My Podcast Playlist: NPR's Code Switch and Throughline

Throughline Hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, Code Switch Reporter Shereen Marisol Meraji, Photos Courtesy of NPR
Throughline Hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, Code Switch Reporter Shereen Marisol Meraji, Photos Courtesy of NPR

How two popular shows from the public-radio network are using playlists to educate and entertain.

Since launching back in September, Spotify’s podcast playlists have been used by creators for a variety of reasons including to take deep dives into specific subjects and showcase favorite episodes of earlier seasons. But NPR's Code Switch and Throughline have found another use for the feature—educating listeners, with the help of listener feedback. For Code Switch, which covers race and culture, that means curating episodes that can serve as a curriculum on listener-requested topics. Throughline, meanwhile, groups shows together that provide clues for its monthly online trivia contests.

There’s also The NPR Politics Podcast team. "Shortly after the playlist functionality launched in Spotify, they used it to aggregate all of their episodes featuring 2020 Democratic presidential candidate interviews,” says Ainsley Rossitto, NPR's podcast audience strategist. “We promoted that playlist ahead of the Democratic debates, but the team also wanted to be able to regularly refer to those interviews throughout the election cycle. A playlist was an ideal vehicle for that. Similarly, we aggregated all of the Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes about Oscar-nominated movies into a playlist and promoted that ahead of the Oscars. In both cases, it was a nice way for us to aggregate specific episodes from our back catalog that would be otherwise hard for listeners to find.”

Given Code Switch’s subject matter, there’s often so much news to cover that, without a playlist, it would be hard for fans to sift through past episodes to hear how, for example a topic like policing in Black communities was covered in a broader way. To that end, listener feedback is often a determining factor in how these lists are organized. "A lot of my decision-making is informed from audience comments," says the show’s assistant editor, Natalie Escobar. She cites these messages for inspiring “Code Switch for Kids,” a collection of child-friendly episodes that many families say lead to more thoughtful intergenerational discussions about these delicate issues.

"I wanted to wed together the anti-racist education that parents were using to help inform their kids,” she says, “especially ones about history in America that they're not necessarily learning in school—things that are appurtenant to kids' lives but parents might not know necessarily if an episode is 'appropriate,' which is kind of a hard decision."

Throughline, meanwhile, takes a slightly different approach. The show’s “Trivia Study Guide” playlist changes monthly, offering fans clues to the next virtual pub-style game. As for the episodes featured in the study guide playlists, some are timely, while others fit more into the “general knowledge” and “potpourri” categories—May’s list, for example, included segments on the opioid epidemic, vaccination, and zombies.

Here’s how that trivia curation works, according to producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson: "Let's say we're having a Throughline trivia night on a Thursday. A few days before, we'll launch this playlist that says, 'Hey, if you want to do well, answering all of these questions that are inspired by Throughline, here's a list of the episodes that the answers are actually coming from.' It's giving incentive to the listeners to engage with the playlists. If they do, they'll actually have a better chance at winning this event. It’s a nice way to connect the dots between Throughline existing on multiple platforms, whether it be this virtual event, the actual podcast, or Spotify. It’s been really successful so far."

Throughline’s strategy of keeping their playlists fluid and holistic is one that the Code Switch team also plans to use, as a means of keeping listeners informed and returning to discover older episodes. Rossitto points to their 2020 Black History Month mix as one they can retool and redistribute next year to reflect the news and the staff’s tastes.

"Next February, we'll revisit the Code Switch Black History Month and look for opportunities to refresh it with new episodes, remove outdated content, or even just reorder the episodes," she says.

But, more than anything, it’s the overwhelmingly positive reception from educators that has the NPR crew pondering new ways they can assemble their old episodes into something that both expands their reach and helps students. "Some of the most powerful audience feedback we've received has been from teachers of all levels, whether it be middle-schoolers or college professors saying, 'Thank you for this. I'm using it in my class,'” Kaplan-Levenson says. “That's one of the things we’re really excited to pursue moving forward with the playlist functionality—to go back where we've flagged all of these emails and voicemails, and make a list of the episodes that we know are being used in the classroom."

When you have so much podcast content than can be collected for a specific audience, topic, or moment in time—whether that’s Black History Month, educating children on race in America, or helping your fans hone their trivia skills—playlists are a great way to market your best episodes, increase your reach, inform, and entertain. And you don’t need big trivia tie ins or emails from educators. All creators need to do is know what they have to offer and what their fans want, then get to work making and refining their own lists.

—Wil Williams