Feedswap: Podcast Perspectives

Feedswap:  Podcast Perspectives
Feedswap: Podcast Perspectives

Dec 21 2023 | 00:27:17

Episode December 21, 2023 00:27:17

Hosted By

Stuart Barefoot

Show Notes

We're excited to collaborate with our friends at The Podglomerate and their show, Podcast Perspectives:


How does the Washington Post share sweeping stories through audio?


Today on the podcast, we’re excited to feature a conversation from Podcast Perspectives, produced by our friends at The Podglomerate (the podcast firm specialized in producing, distributing, and monetizing podcasts for high-profile clients including Freakonomics Radio, PBS, NPR stations, Harvard Business School, and more). Podcast Perspectives brings on audio leaders and industry executives to walk through the biggest news of the day and to go deep on topics that podcasters need to know - like IP and rights issues, ad tech, podcasting’s role in media at-large, and more. 


In today’s episode, Podglomerate founder/CEO Jeff Umbro sits down with The Washington Post’s Lillian Cunningham, who produced, wrote, and hosted one of the Washington Post’s first podcasts: Presidential, a series about the history of the American presidents. Despite the show being Lillian and The Post’s first audio project, it was an immediate hit. Since then, Lillian has gone on to produce and host three more narrative series for The Post, including Constitutional, Moonrise, and most recently Field Trip, a series about the messy past and uncertain future of America’s national parks.


Listen to more episodes of Podcast Perspectives and follow the podcast: https://listen.podglomerate.com/show/podcast-perspectives/ 


View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Speaker A: Hey, it's Stuart. Right now, we are still between seasons, but as you know, the podcast landscape is evolving on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis. Which is why you should also check out podcast perspectives, produced by our friends at the Podglomerate. The podcast firm specialized in producing, distributing, and monetizing podcasts for high profile clients, including freakonomics radio, BS, NPR stations, Harvard Business School, and more. Podcast Perspectives brings on audio leaders and industry executives to walk through the biggest news of the day and go deep on topics that podcasters need to know. We're excited to share a special episode of podcast Perspectives as podglomerate founder and CEO, plus former audience guest Jeff Umbro sits down with the Washington Post's Lillian Cunningham, who produced, wrote, and hosted one of the Washington Post's first podcasts, presidential, a series about the history of the american presidents. Despite the show being Lillian and the Post's first audio project, it was an immediate hit. Since then, Lillian has gone on to produce and host three more narrative series for the Post, including constitutional Moonrise, and most recently, Field Trip, a series about the messy past and uncertain future of America's national parks. In this episode, Lillian shares how she goes about telling the sweeping stories how the Post audio unit has developed since presidential and the current landscape of history. Podcasting. You can follow podcast perspectives on your favorite podcasting app and be sure to tell them that we've sent you. So without further ado, here's their interview with Lillian Cunningham. [00:01:45] Speaker B: One of the wonderful things about being a journalist at the Washington Post is like the journalism is just first and foremost the most important thing. [00:02:02] Speaker C: This is podcast Perspectives, a show about the latest news in the podcast industry and the people behind it. Each episode, we bring discussions about the latest news in the audio world and conversations with leaders in the industry. I'm your host, Jeff Umbro, founder and CEO of the Podglomerate. We are a podcast agency focused on production, distribution, and monetization for some of the biggest podcasts in the world. Joining me today is Lillian Cunningham, a veteran reporter at the Washington Post who's produced four of their award winning podcasts. Since 2010, Lillian has been reporting for the Washington Post, where she was previously the editor of their on leadership section. Since then, Lillian has created four podcasts for the Washington Post presidential where each episode focused on a different president, constitutional where each episode focused on a different amendment moonrise, a series about why America went to the moon and most recently, Field Trip, a journey through the messy past and uncertain future of America's national parks. I actually interviewed Lillian on my old podcast writers who don't write way back in 2017, right after she finished publishing presidential I'm going to play a few clips from that interview during today's episode because I really want to dive into just how much Lillian and the post work in the audio space has changed over the last six years and how they've developed their audio strategy. And with that, let's get to the interview. Welcome to the show, Lillian. [00:03:24] Speaker B: Hi. It's so great to see you, Jeff. [00:03:26] Speaker C: So first off, I just wanted to say thank you for doing everything you do, but especially for making field trip. I'm wearing my death Valley shirt, but my bucket list is to go to every national park. [00:03:35] Speaker B: Oh, awesome. [00:03:36] Speaker C: Yeah. So this podcast was like catnip for me. But before we get into that, would you mind letting our listeners know, kind of like who you are, where you came from, and how you got to today, where the post is hiring you to go to a bunch of national parks and report on them? [00:03:51] Speaker B: Sure. I'll try to keep it quick. I'm a journalist at the Washington Post. I've actually just hit 13 years of being at the Post. [00:04:00] Speaker C: Wow. [00:04:00] Speaker B: So the bulk of my career I have spent there, I did not start off doing audio for the Post. There wasn't really audio at the post when I first arrived. I know what I was doing was mostly writing a little bit of video. But in 2016, I had an idea for a podcast called presidential. 2016 was obviously a big presidential election year, and I thought it'd be a great public service for the post to make 44 episode podcast, one on each president, that kind of walked listeners through presidential history, the leadership styles of past people in office. And that was the first big audio project I ever did for the post. It was also really the first audio project the post did in the podcasting space, and I fell in love with podcasting. There was great reception for it. And after that, over the past several years now, the post has kind of increased the number of podcasts it's doing. The size of the team has grown from just me making a podcast by myself to a whole suite of people who work at the audio team at the post. And, yeah, I did that first podcast, presidential. I followed it up with a podcast on the Constitution, a podcast on the space race, and then this latest podcast on the national parks, which I would say is basically like my dream project. I mean, I love the national parks, too, and I've also kind of had a personal quest to get to all of them. But I also thought it would make just a really great reporting project because there's just so much playing out at these places today. I mean, we kind of think of them as places. Many people think of them as places they want to go on vacation. But these landscapes are wrestling with some of the big stories of America today, questions of how we value environment and protecting land versus industry, questions of justice and native rights, and sort of like, correcting wrongs of the past, climate change. So there were just a bunch of really fascinating stories to explore. And I'm fortunate that I've gotten to a place at the post where I can have an idea for a big, ambitious reporting project in audio and have people there who will support me, give resources for it, and see the value in that type of journalism, both presidential. [00:06:38] Speaker C: And constitutional, kind of had built in formats. Presidential every episode is the story of one of our presidents. Constitutional every episode is the story of one of our amendments. Moonrise was about America's space race, and it was the first one where you didn't necessarily have that built in format. And even with field trip, I know that you've published five episodes, about five parks, and I want to come back to that, but you kind of already have a built in system for that as well. So with moonrise specifically, why did you want to tell that story, which kind of veered off from the tried and true formula that you've created? [00:07:12] Speaker B: There was such an elegance to the presidential format to do, like, one president per week per episode. And I think that that was the right format for that series, and I think for constitutional, too. It just kind of happened. That was a good structure as well. But ultimately, I think what's united the projects I've done, the way I see it, at least, is that they're sort of these big reported deep dives into something that I consider part of american mythology and the sort of myth making in this country. And stories that we kind of hear that kind of get glorified, but that many of us, myself included, feel like we maybe don't know in as much depth and as robust and thoughtful of ways we wish we did. So to me, the story of the space race was one of those stories. It's kind of like a big american mythology around going to the moon, and yet I felt like I kind of just knew the top line facts about it. But it just turned out that for moonrise, there wasn't that sort of formula and story structure that really supported the story I wanted to tell. And ultimately, I kind of think the format should just follow what the storytelling wants and needs to do. Its job best. So I was kind of fine with kind of breaking open the formula with presidential and constitutional and field trip, too. I think all three of those, I did them in such a way that I think there's a lot of value in starting at episode one and kind of like working your way through the arc and that there is a bigger story that's told if you listen in that order. But when it comes down to, like, if you just wanted to listen to the Chester Arthur episode or you just wanted to listen to the episode, like with those other podcasts, you could do that. You could pop in and listen to the one you want and you'd still get a complete tale. [00:09:19] Speaker C: I wanted to ask about field Trip. It's a masterpiece. I'm biased 100%, but I believe it. Are you planning to do future seasons where you visit more parks? [00:09:28] Speaker B: Oh, wow. You just jumped right to the end question. We are figuring that out. I genuinely don't know the answer to that right now. I mean, obviously, I only did five episodes on five parks and there are 63 national parks, so there's a lot of room and pretty obvious ideas for what we could do next for episodes. I mean, personally, I loved working on field trip, and I would kind of be happy to spend the rest of my life making field trip episodes and going to more national parks. That's like, the big discussion we'll have next is there are so many great, important stories to tell out there, and we'll kind of make a calculation together. Like me plus editors and other people at the post whether that time is better spent one way or the other. [00:10:28] Speaker C: You mentioned before about when you were the only and first person on the post audio unit for listeners who are unaware, I actually interviewed Lily on, on a previous show back in 2017, and we actually pulled a couple clips from that interview. I want to play the first one now and then I want to ask a question about it. [00:10:45] Speaker B: I think the decision to let me do presidential didn't come at all from a sense that they were going to be able to monetize it in some way or capture that audience to some other end. I think they thought really, like, oh, that sounds like sort of a good public service project. And even though we don't really know how this would help us. Yeah, it's just one person's time. [00:11:10] Speaker C: So again, that's from 2017. You had said during that interview that the show at that time had already garnered about eight or 9 million downloads. I guess one of my questions for you is, after the success of presidential, how did the podcast strategy begin to shift from your point of view at the Washington Post and what they started doing with that department afterwards. [00:11:31] Speaker B: I mean, I think in a lot of ways, listening to what I said back then still really rings true for me, that I really do feel like one of the wonderful things about being a journalist at the Washington Post is like, the journalism is just first and foremost the most important thing, and it really is the driver of the decisions that they make. Like, is this a valuable public service? Is this a story that needs to be told? Is this a story that listeners or our audience, in whatever format will benefit from, will engage with, that? It will be illuminating and informative, and I still really think that's what guides the decisions across the newsroom. And still with audio, too, right? I think those are the questions that get asked every time I come up with a new idea for new podcast. Those are still the discussions I have with people are like, is this the important piece of journalism we should be doing now? So, yeah, I mean, I think the big changes are that I don't make a podcast by myself anymore. Field trip had two producers who were working on it with me. They kind of took turns. Like, one of them went on the Yosemite reporting trip with me, another went on the gates of the Arctic trip with me, and then both sort of helped shape the sound design, helped do a lot of the reporting and research. And so I spent a lot of time doing that. But I also had a lot of other people who were in it with me this time around. I guess another thing I should mention is obviously right now my podcast kind of exists in a bigger ecosystem of audio at the post. So I still get to do these big sort of long term, long form audio projects. But I now have colleagues on the audio team who work on a daily podcast and colleagues who get up super early, or you could call it like late hours of the night or morning to produce the seven podcast that comes out early every morning. And so I now feel like I'm part of a world at the post that just didn't exist when I was making presidential. [00:13:50] Speaker C: We kind of already touched on this, but we had a second clip pulled up. You've kind of already addressed it, but I want to play it anyway and get your reaction. [00:13:56] Speaker B: I know this isn't the process that maybe everyone uses or is really prescribed for podcast work, but in most cases, what I would do is transcribe all the interviews I did, print them out, take scissors, cut them up, and spread them out across this huge table that we have at the post and try to figure out where themes emerged or where something that one person said in an interview seemed to provide a springboard to move to something someone else said in an entirely different part of their interview. Yeah, I'm getting flashbacks hearing that. [00:14:39] Speaker C: You must love that descript exists now. [00:14:42] Speaker B: Oh my gosh. I mean, honestly, I do think back every so often to how different my life making presidential would have been if I had some of those tools that arrived like a few years later. Yes, I do not do that anymore. I do not listen back to the audio for hours, transcribing it and then cut it out with scissors. It sounds like that could have been like a century ago, right? It sounds so impossible to think of now. [00:15:08] Speaker C: I do remember during that interview you were saying that you spent a few nights, like, sleeping under your desk or something. [00:15:13] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:15:13] Speaker C: I imagine you're not facing that kind of time crunch anymore, is that right? [00:15:18] Speaker B: Yes, mostly. I do not any longer have a sleeping bag under my desk, so that is an improvement, I will say. I certainly have spent many very late nights working on field trip. Just kind of the nature, I think, of having a huge project that is kind of all consuming for you and you love and you want it to be the best it can be. And at least the way I work is like, even these days, that I'll find myself at 03:00 a.m. Still trying to make changes to a draft or tweak some of the scripting. But yes, no sleeping bag under my desk at the newsroom. [00:16:01] Speaker C: First of all, I'm glad, and I'm sure the Washington Post is glad to hear that. But it strikes me as an outsider, and I'm sure I'm wrong here, but it strikes me as an outsider that you're kind of operating a little bit in a vacuum with what you're producing, even within the organization at the post, you're building these very research intensive narrative series that are focused on one very particular issue that I would guess you're probably spending multiple years on every one of them. How are you interacting or intersecting with the rest of the audio unit? [00:16:31] Speaker B: A couple of ways. It is true that the sort of reporting process and timeline for my projects are very different from a lot of the other audio content that the post makes, but I can give, like a couple of examples. So one is that the producers who worked on field trip with me kind of came off of working on the Daily podcast Post reports to work on field trip with me. So there's a lot of teamwork, collaboration, crossover where we sort of figure out, given the topic and the timing and whatever, who are the best people to kind of borrow from other audio projects to help out on some of these long projects. I would also say there's quite a bit of collaboration that happens between the audio team and other teams at the post. So, for example, for field trip, a lot of the stories had to some degree, some a very high degree, some a smaller degree, but they all to some extent dealt with climate change and these national parks. And so the deputy editor on the climate team listened to multiple drafts of every episode we made for field trip. There were reporters on the climate team, on the health and science team who I would talk with and consult with them. Like Gates of the Arctic is a great example where there are some really thorny issues right now around a potential mine that would go next to Gates of the Arctic National park. It's immensely helpful to have colleagues at the post who they've spent their careers reporting on those sort of issues, and great to be able to walk over to someone like Tim Puko's desk and ask him what he thinks about some of these reports I'm digging through and who should I talk to? And we actually ended up even co authoring a print piece together about Gates of the Arctic and the mine that came out around the time of the podcast, just because both of us had sort of been doing reporting from different vantage points on it. [00:18:50] Speaker C: What constitutes success for the post with your projects? Is there any financial ties to this? Does it have to be a solvent show, or is this ultimately looking to drive engagement, awareness, subscriptions, that kind of thing? And you're not necessarily looking at KPIs when it comes to the money behind it. [00:19:10] Speaker B: Yeah, I mean, I will just genuinely say that from my perch. And again, my title is enterprise reporter for the post, so I don't have any sort of strategy leadership position at the post. But I will say that as the journalist doing this work, I don't feel or experience any of those pressures or discussions. I really feel like the discussions I participate in with people are all about the journalistic integrity of the project and then a sense of audience. That's what I take from the conversations at the post of what they care about. Is, is this reaching people? Is it resonating with people? Are they engaging with it as kind of a sign that this is worthy journalism that the world wants and needs? I don't think that there's one formula or kind of cut offs, right? For like, if it reaches this number, it's a success. If it falls below that. It's not, there's no sharp algorithm for it. It's more value based. [00:20:26] Speaker C: I wanted to shift gears a little bit. And we have one more clip. It is kind of talking about the idea of like a pop history podcast back in 2017, when we were chatting about presidential, you had this to say. [00:20:38] Speaker B: It was like a really nice antidote in the election season, because we actually, in the podcast, we never talked about the candidates, the campaign trail at the time. We didn't talk about what was going on in the presidential debates that week. So I think it was a way for people to feel like they were still involved in what was important to understand and participate in and know about without actually having, with still getting a break from the actual news. [00:21:10] Speaker C: Now, my first question is, do you find that the things that you're producing still allow people to kind of get a non political glimpse into history? [00:21:19] Speaker B: Yeah, I mean, that at least is always my goal. I think it's one of the things that has been most heartening and wonderful to me. For all the podcasts I've made, I get a lot of emails from listeners, and in a lot of those emails, people will note sort of what their ideology is, their political leanings, and will say, but I loved what you did and really respected and appreciated that it didn't feel in any way politicized, even though it was kind of about politics. And to me, that I always took as the greatest testament to having done something right to be able to cut through that noise. I also just listening back to that, think like, yeah, I still actually think it's sort of an ethos with each of the projects I do that I think about this kind of the best way I can think of it is like these sort of stories and journalism that lets you escape and lets you engage at the same time, lets you kind of escape from the news fatigue, the sort of clutter and anger of a lot of the discourse today, but doesn't just let you escape into something mindless or silly or like a waste of your time, it's an escape from that. But that actually lets you sort of engage on a deeper level with some of the more fundamental questions that I think are just interesting and important for all of us as citizens to be learning more about who we are and who the people around us are and the country we live in and what we want the country to look like in the future, but with no agenda. [00:23:09] Speaker C: So the idea of pop history is one that has kind of been in the podcast space for a while. I don't mean that in any kind of demeaning way. It's just like this is a story about history that is meant to apply to popular culture. Do you feel that that's kind of a new avenue that podcasting is excelling at? Whereas a while ago it may have been like the History Channel or David McCullough book or something like that. [00:23:33] Speaker B: I mean, I think there are a lot of podcasts out there today. Yeah. That do that really well. And I think audio has kind of proven itself to be a really great format for some of those stories. Thinking about in the context of news organization, the amount of time and space I'm able to give to the storytelling in a podcast episode is just like so many leagues beyond the amount of space that's given to a print or text story. Right. The scripts for, I think the Yosemite episode was the equivalent of like 38 pages. [00:24:15] Speaker C: It's like a New Yorker profile. [00:24:17] Speaker B: It's really long. It's a lot of information. It's a lot of writing. And I think that when you're talking about complicated, nuanced parts of history, like having that space to really dig into something, it's a tool you sort of need to do the story. Right. So I think podcasting is great for that. I also think there's just, as we talk about all the time, there's an intimacy to the storytelling. There's a sort of transportive nature to being able to literally or figuratively, kind of close your eyes and have someone tell you a story that I think has just been really powerful in a history space. And I frankly think that this totally just my own little opinion and bias on things. But I think it's really nice not to have to use oil paintings and black and white photographs that you slowly zoom in on as part of a history documentary to tell something. There are some stories where it's like we just don't have a lot of great, engaging visual evidence of it to put a story together, but we do have a lot of information, and I think that it has forced some television presentations of history to have to feel a little dustier than the stories actually are in a way that you're freed from in audio. [00:25:37] Speaker C: I love the Ken Burns knock. [00:25:39] Speaker B: Sorry, Ken Burns. [00:25:40] Speaker C: I know that that's not who you singled out. I'll take the blame on that. But if I didn't underscore this before, I just want to say the work that you do at the Post and the four podcasts that you've produced so far have all been in my very humble opinion, exceptional and really, really enjoyable for all the reasons that we talked about today. And I'm really glad to see both the post and your own process evolving because I think that we're all better off for having these properties out there. So I can't wait to see what you do next, and hopefully we can bring you back on in another seven years or sooner and post more clips. [00:26:18] Speaker B: That would be great. [00:26:19] Speaker C: I love it. Well, thank you, Lillian. [00:26:20] Speaker B: Thanks so much. Jeff. [00:26:24] Speaker C: Thank you again to Lillian Cunningham for joining us. You can find her on Twitter at lily Cunningham, or you can head to lilliancunningham.com. You can also check out her new series, Field Trip. Wherever you get your podcasts, have questions, tips, or podcast recommendations. You can follow me on all of the socials at Jeff Umbro. Podcast Perspectives is a production of the poglomerate. If you're looking for help producing, distributing, or monetizing your podcast, you can find us@poglomerate.com shoot us an email at listen@thepogglomerate.com or follow us on all social platforms at poglomerate. Thank you to Chris Boniello, Henry Lavoie, and Jordan Aaron for producing this show, and also to our marketing team, Joni Deutsche, Madison Richards, Morgan Swift, Matt Keeley, Annabella Penna, and a special thank you to Dan Christo. Thank you all for listening, and I will catch you next week.

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