When the Northwestern alum left journalism in 2018, he joked to a friend that he would only come back to news if he could report on Taylor Swift every day. Five years later, his dream is a reality.
In the 4,000-person town of Austin, Ind., addiction to an opioid painkiller led to the largest HIV outbreak in the state’s history. The drug, called Opana, was linked to more than 200 cases of HIV in the southern Indiana town.
“Why are people doing this particular drug?” Kelly McEvers ’97 MS asks in the first episode of Embedded, a podcast that dives deep into issues in the news. “Why are they sharing needles? What is this drug?”
During the half-hour episode, McEvers introduces Clyde, whose son is in a drug rehab facility; Jeff, a veteran who became addicted to Opana after returning home from Iraq; Joy, a nurse whose addiction began after a back injury; and Devin and Samantha, an HIV-positive couple with a plan to move into recovery.
Listeners learn what these individuals’ lives were like before Opana. They hear about the social, financial and emotional impact of addiction, and what withdrawal feels like.
By the end of the story, McEvers realizes that people who are addicted to opioids can’t just quit on their own. She wants listeners to have that takeaway too.
“You want people to have empathy,” McEvers says. “My goal was for listeners to understand that opioid addiction is hard, that it messes with your brain, that it shouldn’t be criminalized, that we need to help people medically for a medical condition. That’s what I learned in the reporting, and that’s what I wanted everyone else to learn.”
As a former foreign correspondent and daily news radio host for NPR, and now founding host of Embedded, McEvers wants you to feel like you’re sitting on her shoulder.
“I am a stand-in for the listener. So how do I make them feel like they’re in the middle of this?” she asks. “And if I can make them feel like they’re standing right where I am, then they will give a shit about what’s going on, right?”
McEvers’ ability to bring listeners into a story made her a natural fit for a transition from radio to narrative nonfiction podcasting.
These highly produced podcasts incorporate interviews, narration and sound editing into immersive, intimate audio stories. Unlike interview-based podcasts like Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend or political commentary podcasts like Pod Save America, narrative nonfiction podcasts are similar to documentary films, story-driven and dramatic. But without the visual element, McEvers says, audio leaves something to the imagination.
“Audio holds back enough that your mind has to work to fill in the blanks,” she says. “You’re only hearing words and sounds, and so your brain has to fill in the image. I love that so much — that the person who’s listening completes the story themselves.”
McEvers is among the Northwestern alumni who are applying their journalism training to narrative nonfiction podcasting. Whether they’re transporting us to faraway places, helping us understand all sides of a complex situation or digging into a single story to shed light on broader social issues, these alumni are delivering diverse, compelling experiences straight to your earbuds.
In a given month last year, 41% of the U.S. population age 12 and older listened to at least one podcast, up from 9% in 2008, according to Edison Research, and 28% listened to a podcast in the past week, compared with 7% in 2013. And there’s no shortage of podcasts to choose from: According to Nielsen, there were more than 1.7 million podcasts at the start of 2021.
Some of the biggest media companies are getting in on the action. In 2019, Spotify paid a reported $230 million to acquire podcast company Gimlet Media. The following year, SiriusXM bought podcast platform Stitcher — an acquisition valued at up to $325 million — and in 2021 Amazon acquired podcast network Wondery in a deal valued at a reported $300 million.
Celebrities are paying attention too. Jason Bateman, Brie Larson and Meghan Markle ’03 are involved with podcast projects. Even Barack Obama ’06 H and Bruce Springsteen teamed up last year for an eight-episode podcast series.
The appeal of podcasts is multifaceted, says Neil Verma, an assistant professor of radio/TV/film in the School of Communication who researches podcast trends. Beyond just the practical attributes of being commuter-friendly and accessible on demand, podcasts offer a social benefit as well, Verma says.
“An important thing about podcasts … is that they’re a source of parasocial relationships. So people listen to a podcast, and then they tweet about it and make friends and form online communities through social media,” Verma explains. “Our experience of podcasts is profoundly social because we tend to share them and talk about them.”
Narrative podcasts consistently rank among the most buzzworthy. Think Serial, which spawned two HBO miniseries and is considered one of the most popular podcasts of all time, or the radio show and podcast This American Life, which is downloaded by 2.3 million people weekly.
For Jack Doppelt, professor emeritus at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, McEvers is uniquely suited to narrative podcasting.
“She was always into more in-depth reporting. Let’s get behind the scenes, get to know the people, get to know the nature of the people,” says Doppelt, who taught McEvers and has stayed in touch with her throughout her career.
By its very nature, narrative nonfiction podcasting has allowed McEvers to go deep, to fully immerse herself, and by extension her listeners, in a story. It’s a skill she first honed as a Middle East correspondent for NPR, where she sought to do things differently.
The standard way to do radio “is called ‘acts and tracks,’” McEvers explains. “You’ve got the copy and then the sound bite and then the copy and then the sound bite. It’s super boring. It sounds like a term paper.”
NPR correspondents Rob Gifford and Ofeibea Quist-Arcton showed McEvers that audio reporting could be more like theater. “You don’t just pull a quote out of an amazing conversation,” says McEvers. “It’s theater because the interaction between human beings is actually interesting. That was the big lightbulb moment for me.”
Over the years, McEvers developed techniques to bring listeners into a scene.
“I had all kinds of crazy tricks,” she says. “Counting was one of my favorites. I could say, ‘Five tanks just rolled by,’ or, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, here come the tanks. One, two, three, four, five.’
“Part of the theater is acting it out. I want you thinking, ‘Holy shit, what does it feel like to be a protester when your own government’s tanks roll in to attack you?’ Give me five seconds to feel that.”
Embedded is now in its 11th season, having covered such disparate topics as homelessness and policing, coal country, and the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette. The Capital Gazette season was named by The Atlantic as one of the best podcasts of 2021. This spring Embedded is diving into police reform in Yonkers, N.Y., where the police force is under U.S. Department of Justice oversight.
In April, McEvers launched a new podcast company, Fearless Media. In association with Spotify, Fearless released Ukraine Stories, a daily podcast about the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, featuring stories of people affected by the war in Ukraine.
Spurred by a desire to show the full complexity of Black American life, James Edwards, like McEvers, also came to narrative podcasting by way of radio.
“[When it comes to] telling stories from a Black perspective about a Black community, an important thing for me is going beyond the sensational or just focusing on the negative, and then trying to tell a broad spectrum of stories and perspectives,” he says. “For Black Americans, our lives are complex and multifaceted and not just one thing.”
As host of FRONTLINE’s Un(re)solved podcast, a five-episode series exploring the U.S. government’s effort to investigate unsolved civil rights–era killings, Edwards ’08 MS pored over legal documents and interviewed government officials, civil rights activists and grieving families. Rather than focus solely on the trauma, Edwards sought to find out more about the people involved — their lives before and after the killings.
“Early on I told myself, ‘Don’t be set to a particular story or agenda, because you don’t know where it’s going to take you,’” Edwards says. “And I just kept telling myself that — to be as open and flexible as possible.”
Un(re)solved debuted as a Narrative Nonfiction Official Selection at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The podcast was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. To complement the series, FRONTLINE also released an interactive website, a documentary, a touring augmented-reality installation and a high school curriculum guide.
Despite his initial reservations about hosting a podcast, particularly during a pandemic, Edwards soon came to embrace the role.
“With Un(re)solved, it was really different [from my previous in-person podcast work] because it was all remote. It was just me in my closet with my laptop and microphone,” says Edwards, who moved to Boston just weeks before the city shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We would ship out microphones to folks and walk them through the setup. I was worried, going in, that we were going to lose the intimacy of the conversations, but after the first couple interviews, it was just like having a phone call with somebody. A lot of those interviews ended up going two or three hours.”
During the series, Edwards speaks with Emma Jean Jackson, whose brother Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by police in 1965. Jackson describes growing up with Jimmie Lee — who some refer to as the first martyr of the voting rights movement — in segregated Marion, Ala. In another episode, listeners meet Cordero Ducksworth, who was 5 years old when his father, Roman Ducksworth Jr., was killed at a bus station on his way home to his pregnant wife.
Throughout the podcast, listeners hear Edwards reflect on these conversations and connect them to his own lived experience.
“I think about all that’s changed, and all that hasn’t,” Edwards says in the third episode. “I even think back to when I was in school ... and how I usually never had more than one or two white classmates until I got to college … where for the first time I was in the minority.”
Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Edwards was steeped in radio from an early age. “Chicago is a place where the DJs are celebrities,” he says. “Herb Kent on WVON [1690 AM] and Tom Joyner on WGCI [107.5 FM].” At Medill, Edwards honed his investigative skills, taking an urban reporting class with former Chicago Tribune columnist John McCarron ’70, ’73 MS, which Edwards says “opened me up to the urban affairs, policy-driven journalism that I was really passionate about.”
At WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate), Edwards worked as lead producer on 16 Shots, a critically acclaimed podcast that covered the shooting of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald and the subsequent murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. A collaboration between WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune, 16 Shots was, for Edwards, an opportunity to widen the lens and tell the stories surrounding the shooting.
“With 16 Shots, [we were] really trying to tell the story about not just this incident and the fallout,” Edwards says. “It was a story about the city as a whole and how we all responded — from the media perspective, a community perspective, an activist’s perspective, the police perspective and a political perspective. It was really an ensemble piece, trying to get a sense of the whole story.”
While at WBEZ, Edwards longed to linger on the stories he was telling. He wanted to learn more about the people he was interviewing. Edwards got a chance to go deeper with the South Side Stories podcast, which spotlighted people and places on Chicago’s South Side.
A collaboration with Comedy Central, South Side Stories, like Un(re)solved more recently, provided the creative freedom that Edwards had been missing.
“We would be a fly on the wall,” Edwards says of producing the 2019 series. “We went out to this nightclub called the 50 Yard Line for the episode about steppin’ [a form of partner dance with roots in Chicago]. This is a Monday night, and we were there for four or five hours, just talking to people: ‘How long have you been steppin’? What brings you here?’
“It’s cool to have that time and space. Being able to have these conversations at length, it’s just a joy for me.”
Antonia Cereijido ’14 always knew she wanted to work in audio storytelling. A lifelong This American Life listener, Cereijido got her start as a producer at Latino USA, the longest-running national radio program for Latino news and culture.
“I never lacked for ideas, [and I wasn’t afraid to be pushy] about them,” she says of her time at Latino USA. “Everywhere around me, I was constantly trying to probe things to see whether they would hold up to an episode or a segment.
Cereijido was most drawn to multifaceted stories — stories that were ostensibly about one topic but then could be probed deeper to illuminate all the intersectional issues.
“I love a true-crime podcast. But so often they don’t go the extra step to think about issues like wrongful incrimination, overpolicing or the politics of the moment,” she says. “I think all of those things really add to the story. I think you miss out on a lot of important context if you’re not thinking from those perspectives.”
Anything for Selena was Cereijido’s chance to bring multiple perspectives to podcasting. Named one of the best podcasts of 2021 by Apple Podcasts, Anything for Selena blends personal narrative with an exploration of the life and legacy of American performer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the “queen of Tejano music” who was murdered in 1995. Hosted by Selena superfan and journalist Maria Garcia, the show’s nine episodes examine issues of race, body politics, language and the history of Tejano music, among other topics.
“One of the things I loved about Anything for Selena is that it took the concept of pop stardom seriously,” says Cereijido, who co-produced the series and wrote two of the episodes. “What are pop stars if not a reflection of us? They don’t make themselves; we make them.”
Cereijido moved into hosting in 2021 with Norco ’80, a true-crime podcast based on a book by Peter Houlahan. Over eight episodes, the podcast tells the action-packed story — and aftermath — of an attempted bank robbery in Southern California in the 1980s. Billed as “part caper, part human drama, part cautionary tale,” the series explores hot-button issues around law enforcement, guns, survivalism and economic uncertainty.
In the second episode, Cereijido interviews Deputy Sheriff Andrew Delgado-Monti, who discusses the racism he faced within his own department. He recalls one incident when one of his fellow deputies called him derogatory names while their colleagues looked on.
“That squabble might have seemed unimportant in another person’s telling of that story,” Cereijido says. “But to me it was very indicative of the dynamics inside the department. When you’re able to tell a story about one thing but then show all the [other] dynamics — that, to me, is thrilling.”
Now the executive producer at Los Angeles’ LAist/KPCC, one of the largest public radio stations in the country, Cereijido oversees more than eight podcast projects. Among those, she is producing a podcast in partnership with the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Each season of The Academy Museum Podcast is based on an exhibit in the museum, with the first season — released in March — focused on the Academy Awards ceremony. In each episode, former Northwestern associate professor Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s chief artistic and programming officer and a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, examines a different year at the Oscars “and the stories behind the scenes that illuminate what we were dealing with as a country at the time,” Cereijido says.
As the number of podcasts grows, Cereijido says, attracting increasingly segmented audiences becomes more challenging. Even so, she is encouraged.
“Ira Glass and Jad Abumrad [creators of This American Life and Radiolab, respectively] did a very cool thing by taking audio stories and making them cinematic pieces on their own,” Cereijido says. “That’s what got me into radio. And I think that now we’re seeing a diverse crop of podcasters who are tackling subjects and issues and stories that feel really relevant. I think that’s so exciting.”
Clare Milliken is senior writer and producer in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.