Radiolab’s “Playing God” – everything a podcast can be.

In order to write and produce a quality podcast, you have to familiarize yourself with the gold standard. For me, this episode of Radiolab covers all bases of what podcasting can be. The following was written for my Health Communication class, so you’ll see references to articles and other resources.

It’s not uncommon for a podcast episode to stick with you. It’s more rare when an episode like “Playing God” comes around. I had a visceral reaction to this particular episode of Radiolab. Beyond being heart-wrenching it left a huge impression on me from a podcast production standpoint, as well as just being an audience member. I’m an occasional listener of Radiolab, but I have never heard this episode before. This podcast is very well-produced and thought out, as are most with beginnings in Public Radio. The topic was triage, but the stories were what made it so interesting (Abel 2015).

The podcast spoke about real medical events, but in a broader picture, it was more about a public health issue. How, in a crisis, can people decide who to save and who to let go? It’s a philosophical question and hugely complicated. I think the appeal of this episode is the fact that no one in the episode, nor its listeners, could possibly have clear-cut answers. I found the post-Katrina planning interesting because COVID-19 seems to be the event (or next crisis) they were planning for. Sheri Fink, the main thread throughout this episode, said in a recent interview about COVID-19: “We certainly have seen in Italy, for example, [places] where some hospitals were so overwhelmed that doctors described having to choose who got a ventilator, much as the doctors in New Orleans had to choose between patients to rescue” (Bambury 2020). 

(  Photo Credit: Twm / flickr )

I found the storytelling throughout the entire episode most engaging, especially with the use of ambient noise and stories being told by the people who were actually there. I first think of the story told by the nurse at Memorial who was trying to use an ambu bag on a patient who needed oxygen, how she let him go, then sat in the chapel for a long while. This was a real hook to the episode for me and I was very invested in it at this point. The personal stories about the individuals who were sick and left behind were heart-wrenching (the man with the spinal cord stroke on the 7th floor). As writer and podcaster, John Hodgman says, “Specificity is the soul of narrative” (Hodgman 2015). The little details, like the man feeding himself breakfast and saying, “Don’t let them leave me behind,” really stick in your memory because they are so specific and so human (Adler 2016). Then, of course, the woman from Haiti who needed oxygen. In a short period of time the audience becomes really attached to this woman, just like she left a mark on the medical personnel and Sheri Fink in the episode. Hearing her ask for oxygen, gasping for air was almost too much to listen to. You can’t help but imagine what it was like to be there.

One take-home message about effective podcasting is to use storytelling whenever possible. The more storytelling, the more likely you’re going to engage people (Stetted 2021). This is something Public Radio really has down that other, less professional podcasts just do not engage in enough. Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” coined the term “driveway moment.” He says, “People are hungry for good stories and they recognize them instinctively. That passion for a well-told tale is where the ‘driveway moment’ comes from: the radio story that’s so compelling, you sit in the driveway, car still running, just to hear how it ends” (Nelson 2010). My favorite podcasts use storytelling.

Another element I liked from this episode was the use of ambient noise from the hospitals and war zones, as it made the experience more immersive. The woman from Haiti who was finally given oxygen and able to breathe was a very cathartic moment for me. I was finishing a run while listening to this part of the episode and as soon as I stopped running, as I was out of breath, the woman took a breath of oxygen and I just broke down crying.

“Playing God” hit all the notes of podcasting fundamentals. Again, the storytelling in this episode was so engaging. Sheri Fink sought an opportunity to cover, essentially, a war zone and it turned into her being in charge of triage, sending her down this path that brought her all of these experiences. She put herself in a crazy situation, which can indirectly spawn some pretty serious storytelling (Leitman 2015).

The topic of triage seemed straightforward but proved to be much more complicated and interesting. I also enjoyed that the hosts shared the history of triage. The conversation stayed on-topic but was also conversational. The hosts are very inquisitive and curious and play the role of an advocate for the audience, wanting to know more and also interpreting the information in a way the audience can understand (understanding certain diagnoses and medications).

This episode was clearly highly organized and produced. The topic was introduced at top of the episode, and followed a seamless flow through the war-zone, Hurricane Katrina’s impacts at Memorial Medical Center, the town-hall-type followup, and then the earthquake in Haiti. The common thread was the life of this reporter and doctor, Sheri Fink.

I have personally worked on a local Orlando podcast and found it very challenging to achieve the level of production as these public radio podcasts. Not only is it a lot of work to achieve, but producers and hosts must be on the same page to put out a quality product. The easy part is getting the right equipment and logistics, but it’s the storytelling and organization that is most difficult to do well.

Podcasts are a method of mass media where information can be consumed, just like television, Internet, print material, and social media. We know now that listening to podcasts can affect levels of physiological arousal and sense of novelty in the consumption of this information, giving this form a different kind of power and potential impact on listeners (Turner-McGrievy 2013). This medium should absolutely be utilized in public health communications, as the information received through a podcast can be perceived as having more value (Turner-McGrievy 2013). Since public health’s foundational focus is prevention, podcasts are an opportunity to capture a younger, curious demographic with the rise in podcast listeners over the years (Balls-Berry 2018).

Radiolab is a very popular podcast, so they have a wide reach. As part of WNYC Studios and NPR, the show can be heard on 450 public radio stations across the country (Abumrad 2021). Even if someone doesn’t know how to download a podcast, this show can still be heard on the radio.

The production and content quality make it very enjoyable, interesting, and educational for listeners of all kind. This episode did not stereotype any groups, but rather assumes the audience is not all scientists and doctors. Across the episodes, even the more science-focused ones, were very well done and explained to the audience in an effective way. For example, in the CRISPR episode, the hosts used metaphors like the DNA editing tool being like an “assassin,” or “ninja” (Webster 2016).

According to Reddit, this podcast was very effective in reaching its goals. It definitely started a conversation and challenged listeners’ thinking. There were multiple comments like, “Radiolab is finally back to form,” and, “This has been the best episode in a long time.”

Like my experience, this episode brought a lot of people to tears: “I don’t normally get teary, but this episode is visceral as all get out,” and “The spinal stroke guy’s story was a holy shit moment.”

Audience members also respected the producers of Radiolab in not having a neat conclusion, because the subject is so very complicated, “Instead of telling you how you should think, feel, what your opinions should be, they purposefully leave it open-ended, to spark discussion and give you as the consumer the information needed to form your own opinion. That’s simply responsible journalism, which is unfortunately not as easy to come by presently. Sheri’s comment about it being a tough question is why they need to end with a possibly less-than-satisfying end without everything wrapped up with a bow. The fact that this is an issue that has not been solved yet (if it ever can be) means that we as a species need to discuss what we need to do in such circumstances. Rules and regulations can be made, but as soon as the human factor is thrown in all that becomes so much more difficult. No matter how many times “The Question” is answered, there will always be a counterargument or a specific set of circumstances that end up bringing the discussion back to the table.”

I also found an updated Reddit discussion from 2020, where many contributors commented on how “creepy” this episode was now, dealing with COVID-19: “Jad then explains in the meeting they say, ‘okay, imagine a flu that’s sweeping the country.. millions of people are sick, coughing, dying.. the only way that folks are going to get better, they say, is if they have a ventilator to help them breathe.. but the problem is.. there just aren’t enough.’ If that doesn’t give you chills, I don’t know what will.” This episode is as relevant now as it was four years ago.

Here are some tools and resources that can get you started on podcasting:

Recording equipmentAudacity (Links to an external site.) (free), Audition (Links to an external site.) (Adobe software), Garage Band (Links to an external site.), Zoom

Information on how to start a podcast: There are many books, websites, and web classes out there on how to make a podcast. One book that I read that is helpful, especially for beginners, is How to Podcast When You Aren’t Tech Savvy by Casey Callanan. My husband also purchased the Creative Live podcast class (Links to an external site.) for me but I haven’t completed watching it yet.

Resources on storytelling: These were books I really enjoyed about storytelling. Out On the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel and Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You’ll Ever Need by Margot Leitman.

References:

Abel, J. (2015). Out On the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. New York, NY: B/D/W/Y/Broadway Books.

Abumrad, J., & Krulwich, R. (2021). Radiolab: Radiolab faq Studios Flatpage: WNYC STUDIOS: Podcasts. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/faq (Links to an external site.)

Adler, S., & McEwen, A. (Producers). (2016, April 21). Playing God [Radio series episode]. In Radiolab. New York, NY: WNYC.

Balls-Berry, J., & Sinicrope, P. (2018). Linking podcasts with social media to promote community health and medical research: Feasibility study. JMIR Formative Research, 2(2). doi:10.2196/10025

Bambury, B. (2020, April 03). What can Hurricane Katrina’s hospital Crisis teach us about our COVID-19 response? | CBC Radio. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/covid-19-in-nursing-homes-hungarian-autocracy-keystone-xl-audience-free-wrestling-tiger-king-and-more-1.5518805/what-can-hurricane-katrina-s-hospital-crisis-teach-us-about-our-covid-19-response-1.5521033 (Links to an external site.)

Hodgman, J. (2015). Judge John Hodgman: Podcasts. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://maximumfun.org/podcasts/judge-john-hodgman

Leitman, M. (2015). Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You’ll Ever Need. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books.

Nelson, L. (2010, October 12). NPR’s IRA Glass Talks Passion, Storytelling And ‘Driveway Moments’. Retrieved February 21, 2021, from http://www.neontommy.com/news/2010/10/nprs-ira-glass-talks-passion-storytelling-and-driveway-moments.html

R/Radiolab – episode discussion: Playing God. (2017). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.reddit.com/r/Radiolab/comments/4yydbx/episode_discussion_playing_god/ (Links to an external site.)

R/Radiolab – playing GOD. eerie in 2020. (2020). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from https://www.reddit.com/r/Radiolab/comments/i4gjnr/playing_god_eerie_in_2020/

Stetten, N., PhD. (2021, February). Lecture presented on Podcasts, Perusal.

Turner-McGrievy, G., Kalyanaraman, S., & Campbell, M. K. (2013). Delivering health information via podcast or web: Media effects on psychosocial and physiological responses. Health Communication, 28(2), 101-109. doi:10.1080/10410236.2011.651709

Webster, M., & Wheeler, S. (Producers). (2017, February 24). Update: CRISPR [Radio series episode]. In Radiolab. New York, NY: WNYC.

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