Hello, my name is Amy, and I am addicted to podcasts. On average, I listen to approximately 7 hours of podcasts per week. I simply can’t get enough. My 40 minute walk to and from work seems more like five when I’m into a good podcast. Back when I was sitting on the LA freeway in rush hour traffic, I could split my time between podcasts and phone calls, so I only relied on a few brief hours of podcasts to get me through. But now that my new time zone has relegated US phone calls to weekends only, my weekly podcast consumption has skyrocketed.
This increased desire for excellent auditory entertainment has led me to explore a plethora of new podcasts, and made me realize how difficult it is to produce a really good hour of radio. Of course, everyone is going to like something different, but you will not be shocked to learn that the most popular, most loved podcasts are the podcasts which tell the best stories (OK and the ones about sport, of course).
The gold standard of podcasts in the US is a show called This American Life. I’m not sure if This American Life has reached the shores of GB yet (or if it would just be too American), but it is definitely worth a listen no matter where you are. Every week, Ira Glass and his team of producers and reporters pick a theme, and then provide listeners with a few stories on that theme. Most of the time, these stories are non-fiction, and in their written form, might fall into the newish genre of literary non-fiction. Sometimes they throw in a piece from David Sedaris or David Rakoff, just to throw something different into the mix. This American Life changed the boundaries of popular radio in the states, which I would guess has something to do with the fact that they respect the basic tenants of good broadcast storytelling.
Basically, Ira says that you need a good anecdote (a compelling series of events), some questions to plant in the listener’s mind so they want to stick with the story, and some broader revelatory point to the story. You can listen to him elaborate on these points in this video:
But on the radio, sometimes it’s not enough just to tell a story. Jad Abumrad, one of the co-hosts of my absolute favourite podcast of all time, RadioLab, blends the basic tenants of storytelling together with the elements of music production and sound design. He and his brilliant co-host Robert Krulwich play with sound and storytelling to help simplify the most complex scientific concepts, which ultimately results in an irresistible work of storytelling art. I believe this ability to really make the medium work for your story is critical for podcasting, and storytelling in general.
So what podcasts are you listening to? Are there a few you simply have to listen to each week? If you’re looking for a few to add to your list, here are a few more suggestions (aside from This American Life and RadioLab of course):
1. The Moth
2. The Infinite Monkey Cage
3. NPR: Planet Money (if you are tired of not knowing what people are talking about when they mention mortgage-backed securities or credit-default swaps, this one is a must-listen)
4. True Story
5. The Memory Palace
And if you haven’t yet, check out the podcasts from Sally Gardner’s Free Word event about dyslexia.