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Jan. 21, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

The New York Times and WBUR are bringing ‘Modern Love’ essays to life with sounds and celebrity reads

“We’re trying to touch people just through sound, in a really profound way.”

“I’ll never forget when I sat across the table from Judd Apatow, and he looked at me after the first read, and said, ‘So, what are my notes?'” Jessica Alpert told me in an interview at the offices of Boston’s WBUR public radio station.

Alpert is the managing producer for program development at WBUR, and for the past several months has been working on a podcast series with The New York Times called Modern Love, adapted from the wildly popular Times column.

The podcast, which launches Thursday, is one part celebrity-read (or more precisely, performed) Modern Love columns and one part intimate interviews with the writer, hosted by WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti with Modern Love column editor Daniel Jones. The celebrity read section is a full-fledged audio performance, complete with background music and ambient sounds (footsteps, women laughing, a bubbling fish tank).

The postscript interview is about ten minutes long and gets to the meat of what every reader and listener wants to know: what happened after the events described the column? The essay writers who are interviewed don’t get to hear their essays read in advance — they hear the performance for the first time when their podcast episode is posted.

The idea for a Modern Love podcast came from WBUR’s Lisa Tobin, out of the station’s iLab, and Tobin and station general manager Charles Kravetz first pitched the idea to the Times two years ago. Development on the podcast began last September, with the team reading and re-reading and exchanging notes on hundreds of essays from which they could pluck the 48 that would eventually be paired with a celebrity reader and transformed into a full episode. The column has been around since 2004, so there are a lot of essays to choose from: Jones receives about 7,000 submissions a year and publishes 52.

“Not only are we picking them for their strength in terms of translating them into sound, but we also wanted a diversity of writers, of stories, of perspectives,” Alpert said. “It’s a really a careful dance. We’re building a new brand here, when it comes to the podcast. So we want to be as deliberate as possible.”

As the column’s editor, Jones had additional insight into these writers and took into consideration what he knew about the writers’ lives that didn’t ultimately run in the printed column.

“Was there more to the story than originally appeared in the column? Or a follow-up in terms of what has happened since?” he told me in an email. “Some stories would seem to yield more for that conversation than others.”

Jones helped (re)connect with the writers. As WBUR producers began casting for the celebrity-read component, they relied first on cold-calling actors and other performers they had in mind as the voices of the characters in the essays. Judd Apatow was the first yes.

These days celebrity appearances on podcasts is not unusual (Obama appeared on WTF with Marc Maron, after all), and many celebrities host their own shows. The show now has about 30 readers in the pipeline, including Catherine Keener, Michael Shannon, and Connie Britton.

The two episodes that dropped Thursday will also air on the WBUR shows Here & Now and Radio Boston, though the podcasts won’t necessarily have a permanent slot on regularly scheduled programming moving forward.

“Other programs I’ve worked on, you have a clock. It’s really different to have this ability to say, it’s going to be this long, because it needs to be this long,” Alpert said. “You still have to be disciplined, of course. If a segment is seven minutes long — does it need to be seven minutes long? It has to be exquisite. But this podcast — it breathes.”

WBUR provides the staff for the production side of things: in addition to Alpert, there’s producer Amory Sivertson, senior technical director at Here & Now John Perotti who works on mixing (the podcast is mixed in stereo), and Iris Adler, the podcast’s executive producer who also oversees all of WBUR’s new programming initiatives. Neither WBUR nor the Times shared any specifics on how revenue or costs are divided, but the podcast contains advertising sold by WBUR.

For its part, The Times has also thrown a lot of marketing muscle behind the project, promoting in print, in banner ads on their website, and on social, offering art, and more. The episodes live on WBUR’s iTunes channel, but the Times will present the episodes in its own player as well. New episodes are available each Thursday, in all the usual places podcasts live.

“We’re trying to touch people just through sound,” Alpert said. “I want people to feel something when they listen.”

Modern Love illustration by Brian Rea. Used with permission from The New York Times.

POSTED     Jan. 21, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
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