Lauren Ober on diving deep into the world of podcasts with ‘The Big Listen’

Print More

A radio show about podcasts? The idea might sound crazy, but there are a few such shows out there, and one is The Big Listen from WAMU and NPR. Hosted by Lauren Ober, the show strikes a balance between being a “best of podcasting” complication show and an industry-insider talk show, like On The Media or Current’s own podcast The Pub. Ober recently appeared on The Pub to talk with our podcast host about hosting a show about podcasts. If you’re not dizzy yet from all the meta, keep reading.

Lauren Ober: The general trajectory of my career is that years and years and years ago I decided I wanted to be a print reporter. I went to grad school because I didn’t know any reporters. My parents were a librarian and a lawyer; I didn’t know anybody who worked in media. I didn’t know how to get into it. So I went to grad school and got a degree in print journalism, which, don’t ever do. I’m just saying, it’s not worth it. … I think there are many ways of getting to this place, but I took a print media route. I worked in small newspapers and medium-sized newspapers for a while. Then I went to the Transom Story Workshop in 2012, run by Rob Rosenthal and the folks at Transom.org, and learned how to make radio, which was always a love of mine. I was a public radio kid from early on in my youth. I would wake up to it every morning, and then I had started listening to podcasts — like the early days of Planet Money and Snap Judgment. I really loved Slate’s DoubleX Gabfests with Hanna Rosin, and I wanted to know how to do that.

Kara Frame / NPR

Ober

So I went to Transom and learned, and then moved to Washington, D.C., to take a print job. While I was doing that, I figured, “Well, I’ll just make a couple of radio stories on the side.” I did that and then I found that I can make a living freelancing and doing a lot of audio. I worked as an independent producer for a while and then finally got a part-time job at WAMU, the NPR station here in the nation’s capital, and worked on a newsmagazine called Metro Connection; it no longer exists, but I worked there for a while. When that show ended, my boss said, “Oh, what are you interested in doing?” On a whim I just said, “Maybe I want to host a show some time.” But I didn’t think that that would be, like, three months from the time I said it.

Our new chief of content here at WAMU, Andi McDaniel, very creative young spark, said, “Hey, I want to try some new content ideas and get some wins under our belt in terms of new programming. I have this idea, it would kind of be like a DJ set for podcasts. You want to try it?” Producer Jacob Fenston and I took her idea and then inverted it, turned it around and produced The Big Listen, which we piloted at WAMU in January of 2016, and then in October 2016 we launched with NPR. They acquired the show, and now we are a co-branded NPR/WAMU operation.

Adam Ragusea, Current: How many stations are you on?

Ober: I don’t know. I should know the answer to that. We picked up a bunch in the beginning, and we’re trying to sell the concept to public radio stations. Some of them are thinking, “Well, why do I want to showcase our competition?” I would argue that podcasts are not in fact competition for public radio; they are enhancing people’s understanding of the audio medium and increasing people’s interest in the medium, especially when public radio stations have their own podcasts.

So, yeah, we’re on a bunch of stations all around the country, but we’re working on educating other folks about what we do and the types of folks that we have on the show. It certainly isn’t like some inside-baseball industry talk, “Here’s how to make a podcast.” It’s actually celebrities and producers and interesting other folks who are doing things that are podcast-adjacent that we feature on the show. It’s a grab bag with podcasts as the umbrella.

Current: Our friend John Moe — you know John Moe, right?

Ober: Yeah, he was on the show. We talked about [Moe’s podcast] The Hilarious World of Depression.

Current: Excellent, excellent show he’s doing, great, all about mental illness, his own experience with it.

Ober: Right, but from a funny perspective.

Current: Because he’s a funny guy. So [last year] he wrote this mock think piece about the future of public radio, and I helped him adapt it into a radio version for this show. He has a line in it that made me think of you.

Ober: It was so real, in fact, we invited him on the show to talk about his show and made it super super ultra meta.

Current: You’re on my show, talking about your show, where you talked about his show.

Ober: I know, I can’t even follow all the threads there. I would be the first to admit that the concept on its face seems a little bit sort of navel-gazey, but also, why would public radio want to delve into podcasts? But it’s all part of a piece, and of course podcasts make sense to go on the radio, because it’s audio, and why shouldn’t we showcase all of the amazing things that are happening in audio? There are so many.

Current: The show concept of a radio show about podcasts is not as unprecedented as it may seem. An analog that comes to mind is Siskel & Ebert, a TV show about the movies.

Ober: Right. Or the New York Times Book Review also is a print product about print. I mean, what’s a TV show about TV shows? The TV Guide Channel, I guess.

Current: I suppose the difference between what you’re doing and what the book review does is that The Big Listen is not critical. It’s interrogative, but it’s not critical.

Ober: Right, and that is not an interest of ours, because you can figure out for yourself if you like this person, if you like their material. We don’t need to tell you, and I’m not interested in telling you all the things that I like or don’t like because we’d end up doing three shows because I only like, like, three things.

Current: What are those three things? Dude, I’m right there with you. One of the hardest things about my job is that I have to be constantly aware of all kinds of shows and different things going on in the world of audio and journalism and stuff like that, but I’m such a creature of habit. I have really, like, two things I want to listen to.

Ober: That’s how I am, too. First of all, I don’t have a ton of time to listen for fun, and when I get into the car on a long road trip like I’m more apt these days to put on a very long Spotify playlist or something. But when I do feel like I want to listen to a podcast, I love Reveal, I love investigative journalism, I think they do a fantastic job. I listen to that. I listen to The Daily every single day when I walk my dog. That’s my morning routine: get up, feed the dog, go for a walk, listen to The Daily, come back, eat my breakfast.

Axelrod

I like The Axe Files with David Axelrod, so if he’s talking to somebody interesting I’ll hop on board with that. A friend of mine called him “a human Xanax.” I told David Axelrod that when he came on the show, and he loved it because he does have this very soothing way about him. I love Ronna & Beverly from Earwolf; I think they’re hilarious. I love their comedy, and improv isn’t generally my thing, but I find them to be so outrageous and ridiculous and sometimes you just need that because now, because contemporary times.

I’ll pop in here the folks who do By The Book from Panoply. I think it’s a really clever idea and I love the idea that they’re taking deep dives into self-help books. It’s so masochistic and weird and delightful. When I need a little bit of comedy right now, 2 Dope Queens, of course.

I listen to a bunch of shows that my friends produce when they have something out. But generally I am a consumer for work and not necessarily pleasure, which is the dirty little secret of this job — which I am happy to reveal to you now.

Current: Whom do you feel like you’re serving?

Ober: I don’t need to guess who we’re serving because we have listener information. We are surveying both millennials and their parents. We have a huge listenership terrestrially that are over 55 who listen regularly. We get lots of mail from folks who say, “I never listen to a podcast, but I love your show,” or “I would never listen to a podcast, but I love knowing what is out there.”

And then we get younger people who are podcast-obsessives who always want to know what there is to listen to. I got an email from somebody recently who said, “I can’t keep up with all the podcasts that you guys profile and recommend because I want to listen to all of them.” I think we’re serving people both who love the medium, who love podcasts, who want deep dives into what’s happening. They want to know what the latest and greatest is, they want to know who’s out there making interesting stuff they’ve never heard of. But then we’re also serving the people who just want to hear really great conversation about art, about music, about politics — which are all topics that we cover vis-à-vis podcasting.

So I’d say we’re both teaching public radio listeners about podcasting, but then we’re also letting public radio listeners perhaps who are younger know that, “Hey, public radio hears you. We know you like podcasts, we know you like on-demand audio, and we are here for you.”

Current: Let’s get to a clip. What’s one of your favorite segments you’ve done lately?

Ober: It really tickled me to talk to LeVar Burton, who was on my TV as a kid. I couldn’t believe what good fortune! My 6-year-old, 7-year-old self was like, “Why do you get to talk to LeVar Burton? I can’t believe it.” He’s got a podcast; it’s called LeVar Burton Reads, and it’s him reading short stories.

Current: Oh my god, I’m so jealous. LeVar Burton: He is the best. Let me ask you this, Lauren: When WAMU first started talking about your show publicly, what I envisioned it being, or what I thought it was going to be, was more of an anthology show, something like [the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s] Re:Sound, where you grab the three best pieces from the podcasting system that you heard in the last week and put them into a show. You’d be essentially stealing content and getting free great stories to put on the radio, but the producers would be quite happy with it because you’d be promoting their podcast and everyone would be happy.

That’s not the show that you’ve ended up creating, Lauren. You are interviewing the creators, and you’re listening to some of their work, and sometimes listening to quite extended portions of their work. But it’s not an anthology show. I think it’s great: A., I just think it’s a good show; and B., I applaud the ambition of it, that it’s not going for the easy thing. But there have been times, I will admit, where I thought the easy thing actually is the thing that’s called for. Not you personally, Lauren, but all the institutional players — WAMU and NPR, who are behind the show — maybe you guys are being a little overly ambitious. Maybe the thing that would serve the mission of the show better would be to simply anthologize some great podcast material.

Ober: I guess one could be a little less ambitious, but then what fun would that be, frankly?

Current: The great stuff that no one is hearing, the discoverability problem, is horrible. This is a super-easy way to fix it. Just play people three great things.

Current: Absolutely. But what you’re getting from our show is you get to hear a little bit from the actual shows, but then you get to hear the deeper context behind them, and you get to hear from the people who are making them. I find, as a listener, that that could be potentially more valuable, because I know that if something is piquing my interest, I can go and find the content. But I can’t always go and hear from the people who are making it.

Gage Skidmore

Gillian Jacobs

Recently we had on the actress Gillian Jacobs from Netflix’s Love and Community. She’s just a podcast-lover, and we had her on telling us what she was really into and why she loved podcasts, and we got all of her recommendations. It was a really fun conversation about her and her work and her interests. I found that a lot of celebrity folks really enjoy coming on and talking about the things that they like, as opposed to the work that they are doing.

You get to hear that, but then you get to hear deeper dives with makers, and we get to hear their process. We had Invisibilia’s Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel on, and they talked to us about working together — they’re best friends, but how do they bounce ideas off of each other? How do they craft the stories? If you’re a fan of the show, you already have found it because it’s always in the iTunes top 50. This is a deeper look.

Now there are shows out there that take the DJ set list approach, and they’re great. One is KALW’s The Spot with Ashleyanne Krigbaum. For her market and for her audience, that totally works. For our audience, a conversation, that sort of grab bag works. Plus we get to do some fun segments, and we get to have a variety of people on the show talking about their thing.

Current: You have for almost two years now basically listened to other people’s shows for a living, like scanning for good stuff. I wonder if you have gleaned some lessons from that. You’re just in a really, really great vantage point. What are you hearing that’s good? What are you hearing that sucks? What are you hearing that people are doing way too much of? What are they doing way too little of?

Ober: If I calculated just the shows that we featured on our show, we’re looking at close to 200 shows. I listen to at least three episodes of every show that we end up profiling, but often much more. We’re getting into the thousand territory of episodes that I have listened to, and I take it very seriously.

But what I have sort of figured out is there are a couple of bucket areas that are very popular. This is no surprise. True crime is very popular. But I have found that I, as a listener, like when true crime has a deeper context, has a deeper meaning. Why am I listening to this? I don’t want to listen to crime for crime’s sake. I want to get a bigger picture. A show like In the Dark from [American Public Media] did a great job, where you actually got so much more of the story around the missing and exploited children, and how laws were developed because of this one particular case that they profile. The picture as much fuller, as opposed to “White lady missing, let’s go try to track her down.” I’m sorry for people who are victims and survivors of crimes, and obviously there’s something in our human nature — we love hearing those stories — but at some point I want it to resonate in a deeper way for me. That’s one area that I see a lot of.

And the pop culture hot takes, of course. I think there’s some low-hanging fruit. There are people who do it great. The Read, Crissle and Kid Fury, their takes on pop culture are ones that that we need to hear. But then there are a lot of folks who sit down with their friends and they’re like, “We’re going to talk about pop culture,” and then it’s just random people’s impressions of what’s happening in the world. If you have some expertise, or if you have an incredible personality, then I want to hear from you, but … Same with four guys chatting about dot dot dot. It could be sports or politics or whatever.

Current: “Guys” being the key word there.

Ober: But when people have a point of view and expertise, that really makes them people you want to hear from, where they’re uniquely positioned. Like the Pod Save America folks. They came out of politics, they came out of the Obama administration, and so they have a very particular point of view that makes what they have to offer really interesting.

But there are lots of other, and I would say a lot of media companies right now, everyone has to have podcasts in their stable of offerings. So they throw up a star, or they throw up one of their best writers, or their best pundits or whatever, and they’re like, “OK, now you have a podcast,” and the podcast isn’t necessarily a value-add. It might bring people in who are loyal to that person, who are interested in what that person has to say, but in terms of the content they’re offering or the ways in which they’re doing it, they fall a little short in my estimation in the creativity realm. It’s like little segment, little segment, meaty big segment, and then a little sign-off at the end. They can be really formulaic, and I would just like to see a little bit more effort into planning the structure of them, or what is the value for the listener? Or not treating podcasts as an afterthought but as an actual valuable medium to get out your point of view.

Part of the problem is that this medium has exploded, and we’re treating it as a monolith still. But we don’t treat moving pictures as a monolith. All movies are not created equal, and documentaries are not judged against features, are not judged against short films. I wonder if we’ll end up in a place where we’ll be talking about different aspects of the medium, and the medium may even have a name-change. Who knows if we’ll be even using the word “podcast” in 10 years, if it’ll be something totally different. Certainly Audible doesn’t. They won’t ever even say that what they produce is a podcast. It’s like an “audio show” or something.

Current: Are there show categories, or potential show categories, that you think are presently underexploited?

Ober: Yes, totally. I think about this a lot. One thing I really pride myself on, and really push our team to achieve, is having the greatest number of people on the show representing the most variety that’s out there. I want to capture the breadth of who’s making what out there. There are so many people making so many interesting things, and there are a couple voices or genres that I would say are missing.

I don’t hear a lot from the very old and the very young. I don’t hear a lot from people who are not middle class, and there are obvious reasons for that. Access to the mechanisms for making things; I get that. We don’t hear enough from female-identified people, even though there are women out there making podcasts. When you look at the top charts on Apple podcasts, they’re certainly not anywhere close to enough women or people of color for my taste.

I would love audio fiction that isn’t about sci-fi or spooky things. I get scared really easily, and I don’t have a great imagination, so if it’s not something that can happen in real life I can’t pay attention to it. Or if it’s going to scare me before I go to bed, I can’t listen.

I would love for there to be some more serialized narrative nonfiction featuring stories about women or where women are the lead. If you think of Making Oprah, for example, from WBEZ or First Day Back from Tally Abecassis, the second season, those are both about women. They don’t have to necessarily be made by women, but the stories that we’re hearing are narrative stories about women. You figure Missing Richard Simmons, S-Town, both seasons of Serial, frankly, are male-driven stories. They’re about men, they focus on a male experience, and I would love to see that shift a little bit.

I think the types of reality radio shows like CBC’s Sleepover, we could definitely deal with more of improvisation or verité reality radio-type shows. There are just so many infinite possibilities. There’s this really great professor at Howard University here in Washington, D.C. His name is Haile Gerima and he’s a professor of film. Howard is the only HBCU that has a graduate program in film, and he is a filmmaker from Ethiopia. He always tells his students, “Look, what is your experience in the world? Are you are you a black man from Kentucky? Then what is the story that you are positioned to tell as a black man from Kentucky? Don’t try to tell someone else’s story. Don’t try to tell the story that Hollywood is interested in. What does your story say? What are you able to tell?” He says to his students, “You know you can go to Hollywood and you can tell those stories, but on the side you can tell your grandmother’s story, because Hollywood is not interested in your grandmother’s story unless she’s driving Miss Daisy.”

I love thinking about how you can take what you know, what your expertise is in, what you are uniquely positioned to tell. How can you turn that into a show for the rest of us to consume? I know it’s not as easy as that, and I know it’s a little bit Pollyanna-ish, because at the end of the day people need to make money, and not everybody can pursue their documentary art project or whatever. But I think that just considering how can we push a little bit beyond the walls that we’ve built for ourselves in this particular medium is important.

Current: At some point here do you think you’re going to start making a show that isn’t a show about other people shows?

Ober: No, I love being totally derivative. I love being able to showcase the work that other people are doing, and I love being able to hold up voices that you don’t hear from and that you didn’t know existed and letting people know, “You know what? There are podcasts out there about this experience or that experience or just weird and wonderful things.” A show all about seltzer? Who knew that they wanted to hear that? I didn’t, but I listened to it and I found it delightful.

Current: That’s a thing? I thought you were just making that up.

Ober: No, Seltzer Death Match. Go listen to it. It’s a thing from two public radio alums [Rachel Ward and Travis Larchuk].

Current: What would be your thing? What’s the story that you can tell that no one else can that you might get around to once you stop telling stories about other people’s stories?

Ober: You’re putting me on the spot here. You’re assuming that I think about myself and not the show 100 percent of the time.

Current: How dare I?

Ober: I definitely have some pet projects. I’m working on a book proposal right now. I have a particular interest in people who are verbose and people who talk a lot. I am a person who talks a lot. It has gotten me into a lot of trouble in my life, as you know, and I’m interested in extroversion and people who are chatty. I’m not suggesting for a second that that makes a good radio show, but it is something that in my spare time I think about.

Also in my spare time I think a lot about my very bad dog who I have and ways in which I can get him to be better and not spend a bazillion dollars. Yeah, but I think right now I’m pretty happy promoting other people’s work and getting to have really great conversations with people who have very interesting things to say. I find myself in a very fortunate position.