Behind the Hustle of Daily News Shows
There are many ways for a podcast to digest headline news—and all of them involve quick thinking and a keen understanding of the medium.
Podcasts, in general, aren't exactly infamous for being a daily grind. They typically come out once a week and often involve two or more people talking about stuff they love.
And then there are shows like The Washington Post's Post Reports, ABC News' Start Here, and Vox's Today, Explained. Each drops a tight 20-odd-minute episode every single weekday that finds hosts, reporters, guests, and producers hustling to unpack the news. The number of stories and the exact approach differ between shows, but there are some key commonalities: Show length and release time are designed to sync with listeners' commutes, each segment is crafted to maximize the impact of audio's intimacy, and, as Start Here host Brad Mielke puts it, "It's really a 24-hour operation." We spoke to people from all three podcasts to learn what that operation looks like.
Sometimes less is more, sometimes more is more
Of course it all starts with the stories. Mielke and his team tackle as many as seven per episode, while Post Report does three. Having multiple topics gives them flexibility to respond to breaking news—-smaller chunks are easier to complete on a tight deadline, and less heartbreaking to scrap if needed. "Also," says Post Reports executive producer Madhulika Sikka, "everyone's been a bit news fatigued, particularly with politics the last few years, and I think people are craving variety."
Today, Explained, however, does one story per episode for more or less the same reason. Host Sean Rameswaram says having the space to stretch out "allows us to be human. It's like, 'Wow, this news is a lot! What does it mean?' 'Well, it's kind of like this movie I saw...' It's like calling up your friend who's really smart to help you process this story you saw breaking on your phone."
Morning pitch meetings or staff group chats on Slack set the agenda, determining the range of stories to run that day or week. White House politics remains big, but science, culture, tech, sports, and overseas reporting are important to the mix as long as "you can make an interesting conversation out of it," says Sikka. Mielke zeroes in further: "It's either what people are going to be talking about at work in the morning or it's something you can blow their minds with." Sikka and Mielke are each in close contact with their news organization's various desks and departments. Post's middle segment is often an audio take on an in-progress print enterprise story—a larger piece being developed through deep field work and reporting over time. Start leverages ABC's vast network of on-the-ground reporters to jump right into a breaking story at a moment's notice.
The way the story is told
Deciding who to interview is vital in an audio medium with tight deadlines. Mielke wants someone who can explain "how the story unfolded and why it matters," plus share observations that listeners "wouldn't get from friends at the water cooler"—all in far less than the four-minute run time of a typical segment. With more time to devote to the topic of choice, Today leans on experts they can have fun with (when appropriate) from across the media landscape. They recently brought back author David Daley to talk about gerrymandering in part because of his penchant for using heavy-metal references to lighten up the subject. Before interviews, producers need to book the guests and work out the details—will they be sitting in a studio or calling from a cell or satellite phone, or will a producer go to them?—and write questions with the host.
During interviews, the host plays a tonal role that's more or less unique to podcasting. "Audio is so intimate," says Sikka. "You are basically inside the listener's head, so you want the host to be welcoming and engaging." Producers often listen in and discuss afterwards: Did that go according to plan? If not, can we still use it, and how does it change the segment? Once interviews are done, hosts continue writing scripts while producers work on securing the proper licenses of supplementary sounds to tell each story. Those might include field recordings or interview snippets from reporters around the world ("We literally take people places," says Sikka), archival or new news clips from ABC (Start frequently dips into the previous evening's ABC World News Tonight), and even scoring to varying degrees.
While the news shows from traditional media companies tend to use music sparingly, Today has no problem using it creatively. "We were doing an episode about the Mueller investigation and in a pre-interview I asked one of our reporters if we should list out the names of all the people involved," says Rameswaram. "He's like, 'I don't know, man, it might start to sound a little We-Didn't-Start-the-Fire-y.' My immediate response was, 'Ooh! Great idea!'" He and the team wrote a parody of the Billy Joel hit and a producer sang it, bringing levity to a complex issue and creating a viral moment for the show. But an episode can just as easily take a more serious approach, as was the case when the Today team went well into overtime watching and dissecting CNN's climate town hall in early September. They distilled seven hours down to twenty minutes of audio highlights and conversational analysis.
The importance of the final polish
So much of a podcast's character—and whether it works at all—depends on editing. "The biggest competition we all have as creators of news product is our audience's time," Sikka says. "I don't want to abuse that, and we don't want people to get bored." When she's reviewing the first cut of an episode, she listens for audio quality, editorial arc, and something a little more abstract: "A sense that people will come away with insight, comprehension, sheer delight, or total revelation. In a perfect world, you get three different bits of joy out of our three segments."
Even within Start's brisker confines, Mielke aims to leave room for "context, curiosity, urgency, and even fun." And also: last-minute overhauls. While the others publish in the afternoon, Start drops at 5:30 a.m. That leaves several hours where news can happen after the team wraps the day before. "[Our team has] become very accustomed to phone calls in the wee hours," says Mielke.
The final ingredients are a title—Rameswaram's team will regularly pitch ten at a time and vote on them via Slack—and a summary: "Something punchy, something snappy, something that's going to make people want to click," he says. When it's ready, they publish around 4 p.m., share a round of applause, and then immediately get going on the next day's show.
Sikka points out that you can't come in scratching your head each morning, wondering what you're going to do next. Mielke says they're "constantly killing segments" because of how quickly an issue can transition from hot-button to utterly irrelevant. That risk, of course, requires a contingency. And knowing the rigors and intricacy of this hustle, there can only be one solution. Rameswaram lays it out: "The trick to making a daily news podcast is to just always be making a daily news podcast."