Storytelling in the Podcast Age

Critics allege that the Fourth Estate is biased and out of touch. Here’s how one band of podcasters breaks down barriers between journalists and their

Tobias Toft/Flickr
Tobias Toft/Flickr

Longform Podcast

“Mainstream media” is a vacillating target these days. Not only do discerning readers know legitimate news when they see it, but never before have they so vociferously vented about it. If the role of journalism, as the American Press Institute puts it, “is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives,” citizens are now habitually questioning that information. Blessed with thumbs and Twitter, we’re all media critics. And we’re harsh.

Acerbic as popular opinions can be, we tend to critique institutions rather than individuals. But the Longform Podcast—an insider’s guide to professional journalism—reminds us that “the media” is a conglomerate of actual people. Billed as “a weekly conversation with a non-fiction writer on how they tell stories,” Longform captures an irony forged deep inside the media cave: The nation’s most accomplished writers follow each other closely and, unlike outsiders who excoriate the press, review their peers with deference bordering on awe.

The praise is usually deserved. Hosted by journalists Aaron Lammer, Evan Ratliff, and Max Linsky, Longform confirms that the media’s thought leaders are fiercely ambitious and talented professionals who, in addition to possessing ample social capital, are dedicated to telling stories with accuracy and integrity. Whether or not this impassioned commitment to storytelling makes these writers likable people is an entirely different question. For better or worse, it is also a question that this disarmingly intimate podcast forces us to consider.

Some interviews lift the wizard’s curtain too easily. As a writer, Helen Rosner, The New Yorker’s food correspondent, routinely offers no-nonsense insight into our seminal culinary concerns. Her work is sharp and controlled. But check out episode #299, where you’ll find Rosner, while drinking herself toward a tongue-loosening two-beer buzz, f-bombing her way through a tortured explanation about, among other self-referential matters, the drawbacks of being a New Yorker correspondent.

“I miss the times,” she tells Linsky, “when I could just get on Twitter and tear the fuck into someone.” And why was that so fun? “It was cathartic, you know, when I had like 500 Twitter followers to just be like ‘Ahhhhh this month’s Bon Appétit totally fucking sucks.’” Lest one worry that such flippancy seeps into her home publication, Rosner assures Linsky that an unhinged outburst is something “I would never do now. Because it would not be cool or nice.” Such is the cost of going from “an outsider to being an insider.”

In a less hyperbolic vein, there’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Listeners who find Coates’ writing marked by pessimistic brilliance (he’s said that he has little hope for genuine racial progress in this country) will delight in discovering a vibrant interviewee who laughs easily, prefers self-deprecation to navel gazing, and craves hearing what others have to say. In other Longform interviews, we learn that The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell can keep himself cool (no matter how hot it gets), and that the Times’s Maggie Haberman (who stays on her phone and computer throughout the interview) was “never” the least bit nervous about interviewing Trump. But Coates, assuming the role of a plausible human, readily admits his professional insecurities.

For one, he recalls how, on the eve that his Atlantic profile of Obama was due, he panicked, telling his wife “This is not up to standard … and now everyone is going to know it.” (The piece is already legendary.) He also notes that the more experience he gets as a writer—despite the accolades, wealth, and fame—the more the challenge of writing “never goes away.” In fact, it only gets harder. In this respect, Coates is not unlike This American Life’s Zoe Chace, who mentions a fear of failure so acute she has nightmares about losing her job, and Julie Snyder, producer of S-Town, who says, “I am constantly second-guessing myself. I am full of regret and recrimination all the time.”

These examples only touch the surface of this deep—and often deeply moving—cache of hour-long weekly interviews (now at #336!). Between the extremes of Rosner and Coates, Longform reveals not only a range of personalities and talent (do not miss Terry Gross, Krista Tippet, David Remnick, Nathaniel Rich, Rachel Monroe, and Alexis C. Madrigal). But it raises legitimate concerns about the elite rung of the Fourth Estate: Should we be concerned that Longform interviewees uniformly embrace similar political beliefs? Or that a strong inside-the-borough (that would be Brooklyn) bias skews the podcast toward homogenized intelligence? What about a professional concern with narrative so domineering that it blocks out important topics and perspectives that don’t fit the story’s arc?

The answers are yes, yes, and yes. But the good news is that if echo-chambered Brooklynites with a fetish for dramatic storylines are churning out work of such impressive quality, one might rightly fantasize what upper-shelf American journalism would look like if its narrative scope deigned to include flyover country and a greater range of perspectives. Perhaps future Longform podcasts will give us an answer.

The Allusionist

If there’s a preferred expletive among Longform interviewees—and interviewers, too—it would be some variation of the f-word. The Allusionist—a podcast about words, hosted by the charming English writer Helen Zaltzman—may very well be the only venue in the landscape of educational podcasting that deems it intellectually imperative to discover the origin of that piercing, shape-shifting, f-ing noun, verb, and adjective.

In episode #92, guest Susie Dent, an English lexicographer, offers this origin story: When an English monarch wanted to increase the population during a plague, he authorized a sort of mass sex session that sent couples home to “fornicate under the consent of the king”—that is, to F.U.C.K. Now, if you doubt this story, you should, as Dent soon reveals its apocryphal nature. But don’t dare doubt the origin of “doubt”: It used to be “dowt” in old English, but the phantom “b” arrived when a lone, rogue scribe with a penchant for Latin—enchanted by the essence of dubitum—snuck in the “b” for future scribes to summarily ignore.

The Allusionist flits through such linguistic trivia. Who knew that there were words called “malaphors”—combinations of malapropisms and metaphors? As in: “It’s not rocket surgery … I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it … like lemmings to the slaughter.” You may also now think twice before using “Namaste” as a benign, peace-infused expression to end your yoga class. In episode #55, composer Hrishikesh Hirway brings the term down to earth as nothing more than a basic “hello there,” an expression that Sanskrit scholar Jim Mallison confirms has nothing to do with yoga at all. In other words, all you Anglo-yoga-doyens: Stop using it. (Plus you’re almost 100 percent mispronouncing it.)

Words being words, the podcast can quickly turn heavy. An oddly affecting episode considers the emotional impact of the most ubiquitous word in our lives: our own name. In episode #83, Zaltzman interviews people with strange names. When you go through life introducing yourself to people as Cinnamon, Princess, Pretty, Salmon, Tiger, Funk, or Peregrine, you may very well (as most interviewees do) come to appreciate what your parents chose to call you. But the endless questions faced along the way— “What were your parents thinking?”; “Is that a stripper’s name?”; “Can you say that again slowly?” (this from Starbucks’ employees)—requires tapping into character strength that the Johns and Janes of the world get to avoid. Peregrine Andrews was 50 when he made peace with his own first name, though the tone of his voice during the interview suggests that he is still not so sure.

If you are wondering whether anyone is doing something to protect children from excessively weird names, The Allusionist has an episode on that, too (#87). Zaltzman interviews the foreman of the Icelandic Naming Committee, which legislates the naming of its nation’s citizens (4,000 names approved thus far). He goes by Sigurður Konráðsson, a name that most Starbucks baristas are sure to botch.


The spoken word has much in common with the built environment. Both pervade our lives without asking us to interrogate their origins or intentions—but, generously, they reward us if we make the time to do so.

What The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman does for words, Vikram Prakash, a University of Washington architecture professor, does for buildings. His podcast, ArchitectureTalk, while not as joyfully buoyant as The Allusionist, seeks brilliance in the mundane and, although some discussions slip into postcolonial muck (see episode #5 on “transference in architecture”), the show leaves us looking at the everyday space around us with greater curiosity, piqued by the weirdest and most beautiful of stuff.

Like dust. In episode #3, Prakash interviews the architect and “experimental preservationist” Jorge Otero-Pailos. “What are we really doing when we are cleaning a building?” the Columbia University professor wonders. This question alone is a small burst of inspiration. Otero-Pailus wants to understand why “pollution does not belong on buildings.” Why isn’t dirt, perhaps in the same way the letter “b” is part of the history of the word “doubt,” integral to the identity of a constructed object? And so, in this idiosyncratic spirit of inquiry, hinged on such carnivalesque questions, the conversation spins.

ArchitectureTalk also shares something in common with Longform: It explores architects’ careers paths by pinpointing the epiphanic moments that led architects to do exactly what they do.

Especially interesting is Prakash’s interview in episode #38 with architect Elizabeth Golden, who now dedicates herself to a rarified sort of local-material-driven vernacular architecture, which she pursues on a global scale. A colleague of Prakash’s at University of Washington, Golden moved in her early career from Arkansas to New York to Berlin. This trajectory placed her in Berlin when debate erupted over a chapel being built on the remains of a church, which had been destroyed before the Berlin Wall fell. The project required working with a community that decidedly did not want a chapel made of concrete, a material too reminiscent of the actual wall.

The outcome provided an inspiration that would shape Golden’s career: She witnessed how the architects and the community agreed to take debris from the destroyed church, work the rubble into the earth, and build the new chapel from this rammed earth. The gentleness of the new, earthy chapel defied the hard permanence of the old wall, and in that defiance, Golden defined her vocation. Anyone driven to become an architect by a humanistic vision would benefit from learning about Golden’s experience, not to mention the endless provocations that Prakash evokes about the future of what we build.

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James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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