The Making of NPR's Hit Podcast 'Embedded' : NPR Extra Listeners and the iTunes charts have been gripped by the premiere of the stark, raw and deep reporting coming out of NPR's latest podcast, Embedded...
NPR logo The Making of NPR's Hit Podcast 'Embedded'

The Making of NPR's Hit Podcast 'Embedded'

Embedded Host Kelly McEvers Jay L. Clendenin/NPR hide caption

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Jay L. Clendenin/NPR

Embedded Host Kelly McEvers

Jay L. Clendenin/NPR

Listeners and the iTunes charts have been gripped by the stark, raw and deep reporting coming out of NPR's latest podcast, Embedded. The first season follows host Kelly McEvers, of NPR's All Things Considered, and other NPR reporters as they embed with a range of people and places, like a rural Indiana town where HIV is rampant. For Kelly, coming up with the episode topics for Embedded was a natural process: "Each story happens organically. It always comes back to something that happened in the news made us curious and want to know more." What can be more difficult is tracking down people who are willing to be interviewed and earning their trust. What's it like when your interview subjects play cat and mouse or when they give you pieces of the puzzle but not the whole story? And how do you whittle 30 hours of tape into a 30 minute podcast?

Kelly shares that and more in this interview with NPR Extra.

After you choose a topic and location for an Embedded story, how do you find the subjects to interview?

We get on a plane, and we go to the place. We use all of our reporter skills. We use Facebook. We use Twitter. We go through the phonebook. We read newspaper articles from the local place. We look at the other media and see who is already talking about this. If it is a difficult subject, like the biker story or the Indiana story, we start there. This person has already talked to the media. Maybe they will talk to us. Then, we start with them and get their story. Sometimes it is really hard.

In Texas, we were there for four days before we got anybody to talk to us. We were going through Nexus getting phone numbers of people and cold calling them. We were driving up to people's houses and knocking on the door. That is how we found one guy. We found out where he worked, so we went to see if he would talk to us. That didn't work. Sometimes it happens really fast where someone is like,"yeah you can come in here and talk to us." Sometimes it is four days of people hanging up the phone.

What happens when you go in and a story isn't want is seems and you have to pivot?

It happened constantly. Every time you go in thinking it is going to be something and it is something else. With Indiana, for instance, we were super curious about how addiction in a community could lead to an HIV outbreak. It is clear, right? Sharing needles. But, we didn't understand the nature of the drug itself was part of it. The laws in the area were part of it. This is the beauty of the podcast. You can be super transparent. I didn't know what the hell was going on. Here is what I think is going on. Here are the questions I think that I have. Then, halfway through, once we get there, I am like okay. Here is what we know. Here are the questions we still have. The hope is that the curiosity and those pivots mirror what is happening in a listener's mind.

How do you earn people's trust and get them to be their authentic selves and share their story?

Embedded Host Kelly McEvers Jay L. Clendenin/NPR hide caption

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Jay L. Clendenin/NPR

Embedded Host Kelly McEvers

Jay L. Clendenin/NPR

If I had a checklist of how to gain people's trust, then it almost feels like it would be somehow less sincere. I go in, and I tell the truth. I have my microphone out from the beginning. I am like this is who I am, this is what I want to do, do you want to be involved? It is being really honest and straightforward and making it clear from the very beginning that if they don't want to talk, they don't have to. It is their choice. They are in control. I am not trying to manipulate them. There is a great line from Janet Malcolm's book, The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

It is something that I keep in mind all of the time. We are going in and we are taking something from people. We are taking their stories away from them. Her argument is that we aren't giving them anything back. I always think about that. What am I actually giving this person, if anything? The way I have come to justify it, is that I am genuinely listening to these people. For some people, that is a good thing for them, to feel that someone is genuinely listening. Usually, when you feel that, you start talking.

You have all of these hours of tape. How do you whittle it down to a narrative?

We are still tweaking everything up to the very last minute. It is never done. The general rule is that we get an hour of tape for every minute on the radio or the podcast. We are talking 30 hours of tape for a 30-minute podcast. The great thing about these pieces is that, because it is based on field-reporting, we aren't trying to rearrange the order of things. The order is the way it happened, beginning, middle, and end. How do you narrow it all down? It is really hard. There are times when you know the narrative needs to go slow. There are times when you know it needs to go fast. That is a gut thing too. I know as soon as I record something, I am like holy crap that is going to be a moment in this piece. It is grueling and arduous, but totally worth it.

What does being in the field allow you to do that being in the studio doesn't?

They are both great ways to tell stories. Some of the best storytelling podcasts are done largely in the studio. In the studio, you are retelling something that has already happened. You can get that person, and get a really good quality recording of their voice. You can cover the story step by step. You can go back again. In the field, whatever happens happens. You are bound by what happens. That is all you got. You don't get to go back and be like, "let's perfect this one moment."

How do you want people to feel after listening to Embedded?

I want them to have a deeper understanding of things, like drug addiction, motorcycle clubs, or the violence in El Salvador and where it comes from. That is why we do journalism. I really want people to feel empathy. I want them to stand in my shoes, as I am talking to these people and feel they are listening to people as much as I try to.


NPR's new podcast Embedded is available in the iTunes store, at NPR.org/Embedded and in the NPR One app. New episodes are available each Thursday. Keep up with podcast host Kelly McEvers on Twitter at @kellymcevers, and join the conversation using the hashtag #NPREmbedded.