Montana Public Radio

Parsing The Press: How Podcasts Can Nourish Your Appetite For News

Mar 11, 2021

Podcasts — and their listener numbers — have exploded in recent years, and Montana is leading the way with several nationally-recognized podcasts. The host and producer of one of those award-winning podcasts, Nora Saks, joins Gwen and Sally to talk about this popular new form of storytelling.

Listen now on Parsing the Press, a weekly look at how the news is reported, with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk It wasn't that long ago that podcasts were a new and relatively rare medium. And today, Forbes reports there are over 800,000 podcasts worldwide, with an audience of well over 100 million and growing.

And Montana's home to several award-winning and popular podcasts, including Amy Martin's Threshold, which won the prestigious Peabody Award; the podcast Death in the West, which has been written up in Rolling Stone; and Montana Public Radio's own award-winning Richest Hill podcast about Butte's Superfund history, which has been written up with high praise in The New Yorker magazine.

Richest Hill's producer and host Nora Saks is our guest today.

And Nora, why do you think podcasts have become such a popular form of storytelling?

Nora Saks Yeah, I've been thinking about this a lot over the past few years, and I think for me as a listener, the thing that really stands out is what I would call the "on-demandness" of them, and the convenience.

You know, I as much as anyone, love gathering around a radio — a terrestrial radio at an assigned time — to listen to a show. But with everyone doing so many things these days, you can take them anywhere, right? Like, they're in your pocket. You can listen to podcasts whenever you want, whether that's in the kitchen or in the woods or when you're driving to Missoula.

And I think also, you know, they're a passive medium, so they lend themselves to letting you do something else while you're listening. And also, they're so niche, right? Like whether you're into Dungeons and Dragons, as one of my former colleagues was, or in my case, like, how to make radio, there's a probably a podcast, or many of them, out there for you.

Mauk You know, I listen to a podcast when I'm doing something else, like going for a walk or driving somewhere, because it's something that I can do and multitask. And that's great.

Podcasts are, for radio journalists, just basically a long-form radio documentary. But more and more print journalists are also now doing podcasts, Gwen. How hard a transition is that for print folks, or is that something they're embracing because it's new and fun?

Gwen Florio Well newspapers, especially the big national papers, have been embracing them for a while: the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times all have numerous podcasts.

But what you're seeing more now is the local newspapers having them. Lee Enterprises has one called the Big Sky Lede, and I talked to Seaborn Larson with Lee's Capitol Bureau about that transition. And he said with print, obviously, you have room to run with a story, was how he put it, you can write to length. But with a podcast, you're editing down a script or an outline to its basic, most important elements. He says he's really been enjoying it.

Mauk Well, there's plenty of data showing our attention spans are shrinking, and I can witness that myself. But podcasts, Nora, they require sustained attention. How do you explain that contradiction that our attention spans are shrinking, but we're listening to long-form audio sometimes?

Saks Yeah, there does seem to be a paradox there. I mean, for myself, with the glut of information and media sources, I've become more and more choosy about what I read or watch or listen to. And I think with the specificity of podcasts out there, you know, you do have that choice and you are choosing what comes into your ears.

And for me, the really immersive, like, the narrative news podcasts that I listen to, are kind of like a portal to another world if they're produced well. And I think now more than ever that's really appealing.

And I don't know, I think of good podcasts as sort of like a nourishing homemade meal, you know, rather than buying fries on your way through town. And I think we're hungry for that. And so I think they're kind of in direct defiance to that narrative that people are just wanting clickbait and, you know, fluff. I actually think the opposite is true for a lot of us, and podcasts are proof in the pudding of that.

Florio I would second that. Looking back to my experience at the Missoulian, some of our best-read stories were some of our longest and most in-depth stories.

And I think, as Nora said, that that trend toward both listening and listening to and reading stories like that has to do with the quality of the storytelling. I think people are hungry for that and if, as Nora said, you take them into that different world so that everything else around them vanishes, that's really valuable.

Mauk Following that up, Nora, what are the elements that make a podcast worth listening to versus one that is not worth your time?

Saks For me, high production value — which means something sounds good — is essential. Like, if something is crude in this day and age or, you know, fuzzy, or just sounds like it was made in a basement, I'm going to be likely not to listen to it.

I think a compelling host or personality, depending on the format, is pretty important. You know, there's some really good topics and stories out there but if there isn't someone who you like having in your ears and in your home, you're probably not going to want to listen.

And then, I mean, solid reporting is so essential, and I think we're seeing that with the recent implosions with New York Times'Caliphate and Gimlet's Reply All. There has to be reporting that you can trust and stand by. If you find out later that, you know, oh the team just kind of got swayed by this sexy story and then later on, a lot of it wasn't true or was really blind — that's going to be a big letdown.

So for me, good audio production quality, some really good characters — whether they're hosts or the subjects — and really solid, trustworthy reporting are kind of my essentials.

Mauk I think one of the things I love about Richest Hill, Nora, that you've produced, is how many authentic Montana voices are in that series. I think that's something else people want to hear; they want to hear people like themselves, right?

Saks Definitely. And podcasts in the longer form or the serialized format that many of them take — you know, they let me as a journalist kind of continue to chip away at something like Butte's mining history and Superfund cleanup, and bring in more voices than you would typically hear in a short news feature or news spot.

And you really ... you know, I think the best ones, or the ones that I enjoy the most, really give you a sense of place, and that's really what we tried to do with Richest Hill in Butte by bringing in a lot of really important Butte locals.

Florio Nora put up a fairly intriguing post on social media recently about her plans for this coming summer, and I really want to hear about them.

Saks Sure. I mean, after finishing Richest Hill's 10 episodes — which took a couple of years — it felt really good to wrap up that project. And I feel like I was just totally bitten and paralyzed by the narrative bug, you know, like there's really nothing else I want to do. So I'm going to be going back to a school I attended called the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, which is based in Portland, Maine, and teaching a brand new course which is all about podcasting and helping folks who already have some radio experience learn how to tell a serialized story.

And so as a group, as a class, we're going to be producing a show together. About what, I'm not sure yet. Hopefully the class will have some input, but it's going to be something Maine-based and something really collaborative. And I'm really looking forward to that because I'll get to play sort of an editor and executive producer role, which will be new for me.

Mauk Do you both think podcasting is here to stay and going to continue to grow in popularity, or is something else new and exciting going to take its place down the road? What do you think?

Florio I do, and again I think it goes back to that storytelling value. I resisted listening for a long time because I thought, "I don't have the time for this. I'm so busy," all the excuses, until actually Richest Hill — thank you, Nora — is what sucked me in. And now I listen to several.

Saks That is so gratifying to hear. I definitely think podcasts are here to stay. We're in what Nick Quah, who writes an industry newsletter called Hot Pod, is calling the era of big podcasting, which he dates back to a couple of years ago. And we're seeing lots more advertising money come in, Hollywood getting on board.

I think we might see changes like perhaps paywalls in the future, or some filtering of the saturation, but I mean, this has been just growing and growing since the early 2000s, if not before. And, you know, with people's lifestyles changing, I don't see this going away anytime soon.

Mauk Personally, as an old radio hound, I think it's tremendous that podcasting has taught people how to listen again. Nora and Gwen, thank you.

Saks Thank you so much.

Florio Thanks so much.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.