Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:16:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Led by a Deep, Still Voice Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:21:00 +0000 Editor’s Note: Welcome to the newest installment of “Writing the Book,” an occasional Storyboard feature in which journalists turned authors discuss the challenges of creating their work. In this essay, freelancer and 2013 Nieman affiliate Barbara Mahany explores how she approached writing about the sometimes uncomfortable issue of spirituality in her upcoming book, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door,” which Publishers Weekly recently named one of the top 10 religion books of fall 2014. You can find the archive of “Writing the Book” here.

Barbara Mahany

Barbara Mahany

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

 The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Dont flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

high res SLOWING TIME coverIt all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

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Pearls before Breakfast, Reprised Tue, 30 Sep 2014 23:41:18 +0000 Almost anyone who loves narrative journalism or music or social experiments or who simply believes that children are wiser than adults knows the Gene Weingarten story “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

In this Washington Post magazine piece, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, Weingarten arranged for the famed violinist Joshua Bell to play incognito at the L’Enfant Plaza public transit station in Washington, D.C., during the morning rush hour. The question, as Weingarten phrased it, was this:  ”In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The answer? Well, no.  More than 1,000 people simply ignored the ethereal music in their midst; only 27 stopped. Most notable, however, was one particular observation about those who did pause, an observation that helped turn the story into a legend (one meriting its own entry on the debunker website

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, “Pearls Before Breakfast” became the subject of countless cocktail party conversations and research papers — even, according to the Post, a children’s book.

Earlier today, Bell returned to a D.C. Metro station to play, this time as part of a well-publicized effort to promote music education and his new album. Crowds thronged the main hall of Union Station to hear him; some listeners, the Post reported, had arrived two hours early to get a spot.

Bell, the newspaper’s account says, looked out upon the audience and said, “This is more like it!”

You can watch video of the original experiment here:





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“The problem of being labelled a confessionalist” Mon, 29 Sep 2014 14:14:25 +0000 If you’ve read Meghan Daum’s terrific essay in the Sept. 29 New Yorker on her decision to remain childless (one of Storyboard’s most recent weekend picks), you’ll want to take a look at the follow-up interview with Daum the magazine has posted on its website–and if you haven’t read the essay, you should. The piece, which is part of a collection due out in November, grew, in part, from a desire to push the discussion of childlessness beyond glib stereotypes, Daum says. In the interview, she talks about the broader challenges of writing about her personal life, saying:

“I never sit down to write anything personal unless I know the subject is going to go beyond my own experience and address something larger and more universal. To me, having ‘material’ for an essay means not only having something to write about but also having something interesting and original to say about whatever that might be. I’ve learned over the years that being interested in a particular subject or story does not guarantee you’ll have anything worthwhile to say about it.”

In other topics, she discusses her love of Joni Mitchell, her attraction to lesbian culture and the unexpected advantages of being a writer based on Los Angeles:

“What Los Angeles gives me as a writer (and by that I mean a writer of printed material) is a certain irrelevance. I mean that in the best possible way. Even though there are a lot of journalists and authors and other non-screenwriter types here, even though (shocker alert) most of the population doesn’t work in a creative industry at all, the city’s legacy and reputation is so steeped in Hollywood that it sometimes feels like it doesn’t matter what the rest of us do. And that can be tremendously freeing.”

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3 (Stories) for 2 (Days) Fri, 26 Sep 2014 09:03:51 +0000

Here are Storyboard’s three picks for your reading, viewing and dancing pleasure this weekend:

In an essay entitled “Difference Maker: The childless, the parentless, and the Central Sadness,” Meghan Daum writes in the Sept. 29 issue of The New Yorker about her decision not to have children and her related involvement in what she calls “kid-related do-goodism.” It’s a tricky subject but not a smudge of sentimentality or righteousness mars her keen-eyed reflection, which includes this powerful passage:

From that moment on, a third party was introduced into our marriage. It was not a corporal party but an amorphous one, a ghoulish presence that functioned as both cause and effect of the absence of a child. It had even, in the back of my mind, come to have a name. It was the Central Sadness. It collected around our marriage like soft, stinky moss. It rooted our arguments and dampened our good times. It taunted us from the sidelines of our social life (the barbecues with toddlers underfoot; a friend’s child interrupting conversations mid-sentence; the clubby comparing of notes about Ritalin and dance lessons and college tuition, which prompted us to feign interest lest we come across like overgrown children ourselves).

You rarely see a newspaper editorial cartoonist tackle a subject as personal as his childhood abuse but the Chicago Tribune’s Scott Stantis creates a moving cartoon essay about the difficult legacy of being beaten by his father. Click through the essay before reading the accompanying text draft (and try to ignore the intrusive intermittent advertisements.)

For a lighter note to start any September weekend, revisit NPR’s delightful story about the making of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.”  What makes the piece by Dan Charnas shine — aside from the music, of course — is the strength of the interviews, particularly with songwriter Allee Willis, who tells this story:

WILLIS: The kind of go-to phrase that Maurice used in every song he wrote was ba-dee-ya. Right from the beginning, he was singing, you know, ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember? Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September. And I said, we are going to change ba-dee-ya to real words, right?


WILLIS: I remember at the final vocal session pretty much being down on my knees next to him begging, please change ba-dee-ya. And finally, when it was so obvious he was not going to do it, I just said, what the [bleep] does ba-dee-ya mean? And he essentially said, who the [bleep] cares?

Now, just try to get that song out of your head.

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Finding the Tribe Thu, 11 Sep 2014 09:00:51 +0000 When Hillary Frank first started producing “The Longest Shortest Time” podcast in 2010, she was going through a rough time herself. A radio producer for more than a decade, she suffered health complications after her daughter was born and decided to take a break. She and her husband moved to a town where they knew no one. “I was itching to keep my foot in the work world, and I started working during her nap times,” Frank says. “I could podcast, because podcasting was free. I felt like I had something to say, like it was a way for me to not feel so alone in my struggles.”

She began podcasting with the same professional approach to audio as in her paid career—careful attention to sound and storytelling—and invited guests onto the show for intimate, nonjudgmental examinations of parenting. In one recent episode, an African-American mother discussed her difficulties with being frequently asked if she was her biracial son’s parent. In another, a guest tells the story of her home-based stillbirth.

“Right away strangers started e-mailing,” all of whom found the show by word of mouth, according to Frank. She now hosts two active Facebook groups, which, she says, “is the best way of communicating with my audience.”

Frank worked for free for three and a half years and produced the shows irregularly, averaging less than one a month. Still, they caught on. She launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to raise funds to produce two episodes a month for six months, and it was successful. This summer, New York Public Radio (WNYC) picked up “The Longest Shortest Time” as one of its latest official podcasts; Frank now receives funding from WNYC for her own efforts and for support staff.

Podcasting 101

Cynthia Graber talks about what goes into making a great podcast


Frank’s story is part of the remarkable resurgence of podcasting. Apple integrated podcasts into iTunes all the way back in 2005. “There was an initial hope and hype that lasted for about two years and then petered out,” says Jake Shapiro, executive director of the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a site for the distribution and licensing of public radio stories. The format didn’t work well—in part because the technology wasn’t easy to use. Consumers had to find the podcasts, subscribe to them, manage them, and then figure out how to listen to them.

Related Article
First Listen
Apple’s iTunes carries more than 250,000 podcasts. Here are a few of the best for journalists

Today, podcasting is making a comeback, in part because the technology—smartphones and audio recording programs—is easy to use. According to the Infinite Dial 2014 study, the latest from Edison Research on consumer adoption of digital media, more than 60% of the American public has a smartphone. (This increases to 80% of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.) Apps like Stitcher encourage seamless podcast listening, and websites like SoundCloud make embedding and sharing audio a snap.

The result: Thousands of podcasts are available on iTunes, with an offering for seemingly every interest—from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “StarTalk Radio” to “Common Sense” with Dan Carlin. Thirty percent of those surveyed by Edison Research had listened to a podcast at least once, up from 11% in 2006. About 39 million Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month, and of those, 20% consume six or more podcasts a week. Digital audio can reach a niche audience with a sound that inspires community and a passionate fan base. According to Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming, the network measures success for a typical radio show in the hundreds of thousands or millions of listeners. “In podcasts,” he says, “you can have what we lovingly call a tribe”—perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 engaged listeners.

Finding that tribe is essential to financial sustainability, which is ultimately what will determine whether the new wave of podcasters like Frank will have the time and funding to experiment with this form of audio storytelling.

Apple integrated podcasts into iTunes in 2005 but back then it was difficult for consumers to find, subscribe to, and figure out how to listen to them

Many popular podcasts originated via traditional public radio. “Radiolab,” created at WNYC and first aired there, gained a large international audience by podcasting its unusual mix of sound and storytelling about science-based themes. “Planet Money,” a spin-off of “This American Life,” was created entirely for digital broadcast and offers in-depth stories about economics that utilize narrative tools the creators learned from “This American Life.” Says co-creator Alex Blumberg, “You want stakes, you want it to be universal, you want moments of feeling and reflection, and you need a question going into it and through it.”

Hillary Frank, left, discusses parenting on her podcast, “The Longest Shortest Time”

Hillary Frank, left, discusses parenting on her podcast, “The Longest Shortest Time”

Podcasting could offer a potential threat to public radio, if listeners turn to audio-on-demand. That hasn’t happened yet. According to Nuzum, public radio attracts 27 million listeners a week, a number that “has held rather stable and grown slightly.” In addition, of the top 10 podcasts on iTunes as of August, five were public radio broadcast shows and a sixth was a podcast produced by WNYC.

“I think the attitude NPR has taken is to disrupt ourselves,” says Nuzum, which is why it’s producing original digital-only content. “So far as disruption goes, it’s kind of inevitable. The question is, what’s our role going to be in whatever replaces the current media experience? Our goal is to be wherever the listener wants to find us.”

Podcasting offers opportunities simply not available on traditional audio broadcasting networks. “The broadcast signal only has so many hours in the day and days in the week,” says Thomas Hjelm, executive vice president and chief digital officer of New York Public Radio. “Producing new podcasts expands and breaks apart the traditional radio schedule and allows us to produce new content in new ways that otherwise wouldn’t fit in our schedule.”

Death, Sex & Money,” a new podcast developed in-house at WNYC, fits this model. The pieces, at about 15 to 30 minutes each, are longer than would air on a more tightly edited show, and host Anna Sale interviews guests about topics, such as vasectomies and financial woes, which might be taboo in polite conversation.

Sale’s show highlights another advantage of podcasting. Public broadcasting, by its very name, has to appeal to the general public. Podcasts don’t. Hosts and guests can curse, joke, and deal with topics that might make some listeners squirm.

Online magazine Slate hosts about a dozen podcasts, each geared to a particular market or interest. Andy Bowers, executive producer and creator of Slate’s podcasts, points to a recent episode of “DoubleX Gabfest,” a show about women’s issues, which featured a long discussion of menstruation. On the “Political Gabfest,” during which three hosts chat about the latest in national and international politics, says Bowers, “They’re not going to tell you who Harry Reid is. If you don’t know, you’re not going to find this podcast interesting.”

Mike Pesca, a producer and reporter at NPR since 1997, left his most recent position as sports reporter to host a daily Slate talk show called “The Gist.” He’d long been interested in his own show, he says, and Slate offered the opportunity for the irreverent tone he hoped to create: “It’s not meant to be for everyone. ‘ATC’ [‘All Things Considered’] is meant to be for everyone. If they’re alienating the audience, they’re probably not doing something right. But if I’m not alienating a part of the audience, I’m probably not doing something right.” His podcast has already become one of Slate’s most popular offerings.

The easy familiarity with which Pesca engages both guests and listeners represents another opportunity in podcasting. Listeners seem to gravitate toward a looser, friendly, chattier tone, one in which they feel a connection with the hosts. “It’s the most intimate of mediums,” says “Planet Money” co-creator Blumberg. “It’s even more intimate than radio. Often you’re consuming it through headphones. I feel like there’s a bond that’s created.” Bowers believes this may be one reason behind the failure of The New York Times podcasts, many of which were discontinued in 2011. They focused on news, he argues, instead of perhaps the Opinion page, which might provide personalities better suited to podcasting.

Podcast listeners seem to gravitate to a looser, friendly, chattier tone, one in which they feel a connection with the hosts

Some topic-based podcasts, such as Slate’s, focus primarily on interviews and are only loosely edited. Others, like “99% Invisible,” which covers design and the built environment, created and hosted by Roman Mars, are sound-rich, tightly written and edited pieces. These take significantly more time to edit and produce. But as the success of “99% Invisible” and “Planet Money” have demonstrated, a well-produced and reported show can reach outside its niche. Each new “99% Invisible” podcast receives more than 200,000 listeners when it first airs and tens of thousands more as the weeks go on, an audience diversified well beyond the designers and architects who made up its original supporters.

On Slate’s “Political Gabfest,” hosts David Plotz, left, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson take on the news of the day

On Slate’s “Political Gabfest,” hosts David Plotz, left, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson take on the news of the day

Such fans can become passionate, willing to pay for live events and to contribute financially to a podcast’s success. “If you took the audience for all Slate podcasts, it wouldn’t equal one of the [NPR] broadcast shows that are also podcast,” says NPR’s Nuzum. “But the numbers Slate needs in order to pay for itself and to be successful are smaller.” According to Shapiro, PRX sees success at around 50,000 downloads an episode. Blumberg says to be financially viable, a new podcast will probably need to reach around 100,000 downloads per episode.

A quick look at the top podcasts on iTunes shows that hosts are overwhelmingly white and male, an imbalance perhaps explained in part by the fact that the early adopters of the form were technology enthusiasts, who also tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. Sue Schardt says that the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), which she heads, is working to increase diversity on public radio through programs such as Localore, which embeds producers at radio stations so that they can help underserved communities tell their stories. Schardt hopes podcasting can attract more women and people of color, as hosts, producers, and listeners.

The main challenges for new podcasts—past the content-generation stage—remain finding an audience and a steady source of funding. Some podcasts succeeded in reaching listeners simply by being early to the space. The science-themed “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” began in 2005, when there were few science podcasts. It remains in the top 10, reaching about 150,000 downloads for each new episode. Scientific American’s podcasts, including the weekly interview “Science Talk” and daily news offerings called “60-Second Science,” “60-Second Earth,” “60-Second Tech,” and so on, began in 2006 and remain popular. They’re also fully funded by the magazine. (Full disclosure:I podcast regularly for Scientific American’s “60-Second Science.”)

Many other news sources—including The New Yorker, Grantland, and The Economist—host a suite of podcasts. Slate offers about 12 podcasts and is considering expanding. For online news sources, the shows largely tap into their existing writers and editors, which reduces costs, and can reach a ready-made digital audience. In addition, for Slate, podcasts have been a driving force behind the newly created Slate Plus, a premium product for $5 per month, which offers ad-free listening and additional podcast content among other extras. Slate Group chairman Jacob Weisberg has said the site is profitable and Slate Plus is on track to sell 10,000 subscriptions this year.

Max Linsky, one of the hosts of the “Longform” podcast, on which writers are interviewed about their experiences and their craft, admits he and his colleagues didn’t expect anyone to listen at first. So in 2012 when the show started, they paid little attention to sound quality and engineering. But they had some major advantages. First, they hosted their podcast on the popular Longform website, which recommends new and classic nonfiction. Second, they interview famous writers, whose pieces appear on Longform and who have a passionate fan base. In terms of funding, Linsky had already worked on attracting advertisers to, so offering a podcast was a relatively simple addition.

Compared to newspapers, magazines and websites, “Podcast advertising is by far the most effective and least offensive advertising that I’ve ever encountered,” he says, because hosts introduce the ads in a conversational manner that seems to appeal to listeners.

Podcast ads have also demonstrated a higher response rate than other forms. “Advertisers love it. Listeners don’t seem to mind it at all,” says Linsky. Advertising revenue bought them professional audio equipment and pays the hosts and the audio engineer. Enthusiastic podcast listeners also drive attention to, which increases readers and thus advertising revenue on the site.

Some podcasts get financial backing from an institution, like Sale and Frank do at WNYC. Lea Thau receives about one-third to one-half the funding she needs to create the monthly “Strangers” podcast, which provides an intimate dive into people’s lives, from KCRW, a public radio station in Los Angeles. And Roman Mars began “99% Invisible” with the support of San Francisco station KALW and the American Institute of Architects. Frank, Thau, and Mars all gained a financial boost through Kickstarter campaigns.

Roman Mars works on his “99% Invisible” podcast in a shed outside his home

Roman Mars works on his “99% Invisible” podcast in a shed outside his home

“Planet Money” raised $600,000 on Kickstarter for its 2013 series on the international production chain involved in making a T-shirt. Supporters received a T-shirt for their donation. Blumberg believes this model—listeners contribute to a specific project and receive awards related to that project—could work for future campaigns. It’s one of the ways he hopes to fund his as yet unnamed podcasting network, which will begin with three shows in the first year.

His and other such networks, like Radiotopia, formed in part as a way to simultaneously solve the questions of audience and funding. The networks offer podcasts with a somewhat related sound that might appeal to the same audience. Podcast hosts may advertise each other’s shows in the network, and for some there’s a central fundraising operation.

Public radio stations are also positioning themselves as curation specialists. WNYC developed a listening app and recently added a “discover” feature. Users can plug in how much time they have and their interests, and the app generates a playlist from not only WNYC content but elsewhere, such as New Yorker and Slate podcasts, which WNYC believes will appeal to their listeners. For most podcasts, new and old, recognition on traditional public media or other popular podcasts can be make or break. “Death, Sex & Money,” for example, was featured on “This American Life,” which dramatically increased the number of early listeners.

“This is not unlike college radio stations or even the early days of public broadcasting, when the airways and the satellite system opened up,” says AIR’s Schardt: There’s a freewheeling, experimental feel to the space along with the open question about which business models work. Podcasts that find their tribe just might have the chance to answer that question.

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First Listen Thu, 11 Sep 2014 00:18:11 +0000 Graber-sidebar1


Host/Producer: Lea Thau

Through conversations about life and death, love and heartbreak, and everything in between, people share the most intimate stories about their lives.

Recommended Episode:Gay Talese: Committed Voyeur” The acclaimed narrative writer talks candidly about his relationship with his wife, Nan, and the strains that his work has put on their marriage.





Host: Phoebe Judge

Launched in January, this side project by three radio producers delivers monthly stories about crime and punishment that go beyond the typical whodunits

Recommended Episode:Dropping Like Flies” An exploration into the underworld of Venus flytrap poaching in North Carolina, from the day laborers who collect them to the medical researchers buying them




“99% Invisible”

Host: Roman Mars

Digestible narrative stories that explain some of the countless ways that design and architecture affect our lives, inform our decisions, and make the world more interesting

Recommended episode:Cover Story” From the iconic imagery of Esquire in the 1960s to the garish yellow type of supermarket tabloids today, a top-to-bottom look at what goes into a magazine cover





Hosts: Aaron Lammer, Max Linsky, and Evan Ratliff

Weekly conversations about the art of narrative nonfiction with some of the craft’s best practitioners, hosted by

Recommended episode:Episode 43: Margalit Fox” In a break from their typical subjects, Linsky interviews The New York Times obituary writer about crafting stories from the lives of the recently deceased

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Required Reading, Session Two Tue, 09 Sep 2014 20:49:58 +0000 Welcome to the second session of our discussion with narrative instructors about the stories they’re assigning students this fall. If you missed Monday’s recommendations from Alex Kotlowitz, Doug Foster and Kelley Benham French, you can read them here.

Lisa Pollak

Lisa Pollak

Lisa Pollak, who won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and worked as a producer for “This American Life” for nine years, is teaching a course called “Storytelling for the Ear” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism this semester. Here are a few of the audio pieces she’s assigning to her students:

“Take My Break, Please,” by David Segal, [This American Life.] Before David Segal reported this hilarious, cringe-inducing radio story for “This American Life,” he wrote a print version for the Washington Post. The stories share the same main characters and plot (struggling comedy act earns and loses its big break the same day) but take different approaches to the storytelling: The radio version delays the big reveal for a can’t-stop-listening-to-it payoff. In class we’ll compare the two versions and talk about what made this print story translate so well to radio.

“And Daddy Makes Three,” by Dan Savage, [This American Life.] This funny, touching radio piece — about a 6-year-old boy who doesn’t want his two dads to get married — is a great example of writing that works just as well for the ear as it does for the eye. The piece was excerpted with few changes from Savage’s book “The Commitment” and it’s a great lesson for students in how to tell entertaining, meaningful personal narratives.

“Love is a Battlefield,” Alix Spiegel, [This American Life.] This story asks the question “Can love be taught?” and does so through an intimate narrative about a boy who can’t form attachments and his parents’ efforts to help him learn love. A story like this requires extensive, thoughtful interviewing; the second half of this assignment is a recent episode of the “How Sound” podcast in which Spiegel talks in detail about the interviewing techniques she used while reporting this story.

An assistant professor at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, and host of the Gangrey podcast, in which he interviews practitioners of narrative journalism, Matt Tullis persuaded an all-star lineup to Skype into his narrative journalism course this fall, among them Esquire writer and novelist Mike Sager and New York Times Magazine contributing writer Wil S. Hylton. To keep up with discussions, his students will be reading stories that include:

“A Brevard Woman Disappeared,” [Tampa Bay Times] by Michael Kruse. This story is the perfect example of using public records and observations to create a compelling narrative, one that also asks a question of society: How does this happen?

“The Boy Who Died of Football” and “The Legacy of Wes Leonard,” [Sports Illustrated] by Thomas Lake. I love how these stories, ostensibly about sports, transcend the games we play.

“The Essential Man,” [Esquire] by Chris Jones. There is a right way and a wrong way to write celebrity profiles. This story illustrates the perfect way to capture the essence of a famous person.

“Never Let Go,” [Tampa Bay Times] by Kelley Benham French and “Walking the Border,” [Esquire] by Luke Dittrich. I love well-crafted, first-person journalism, and these stories show how it’s done.

Steve Almond

Steve Almond

At the Nieman Foundation, our resident narrative non-fiction instructor is essayist and short story writer Steve Almond, who just published a new book, “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” Some of the works he’ll assign to the Nieman Fellows he’s teaching this semester are:

“A Few Words About Breasts,” [Esquire] by Nora Ephron. A wonderful example of how the comic impulse can be a tool for investigating the self. Ephron is writing deep truths about gender insecurity, her own in particular, but of all of ours ultimately. She also makes the reader howl with laughter.

“Slaughterhouse-Five,” (Chapter One,) by Kurt Vonnegut. This is a remarkable example of radical disclosure. Before diving into his crazy, Sci-Fi novel, Vonnegut provides the backstory of his own struggle to write about the trauma of World War II. It makes the rest of the book even more deeply affecting.

“The Ticking is the Bomb,” by Nick Flynn. Nick Flynn is best known for his wrenching memoir, “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” I like this book just as much. It’s a thoughtful meditation on torture that blends reportage, cultural criticism, and sheer poetry.

What stories would be on your dream syllabus? Let us know at

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Required Reading, Session One Mon, 08 Sep 2014 00:41:47 +0000 As the academic year gets underway, we decided to ask some top narrative journalism instructors what they’re assigning their students to study this semester and why. There are some tried-and-true favorites, certainly. You might expect Susan Orlean‘s “The American Male at Age Ten” and Melissa Fay Greene’s “Praying for Sheetrock” to appear on our experts’ syllabi. But some of their choices may surprise you. The Book of Genesis, anyone?

Our class will meet twice this week, with the first set of recommendations posted today and the rest Wednesday.  So pull out your Trapper Keeper and make your own list of required reading from our instructors’ favorites.


Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz, author of “There are No Children Here,” as well as a producer of the documentary “The Interrupters” and contributor to the “This American Life” series on Chicago’s Harper High School, is co-teaching a graduate course on narrative non-fiction this fall at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, along with Douglas Foster, a former editor of Mother Jones and author of “After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” These are some of the works they like to assign:

From Kotlowitz:

“The Laramie Project.” I don’t know that Moises Kaufman and company think of this as journalism but it is. And it’s a terrific example of storytelling in which the narrator (in this case, narrators) step completely out of the way.

Jessica Stern’s ”Denial: A Memoir of Terror.” I’m not a huge fan of memoir, but this is, in my mind, what memoir ought to be about: an honest searching to make sense of the past. Stern may not think of herself as a journalist, but she’s a terrific reporter. (Also David Carr‘s “The Night of the Gun” and Ariel Sabar‘s “My Father’s Paradise” fit this bill, as well.)

Darcy Frey‘s “The Last Shot,” which speaks to when first person is necessary — and a reminder that even with first person readers really don’t care much about us. (Darcy uses first person for purely practical reasons: because there are scenes he can’t let unfold without acknowledging his presence. In the end, we learn little about Darcy. He keeps us focused on the main subjects of the book, these young struggling high school basketball players.)

Tracy Kidder‘s “Strength in What Remains” A remarkably intimate story in which Tracy gets us to inhabit the very soul of his central character,  young refugee from Burundi. (It’s also an interestingly structured book: the first half told in third person; the second told in first person.) 

Doug Foster

Doug Foster

From Foster:

“Lucky Jim,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, in GQ, for how to use chronology as your friend and how to know when you have the right reason to break from it. The final section recreates the day before a monumental event –the morning her subject is hit by a truck “for the first time.” Usually, enough students think that close doesn’t work that we have a terrific argument over it.

The first three chapters of Genesis and the Kiowa Creation Legend, to get them thinking of the deep history of different storytelling approaches.

“The Marriage Cure,” by Katherine Boo in The New Yorker for the example of immersion reporting, multiple points of view and emphasis on telling the story through unfolding action.

Laurie Abraham’s profile of Brittney Griner for Elle, a nice clean profile of someone who is not gabby and whose story reveals a larger significance the subject does not even seem aware of.


Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French, a professor of practice at Indiana University and 2013 Pulitzer finalist, offers this reading list:

“The Fiddler in the Subway,” by Gene Weingarten [Washington Post]. I’ve never met him, but Gene Weingarten is my biggest journalism crush. (Are you reading this Gene? My cheeks are all red.) His stories are just so damn smart, and complex, and gorgeous.
“Into the Lonely Quiet,”  by Eli Saslow [Washington Post.]  The best newspaper story I’ve read in the last five years that wasn’t written by Gene Weingarten.
For Their Own Good”and its follow-up, “100 Years Later and It’s Still Hell” by Ben Montgomery at the Tampa Bay Times. For the marriage of investigative and narrative elements, for courageous reporting, for elegant and muscular writing, for finding storytelling details in agonizing, hard-won interviews and in long-buried documents in musty basements. For Ben, who gave a damn before anyone else did. For all those lost, dead boys, who now have been brought back up out of their graves.


On Wednesday, we hear from Pulitzer-prize-winning feature writer and former “This American Life” producer Lisa Pollak, who is teaching at Columbia University this fall; the Nieman Foundation’s narrative non-fiction instructor Steve Almond; and Ashland University professor and Gangrey podcast host Matt Tullis. And if you’ve got some suggestions of your own, send them our way at

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3 (Stories) for 2 (Days) Fri, 05 Sep 2014 18:34:07 +0000 It’s time for Storyboard’s three weekend picks. Here they are:

In honor of Roger Federer’s gritty performance in Thursday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal, it seems fitting to re-read David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay about him in The New York Times. It’s David Foster Wallace, on tennis. That’s about all you need to know. But if you need a bit more, here’s one short excerpt, with a classic Wallace footnote:

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.(1)

“This American Life” recently re-aired a “driveway moment” story from 2013 that I had missed when it originally ran. The hourlong piece “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde” initially generated some criticism about one aspect of its reporting (since clarified and don’t click here for details unless you want to spoil the ending of the story) but it’s a terrific example of the program’s patience with storytelling. The tale starts with a doctor’s discomfort at taking over a medical practice from another physician with the same last name who had committed a grisly murder. Then it ventures down a path that, while you may eventually suspect what lies at the end, allows you to take the same twists and wrong turns as the doctor, Ben Gilmer, and reporter Sarah Koenig.

The story you may not be able to shake after you watch it is this New York Times video report on a man who survived an ISIS massacre because the bullet missed. The facts alone are stunning but the account is also notable for how it uses the Islamic militant group’s own footage to reconstruct the event and the haunting image of a man watching his own “death” on a screen.

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Registration Open: Narrative Conference at Berkeley Fri, 05 Sep 2014 14:53:12 +0000 Registration is now open for “The Latest in Longform,” the new, small-scale narrative journalism conference at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Organized by former Nieman narrative maven Constance Hale, the Nov. 8 conference is designed for experienced journalists, with attendance limited to 75.

Constance-HaleIn a Q-and-A with Storyboard earlier this summer, Hale described her vision for the one-day event, saying, “We are stripping things down to what really matters. Journalists don’t need a fancy hotel, or $40 box lunches. They just need each other.”

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik and Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, are keynote speakers and the line-up also features Los Angeles Times writer Tom Curwen, Mother Jones editor in chief Clara Jeffery and literary agent Wendy Strothman. Cost is $275 for the daylong event, with master classes available for an additional $50. You can find more information about the program and register here:

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