The Making of 1619

The 1619 Project, Photo Courtesy of The New York Times
The 1619 Project, Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

How a team of journalists and audio producers at The New York Times undertook an extraordinarily ambitious project.

Many journalistic endeavors start with an obsession—a nagging question you need answered, a curiosity that never abates, a fact or number that sticks in your brain and won’t let you rest. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning investigative reporter and writer for The New York Times Magazine, that number is 1619. “In some ways, I’ve been working toward this project for 25 years, really,” she says.

The number represents the year slavery began in the United States, when the first enslaved Angolans were sold into the British colonies. “Slavery is foundational to really every aspect of American life—culturally, politically, socially, economically, legally,” Hannah-Jones says. “But it’s often been treated as marginal to the story.” But as the 400th anniversary of that year neared, Hannah-Jones found herself sensing that it would not receive the recognition it deserved. “I think as the anniversary was approaching late last year, I was just thinking a lot about how this very momentous—and I would say, a date that is as important to the story of the United States as the year 1776—that this momentous date was approaching and most Americans have never heard of the year 1619, and most likely it was going to pass with very little notice,” she says.

It was then that Hannah-Jones decided to take matters into her own hands, pitching a project to The New York Times Magazine: an issue entirely devoted to the legacy of slavery in the United States—not a history, but an excavation, as she puts it. “It was a tremendous opportunity to not only force an acknowledgement of that date, but to really examine the legacy and use the paper of record to change the narrative that we’ve been taught about the institution and its impact on modern life,” Hannah-Jones says.

Turning the project into a podcast

While Hannah-Jones’ original pitch was a special takeover of The New York Times Magazine, the venture, known as The 1619 Project, quickly developed into a much larger initiative. Sections of the newspaper planned coverage on the subject, and the Times worked with the Pulitzer Center to develop a curriculum to accompany the issue. And as the months to the August release ticked down, a team at the Times began working on another component to have ready upon release: a podcast.

Hannah-Jones was not new to the audio world, having worked to produce a two-part series on desegregation in education for This American Life in 2015, and she had discussed potentially working in the medium at the Times with Larissa Anderson, manager and producer for the Times’ audio division. “I had conversations with Larissa [about] two years ago about us maybe doing a narrative podcast together,” Hannah-Jones says. As The 1619 Project began to take shape, they put their heads together.

By the time production on the podcast 1619 began, it was June—just two months before the hard release to accompany the issue in August. Producers Adizah Eghan and Annie Brown set to work “creating the world in which the podcast would exist,” Eghan explains. “We knew that a really important theme would be water, and so we knew we wanted [to go to] Point Comfort [in Virginia, where the first slave ships arrived], and record the sounds of the water there.” The production team also took inspiration from the work that had already been produced for the issue. “Once we saw what the magazine was up to, when we saw all of the features and essays that were coming out, we reached out to all of the writers and historians and had conversations with them about their stories,” Eghan says. “We were looking for characters, we were looking for plots, and we were also looking for kind of bigger, larger issues.”

The power of audio

The team narrowed the focus of their episodes down to five major themes: democracy, cotton, music, healthcare, and sugar, utilizing the expertise of the contributors to help craft the series. “That’s one of the great things about working at The New York Times,” Eghan says. “You have all of this great journalism, all of this great content that’s already being created, and then you just kind of join in with them and collaborate.”

The resulting podcast series is ambitious in scope but also full of powerful—and searing—moments of reflection. “We wanted to find a way in audio to capture the very thing Nikole was talking about, which was, how do we make this connected to the past and also feel very modern?” Anderson says. “I think what the audio does really well is it creates the sense of intimacy and it also allows for thought and reflection.”

Hannah-Jones agrees. “I think with writing there’s always kind of a sense of remove, and you don’t have that same kind of emotion. Even if you’re reading the words that I’m saying on the recording… to me, what audio does that writing can’t is that you feel the power of that emotion in a way where writing can, in some ways, be much more sterile,” she says. “And you know, it really is the oldest form of storytelling, and I think we’re just wired to connect to just listening and hearing as a human connection.”

—Katie Ferguson