Issue 273,  published September 8, 2020

When Archives Cause Regrets

On September 1, 2020, the Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations podcast released a curious episode that contained an interview with Rihanna. After the pre-roll ads and a generic introduction to the show, the very first piece of audio that a listener hears is Oprah saying, “I just recently came back from Barbados with Rihanna…” What follows is the audio of an encounter between the two women, which includes both a drive around the neighbourhood where the singer grew up and a sit-down interview. In that conversation, Rihanna made a rare public comment on her 2009 domestic violence case involving Chris Brown, saying she “truly loves” him and that they were “working on their friendship again.” Those quotes set off a medium-sized frenzy in the tabloid press and on gossip sites, with TMZ, the Daily Mail, Yahoo News and others all running with the story.

The problem? The interview is from 2012, and it’s been eight whole years since Rihanna said those quotes. However, when that Super Soul Conversations episode originally dropped earlier this month, there was nothing in the podcast episode to provide this context. That left the internet rumour mill completely free to spread the news of the pop stars’ 2020 friendship reunion far and wide.

TMZ eventually took their account of the interview down altogether, and other publications amended their stories to add “…in a resurfaced interview from 2012” to the end of their “Rihanna says she’ll ‘always love’ Chris Brown” headlines, but not before it had gone far enough that places like Newsweek were publishing SEO-friendly articles debunking the whole incident.

I’ve found myself puzzled by Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations in the past for this same reason, because the podcast feed mingles fresh interviews with repurposed audio from Oprah’s TV shows with little-to-no clue in the episode description or audio about when the conversation you’re listening to was actually recorded. The interview that I remember particularly throwing me for a loop was with Stephen Colbert, which appeared on the podcast feed in June 2020 but was first aired as part of a TV show called Oprah’s Next Chapter in 2012. The political context he was addressing was… not very recognisable in 2020, shall we say.

In the age of dynamic ad insertion, when fresh sponsor reads can be easily introduced into old episodes to keep them bringing in revenue, having a large archive can be a great asset for a podcast. And where a publication or personality has content from another medium like a TV or radio show that can be repurposed and monetised afresh, that’s low hanging fruit. Listeners are also pretty used to the idea that long running shows will occasionally repeat an episode from the archive as a way of taking time off without missing a drop. For a high profile example of this, look no further than Reply All, which has been taking a break from publishing fresh episodes for the past few weeks and instead has been reintroducing old classics into the feed.

Setting aside the sheer capitalistic juice-squeezing of re-monetizing old content, the brief storm over Rihanna’s interview with Oprah shows the importance of good context and metadata when repurposing content. Ideally, I think there would be some kind of acknowledgement in the audio itself that an episode isn’t recent, especially if it features quotes  from a newsworthy public figure that could be misinterpreted, but there are other ways to signal a republication beyond an audio preface. Numbered episode titles can indicate an out of sequence episode, as can clear labelling in the episode’s description. It doesn’t have to be a big announcement, but even the smallest indication can go a long way to preventing avoidable misunderstandings.

There is also a way of going further, though, and turning the labelling of a past episode into something more. When considering the Rihanna kerfuffle, I thought of Answer Me This, the long-running British comedy podcast hosted by Helen Zaltzman, Olly Mann, and Martin Zaltz Austwick. That show has been running since 2007, initially releasing new episodes weekly, then fortnightly from 2014, before going monthly in January 2017. Their first 200 episodes are now behind a paywall, but once a month they temporarily release one onto the main feed.

Every time they do this, Zaltzman and Mann record a new intro in which they add context for the archive recording by discussing where they were in their own lives at the time and talk about any regrets they had upon relistening to it. This is on top of all of the surrounding signalling that it isn’t a new episode — the title prefix being “Retro”, the lack of the usual theme music, the explanation in the episode description, and so on.

I caught up with Zaltzman on the phone late last week, and asked her why they put this extra effort in when they re-release material from the archive. “I think it was to make it feel like there was added value in listening to a repeat,” she said. “They do get lower downloads and I’ve noticed that with my other podcasts as well. But I think we’ve always wanted to feel like people are getting something extra.”

As for the monthly discussions of their regrets over past language or jokes, that “just happened”, Zaltzman said — it wasn’t planned. “We chose ones that were maybe less regret-based in the beginning, because we had all of them to choose from,” she explained. “But it just comes to a point where you can’t really avoid some bad stuff in the back catalogue, even if it’s minor. It’s still there. So I don’t remember that being intentional.”

In the latest “retro” episode to be released, from 2008, the hosts express regret over their naivety at early examples of fake news and wonder why they had it in for British tabloid celebrity Kerry Katona. Previously, they’ve discussed language around gender and sexuality they used in the past but wouldn’t repeat now as well as providing commentary on their evolving attitudes and political beliefs.

“I still feel like one needs to apologise for past misdemeanours,” Zaltzman said. “I think that’s very clear at this moment in time, and particularly before someone tells you that they were bad. You need to realise that they were bad in your own time and not expect someone to call you out and do the work for you.”

The interaction between the personalities of the hosts today and the versions of themselves captured in their show over 13 years is fascinating. “It’s a learning process, that’s what’s so rewarding about listening back, sometimes,” Mann says in the introduction to the latest retro episode. “It’s good to know that we’ve developed as people and acknowledged our own ignorance, which feels like an immeasurable task to me,” Zaltzman replies. Although the podcast is, in Zaltzman’s words, “a stupid entertainment show about a lot of random shit,” these segments introducing the archive episodes work as miniature reflections on big ideas like ageing, nostalgia and mortality. Not bad for a preamble to a recycled chat show.

Before we move on, quick note: in the wake of the headline brouhaha, the Oprah’s Super Soul Conversation podcast appears to have tweaked the episode description to include “In 2012…” at the top. At this writing (Monday morning), the change can be seen on the Apple Podcasts and Spotify, but it hasn’t taken on other podcatchers just yet.

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.