The Making of Overinformed
In this two-part series, Sebastian Stephenson talks about the making of his documentary podcast, Overinformed. How does a narrative storytelling show of this type come together? Where do you start? What are some dos and don’ts if you’re thinking of making a podcast like this yourself?
I’m the producer of Overinformed, a podcast which explores the factors and fascinations of the millennial generation. To state the obvious, podcasting has exploded in the past few years, but what exactly is the process of making one like? This article documents my time making a season of six episodes over the past three years. There’s the first lesson. Don’t do that.
So how did making a show for HeadStuff come about? Prior to Overinformed, I had a podcast called Dublin Creative Review, which ran from 2015 to 2017. For one of those episodes, I interviewed Alan Bennett, the founder of HeadStuff. After that interview, we were chatting and the idea of putting a show on the HeadStuff Podcast Network came up. Autumn 2016 would be when the seed was planted for what is now Overinformed.
Part of what HeadStuff wanted was something influenced by the highly produced shows out there. Shows like Radiolab, 99% Invisible and Serial were what we were aiming for, a massive caveat being that we didn’t have the budget of those shows. So aim high with what little resources you have.
A big interest for me other than making something ambitious, was to work in a team. I knew they were in touch with a variety of contributors and would be able to assemble a team which I could bounce off. Kris Messker became a part of the team. Eventually she would have to bow out but she provided key contributions to the first few episodes and ultimately to what Overinformed would become.
Before Episode 1 was Episode 1
The original idea for the podcast would be to look at how individuals are affected by the society around them. The structure of the show would be me describing a scenario, a day in the life of someone where there would be a choice that needs to be made. That choice point would transition over to an expert explaining the factors which nudge someone in one direction or another. It was a podcast that would examine the concept and ideas of social science through narrating scenarios.
The first episode would be about millennials and the conditions in which they find themselves. Kris suggested that instead of the show being about choice, and the factors that nudge you one way or another, the show instead should be about millennials. We could approach each of the topics that were already listed from that point of view and have one episode about choice. I agreed.
We still kept the concept of a scenario and making choices but we put it in a segment which would open the first episode. Me and Kris would play out scenarios to each other we had written. I came up with one about going to a supermarket. Kris used a section of US history to try and illustrate the consequences of making choices.
We got it down to nine minutes, then around three, but ultimately it wasn’t working. We were getting feedback saying the rest of the episode is good but the opening drags it down. So we abandoned it.
Where the final opening segment came from I have no idea. Only that the person we profiled at the start of the episode is someone whose book I had beside my desk when I would work on the show. It was agreed that it was a much stronger opening. I think also it has an important function of revealing something about me and creating a connection between me and the listener, so that you would join me on the journeys we were going to be taking in this season.
Where did the idea for an episode about political correctness come from?
I thought about doing something on political correctness at the time as I was seeing the phrase being used by authors or interviewees (usually on the right wing side of the political spectrum) and I kind of wondered what exactly they meant.
I would think about what they said and felt: how can you get excited about this? This is really not that big of a deal, why are you so threatened by this? I may not have done a thing a certain way or said it like that, but just because I don’t, does not mean civilisation is ruined and we are going to die. I can’t remember the details unfortunately but this was the observation or impression I was left with.
When talking about what the episode would be, we would discuss what our own thoughts on political correctness were, the idea being these conversations would lead to an idea for how to tackle the concept in a way that was different and would stand out.
What would keep happening is that we would try to talk about the concept, we would mention a political or social issues as an example, and we would slip into discussing the example itself rather than political correctness on its own. Bear in mind this was the beginning of 2017, so some of those examples were around Black Lives Matter and the defence of All Lives Matter as a means to dismiss the disproportionate policing of black US citizens as an issue. Other examples were about transgender rights and gender neutral bathrooms.
After about the third or fourth time meeting to try and pin down the episode, I eventually came across the idea that this trickiness of trying to pin down political correctness was the angle and that we should build the entire episode around trying to express our own struggle to define it.
This is where the opening montage came from. To quickly show that your notion of political correctness may not be everyone else’s and to show that it seems to be something which is invoked and never explained.
Once we had set up that montage, we would then move to define it. We did this by doing voxpops once we showed a consistent inconsistency. This would lead to the segment on the history of political correctness. Then the panel would record and capture that struggle to define it, in a sense simulating our editorial meetings in trying to assemble the show.
One thing worth mentioning is that we did make a point of not using experts for the panel. I suggested that we try to avoid getting experts or academics or people who have studied this phrase. I thought that since this is such a slippery topic (or we were finding it slippery), that having an expert come in and define it would diminish the angle we were going for.
I was also interested in exploring how you can produce an insightful or interesting show without relying on an expert (which, if you have done a journalism degree, you would be instructed to do when producing content).
The third episode was hard in a way I didn’t expect
Episode 3, Why we are so afraid of boredom?, was straightforward in that very quickly we knew how we wanted to cover this. The topic of boredom was on my mind because of the conversation around smartphones and apps; how they eat up our time and attention and how we never need to be bored again. I remember hearing about a boring conference and it seemed there was an interest in being bored. It made me wonder about this drive to disconnect.
Also, was it better for creativity to be away from the internet? From my experience, yes, there can be ideas that come from within you but I think a lot of creativity comes from external stimulation. From what your reading, to conversations you are having, to your environment. Being disconnected would only get you so far. You need some stimulation to think about.
The opening came thanks to Kris, doing some research of studies and articles on the topic of boredom. She had come across a paper that said people would prefer to electrocute themselves than be in a room doing nothing. We were so stunned by this finding that the angle was apparent. Why are people so afraid of being on their own that they can’t be left with their thoughts and would rather electrocute themselves?
I immediately had the idea of speaking to different experts about the topic of boredom and to get their perspective on that study. I had remembered coming across a book by a philosopher, Lars Svendsen who had written a philosophy of boredom. I still haven’t read it sadly.
I remembered having a discussion with someone at a dinner party at my aunt’s house. The person I was speaking to said that the word boredom didn’t exist until the 19th century. That stuck with me because boredom seemed innate to humanity, but it was possibly a new human experience that came about from the industrial revolution. The historian I would eventually speak to, Peter Toohey, would dispel that notion. I saw his book, Boredom, A Lively History being publicised when it was published in 2012.
The technologist was not as immediate. I eventually came across James Williams after an interview for Canadian broadcaster CBC’s digital life radio show, Spark.
So I had the idea, the angle, the structure of the show (10 minutes for each conversation) and the interviews recorded. When it was time for editing and to cut down the 30/40 minute interviews to 10, it was a nightmare. Not because they were not good interviews (obviously not a problem I would have) but because they were great interviews. I would sit down to listen back to the interviews and at the end of it I would have no idea what to leave in, what to leave out, even where to start.
One of the interviews from what I recall took about four or five listens to see what my point of attack would be. The challenge was to try and find insights that would lead to a single conclusion and not at the same time repeat thoughts and insights that had already been mentioned. I hope you will agree I have achieved that.
In Part 2 Sebastian talks about his fears for the relevancy of episode 4, and whether he was qualified to talk about sex.