The winner of the incredibly competitive Best Limited Series award in 2021’s Publisher Podcast Awards was Floodlines from The Atlantic. Judges praised the captivating characters, richly textured sound design and clever storytelling.
Peter spoke to The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk, host of the series. He talked about how the idea for a podcast focused on Hurricane Katrina came about, what their process was for collecting the interviews and going deep into the topic, and the role of music in enhancing the narration. He also gave his advice for publishers looking to create their own narrative podcasts.
Here are some highlights, lightly edited for clarity:
How Floodlines came about
When we started Floodlines, I was a staff writer at The Atlantic. I had not done any formal narrative podcasting, I’d done a couple interviews for a couple things, but nothing really long term, and nothing on that level of scope, and nothing in that format.
So how it came to be was, we were spinning up really the bulk of our podcast department under our EP Katherine Wells. And I’ve been thinking for a while that this was the time and the opportunity to do something serious about Hurricane Katrina. That meant a lot to me as an event. It said a lot of things that I thought were important about the work that I was doing, and I hadn’t heard anything like that.
So I pitched it, we went through lots of iterations of trying to figure out what it might look like. But basically, from the time it was accepted, until it was finished, I was a full time podcast reporter and host. So I had to learn on the fly.
Adapting interviewing for audio
I would like to say that it was just feel, and I came to it, and it was natural. But no, it took months and months of training, of listening to radio interviews and figuring out what was good about certain ones and what I thought was lacking from others. And thinking about what we could get from an interview that you could not get anywhere else in a story about Hurricane Katrina.
So the facts of what happened in this flood and disaster don’t really need a first person interview with people who went through it to convey that information, just a chronological timeline of what happened.
But what it felt like to go through that, the different emotions coursing through your mind, what something smelled like, what pain, whatever you were carrying in your body, those are things that a person gives you, the nobody else can give you. And those are things that are not necessarily important, or critical in an interview for print. So I had to really switch what I was listening for, what I thought constituted a good interview.
The importance of planning for podcast documentaries
If you don’t have more in the cutting room than you do in the final product, I don’t think that’s going to be a good final product. But there are limits to your ability to do that. And I think there is a point of diminishing returns, where if you’re just trying to go out and boil the ocean, that’s not really conductive. You still have to be pointed, so you have to know what you’re going after, you still have to be very intentional.
Our planning is what took the longest, trying to figure out what we wanted out of each interview. I made scripts of my questions for each interview, trying to anticipate what would happen in interviews, and trying to anticipate if I got this from an interview, who would I need to talk to next, to round it out, to get the proper perspective.
Those are things that will keep you from interviewing everybody in the world and from turning over every stone, and will help you very early on shape what the final ambitions and limitations of your project are.
Using music to enhance the podcast
Music played a huge part. Every day I thank the universe for David Herman, for our engineer, our music director, and for Christian Scott, because without their genius, frankly, this podcast wouldn’t be what it was.
The music was totally perfect. We were able to really convey information at this kind of subconscious level with the music, with the sound, that also made us able to make these things slimmer and reduce the context just because the music was that good.
There are ways to think about the principles of what we did sound-wise, that are useful. One thing I think is useful across the board is to think about the moods, the thing about what a piece of music brings to your mind, to be comfortable with silence, and to use silence as a tone setting too.
I think there’s a tendency – and it was in my mind – to want every moment to have this dramatic sound attached to it. It makes it sound more important. But we really found the best dividends from sound when we’re able to convey whimsy and joy and puzzlement. And you can expand your idea of what dramatic music looks like or sounds like to beyond the television special tense strings.
This year’s Publisher Podcast Award winners will be revealed on April 27th at a live event in London, as well as streamed online. See our tickets page for more details. Entries for next year’s Publisher Podcast Awards will open in September. Think you’ve got what it takes to win an award? Sign up to our mailing list at www.publisherpodcastawards.com