations, we have a blend of reporters/producers who favor their own kits (the pricey Sound Devices’ 722 and 744T recorders are our favorites) and some of our own, mostly Tascam DR-100mkii’s. We are also phasing in Zoom’s H6 over time. We have a selection of field microphones from Sennheiser (ME-66 and ME-67 shotguns with K6 capsule, MKH40 cardioid), Audio Technica (AT897 shotgun), Electrovoice (RE50 dynamic omni) and Beyerynamic (M58 dynamic omni).

We mix in Pro Tools with plugins from Waves, Soundtoys, iZotope (RX5 Advanced—an invaluable tool), on Adam A7 monitors. We do sound design in Pro Tools and Ableton Live.

On Podcasting

What can the podcast medium achieve that other media forms like broadcasts cannot?
I feel that both platforms are incredibly important. With broadcast, you reach the masses. With podcasts, the masses reach for you. This gives you the opportunity to form a stronger connection to the audience, because you know the people listening really want to hear your show.

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Reveal host Al Letson

What do you think makes a great podcast host? What makes your host unique?
We have the best podcast host ever! Al Letson has a unique way of speaking right to listeners. He helps break down really complicated stories in a way that makes them instantly relatable to people everywhere. He’s also super handsome (I am contractually obligated to say that whenever I refer to our host).

How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
Wow—big question. I see the landscape getting more and more niche. Just like blogging, everyone can find their passion in a podcast. Whether it’s gardening, 16th century literature, or investigative news, podcasting is a medium that’s growing by reaching new, and increasingly more targeted, audiences. It’s a great time to be in podcasting—the competition is intense, but also incredibly inspiring!

Follow Reveal on Twitter @reveal. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes here and look out for new episodes every Monday.

Inside the Podcast Studio: The Memory Palace

We’re kicking off a new series this month called Inside the Podcast Studio. While we won’t be asking producers what they’d like to hear when they arrive at the pearly gates, à la James Lipton, we will be exploring their “studios”—including bedrooms, closets, favorite coffee shops—to learn more about how and where creators make their magic. We kick off the series with Nate DiMeo from The Memory Palace.

The Memory Palace, from our Radiotopia network , is a podcast that tells short, surprising stories of the past. Nate started the show as a side project in 2008, and since then it has gone from being a way to get his own radio show, to an art project with an audience, to a full-fledged business. This month, he launched his latest season and will now produce at a biweekly cadence, to the delight of his devoted fans. We went behind the scenes with DiMeo to find out what his space really looks like and what makes his show tick.

On the show

What is The Memory Palace’s (TMP) tagline?
If you, person reading this, have a good one, let me know. I don’t. I find it difficult to elevator-pitch The Memory Palace. Not that it’s all that complicated: it’s a storytelling podcast about the past that features essays about American history, put to music. That covers it, right? But, here’s the thing: I don’t know if I would listen to that show. So, what Memory_Palace_Logo_RGBcomes out, on this imaginary elevator ride, is something like that, followed by some rushed version of “but-it’s-got-more-going-on-than-that” delivered in varying degrees of confidence, depending on the day. I know I don’t explain it well because I’ll often meet people who haven’t yet heard the show, who listen and return to me later with a report, and seem genuinely surprised that it’s good. They are surprised there’s something deeper going on with it than “things that slipped through the cracks,” or “surprising stories,” or, with all due respect to their excellent, vital work, “Stuff You Missed in History Class,”  an existing podcast in the same vein.

TMP’s odd earnestness, the idiosyncrasy of the subject-selection, the care and the craft, is a hard thing to explain on the ride up to the 7th floor. Or, at least to explain in a way that doesn’t make me seem like a jackass.

Where do you find stories for TMP?
The real answer is everywhere. I’m not a history buff; I know a lot about American history, but nearly all of my history knowledge comes directly from researching a specific topic. I’m culturally omnivorous by nature. I like knowing a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. I’m reading (and listening to) novels, reading magazines, watching good (and crap) tv, listening obsessively (and widely) to music, and screwing around on Twitter and other sites all the damn time. Some weird fact will jump out from a novel, or something I stumble across online. Something that breaks through the noise, some sparkling thing that jumps up for a moment from the churn and the rush of the information stream, and moves me in some way. Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward: some historical factoid or interesting person that I’d never heard of before, or hadn’t thought of in awhile.

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Postcards from a few of DiMeo’s episode themes

Often, subjects come from merely an idea about the world. For
example: a little riff in a John Banville novel where the protagonist was in a Banvillian moment of self-delusion, grappling with how his past choices may have rippled out and harmed people. This scene got me thinking about the psychology of that deeply human struggle: that internal conversation we all engage in in one way or another, trying to sort out our past actions and understand their repercussions, and negotiate our feelings about those actions. That idea reminded me of Thomas Midgley, the inventor of leaded gasoline, and got me thinking about how he must have felt knowing that he’d poisoned people. Which led me to research the context around the issue and his work so that I got the story straight. I wanted to get as close as I could to how he felt,  so I could put myself in his shoes in a way that was responsible to the reality of the situation, respectful to the dead, and true, in an almost poetic sense.

I read, watch and listen widely. And, on a kind of ridiculous but totally real level, all I’m doing is trying to be moved. To tap into that sense of wonder that drives so many of the stories. Something went down on The Bachelor the other night that helped me understand a story I’ve currently got on the calendar for April.

The “what” is rooted in the meaning of the story. Why was it that this particular factoid or moment jumped out and grabbed me? Why did it connect? What is this story going to say about my life, or the listener’s life, today in 2016? What is the deeper meaning of this story? What is this story—beyond subject matter, facts, and context—about?

Ultimately, a Memory Palace story is a story from the past that is secretly about the present.

TMP episodes are so carefully composed and have a musicality about them. How do you approach the sound and feel of the show?
Like a song, actually. I draw a lot of inspiration from songwriting and the form of a pop song. Songs have inherent abilities that I try to tap into.  Nothing is quite able to pull off the alchemy that turns language and sentiment into emotion like a song. The pop song itself is a magical thing: there is so much variety and power in the simple combination of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-out. So much emotion can be packed into a tight package, and that’s precisely what I’m trying to do in any given episode. I’m often thinking about the ways songs sound and the feelings they’re able to achieve, thinking “this story should feel like driving on an open road, leaving some bad decisions behind.” There are times when I might try to capture a feeling evoked by a specific song; even though the story itself will ultimately wind up sounding nothing like it, the same feeling might still drive it. I think of my vocal track as an instrument, I think of the “scenes” in terms of movements.

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DiMeo’s editing setup

Is there anything inherently “podcast-y” about TMP? Do you think the stories could work just as well on the radio?
No. If anything, I think the format is a little odd and non-podcast-y. Between the brevity and lack of guests, it remains a bit of an outlier as a podcast. But the beauty of podcasts is that we haven’t yet succumbed to a rigid definition of what the medium is, or closed off possibilities to what it could be.

That said, I’d love to have the show on the radio more often. People often ask me why I don’t have episode descriptions on the podcast feed. It’s because I want people to come into a story with as few expectations as possible. On the most basic level, if there’s a twist coming, I don’t want to telegraph it, I want to pull the listener along on a path where each paragraph is a new discovery. That instinct comes in part from wanting to simulate the experience of listening to the radio. With the radio, you don’t really know what you’re going to get or what song is coming up next. You flip the dial and catch something on NPR mid-stream.

Radio has the power to change your day out of nowhere, and that is sometimes lost with podcasting. Podcasting is inherently intentional: you choose what you want to listen to and when. By withholding information, I’m trying to take some of that power back.

It’s ultimately how I prefer to experience things. In a perfect world, a Memory Palace story would slip in, unexpected, in the middle of a radio program and change your day.

On his space

Where do you literally do your work? Can you walk us through that space?
The early parts of the process—researching, reading, rough drafts, playing around with structure and language—happen all over. I like to get out of the house, it makes me more productive. There are a couple of coffee shops I go to (Vita, in Silverlake, or one over near the Grove in L.A., on Beverly). I make sure not to ask for the Wi-Fi password if I’m writing because I have internet impulse control issues. I get an iced tea, usually green. There are

DiMeo's view from the West Hollywood Library
DiMeo’s view from the West Hollywood Library

also a couple of libraries where I like to write.  There’s a particular desk on the second floor of a new library in West Hollywood that has a great view of the Hollywood Hills and a giant window, so you’re kind of floating out over San Vicente Boulevard. That’s my spot if the research is done and I’m really trying to write a draft down from beginning to end.

But then there comes a point where I have to be able to talk while I write so I know how everything sounds, and I can’t do that at the library. So I hole up in our converted garage. There’s a skylight. There’s a white swivel chair that I have to remember to sit straight up in, or my neck gets all weird. There’s a pile of history books stacked up which put my laptop at eye level (again, with the neck).  And that’s that. I mix the episode there, too (after recording it, huddled under a mattress topper. Or if it’s too loud because someone’s mowing a lawn or hammering something, I take the mattress thingy into my daughter’s room which is cozy and has a rug that helps deaden the sound. Sometimes I prop my elbow up on her big, stuffed bunny named Big Bunny).

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DiMeo’s recording tent (for real)

Follow The Memory Palace on Twitter @thememorypalace. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes here.