With hundreds of thousands of titles now available, successful podcasters are using the tools of great storytellers to break through.
With audio storytelling more popular than ever, who will be heard above the crowd?
By Marc Chalufour
For two days in April 2006, COM became the center of the young podcasting universe. Representatives from a wave of new media companies—Podtech, Rocketboom, The Conversations Network—presented to a packed room at the Podcast Academy. They described a brave new frontier of audio and video broadcasts that could be downloaded onto portable devices; Forrester Research had recently estimated that just 1 percent of American households listened to podcasts, but predicted that 12 million more listeners would join them by 2010. There was a sense, at least in this audience, that podcasting was the internet’s next big thing. They were right—eventually.
For many, the seminal moment in podcasting came nearly a decade later, in October 2014, when WBEZ published Serial, an investigation of the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee. The This American Life spinoff drew on the long radio tradition that inspired its name and provided an intimate view of both the criminal justice system and the world of journalism, with host Sarah Koenig welcoming listeners into the reporting process. The show became a sensation—and was even satirized on Saturday Night Live. Through three seasons, listeners have downloaded episodes 420 million times.
Serial legitimized the medium as a forum for serious storytelling (and spawned enough true-crime copycats to inspire annual best-of lists). According to Nielsen, half of US households now listen to podcasts, while Edison Research reports that the 48 million Americans listening at least weekly do so for nearly an hour a day.
- When COM hosted the 2006 Podcast Academy, Nick Barber (’06) provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the college shared the event with a global audience.
In an era of shrinking newsrooms, declining box office sales and countless digital distractions, those are gaudy numbers. Content creators and investors have taken notice. With more talent recording and more listeners downloading, what will it take to stand out from the crowd?
BU has no formal podcast program, yet the University has had an outsized influence on the podcast world. COM was at the vanguard in 2006, hosting the Podcast Academy, while early adopters Bill Simmons (’93) and Marc Maron (CAS’86) began recording podcasts in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Recent COM alums now working in the field include Erin Wade (’18), an associate producer at PRX; Jamie Bologna (’15), who produced the Finish Line podcast for WBUR; and Eve Zuckoff (’18), an intern on WBUR’s Last Seen podcast before she became a producer for Radio Boston.
WHAT THEY’RE LISTENING TO
With more than half a million podcast titles available on iTunes alone, finding something new to listen to can be a daunting task. COMtalk asked the subjects of this story what hidden gems they’ve recently discovered.
Anne Donohue, associate professor of journalism: Sawbones
“She’s a doctor and he’s a comedian and they’re married. She’s teaching medical history and he’s going nuts with bizarro treatments and potions. I drove cross country with my son and we listened non-stop.”
Kelly Horan, senior producer and senior reporter for Last Seen: Exconversations
“A podcast with the brilliant Taymullah Abdur-Rahman in conversation with men who have been incarcerated and rebuilt their lives. It offers an honest, absorbing and unflinching view of the criminal justice system.”
Eve Zuckoff (’18), freelance producer at Radio Boston: How to Be a Girl
“It’s a really intimate podcast about a mom whose daughter is transgender and is transitioning. It’s a really personal documentation of their lives.”
When members of the BU community get interested in podcasting, they often show up at Anne Donohue’s third-floor office looking for advice. “People just sort of come in off the street and I tell them what I know,” says the associate professor of journalism and radio journalism veteran. In addition to serving as faculty advisor to WTBU, the student-run radio station, Donohue has advised faculty looking to launch podcasts and students interested in recording rather than writing their honors theses.
In 2017, Donohue offered an experimental podcasting course for the first time, challenging students to produce professional-level audio from COM’s state-of-the-art recording studios and editing suites. She taught them to write a script, build an element of surprise into their structure and vary the cadence of their speech. “Writing for the ear,” she calls it.
“I teach my students that if you take the front page of the New York Times and you read a column aloud, it’s going to be deadly dull,” Donohue says. The NPR version of the same story is entirely different: shorter sentences, active verbs, present tense and native sound. “You’re writing visually, in a way that brings the person to the scene. You’re their tour guide,” she says.
With everyone rushing to record their own podcast these days—Apple alone offers more than half a million titles on its Podcast app—quality is an increasingly important differentiator. NPR has made the most of its audio expertise, ranking as the top podcast publisher with 19 million unique monthly listeners in December 2018. “There’s speculation that we’re saturated and there’s going to be this big winnowing process,” Donohue says. She looks at all of the categories, from comedy to sports to true-crime, and sees podcasts sorting into the same genres popular in film.
In June 2016, Eve Zuckoff (’18), a sophomore studying political science and sociology, had just arrived in Washington, D.C., for BU’s summer internship program. Already disillusioned by the bureaucracy of her job and uninterested in returning to her dorm, she found a temporary escape each evening. “I would just walk through my neighborhood in circles,” she says, binging on old episodes of This American Life. The reporters’ and subjects’ voices really connected with Zuckoff. “It was so visceral,” she recalls. “Hearing the real singular gradations, the really slow and minute differences between different kinds of emotions. It just completely captured me.”
- Meet two alums who turned a shared passion for scary stories into a sold-out podcasting tour in “Podcasting Partners in Crime.”
The stories provided more than an escape—they gave Zuckoff a renewed sense of purpose. She recalls listening to an episode about school segregation, reported by Chana Joffe-Walt, and thinking, “This is so much more interesting than anything I’m thinking about during the day.”
Zuckoff returned to BU for her junior year, stacked her schedule with journalism prerequisites, and sat down with her new faculty advisor—Anne Donohue. “I was so grand and ridiculous—I was like, ‘I would like to produce for This American Life. Can you please make that happen now?’” she recalls. “I had no sense of what the interim skills were.” Donohue helped her break down the path into basic steps. Learn to write a 30-second spot. Practice delivering the news on air. Write a 3-minute story.
Zuckoff began producing her own podcast for WTBU, interviewing students about their love lives. She learned to record audio, edit with Adobe Audition and lay music under her interviews. By her senior year, Zuckoff had teamed up with Conner Reed (’18) to develop a podcast called The More Things Change for Donohue’s podcast class. The show featured a series of conversations between BU alums from the classes of 1968 and 2018, exploring topics that resonated with both generations. One episode included a raw and unflinching discussion of sexual assault, others explored race and LGBTQIA experiences. “It was an unbelievable quality of work,” Donohue says.
Eve Zuckoff (’18) and Conner Reed (’18) produced The More Things Change for a podcast class. The first episode features a conversation about sexual assault between BU alums from the classes of 1968 and 2018. WARNING: This podcast includes graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
At the same time, Zuckoff started working at WBUR—first as an intern and then as a fellow—on Last Seen, a podcast about the 1990 burglary of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Just a year after wandering Washington, D.C., listening to This American Life, Zuckoff had earned her way into public radio.
“Podcasts give people a way to feel informed, to feel like they can experiment with the kinds of things that interest them without investing too much,” Zuckoff says. “I don’t think there’s any one style, genre or length that makes a success. But podcasts that master the use of sound stick in my brain better.”
A few days after publication of the final episode of Last Seen, one remnant of more than a year of obsessive research remained behind Kelly Horan’s desk: a dry-erase board covered with suspects’ names connected by a web of lines.
Horan, a 23-year radio veteran, leapt into podcasting when WBUR and the Boston Globe decided to partner on Last Seen in 2017. The podcast would revisit the unsolved Gardner Museum theft in intimate detail, revisiting the scene, exploring theories and introducing suspects. “Before I even began, I thought about who I could talk to—who I could get tape of,” she says. “You can read a book about this subject, but when you hear the anguish, or fear, or defensiveness or defiance in someone’s voice, it makes it that much stronger.” Those voices, cataloged on her board, breathed life into the 28-year-old mystery.
The long-form nature of a podcast series allows a reporter to play detective and launch a full-scale investigation. But a project like Last Seen represents a tremendous investment for a newsroom. Horan and senior reporter Jack Rodolico worked on nothing else for more than a year. They were joined by consulting producer Steve Kurkjian (CAS’66), an adjunct professor who covered the burglary for the Boston Globe, and a team of producers and editors from WBUR’s iLab, which produces podcasts ranging from Modern Love, based on the New York Times’ column of the same name, to Circle Round, a storytelling show for kids. “It was the most demanding, intensive, exhausting, hard work I’ve ever done,” Horan says.
“There’s something primal about oral storytelling. In the womb, we don’t see much, but we hear things—and they say that hearing is the last sense to go when you die.”
Does that investment make sense for a news organization? Donohue sees it as a necessity for publications looking to capture a younger audience. “Ninety-nine percent of my students are listening to The Daily and not reading the New York Times,” she says.
Podcasts have primarily raised money via sponsorships—over $300 million in 2017, up 275 percent in just two years. Some of those sponsorships are so ubiquitous—think, “This podcast is brought to you by Blue Apron”—that they’ve become fodder for late-night TV. Horan says that WBUR has discussed placing fundraising messages within its podcasts, while some start-ups have explored a subscription model, like Netflix or Hulu. Recently, a new, lucrative influx of cash has arrived: Hollywood.
Dirty John, a Los Angeles Times story and podcast that debuted in October 2017, has already been adapted into a show for Bravo. Homecoming, a fiction podcast, became an Amazon Prime series starring Julia Roberts. FX purchased the rights to Gladiator, the Boston Globe’s podcast about the fall of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez. Though a podcast might be a major investment for a news organization, it’s a minor outlay for a studio hoping to spin the story into a film or television series. “I think marketing people are looking at this and saying, ‘If we can’t get traction with our book, maybe podcasts will work. If we get traction with podcasts, maybe we can then invest in the film,’” Donohue says. “It’s a multiplatform fight to figure out where people are.”
But what of the hundreds of thousands of podcasts that don’t hit the Hollywood jackpot? “I have talked to a lot of people in the podcasting business, and there is this worry that there’s a bubble,” Horan says. “There’s going to be a big sorting that goes on and the best from the worst will be sorted,” she says, echoing Donohue. “But the thing that’s exciting about it is that it’s really revived the art of storytelling.”
Over more than a year of immersion in Last Seen—“seven days a week, nights and weekends,” she says—Horan spent a lot of time thinking about voice and what it can mean for a podcast’s success or failure. “I don’t think that this is a medium for people still grappling with their identity,” she says. “You have to be confident in both forms of your voice: the one that is just the God-given thing that comes out of your mouth, and the other is your sensibility as an artist and a writer and a thinker.” That, more than subject matter, will sort out the competition. “There’s a podcast that I just love that’s called Articles of Interest—and it’s essentially about clothes,” Horan says. “I think really well written, beautifully produced things on just about any topic will rise.”
Back at COM, Donohue is watching as podcast popularity grows. New podcasts continue to emerge around campus, WTBU podcasts are now available from Apple and other apps and Donohue hopes to offer her podcast course again in the future. “People are hungry for a good story,” she says. “There’s something primal about oral storytelling. In the womb, we don’t see much, but we hear things—and they say that hearing is the last sense to go when you die.”