Stories made of sound: Yale alumni explore the possibilities of podcasting
“There is something delicious and intuitive about storytelling that relies only on sound,” says Bonnie Antosh ’13 B.A., playwright and Shakespearean actor who works as literary manager for the live theater podcast “Playing on Air.” Each episode features a short play performed in its entirety by top actors, followed by an interview with the playwright, including Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and Doug Wright ’85 B.A., who won the Pulitzer for his play “I Am My Own Wife.”
“What I find compelling,” Antosh says, “is the possibility of building an entire world out of language.” She adds that “Playing on Air” is expanding the audience for theater, reaching people “who would never attend a live performance.” Antosh says Yale’s holistic approach to theater education provided important insights. “You definitely come to understand running a company on a condensed timeline,” she says, “and you gain an appreciation of the whole process and curiosity about different types of artistry.”
Antosh is one of many Yale alumni working on podcasts, using the medium to tell stories in new ways. Others include Brian Reed ’07 B.A., a senior producer at “This American Life” and host of the popular podcast “S-Town”; Krista Tippett ’94 M.Div., host of “On Being,” which explores questions of meaning; Wesley Morris ’97 B.A., who co-hosts “Still Processing” on race and culture; Michael Barbaro ’02 B.A., host of The New York Times daily news podcast, “The Daily”; and Martine Powers ’11 B.A. who hosts The Washington Post daily news podcast, “Post Reports.”
Where it all began
Many of the alumni interviewed point to the launch of the investigative podcast “Serial” as the moment when they first realized podcasting’s potential. The series, launched in October 2014, revisited the murder of a Baltimore high school student, rose to number-one on iTunes, and brought new attention to how to use the format to its fullest potential.
“’Serial’ got me hooked on podcasts,” says Sally Helm ’14 B.A., a producer on the NPR economics podcast, “Planet Money.” Once she started listening, she says, Helm saw podcasting as a way to combine her love for improv and storytelling. She was a member of the longform improv group The Purple Crayon at Yale and says, “At our improv shows, I learned to be natural in an unnatural setting.”
As a podcast producer, Helm takes stories from research and discovery to recording, editing, and mixing. She likes delving into esoteric topics like modern monetary theory, and answering less obvious questions, like what happens when someone is found responsible for starting a wildfire — a topic near to her heart as a California native. And she relies on her improv skills to pull all the elements together. “To edit radio, you need to hear the story and pick out the architecture,” Helm says. “That’s also something I practiced onstage as an improvisor.”
Telling necessary stories
Mark Oppenheimer ’96 B.A., ’99 M.A./M.Phil., ’03 Ph.D. first became excited about storytelling in an undergraduate advanced nonfiction class he took from the novelist Roger Stone, author of “Dog Soldiers” and “A Flag for Sunrise.” “I learned a tremendous amount,” Oppenheimer recalls. “He exposed me to writers like Joan Didion, John McPhee, and Bill Barich. It was really about the potential of nonfiction storytelling.” Now Oppenheimer is the co-host of a weekly podcast called “Unorthodox,” produced by Tablet magazine, which explores Judaism in the 21st century. The hosts interview Jewish and Gentile performers, politicians, writers, and others – delving into everything from antisemitism, to matchmaking, to the Amazon TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Oppenheimer says there’s a lot of room in podcasting – and media in general – for more examination of religious life.
“Mainstream media in America doesn’t know how to handle religion,” Oppenheimer says. He says “Unorthodox” is one of the few places to discover stories about both secular and orthodox Jews. “In American Jewry, these are groups that have very little contact,” he says. Two years ago, Oppenheimer taught a podcasting course at Yale, and he currently teaches a creative writing course called “Daily Themes.”
Animals feature prominently in American culture, from YouTube videos to dog memoirs, but Viveca Morris ’15 B.A. ’19 M.E.M./M.B.A. and Lindsay Stern ’23 Ph.D. saw an opportunity to have a deeper conversation in a podcast called “When We Talk About Animals.” In interviews with philosophers, scientists, film directors, and other leading thinkers, the podcast explores topics like the possibilities of technological intervention in the animal world, what the octopus can teach us about consciousness, and the hidden costs of factory farming. Stern is an emerging fiction writer pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature, whose debut novel, “The Study of Animal Languages,” will be released on Feb. 19 and has already garnered much critical acclaim. Morris is pursuing a joint degree from the Schools of Management and of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which is focused on how business, law, and policy can be used as levers to build a more humane world for animals and people. The met in an “Animal Law” class taught by Doug Kysar, deputy dean and the Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law, and Jon Lovvorn, visiting lecturer in law and chief counsel of the Humane Society of the United States.
“The class brought together people from all parts of Yale to explore some of the most morally pressing issues of our time,” Morris says. She adds that she and Stern wanted to create a space to “feature guests whose work furthers human understanding of what animals think and feel, and challenges how we treat other animals.” They record and edit the episodes at the Yale Broadcast Studio.
A recent announcement by Spotify that it plans to spend up to $500 million on podcast acquisitions this year confirms what many Yale alumni in podcasting have suggested – that the medium has a long way to go before it reaches saturation. In 2017, there were approximately 67 million regular podcast listeners; that’s expected to increase to 132 million by 2022. “The podcast field is still very young,” Oppenheimer says, “and there are a lot of spaces that have not yet been filled.”