In podcasting, the title “producer” is a catchall. In many cases, this person has a hand in every facet of a podcast’s creation, from pitch to publication to promotion. Thus, the job undoubtedly requires an individual with the skill to both help create a story and complete the necessary technical tasks to get it made.
Producers aren’t just there to make sure the finished product sounds good but also to act as a content manager: shaping the story, coordinating guests, assembling tape, and so on. Without the producer, there would be no podcast. But few listeners could name the producers of some of their favorite shows off the top of their heads. “The reason that the title ‘producer’ is so vague is that the default in the medium is to do it all from start to finish,” says Jody Avirgan, a podcast host and producer who has worked on, among other podcasts, ESPN’s 30 for 30 and FiveThirtyEight Politics. “One of the things I love about podcasting is it’s still at a place where you kind of do a little bit of everything, whereas in other mediums, it can be a lot more segmented.” To better understand what a podcast producer actually does, we spoke with 16 of them about the most challenging episodes they’ve made, whether the result of a soft-spoken source, a producer’s profound paranoia, or a debilitating case of food poisoning.
The episode that was the most logistically challenging was having the president of the United States on, but what’s actually technically the hardest episode to produce is any episode in which we have a good guest — a guest that’s interesting, that has good things to say, but is not particularly good at communicating them. It’s not their fault, but it winds up being much more challenging, honestly, than having to coordinate with the Secret Service. You want the product to be honest, and you want to make sure the guest is being represented naturally, but you realize that the benefit of editing is that a lot of interviews are cleaned up for clarity and the sake of precision. I’ve always felt that our guests are owed the same type of attention and care. They gave of themselves to come on the show, so I take it upon myself to make sure that we are presenting them in their best manner.
This is one example I feel comfortable sharing because she’s said it publicly: Fiona Apple was a guest that I remember being a very difficult interview to cut together because the material was so good. There was a lot of the type of stuff where I knew it would mean a lot to people, but the conversation itself took so many flights of fancy and had a really loosely directed tone to it. I think it was smart of Marc [Maron] to conduct the interview that way, but he didn’t get a straight through-line in the way that he would with most interviews that go over someone’s career arc. That left it largely in my hands to figure out how to excavate the really important stuff from this interview and make sure it’s not bogged down by these whimsical discursions. You have to keep some of that stuff in, though, too. You know, it’s fun to hear Fiona Apple talk about butterflies — it just can’t be a constantly tugging effect on the overall package you’re trying to present. But it was satisfying that Fiona Apple said it herself when she promoted it that she thought this was going to be a mess, but it’s a really good conversation.
Of course, there are times in which we’re going to leave in messy things. We’re going to leave in things that really speak to who a person is — possibly confusion or anger or distrust. But if it’s just a nervous tic or the type of thing where a person loses their thought and it would create a generally unsatisfying experience for the listener, I feel like it’s our job to make sure that’s clarified. Those are hard because it’s a real balancing act to make sure you’re not manipulating someone’s sentiments or changing the context of how they said it but elevating it and making sure it’s heard in a way that the intention fully comes across and the ease in which it’s received is amplified. Most of the time, we are able to salvage something that’s not ideal, and the person who is always the most surprised about that is the guest. They usually respond with, “Wow, that actually sounded really great,” and they’re happy with it.
There is one episode that was my nightmare episode that has haunted me ever since. The Daily obviously publishes every morning at 6 a.m. And for many of our episodes — I would say about a third to a half of them — we make the episode the day of. So sometimes we’ll walk into the office at ten o’clock, and we have no idea what the next episode will be. We just have this ticking clock of 6 a.m. going in the background, trying to make it happen.
That morning, we know there’s going to be this hearing and that we have to cover it, but we have no idea what’s going to happen in the hearing. We just know we have to cover it, and we have to use a lot of tape from that hearing. So we spend the whole day recording the hearing and marking little moments and figuring out how we’re going to analyze it. Once the hearing is over (and I believe that hearing was over very, very late), and we have to record with a reporter, it’s probably ten or 11 at night. We have mountains of tape that we then have to throw into our Pro Tools session and weave through the reporter’s interview. And we’re getting very, very close to the deadline. I’m talking 5:30 in the morning. When you get that close to the deadline, it means that the engineer, who works in England, doesn’t have any time to mix it before it goes out. This happens once in a while when there’s a very late-night presidential debate, for instance, when we don’t record the reporter until one o’clock in the morning, so we put out a very rough draft that has very little mixing or we don’t have time to get it out before the deadline.
So I remember it was 5:30 in the morning, and we’re in communication with the engineer, like, “Okay, we’re going to get it to you in the next five minutes. You can slap your Pro Tools plug-ins on top of it and just get it out on the air.” And right as we’re about to shoot it off, my co-worker Rachel Quester’s face goes white, and she goes, “All of the tape is corrupt.” I’m like, “What are you talking about ‘It’s corrupt’?” And she goes, “Listen.” I listen, and all of the hearing tape is just fuzz. We just started to panic. I go to the RAW-audio file, and I’m like, “Maybe something happened in your Pro Tools session. Maybe I can pull it up in my session.” So I go to the RAW-audio file — everything we’ve recorded throughout the day. It is completely corrupt. None of it exists. That’s when we start really, really panicking, like, “Oh my God, we’re going to have to record this entire hearing all over again, which is going to take hours, and we’re going to blow through our deadline completely.”
I remember very distinctly calling up the engineer at like 5:45 [a.m.] and telling him what the problem is. Usually, our very kind engineer, Chris Wood, is so calm, and he’s had a full night’s rest, whereas we’ve been up since ten o’clock that morning, and usually he’s like, “No worries, just do this and it solves everything.” But I remember I told him the problem, and I could hear a little falter in his voice, and he paused and he was like, “Hmm. I don’t know how we’re going to solve this.” That’s when Rachel and I almost burst into tears because we were missing like 80 percent of our episode that we had to publish. Eventually, he did figure it out, and he was able to restore all the audio. I think we blew our deadline by one minute. We were in the office, the sun is rising outside our windows, and the episode’s out on the iTunes and Spotify feeds. We just collapsed in our chairs, and we were shaking.
We got a tip from someone inside the CIA that there was this top-secret operation in 1989 or 1990 to write a song for a band and release it behind the Soviet Union and have that song spread and inspire change and inspire a revolution. So the uncertainty of this show is Did it happen? It’s sort of absurd, and we know it’s absurd. It sounds goofy on the one hand. On the other hand, the people we talked to throughout are national security CIA people who are not allowed to talk about this stuff, so there’s a high level of paranoia and security protocol. We were using a lot of encrypted apps to talk to people, and when we traveled to Russia and Ukraine, it was the exact week [Rudy] Giuliani was over there doing shit for Hunter Biden. We were paranoid that, as American journalists asking about a CIA operation, we would be followed. So we had some basic measures to make sure we weren’t having our laptops stolen out of our hotel rooms — all these different little things. Which is all to say: There’s just this baseline paranoia to the whole show.
We saved the last interview to be with the singer of the band who wrote the song, Klaus Meine. He’s a German heavy-metal star from the Scorpions. Usually, you wouldn’t leave that big interview toward the end, but we thought if we asked him straight up in the beginning, he could tell everyone involved to shut it down and we would have no access. We were trying to do what we called “surfacing.” When the FBI is investigating someone, they wait until a strategic moment to surface, to actually tell the person that they are under investigation, because you can get more access. So we didn’t surface until the moment of the interview, and instead of a normal interview location, we were in this suburban German hotel. It was totally empty. It looked like the scene of a spy novel: a big wooden-planked hotel with one waitress walking around and nothing else. It was very suspicious.
So one element is the paranoia, one element is we’re meeting this person who has no idea what we’re doing but we’re obsessed, and then there’s the actual operational confusion of it. The source who had told us about the operation is so convinced that it goes up to the highest levels that he’s like, “There’s no way Klaus doesn’t know exactly why you’re coming. He’s been told by every person you’ve talked to. They’ve all been coordinating. He knows why you’re coming. He’s prepared for you. In fact, the second you leave, he’s going to call his CIA handler and tell him exactly what happened.” The final part is it could all be bullshit and absurd and we are going to have traveled all the way from New York to Hanover to ask this guy a question about his biggest song and accuse him of having not written it himself, which would just be rude and over the top. It’s probably not true, but if it is true, it’s very high stakes.
It’s, like, we came all the way over here to accuse you of not writing your own song, but there’s another possible scenario where he doesn’t know the CIA was involved and we are breaking the news to him, which would be devastating and could be really crushing to him and his sense of identity. We didn’t really want to do that, but we were curious. So there was a lot of game theory in a way no other interview I’ve worked on had. We really scripted each interview question very precisely, the way a prosecutor would in court. He ended up being the nicest guy ever, which took some of the pressure off when we got there, and he was ambiguous enough that it was great for the show. Fortunately, he kind of gave us the ideal answer: It was suspicious but not definitive, and you could interpret it any way you wanted as a listener. Then, after our interview, we were convinced he was going to call his CIA handler and say, “They’re onto us. Activate whatever plan.” But he just went down and had a drink at the bar by himself for like 45 minutes.
All of the 90 Day Fiancé episodes are challenging. I deal with a lot of publicists now, especially with the 90 Day Fiancé people where a publicist is going to be like, “You can’t talk about this. We don’t want to give away spoilers.” It’s especially difficult to interview people from the cast, like Tarik and Hazel or Molly. Obviously, people are talking about them and all the stuff happening in their life that is crazy on social media. Like, a week before speaking to Molly, I think her daughter was arrested, and they were having all these tough times. So there’s always this interesting list of things we can and cannot talk about, and I’m like, This is a podcast about TV. Don’t worry, we’re not going to dig into your life. At the same time, when you’re talking about TV and things people grew up watching, stuff comes up. So you have to navigate that and reconcile the fact that you’re talking to real people.
Scheduling is difficult, too. I like episodes where I get to bring people together, especially really different people like Roxane Gay and Seth Rogen or Nicole Byer and Shaun Robinson, and the hardest part is figuring out the scheduling. I am so willing to record things at 3 a.m. L.A. time. I don’t care if that’s how we’re going to get something to happen. With Roxane Gay and Seth Rogen, I was so eager because it was rare that, just through Twitter, I got them both to agree to do it. Then I was frantically emailing them like, “Okay, can we actually do this? What day will actually work?” It was just a blessing and a prayer that we found 30 minutes to make it happen. I used to be able to book all my guests through Twitter and Twitter DMs. But if Twitter suspends your verified account, which is what happened to me, and that is where you book most of the people you know, that will be a challenge. I went from being able to just DM someone like, “Hey, you want to do this show? Here’s the info,” to “Right, no, this actually is me on this other account. I swear I’m not a fake person. Okay, let’s email.”
I had initially over-sound-designed this episode because of my fear that Akbar, as an older man who was just so different from how people speak in audio — he speaks very slowly, with an accent, and kind of quietly — wasn’t going to be found as interesting. I really wanted people to find this episode, in particular, really interesting and moving. But he ended up being an amazing talker and very compelling. When we selected him as a guest, he was our oldest guest by far, and he decided he wanted to talk about this memory from when he was a young kid migrating from India to Pakistan because that is something that still haunts him. It is one of the few times he has seen violence, and it was such a formative time in his life. It was also the first time he saw his parents afraid. He talked about his dad having a revolver and how he had never seen his parents with weapons or anything like that. He had that revolver to protect the family as they were migrating because these trains would get stopped in Punjab, and the people on them were massacred. Then the driver would drive a train full of dead people back to Pakistan. So it was just really intense content-wise, and I remember doing that interview and feeling super–emotionally moved. It was one of the few interviews I’ve come out of where I was like, I need to go home and have a good cry before I even touch this tape, and I asked my team if I could go ahead and do the sound design and cutting and all of that for this episode.
It’s also a very visual story, with people screaming and a train moving, so I heavily sound-designed it. There’s a reference to a speech during Partition, and I pulled some archival [audio], so it felt very personal. I finished it and gave it to my team and told them, “It’s perfect, and I don’t think it needs any changes,” and I never say that. Then I played it for them, and they were scared to say anything to me because they knew I wouldn’t agree and I would probably be offended, so they waited a day to get back to me and then they were like, “It isn’t really working. His voice is really, really compelling, and we think you should change it up. His voice and his story should be central.” So we regrouped and we did an edit and I stripped away a lot of the sound design and restructured some of it. I took out a whole portion and added another portion, and I remember getting angry because throughout that whole process, it was emotionally really difficult. I’m culturally and spiritually Muslim, too, and there was just so much violence happening. It had gotten more extreme with the Trump administration, and there was the shooting in Christchurch where all these Muslims had died, and I remember those days afterward scrolling through Twitter and seeing the prayer of death, Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un, and it means “From where we come to him we shall return.” I remember seeing that prayer constantly and tearing up and being really affected by it. Working on the episode was a confrontation of all of that. Having Akbar talk a lot about overcoming that kind of trauma, and not letting it drive you to hate but rather letting it encourage you to supersede your hatred and try to actually love your enemy and build a relationship, and not use that to oppress in the future, was emotionally very powerful.
I had, for a very long time, wanted to do an episode about a con man of some kind. There’s just something about the mythos of con men that I’ve always found myself deeply fascinated by, I think in part because I have the opposite of a con man’s constitution. I’m a terrible liar. I’m not very tricky. So, to me, there’s something about con men that feels a little bit like having a superpower. So in order to find a subject, I ended up calling a guy at the AARP magazine who writes on con men, and he gave me the name of this guy who is a reformed con man. Not only is he a reformed con man, he was instrumental in establishing the protocol of early internet financial crimes like stealing identities and taking money out of ATMs using fake numbers and stuff. So I heard this story, and I was like, Yes, this is obviously it. He went to jail for a while, then he was on the lam for a long time, then he goes back to jail, then he escapes from jail. There was all of this drama, so I was like, Okay, this is a fantastic yarn, and we’ll just tell this story. Easy-peasy. This will be our best episode ever.
So we interview him, and it goes well enough and then we start writing the episode and really start to run into some issues. I just kind of got bewitched by the con-man mystique. It’s sort of ironic that I got ensorcelled by this guy’s story, which was the thing we were trying to deconstruct. I just remember that we took crack after crack after crack trying to nail this story, and it was not working at all. Usually when we listen to the first draft of something, it won’t be great, but I’ll see, Okay, this is where we need to go. I can see the strengths and I can see the weaknesses. I just remember feeling like, This is bad. This does not work at all. And that’s not a fun feeling to have. I think, to this day, that’s really the only time that’s happened with our show, where I felt an episode was at the edge of falling into the abyss.
But the biggest issue was: How do we frame this in a Decoder Ring way, because our show is a culture show and is about trying to understand cultural phenomena in some way. Having the right framing is the difference between an episode that gets written in a week and one that takes a month to write. If you can nail the framing early on, everything else can just click into place. And this is a story of my own hubris because Willa [Paskin], from the beginning, was more aware of this problem than I was. Because it’s not really a culture story, this guy being a con man. So we had to figure out a way to turn it into a culture story, and we did that by making it a story about how con-men stories work. We ended up pushing back the release date for a week, and I think it was then that we came up with the more explicit framing, and I think that’s what really saved the episode. That was a lot of Willa’s doing. I sort of led us a little bit astray, and she managed to pull us back. Our show gets pretty meta a lot, but this is among the most meta episodes we’ve done.
This episode is the story of my long-lost sister, whom I had just met two years ago. We both discovered our dad within months of each other. I learned through getting to know her that the biggest and most significant difference between the two of us and our outcomes — we had this myriad of similarities — was that, in the absence of having a family that could take care of her, she became a ward of the state. This put her on a pathway to becoming incarcerated, and she later gave birth to my nephew while she was incarcerated — she was chained during the birthing process, a procedure that is now considered inhumane and even torture by the United Nations Convention. It was a lot to tell that story, not only because of my process of discovering my feelings but also because of my position as a journalist. Objectivity was not even a question in the room. I was figuring out how to tell this story in an authentic way that didn’t put into question my judgments or skills as a journalist. It was a very fine line to walk.
On top of that, there was this ongoing challenge that many creators and storytellers of color have around the white gaze, but for the ear. I was trying to tell this story in a way that didn’t flatten my sister’s or my identity to just our traumas and really had a full breadth and depth of emotion. That’s something that can be a real challenge to the editorial process. Another part of the more structural challenges I faced is that I was the series’ Black editor, so I couldn’t edit my own piece. It’s hard to tell a story like that without the proper editorial support and, you know, trauma-informed editorial support. In the end, I did do a lot of editing. In the reporting of that story, I took my time and did the best I could to create a trauma-informed environment for my sister to tell her story, because there was a very real and high risk of retraumatizing her. There was also the risk of secondhand traumatizing myself. So there were many things to navigate to get to the point where I felt I could do her story justice and that I could do it in a safe way for both of us.
At the beginning of my career, I was doing this story about prayer warriors and this effort to transform the city of Colorado Springs by praying through the phone book one name at a time and praying up and down every street before all of the houses. They had also erected a 24-hour prayer shield over the city. It was coming out of this one church called the New Life Church, and I went out there as a young reporter — this is the third story I’ve ever done — to see what is it like to pray this way, and what is this community, and is the prayer changing them, and does it change the way they respond to their neighbors?
I was a totally secular East Coast kid from a secular Jewish family, and I had never encountered any kind of genuinely religious feeling. Like a lot of subcultures, this group of Evangelical Christians had a very specific language. I had to learn to listen through or force myself — as someone so outside of a culture that I couldn’t hear what they were saying — to sit and listen to someone with a different perspective from me until I understood it and not to retreat to dismissing them emotionally. I just have this memory of sitting in my car after a long interview and just feeling like I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. My head just hurt. It was kind of like being in a foreign country where you know a little bit of the language, but you don’t really and then you get really tired trying to figure it out. And to a certain extent, that is a part of many reporting processes, but much more so there.
Then they started praying for me not to sleep, so then I stopped sleeping. I don’t think it was a result of the prayer, but rather a result of the fact that I was told the whole church was praying for me not to sleep, and it was one of the first stories I ever did, so I was incredibly anxious. But not sleeping while working on a story is not a great choice if you can make a different choice. At a certain point without sleep, you just go woo-woo-ish. Then, when I got back, it was hard because I was so tight and rigid about every word that I wrote and so neurotic about the whole writing process. Literally at the end of the process, Ira [Glass] was like, “I really want to continue to work with you — I just don’t ever want to speak to you again,” which was totally deserved, honestly.
Radiolab — “The Flag and the Fury”
I had just done Dolly Parton’s America, and I’m a part of a two-person company, so if I don’t find what I’m going to do next, I’m not going to have a job. So I started looking at Mississippi stories, because when I was doing interviews for the Dolly series, we were looking at the South as this place people think they know but they don’t know, a place that is villainized and victimized. And I’m trying to understand the magic of the place, and I found this story of Laurin Stennis. She’s fighting to get her flag to replace the [now-former] Mississippi flag. And no one thought the flag was going to come down, even though it was the last flag with the Confederate emblem. So it was a long-shot story, and how I had envisioned it was: I was going to do a sweeping series about the new South and Mississippi, and it’s going to be gorgeous. I thought, Two years from now, we will release it. I just thought I was going to go to the next level, like an essayistic deep dive of looking at this one place in so many prismatic ways. I thought this would be one story in this sweeping series.
But then, during COVID, I find an article by a local reporter, Ashton Pittman, [about mounting efforts to change the flag], and all of a sudden, I read this article and I go, “Is the flag going to come down?” So I send it to my boss, and he reads it and goes, “Holy shit, the flag might come down.” I’m with my parents at that time, taking care of them during COVID, and I find out I have to fly back to New York to do the piece. So I fly back and get there the next day, and the Wi-Fi in my apartment had been cut off. I call them like, “Hey, can you just flip it back on?” And they inform me the Wi-Fi I had is something they no longer offer, so they actually can’t just turn it back on. They have to give me totally new Wi-Fi, but everything is backed up because of COVID. So every day of reporting the final two weeks before the flag came down, I had to find a random place — my friend’s dining room, or an abandoned room at WNYC on a floor where no one was allowed to enter — to work and bring this whole studio set with me in a suitcase.
Then my boss goes, “I think we’re going to put this on Radiolab one week from now,” so I’m interviewing senators and cutting tape simultaneously and I have to keep doing research to trace all the pinpoints the best I could of how the flag finally fell down. I had to create a story that was many decades in the making yet was happening very quickly on the ground. So I had to go from a sweeping, gorgeous series to every moment a new news report was coming out. I was pulling things online and uploading, and finding another person to be interviewed, and then getting senators by the hour to update me. And every day we thought the flag was either going to come down or not come down. We didn’t know what was going to happen with the story. Then, as soon as the flag does come down, it’s getting all those hours of tape and cutting, cutting, cutting, putting it together, and storyboarding. It was really fun, though.
With this story, someone wrote, “Hey, I got locked out of my Snapchat handle that I’ve had for years, and I couldn’t get back in. I contacted Snapchat and got it back, but all my contacts were gone, and all these weird accounts were Snapchatting me these really obscene pictures and really threatening text messages. Can you help me?” So we went on a journey to find out what happened. Pretty much right away, we fell into this world of teens and young adults whose whole economy and whole world centers around the buying and selling and trading of handles like our client Lizzie’s because they’re “OG,” which means original. So they’re usually one word, or they’re one letter, or they’re one letter and one number. They’re really simple and easy-to-remember handles that are obviously incredibly valuable, especially to these young people.
They’re all on this one Discord. They’re all playing video games with each other. They’re all doing voice chat with each other on Discord, talking about the best cars and the best sneakers, and why Yeezys are actually horrible because they give you blisters, and how much Xanax they have. We were discovering so much about these people by navigating their world, and it was a really rich world and really fun to hang out in, but we still had to answer the questions about this story, like: Who took the handle, and why did they do it? Our client Lizzie, all she wanted from the person who took it was an apology.
But it was hard because we were trying to find these people that had gotten so good at keeping themselves anonymous online, and if we were able to find out who they were, how were we going to get them to talk to us or to apologize to Lizzie? They’re pretty brash young boys on the internet. They don’t want to be sensitive. They don’t want to be considerate. They don’t necessarily think about other people’s feelings. So we spend a long, long, long time hanging out in their Discord trying to get any information beyond their usernames. And the point of the story that felt the hardest to me was that we had figured out who had taken her account, and we had their username, because they literally posted in the Discord, “I pulled that account. I pulled @Lizard.” So we were like, “Cool, great, a confession, amazing. Okay, how do we get this kid to talk to us?”
We knew he was somewhere on the West Coast and he was in high school, because he was only posting before and after school, but he had a very generic first name, so we were like, “Great, not much to go off of.” Then, one day, he posts a blurry photo of a high-school hallway. So we’re like, “Okay, you can see the colors of the tile. And you know how in most high schools, the color of the tiles on the floor are the school colors? So for much longer than I would like to admit, I was looking at all of the high schools in the state I thought he lived in to see what their school colors were and if I could find any pictures of their hallways where the tile matched. If we can just find his school, it’s easy to get a lot closer to this person and try to talk to him.
So after several days of not finding an exact match, I turn to this security expert that we had been working with for the story and asked him to help us, and he wrote back in about 20 minutes, like, “You guys, this is a meme. This is a photo that has been posted and posted and reposted, and it has nothing to do with the person you’re looking for. It might as well just be a random stock image online.” So I had just spent two days staring at tiles, all to find out if I had reverse image-searched this photo, I could have saved myself a lot of painstaking hours. Eventually, we had to be bold and message them on Discord. And when we got to it, we couldn’t figure out how to say it in a convincing way to a teenager without sounding like narcs. We went with, “Yo, you pulled @Lizard?,” in the cool way we thought an 18-year-old boy would talk. Luckily, he responded.”
You have these two characters, right? You have Joe Exotic, and you have Carole Baskin. We weren’t sure what it was going to look like at first, but the way it shook out is we made an interesting narrative choice that when we were in Joe’s world, we had to stay in his perspective. The same with Carole’s world. Structuring the story like that, beat by beat, was really challenging. It took a lot of planning in terms of timelines, really granular timelines, like figuring out “When this happens, where’s Joe? And when this happens, where’s Carole?” So even though they’re in the same place at the same time occasionally, the first episode is Joe’s story, and at the end, you hear about Carole for the first time, and this is when this beef starts to unfold. Then, the second episode, it’s all about Carole. Then, at some point, we had to make a narrative choice about where their worlds collide, and the way that we decided to structure that worlds-colliding episode was when Joe goes to Carole’s animal sanctuary.
The episode opens in-scene. He’s there, and he’s undercover, and as the episode progresses, there’s this tension-building moment. At the beginning of the ep, you feel like Joe is creeping up on Carole and then he gets all these documents from someone who supposedly worked for her. That’s when all hell breaks loose and he releases this huge attack on Carole. So we had to look for all of these little, tiny moments where he was talking shit on her, which included all these YouTube videos he made and when he staged a protest where everyone wore these bunny costumes outside her animal sanctuary. And then my favorite moment, because it’s so absurd, was when Carole was featured as a guest on a radio show, and there was an opportunity for listeners to call in. You hear them take this call, and you hear this guy who is going off on her and then the radio host is like, “Is this Joe?” They knew exactly who it was.
So that world-colliding episode was really fun, but also very challenging in terms of the timeline, because you have these two people who have their own agendas; they have their own interests that interfere. Figuring out the actual timeline took a lot of research on the back end in order for this episode to be successful. But what was super-fun about it was that, at some point, Joe had hired someone to join him in his attack on Carole. His name was David Stanton, and he moves to Joe’s farm in Oklahoma. Things go south pretty quickly. He was helping Joe make the videos about Carole, but he runs away in the night and then the surprise is that he turns up at Carole’s animal sanctuary. So again, it was this moment of worlds colliding and trying to figure out the timelines so we can put the tension in the right moment without giving too much away, because there was so much happening at once.
This is the first and only episode that’s fully told from a character’s point of view who’s not the main character. It’s a show about a first-generation Iranian American woman who’s thinking about having a child and struggling from the family she came from. So early on, there was going to be a mom episode, and it was one of the first things I drafted, but the mom episode I made was really bad, so we abandoned it. Then, a year into working on the show, we landed on how central this story of one woman trying to figure out how to have a baby was going to be, so we thought, It will just be her story. We don’t need other episodes. And after I had one draft of almost every episode in the series, I went back and looked up the outline. I remember it was a day where I had had a therapy session, and I was telling my therapist I was really in a fog and having trouble thinking clearly about how to take this show to the next step, and she was just like, “You have the clarity within you. I know you do.” And she said that to me, and I drank a cup of coffee and was like, Okay there has to be a mother’s episode, and we really have to enter her heart because up until this point in the series, the mother character is sort of the antagonist. All we know is that the main character has had an abortion, and the mom reacted really cruelly to the abortion, and that both of the parent figures in the show are a bit judgmental and can be harsh.
So with the switch of perspective, I had the realization that the series would be so much better if we empathized with her. We knew her perspective, and there was also the happy accident that I was doing all the voices of the characters, so that the same voice that is performing as the daughter is also playing the mother. So it becomes this exercise in empathy. I plan to spend a day trying to channel the mother’s feelings, and I did in a really freaky way. I was talking into my microphone, and it felt like someone else was talking through me, and I was sobbing, and it felt like I was crying her tears. It was amazing. So I had this great piece of audio that felt frighteningly real, but the problem was that the episode had no story. So when I played it for multiple people, everyone was like, “You have to cut this episode. It’s just not about anything, and I don’t know why I’m hearing it.” So I became convinced I should cut the episode. But then my editor played all the episodes for her mom, because she just wanted to see how a woman that age would react, and it was clear that for her mom, that episode was the episode that earned her buy-in to the show. That was really the episode that moved her.
Even though the original idea was felt like a spark of yes, and even though the first time I sat down and did the recording I felt like I had been touched by magic, it was the episode that took the most hand-holding because it was hard to make an episode that was just about feelings and didn’t inherently have a story. It took realizing that even though it was the story of a mother’s life from the moment of her wedding night to the birth of both of her children to both of her children growing up, that if it were situated in one night which was the most traumatic night of her motherhood, that would inherently infuse it with story and feeling. It wouldn’t feel like it was sort of a randomly placed biography of a woman. It was a biography told from the tension of one excruciating experience of motherhood, and also it was a biography told from the night when she decided she was going to be less emotionally attached to her children because she couldn’t bear the pain of all the love. It just took a whole lot of massaging to make that episode work, but as I’ve gotten feedback from people about it, it sounds like it’s the one that earned their trust of the series. For people who maybe weren’t so into it, once they heard this episode, the show became so much more multidimensional for them.
We had to do the entire project pretty quickly. In about four months, we had to make the concept work, produce, edit, and book guests for every episode — the whole nine yards for ten episodes. On a production schedule, that’s insane, but we just had to make it happen. It was a wild ride. We were also doing this during the pandemic, so we had to teach a lot of people how to engineer themselves. About halfway through the season, we had a nice, clipped pace going, and the show hadn’t actually premiered yet, so we were able to bank four episodes before it came out, but we were still noodling around.
Then, we get to episode five, which is about foreign-born players and how Toni Kukoč was from Croatia and how his being on the Bulls created a trend of having overseas players play for the NBA. Now, about 25 percent of NBA basketball players are foreign-born. So we had Dirk Nowitzki as our guest, who was a total gent. He was so great. He was amazing. He came ready. He followed my instructions to a T: He was in a quiet room; he had already downloaded Talk Sync, which is always a thing, trying to make sure they’ve downloaded the app I want them to download; he had his AirPods on. He was ready to be interviewed. I was already a fan. I was like, King, great, thank you so much. But about five minutes before he comes on, our host, J.A. Adande, lost power in his entire building. Generators started running, but his Wi-Fi wasn’t working, so he couldn’t record himself as he usually would, and he had to call through his phone instead.
Obviously, the audio would be terrible quality, so okay, all right, I’m like, We’ll deal with that later. But then our other co-host, B.J. Armstrong, who is a former Bulls player, was out in L.A., and five minutes into the actual interview, his Zoom recorder stops working. We just carry on recording the audio on our end, but not in a way that will automatically sync the conversation into one recording. Then later, I’m like, Okay, so how will I make this work? I ended up transcribing audio from Adande and Armstrong, and the next day I had them rerecord the conversation and react to Dirk as if he was there and pieced it together. It came out fine. It was like, Okay, we did it. All the things that could go wrong went wrong, and the one person that I was expecting not to have everything right was solid, which is never the case. It’s always the guest that’s the wild card, so we have all these safeguards if that happens, but we didn’t ever expect that both of our hosts wouldn’t be able to record themselves how they regularly do. So lesson learned: Always have a backup for your backup for your backup.
Julia Lowrie Henderson
In actual real time, while I was making it, the Calcutta reporting trip literally backed up to the Mexico trip. I got really sick on the way home from Calcutta — like, really sick. I was so paranoid about it. I had waited until the last second because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go and then it was this whole thing about getting me an e-visa. So I had to do all of my vaccinations right before I left, and I did half of them while I was in Utah on a reporting trip. I came back, and I wasn’t feeling great before I left because of the malaria pills I was taking and having had a million vaccines. So the whole time I was in Calcutta, I was really psychotically asking myself like, Do I feel okay? Do I feel any different than I felt yesterday? But I was also like, I think I’m okay. I think I have not gotten sick. Then the last night, we had dinner at a hotel, and I don’t know what I was thinking. It was like everything I knew said, You can’t eat at a place close to closing because you have a much higher chance of not getting something fresh out of the kitchen. But we had this long, crazy day, and we went somewhere late, and we were some of the last people they seated.
I started to feel real bad on my way to the airport the next day. Somehow I did not actually lose it on the plane. I just curled up in the fetal position and tried to sleep it off for the 13-hour flight. I guess will power is an amazing thing because I got to JFK — looking back on it, I don’t know that I would ever trust myself to give a sick person advice — I got off that flight and thought, Maybe I just need something in my system. So I went and bought orange juice. In retrospect, it was just the worst thing I could have put in my system. It’s just, like, sugar. Then I got in a cab and took a cab from JFK to Port Authority to get on a bus upstate and then miraculously got one of the two Ubers floating around to get to my house. The driver actually noticed I had Air India tags and just talked to me about my trip the whole time, which was probably the best thing because it took my mind off of it. I was sweating bullets and was going to get sick at any moment, and I hope it’s after I get out of this car, and somehow it is.
I got into my house and just threw up. I was sick for days. I couldn’t move from my bed, and about 24 hours into that, I finally got an email back from Bikram’s assistant after trying everything with them for the better part of a year and getting a lot of runaround. And they’re like, “You can come next week.” So I had to book a plane ticket to Acapulco and pull myself together. I had, like, Gatorade and saltines on the plane with me. I was still in that stage of things. The whole trip was a nightmare. I spent the weirdest night I’ve spent with anyone with Bikram. He was totally crazy, and he wouldn’t let me go. We went to dinner with everyone, and he was talking and talking and talking, and this was all in service of him taking my temperature to see if he would commit to the interview the next morning. He left it with me and his assistant that this is all good. And then when I go to meet them the next morning, his assistant says, “We called the lawyers last night, and they said no.” It got really awkward really fast. I was just like, “I have to go,” so I got on the last flight out of Acapulco to Mexico City that night. As soon as I got back to the States, I had a crazy, threatening email from his assistant. She threatened to sue us. And then signed off wishing me safe travels and hoping we can keep in touch.
I think it’s one of my little soapboxes that talk is much harder than people realize and that good talk is not just Turn on a microphone, get in a room, and go for it. I think there are probably ten people in the world who can basically just do that — just turn on a mic and fill time and make it happen and talk without much other work around it. So my whole thing with talk is that you do a lot of research in advance. I like to fully prep a conversation that I’m hosting. Even though it’s going to be a natural conversation, and it’s going to happen in real time, I really like to have a full sense of where I think it’s going to go and an arc. You know we’re going to start here, and we’re going to layer in this, and then we’re going to bring in this perspective. I think within a talk format, you can still create a narrative feel, right? That you’re starting in one place and evolving and finishing in another place.
But the fall of 2016 was a really tough time because it was such an intense election. The shows right before and right after the election were ones in which we were really working hard to show this balance of analysis, but also perspective, with what this moment means. And once the election of Trump was settled, what that meant, and the different dimensions. So we did have a lot of conversations of When are we going to be in analytical mode? and When are we going to be in citizen-living-in-the-world mode? It was definitely the most intense stuff I’ve done, and a lot of that required a lot of prep and a lot of conversation before we taped.
You want it to feel authentic, and you want it to be an authentic conversation, but we can’t just have the conversation that we would normally have when we’re sitting around because that will go in a bunch of directions and won’t be linear. Instead, we have to be more streamlined and the best version of ourselves. The more work you put in ahead of time, the better your product is going to be, and the less you’ll have to edit it after the fact. Then, no matter how interesting a person is or how good a topic is, if you don’t have the tape, you don’t have the tape. Sometimes you work really hard but you just have to scrap stuff because the tape isn’t there, as much as you love it.
I generally found anything to do with having live bands, live acts, any singers — like, if I could have Bewitched having that all on tape and never having the day, that would have been my preference. I don’t like loading them in. I don’t even care to watch them perform. Like, that’s pleasant, but I would rather sacrifice the watching of the performance for the entire six hours of irritation of waiting for their bus to arrive, and meeting so many ancillary publicists and tour people, and getting large groups of band and tour people to Navy Pier, where we recorded. I didn’t like getting them up in elevators. I did not like watching them unravel their cords. I was like, This is all taking so long, and I know it’s going to yield 15 minutes of content, and we’re all standing around waiting. Because that’s what they would do when they got to a venue, but I was like, I want to go back immediately to my desk and start doing my work. In terms of my temperament, I was not cut out or one of those people standing around like, “How was the gig last night?”
So that is already where I was at. Then there was a very veteran rocker whom many people were excited to meet, and people let me know as she was coming up the elevator, “Hey, just to let you know, when she comes up, do not touch her. Don’t try to shake her hand.” And I was like, “Oh, well this is going to be a great day.” Then she came through the door and said, “It smells like dead flesh in here,” and was really upset. And I was like, “Huh. Well, this is an NPR station. Oh, but I think you must be talking about the grilling that’s happening in the carnival outside that is called Navy Pier, because people are outside recreating at the No. 1 tourist destination in Chicago. So, yeah, I guess people are making burgers. Sorry?” And this was during a time when she was in her 60s and had brought her 20-something-year-old boyfriend and demanded he also be a part of the conversation in addition to the performance. So we had to talk to him and ask him questions. I had to get back to my desk and think, What might I want to ask that person that she was sleeping with at the time?, but he didn’t have a body of work, so that was a bad one.