NYU News spoke with her about podcasts’ role as a news source, what they could mean for the profession in the future, and why she appreciates both the accurate and fictional elements of Only Murders in the Building.
You’ve had a long career in audio journalism. Listeners may see no difference between traditional radio and podcasting. But, as a journalist, are there differences in how you produce content?
So let’s start with similarities. Technically, the skills are the same—particularly with radio. However, when you’re learning to write for radio, it’s all about thrift and efficiency, learning to speak incredibly clearly and with brief sentences because you might only have 90 seconds for a very complicated story. As a journalist, the medium of podcasting is a dream because you can take a story as far as your curiosity and the story itself will allow. That’s really the key distinction.
How does that play out in practice?
Radio reporters are often trying to get the shortest sound bites possible. But for podcasters and audio journalists you are really freed up to do long-form narrative journalism with a lot of depth and sensitivity. So you can do very long interviews, you can get to know your subjects, you can spend a lot of time understanding the context of something, and you can bring all of that knowledge to the audience.
I think one of the turning points in podcasting was the launch of This American Life’s Serial in 2014. This American Life and the reporters at Serial had this experiment to find out how much of their obsession would translate to something that the audience would be interested in. And they went into a lot of detail. I think the thing that really stood out to a lot of journalists at that time was the fact that audiences did want to know all of the details and get into a story with much greater depth—with details that are much closer to long-form magazine writing or long-form nonfiction writing. And so the opportunity of audio journalism is to make stories which are much more expansive and detailed than what you can do in traditional radio—and to tell those stories over many different episodes. The audience is frequently willing to listen to 15 or 20 episodes on a single story.
What does the entertainment industry get right—and wrong—in how it portrays crime-related podcasts?
What it gets right are the criticisms of these podcasts. Crime-related and true-crime podcasts pay attention to tragic stories—which are frequently very violent—as entertainment, and that can be problematic and damaging. It can be disrespectful to the victims and people who have direct involvement. I think Only Murders in the Building, a show which I'm a huge fan of, does a good job of making that critique.
On the other hand, this and other shows make invisible the labor that goes into the really well-made, deeply reported podcasts. I love the Only Murders in the Building scenes where the scoring is performed live, there’s no scripting, and the characters’ podcast emerges fully formed and is recorded live on tape. But this is never how it happens.
Some of your favorite podcasts, which sound like they are just two people talking, have been exhaustively reported and involve the work of many people, such as fact checkers and researchers. The people talking might be scripted, with an episode’s narration performed several times and edited. For instance, one moment in narration could be the result of many different recordings. I think it's very hard to convey the level of production that goes into a podcast that’s trying to seem like it’s fully natural, but frequently these are highly produced projects.