When you hear the word “podcast,” chances are you think of This American Life, RadioLab, or Serial. You might envision big headphones, on-air interviews, sound effects, and recording studios. But you also may have noticed that these days, podcasting has changed a little bit. Besides going mainstream, it isn’t limited to just “radio people,” and browsing iTunes, you’ll see that anybody can record their voice into a laptop and produce their own podcast. So, that’s what we did at Salt.
Before we even began to brainstorm how we were going to do it, we knew one thing: data is confusing to anyone who isn’t a data person. Our goal became to solve that problem. How can we tell people something cool about data in less than half an hour and not send them running in the other direction?
One interesting thing we have working for us is that we’re not all data people, and we’re not all journalists. That said, having two people who come from totally different backgrounds is also quite a challenge. In our case, Zac is the data guy, and I’m the storyteller. It actually sounds kind of simple: he can deliver the data perspective, while I figure out how to craft it into a story that anybody can identify with and listen to without confusion. That’s what we thought anyway, but as we quickly learned, it’s not so easy when we’re two newbs who know nothing about actually producing a radio podcast from start to finish…
Challenges of a Storytelling Podcast for Two Newbs
One thing you learn when you try to combine two elements that don’t often go together is that they often don’t go together. Just because something has a data tie doesn’t mean it fits seamlessly into a story, and vice versa. In the making of the first three episodes, this is something we unfortunately often only realized when there was no turning back. We had interviews and we also had data, but we didn’t know how to make the two work in parallel in a way that would also be interesting and valuable to our listeners. We were confused about which side was more important to us - was it the data or the story? We decided it was the story, and ultimately pleased some people and disappointed others, but that comes with the territory.
The next struggle has been finding interviewees. People have been incredibly helpful and forthcoming, but in some cases, we spend a lot of time chasing them down. This is true of almost any journalistic undertaking, but there’s a fine line between being annoying and being pleasantly persistent, and we don’t want to cross it. With this particular challenge, it’s best to just always have a backup plan and backup time, and we’re slowly but surely figuring out ways to be armed with both.
Once the interviews are recorded and transcribed, we have yet another hurdle: figuring out how we as the hosts fit into all of this. We assume people don’t want to hear our voices unless we’re telling them something interesting, and they shouldn’t have to. So we spend a lot of time recording our parts, discussing talking points, re-recording our parts, and trying to figure out how we fit into the storytelling equation. We’ve taken multiple approaches and are now circling back to them in an attempt to figure out the kind of formula that works for us. We’ve tried scripting, following bullet points, just letting the conversation roll naturally, and each one of these has its pros and cons.
Finally, we need to edit all our material into a working piece. This is where we face the most difficulties, as there are only two of us, and occasionally, we clash. Our differences really come into play here, since we each react most strongly to different sides of the story and have our own ideas on how to best tell it. After a few disorganized first episodes, we’ve begun making clear brainstorming sheets and constantly evolving storyboards, but we still encounter issues. A common oversight is figuring out what sounds like a great storyline and acquiring all the necessary interviews, only to realize when I sit down to edit that we’re missing a vital piece of the puzzle. I’m pretty sure that the solution to this is being intensely organized and learning to anticipate problems before they arise, and then being prepared with solutions. Essentially, we’ve learned that we ALWAYS need a plan A, a plan B, and ideally, a plan C.
As we move into the second half of our first season of the podcast, we’re trying to be as conscious as we can about all the moving parts. A lot goes into making a podcast. It’s more than just a few interviews that can be slapped together, even when they’re so good that it seems that way. Slowly but surely, we’re working through the uncomfortable parts to put together something that reflects our goal: to make data interesting to people who aren’t data people.