Issue 192,  published January 22, 2019

Teach Me How To Live

Let me begin by showing my cards here: I’m a sucker for stuff broadly known as “self-help” or “personal betterment,” along with many of its associated sub-genres that carry the prefix “personal” (e.g. personal finance, personal fitness) or the suffix “hacks” (e.g. life hacks, travel hacks). Which is to say, I’m the kind of guy who compulsively reads about budgeting, credit card points maximization, meditation and focus, quick and simple recipes, the best so-and-so to buy for such-and-such. Among my first tabs of every morning: Lifehacker, The New York Times’ Smarter Living, a number of curtly-written personal finance blogs that I’m ashamed of listing. Give me a headline that reads “6 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder,” and friend, I’ll happily give you ten minutes of my one wild and precious life.

(Which isn’t to say that I follow through with many of the personal betterment things that I consume. I almost certainly do not. But much of my experience here, I suspect, involves some exercise of fantasy, or a prayer, almost, towards the version of myself that I imagine becoming. Same goes with sports and political horse-race media, of which I’m also an avid consumer. I’m never going to actually work in the NBA, and there is only so much that, say, the electoral strategies of Beto O’Rourke’s failed 2018 senatorial campaign can directly impact my personal political engagements in my community. But anyway, I digress.)

There’s a news hook here, of course, and it’s this: last month, NPR’s podcast universe formally marched into the personal betterment territory with something called Life Kit. The project is described as a “family of podcasts for navigating your life — everything from your finances to diet and exercise to raising your kids.”  What this means, in practice, is a spread of different podcast feeds, each dedicated to a specific guide. At this writing, there are four guides out in the wild: two personal fitness feeds (“Exercise: Learn to Love (or at least Like) it” and “Eat Your Way To A Healthier Life”) and two personal finance feeds (“Secrets of Saving and Investing” and “Secrets of Saving and Investing”). The plan, it seems, is to publish a new guide every month.

Currently, each guide contains about three short episodes, each hosted by a different person and each taking the form of the kind of one-shot story you’d expect from something like Planet Money. The Planet Money comparison is particularly interesting to me, as Life Kit feels, in many ways, like the realization of what Planet Money should have grown into for years: a simple production concept and brand that’s easily applicable to an infinite number of subjects. (Planet Sports, Planet Health, Planet Politics, and so on.)

Anyway, I’ll go out on a limb to say that Life Kit’s perception of the feed as the atomic unit of content is an exceedingly shrewd one for searchability purposes. The approach not only allows the project to tap into popular search pathways — its content is easily encountered by someone who entered “Investing” or “Exercise” as search terms, and who types up “Life Kit,” anyway? — but it also taps into fairly rich preexisting podcast communities. After all, podcast-land is no stranger to personal betterment content. You could even argue that the genre gave podcasting many of its early elders, folks like Tim Ferriss, John Lee Dumas (a la Entrepreneur on Fire), and perhaps even Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl), who cultivated the Quick & Dirty Tips network.

For NPR’s podcast unit, Life Kit represents an expansion in internal editorial framework as much as it is an expansion into fertile land. “We’re trying to do a lot of different things,” said Neal Carruth, the organization’s GM of podcasting, when asked about how the initiative fits into their broader programming strategy. Carruth talked about the team’s continuing push into podcasts with daily publishing schedules, which will soon include a new daily science podcast, and about all the narrative stuff that has long served as the division’s calling card. “Shows like Invisibilia and Rough Translation are still really important to us,” he said. “We pride ourselves in being a place that makes shows that are sophisticated, layered, complex, and deeply reported. That’s a thing we’re known for, and we’re going to continue to support that stuff.”

Carruth considers Life Kit to be the expression of a new angle of attack: shows designed to be explicitly useful for the audience, delivering tangible and actionable things that listeners can immediately take into their lives. “That’s different from merely informing them, or just telling them a good story,” said Carruth. “‘Useful’ is the key word.”

Meghan Keane, who previously worked on Invisibilia and TED Radio Hour, leads the Life Kit project as managing producer. “What’s important for me is to make something that isn’t an audio bullet-point list, and instead make something that’s a good mix of takeaways and infused little narratives,” she told me. “The hope is to be motivational and aspirational without being cheesy.”

Life Kit was driven, in some part, by research indicating interest among younger audiences for such content. In the team’s thinking, this finding gives the initiative its longer-term arc. “Ultimately, if Life Kit is a success, we’ll have dozens of these guides addressing challenges across the life span,” Carruth said.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Life Kit’s potential relationship with local public radio stations. I was told that there aren’t any formal partnerships with local stations just yet, and that the team is on the lookout for ways to collaborate with them. (So, reach out.) There was, however, mention of a partnership with a public media organization of another kind: Sesame Street, with whom the team is partnering to create a guide on having conversations with kids about heavy topics. For now, local station listeners will probably mostly encounter Life Kit material as occasional segments on the national shows.

Not that local stations can’t take matters into their own hands. Observers should pair NPR’s Life Kit adventures with a similarly-veined effort by the Los Angeles public radio station’s KPCC, which recently launched a podcast called The Big One: Your Survival Guide that’s meant to help inform listeners on what to do when Southern California falls on the bad side of the coin flip chance that it gets hit by a massive earthquake over the next three decades. My personal earthquake obsession-paranoia notwithstanding, I think The Big One is a really compelling listen, integrating speculative fiction elements — reminiscent of Naomi Alderman’s fiction podcast The Walk from early last year — with meat-and-potatoes science reporting. That production makes me wonder about the outer boundaries of where you can take this podcast genre, in terms of presentation and subject matter. May we get guides on, say, how to survive your divorce, or what to do when you realize you’re no longer the person you once were.

I like this trend. I like where this is going. This stuff is compulsively addictive. “Being a person is hard work,” Keane tells me. “Everybody needs a little help and support.” Yes, sure, I’ll take all the help I can get.