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Back in February of 2012 I sat in—via Skype— at Snap Judgment, a character-driven show of first-person narratives with intense sound design, on what they simply called a “meeting.”
I didn’t know what I was in for.
[ambient tape from Snap Judgement edit]
I was teaching that day, so I logged in from the library conference room at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And I sat quietly in that room for over two hours as the Snap staff methodically tore apart story after story, and then suggested new ways to put them back together.
And when I say “tore them apart,” what I mean is that they—a group of about 8 people—listened intently to each story, and then tested it from every possible angle, looking for unclear transitions, missing information, clunky narration, boring bits.
I had never seen anything like it. It was serious, fast, harsh, and smart. I felt the vibrations of swords clashing over 3000 miles and a terrible wifi connection.
After two hours they still weren’t done, but I had to get to class, so I reluctantly logged off as the sparring continued. As I turned out the lights in the conference room, I knew that I had seen something remarkable.
That’s what radio people call an “edit.” Which does not really capture the essence of what it’s like to put your work out there like that—subject your story to cold scrutiny. Later, I talked to Glynn Washington, the host of Snap Judgment, about it.
This is still your baby, but we think your baby’s ugly.
I think that just about sums it up.
I’m Jessica Abel and this is Out on the Wire episode 8: Your Baby’s Ugly. Today, we’re talking about the agony and ecstasy of the edit. PLUS we’ve got an interview with Rob Rosenthal, transom workshop guru and host of the podcast, Howsound.
[Funny Archival Tape]
I had sat in on edits before, but never one like this.
My documentary comic Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio springs out of a much shorter book I did with Ira Glass over 15 years ago called Radio: An Illustrated Guide, where I follow the production of an episode of This American Life from beginning to end.
I don’t actually remember much about edits from my time all those years ago observing at This American Life, but I do know Ira and crew did an edit in front of me. They must have, because I drew all of three whole panels about it, on page 17…
I asked Ira about it later:
JA: Out of all… the biggest surprising thing for me in this whole process was these edits. Back in the original radio book we spent two panels on this. We’re like, “just play it for people get their feedback.” And when I was there, I saw you playing a story for Alix and Nancy I think, and getting some feedback. But it wasn’t a thing.
IG Oh, it’s really a thing…That’s where the show gets made.
It’s much more time-consuming than even being in the field. We’ll do edit after edit after edit after edit after edit. We’ll spend all afternoon on one 20-minute story, and rewrite every little part of it.
All of us on Google Docs, typing in changes into the script. It’s the biggest part of making the show.
I look back on those three panels now, and it’s crazy, because now I recognize that critique and editorial collaboration are the magic pixie dust that allows their stories—and my stories—to exist. It’s what makes our stories as good as they are.
Like, that’s why the show is okay. That’s why it’s good.
So You’ve made it out of the dark forest. You’ve finished…something! Congratulations!
But if you think you’re completely out of the woods, you’ve got another think coming. It’s time to subject that adorable tender baby story to the rigors of critique. I mean, you want it to grow up big and strong, don’t you? Don’t you?!
It’s not easy to face this stage. It can feel like a real step backwards.
I mean, let’s be real: edits, critiques? They look like a mess. You’ve got a bunch of people sitting around going
“cut that part, I don’t understand this character, why is this important?”…and the worst: “mmh, enh? I dunno, something’s wrong here…”
The critiquers are pulling the piece apart. They’re undoing all the great work you’ve done. They just don’t get it!
And you’re sitting there trying to take it all in with a big fake smile on your face. And feeling like the piece will never get there. Ever.
So what’s all this “magic” stuff? What’s magic about the exquisitely uncomfortable process of subjecting yourself to critique?
Let me ask you something: When you listened to Episode 7: Dark Forest, what did it feel like to you? Did you have a sense that you were on a ride with us? That we journeyed into that dark forest, and out of it, together? Did you feel along with us the pain of the experience, and then maybe feel a bit less alone with your own creative crises? Did you also walk away with an idea of how you can get better through that experience next time it happens?
If you felt anything subtly different about that episode, if the message was clearer, or more emotional than in others, that’s the almost-unseen magic of the edit.
Because Ben and I decided we needed to run ourselves through the gauntlet of a serious pro edit on an episode of Out on the Wire, both as a way to improve ourselves, but also so we could talk frankly about how this whole process works, from experience.
We had already done a finished mix of episode 7. We could have aired the episode as-is. Any other episode, we would have. In fact, every other episode, that’s exactly what we did.
But this time we sent it to some pros to find out what they had to say.
Hi I’m robert smith.
Hi I’m jess jiang of Planet Money
And boy did they have things to say.
Robert and Jess did like the overall tone and feeling of the show, but very quickly they got right to the heart of it. For example, they had some problems with the pacing.
You start this essentially four or five times. you do a long explanation of this is what the podcast is and then you do sort of another explanation of this with the podcast is, and then you do an explanation of this is what we’re going to do. And then you do again.
I really felt like the Jad Abumrad tape of German forest, Wagner. That’s the part where I was like oh. I am now, this is something I can hang my hat on. Like, I will remember this moment. And this is when, I felt like the story, the false starts were over. And this was this was going to be the beginning.
You don’t hear Wagner until it’s like seven minutes in.
Seven minutes in?! Jeezus.
I’m thinking: oh, man, I’ve been wasting like seven minutes plus of people’s time EVERY SINGLE EPISODE??
And anyway, don’t I need to tell you who I am, and what this show is about?
You don’t have to do as much business as you do because it’s a podcast. people can look down. See your name. See the title. All that stuff is there right. Episode seven. That’s all there.
Right. God. I’m an idiot.
What exactly is the point or the structure of the whole piece. Because I think I got a couple of feelings. I had one idea that it was kind of a survey of all of these great producers and reporters and Just them talking about the dark forest.
Or is it a show that’s supposed to tell you how to get out of the dark forest? because if it’s that, then you need the problem, and then the, like, a structure for the solutions. which I think was was a little hazy from what I listened to.
I’m 100% with Jess on this.
What’s the point of the piece? What’s the point of the piece? If I haven’t managed to say that, what have I said?
So we worked our way through the whole show, reordering big chunks, adding signposting– where we tell you: hey guys, this is the really important part! and cutting, cutting cutting, all in service to the idea we wanted to convey:
“There is this dark place in the middle of writing, it’s really scary, but it’s normal: everyone goes there, and you will get out. Here’s how to do it.”
In the end, we cut about 6 minutes and rewrote and rearranged about a third of the show.
It’s a very good thing we then had a 2-week holiday break, because it was exhausting, emotionally and physically.
And the episode shines. It’s the best piece of audio we’ve made.
HOW IT WORKS
I’ve been using examples from audio edits, but comics critiques, or prose edits, work the same way,
If you’re bored reading a comic, or confused reading a novel, or zone out in an essay, that’s all legit feedback that the author needs in order to make it better.
But how often do we really get this essential feedback? And then, how often do we listen?
How can we do more critiques, and do them better?
Most writers will have someone read a story they’re working on to get some feedback. But how many will read it out loud?
Part of the secret to why narrative radio and podcasting is so strong is that it’s audio, and therefore producers necessarily have to read or say their stories out loud at some point.
This puts them at an advantage over other narrative forms because that “saying out loud” part, which sounds so basic—almost dumb—is a big part of the magic.
- At the conceptual stage, you can hear if your idea rings false in your ears.
- At the writing stage, you can hear if your dialogue sounds like something a person would actually say.
- You can feel when you trip over your sentence structures, possibly because they don’t actually make sense.
- You can see what happens on your listener’s face
- That awkward pause when no one knows what to say? That gets your brain revving, looking for what’s missing.
- And that’s not even counting what the other person might have to suggest…
OK, so you’re convinced. You’re convinced, right? You’re gonna sit down and read your story to someone, or ideally a group of someones?
But then, what? How do you actually do it? Or more to the point, how do THEY do it?
The number one tip I learned from all these super-experienced editors is that you don’t have to be a super-experienced editor to have good feedback. Here’s Robert Smith:
It’s funny we talk a lot here about the reporting process and about the writing process and structuring process. But editing is super hard to talk about because you’re essentially talking about your internal feelings.
Like, you know it’s, it’s, I don’t know how Jess feels. I only know how I feel. and I have to pay attention to the moments where I’m confused, and the moments where I’m bored. and so weirdly editing becomes this almost like biofeedback kind of thing? where you’re where you literally trying to say to yourself, how do I feel listening to this? I’m listening to it. But how do I feel? Do I feel anxious to I feel impatient?
Yeah it took me years to figure this out because for the longest time I would have a feeling but not quite know how to articulate it, and not, not be able to find the source of it. and so I feel like now I finally got into the place where I’m like, oh I’m bored. Like that’s why I’m not liking this part. Like I am so wrapped up in that that like, This is joy. Like this is the feeling of feeling delighted by this.
And the key for me was to link that to the script.
Robert and Jess use a technique that Alex Blumberg brought over from This American Life, called hand-logging, It’s almost like an edit EKG – a way to monitor that biofeedback you’re producing, as it happens.
They write down just a single word or two for each idea that comes up, and as they go, they write little symbols next to spots where they had some feeling about what they think should happen.
Everyone does it slightly differently.
Tape cuts get indented, arrows down mean speed it up, a big circle means boring, a question mark means you’re confused, or whatever. You can make up your own symbols.
It’s a way to create a picture of the whole piece on just a sheet or two of paper, a way to remember what you felt as you listened.
Because I used to edit a long time ago, you know fifteen years ago. And when I would get bored or start to think about other things, I would blame myself. I’m just like, ugh, I’m a bad listener. I’m a bad editor. Stop thinking about dinner. Stop thinking about all the other things your life. focus focus focus focus focus on the story.
And it was. It was, it was until much later when I realized no that’s not my job. It’s the job of the host, it’s the job of the reporter to keep me interested. So if my mind’s drifting that’s not a failing on my part as a listener. That’s a failing on your part as a storyteller.
And that something needs to be fixed in the edit.
So: pay attention to your attention, as a listener. And take some notes.
This biofeedback idea rang a bell for me. As I was working on the book Out on the Wire, both Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler of Radiolab talked extensively about how they’ve trained themselves to feel the story in their bodies.
If you’re gonna understand what’s happening in a story, you’ve got to listen to your body. I’ve trained myself to not really be super self-conscious about it, but if I happen to shift, I’ll notice that. I’ll just timestamp, mark it. I won’t talk, I won’t think, about what was wrong or right. When you’re in that mode, you don’t have a clue. All you know is, works, or, don’t works.
You have to mark those spots to go back later and think, okay, why.
But why is later.
Later, you can work on having really sharp suggestions for how to fix things. But to start? Just listen and feel. You don’t need the answers. Trust how you feel.
For example, Robert had some very specific feelings about how our episode ended. As with the beginning, he had that “ending” feeling multiple times, way before we got to the challenge, even.
So I’m listening at home this morning, and the point came to where I thought it should end, and I just stopped it and went to brush my teeth. And then I came back and I listen to the rest of it.
So you’re like oh there’s another seven minutes here.
He BRUSHED his TEETH.
Any narrative artist who does not listen to THAT edit is a fool, and deserves whatever they get.
So if critiques and edits are so damn great, why doesn’t everyone do them? I mean, yes, they’re a lot of work. And then you’ve got so much more work to do on your story afterward, to incorporate what you learned.
But that’s not it. The real reason people don’t do is that they’re scared.
We love our stories like our sweet little babies, even when we’re most down on them. Maybe more than ever in those moments. It’s really hard to listen to criticism, and sometimes even harder to incorporate it.
Even Ira Glass takes it hard (he just knows better than to let it show).
Me, I get really mad. I get so mad. It’s not good to show. I feel so like, NO. No, this is good. I’m sure it’s good.
When you’re getting edited you get mad about it?
I totally get mad. I’m a fucking baby. And and i mean, I know you know, it’s not good to show that. I know better, I try to keep it to myself. But I’m a big baby. Yeah, because I feel like…
I totally have a part of me which is just like, do you know who I am?
I know what I’m doing. I’m really good at this. I hired all of you. And you work for me. That’s right underneath the surface. And. like, I totally… know that I’m completely in the wrong. There’s no question. I’m 100% in the wrong. They’re right and I’m wrong. It’s like, Encountering your own failure.
And believe me when I tell you I know what this feels like. I recorded this audio diary in the midst of reworking the Dark Forest episode.
I had to tell Ben that we had to keep working it wasn’t done on Friday.
And Ben says to me: he didn’t look good. Ben did not look good. he says, I feel really beat down.
That’s the dark forest, feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing
The edit can put you right back there.
The edit is destabilizing. pulls the rug out from under you a little bit. There’s moments when that can feel kind of good–will lead to a new idea, moments when you think, no, wait, I thought I knew what I had here, and you realize you don’t. That’s when it gets really difficult.
So it’s hard. I rewrote the Dark Forest episode at least four times. Ben and I went through three full versions, tracked four times. Ben remixed the show twice. We got it out that Monday by working all weekend. But it is better than any other episode by miles, and all I really regret is that we didn’t have that kind of edit every single time.
In some ways, the structure of this show is itself the ultimate proof of how strongly I believe in the idea of incorporating feedback and collaboration into our process. I built the whole concept of the show with Ben around the challenges I give to listeners, and we built our online community, the Working group, to create a place where anyone who chooses to can get the kind of feedback they need to help move their stories forward. Even if you’ve never visited the Working Group, You know how important that is: You’ve heard the kind of work we’re doing there via the Workshop episodes.
I did that to demonstrate that writing locked away in a cave is not the best, fastest, happiest way to work. That as difficult as giving and getting feedback can be, it accelerates your creative process enormously, and doesn’t hang you out to dry when you’re stuck.
Focus sessions, critiques, edits are shortcuts to excellence.
Back near the beginning of my research for Out on the Wire, I visited the Transom Story Workshop, where I sat in on a long class session where four students discussed their stories. I talked about that visit way back in episode 2.
[tape ambience from transom workshop]
Rob Rosenthal is the teacher. He has an unusual, powerful teaching style. He pokes at something, and then just lets it ride until things click into place for the students, and they discover for themselves what he was hinting at.
As these new producers thought through their narrative problems and came up with the answers on their own, I could see the process clicking for them. They were becoming the effective, supportive colleagues everyone wants, right in front of my eyes.
One of the most difficult skills to learn as a creative person is not how to receive useful criticism, but how to give it. I wanted to spend a bit more time talking to Rob about how he instills this skill in his students.
I’m Rob Rosenthal, I teach radio. I’m also the host of How sound too. Which is a podcast about audio storytelling.
My sense is that most people are ready know the answers to their own questions. They just need the time and space to figure it out themselves. Like, I think one of the most important things I can do in the class is is to set it up in such a way that we’re a production team. And it’s our job. In the course of eight weeks To produce eighteen stories. with people who pretty much have never produced radio stories before it’s kind of ridiculous task.
everyone in the class is an editor. And I think it’s my task as a teacher to just step back or lean back in my chair a little bit and let the conversation happen. So that, you know people get a chance to play both roles. Producer and editor. And then you know I’ll step in at some point. I mean every now and then I’ll jump in if I, like a flare needs to be sent up and there’s some ethical question or some or I just really think they’re off on Thunder island somewhere and it’s just like they’re never going to swim back. But mostly you know. Mostly like, Let the class teach itself. And I’ll be there to, you know. Spot people.
You did, come in…The day that I was there, you highlighted a few things for people that they weren’t quite homing in on.
that’s the thing that I struggle with the most is: It’s like parenting. Like when do you let your child do the thing that they need to do in order for them to learn on their own. Or when do you helicopter in You know and take care of it for them.
I struggle with that with my kids and.This is not to say that the students in my class are my kids but I think there’s a there’s a you know there’s a comparison to be made there. and so I frankly Never really know exactly when to step in and when not to. And so my inclination is to step back and stay back. And maybe it’s a little longer than I need to.get in the reviews at the end of the workshop but I’d rather err on the side of silence than you know talk too much and suck the oxygen out of the room.
So if I’m not holding their hand all the time. I don’t think I’m helping them develop the muscle that they’re going to need later on when they get out in the world where it’s actually harder.
e is a lot of times I will talk about these things. Turning points. Structure. Focus sentences. Scenes. Sometimes I’ll talk about them in the moment when the student seems to need it.
But the class itself has an arc. You know and they’re all sort of traveling at the same speed and so there is like. There is a developmental, There are developmental stages, I think.
so anyway. When we reach particular points for students, That’s when I’ll teach that stuff.
I definitely start talking about focus sentences. And having an overarching question that your story is trying to answer. I talk about that right from the get-go.
And I do that because frankly developmentally it makes sense. because I feel like. Having those things in place in pencil beforehand at the very start of your reporting is really valuable, because if you don’t have them, there’s a risk. And the risk is that a student will think everything is important, and record and talk about everything with the person in their story. And guess what, Everything is not important. It’s a disappointing thing to learn. But not everything someone says is valuable, At least to the story.
the other thing I’ll front end load is I will talk about scenes. And we will actually plot out how we think a story might be told. how what the opening might be. Maybe what’s the ending. What’s the stuff in the middle. where where would you record what things would you record how would they relate to the ideas in the story.
course first step on road. So what I’m trying to get at is like how do you step into that role. What is that what are the steps required to become that person who can later be, You know a Robert Smith.
Here’s what happens. OK. So in class. When it’s time for students to start work on their creative life stories. One of the things we’ll do. Is this. we’ll talk about what they think their story is the student will talk about it and then it’s our job to poke some holes in that. And will do that as a group. And to sort of brainstorm what we think maybe the story’s about
and then we “popcorn” questions meaning that everybody in the room. Starts firing questions that we want to ask of this person they’re going to profile and. The student sort of sits quietly and types as fast as they freaking can to capture all of these questions.
And then we brainstorm scenes. And we’re doing that as a group.
And I feel like. In that moment. Even though. The student who’s producing the story is sort of passively taking in the not passively but they’re just taking in this information. The heavy lifting might be happening on the other side. That heavy lifting, All the brainstorming that’s happening. That’s insanely valuable. It gets the, Like what I hope happens is that when they start popping these questions out and thinking about scenes for someone else. That later they’re going to go. Oh you know what that idea that I suggested for this other person in class. Duh. I can actually do that in my story. I feel like that helps them to develop the muscle that they’re going to need to brainstorm scenes and questions for their own stories in class. As well as when they leave. That makes sense.
OK so then that’s that’s step one so then what. Yeah so then the students go out in the field and they report. And then they come back and they tell us what happened. And what happens then is that we have a conversation about what we think the focus of the story is.
And it’s up to the student who’s producing the story to figure that out mostly. But the other students get to you know get to pitch in and help out. It’s almost like. You know it is like their their editor. They’re like immediately, They become another student’s editor. And so they begin to think, well you know what that thing you said about the blah blah blah? I actually think that could be the focus of your story, because…
they’re getting right there thinking like an editor in that moment. And that that muscle–I keep using that word–but that muscle. That’s that’s so invaluable. to be able to articulate and think about and deconstruct and reconstruct a story As an editor might like that. That’s insanely valuable.
We recommend that they come up with a focus sentence in pencil and a set of scenes like an outline for their story, Before they leave the building.
And that way. You know having that’s having an outline. You know a set of scenes and in a particular order before you leave is incredibly invaluable. Because as you go to report your story. You’re going to be rewriting that outline. And then when you come back, we’re going to be talking about your story, Hopefully referencing the outline. And then when you go to review your tape. You’ve got an outline handy so you kind of know which quotes are going to be valuable for the outline of your story. like having an outline That’s constantly being updated. It’s just you know Remarkably valuable throughout the whole process.
So the whole way through, they’re producer and editor.
And then when you edit each other’s stories, Here’s some things I want to be looking for. does it make sense. Are you lost. Do you know who’s talking. Where are you. Are you feeling anything when you read this script. You know that the student who wrote it did they get the factual truth. But they had that they also get the emotional truth out of the story. Do you hear the story in your head.
Once you’ve got this material and You need to figure out how to put it together and you need to get feedback on those things people. I think In my group certainly, often have a hard time finding the right people who will have useful feedback for them. Who will be able to actually hear what it is They’re doing. Pick out the things that need fixing. You know You can actually move the story forward.
If you’re not working with an editor at a show or at a station. You’ve got to figure out how to get an editor on your work outside of that. And the two ways that come to mind is how friends. You know someone who maybe isn’t a radio producer. Might be valuable because they’re going to listen with listeners ears and give you feedback. That’s you know. Realistic from a listener’s perspective. The downside to that is. They don’t necessarily know what to listen for. And how to offer suggestions from a radio producers perspective, so So having a listener. Listen to it. That’s that’s cool. But I’m not sure that’s the be-all to end all.
So to find another radio producer who’s willing to trade with you like you listen to their work. And they’ll listen to your work,that would be useful. I also know too, that in many places around the states there are listening groups. Just groups of people who get together. And once a month. They will sit down and listen to work sometimes they’ll pitch ideas to the group. Now that they’re producing for the group but they’ll run the idea by the group. Other times they’ll bring in tape and play, You know some story that’s in its early stages.
That you know and people bring food and beer and it’s it’s a cool gathering. It’s great.
That’s really helpful. OK. I think we pretty much covered it. Anything else you wanted to say about raising young producers.
I want everyone in the world to grab a microphone. Put on their headphones turn on the recorder and face the mike forward. That I just say put on a microphone. I think I did. Yeah. Where your microphone is a lapel pin or something.
No I want everyone to grab a microphone. Put on headphones turn on the recorder and face that microphone forward. And just start walking towards the thing that you’re interested in. what ever peaks your interest Stick a mike at it and make a story. That’s what I got.
That’s awesome. I’m sticking the mike it myself does that mean I’m totally self involved.
You know I’m doing the same thing on this end.
Thanks so much that was really great to talk to you. Yeah you too.
Now for this week’s challenge. Remember, we post new full episodes every two weeks. At the end of each episode, there is a challenge, designed to get you working on a narrative project of your own.
And if you find yourself in need of timely feedback, you can find it in the Out on the Wire Working Group. You join the Working Group by going to my website at jessicaabel.com/podcast, and signing up to receive my newsletter.
OK, Here’s the challenge:
Get an edit. This is different from the challenge for episode 7, where I suggested you to do a focus session, which is editorial collaboration that happens during the conceptual or writing phase of a project.
An edit is a critique, and it happens on an at-least-semi-complete draft of a piece. This is when most people think of showing their work to someone (and often chicken out).
But it’s not that common that you’ll think to read your work aloud to someone. Unless you’re critiquing comics, where the images are key, I’d say this is the moment to pull out those junior-high drama club chops, and really perform your work, even it’s for an audience of one.
Your collaborator or collaborators don’t need to be editorial experts to have useful feedback, they just need to be able to get in touch with how they feel at any given moment in your story. have them take notes as best they can, and when you go back over the work after reading it, try to listen to what they say with an open heart, as hard as it can be to hear.
I’ll have a lot more specific instructions and a downloadable worksheet about how to manage a critique on my site, at jessicaabel.com/edit.
I’ll have show notes on this episode, including
- links to the stories we mentioned today
- a downloadable worksheet on how to get the most out of an edit
- and for you edit geeks out there: we’ll post an audio file of the complete episode 7: dark Forest archive. The original episode, then Robert Smith and Jess Jiang’s edit, then the final episode.
You can find all that on my site, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.
You can also get show notes emailed to you, if you’re on the newsletter.
Out on the Wire is a crowdfunded show. We’ve got a great Patreon, where we put all of our full-length interviews, downloads of music from the show by Matt, and more. Your support is so important to us. Please join us as a patron.
We’ve got links to our Patreon at my website, at jessicaabel.com/podcast.
You can find me on twitter at @jccabel. Benjamin is @BenjaminFrisch.
We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Those links are on our webpage.
Out on the Wire is produced by Benjamin Frisch, with music contributed by Matt Madden.
Made with the support of La Maison des Auteurs, Angouleme.
Hat tip to Transom.org, where I first published some of these thoughts about the edit process. And be sure to check out Rob Rosenthal’s podcast HowSound. if you’re a fan of this show, you’ll love Howsound.
See you in a week with Benjamin Frisch and Matt Madden for a discussion of work from the Out on the Wire Working Group on our workshop episode!
And then, in 2 weeks we’ll be back with our final episode of this season: Work it.
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Includes full length interviews with:
- Stephanie Foo (This American Life)
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