On International Podcast Day, a look at what makes the medium so special

A microphone and headphones. (via Getty Images)
A microphone and headphones. (via Getty Images)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from WBUR's Saturday morning newsletter, The Weekender. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, sign up here

Today is International Podcast Day!

You might think of podcasts as radio’s little sibling, but there’s no doubt they have had a big impact on our collective listening habits ever since people began to debate what to call this downloadable form of “online radio.” Hit true crime podcasts like Serial ignited the public’s interest in years-old murder convictions, while others showcased the medium’s ability to turn amateurs into influence-wielding celebrities — for better or worse. Whether you’re looking for thoughtful stories, financial advice, dating tips or friendly banter, there’s probably a few (or 15) podcasts out there for you.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re into the whole podcast thing here at WBUR. We have the mainstays, like our daily news podcast The Common and subculture-searching Endless Thread, which dives every week into annals of the modern day Wild West known as the internet. We also have short-run podcasts — the latest addition to the bunch being The Gun Machine, a look at the gun industry’s little-known origin story produced in partnership with The Trace. (The first episode drops Wednesday.)

These podcasts have filled the silent gaps in our days — that time spent doing dishes or sitting on the bus. Maybe you have even formed a “listening club” with your friends (or folks in a Reddit thread.)

In recognition of this semi-holiday, I reached out to some of WBUR’s podcast hosts and producers to learn more about what makes the podcast medium meaningful to them, and hear a few of their favorite production moments.

What makes the podcast format unique to you?

Darryl C. Murphy, host of The Common“Podcasts are a great way to build and maintain communities. There’s a low barrier to entry for both the creator and listener. [And] there’s a podcast for everyone, pretty much. If there isn’t a podcast for someone, they can make it.”

Amory Sivertson, co-host of Endless Thread: “As a listener, podcasts are a companion for me. I listen in the car, while I’m cleaning my house, going for a run, etc. So as a podcast maker, I take the role of companion seriously. We’re keeping people company and hopefully making the mundane more fun, interesting, and maybe even inspiring. You don’t have to make time for podcasts, they just make the things you’re already doing better.”

Katelyn Harrop, producer for The Common“In a podcast, the reporting or interview process and journey are often just as important as the destination. I love how the format allows listeners to come along on the storytelling journey, and allow guests and sources to tell their own stories, in their own words. I think this offers a really personal and powerful energy that’s unique to the medium.”

Ben Brock Johnson, co-host of Endless Thread: “Anna Sale, the host of Death Sex and Money, once told me that starting a podcast is like starting a secret club. I love that. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the podcast medium is that it’s opt-in for the listener. Anyone who listens to a show has purposefully chosen to do that. That gives creators a crucial — though limited — bit of capital. It gives some time and flexibility in laying out the story. This means that podcasts can often be much more creative in their presentation than other audio mediums, where the expectation isn’t just a good story, but a reason or a headline or something. With podcasts, it’s the storytelling that matters. And, the audience is effectively an audience of a bunch of single listeners — you’re not broadcasting to a bunch of people all at once really, you’re talking to each person in a more intimate way. That really changes the way podcasters talk to their listeners, and I really like that.”

What has been one of your favorite host moments or production highlights?

Murphy: “[One] highlight I remember from The Common‘s early days is when Beth Healy came on to talk about title insurance for homes. At first, the topic didn’t seem that interesting. But as we got into the conversation, I was captivated. That episode exemplifies what The Common is all about: making the very important (but sometimes seemingly boring) news interesting through casual back-and-forth. We strive to make the news approachable.”

Sivertson: “I will remember the experience of driving up to a mountain of dishware in the woods until the day I die. (“A mountain of dishware?” you say? Listen to our two-parter “We Want Plates!” and “Pile of Crockery“). My favorite moments are usually in the field, when [Ben and I] bring the listener along for an adventure and they get to hear us thinking on our feet or our genuine awe for what we’re discovering and learning about, [getting] a real window into [our] relationship as co-hosts.”

Frannie Monahan, producer for The Common: “Most recently, I loved putting together our episode on WBUR’s investigation into the Massachusetts public housing system. It’s a funny story — after we finished editing the show for the next day, the state announced that it would try to address the issues Todd Wallack had reported on in his story (true journalistic impact). So we had to update the episode after hours so it would be accurate the following morning at 5 a.m. Problem is, I was actually getting a tattoo at the time of the update and had to join an emergency work call from the tattoo parlor while the artist was working on me. [The episode] turned out to be a hell of a listen!”

Harrop: “Several weeks ago, Darryl and I, along with our colleague Arielle Gray, had the opportunity to try some of the outstanding food available in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. Arielle, who lives there, took us out to eat at three of her favorite food spots in the neighborhood, and the resulting podcast was just this incredibly sound-rich tour of the local food scene that really makes the listener feel like they’re present, trying the food with us. Not only was it fun to try some amazing dishes, figuring out the best way to to guide the listener through the story (I had to cut about three and a half hours of tape down to 13 minutes!) was an exciting challenge and resulted in a piece that offered listeners a strong, and delicious, sense of place.”

Lastly, I couldn’t end this International Podcast Day newsletter without including a few recommendations from the newsroom. Here are some of the podcasts our staff have been tuned into.

  • Under the Influence — Steve Brown, senior reporter/anchor
  • Foretold — Sharon Brody, Weekend Edition anchor
  • Longform — Cloe Axelson, senior editor for Cognoscenti
  • Hello, Nature — Jay Feinstein, senior producer for Podcasts & Business Partnerships

P.S. — The phrase “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” is thrown around a lot, but it’s the right phrase for Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! fans today. When the show got its start on NPR, they created some varsity jackets for the staff. We recently found three of them in storage and we’re giving you a chance to get your hands on one. Make a gift by noon today for your chance to win!


Headshot of Hanna Ali

Hanna Ali Associate Producer
Hanna Ali is an associate producer for newsletters at WBUR.



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