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The American Record

Of the many, many things I did not expect going into 2020 — from the obvious, like the pandemic and all the ways the world has changed in its shadow, to the much less obvious, like how a prestige HBO drama starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as wealthy New Yorkers ended up being sooooo stupid — the fact I’d approach the end of year pretty damn excited about the prospect of The Atlantic as a formidable audio publisher ranks kinda high up there.

That excitement has a lot to do with Floodlines, the eight-part audio documentary on the legacy of Hurricane Katrina that The Atlantic released back in March. The doc, hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, seemingly came out of nowhere and arrived so complete in its sophistication. The production also had a touch of providence to it, dropping on the same day that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for COVID-19 — a turning point in American pandemic awareness — and carrying a story about a uniquely American disaster of the recent past that foreshadowed much of what was to come. It was quite simply one of the best things I’ve heard all year, and since its release, I’ve written a glowing review, interviewed Newkirk on my show, and generally sailed the high digital seas telling as many people as I could about it.

All of which is to say, I’m eager to see what else The Atlantic plans to do with its audio department. At the moment, the organization publishes two other podcasts beyond Floodlines: Social Distance, a deliberately lo-fi phone call-heavy program that serves as a semi-responsive platform for gathering information related to the pandemic, and The Ticket, a political interview podcast hosted by Edward-Isaac Dovere that’s heavy on inside baseball and fodder for beltway nerds. Both are interesting in their own right, the former for its free-flowing iterative nature and the latter for the fact that there will always be a place in the universe for shows built around long, specialized interviews. In my mind, though, what’s distinctly appealing about The Atlantic as an audio publisher right now is the sweet spot it’s in, rich with a mix of potential and goodwill that comes in the wake of a surprise hit.

We’ll soon get the chance to see if that potential converts. Right before Turkey Day last week, The Atlantic announced The Experiment, a new weekly show that comes out of a partnership with WNYC. Set to debut in January, the upcoming podcast will be hosted by Julia Longoria, the former Radiolab producer who returns to WNYC after a nearly two-year stint at the New York Times, where she worked on The Daily and Rabbit Hole. According to the show description, The Experiment will serve up weekly reported stories that “examine the myths and ideas at the heart of the American experiment and the way powerful forces of history collide with our everyday lives.” You know, the usual stuff.

I figured the announcement of what seems like a flagship audio show for the magazine was a good opportunity to hit up someone I’ve been meaning to chat with for a while now: Katherine Wells, The Atlantic’s executive producer of podcasts. Wells is a veteran in audio and podcast circles by this point, having worked various gigs at shops like Science Friday, Gimlet Media, and yes, WNYC, over the past decade. She first joined The Atlantic as a senior video producer between 2013 to 2015, and rejoined the organization in her current role in April 2018.

“The thing that brought me to The Atlantic, and the thing that keeps me here, is the fact that I don’t understand this country, and I really crave stories that help me better grapple with those things,” she said. “Lots of journalistic organizations do that, but The Atlantic does it with a sort of earnest dignity that I relate to.” We spoke yesterday about The Experiment, Floodlines, and what other audio projects to expect from the almost century-and-a-half old media institution.

Here’s the chat, edited for clarity and length:

Hot Pod: Tell me about The Experiment. What’s the thinking behind it?

Katherine Wells: We’ve long wanted to find the right way to do what The Atlantic has always done with feature journalism in the audio format for a few reasons. One is, well, we love audio, and we know audiences love it too. But we also had the sense that a lot of the things we do are quite suited for audio. So, for this show in particular, we wanted to create a space where The Atlantic could be the fullest extent of itself in the medium.

Another thing we’ve been thinking a lot about is how The Atlantic is a place that people come to for synthesis, analysis, and to understand what’s happening in the news — something that has become especially true as the pandemic played out. This is an insane, confusing, and troubling time, and we have a lot of brilliant people who understand pieces of it. So we felt like this was a really important moment for us to start a new project like this. It’s a moment that specifically calls for the things we at The Atlantic are especially good at.

HP: How would you describe the kinds of stories you’re looking to tell with The Experiment?

Wells: Oh, you know — a great narrative with interesting characters that serves an idea or argument. It’s not just a great yarn, and it’s not an opinion piece. It’s a story that reveals something larger about the way our society and systems work.

HP: A full documentary a week, basically.

Wells: Totally.

HP: Why partner with WNYC?

Wells: Well, on a personal note, I used to work there, so we have that relationship. I love WNYC, and I know they share our journalistic values. That’s number one. I also knew they have the production capacity to help us expand in a way that supports good journalistic work. I think one thing audio people are all too aware of that isn’t always evident from the outside is that this work often requires a really complex set of roles and processes — not all of which are necessarily about producers and editors. Also, WNYC has a long history of creating successful shows and leading collaborations with other institutions, and that was important.

HP: I gotta say, I think I’m asking this because one thing I really appreciated about all the podcasts that The Atlantic has published so far — particularly Floodlines, but not exclusively — is how distinct and different they all sound from a lot of other podcasts that are out there. I guess what I’m specifically responding to is the notion that, with this partnership, The Experiment might end up sounding like a WNYC show, which, let me be clear, isn’t a bad thing, obviously. I suppose I was just hoping for more difference.

Wells: Well, WNYC has a really broad range, but more importantly, in my view, editorial sensibility is driven half by institutions and half by the specific producers who bring their interests and curiosities into the project. Shows work best when they aren’t led by, like, an institutional editorial mandate, and when they really get to foreground the curiosities and vexations of the people who work on the production — all of whom, of course, are guided by the mission of the institution.

Floodlines, for example, was very specific to Vann, to that story, and to the way the sound design was built for that story. We’re in the creative development phase of The Experiment right now, and we’re working to apply the same theory as we did with Floodlines, which is to find ways to do things that are unique to the show. What is the style, tone, and sound that best serves these people and this podcast?

HP: Looking beyond The Experiment, what else should we expect from the audio department at The Atlantic?

Wells: We just hired another senior producer, AC Valdez, to help us lead development and flesh out ideas for other shows in this style. We’re also hoping to build out some shows in the conversational format as well. Again, The Atlantic is full of reporters who are great personalities and thinkers, and so many of them are great talkers and conversationalists who are really fun to listen to. But right now, we’re still at the very early stages of thinking all that through.

HP: Will any of that thinking apply to critics on staff too? I’m mostly asking this because I’m a fan of Blank Check, which is co-hosted by [Atlantic film critic] David Sims, and I feel like there’s a pathway to bring that show into the fold or something.

Wells: Oh yes, that definitely applies. I love David. I’m using the term “reporter” pretty broadly. I just mean staff writers in general. We want to explore all types of options. We haven’t decided a lot yet, as we’re still very much in the “thinking through” stage, but yes, for sure, our critics and analysts are some of our biggest and best personalities.

HP: One last question, and this is mostly about Floodlines. I’m curious to hear about your experience launching that show from a project management standpoint. The series dropped when everything was just about to lock down, and my impression was that that led to a relatively slow uptake, audience-wise. What was the launch period like for you?

Wells: Oh man, we launched on a cursed day. It was the day Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they tested positive and everybody was like, “Oh god, this pandemic is a real thing” — I think you wrote that in your review. There were plans to do all these launch events, too. We were supposed to be at SXSW. we were going to have an event in New Orleans on March 12 that we had to cancel the day before.

It was a crazy thing that was happening. There were concerns. Everybody was freaked out about the pandemic, they’re not listening to longform podcasts right now. But also, everybody’s freaked out about the current disaster, so will they want to think about a past disaster?

We knew, though, that this was a timeless story. When we were making the show, we’d get asked, “Why revisit Katrina now?” And Vann’s contention was that Katrina was a template in some ways. You can see how every disaster in this country works by just looking at that one.

At the time, we were thinking about other climate disasters, like the one that played out in Puerto Rico. It was these patterns that played out over and over again. It’s been shocking to see how the same things played out with the pandemic. Like the template was simply being filled out on a nationwide scale… the system that created Katrina was present in everything that we saw with the pandemic. And I think that, as we got deeper into this crisis, more people wanted to understand why things were happening the way they did, and being able to look at something similar in the recent past was a helpful thing.

This is all to say: yes, March, what a very stressful time for us all.

HP: Are you able to comment on download numbers for the show since launch?

Wells: Honestly, I haven’t even checked it in a long time. So I don’t know right now.

HP: That’s quite a flex. I don’t know a lot of podcast people who would attest to not religiously checking download numbers.

Wells: Oh, no no. I certainly care. I’m as vain as everyone else. I just haven’t checked it in a long time. For us, we want as many people to listen to it as possible, but also, I think this is the kind of show that stands the test of time. It will be as relevant ten years from now as it is now. So I guess I’m not so worried about the numbers in the short term.

You can find Wells on Twitter here, and browse The Atlantic’s podcast archive of podcasts here.