How Can Podcasts Be Engaging, Aren’t They Just A Bunch Of Words?

I recently listened to a podcast after much debate and self-doubt that I would ever be able to get excited and interested in what the hosts were saying. I’ve always thought that podcasts were boring, long, and not nearly as vivid as watching a movie or reading a book. 

Well, guess what? 

I was wrong. Podcasts have the potential to be exciting, vivid and interesting so long as you can approach them with an open mindset and are doing something useful while you are listening to them. Sitting on the couch and listening to a podcast might be a surefire way to fall asleep quickly, but it isn’t the way to learn something new. Although setting and scene matter for a podcast to keep your attention, it is not the only thing that is necessary for a podcast to be excellent. For a podcast to be engaging and worthwhile, it must hit a checklist of specific points. 

Let’s take a look at the podcast This American Life, which features stories from across the country. A show of theirs that I recently listened to was titled, Petty Tyrant. This episode of This American Life was about a school janitor who went to prison for a long list of crimes that included terrorism, vandalism, arson… you get the idea; he was a bad guy. The issue was that this Janitor, Steve Raucci, somehow made his way to the top of the ladder within the school district and began to exert unjust amounts of power, influence, and torment over his colleagues. 

The host of the show, Sarah Koenig, brings us through Raucci’s rise and fall using a variety of techniques that are meant to keep podcast listeners engaged and interested throughout the entirety of her hour-long show. Although Koenig is the main host of the show, Ira Glass, another employee of This American Life sets the scene with a quirky character development story about a conflict that occurred between a teacher who wanted to use his space heater and a district electrician who was sent by Raucci to remove said teacher’s space heater. While Glass’s initial story did not directly involve Raucci, it included an order that Raucci demanded, a theme that becomes recurring throughout the story.  

When Koenig takes over the story, she begins giving it twists and turns using suspenseful narrative to guide the listener into an exciting and bizarre story about a janitor who somehow became an administrator at the school and the Union leader. All while increasing his salary, sabotaging his colleagues, and committing acts of terrorism such as planting bombs at the doorstep so his enemies. Koenig develops these twists and turns by bringing in a variety of characters ranging from Raucci’s victims to the District Attorney that prosecuted the case. In between different characters talking Koenig strategically used mysterious, slow-paced music to in the background when people describe the heinous acts that Raucci took against his victims and in between speaking to let shocking facts sink in. It is clear that the placement of the music was meticulously placed to add to the effectiveness of this story. 

The story is very well paced and allows for multiple characters to share their perspectives on the case without losing the listeners attention. The story concludes fascinatingly with Ira Glass bringing in Paul Nelson, a reporter for the Times Union Paper in Schenectady, NY who interviewed Raucci ten years after his arrest. In the final act of this podcast, we hear things from Raucci’s perspective and how he didn’t think he could hurt anyone, even though he was planting bombs. We also gain some closure when we learn that Raucci is in prison and will probably not make it out because he is dying of cancer and is refusing treatment. While the story may conclude on a “sad” note, it reminds us that the victims of Raucci’s crimes have some peace of mind knowing that he is behind bars. 

I could imagine pitching this podcast to the producers was a bit of an odd pitch. I mean, how would you even start the conversation? “Hey guys, there’s a corrupt janitor in New York who just got arrested for trying to blow a bunch of people up, let’s do a podcast.” Seriously, it sounds weird and crazy, but somehow the podcast worked and when investigated it turned out that the story went well beyond the surface of the arrest and exposed a long timeline of corruption and dishonest administrators. Give this podcast a listen; it was an exciting and pretty crazy story coming out of a place you’d least expect. It’s a good journalistic lesson about there always being a story if you look beyond the surface.