How ‘The Moth’ Takes Stories from Stage to Podcast

The Moth’s podcast boasts over 44 million downloads a year, and the franchise has presented over 18,000 true stories, told live onstage, over the past 20 years. So, if you’re like me, you want to know how The Moth chooses from that massive collection of live stories to curate its podcast — and how a story even gets to The Moth in the first place. We got in touch with Jenifer Hixson, senior director of The Moth, to learn more about the process, from story to live show to podcast.

Walk me through what goes into creating and producing a live show for The Moth.

Each Mainstage storyteller is assigned a Moth director. That director works closely with the teller — on the phone, over email, via Skype and in person. Sometimes there are a dozen or more drafts of a story passed between the teller and director. Some tellers work on paper at first; some never write a word down. With each telling, the story gets more refined. Sometimes a story travels down a different path than was planned, and we decide to abandon the previous path and follow the new one!

Ishmael Beah tells his Moth story of surviving as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Brien)

Ultimately, all participants tell their story, without notes, at our rehearsal the night before the show. It’s an essential part of our process. The awkwardness of telling the story in a conference room to a handful of people is fortifying. We often say, “If you can get through this rehearsal, tomorrow will be a breeze!”

After rehearsal, we give final tweaks and then decide on the order of the stories for the live show. Funny, touching, sad … where the story is positioned in the show is important. Some stories are so intense they are, indeed, a tough act to follow. In other cases, we sense that the audience is really longing for a funny or lighter story to break the tension.

Each show is carefully cast and considered. For all of our shows — live or broadcast — we want to show a range of humanity.

How do stories initially come to The Moth?

Stories come to The Moth from anywhere and everywhere. We find a lot of talent at our regional StorySLAMS and on our pitch line (yes, someone really listens to every pitch called in!).

But we also unearth stories from magazine and newspaper research and through recommendations from friends, family, our radio partners and Moth fans. We find stories while in line at the supermarket, on airplanes, at cocktail parties or in waiting rooms. Everyone at The Moth has a finely tuned ear, so be careful dropping any interesting story tidbits while speaking with us. We will interrogate you! I like to call myself “professionally nosy.” We are always looking for stories. Send us a lead! We will investigate!

How many versions of a particular story will be told before the final version lands on the podcast?

Some people nail their stories on the first try. Others might drop a line or forget a scene, and then we ask them to do it again. This is live storytelling without notes, so every telling of a story is unique. Once we play a story on the radio or the podcast, it is retired from the live shows.

Dr. Mary-Claire King tells her Moth story of finding the gene for breast cancer. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Brien)

There are some stories that we wait to broadcast, because we’d love for as many live audiences as possible to hear them first. Most Moth storytellers are regular folks with jobs and responsibilities, so they can’t always pick up to travel to Alaska or Ohio for a Moth show. We’ve lucked out in that some of our storytellers are their own bosses or work freelance so they can do a Thursday in Alabama, no problem. David Montgomery, who we’ve taken on many road shows, is a Lyft driver. He always says yes when we call, often on speakerphone, with passengers in the car!

How many stories don’t make the cut?

There are some stories that only seem to work in front of a live audience. When we listen back, the magic the story brought to the room just doesn’t translate in audio. Sometimes we ask the teller to try again so we get a better version. But some people are difficult to work with, stubborn, inflexible, won’t take notes … and others just can’t settle into telling the story in a smooth way. Nerves get the best of people, or sometimes they over-prepare.

Catch-22: sounding too memorized or written is a problem. A word-for-word memorized story is a shield and the audience feels it. They’re thinking, “What are you hiding behind there?” Vulnerability is key to telling a great story. And there is great vulnerability in not memorizing a story exactly … in knowing the stepping stones and letting yourself tell the story as it bubbles up. It’s hard to have that confidence. Public speaking always makes the top five on the list of common fears, usually right after bugs and heights!

We always say that The Moth audience is incredibly supportive and forgiving. The crowd often breaks out into cheers of encouragement if a teller blanks or suddenly admits, “Whoops. I forgot a really important part!”

How do you know when a story is “right” for your show?

We look for stories that feel genuine and express a viewpoint that feels fresh. Some stories involve unique circumstances: being a speechwriter for President Obama (David Litt), surviving as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone (Ishmael Beah), or finding the gene for breast cancer (Dr. Mary-Claire King). Other stories are common but expressed in a unique way, like reporting for jury duty (Danusia Trevino) or the first taste of a Kit Kat bar (Ashok Ramasubramanian)!

A common question we have for storytellers is: “Why is this important for you to tell?” That question can be a tall order. Humans are used to telling stories all day, every day, and for lots of reasons: to share information, express opinions and feelings, pitch an agenda, to fill an uncomfortable silence, or recount that funny thing that happened on the way to the supermarket. But at The Moth, we want your story to convey why what happened matters to you. What were the stakes? How did it shape you?

Moth stories need to involve change. If nothing changes, especially your mind or heart, what you’re telling is probably an anecdote. The change doesn’t necessarily need to be epic or lofty, but it needs to be distinct.

Ashok Ramasubramanian tells his Moth story of his first taste of a Kit Kat bar. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Brien)

Who makes the call of what goes on the show? What’s the “chain of command”?

We are always surprised by our audience’s wildly different opinions after shows. Everyone has a different favorite! At The Moth, we, too, each have our favorites, but spend lots of time listening to and talking about the stories told on our stages.

Each week, The Moth’s artistic team listens to a specified group of recorded stories, and then discusses the stories’ strengths and weaknesses and which should be considered for radio, podcast or “to fix.” In most cases we agree, or mostly agree. Sometimes a director has a special affinity for a story, and it’s up to that director to sell everyone else on it!

Our artistic director, Catherine Burns, has final say on what will or will not air, but she always takes into account the fact that different stories appeal to different people. So, if two of us love a story and she feels indifferent to it, she’ll usually (often) let it pass through. If we’re really torn, Catherine will sometimes send the story to our radio producer, Jay Allison, and we trust him to break the tie.​

If you’re not one of the millions of people already listening, you can subscribe to The Moth on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts.