Podcasts seem easy enough. If you know how to speak, can obtain a microphone and can access to a computer, you (yes you) could become a podcaster. Due to this, the market has become very saturated with storytellers vying to curate a space where they can communicate with a loving, expectant, audience. As with all things that seem easy, creating a successful podcast is a lot different than just sitting in front of a microphone and spewing out words.
The podcast “Unconditional Love” by This American Life is successful for several reasons that Ira Glass has explained.
A podcast works in a similar way to a web feature — we need character, we need to learn something new, and we need variety. Ira has sad that podcasts are “didactic in nature” and this is highlighted immediately in “Unconditional Love”.
The podcast drops us right in the middle of an experiment involving several rhesus monkeys and researchers trying to disprove the notion that someone could give too much love. An intriguing tactic is used here, Ira Glass is keen to the fact that most listeners live in an era where they know that unconditional love is essential, so he presents this experiment with 1960s-esque context so the listener understand that the knowledge they live with now — almost an innate idea — had not always been in vogue.
So, I did say that a podcast does most of the work that you’d see in a web feature, however, there are elements that set a podcast apart. The reason this particular story works better as a podcast is because of the conversation set by Deborah Blum, Glass, Heidi and her husband. Their dialogue moves along the story in a way that anticipates the questions the listener is asking themselves, and then immediately answering them. The casual tone offsets the initial psychological background, and makes the listener feel as though they are a part of the conversation as Glass travels back and forth throughout time to present the prevailing idea of excessive love as a toxic habit.
I imagine the writers pitched this very generally, as with most of the podcasts I’ve listened to, I think that a general cultural value or idea is presented and then the writers conjure a hot take. Love, for example, has been iterated, reiterated, and reinterpreted several times. For the writers, they had to frame the construct of love in a way that has not often been communicated — at least currently.
Media portrays love as undying, unconditional and always positive. The prevailing movement in this decade is that love is all you need, which has been prevalent since the 70s.
The writers had to take that idea and turn it on its head. Collecting evidence and characters that oppose the idea of love as this natural phenomenon helped shape the story and create a meaningful script.
Each section presents a new question, but the main idea is still retained — what work does love actually do? The music also adds coherency between separate acts and ideas, matching the tone of the speakers. Music adds emotions that are often not able to be articulated clearly, which makes the podcast alive, wrapping around the viewer and encapsulating their thoughts.
The characters of the story are presented later in the podcast, but not so late that the listener would click off due to a lack of human emphasis or connection.
The story of Daniel and his adoptive parents is enthralling because love is exactly what the adoptive child was uncomfortable with — another idea that is diametrically opposed to what most people believe. Their voices are haunting, as you can still hear the yearning and need to help their child. The listener is confronted with dissonance from conflicting ideas, yet they are met with a journey that leads them back to a truth they believed all along.
This drives the story because it is not just a repetitive tennis match question and answer interview, the voices peak through when a narrator is not able to completely translate the raw emotion.
Interviews in podcasts are not the succinct interviews that are broadcast on daily news channels, instead Heidi and her husband are able to trail off and are not interrupted. There is no five minute cutoff, instead there is a lingering sense of openness granted to all those involved in the stories. This is a space for us to learn and, in a way, speak with another human being who has been through unimaginable strife.
I’ve gained a skillset from listening to famed podcasts. I realize now that it is more than a talkshow style radio show, podcasts aim to make you think and connect. The goal of the podcast is to teach and entertain, and to help the viewer walk away from the show with something new to share with others.