This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.
Radio Diaries, the documentary production nonprofit most known for the audio-diary format, turned 25 in April, which, frankly, is a lifetime when it comes to a small, lean, independent media operation. The team, nowadays affiliated with the Radiotopia collective, has been getting up to a few things to mark the anniversary, including a batch of online events revisiting past diarists as well as an All Things Considered segment that checks back in on the show’s first diarist, Amanda Brand. More such events are likely to come.
I’ve long admired Radio Diaries. For one thing, the format that is its calling card — the first-person diary — strikes me as some of the hardest stuff to construct, let alone execute in fulfilling and interesting ways, as Radio Diaries consistently does. Of course, that’s not the only format that the team engages with, as they have long expanded out into other styles: sound portraits, archival deep dives, more conventional historical audio documentaries, all of which share the same throughline of unearthing, preserving, and documenting what the show describes as “the extraordinary stories of ordinary life.”
But it’s the audio diaries that I keep coming back to most of all whenever I think about this team, in part because, well, it’s in the name, but also because the first-person diary concept that it champions is one that continues to feel so uniquely resonant with what this audio stuff can do so well: offer audiences a direct window into someone’s inner experience of the world and of their lives.
I got to speak with Joe Richman, the creator and lead producer of Radio Diaries, a few weeks ago about the quarter-century milestone. We covered quite a bit of ground. Richman, who is now 56, tells me he’s wary about nostalgia, but we looked backwards nevertheless. We talked about how the project started, the centrality of teenagers to the show’s concept (a quality that’s only become increasingly interesting in a time where digital self-documentation is much more present in a teenager’s life), how the show has changed over the years, how he thinks about the shifting audio business, and so on.
I could, maybe, run that conversation as a straightforward Q&A. But I figured, why not pay a slight homage to the Radio Diaries’ most recognized style? Here is Richman’s side of our chat, edited, reorganized, and stitched together in a faux-“As told to” format.
Radio Diaries began as something I was just trying out.
If you’ve heard Amanda’s story — Amanda in Queens, she was the very first one — it was actually going to be a story about her and her sister, how the two were different… but that idea fell away pretty quickly because Amanda’s sister wasn’t interested. Amanda herself was really wonderful on tape. So, as a proof of concept, I gave her a tape recorder, and what she made was so, so good. It felt like an experiment that just worked. That became the pilot for Teenage Diaries, which was this ongoing series for NPR back in ‘96.
The concept moved around after that, expanding on the idea of diaries. We did a diary in a retirement home, a whole series in prison. We always come back to teenagers, though. They just work really well for this format.
There are lots of reasons for this. Teenagers have a lot more time. They’re usually game. But the more important reason is that they’re in a moment of transition and questioning in their lives. Teenagers have this very useful idea that everything they say is important and interesting. That’s an incredibly important trait for a character and a diarist. There are so many ways you can read between the lines; sometimes you have an unreliable narrator, where you hear things in what they say that aren’t so explicitly literal in what they’re saying. Like I mentioned earlier, we did this project in a retirement home, and that simply didn’t work in terms of completely being audio diaries. There was a reluctance to talk about one’s self. Part of it is self-consciousness and inhibitedness, but part of it is humility or whatever it is. It’s just hard to get the same quality of diary from the retirement home, so I had to supplement that with interviews. They really wanted to be asked questions about themselves. Teenagers don’t seem to have that problem as much.
Me? That’s a good question. I tend to be more comfortable talking about people than about myself. [laughs] I’m more comfortable asking questions, and I feel more comfortable in my curiosity about others.
It wasn’t until around ‘99 that Radio Diaries became a non-profit. That was the beginning of me thinking about this as an organization, so that we could keep going [with] this kind of stuff. Until then, I was working more like a freelancer. Forming an organization actually wasn’t rare at the time. There wasn’t a way to support this stuff commercially. It had to be through grants, so becoming a nonprofit was a sensible move — not uncommon at all — in order to apply for those.
We’re a little bigger now than we were then, but we’ve always been small. I’ve always worked with the same two editors for the past 25 years, Deborah George and Ben Shapiro, who’ve been contributing editors to everything we’ve ever done. Being a small, lean non-profit felt right in a philosophical sort of way: bringing in the money to the work rather than doing the work to bring in the money. That’s the world I came out of. The world of mission-driven media.
There’s no template for building an organization like this, so it’s always been a bit of making it up as we go along. Radio Diaries is more like a documentary film production company than anything else.
The truth is: In some ways, what we do as an organization doesn’t make sense. We spend a lot of time and resources on each story, and we have to balance two operations at once. We occasionally do these big stories for NPR that reach a lot of listeners over broadcast, but we also have a regular podcast that comes out every two weeks. There are ways those two things amplify and support each other, but they have really different demands. That can be challenging.
As far as the podcast goes, it’s great to have this playground where we can have our own audience and the stakes aren’t as high. We can try different things and take a little more risk. We could pull back the curtain a bit, or interview someone who we did a story with years ago and reopen the story again. So that’s exciting, to feel like we have our own show. For so many years, it was like we were just a content-delivery person for NPR.
But there’s also something… I love that we have an audience that comes to our podcast and expects a specific kind of story. I also love when our stories air side by side with the news and reach people who were not looking for it, maybe who don’t want it, and maybe who still don’t want it afterwards. That feels important to me, especially in this world where we’re more and more only getting the kind of media and content and journalism that we think we want.
We do lots of different types of stories, and I think sometimes the people who regularly listen to us can change. I know we have people who really love our history documentaries. I know we have people who think of us mostly for our diaries. Those are maybe different kinds of listeners, and in some ways, that may be a disadvantage in terms of people understanding exactly who we are and what we do. But I like that you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get. I like the idea that we can follow our curiosity and our interests.
When I look at the audio world today, it’s just so exciting that there’s so much happening. There’s been so many experiments in form, so much attention in terms of new listeners. There are, you know, jobs now. I teach radio, and for a very long time, I’d look at all these talented people learning this craft, and it’s like, “Well, what are you going to do after this?” It felt sad. Now there’s jobs for people, which is good.
But it does feel like… well, to be honest, I keep one ear open to the business side of the world, and I keep one ear closed, deliberately. I don’t know if I feel this because there’s been so much consolidation recently, but I do feel it may be harder for small operations like Radio Diaries and small producer-driven networks like Radiotopia to really survive and find their place. There’s always been that tension, of course, but I think that may be happening more and more in the podcast world.
I mostly feel fortunate that the structure we have for Radio Diaries, being a non-profit chasing grants and all that, that we get to do stories the way we want to. I’m grateful that I’m not under some commercial pressure that would threaten the luxury of feeling like you can do stories exactly the way you want to do them.
A few years ago, I would have said it was easier to be independent. There were just so many more opportunities and so much more new demand for content. And that’s still true. There’s an insatiable need for good stories. Whether you’re a freelancer or a small production company or whatever it is, if you produce good content, there’s demand. There’s a need for it.
Being independent is fucking hard. It’s less hard than it used to be, but it’s still very hard. And I think independent journalism is really important. Independent anything is really important, because the very best things come from people who care a lot and put a lot of their own sweat into it, and who give a shit and put a lot of love into whatever they’re doing. Whether it’s a podcast or a restaurant or someone who invented a new umbrella, I support independent creators. The more, the better.
Turning 25 actually feels kind of complicated. In a way, survival as an independent media organization is some measure on its own. For me, as we were approaching this milestone, I was feeling afraid of nostalgia, of looking back too much at what we’ve done. Because of what we do — whether it’s journalism or storytelling or whatever you’d want to call it — you don’t want to feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again.
Luckily, it’s been a year of growth. We’ve added new producers. It feels like we’re heading in some exciting new directions. I feel good that I’m not looking at 25 years and feeling like an old dinosaur.
I have something in me that’s both a misfortune and an advantage, in that every story feels like I have to learn how to do things all over again. That makes for a lot of anxiety, of course, but there’s something great about that, too. It’s being able to bring a bit of a beginner’s mind to every project.
I wish I could say that the process gets easier. It should, but it doesn’t. Each story has its own challenges, and after 25 years, I feel better equipped to know what makes a good story, whether someone will be a good storyteller or something like that. But as far as putting the story together and structuring it and making it good, no matter what, it’s always just hard. More years doesn’t always make things easier, but it does give you a little more faith that you can trust the process. As shitty as it might feel in the moment, you just know that if you keep plugging away, it’s going to get there. And that, actually, feels really useful. It feels important.
We’ve been doing these online events [for the twenty-fifth anniversary] where we revisit old diarists, and gosh, there is something about… To do these follow-up interviews this year with people I’ve done stories with 25 years ago, it’s really emotional. I have kids, and one thing having kids does is that it gives you a built-in calendar in your life. You can’t help but mark the years and the seasons and see time go by, and go by fast. That’s one of the things that this year, going back to these early teenage diaries and doing these updates, has made me feel, too. Time is a one-way street.
I’ve never been someone who’s been able to look past a year or two, so the idea of looking five or 10 years ahead is difficult for me. I don’t know about the future. What I’m looking forward to in the next couple of years is that, with this new team, that Radio Diaries will become less of me, frankly. We have new producers who are going to imprint their new styles, their own interests, their own curiosities on the stories and the podcast. Radio Diaries started out as me working as a freelance reporter and producer. It’s grown a bit, and I hope it starts to take on even more life on its own, and start to take on the voices and interests of the people who are part of it.
In the old days, I used to think about, like, what else do I want to do? Do I want to do a film documentary? Do I want to do a book? Now I think, “Why would I do anything else?” The audience is amazing. There’s nothing better than this form of storytelling to me in terms of reaching a wide audience, reaching people deeply and emotionally. If there’s one thing that’s changed over 25 years, it’s that I have less of an ambition to do other things, because what I’m doing feels like exactly what I should be doing.
You can find the Radio Diaries website here. Its most recent release is a partnership with Radiolab, “The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records,” which is best consumed in tandem with the latter podcast’s current on-going miniseries, The Vanishing of Harry Pace.
Netflix hires N’Jeri Eaton as Head of Podcasts
Bloomberg first reported the hire, noting that her work will be part of the company’s editorial and publishing team.
Eaton joins from Apple, where she was Head of Content at Apple Podcasts at a time when that division — which primarily exists in the podcast ecosystem as a dominant distribution platform — has been dipping deeper into original programming, producing projects like The Line and For All Mankind: The Official Podcast that serve either as marketing or companion pieces to the original media products created by Apple’s other media businesses, like Apple TV+. She held that role for about a year, and before that, Eaton spent four years at NPR, her last title there being the Senior Manager of Program Acquisitions.
Given the context around Eaton’s work at Apple, along with the fact that Netflix’s editorial and publishing team is situated within the company’s marketing division, it’s natural to assume that we should expect a similar marketing/companion quality to the audio projects that will now be developed under Eaton’s tenure. An expansion, perhaps, of what has already been happening with respect to Netflix and podcasts for a few years now.
Then again, the story of Netflix is in some flux right now. Between the competitive heat of the streaming wars and recent headlines suggesting that the company is potentially interested in meaningfully pursuing alternative lines of business (see: video games, commerce), there’s a very real question of just how hard Netflix will push away from being perceived as just the premier video streaming platform towards becoming a broader entertainment publisher… with everything that entails.
➽ City Cast to hit more cities. Four months after launching in Chicago and Denver, David Plotz’s local-news podcast-plus-newsletter venture is planning to expand to eight new markets.
According to the announcement post published yesterday, the new cities are: Boise (ey!), Houston, Las Vegas, Nashville, Oakland, Omaha/Lincoln, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City.
“Seeing encouraging audience response to both City Cast Chicago and City Cast Denver, we’re moving swiftly to grow our network,” wrote Plotz in the post. “We chose these cities for their vibrant sense of community, their pride of place, and their voracious appetite for news and podcasts. We couldn’t be more excited to start building City Casts in these new markets.”
I, for one, am excited to see that my city’s getting another news outlet. Shout-out to ~middle America~ baby.
➽ TED forms a partnership with Clubhouse. Announced over the weekend, here’s how the corresponding press release describes the programming arrangement involved in this partnership:
Beginning Monday, July 12, TED will host a series of rooms via their official Clubhouse Club. They will commence the programming with Thank Your Ass Off, a weekly room hosted by New York Times bestselling author and popular TED speaker A.J. Jacobs and creative strategist and celebrated Clubhouse creator Mir Harris. The room builds upon an idea shared in a TED Talk and book by Jacobs, and invites notable guests and the Clubhouse community to come together to “thank the unsung heroes of our lives.” Additional rooms for the summer and beyond will be announced in the weeks ahead.
According to Engadget, TED is free to sell ads and sponsorships for these live Clubhouse experiences themselves, and the platform will not take a cut from those sales. (Which, as always, continues to raise the question of just what exactly Clubhouse’s business model will eventually be.)
Anyway, in case you need the primer: TED is the “ideas worth sharing” that was once just a conference and has since evolved into a broader media company, complete with a robust audio division that publishes popular audio properties like TED Radio Hour and TED Talks Daily. (Also, a meme. As in, “The new Gossip Girl should be set in Los Angeles. Welcome to my TED talk.”) This Clubhouse situation is described as TED’s first social-audio partnership.
This announcement also comes amid reports that Clubhouse downloads surged in June, a development that’s being largely attributed to the uptick in global downloads spurred by the release of the startup’s Android app, and which seems to buck the growing narrative that increasing competition within the social audio space has maybe mortally impeded Clubhouse’s long-term prospects.
Another point of context worth noting: Clubhouse seems to be pushing deeper into the brand-programming-partnership lane in addition to its efforts cultivating native talent. The company had previously announced a programming partnership with the NFL in April.
➽ Meanwhile… from Rest of World: “Jordan’s government used secretly recorded Clubhouse audio to spread disinformation.”
➽ Live podcast shows appear to be revving back up from the pandemic. In the United States, at least. Maybe even in the U.K. to some extent, which held this year’s British Podcast Awards over the weekend. (Tough beat at the Euros, fellas. Maybe next time.)
The Last Podcast on the Left has announced a tour that starts next month, though they had already played a show at Red Rocks in June. Welcome to Night Vale recently announced 2022 tour dates. The Smartless guys are staging a live show tour next February, with tickets going live later this week. Mission to Zyxx is playing the Bell House in Brooklyn in October, and has already sold out its first run of tickets. I’m hearing that Criminal is planning a fairly extensive tour starting next April. Switched on Pop will be hosting a live taping in Manhattan later this week.
A very rough, informal tally, of course, and I’m sure there’s many more, but the point is: it’s safe to say the live podcast engine is up and running again.
➽ Someone I know regarded this Leandra Medine on The Cutting Room Floor situation the first truly viral podcast episode. I’m inclined to agree.
To Tattooers, a Post-Covid World Sounds Different
By Aria Bracci
Where was the first place you went after getting vaccinated? Mine was a tattoo shop.
It was a studio I’d been to before, and my appointment was with Aubrey Mennella, the tattooer who had done my previous piece, so I had anticipated it would be a familiar experience. This time, though, there was something fundamentally different. There were the newly installed Plexiglass barriers that jutted up between workstations, of course. But also, throughout our entire six-hour session, Mennella wasn’t wearing headphones.
Before COVID, Mennella would find an audiobook that’d been ripped to YouTube and just let it run the duration of a session, with the story, usually a romance novel, ticking along in the background of the iPad that displayed the design she was working on. But after over a year of seeing so few people, she preferred to take in the sounds of the shop instead. When I asked, she told me that it didn’t even feel necessary to be talking to the people around her. Just hearing their voices, confirming their nearby presence, was enough.
Mennella is but a single individual, but to me, her shift in preferences seemed to signal something bigger. For one, it aligned with what seems to be the broader trend of post-pandemic digital fatigue. (See: what some are calling “analog summer.”) And second, it seemed clear to me that tattooers were uniquely positioned to mirror — maybe even foreshadow — larger trends that relate to audio consumption, considering how many of them, and how often, are listening to something while they work.
Tattooing is an intimate practice, hovering over a person’s body for sometimes hours at a time, during which, I’d say, you’d be excused for cranking up the music and opting out of small talk. External entertainment during a session (which kind of has to be auditory, not so much for tattooee as for tattooer, lest it distract them) can in fact do double duty, both passing the time and dispelling awkwardness that may arise from such closeness. In my impression, even if the tattoo guns were to somehow be quieted, the process of using them would not — could not — be a silent one. Sometimes the space is filled with attempts at meaningful conversation, and, even then, it’s often filled with music, too.
Employees have historically listened to music while working, and today, of course, the practice also extends to podcasts and books. In quiet offices, it’s unlikely that such leisure listening will be happening out loud, instead being funnelled straight into ears from personal devices. In the rowdy setting of a tattoo shop, however, there’s usually a combination of open-air and personal listening, even though handling a phone or tablet takes extra precaution when you’re essentially creating an open wound on someone’s body. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that for tattooers who do opt for solitary listening during a session, it can be almost like a meditation — and one assumes it’s a pretty important one, considering the risk and sanitation measures they undergo to do it.
Logan Landolt, who works at TRX Tattoos & Piercings in St. Louis, Missouri, and considers himself a particularly hygienic tattooer, knows the struggle.
“I’ve got this weird belief that whenever I’m tattooing someone and I say, ‘Hey, pal’ or ‘buddy’ or ‘friend,’” he pauses, after exaggerating the first letter of each word, “chances are I’m spitting on your tattoo, and I think that’s pretty damn gross.” So, he says, “first and foremost, I have always worn a mask when I tattooed.” Also, another long-standing tattooing practice, wearing gloves, means that if Landolt were to decide that a song currently playing on his phone wasn’t quite the vibe, in order to change it, he’d have to take off a glove just to tap the phone screen, then shimmy that glove back on or else get a whole new one. For that reason, you wouldn’t catch someone like Landolt with earbuds in during a session, even before the pandemic. That’s not only because of the hassle, but because of his personality: “I like listening to people talk,” he says.
Landolt’s first choice for social stimulation is always a real-time chat, a thing he appreciates getting to engage in so often in his profession, but when he does find himself alone, he turns to podcasts or YouTube series, specifically ones that simulate sociability. “Whenever I’m at my computer, whether I’m answering emails or drawing for a client, I’ll have somebody talking in the background,” he says, adding, “really big fan of The Mega64 Podcast,” which serves as a sort of proxy for the chattiness Landolt has been known to chase during the other parts of his day. “I thrive off of that social interaction when I’m giving a tattoo,” he says. “It’s been an ongoing thing, as far as I can remember.”
But since Landolt and I were discussing tattooing and listening habits in the context of the pandemic, he walked back this assessment of his own work style when he thought more deeply about it. “I mentioned I’ve always kind of thrived on customer interaction, but I think I might’ve downplayed that a little bit towards the beginning of my career,” he says.
In other words, he was more like the Mennella I knew in 2019 than the Mennella I know now. “Post-COVID, I’m dependent on that human interaction more than ever,” Landolt says. And this sentiment, beyond being so obviously mirrored in Mennella’s listening habits, has also taken a concrete form in those of Landolt’s colleagues. Peeking into TRX now, “we’ve been playing music a little quieter than we normally have,” says Landolt. “Everyone just wants to talk to people.”
If tattooers aren’t defining this new chapter by increasing their socializing, they might be seeking solace in other ways that involve the ear, just as non-tattooers may be; one need not strictly ditch the iPad in exchange for eavesdropping. “Personally, I used to listen to a lot of podcasts that were news related,” says Jennifer Bohlander, owner and tattooer at Matryoshka Tattoo in Topeka, Kansas. “Now I prefer pure crap-slash-fluff, as just background noise.”
Tattooers, they’re just like us. Pre-pandemic, I habitually tuned in to NPR or The Daily every morning, immediately after waking up. But a few months (or weeks?) into lockdown, I needed to change how — and how early — I ingested the news. And even then, after opting for a newsletter, which I considered the gentlest-possible means of receiving daily updates, I still squinted my eyes or held my hand up to my laptop screen to avoid seeing the part of the email that tallied the death count.
I’m strictly a written-news gal now, even though those emails look different than they did a year ago. So do the places I find myself spending time: This weekend, I’ll be seeing Mennella again.
I wonder if her headphones will make a reappearance, and, if they don’t, what we might talk about for the hours on end we’ll spend together. When I met with her back in May, the prospect of all that one-on-one time — some of the first I was slated to have with anyone in a long, long while — was daunting, and I downloaded a ton of podcasts for what I expected to be a weird day. But I only ended up listening to one, and only because my neck eventually started to burn from having faced her for so long from a stomach-down position.
Other than that, even I was unplugged. We had so much to say.