Inside the Podcast Studio: ‘Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio’
The team behind Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is on a mission to show the world that food is about much more than just filling a belly. The show goes to places audiences have never been to meet people they never will, bringing stories we might not otherwise hear about food, culture, drinks and the people who make them. Host Christopher Kimball, media director Melissa Baldino, executive producer Stephanie Stender and radio producer Amy Pedulla give a look behind the scenes of the show’s production and inside their studio.
On the Podcast
Tell me about how you got the idea for Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio. What was the inspiration? Why a podcast?
Chris: Food is the perfect starting point for a conversation about almost anything, from the future of artificial intelligence (with Nathan Mhryvold) to life inside a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. It allows us to travel the world and the world of ideas — a long way from a kitchen in downtown Boston.
How do you think the podcast adds to people’s experience of food?
Chris: Food is no longer a recipe. It’s the culture of food that excites the listener. Milk Street Radio creates context for recipes which makes listeners more excited about their promise.
What makes Milk Street Radio unique?
Chris: A few things. Our team of contributors is unique, from Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker to Dr. Aaron Carroll from The Upshot column in The New York Times to Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast. We’ve also been producing local segments around the world. Plus, we hope to bring an intelligence and curiosity to the world of food, a world that we define as broadly as possible.
Tell me about your team. What’s the overarching team dynamic? Who fits what role?
Amy: Our team is really uniquely hardworking. Melissa Baldino and Stephanie Stender are the executive producers and our fearless leaders. Carly Helmetag is the insanely amazing associate producer and Hustler in Chief. They all also produce Milk Street’s television show. I literally don’t know how they do it! I think a great radio piece would be for me to ask all of them what they eat on a daily basis for fuel, given everything they have to do. Deborah Paddock helps out with production flow and does all of our tape logs. Celine Glasier is our intern (she’s going places). We all pitch show stories and interviews.
As host, Chris writes everything, script-wise, and does all the interviewing. After an initial pass on scripts, he refashions the show around his perspective on the ideas explored in the show.
As for me, as radio producer, I’m responsible for running production of the radio show and podcast. I’m also tasked with basically producing all the travel pieces we do — finding stories and facilitating reporting with international producers, testing out interesting storytelling avenues for food and audio, coaching Chris in studio, writing scripts, editing segments … it’s busy.
Our digital marketing team is also incredible: Evan Petto and Stephanie Menezes manage and track our podcast basically every two seconds, measure newsletter metrics and market the show each week to listeners.
Basically, our recipe for work ethic on the podcast is relentlessness, passion and discernment. Plus, a heaping of humor.
Where do you get your story ideas?
Melissa: We sit in a room as a team and “debate” what makes a good story, over and over again. Chris wants them all to be funny, interesting, unexpected AND about food. Stephanie’s ideas are either dark or about the underdog. Amy is the newest team member to realize that every meeting requires a good fight. She is excellent at producing on-location pieces. And Carly is strategically quiet — she chooses her moments well. I am both the EP and Chris’ wife, so there is bound to be a good “debate” from time to time.
There are ideas everywhere. I come across something I think would be cool to do on the show every day, and it’s not always about looking for the idea. And what’s so wonderful about radio is that you can follow a story and make it intimate for the listener. We can go anywhere in the world very quickly and cheaply on radio.
Amy: Chris wants stories that are unexpected, off the beaten path, not being told by other food outlets. Every pitch meeting when we suggest an idea, Chris asks: “What is surprising about this? Why do we care? What about food is being discussed here that has not been before? What is interesting about this beyond the first 2 minutes?”
The ideas are also geared toward the home cook too — it’s a balance between these questions: Is this a good story? Is it telling anything unexpected about food? Will this help the home cook learn something?
If a pitch doesn’t satisfy some of those things, we nix the idea. Humor, also, is a huge consideration, since Chris is so good at guiding interviews through jokes and metaphor, which is super hard to do. Isn’t comedy considered the hardest art, or something? It’s definitely 10 times as difficult in audio, but Chris is a pro.
Stephanie: Our team is always scouring different media sources for possible stories. What’s great is that we all have different interests. Melissa is pulling from the fashion world, Amy is pulling from cultural news and I’m pulling from a macabre point of view. I was recently told by our amazing radio assistant Debby Paddock that she instantly knew our toe cocktail piece was a story I pitched, and that I should have been the roommate of Edgar Allen Poe. It may have been meant as a taunt, but I took it as the highest of compliments. Ha! But I know if it piques my interest, it will also pique the interest of our listeners. And that’s where all of our ideas come from. If we wouldn’t want to tune into our show to listen to the piece, then we don’t run it. Plain and simple.
When we first started a radio show, we thought, “How many episodes can we do on such a narrow topic as food?” Boy, were we wrong! My favorite stories are those where we use food as a gateway to talk about larger topics, using the specific to talk about the universal. That’s always our goal.
On the Space
Where do you do your work? Can you walk me through that space?
Amy: We tape everything at WGBH in Boston — but field tape for travel segments is recorded around the world. Some recipe segments are recorded here in the kitchen at Milk Street.
Do you conduct your interviews in-studio, or do you go out in the field to conduct your interviews?
Amy: In studio! By phone and by tape or studio sync. I’ll go out in the field to collect tape every so often, but we mostly work with a network of international producers.
What’s your favorite technique to use to enable listeners to visualize and experience food through your audio?
Amy: Again — humor, actually! Chris’ personality carries a great deal of the show. Our story this week about the toe cocktail — a hotel in Canada serves a dehydrated toe that floats around in the cocktail of your choice. It could have veered into just the grotesque if Chris didn’t acknowledge the humor in it all. I should say the segment also did not convince me that I would ever want to try such a drink.
Melissa: We don’t really do a food show — we have a show about everything, seen through the lens of food. We want to find out how people are eating all over the world, and all over the United States, too, so we talk to people and travel with audio to learn about what people eat and how food affects their lives. Food brings is the thing that binds people and the show.
What do you think makes a great podcast host? What makes your host unique?
Melissa: A host has to be excited and interested — it’s very obvious on a radio show when the host is bored. Chris is infinitely curious. Like it or not, he will always be asking about everything and turning every idea on its head to see it from all perspectives. He is very knowledgable about food, but he also always wants to learn more.
Amy: I really think personality and the ability to not sound like he’s reading are Chris’ biggest strengths. When he really connects with a guest, he sort of forgets he’s recording, and he starts to get the guests to think out loud on tape, on the spot, rather than answer a set of expected questions. As for the callers — I think this really amazing thing happens where if he finds out someone is cooking in a way that is holding them back, he really truly genuinely wants to help. You can hear it, and he’s not reading — if he could jump through the phone and throw away and restock things in your pantry he would. And he will argue! All good things that help us get great tape for an engaging show.
What do you think the future of the podcasting industry looks like?
Amy: I hope it does more with fiction. I want a podcast where when faced with the option to watch Netflix or listen to an episode that just dropped, I choose to listen to a podcast. Grammy categories for podcasts would be insane. More representation from every kind of voice that has not been in front of the mic yet, or enough. I hope that the base of people who do listen to podcasts grows. I still have friends who just say, “I hate podcasts.” I want to reach them through those folded arms across their chest.
Stephanie: What’s great about podcasts is that they open up the conversation. People who might not have access to the airwaves can now express their point of view with minimal cost. It’s a great democratizer. My hope for the future of the podcasting industry is that there is more representation — on and behind the mic — as we need more diversity in order to know the whole story.
Melissa: People say that young people don’t go to the theater as much, but theater is about telling a story. Podcasts are another way to tell stories and make them accessible to everyone. Yes, the world has changed, but with podcasting, we can share a lot more. In my opinion, that is a positive.