hot pod

How NPR’s Invisibilia Reinvented Itself

Photo: NPR

When, last summer, Invisibilia announced its latest season (the show’s seventh), the news came with a twist.

The acclaimed podcast — and, I should note, NPR’s first major hit among its shows that didn’t start as radio programs — would be “passing the torch,” with longtime hosts Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin stepping aside for two new hosts to take over: Yowei Shaw and Kia Miakka Natisse, both existing producers on the show.

With the change in leadership also comes a promise of reinvention. Since Invisibilia’s 2015 debut, with Spiegel and Lulu Miller as originating hosts, its episodes, about the “unseeable forces that govern us,” have built stories around distinct topics and concepts, typically science inflected. They produced stories about emotionsrealityexpectationsimmortality, and the impact of authoritarian tactics on the notion of trust. When we spoke recently, Natisse described the Invisibilia approach as being “a little bit like free therapy,” in the sense that its stories tended to be framed around how these concepts can help listeners navigate their own life. Which, you know, is a description that I totally agree with and a large part of why I think the show has garnered such a strong following over the years.

They sought to preserve that spirit in its new iteration, the new Invisibilia team told me last month, though in a phone call that included Shaw, Natisse, veteran show producer Abby Wendle, and the recently hired Andrew Mambo, they also spoke about an intent to further broaden the show’s frame.

“Something we’ve thought about for a long time is how the show has historically had a strong emphasis on the individual and the internal world and how there was an absence of perspective about the larger structures that the individual exists inside of,” said Wendle. To describe the intended shift in somewhat reductive terms, then, this new iteration is an effort to step away from the purely psychological and towards the more structural, societal, and sociological.

That shift is alive and present in the three episodes out now. The season debut takes on the idea of reparations, running the inquiry through a DIY social experiment in Vermont. That was followed by a two-parter on conspiracy theories, local news, and how a controversial website effectively shaped the political atmosphere in the city of Stockton, California (the site, by the way, of what seems to be a successful universal basic income policy experiment).

Part of the impulse driving the new Invisibilia is a desire to be more responsive to the moment. This marks a change for a show that, I’m told, had historically shied away from dealing with current events too directly, a stance that some on the team attribute to the production being born out of a different time — specifically, the Obama era, with all the politics of optimism that entailed. Of course, the past year, along with the past presidency, has changed the cultural variables considerably, and optimism is more of a tenuous proposition these days.

“Our show is being birthed out of a moment of chaos,” said Natisse. “We’re acknowledging that we’re at a place where everything feels like it’s falling apart. We’re not avoiding that feeling, and with this show, we’re trying to navigate questions we’re all wrestling with right now.”

There are other more fundamental, and more obvious, dimensions to how this new construction of Invisibilia reinvents the show. “One of the bigger changes is that, well, we’re not white women,” said Natisse, who is Black. (Shaw is Asian American.) “We bring our own cultural sensibilities and backgrounds into the work, and we center them in ways that, because we’re in the host chair, can be emphasized a little differently than when we were producers.”

Getting to this point of substantial change was a hard-fought journey for Invisibilia. Speaking of chaos, the past year had been a tremendously turbulent one for NPR, as the organization simultaneously grappled with a generational news moment and substantial financial shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

As those realities began to sink in last spring, Invisibilia had just wrapped its sixth season and was in between production periods. There began to be questions about the fate of the organization’s seasonal podcasts. “In that moment, it felt like we were moving into a few future, and everyone was trying to figure out the best way to do that,” said Hanna Rosin, who joined the podcast as co-host in its second season.

The team was asked to suspend operations, and individual members were redeployed to other desks to support coverage. Rosin went to Investigations. Shaw and Spiegel were reallocated to assist Short Wave, NPR’s daily science podcast. The rest of the crew, including Natisse, Wendle, manager Liana Simstrom, and senior supervising editor Deborah George, floated between other teams. “The idea was that we would reconvene and carry on after the whole corona thing subsided,” Spiegel told me of that time over email.

But given the tough financial picture at the organization, the Invisibilia team was told they would need to cut back on headcount. This, of course, was no easy thing, and the notion of doing what Spiegel described “might be a shadow of the old show” didn’t strike the co-hosts as the right path. That sense was further informed by the fact that Spiegel had already been thinking about moving on from the show, having been with the production since the very beginning. Rosin, as well, had been entertaining similar ideas. For a moment, it seemed like the future of Invisibilia was on the bubble. “We thought it was over,” said Shaw. “Some of us started looking for other jobs.”

Soon, however, the idea of having a new generation of hosts take over Invisibilia began to foment and gain traction, partly aided by the chaos of the pandemic, which contributed to a greater willingness to take leaps of faith. The proposition provided what seemed — to my eyes, at least — like an unexpected win-win-win scenario where the show could live on, younger talent who’ve never hosted before could step into the spotlight, and the older guard could move on. (Spiegel took a job on The Daily team at The New York Times and has since left to work on other projects. Rosin, meanwhile, is now the Editorial Director of Audio at New York Magazine, which, I should say, syndicates this newsletter under its Vulture vertical. By the way, Lulu Miller, who co-created Invisibilia with Spiegel, had left a few years earlier to write a book and recently joined Radiolab as a new co-host.)

Spiegel told me that the notion of passing the show had always been part of the original vision for the production. “From the very beginning, Invisibilia was conceived as a shared vessel — something that would be aggressively passed between different people — as opposed to the more traditional model of ‘host(s) with a single vision that is realized,’” she said. “The problem, of course, was how to share.” When Spiegel and Miller first started the show, they tried to build a new operating structure around this idea of a shared vessel, but they weren’t ultimately able to get the institutional support to fully actualize the idea. And so the show largely drifted into a classic host-oriented construction, though they took pains to elevate their producers.

With the new Invisibilia, that original vision might get a second chance. As the story goes, things started in earnest when Natisse reached out to Shaw with the idea of taking over the show. A phone call turned into a string of conversations, which turned into extensive meetings vetting and shaping the idea — all while they were handling their daily responsibilities, having been assigned to other desks, through the thick of the pandemic and, not long after, the rising wave of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

In what was described as fairly rapid succession, Natisse and Shaw eventually pitched NPR leadership on the reinvention, and the new season was approved on the spot. “It felt like we were being handed a blank check,” said Shaw. “It’s like mom and dad left, and you’re being handed the keys to the car.”

Today, the newly reinvented Invisibilia is in the middle of its five-episode debut season. And as the team works through the process of fully realizing their new take on the show, they’re also hoping to carry forward the show’s original vision of rethinking the very way shows of its kind are produced.

A central point of concern for the team, I’m told, is to foster a distinctly non-hierarchical production culture. “It’s a live question for us,” said Shaw. “We don’t just want to reinvent the content — we also want to change our workplace. We want to make impactful work, but we also want to have good jobs. One is not more important than the other.”

As the team told me, this comes as a response to the ill effects they’ve seen around the industry that fall from the “old way” of doing things in long-form audio production, one where, as Shaw described, work is treated almost as religion. “‘As long as it’s good,’ ‘as long as it’s perfect,’ ‘as long as it’s beautiful’… those are made to be the most important things,” she said. “But that causes a lot of other things to suffer: work-life balance, sanity, and so on.”

They’re still trying to figure out what that tangibly means in practice. Much of it will come down to concrete tactics around process and culture: maintaining strong lines of communication; cultivating an environment where any team member, regardless of seniority, can feel empowered to talk about things that are bothering them; creating a space where everybody can contribute and feel recognized for their contributions; and committing to a stance of challenging the classic host-producer divide, which may include things like ensuring that if a story involves considerable labor from a particular producer, that person will be made more visible and present in the work.

Ultimately, though, a good portion of that enterprise will come down to shifting the audience’s perception on the nature of this kind of work. “We’re also trying to talk about stories differently,” said Shaw. “This might involve audience education around what they’re hearing and letting them know that whatever they’re experiencing, that’s the work of a bunch of people. Not just the host or producer, but the intern, the editor, and everyone else who contributed with their skill.”

She added: “Trying to trouble that norm in the industry would be good, because it makes everyone who works on these stories feel ownership as well.”

You can find the latest season of Invisibilia here.

Selected Notes

➽The IAB Podcast Upfronts begin today. Brace yourself for an onslaught of announcements.

➽Spotify has added a new podcast timestamp sharing feature to its platform. This comes a few weeks after its expanded integration with Facebook went live.

➽Entries for the 2021 Third Coast/RHDF Competition close tonight.

➽ iHeartMedia launched its programmatic podcast advertising marketplace last week. This, of course, is the natural endpoint for the company’s acquisition of Voxnest last October.

➽ The Tribeca Festival has added podcast selections to its lineup for the first time this year. Interestingly enough, this is also the first year the festival is featuring video games as official selections. Banner year for letting the new kids into the house. Here’s the Variety write up.

Clubhouse Finally Comes to Android

After a year of exclusively operating on iOS, the buzzy social audio app announced on Sunday that it has begun rolling out its Android version in beta throughout the U.S. It is expected to quickly expand availability to other English-speaking countries before kicking off a broader global rollout in the weeks ahead.

In keeping with the company’s existing approach of keeping the hand on the growth spigot, the app is still being kept invite only.

This development comes shortly after what appears to be a dramatic slowdown in new app downloads for the social audio platform’s iOS app. Last week, Insider published a report indicating that Clubhouse had experienced a 66% month-over-month dip in iOS downloads in April, citing data from the market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. It’s an eye-popping data point, though perhaps not altogether unexpected, given the clearly unsustainable pop in attention and celebrity power that graced the platform in February and March.

It’s interesting to read Clubhouse’s blog post on the Android rollout against this context, particularly this stretch: “We’ve always taken a measured approach to growth, keeping the team small, building in public, and getting feedback from the community along the way… When you scale communities too quickly, things can break.” This is probably meant, in part, to explain the relatively long lag between its iOS and Android app launches. It is also, plausibly, a way to reframe the slowdown in iOS downloads.

Anyway, big picture: Clubhouse currently faces a more crowded social audio frontier today than it did two months ago, as a cluster of prominent competitors — Spotify, Reddit, and Twitter, among others — have ramped up their respective efforts in the app genre. For what it’s worth, my general sense of Clubhouse’s prospects is the same today as it was when I wrote my original column on the company back in February: Its future will likely come down to emphasizing, elevating, and scaling up the specific experiences and use cases that are specific and unique to its platform. In my mind, this almost certainly means having to identify a strong taxonomy of creators that simply can’t exist anywhere but Clubhouse.

Whether that will bear out remains to be seen, though perhaps some clue of the future can be discerned from the lengthy pilot list of Clubhouse “Creator First” Accelerator program announced last Wednesday.

How a Generation of Chef Podcasts Are Pushing the Culinary Conversation

By Skye Pillsbury

In May of 2017, The New York Times published a profile of the James-Beard-Award-winning chef Thomas Keller. The story claimed that Keller’s landmark restaurant The French Laundry had “proved, finally, that American chefs had stepped from the shadow of their European elders.”

A bit further down in the piece — around the 25th paragraph — the story’s author allowed one lone source to poke holes in the famed chef’s legacy. “It’s essentially haute couture, and we know haute couture appropriates from minorities and urban communities,” said Preeti Mistry, a non-binary, queer, and immigrant chef. In a comment directed at Keller himself, Mistry added, “You need to go on your woke journey.”

Prominent chefs were quick to criticize Mistry, a successful and accomplished chef in their own right, for their candor. “There are few workplaces in the world as diverse as the kitchens and dining rooms of many of these restaurants,” claimed Christopher Kostow, chef of the Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, in a now-deleted Instagram post. (Kostow, who is white, has been fighting a new battle in recent months, after being accused by a number of former employees of creating a toxic work environment.)

Technically speaking, Kostow is probably right. According to the National Restaurant Association, four in ten restaurant managers and supervisors and six out of ten chefs are minorities. But it’s also true that, in the U.S., the majority of “culturally esteemed” chefs — that is, those deemed with authority, respectability and the permission to charge upscale prices, as well as those given media platforms and exposure — are still to this day disproportionately white and mostly male.

The irony in all of this is that much of what is taken for granted in terms of fine-dining norms and American flavors was literally originated by (mostly female) enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, indentured servants, and other marginalized groups. According to this Smithsonian Magazine article, “enslaved cooks were central players in the birth of our nation’s cultural heritage…but the country began recalibrating its memories of black cooking even before the Civil War.”

This obfuscation, as well as the hierarchical structures within food media and American restaurants, has helped preserve the idea that American fine dining is inextricably linked to the country’s European roots, versus its connection to, say, Africa. As a result, the complex history of American cuisine — which has been influenced by a multitude of cultures over hundreds of years – often remains hidden, or doled out to the public by various gatekeepers.

Which may be why an increasing number of chefs have turned to the relatively open space of podcasting as a way to take control of their narrative and, in some cases, address the need for systemic change within the world of food. (While one — admittedly unscientific — review of current food podcasts that the category is still dominated by a white, male aesthetic, there are certainly more BIPOC chefs listed there than you’ll typically see on the Food Network’s splash page.)

“We’ve been erased from culinary history for over 400 years now,” chef, author, and podcaster Tiffani Rozier told me last month. Rozier said she launched her podcast Afros & Knives to elevate the voices of accomplished Black women working in food and sees it as a form of activism. “Putting the podcast together was about challenging people’s assumptions about Black women in food and about the spaces that we move in. I’ve interviewed Black female chefs, food stylists, food scientists, wine makers, food technicians. We’re all over the place doing all of the same work as everyone else, and yet there seems to be no place for us in mainstream media,” added Rozier.

When Black women do enter mainstream media spaces, they’re often seen as one-dimensional stereotypes. “When people look at us, the first thing they think is like, ‘oh I know a big Black lady down South, and I love her cornbread,’” she said. (This reminds me of a story I once heard from the acclaimed Black chef Tanya Holland: after being invited to perform a cooking segment on the Today show, she learned she’d be expected to cook food associated with Kwanzaa, an African holiday she’d never celebrated. She recently launched a podcast, too.)

“Even though we’re graduating from culinary schools, and we’re coming out of culinary programs like everybody else, we have to find our own way,” said Rozier. “And so the podcast is about making sure that the young women coming up in food behind me know that we are very present in this industry. We cover a lot of different disciplines, and we take our work very seriously.”

Rozier said the racist culture within modern kitchens isolates Black women — literally and figuratively. The podcast host told me that she’s been the only Black woman in every kitchen she worked in up until last year, and when she moved into executive management, the ratio stayed the same. Creating Afros & Knives has given her guests a safe place to open up about their frustrations as well as their triumphs, in a way that isn’t possible when they’re on the job. “It allows them to talk about their experiences and their journeys without having to code switch, without having to censor themselves,” she explained.

Leveraging a podcast to build connection and speak candidly with others in the industry has also been embraced by Mistry, who launched their show in April. It’s even implied in the podcast’s title: Loading Dock Talks, a nod to that magical time when service ends and kitchen staff come together to gossip and unwind over a beer. Mistry’s intention is to foster similarly intimate conversations, where they and a guest can debrief and even do a little  “shit talking” out from under the white gaze.

“I’ve never been successful trying to play the white man’s game. That has never worked for me. So why am I going to bother trying to appeal to those folks? I’d rather live in a space of like, I don’t really give a fuck what you think about me. I’m just gonna do me,” they said.

Mistry also told me that as someone with a public persona, they feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to speaking up. “People listen to chefs in a way that they don’t listen to politicians and lobbyists,” they said. “I feel like my voice is not only a unique perspective, but people actually listen, and I want to use that to help people parse through stuff.”

Mistry kicks off every episode of their show with a personal anecdote. In one installment, they discuss the experience of being non-binary in a cis-male-dominated kitchen. The confessional nature of these introductory stories sets the tone for the show; the chef and their guests dive into everything from their personal histories and their love of cooking to code switching, microaggressions, and social justice. As Mistry says in one episode, “Whether it’s women chefs talking to each other, or BIPOC folks talking to each other, or queer people talking to each other, there’s a way in which our experience in the food space is different.”

So far, Loading Dock Talks has released three episodes, and Mistry says that the download numbers are “impressive.” This, of course, brings us to the issue of money. Many, if not most, new audio makers struggle to make a living from the trade, but podcasters of color can have an even tougher time finding sponsors. Afros & Knives’ Rozier has landed a few advertisers, but the process hasn’t been smooth sailing. Recently, a potential sponsor asked whether she would be open to interviewing non-Black people on her show. When she said no, the conversation ended.

Mistry is optimistic that sponsors will emerge. This may be in part due to their producing relationship with Ricardo and Katy Osuna, the husband-and-wife team behind the James-Beard-Award-winning podcast Copper & Heat, which “explores the unspoken rules and traditions of the kitchen.” The show’s first season followed Katy Osuna, a classically trained cook, as she took stock of her experience working in testosterone-fueled kitchens. Subsequent installments have covered everything from coping with the stress of working in food, financial issues, intersectionality, community organizing, the racist history behind tipping, and more. “I wanted to talk to other people working in restaurants about systemic issues,” Osuna explained. “I think a lot of people [in the food industry] like to ignore those things and just paint a pretty picture of what’s happening.”

Osuna told me that while many chef-hosted podcasts work as marketing vehicles versus revenue streams for the host, she believes that food podcasts that feature behind-the-scenes conversations can attract a particularly engaged audience. Without revealing specifics, Osuna shared that the team has already fielded interest from sponsors for Mistry’s show. (According to Osuna, the team’s intention has always been to lock in sponsorship after dropping a handful of episodes.)

When I asked Osuna whether chef-hosted shows that address systemic issues might be hitting the zeitgeist at the right moment, she didn’t hesitate. “A big conversation in the food world right now is like, ‘What is a chef? What does that mean?’ So I think making a podcast is a way for a lot of BIPOC or queer — really, any chef that is not a typical straight white man — to be like, ‘I am a chef, and here’s my story.’ And I think people want to hear those stories right now.”

A Different Kind of Food Network

By Aria Bracci

In 2017, when Chris Spear was working as a personal chef, he was struck with a strong sense of isolation. Spear had never been a “traditional” restaurant worker — he’d cooked and managed at the likes of IKEA and the food-supply company Sodexo — but, prior to this moment, he’d at least had colleagues. His distance from the concept of a restaurant was even greater than it had been, since he now worked completely on his own.

Spear tried to befriend and network with restaurant workers in Frederick, Maryland, where he’d just moved; unfortunately, he says, he didn’t get any bites. So he aimed his sights elsewhere, finding that people on the fringes of the food industry, like himself, were most receptive to his outreach, perhaps for good reason: When managing a food truck or catering out of one’s house, the demands of two already pressurized roles — of freelancer and chef — compound, since on top of pricing your services, supplying your own equipment, and attracting a customer base, you also have to navigate health, zoning, and safety codes. You wanted to break out of working at a diner, you say? Well, now you basically own one.

What came of this was a group, Chefs Without Restaurants, originally a small Facebook forum that has since amassed nearly 900 people. Members ask for advice, share gigs they’d like help with (or need a substitute for) and, in more formal ways, become the basis for other members’ entire businesses, such as Maryland Bakes, where chefs can book shared kitchen space to store ingredients and prepare food. Pre-COVID, the group was also a perfect way for folks to collaborate and plan ticketed pop-up dinners, a large source of revenue for many independent chefs.

The members themselves supply these support functions in a self-sustaining way, the group growing to such a size that, if someone has a question, someone’s likely to have an answer. Job opportunities also continually come up. This momentum makes it less necessary for Spear to actively manage and feed the group; it also makes it less necessary for Chefs Without Restaurants, the podcast he started in late 2019, to provide those same types of practical tips, which is what he’d dedicated the original episodes to. It’s left him with some flexibility to experiment with more editorial components, and he’s done just that.

Chefs Without Restaurants is now a creative outlet for Spear, one where stories take the front seat. Conversations may or may not have to do with the “freelance” food industry, but the throughline is that everybody who appears on the show works in it. The definition of such work has grown looser, as have the resulting discussions: A recent episode featured Vaughn Tan, who, among other things, consults food-industry workers on strategically maneuvering through uncertainty.

It was the pandemic, however incidentally, that made Spear fully actualize this looser format for the show. Since he knew that recording over Zoom would take much of the spontaneity out of interactions, he anticipated needing to guide guests through technological lags or conversational lulls and, accordingly, started doing a lot more prep before recordings and feeling a lot more stilted during them. He didn’t like how serious it suddenly made things feel, turning what had previously been fun discussions into dry, transactional interviews.

So he pivoted. Since he couldn’t change the medium through which they talked, he decided he would change what they talked about. He stopped asking how people priced their menus, “helping facilitating a story, instead of a ‘how I did this.’” Spear found that he liked this approach much more, even with the convoluted way he’d finally arrived at it. Plus, he says, “I’ve already achieved that ‘how to build and grow your business’ in season one.”

Nowadays, the emphasis is more on the people, not their functions. As with the episode featuring culinary historian Michael Twitty, “you’re not going to listen to the show and say, ‘Oh, so now I know how to be a culinary historian,’” notes Spear. You do, however, get to know more about Twitty as a person — his historical reenactments, his ancestors. Similarly, whereas bringing on the pastry chef Lisa Donovan in the earlier stages of the show might’ve resulted in an exchange strictly about her professional trajectory, her recent conversation with Spear covers what she enjoys about George Saunders’ new book and what it’s like to be married to a sculptor.

Spear originally imagined the audience for Chefs Without Restaurants as strictly “food entrepreneurs,” he says, “but now I just think it’s people who are interested in food and hearing good stories.” He’s uncovered many such stories in the lives of his subjects, and in finding himself in this new and somewhat incidental position of examining the nuance of people’s lives, he uncovered something about himself: that he really liked storytelling, maybe enough to change careers.

“If I can really monetize this and get this thing going the way I want to,” he says, “I might not continue to cook, which is kind of weird and scary to say out loud.”

A lifelong artist, photographer, and writer, Spear says he still “always self-identified as a chef.” Now, he wonders, if he were to introduce himself at a party, what would he say? For what it’s worth, he introduced himself to me not as the owner of his personal chef enterprise, Perfect Little Bites, or even as the founder of Chefs Without Restaurants, the organization, but as “host of the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast.”

Spear really enjoys producing the show, and doing it full time feels more and more viable each day, he says. He’s currently enrolled in a podcast-accelerator program, and he says his listenership has already grown by 87%, with 20% growth month over month; he also just secured his first sponsor.

For those who do want the how-tos that the show originally offered, the archive is there, and the Facebook group itself is a continually growing resource, with new members regularly joining and existing ones passing along their wisdom. The process of peers educating peers will be able to continue even if an industry veteran, such as Spear, leaves behind their business — even, perhaps, if Spear himself were to hypothetically leave the Facebook group. Fittingly, he has as much trust that independent chefs will forge their way as he does that he’ll forge his in podcasting, particularly because he sees similarities between the fields.

“The podcast I was afraid to do because I didn’t know how to do it, and that’s the same thing I hear when people want to be a personal chef,” he says.

As the podcast adage goes, the barrier of entry is low. The same, he feels, is true for being an independent chef. “If you want to be a personal chef, literally tomorrow you can ask your neighbor if you can come over and cook them dinner,” he posits — a bit unrealistically, I should add, considering continual social distancing measures. But the sentiment still stands: “Just go out there and give it a try.”

How NPR’s Invisibilia Reinvented Itself