I hate to dump on “The Daily”.
Apart from editing and producing our own shows, this brilliant New York Times podcast takes up more of my listening time than any other. For news junkies, “The Daily” is part of our weekday morning routine. The show’s genial and ever curious host, Michael Barbaro, is like a friend at breakfast time.
So I take it personally when something is not quite right.
Recently, on several “The Daily” documentary episodes, a bit too much production has been getting in the way of the narrative. The informal, often intimate approach that is unique to podcasting, is occasionally replaced by a more careful and rehearsed construction.
One example came this week in an otherwise gripping episode about the chaotic Trump Administration zero-tolerance policy that led to 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.
At one point, the sound of the computer keyboard can be heard as New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson discusses her emails seeking information on the children from the Department of Homeland Security. To my ears, this was distracting, adding neither information nor enhanced atmosphere. Several other soundbites and mood music tracks also got in the way of the compelling narration.
On “The Daily”, the Times reporters are the stars. Let them unpack their deep understanding of the beats they cover without too many interruptions.
Perhaps you disagree with me or think that this is a trivial quibble. But it’s part of a broader trend in podcasts made by companies, where teams of producers and editors often spend many hours crafting a single episode.
Perhaps they take their cues from “Radiolab“, the critically acclaimed, two-time Peabody Award-winning science and philosophy podcast and public radio show that began life on WNYC in 2002. Over the years, Radiolab’s inventive, playful use of sound has been a delight to listen to.
But maybe the show’s influence on fellow podcasters has become too great.
When podcast creators lack the deep skills of Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, rich, textured sound can be turned into a formula. Some well-written podcasts are burdened by the overuse of ambient sound and music.
This school of complex, layered production can sound precious, and be a barrier to understanding. A podcasting friend of mine from South Asia, who learned English as a second language, calls it confusing. Perhaps that’s because she didn’t grow up listening to the distinct sound of American public radio programs and documentaries.
Usually, spare is best. What makes podcasting and audiobooks so penetrating and memorable is the presence of a single human voice in your ears, telling you a story.
Often that’s enough. Intimacy requires nothing more.
Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.