A Podcast syllabus for Planners & Strategists
Right now, you’re probably seeing news feeds filling up with news about the ‘renaissance of podcasting’ due to the breakout success of Serial (the SNL parody was spot on too). Some articles are starting to breakout the science, breaking down why podcasts are so addicting. The facts don’t lie, it’s certainly starting to become one of the eddies in the cultural mainstream.
In this spirit, I’ve made a sort of syllabus (lifting from the CYG ‘baby feminist syllabus’ concept) and have broken out some standout examples which are worth a listen based on their merits in expanding my own thinking in certain aspects of my role:
1. Relationships and Motivations —
Fundamental to our role is understanding individuals (or communities) relationships with culture, objects, the intangible, and of course our brands and businesses. We translate and leverage this for clients to better communicate with and engage with people. The great thing about podcasts is that they often celebrate stories at the edges, giving small signals of larger potential change.
Our relationships with technology are constantly changing and affecting our interactions with the people and forces around us. The host, Manoush, anxiously dives into questions like: Do my kids need to learn how to code? Am I addicted to my phone? Is my teen safe online? Is technology affecting my ability to pay attention? She fairly investigates and unpicks each of these questions, with balanced perspectives and thorough analysis.
Recommended Episode: 9 Things We Learned About Phones From a Teenager walks you through Grace a bubbly (upper-middle class) 16 year old’s phone habits for a week. One follow-up episode, talking about a middle school class in Arizona’s reaction also shows how much of a class and culture divide this is as well.
In an era when sex isn’t selling the way that it used to, conversations around gender and sexuality are entering the mainstream, and there’s a widening gulf between the 1% and everybody else — Anna Sale is unearthing difficult, “taboo” stories with an honesty and openness that I think was previously unattainable without the participatory and anonymous nature of the internet. One of my favorite aspects of this podcast is the use of submitted listener voice memos — which range on topics from living alone, to cheating, to money in relationships.
As strategists we, in some instances, study and interpret individuals and their behaviors — I loved being immersed in each individual story and perspective, hearing their explanations and motivations.
On Being —
It might feel a bit weird to have a philosophy podcast on here (albeit a Peabody award-winning one); but On Being tries to explore questions around not just what it means to be human, but also on how we want to live. Krista Tippett explores these questions around the center of human life with a 21st-century lens, and all of the complexity that entails. Personally, I prefer the macro topics that it covers such as The Future of Marriage , Love, Sex and Attachment (with Helen Fisher), and Content & Meaning Online (with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova).
Recommended Episode: Online Reflections of Our Offline Lives with danah boyd
First off, if you haven’t read danah’s essays at the very least before, they are a great foundational tool which contextualizes and humanizes motivations and the web. But what I think the best nugget in this episode is where she’s identifying gaps between behaviour and the data supporting them, which leads to a lot her key insights.
Apophenia /æpɵˈfiːniə/ is the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. — The title of danah’s blog, to me, embodies the responsibilities of our role
2. Cultural Contexts —
As an extension of the previous category, while motivations and relationships are the beginning of understanding an individual or community level— what solidifies a strategy is understanding the (behavioral, psychological, or motivational) context within culture at large.
While I think Reply All has some elements of New Tech City, this podcast feels like it focuses on the content of the internet rather than the technologies and context surrounding it; featuring stories on “how people shape the internet, and the internet shapes people.”
Recommended Episode: Underdog
This episode details the story behind one of the most famous dogs on Instagram (with 1.5M followers). I’m sure that there’s many times when there’s been a client asking to ‘make it viral’. While we all know this is a pipe dream, this is an amazing narrative around the high level of hustle required to maintain and develop a sustainable online brand and engagement (even if it’s as cute, derpy, and loveable as Marnie the Dog).
On the Media —
From feminist critiques sparking #GamerGate, to the production of documentaries like Beyond Clueless and Miss Representation, to the media’s representation of black people in Ferguson and Baltimore — there is no doubt that the media landscape is very much defining (and fracturing) the American psyche.
“The media is the message and the messenger, and an increasingly powerful one.” — Patricia Mitchell, the former president and CEO of PBS
Brooke Gladstone has been covering media since the 80's and her no-nonsense questions and analysis help me better understand the contexts around what’s happening back home as well as painting a broader understanding around topics I might be less familiar with.
Recommended Episode: Safe Words In case you were curious about the how of Fifty Shades of Grey is introducing ‘kink’ to the American public.
Reddit is in many respects still “the front page of the internet”. It’s users have been at the forefront of generating internet culture and memes since it’s inception (only to be ripped off by Buzzfeed at a later date). It’s users are cited in publications like the Washington Post when gathering everyday stories. This is one of the few Podcasts that specifically focuses on a single online community (outside of fandoms) and highlights stories, trends, interests, and micro-communities within. It’s also preparing to, like Buzzfeed, create it’s own content and become *gasp* a media company.
Recommended Episode: A Free Trip Around the World With a Total Stranger captures the same positive spirit of Reddit that I think you see in actions like Random Acts of Pizza and Pay It Forward. One of my favorite aspects of this show is the ever-affable Alexis Ohanian as host, unearthing the best stories in the community he helped create.
3. Systems Thinking—
As the borders of our role are becoming fuzzier (or even expanding to encompass a ‘full stack’), this is something that is definitely coming into our purview. Understanding the systems that our clients operate with in — what affects their inputs and outputs, is incredibly important as we consider how to tweak and optimise purchase flows.
This was one of the first part of a set of media we were recommended to consume as part of the Invention group at Deutsch. Each episode contains a perfectly snack-sized deep dive into the economics of pretty much anything from Airlines, to Zoos, to the History of Spreadsheets.
Recommended Episode: Why Buying a Car Is So Awful. Part of my job is to be the advocate for the consumer in the room; making sure that we can make the experience (or the message) is the most meaningful/ useful/ frictionless one for them. Bonus material: The This American Life episode that goes behind the scenes at a Jeep dealership.
These economists who wrote one of the breakout ‘Popular Economics’ books of the last decade have also been running a radio show and podcast for the same amount of time. They tend to take a more macro view than Planet Money on certain topics.
Recommended Episode: Diamonds Are a Marriage Counselor’s Best Friend illustrates just how much the industry defined the value of an engagement ring, and how bogus that really is. Bonus Material: The Maddest Men dives into Rory Sutherland’s integration of Behavioral Economics at Ogilvy.
Part of what I love about this podcast (besides being a completionist in general) is the fact that they start with a simple question. While this isn’t always something of interest to me or, necessarily, relevant to our roles (e.g How Fleas Work , because gross) there are times when they take a deep dive into a full topic or system like Currency, Sugar, or even TV Ratings that have nuggets of insight and history that are mind boggling and awesome. These guys are the desk researchers you wish you had at the start of every project.
Recommended Episode: How Monopoly Works dives into the fascinating story of the Parker Brothers game that originally was created to teach socialist principles, and how it shifted to become an American household and cultural staple.
I’ve been warned that this is somewhat controversial header, because there’s this idea that ‘storytellers are not storytellers’- which I can relate to and agree with. This being said, from the classroom to my role today, I have been consistently challenged to make sure that anything that we develop for the client contains a cohesive narrative. Take your pick from Freytag’s Pyramid or Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories, we are responsible for building the narrative in our decks and presentations.
One comment that my colleague Andy made, which I agree with, is that because of the aural nature of podcasts (versus the visual nature of vide0), your attention is more focused and the narrative is forced to be cleaner and clearer as a result. Podcasts, in many ways — can challenge us to become cleaner and more focused in our narrative.
“Just spend a bit of time bringing the same level of creativity to selling the work as you brought to creating the work.”
- Peter Coughter, The Art of the Pitch
This podcast is somewhat self-explanatory, but one of the most compelling things that I’ve found about it the way they build such emotionally complicated stories and portraits of people.
Recommended Episode: The Living Room tells the story of what one nosy neighbor witnesses through the curtainless window across the street from her. This story was so captivating that I stood outside the doors at work to wait for it to finish.
For anyone who fell in love with Serial, this is great True Crime. They eloquently describe themselves as “stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.”
Recommended Episode: He’s Neutral details how one Oakland man’s installation of a concrete Buddha reduced crime in his neighborhood.
This relatively new podcast embodies some of my favorite aspects of radio (amazing sound design and custom music) while also telling stories that are deeply intimate (and sometimes salacious).
Recommended Episode: The Spark
I think this is a great example of intimately understanding these two people without ever having met them or even hearing their voices.
There’s lots of other great storytelling podcasts that NPR/PRX can give you, from This American Life, to Radiolab (The Trust Engineers), to Serial that you can get recommended on any other list. All are great places to unearth stories, it just depends on what you’re interested in. These were just a few of my personal favorites.
This post is part of a larger effort in exploring consciousness in how I consume content. If you’re interested, follow along here.