We’re doing something a little different with Career Spotlight this issue. Today’s Q&A is with Sarah Larson, a New Yorker staffer who will be writing the website’s new podcast column, “Podcast Dept.”, which launches this week.
So, I’m a big fan of Larson’s work, both the stuff she’s written about podcast in the past — including write-ups on Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Serial, Mogul, andNorman Lear’s All of the Above — and her stuff more generally, like a recent essay titled “U2 Plays ‘The Joshua Tree’: Outside, It’s America,” which is about a lot of things, but is most importantly about returning to something when you’re no longer the same.
Anyway, I thought it’d be useful to hear what Larson has to say about critical podcast writing and her approach to the matter. Let’s jump in.
Hot Pod: What do you do for a living, and how did you end up doing it?
Sarah Larson: My somewhat hilarious job title is Roving Cultural Correspondent for newyorker.com. I’ve been on staff at The New Yorker since 2001. For most of that time, I was a copy editor for the print magazine, and I also wrote theatre blurbs for Goings On About Town. I hadn’t thought of myself a journalist — my first love was writing fiction and memoir, which I have always done on the side. But in January 2013, I discovered a style of journalistic writing that suited me, for the Web site. I wrote a freewheeling post about Barry Manilow’s show on Broadway, and suddenly it was as if everything clicked. I was having fun, and it felt right. I began writing regularly for the site and for Talk of the Town, in the magazine, and in 2014 my editors hired me to write for the site full-time. As Roving Cultural Correspondent, I go out into the city and report on theatre, music, comedy, podcasts, other cultural creations, and the people who make them. I cover a very wide range of cultural work. (Including “Game of Thrones”!)
HP: How did your new podcast column come about?
Larson: I was avoiding the form of criticism, generally, because we have critics at the magazine, and that was their role, not mine. But in my writing about podcasts over the past few years, which I’ve loved and found exciting, I’ve been surprised to hear gratitude from people in the podcast community for writing anything critical at all. Everybody covers the podcasts that hit it very big, but there’s a dearth of critical podcast writing in comparison with the amount of podcasts there are — even for the bigger-budget highly produced podcasts, and, as you know, there are hundreds of lesser known podcasts beyond that. When my colleague Emily Stokes suggested that I write a weekly podcast column, I thought, Yes! It felt exactly right. It’s such an exciting time in the podcast world. I wish I’d started it a year ago.
HP: Could you tell me about how you’re approaching the work?
Larson: My first objective with this column is to listen closely, to get to know what the podcast is doing and the intentions of the people creating it, and to give the reader a sense of what the experience is for the listener and how well the podcast accomplishes its goals. It’s not necessarily to pronounce various podcasts good or bad but to take them seriously and to think about them. The landscape has changed so much in the past few years, as you know, Nick. I’m really intrigued to see where that goes in the next year or two.
I’m listening for work that creates an authentic, interesting experience for the listener and a connection to the listener, and which connects us to the larger world in a way that feels valuable. I tend to be very sensitive to sound design and its use and misuse, and to hosts’ voices, and the particular feeling of intimacy that this form can foster. Another thing I’m paying attention to is the wonderful but insidious role of storytelling, which can enhance journalism beautifully but can also become treacherous.
Basically, I want to take a look at a genre that hasn’t been one of the standard categories of criticism and do my part to pay it the respect that it’s earned in our culture in this moment. Podcasts are incredibly plentiful and diverse, and I know a great many, but I also feel like I’m on the edge of a very lush forest, curious to see what’s within. So I thought, I better get hiking.
You can find Sarah on Twitter at @asarahlarson.