It doesn't do anything fancy

Today I want to do something slightly different from the usual pod-industry chat, and highlight a particular episode of a show and look at why it worked.

The episode in question is “Can Facebook Be Fixed?”, published by The Daily on 22 March.

Since it’s from the New York Times’ daily news analysis podcast, it focuses on the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data story that’s been getting a lot of coverage this week. The reason why I want to single it out is for its dual virtues of clarity and complexity.

I wrote a newspaper column off the back of this story this week, so I spent a fair amount of time reading and thinking about it. Yet The Daily still managed to tell me things I hadn’t read anywhere else. How did they do this? By having a very well informed, articulate guest in the shape of NYT business writer Kevin Roose, and allowing him to set out the facts of the story, starting at the beginning, without adding any extra layers of “what does this mean for the future of the internet??” hysteria. It’s handling complex concepts, but making them feel approachable by introducing them in order, without much additional comment.

Roose has done some significant reporting on the Facebook data story, but that didn’t feature directly in the podcast (if he had usable audio from his interviews, they chose not to play it). In fact, the format of this episode was very much the “two people sat in a room talking” style that gets derided sometimes. What really struck me about it was its simplicity: host Michael Barbaro just guided Roose through the story, in chronological order, of how he came to learn about Cambridge Analytica’s work, starting with accounts of his first conversations with those involved, and ending at the current moment.

Despite the question in the title, there was very little speculation or opinion involved, yet I finished the episode with a deeper sense of the magnitude of what’s happened than I got from anything I read. I found this to be a useful reminder that a) audio can have a much greater impact than the written word and b) you don’t need to have an elaborate structure or lots of effects to tell a story to best advantage.

In many cases, I’ve started to feel that some aspects of good narrative audio work are off limits to amateurs or independents, because of rising expectations about production values, scope and complexity as the form grows in popularity. Listening to this episode was a good corrective to that view. Yes, it was made by a show based inside a large media company with plenty of resources. But it doesn’t do anything fancy or expensive. The skill is in the preparation and the patient, hands off interviewing technique. It sounds as if Barbaro could have made it in his bedroom with kit that cost less than $300. There was nothing else required.