January 9, 2019 -

As told to Resham Mantri, 2990 words.

Tags: Podcasts, Beginnings, Process, Collaboration, Success.

On the creative potential and emotional reach of podcasts

Producer and reporter Andy Mills discusses the path that led him to working in podcasts, the origin stories of The Daily and Caliphate, and why podcasts are a humanizing force in the world of contemporary journalism.

How has producing podcasts allowed you to be creative? How does the platform lend itself to artists who engage in imaginative storytelling?

From a young age I always liked stories, whether in the form of books, movies, or stories that the preacher told on Sundays in the church I grew up in. I had some aunts, my mother’s sisters, and my grandmother on my mother’s side who were enthusiastic storytellers, too. Sometimes around the dinner table you’d get pretty hilarious, wild stories. I don’t think I would’ve known I liked storytelling. I just thought I liked movies and books, and hanging out with my aunts. Later in life I realized you could get paid if you were good at telling stories, which is still an idea that fascinates me.

The first time I tried to tell stories professionally was right out of college. I got a job working in South Sudan as a research reporter for an aid organization. I ended up traveling around Sudan and living there in a tent for a little over a year, writing stories about harrowing, devastating tragedies that had happened to these families.

I loved hearing other people’s stories and asking questions to draw out the moments that bring their stories into words that other people can then experience and connect to. But I found it frustrating how hard it was to then turn around and take those interviews and write something in a concise, powerful way that would resonate with the emotions I’d experienced. I admire any writer who can do that, but I was impatient and not particularly skilled at writing.

After I’d left Sudan, I got a job painting houses during the recession, and a buddy of mine loaned me his iPod that had every episode of This American Life on it. This is before podcasts. He’d downloaded MP3s of This American Life, and I was just binging my way through them, being like, “Oh, my god. This is so wonderful.” It solved this problem of it being difficult to capture the emotional resonance of an interview. You could just record the damn thing!

You could experience stories through the mundane work that you have to do, and you can have this sense of intellectual growth through ideas that you’re hearing, and emotional growth through the empathy you’re feeling towards the subjects. I was just like, “I gotta learn how to do this.”

I went off and learned the basic skills of the trade, largely basic ProTools through my friends who were musicians, and then I went to Salt Institute (now called Transom). I went to a documentary studies school and learned the basic mechanics of how you put one of these things together, and then I started studying how Radiolab and how This American Life tell a story.

I eventually got a job working at Radiolab. We were already proud of ourselves as a radio show for pushing the boundaries of people’s expectations, but with the rise of podcasts, especially in the success that came after Serial, there was this appetite like, “We can push it even further. We can go into even stranger places.”

That’s continued even more. Coming to The New York Times, and them eventually saying, “Do what you think would be best. You help us answer the question, ‘How should The New York Times sound?,’” and then letting us experiment and letting us fail and letting us really have free range to follow our own instincts has been insanely satisfying. It feels like my timing is a key part of that.

Do you think there’s opportunity within the world of podcasts for musicians to do interesting things?

There’s a natural connection between musicians and audio storytellers, and it hasn’t been exploited as much as I think it could be. There should be more collaborations between the two. You see that best exemplified with someone like Jad Abumrad, who’s both a composer of music and a documentary storyteller. He embodies that kind of collaboration in one person. At Gimlet Media, some of the musicians there are bringing their expertise into the production of, say, the fiction department.

The way that the hands of musicians and composers and producers and storytellers and podcasters are kind of gripping each other tighter is something I would love to see more of. This is also the perfect job for a wannabe musician. I’ve always thought it would be cool to be some kind of a rock star, some kind of guitar-shredding man, but I don’t have those skills. I get to make a sound that can perform a similar task of going through somebody’s headphones and connecting them to strangers and to their own memories and emotions, and that feels awesome.

You’ve worked at a variety of places. You’re currently at The New York Times. Can you speak to some of the benefits and some of the pitfalls that traditional organizations of all sizes can hold for people doing experimental and creative work?

At the Times, one of the things that’s been a wonderful, pleasant surprise is that despite the fact that our audio department is pretty young, and has no experience at all, a legacy institution like The New York Times made the decision, that I’m sure was difficult, to just say, “We’ll follow your lead, and give you feedback. We will essentially hand final say over to you young audio kids who just started working here.”

To speak to pitfalls, I was in Aspen, Colorado this summer during the Aspen Ideas conference, and an executive from a magazine came up to me and was complimenting me and the audio team on the success of The Daily. I like this guy’s publication a lot, and I was so flattered. I asked him if he’s thought more about getting into audio in his publication. He said “yes,” and he also said, “I think what you guys did was so brilliant in that you just gave a talented reporter like Michael [Barbaro] his own show and let him do whatever he wanted.”

The fact that it’s not the product of one person’s talent or one person’s idea, but is actually a collaboration between the amazing journalists of The New York Times and the producers and journalists and audio innovators on our team coming together to truly create something new—that’s not always obvious to people on the outside. You don’t hear the voices, and if we’re doing our job right, it just sounds like a bunch of incredibly articulate, well-spoken reporters are having a brief conversation every morning. So, that’s one pitfall.

The other pitfall I think that you see is that there’s already a whole lot of podcasts serving a whole lot of needs. The boom is ongoing, but it’s not at the beginning of it anymore, so if you’re going to start a podcast that’s going to be a two-way between two people, you’re really gonna need to figure out why people would tune into that instead of the hundreds of other options.

More people download The Daily each day than have subscriptions to the physical newspaper. Have you thought about the future of news or of podcasting, in light of what you’ve learned?

I definitely never thought I would work in news. I came to the New York Times mainly to work with people like Rukmini Callimachi on projects like what became Caliphate, and when I first started, I was actually the first producer that was hired after the Times hired Lisa Tobin to be the Executive Director. I was the next person to be hired, and I had the coolest open-ended job, which was just, “Meet editors and reporters, and let’s figure out what the great story is that we should be working on.”

I got to meet with Rebecca Corbett in investigations and hear about all the amazing things that were underway, and I got to meet with Marc Lacey and the national team and talk to them about their coverage at the time of the 2016 election, and I got to meet with the Metro team and talk to them about their murder in the 4-0 series, where they had been documenting every murder that was happening in The Bronx that summer, and they were incredible conversations that I got to overhear, and I got to see talented reporters like Caitlin Dickerson and Rukmini Callimachi who I knew right away, these people, they’re gonna be something.

But we just didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know what we were gonna make. We didn’t know what was going on, and we needed to staff up, and by the time we came around to creating The Daily, the mission that we were on was a lot more specific, and it was now in light of a new president, and in light of even more media skepticism than had existed before.

I grew up conservative, and there was always talk about the liberal bias in the media, and there was a deep suspicion of people who lived in the cities and who were trying to tell you what the world looked like. That view got bigger, and in some ways helped contribute to the trouble we’re in now. If you look at polls, just something like 30 percent of Americans say that they trust mainstream media outlets. But there is something about podcasts that can emotionally connect listeners with the people speaking, and the relationship that a listener develops with the host.

In creating this daily news podcast, we would, number one, be the first to crack the nut of what something like that would sound like, and two, we could contribute to increasing trust in who the hell these reporters are at The New York Times, and show our work a little bit.

I want to talk to you about Caliphate, another podcast you helped create. You were in Iraq with New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi for 21 days, traveling in armored vehicles, searching bombed buildings for ISIS documents, and interviewing ISIS captors in military prisons. You spoke about South Sudan and telling stories of people who’d experienced horrendous atrocity. How has this experience affected your life and your work? What have you taken away from having seen such intensity?

This is a perfect example of the immense amount of new ground that still remains to be figured out in the medium, and in some ways, the second half of the Caliphate series was experimenting in what foreign war reporting sounds like. We got some things right, and some things wrong. But just to speak to that for a second, the fact that Sam Dolnick and Lisa Tobin and the whole New York Times team decided that this producer could team up with one of their star foreign correspondents and follow her all the way to the front lines of this war against ISIS was not necessarily intuitive. The power of this podcast is that deep and emotional sense of connection to other far away people. Also, exploring the toll it can take on you as a foreign war reporter. I think that was an interesting part of Caliphate.

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From the making of Caliphate in Iraq

Rukmini has done a lot more of this reporting, obviously, and she’s very seasoned from her time in Africa, her time in India, her time in Iraq, her time in Syria. She has a ton of experience. I think of her more like a surgeon. She does her work, and seen one way, she may come off as cold, but you don’t want a sissy surgeon. You want a surgeon who will just do the scary difficult thing that doesn’t seem nice, but he or she knows that she’s gotta get in there under the skin and do this.

I’m definitely more of an emoter. I found it beautiful and moving to be in the places we were in, and got caught up in my emotions quite a bit, and then in coming back [to New York], especially because of what we had done with the Yazidis in Iraq [Caliphate includes an interview with Yazidi girls who have escaped after being captured and traded as sex slaves by Isis fighters], it was a really difficult transition coming back to New York and hearing people complain on Twitter about things that just seemed almost rude in comparison to the atrocities that I had seen.

It sounds so preachy, but to see how much people complain about what they don’t have and about wrongs they feel they’ve experienced, and how hard it is even for me who’s been there to remember that we should be grateful, and that we should be generous with our resources and with our attention. That’s an emotional rollercoaster that I’m not off yet, and I think that a lot of people who do this sort of work deal with that. What’s the amount of time and attention we should give to these life-threatening problems happening in other places, and how much time and attention should we give to this Twitter mob about a celebrity? I think it’s very difficult to navigate that space, and then every space in between.

In Caliphate, you do get that sense that Rukmini is the most bad-ass surgeon, so methodical. She’s intense and amazing. Your empathy, your new eyes to foreign war reporting, is what translates to people in the podcast. If you took a very experienced foreign correspondent to trail her in the podcast, I think you would get a different product.

Actually, that was very much intentional. The only reason that my voice ended up being in the series at all is because it was not obvious to Rukmini what would be interesting to dumb-dumbs and average people like myself, and I slowly became the proxy for seeing behind a curtain and giving a voice and asking questions to what I thought the audience might be experiencing. I think the two of us together in certain situations really struck a successful balance between what it takes to be a good reporter.

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From the making of Caliphate in Iraq

Can you speak to the importance you have found in taking risks personally within your work, and how important risk-taking is for the genre or craft itself?

I do think about the history of filmmaking. If you go back to the early films, they were taking so much from stage theater productions. They were using cameras to bring it to life. Influential filmmakers throughout the 20th century hijacked the foundation early film created to experiment with new ways of making storytelling more immersive and more surprising. You know, not just bringing someone to laughter because a camera’s caught a comedian doing a silly thing, but to making someone laugh with how a camera flips from one perspective to another, and that’s the delivery of a punchline.

I think a lot about that in terms of where we’re at with podcasting or radio making. People like Studs Terkel and the greats of radio, the people who went out and started NPR, they created this vast world of radio storytelling and journalism mixed together that’s already a good foundation to start on, and then we have the opportunity to try and push it as far as we can. Why would you not try?

I don’t know how long this podcasting bubble is going to build before it bursts. Maybe it’s not going to be long at all, but while it’s here, while we have it, while people are listening in these massive numbers, I see it as one of the most exciting parts of my job that me and many of the people who are lucky enough to be in my situation get to participate in trying to push it forward, to stretch it out, to take it to measures, whatever it is, to get to a point where so many different kinds of radio storytelling and audio storytelling exists. It’s like the film genre, which now is so divorced from the stage. Maybe podcasts will eventually become divorced from what we think of as radio.

I will also say, if people are interested in becoming a podcast producer, it’s a totally good idea to do it. It’s an industry that’s still growing, still trying to figure itself out, and it’s really hungry for people who want to work and want to push boundaries and are willing to learn the handful of skills that it takes, because it doesn’t take a degree to do this kind of work. The barrier of entry is as low as those who will try and make stuff, and I think if you’re curious about it, go for it.

At the same time, I do wonder if the Caliphate-like program is the direction that podcasts want to go in, or if podcasts are better suited to stay in the Joe Rogan, Marc Maron kind of two-way, long-form conversation that does so well. Maybe there’s not the audience I think there is for experimental, creative, more movie-like productions, but until the data says no one’s showing up, I say we keep trying.

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