NPR's Kelly McEvers on creating long-form podcasting with emotional impact

Kelly McEvers, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, tells Sean Czarnecki about her podcast project, Embedded.

Image via Jay Clendenin / NPR
Image via Jay Clendenin / NPR

Embedded launched in March — how did it come together?
I was in the Middle East for years as an NPR correspondent but I’d only done two or three military embeds. When I came back to the U.S. a lot of people said, "That reporting you did where you get out and get on the ground, you should keep doing that." I kept that in the back of my mind.

Add that to the rise of podcasts and it quickly became clear people wanted to listen to journalism in long form—this thing NPR has been doing for decades. We started kicking around ideas of what a podcast would be, what it would feel like, and it came to me: "What if we called it Embedded?" The idea is we’re embedded in a place that’s been in the news and we see what happens.

What does Embedded’s emotional approach to the news say about podcasts?
It’s OK to be a human being. I do it not because I’m so interesting and important; I do it because it’s a really powerful storytelling device. You want to be a stand-in for the listener. It’s also transparent and honest. It’s a way to force people to have empathy.

Images for The Hospital episode photos via David Gilkey / NPR. Gilkey sadly was killed on June 5, 2016, while on another assignment for NPR in Afghanistan.

In that moment in our story The Hospital, when that girl dies, I don’t want you thinking about me. I want you standing at that hospital door and knowing what it feels like for those [Doctors Without Borders] doctors, the mother, and everyone who tried to save this life.

The numbers tell the story — people are listening. People want [hosts] to be human. The more you’re a person, the more people identify with you. Radio is already intimate because it’s all about voices. With podcasts, people are literally sticking ear buds into their ears and making the choice to spend 20 minutes with your program.

You recently asked for pitches from listeners. How do you interact with your audience?
By taking a story from the news and going deep, we’re following a natural curiosity about stories like the Waco biker shootout or the HIV outbreak in 2015. I hope our listeners share that curiosity.

Asking for pitches from listeners seemed a cool way to add another layer. What are you curious about? Where do you want us to go? It seemed natural to ask, instead of assuming our interests match theirs perfectly. I want to build that more into our system. We got amazing responses and suggestions from just that callout, which we hadn’t really planned.

What are the demographics of your audience? How do you plan to build it?
With this first season, we thought: let’s just make a thing and see what happens. It has exceeded expectations. We were number one podcast on iTunes for almost a month. We had no idea something like that could happen. We’ve got more than three million downloads, close to half a million per episode. In terms of promotion and audience engagement, we just put it out there and hope people listen. We’re so busy making the show we don’t have time for engagement. Embedded doesn’t even have its own Twitter handle.

Embedded sponsors include Hubspot and — how do you develop those?
Editorial and sponsorship are separate—the firewall of journalism. Those conversations have to be kept separate, because our sponsors have nothing to do with the content.

How do you interact with PR people?
We have people tasked with getting us out there and pitching us. I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing lately, just writing essays, to talk about who I am and why I do this. We had an essay published in Lenny Letter that was read by a lot of people. One of my favorite things was an interview on Longform Podcast. But I’m a traditional journalist in that I don’t like to talk about myself and I’m not good at PR. I don’t have to handle PR pitches.

Is it difficult to transition between breaking news on your other show All Things Considered and going deep in Embedded?
I’m constantly toggling between those and a bunch of other things. It’s a weird kind of whiplash to go from long-form documentary-style reporting to breaking news or interviewing someone like Ellen DeGeneres. But it’s the job of a host to be versatile and wear a bunch of different hats. I love it. Embedded isn’t separate from the news. It comes from being in a newsroom and working in the soup of daily news. One informs the other. The fact I’m in both worlds is a good thing.

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