Opinion: Podcast format improves journalism, journalists

Updated June 15, 2017
Richard Halicks (foreground) and Johnny Edwards work together on a new episode of Breakdown, the AJC podcast.

One recent morning, I joined two super-talented AJC employees hard at work in a Midtown recording studio.

Johnny Edwards, an investigative reporter, was in a sound booth reading a script he had prepared for a new episode of Breakdown, our popular podcast in its third season.

Richard Halicks, a seasoned editor and our podcasting leader, listened and occasionally broke into the recording to suggest a rewording of the script or different emphasis for a word or sentence.

I’m not sure I can adequately convey to you how rewarding and joyful the experience was for me. It’s always a pleasure to observe talented professionals at work on behalf of our readers and, in this case, listeners. And learning about something new is a special kind of fun.

But most important, my visit to learn more about the process of podcasting was the crystallization of something I’ve realized before but maybe not fully understood: Podcasting is not just another new thing in journalism, it’s a thing that will make journalism better.

» Doctors & Sex Abuse: AJC 50-state investigation

Now lest you think I’m incredibly late to the party, the whole journalism industry has embraced podcasting in recent years and that was no secret to me. Podcasting has been around since the 1980s, with several growth spurts and slowdowns. It really took off as a journalism medium after the wild success of Serial, an offshoot of radio show This American Life, in 2014. Before we knew it, there were scores of new journalism podcasts – true crime investigations, serial narratives, even podcasts about podcasting. (Contemplated: A TV show about a podcast about podcasting.) Non-journalism entities are in on the action too, and there are now hundreds of thousands of free podcasts available on iTunes and other services.More than one in three Americans have tuned in.

So if you are not among that group, what can I tell you about the podcast mystique? It’s something almost anyone who enjoys a newspaper would love.

Take the example of Edwards’ recent podcast. It grew out of our investigative series, Doctors & Sex Abuse. The newspaper carried months of stories, all in the traditional investigative genre, compelling accounts of how the medical profession allows doctors to sexually abuse patients and get away with it.

The podcast version – Predator M.D. — told the same story, but through one extremely deep narrative, rolled out over six weeks. I won’t give away the story, but you will be enraged at how one doctor eluded accountability for years. You will get to know some of his victims personally. And you’ll be guided by an authoritative host.

Podcasting embraces some of the things I love best about journalism: Deep, textured storytelling backed up by detailed reporting. Transparency on the part of the journalist, who is forced to show how he learned what he knows. Rich, evocative language and precise, concise editing.

I emailed with Edwards and Halicks and Bill Rankin, another AJC podcasting veteran, about what they’ve learned along their podcast journey.

All three stressed how different it is to gather not just facts, but the sounds that will tell stories.

Here’s Bill Rankin on that facet of the work:

“I’m always on the hunt for audio that is unusual, memorable and thought-provoking. For example, in the first season of Breakdown – the case involving Justin Chapman – when I was listening to an arson investigator interview a key witness I heard the investigator’s cell phone go off with a ring tone of ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ I knew that had to go in the podcast because it was not only interesting, it also said something about the fellow. Also, because Bremen [the town were the story was set] is a busy railway crossing, we never missed an opportunity to get the sound of a freight train in the podcasts. I also take great care in trying to get the most powerful quotes from people on the podcast – and because of the medium you can let people talk far longer than you would usually allow in a print story. Obviously, someone talking with deep conviction or an outpouring of emotion makes for great audio in a podcast. It’s something that doesn’t always translate to a print story.”

Rankin is deeply respected in our newsroom — he’s a giant in his knowledge of all things related to law and courts and a generous collaborator with other journalists. He and Halicks (an equally respected and generous editor) pioneered our venture into podcasts with a story about a “Breakdown” in the legal system in the Chapman case. Season Two followed with analysis and insight in the Justin Ross Harris case.

Halicks told me podcasting has tested the journalists’ skills in new ways.

“Telling a story with the kind of depth we prefer takes a very long time. Bill Rankin and Johnny Edwards, both exceptional reporters, can attest to that. They are both dogged by nature, but good podcasting requires more focus and determination than even they were accustomed to. They answered the call, of course — depth and substance are catnip to them. And they produced some truly memorable stories that have been downloaded millions of times.”

I asked him what makes podcasting hard.

“The same thing that makes it good: acquiring high-quality audio. The storytelling part isn’t easy, but it’s something we know how to do: we’ve been telling stories for a very long time. Using a whole new platform, new tools, new technologies, however, was a challenge at the outset. It’s less so now, because we’ve learned so much. Of course, ‘learning’ in this context means ‘making mistakes.’ So we’ve learned a lot!”

I asked Edwards what he’s learned about how podcasting works for investigative reporting.

“One of the weaknesses of investigative stories is that they are, by necessity, long. We sometimes feel that we’re asking a lot of our readers to stick with us through two page jumps just so we can get a certain point across, but then, we have to explain how we arrived at that point.

But podcasts offer a way to tell longer stories in a more entertaining fashion – with sound effects, music and an array of voices that keep the action moving forward. We don’t have to ask our readers to set aside a few hours for us on Sundays. Instead, our audience can take in these stories while driving, mowing the lawn, riding MARTA, taking a shower or waiting in a doctor’s office. It was amazing how quickly time flew by on these episodes. The medium makes the subject matter so engaging that you hardly realize 30 minutes has gone by.”

Johnny is right about that. I listen to podcasts when I walk my dog. And he’s loving the longer walks these days.

Now about those millions that Halicks mentioned. He’s right too — I checked with our experts and they told me that episodes of the Breakdown podcast have now been downloaded six million times.

What are you waiting for?

In 50 states, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found patient sexual abuse by those they trust most – their own doctors. The AJC examined up to 15 years of records from agencies in every state responsible for disciplining doctors. Video by Ryon Horne Photo: www.accessatlanta.com