Interview Feature: Sam Evans-Brown and the Logic of Podcasting
Journalist Sam Evans-Brown visited Dartmouth College this past February to lecture about his career at the New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) and his most recent work developing his own podcast, Outside/In.
During his visit to the college, the Dartmouth Business Journal sat down with Mr. Evans-Brown to discuss the benefits of using podcasts as a medium for raising issue awareness. In our conversation, he reflects on journalistic standards, the importance of balancing perspective and the ways in which stylistic changes can engage an audience.
But Mr. Evans-Browns’ methods are not all by-the-book. For stories that most people may find boring, he uses creative ploys such as scripted sketches and audio voice-overs to gain the audience’s attention, while managing to not lose the essence of the subject.
We finally shift focus to talk about environmental journalism, which is Mr. Evans-Brown’s main area of interest. More than any other area of reporting, he asserts, is his colorful brand of journalism most effective. As he sees it, podcasting is the perfect match for crafting the perfect story.
How did you get started at freelance writing and end up at NHPR?
I did student journalism my whole life, going back to my middle school paper and throughout college. I did it as an outlet for writing, rather than as journalism, because I loved writing and thought that was what I wanted to do. So when I joke that I tripped and fell into journalism, it’s really true because I saw it as something that I could be doing in order to ensure my resume wasn’t getting stale or look like I wasn’t keeping up. It is those freelance stories that got me my full time job. I started off by calling the news director of NHPR and asked him what it would take and he told me the equipment they used. So I bought them off eBay, used, and I started pitching stories, utilizing the equipment. In one email I would pitch three stories and they'd all be rejected. Once you do this a number of times, you sort of figure out what you're interested in and what the news agency is interested in. Through this process of narrowing down story ideas, I figured out a way to pitch acceptable stories for NHPR and that lead to me getting more stories to them. Over time you become efficient in this process.
How did you get started in Outside/In, your podcast?
The podcast was not my idea but it is now my show. It was handed to me as a top-down initiative. Our president and CEO thought we needed an environmental show, and at the time I was the environmental reporter for NHPR. What really changed is how our staff made it our own. The original idea was a one-hour, weekly radio show [in which] we interview people. Instead of taking the idea we were handed and executing it, we eventually turned to making content that is produced, where we craft a story and take time for interviews, scripting, and try to make compelling content. An interview show is going to be very challenging because advocates for environmental issues have a hard time telling their stories so we try to balance the perspectives we get through interviews.
How was the transition like from being a reporter to podcast host?
When I was a reporter, I was also crafting audio stories. One of the benefits of working at a small station is that you are doing a little bit of everything. You have to learn how to write, report, learn audio skills, etc. The big change was one of tone and one of style — it really was dramatic and I struggled at first. We were fortunate that we took a year to develop the show. At first the editorial staff that I was put with didn’t have a news background. They were from a creative side, putting together arts and culture stories, etc. The first scripts I was handing in were too boring or dry for them. They said I needed to make the stories matter, give them a story line, give them character. I struggled for the first year with the style because I had a more news background and lacked what they were looking for. They wanted that journalism to be listened to by the most number of people so they were interested in crafting a story that people would care about, so I had to change a lot of the ways I was used to reporting information, in order to produce a well scripted audio news story.
What and how long is the process of scripting a story to its final version as a podcast?
The time it takes ranges. Some are shorter, but none of them are less than a week and the ones that are turned around in a week are the work by several people hustling together. The standard story will probably include five hours of audio, so five one-hour interviews, and roughly a month of production time. We have a couple of strategies for how we do this while also producing a new story every two weeks. One, we have more than one person contributing at a time. There are stories that are made by me, and stories made by a coworker, or a combination of many staff members. We also have a segment that we will pull out of the box whenever we need a life line, like when approaching a deadline. We just take listener questions and we will quickly research the answer and call in experts to answer the questions. Not everything is a beautifully crafted radio show — some of these life-line shows are fun, curiosity driven, and full of jokes.
How has producing a podcast changed your perspectives on journalism?
Creating the right response from a listener is difficult to get from a script. You are manipulating your audience through the words and the sounds you put out in the podcast. As a journalist, you deploy those tools. If you believe that you're capable of presenting a story as a journalist in the most fair fashion, then you should be able to wield these other tools as well. Picking the right music and sounds is probably the most time consuming part of a podcast process! But you have to be careful of deploying such tools, at the same time not abusing your power as a journalist to manipulate listeners. When you come into journalism from the outside, you are making choices, mainly of omission and others of inclusion. I strive to land in a place where I feel comfortable and honest, and that’s going to be different for every person.
How do you represent yourself as a journalist/reporter to vulnerable communities like those impacted by Hydro-Quebec?
There is to a point an exploitative nature to journalism because you are talking to people whose story is advancing your aim and your aim, even if that aim is to tell people the truth. You might also be hoping that lots of people will listen and that advertisers will buy spots on your programming so that it can sustain itself. It’s something that I've tried to keep my eyes open to and it’s that process of trying to be ever more transparent with the people I interview. Because people will come to the press with inflated expectations of what it will mean to have their story covered, they are hoping that things will change because you do a story about them. I think it’s important to be up front with them in the beginning that it’s not necessarily the case that your story will be going to be important enough to sway the people in power and they might face backlash for appearing in the story. So, just being 100% up front with people, telling them what is the story you are hoping to craft and what your angle is so that they're not surprised, has been an important aspect of my career.
Any podcast recommendations?
I’m a voracious listener to a lot of podcasts, ranging from the incredibly boring and nerdy stuff, like people talking about energy issues. Those are great because they keep you sharp about topics you care about and ensures you are building a certain expertise in it. Aside from the nerdy stuff, I also like shows such as Love + Radio, The Heart, Radio Diaries, that are largely just human stories; they might not be about things that are incredibly important but rather more personal. I pay attention to those because they are examples of great craft in audio which you can learn from. I also listen to the main shows that a lot of people listen to like Radiolab, Freakanomics, Planet Money. I personally prefer shows that are scripted and produced as opposed to shows that are just panel shows, with smart people sitting around talking. I don’t mind listening to people talking but because we are making a show that’s scripted and produced, I am much more interested in seeing what people do in this medium.
Powerline is produced by Evans-Brown and colleague Hannah McCarthy. The 4-part series discusses the hydroelectric company Hydro-Quebec’s plans and impacts on the affected communities. Listeners can tune in at http://outsideinradio.org/powerline/ .
The length of this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.