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March 31, 2016, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In the room where it happens: The host of NPR’s new show Embedded talks about news in podcast form

Kelly McEvers: “A lot of the great storytelling podcasts happen in the studio. I hope ours opens the door to people thinking more about what you can do in the field, when things don’t go as planned and are unexpected.”

“Embedded” in the context of journalism refers to war correspondents attached to a military unit. NPR’s newest podcast, launching Thursday, borrows the term but expands it. Embedded, in its first 10-episode season, follows All Things Considered cohost Kelly McEvers and other NPR reporters as they embed with a range of people, places, and situations — from spending nearly a full week inside a house in Indiana with people addicted to the opiate painkiller Opana to following Skid Row residents and police officers on patrol.

“How many times have you seen something in the news and thought to yourself, I want to know more?” said McEvers, who was sent to Baghdad in 2010 and covered the unrest in the Middle East from the Arab Spring to the beginnings of the Syrian conflict, until she returned to the U.S. in 2013. Last September, she and Ari Shapiro were added as cohosts of NPR’s midafternoon newsmagazine All Things Considered. “We go to that place, we choose a corner, a person, a house, a block, and go in there until we’ve answered all the natural questions that come up from that news story.”

embedded-podcastEmbedded is fundamentally intended to be a news podcast, and an expansive one — affording McEvers, her producers, and other reporters time to explore one specific area and follow up with its characters, sometimes even without the certainty of a story. (All Things Considered radio stories might run longer than most NPR news pieces, but 10 or 11 minutes is generally the upper limit.) It’s produced virtually all in the field. It’s a podcast that makes good and full use of NPR’s newsroom resources — “this is a podcast that from the get-go has come from the newsroom” — and versions of the stories will also appear on All Things Considered. McEvers herself will also join Tom Ashbrook on On Point to discuss episodes.

McEvers spoke with me this week ahead of the podcast’s launch about the podcast’s very newsy origins, the way her radio and podcast experiences have been mutually beneficial, and letting listeners into the room where the journalism sausage is made. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Shan Wang: How did the idea for the podcast come about? Whose idea was it, and how did you come to be its host?

Kelly McEvers: If you’ve been working in audio in the last couple of years and you don’t want to start a podcast, you’re kind of crazy! Back in 2014, when I first started coming up with this idea, I was just thinking, oh hey, I love making audio and I love experimenting with new forms and new places to tell stories, and I want to have a podcast. What kind of a podcast would I do? A lot of my friends who are in radio are thinking the same thing — what would my show be? I started talking to the bosses at NPR, and honestly, I was super lucky to have awesome bosses at the time who said to play around a little bit and just see what works.

Immediately I was like: Let’s go out and report some stuff and see where we go from there. Here’s what makes NPR different from other places making podcasts — we have a full newsroom. That’s just not something you can wave a magic wand and have if you’re a startup. I was already working in a newsroom. You’re surrounded by people who are covering the news and talking about the news and thinking about how to cover the news and have just reported on something. It was my newsroom colleagues who said: Why don’t you pick a story we’ve covered well in the news magazine, but you want to go deeper on?

This is how I’ve always done things as a reporter: I listen and I read and I try to find the whole story. The idea of having 100 percent field reporting — this is just what I love to do.

One of the early experiments that lead to this happened last year. It was one of the early shootings by police of an unarmed black man and it was in Los Angeles on Skid Row. My editor at the time when I was a correspondent on the national desk said, grab this very talented producer we have here who’s already done a bunch of pieces, and just go and hang around Skid Row for a bunch of time, and see what it feels like to go and spend longer reporting something and turning it into a longer form story. And that’s how this all got started. This is exactly how we do our news coverage, but it’s just a few extra days to spend to see what we might find.

We came back and put together a piece, and that piece will be in the first season of Embedded. It was only then that we realized that going out and choosing a place, based on a story you’ve seen in the news — that could be a cool format. How many times have you seen something in the news and thought to yourself, I want to know more? We go to that place, we choose a corner, a person, a house, a block, and go in there until we’ve answered all the natural questions that come up from that news story.

If I was a freelancer sitting at home in my office, I could never have done this. What is the benefit of being surrounded by hundreds of people who are working in the news all the time? This is it. It’s people who are smart enough to say to me: Take some extra time, think about these other opinions around a news story.

Wang: Is there a specific separate editorial process for the podcast, and how you pick those news stories to expand on? Have all 10 in the first season of Embedded been reported out already?

McEvers: Oh no, no — there are several still being reported. The Skid Row story was a very, very early experiment that we ended up doing a version of for Weekend All Things Considered. From the beginning, these all come from the newsroom and news magazine. The weekend show was a wonderful place to experiment a little bit with time and format, but we’ve since reported that story a ton. We’ve constantly gone back over the course of the year to update it.

The next story we reported is the one that will be the first episode of Embedded. It’s the one you heard in the trailer, from Indiana. The headline there was last February: HIV outbreak in Indiana. That’s one of those instances we covered so thoroughly, especially on All Things Considered. We interviewed a lot of people. But again, it’s one of those stories where you’re thinking: Man, I bet that in addition to the news magazine coverage we’re doing on this, it’s the kind of story that would really benefit from serious time on the ground. Not a whole lot more than you would do for your four-minute All Things Considered story — just a couple of extra days.

We spent a total of six days in this one house where people are addicted to this specific drug at the center of this HIV outbreak. We had a series of questions. How do people start doing this drug? Why do they share needles? By just staying inside this one house, getting embedded, we answered those questions. Those answers were not comforting.

So this is a story where we did a lot of the reporting last spring, but we were just back there a week ago. We updated the podcast episode, we’re going to do material for All Things Considered. We took one trip to Indiana, and got all this material that go out on all these different platforms. We started last year but have been reporting on it over the course of the year.

This is the just like the kind of reporting you’d put in for a cover story for a Sunday magazine, or a story for a magazine like The New Yorker.

Wang: Who else is working on this with you?

McEvers: I’ve reported several of the episodes along with my colleague and producer Tom Dreisbach, who’s amazing. And some other NPR reporters are going to report some pieces. Ailsa Chang is working on one. Jason Beaubien and I are working on one together. Shereen Marisol Meraji is working on a piece as well. It’s kind of a way also for NPR reporters who are so good at their jobs already to stretch their muscles and try out something new. We’re having a lot of fun.

Wang: So there is material overlap between podcast and radio — the tape gathered initially for the podcast also being used in various ways for on-air programming?

McEvers: Sure. Every single podcast will appear in some format on radio, because, well, we are the radio. I’m sitting here right now staring at a script on the Indiana episode, which clocks in at about 30 minutes. We’ve got an 11-minute version that will appear on All Things Considered the same day that podcast drops.

This is similar to what we did for Invisibilia, what we do with Planet Money, with Hidden Brain, NPR Politics podcast pieces we rerun on our show.

Wang: So what’s the workflow and workload like, doing two shows at different paces?

McEvers: Well, I was like yeah, this will be great — I can exist in both these worlds, the podcast and the radio show will support each other, it’s totally organic, I’m on a reporting trip for All Things Considered and then things happen that I can use for the podcast. That’s all true, but uh, yeah — it’s a lot! It’s all awesome, but it’s a lot. I think I’m like most journalists in that I do better when I have too much to do.

I wouldn’t say it’s twice the work, but I’m going to go with something along the lines of 1.7. 1.65?

The Indiana HIV story is a good example of how this should work. Because there was this lag time, we had to go back and re-report stuff. This isn’t just a piece of entertainment. It isn’t an episode of Mad Men we can put out and say, here it is! We have to find these people again, see what they’re doing. That dovetails perfectly with All Things Considered: One year later, the HIV outbreak, what’s happening? We can do that news story we would’ve done anyway, and also check in with all the people from our documentary piece. That was beautifully seamless. We also did a listening event for the podcast; I did some station stuff for NPR. It was three days in Indiana, and I would’ve been in Indiana for these days anyway for All Things Considered. I was able to do both things during that same amount of time.

Wang: Is this your first podcast? Are there things you’ve learned not to do, things that don’t translate when working on these longer episodes that are not confined to a specific time and maybe place of listening even?

McEvers: There’s some stuff I always did that I always felt was overkill when I did it for a news story, that is now finding a home in the podcast world. I’m the kind of person who rolls tape the entire time. I’m rolling tape in the car. Everywhere. OK, maybe not in the shower, but everywhere else. In the bathroom, even. When you’re working on a news story, you’re not going to go back and listen to 30 hours of tape. This is a world where I can actually roll all that tape, and it kind of makes sense.

One of the things we’ve learned from podcasts is that process is interesting to people. Raising the curtain a little — but not too much, the story is obviously not about you — to show: How did you get here? How did you find that biker dude in Texas?

I’ve ended up learning a lot about writing. I’ve always tried really, really hard in my radio stories to sound like a person. How would I tell this story to my friends? When my mom asks, “What are you working on?” and I say “Well, I just got back from Syria, and here’s what I found.” I always try to write a story like that anyway, but with a podcast even more so. You’re really trying to put yourself in a place of being a person very casually telling someone something, as opposed to this omniscient, all-knowing anchor-radio correspondent voice.

embedded-itunes-charts-screenshotIt sounds so easy to just say, be yourself. But it’s hard. I was saying to a good friend of mine in radio recently, that nobody told me how hard it would be to “be myself,” especially when I’m hosting. You sit in that chair, and the lights are on, and you’re in this specific role, and you can start to sound like somebody else, or somebody you think you’re supposed to be.

With podcasting, the demand for being yourself is even stronger. People really want to hear somebody who’s flawed, who makes mistakes, with false starts, someone who goes down bad rabbit holes and who doesn’t always have all the answers. You can say all that in a normal, transparent way. You can say: I screwed up. I should’ve done this. I didn’t do that. You can say, I was thinking one way, but I’ve now changed my mind, because I’m a human being. The personal aspect is something I’ve learned. When I sit down to write a podcast, I try to be in that place.

Wang: And has that gone the other direction, changing how you work on All Things Considered?

McEvers: When I went to the bosses in 2014 to say I wanted to do a podcast, one of the reasons was that I wanted to figure out how doing a podcast could make me sound better on the radio, and how doing radio could make me sound better on a podcast. That sounds super corny, but if I exist in both spaces, what I hope is that I can be better in both spaces too.

My podcast is a news podcast. I’ll wake up every morning and go to a meeting with all the people who run All Things Considered, really smart people, whose job it is — and some of them for as many as 30 years — to do nothing but think about the news. That skepticism and contextual analysis is always going through my head when I’m doing a podcast. The same when I come to All Things Considered: How can I be a conversational person on a radio show? How can I make this something people might want to hear, in their earbuds?

Wang: A couple of weeks ago there was that kerfuffle over editorial guidelines around NPR promoting podcasts on air. Embedded instead is this very integrated show — it’s airing shorter versions on All Things Considered, which along with Morning Edition doesn’t come in podcast form, and you’re appearing on other on-air programs that are also available as podcasts. Was that the place for the podcast from the very beginning, to be entwined with radio, to get all that cross-promotion?

McEvers: I don’t make the decisions about those other things. Here’s what I know about my own project, and this podcast. This is unique because it’s a news podcast. So this is a podcast that from the get-go has come from the newsroom. It’s something that’s happened in conjunction with news managers. There was never any question that when you’re going to do good journalism, you’re going to put it on the radio. You’re going to put it on as many platforms as you can.

A lot of the great storytelling podcasts happen in the studio. I hope ours opens the door to people thinking more about what you can do in the field, when things don’t go as planned and are unexpected. Part of what we do is get embedded somewhere and just see what happens. That’s a little scary, a little risky, because sometimes things don’t happen. You might just have to be there until something does. I like that it’s riskier.

Hopefully this will spark others to do the same, to get out there, instead of planning it out in the studio, and finding that right person who’s going to say that perfect thing. This is something off of the news, something you know that there’s this initial interest for. You take that as your cue, go into the world, and wait for something to happen. It’s also a fun way to live.

Photo of Kelly McEvers by Jay L. Clendenin/NPR.

POSTED     March 31, 2016, 9 a.m.
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