How Normal Gossip Producer Alex Sujong Laughlin Helps Shape the Podcast

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Speaker 1: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. But.

Speaker 2: I think the most important thing, if you are in a sort of more quote unquote invisible role is like, are you feeling valued?

Speaker 2: Are you feeling heard and seen and listened to by the people you’re collaborating with? And if you are, that feels worth it to me.

Speaker 1: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas.

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Speaker 3: And I’m your other host. Cameron Drew’s.

Speaker 1: Cameron, Drew’s. Wait. You’re our producer.

Speaker 3: Oh, I am.

Speaker 1: Is there no end to your talents, Cameron? You are indeed our amazing producer. And this week you also did the interview that’s at the center of the show. Who did you speak with.

Speaker 3: Junior? To kind to answer your question. The voice we heard at the top of the show was that of Alex Sujong Laughlin. She’s the producer of the new ish hit podcast Normal Gossip. Their first season was really great and they just started releasing episodes for season two.

Speaker 1: I am curious how this interview came about. I’m sure you listen to lots of podcasts. So what was it about normal gossip that made you think, okay, this is the perfect show to highlight the role of the producer in?

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Speaker 3: Yeah, it’s funny. I honestly don’t listen to that many podcasts. Even though I am a podcast producer, I’m more of a TV and movie watcher in my free time, but multiple friends and co-workers recommended normal gossip when it first came out, and I really, really liked it. I was hooked, partially because it features what the title says normal gossip. That is, ordinary gossip stories about conflicts and awkward situations between people.

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Speaker 3: So it’s a juicy premise, but it also prompted a lot of really interesting conversations with my coworkers and friends. It’s one of those shows where you listen to it and you are like, How do they make this show? What is going on behind the scenes? We were wondering, how do they get these stories? How true are these stories? Should we think of this as journalism or more like fiction or something? And I knew I could get the answers to those questions from the producer Alex, who I know helped develop the premise of the show a little bit. But I also thought this would be a fun opportunity to talk about podcast producing in general, especially talk show podcast producing, which is what I do and what we do for this show.

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Speaker 1: That’s fantastic. And I believe you asked Alex some questions that are intended exclusively for Slate Plus members. What will they hear?

Speaker 3: Yes. So for this week’s Slate Plus segment, I asked Alex what her favorite and least favorite production tasks are. I ask a lot of producers this when I talk to them. It’s a fun conversation for me. We have lots of different tasks as producers. Some of them are kind of a drag and I wanted to know which ones she thought were a drag. And then after that I asked Alex if any listeners of normal gossip have ever written in and said, Hey, I can tell that this is a story about my life. I don’t like the way I was portrayed, yada, yada, yada. That question will make more sense once you listen to my interview with Alex, but her answer is really, really interesting.

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Speaker 1: Fantastic. You might even say that it’s something everyone who listens to podcasts should check out. So if you are not yet a member of Slate Plus, why not sign up today? You will get extra segments of shows like Working where you can hear that amazing little snippet and the Waves and Culture Gabfest and some shows like Slow Burn and Big Mood, Little Mood produce entire episodes just for Slate Plus members. Also, if you read Slate, which you should, you will never hit a paywall. So to learn more about Slate Plus and perhaps to sign up, just go to Slate.com, Slash working plus.

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Speaker 1: All right. Now let’s listen in on Cameron’s conversation with Alex Sujong. Laughlin.

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Speaker 3: Alex Sujong Laughlin. Thanks for coming on and working.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 3: Sure thing. So you’re the producer for Normal Gossip, a podcast from Defector Media. The show is hosted by Kelsey McKinney. For listeners who aren’t familiar, please explain the premise of normal gossip.

Speaker 2: Yes, the normal gossip is a show where we source real life gossip stories that are low stakes but high drama. And then we anonymize them. We anonymize the details, anything that could lead to tracking it back to the original source. And then Kelsey will bring a guest on and tell the gossip story to the guest. So listeners get to experience the thrill of stupid gossip without actually implicating themselves or anybody else.

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Speaker 3: Yeah, and I definitely want to get to the process of anonymizing the stories. That’s a really interesting part of producing the show. But I want to go back to the premise of normal gossip. It’s really unique. When I first heard about the show, I assumed that it would be kind of like a straightforward interview show where the guest comes on and brings a piece of gossip that you would discuss. But as you just mentioned, that’s not the case. The piece of gossip comes from a different source, and then Kelsey explains it to the guests. The guest reacts. I know you were sort of involved in. Figuring out what the show is going to be. Can you explain how you landed on that premise and why you didn’t go with the sort of more obvious premise that I just mentioned?

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Speaker 2: So yeah, the original pilot for the show and the original premise was an idea where Kelsey would bring on a guest and Kelsey would tell a story to the guest and then the guest would tell a story back. And when I came on to the team, my job was to kind of take what had been done with the pilot and refine it so that it was, one, replicable and two, not going to get us into trouble. Mm hmm. You know, when you’re launching a podcast, part of what you are thinking about is what kind of guests are you going to get on? You know, who are the people that you actually want to be talking to? And we knew that we were going to be kind of chasing people who had larger followings, because that’s a way to help grow a podcast.

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Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And the problem with getting, you know, a semi-famous or famous person to tell a gossip story is that that can become tabloid fodder really, really quickly. And we didn’t want to put our guests in a situation where they were telling on themselves or their friends or basically like, we didn’t want the story, the headline coming out of the podcast to be So-and-so Telling US Secret about so-and-so.

Speaker 3: And you also probably don’t want the guest to hold back in any way for fear of that outcome.

Speaker 2: Exactly. So and the other thing is we needed to be able to predict that each episode would have a really good story. Mm hmm. And when you have this additional variable of somebody else bringing a story that’s going to be the basis of your episode each week, that gives a lot of the control away. Yeah. So.

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Speaker 3: Or you have to have an awkward conversation where you say, sorry, Sam Sanders or Josh Donaldson. Your story kind of isn’t very good enough. Yeah.

Speaker 2: Yeah. So, yeah, we just wanted to kind of make it so that we had as much control as possible, but also that our guests would have the most fun as they could when they come on. Yeah, that’s that’s kind of where that came from. And, you know, all of our stories come from our listeners. So our inbox is just full of hundreds of gossip stories that we go through each week and categorize them into different groups. So that’s that’s where we get our stories now, which is great.

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Speaker 3: And you have answered this a little bit, but I’m wondering how much creative input you had during the development of the show. I mean, as I know and, you know, the producers role is it varies a lot from project to project. Sometimes the producers creative ideas are very, very important. Sometimes the producer’s creative ideas are not listened to or considered one bit, and you are there to assemble everything in ProTools. What kind of team was this and how much creative input did you have in those early stages?

Speaker 2: Yeah, the team is amazing. I am a contractor with defector, so I’m not, you know, part of their official pirate ship, as they call it. Mm hmm. But defector is a company is really interested in, you know, being labor oriented and, like, treating people well and especially treating freelancers well. So in one of my first meetings with Kelsey and Justin Ellis, our editor, Kelsey asked me like, okay, what, what is a bad host? How does a bad host act? And like, what do you want? And and I was able to be really, really honest with her. And, you know, I think a lot of podcast producers have a sort of shorthand that they use with each other when we talk about like toxic hosts or toxic host culture.

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Speaker 2: Yeah. This idea that, like, the host is the center of the production, the producer’s work doesn’t matter. The producer’s input doesn’t matter when in fact the producers tend to be the people who are like kind of carrying both the logistical and creative burden of making a show. It obviously depends on the type of show.

Speaker 2: But yeah, from the beginning, you know, there was a real emphasis on us being creative partners both within the production, like just between us. You know, it’s, it’s a very like equal share of the load. We do different types of work for the show, but we, you know, it’s not like I’m the only person making the show and she’s like just swanning around into meetings. And then also, you know, every time Kelsey gets a press request, she says, Hey, Alex is joining. Oh, and then when we did bonus episodes in between seasons, I joined her for those to answer questions about how we.

Speaker 2: Is the show just really great?

Speaker 3: A lot of people, when I tell them I am a podcast producer, they want to know what that literally means, what I am actually doing. Yeah, it varies from project to project. Can you explain what your role is as a producer on Normal Gossip?

Speaker 2: I am kind of the logistical captain of the ship, so I have created all of your calendars and the recurring meeting invites and you know, all of the like Google Doc and Dropbox infrastructure, which is really important to me in terms of running a solid project. I, you know, lead the meetings each week where I’m like, okay, here are the things that have to get done in order for the show to get made and for us to stay on track production wise.

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Speaker 2: Kelsey and I collaboratively, you know, pitch guests to each other, and then Kelsey will take the lead on writing the story, sort of taking the initial gossip story and then doing a sort of anonymous right through of it. And then she’ll present it to us. We do a run through with her and Justin and me, and we will kind of workshop the story together and be like, you know, this doesn’t make sense. This thing doesn’t quite work. Mm hmm. It’s a little bit like a like a TV writer’s room, honestly.

Speaker 2: And then when we actually do the recording, you know, I kind of man the recording, we’re doing everything remotely. So I run the zoom, I record the zoom. I make sure everybody gets their audio files uploaded to the Dropbox folder. Oh yeah. I edit the audio. I add all of the scoring sound effects if needed. Mixing and mastering. Getting it uploaded. That’s kind of the gist of it. You know, we split social media work, we split email work, that kind of stuff.

Speaker 3: Great.

Speaker 3: So let’s sort of dive into the more granular stuff you. Mention that you get stories from listeners. A lot of the time there are lots of channels that they can come in emails, voicemails, voice, memos. So you have a lot to choose from. So what makes a great, normal gossip story, and what are the kind of stories that are not a good fit?

Speaker 2: Oh, so we definitely have a lot of stories that. Kind of got a little dark.

Speaker 3: Mm hmm.

Speaker 2: In our inbox, we have a bunch of labels that we use very liberally. And we have labels like wedding gossip, roommate drama, family drama, marriage stuff. I don’t know, relationships, scammers. And then we have one that’s, like, too dark, sad face. Yeah. So, you know, anything that’s like, oh, it’s not good. Like, it makes you feel sad when you hear it. That’s not that’s not what we want to be doing.

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Speaker 2: Because the point of the show isn’t to make fun of people necessarily, despite the premise, but it’s more, I think, to sort of revel in how bizarre people can be and how bizarre people’s life choices can be. So also say like. Beyond the sort of dark stories, I think we get a lot of like relationship drama and like cheating stories, so we don’t do too many of those. We try to like choose those sparingly because I think those are probably our most common submissions.

Speaker 3: Yeah, I was wondering about. How do you make sure that lots of different sort of perspectives are covered and that the stories are different enough from each other?

Speaker 2: It’s tough because a lot of our stories come from our listeners. I mean, all of our stories come from our listeners, and our listeners are definitely a very specific demographic of tend to be like twenties and thirties, predominantly white women is is kind of the, the listenership we have. Although I will say there’s a lot of men listen to the show, which I think is delightful.

Speaker 3: It’s always tricky with podcast audiences to know who your audience is. I have worked on projects where I feel like a lot of assumptions are made about who the audience is, and then you start catering to this like imagined audience. Do you have information about your audience based on who is writing to you mostly, or how are you figuring that out?

Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, podcast analytics are super tricky and in.

Speaker 3: Limited.

Speaker 2: You know, they, they, they say that they are accurate and I, I just take them all with a grain of salt. Yeah. But I would say like the, the demographics that I see in our Instagram in-box and among our subscribers, we recently launched a subscription program, sort of like Patreon, but it’s through two factor.

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Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And so if you subscribe at a certain level, you get added to our close friends list. So I’m, you know, finding people’s Instagrams and literally adding them to our close friends list. So I’m seeing that there. And also in our just in our inbox, you know, we see a lot of pictures. But I will say, like a lot of the stories also, you know, we don’t know the sort of demographic makeup of the people that these stories are about because we don’t know who they’re about. Like, a lot of times they’ll be anonymized one layer when we first got it. So they’ll be like, This is about my friend. We’ll call him Jake.

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Speaker 2: So, yeah, we don’t know. Yeah. So we try and make sure to keep our own biases and assumptions front of mind as we’re doing the anonymous Asian and especially as we’re doing the run through before we record. You know, I’m an Asian woman. Our editor. Justin is a black man. Kelsey is a white woman from Texas. So we have between us a pretty broad range of experiences. Kelsey and I are the same age, but Justin’s a bit older. Mm hmm. You know, we’ve definitely had a lot of conversations about certain stories where we’re like, oh, like, let’s let’s tweak that a little bit. We don’t want to, like, reinforce this stereotype or that one.

Speaker 3: Hmm. Yeah. When you’re deciding which stories to use, what are you looking for in the story? Beats like, Ah, so do you get some stories that are just like, this is sort of a two act structure instead of a three act structure and we like we need another kind of like thing.

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Speaker 2: I think for me when I’m looking at our email or listening to our inbox, the things I am most drawn to are just the stories that delight me. Yeah. Either because they have a really strange detail or you know, the listener has been super specific in how they tell the story. In the first episode of season two, which will be out by the time this publishes.

Speaker 2: Yeah. There’s it’s a story from the eighties, actually, about the listener who submitted it. It’s her mom when she was a teenager. And she, like, really, really wants this cashmere sweater at the airport in Miami. And I just was, like, stuck on this cashmere sweater. And we considered changing it. But it was like just the concept of, like, being in the eighties and, like, dying to buy a cashmere sweater in Miami. I’m just like, I love it so good. And so that kind of, you know, it became the sort of like a totem for the episode. Yeah. Or for the story. We were like, yeah, it’s like, has to be the cashmere sweater. Yeah. So a lot of the stories have a sort of bizarre element or something that’s a little bit zany. Yeah, that’s fun to kind of throw into the mix.

Speaker 3: Okay, so let’s get into the anonymizing part of it. I listened to a bonus episode that you released and it does seem like you have a sort of do no harm principle behind everything like you really don’t want. To tarnish anyone’s reputation. You don’t want anyone to really be recognizable. So how do you do that? How do you anonymize these stories? How do you decide which details to change and which details to keep the same?

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Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, it’s so funny because when we were starting this out, we were like, you know, number one goal is to have fun. Number two, goal is to not destroy anybody’s life. Number three goal is to not be sued like. Yeah. Very important goals to have.

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Speaker 2: And, you know, I think like with the Knitting Circle episode, if you Google Mail Tears co-star, the next word that will pop up is Laurel which the character in that episode.

Speaker 3: So people are typing this stuff into Google to try and get the real dirt and they come up dry.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And they’re not going to find it. And that’s our goal is that like, you should be able to like try to do your hunting for any of these stories and not be able to find the person. So. When we anonymize, we will always change the names. We will always change the city if we name a city. We often don’t name a city, though. We’ll just say a major city or the West Coast or a midwest city, something like that. We will often change the point of view that the story is told from.

Speaker 2: Mm hmm. Because the thing that’s really interesting is the dynamic, the sort of action that’s happening emotionally between the people in the story. Not necessarily like, you know, who it is actually that’s telling the story. And Kelsey is a fiction writer as well. So she’s bringing a lot of that to the table. I remember early on, she was like, you know, the most interesting perspective to tell a story from is usually from the least interesting person in the story. So we try to orient the story from a perspective that is ancillary to the drama, not necessarily in it.

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Speaker 3: Wow. Yeah. And how do you decide? Which details you like cannot mess with and that stay the same.

Speaker 2: The most important elements are always the relationships between people. Mm hmm. You know, if somebody is brother or sister did a thing, then we will usually keep them as a sibling. We might change the gender. Or, you know, if a parent does a thing, then we’ll usually keep them as a parent and not change them to an aunt or an uncle. Mm hmm. You know, other things we will have discussions about, you know, in season two, we have an episode that the story takes place at a coffee shop, and we probably could have changed it to a different type of retail establishment. But we decided that the fact that it was a coffee shop and specifically like a national coffee chain, you know, this coffee chain is plentiful enough around the country that we don’t think that people would be able to track down the specific franchise this happened at.

Speaker 2: Uh huh. And also the fact that it’s like at a coffee shop and at a coffee shop that’s like a franchise of a national chain was pertinent to the story. So that was a case in which we kept the original detail of coffee shop. But oftentimes, you know, we’ll be like, okay, we will always air on the side of changing the detail if if possible. Mm hmm. And if it just is not possible, then we won’t.

Speaker 3: Right.

Speaker 3: And so I know that you mentioned your Kelsey you and Kelsey mentioned in a bonus episode that you were talking about how you tweak the details. And you mentioned that sometimes you even sort of like raise the stakes a little bit or because you want it to be you said you want it to be like a game of telephone where like certain things get a little exaggerated over time. How do you decide whether to raise the stakes? Because also anecdotally, I talked to someone who heard that episode and was like a little bothered that the stakes were raised and they were like, you know, why is that necessary? Can you talk about the thinking that goes into that and why you feel like you need to sometimes raise the stakes for a juicier story?

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Speaker 2: I think it’s because, like, ultimately, if you’re thinking about the podcast as a, you know, discrete media product that we’re releasing, what we want is to release a complete, satisfying narrative. Mm hmm. And, you know, life doesn’t always result in a satisfying narrative.

Speaker 3: No, no. And I mean, I know that some narrative podcasts, like, won’t move forward with a story if there’s not a satisfying enough. Yeah. Resolution or ending.

Speaker 2: Totally. Yes. And that is true across the journalism industry. There is this like high demand in journalism to structure stories from the real world as like a clear narrative arc with clear characters. As a journalist, I have some qualms with that. I think it’s really, really tricky when you start thinking about real people as characters. Mm hmm. And using their names and, you know, turning your microphone or your camera on them. There’s a lot of power and privilege that comes with being a person in the media, telling people stories. So, you know, that’s that’s something that like, I think a lot about as a journalist. Normal gossip isn’t journalism, but.

Speaker 3: There you go. That’s a good question.

Speaker 2: Yeah, that is the main thing. You know, Kelsey and I are both journalists. But in this project, that’s not what we’re doing. Yeah. We’re creating something delightful out of real life, inspired by true events. And I like to think of the sort of raising the stakes as its own sort of commentary on how gossip works. We’re going to have an episode coming out fairly soon that illustrates just how much a story can change from person to person. Mm hmm. And part of why we’re doing that is to illustrate, like, what happens when a gossip story is relayed between people over and over and over again.

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Speaker 1: We’ll be back with more of Cameron’s conversation with Alex Sujong Loflin after this.

Speaker 1: Listeners, you may have noticed that we’ve launched a new bi weekly bonus version of working, focused on listener questions and advice. We call it Working Overtime. On the most recent episode, we answered a listener voice mail about prioritization and structure, and we’d love to try to help you. Is there a creative problem you’re having or a creative practice that’s working really well for you right now? Is there something you’d like to hear as expound on? Well, drop us a line at working at Slate.com or call us and leave a voicemail at 304933w0rk. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts.

Speaker 1: Now back to Cameron’s conversation with Alex Sujong offline.

Speaker 3: The other thing I want to talk about, which is a producer role, is sort of host coaching or directing all of the stuff that happens in the studio. Kelsey is obviously really talented and she’s clearly very good at delivering the scripts. Like what listeners of working might not understand is this is this is like a huge part of, of radio and podcast hosting and producing and stuff is like reading from a script, but sounding like you are not reading from a script. Kelsey really sounds like she is pulling all of this from her brain as a real gossip word. How is that effect sort of created in the studio and what are the sort of notes that you’re giving her as she’s tracking this stuff?

Speaker 2: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I think Kelsey is, like, uniquely talented and sounding natural while reading. That’s the thing that took me literal years to perfect. Yeah. Myself. So she. She really took to it. I think that when we were tracking the sort of intro and outro or when we’re recording ads, that’s where it can get a little bit more stilted, I think, because she’s not in conversation with somebody and she’s not sort of writing the energy of telling a gossip story. Mm hmm. So, yeah, it’s it’s kind of the same stuff that I think most people have to work through when they’re working on sounding natural on Mike, which is like slowing down and taking a breath before every sentence that you read.

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Speaker 3: Mm hmm.

Speaker 2: And, you know, when we are recording intros, especially, I will often, you know, do really wild stuff in the script where I will, like, capitalize certain words and like do like paragraph breaks in the middle of sentences. So that should emphasize one thing or or over another.

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Speaker 2: You know, sometimes we’ll even use the track of like, I will say something and then ask her to mimic it. I don’t do that often, but sometimes it’s helpful to, like, get the tone in somebody’s ear.

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Speaker 2: But she. She’s really, really good at it. So I don’t have any complaints.

Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah, it’s. It’s very impressive. Yeah.

Speaker 3: So we haven’t talked about audio editing at all, which is a huge part of a producer’s job. What are the biggest audio editing challenges on normal gossip?

Speaker 2: Honestly, I think the biggest challenge is that we record really, really long.

Speaker 1: Mm hmm.

Speaker 2: Like super long tapings, often like an hour and a half, which is just a monster to get through.

Speaker 3: Yeah, with the guest. That’s.

Speaker 2: Yeah, that’s the.

Speaker 3: Whole process of telling the story.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And there’s just like, you know, people get really carried away and, like, really, really excited, which is awesome. That’s like, the best energy to have in a taping. But as a producer, when I have, you know, 90 minutes of audio and I need to figure out how to cut it down to like an hour or less, ideally.

Speaker 3: Cutting things down is a crucial part of my job and working. Also, I’m very interested in this. You know, I’m interested in everyone’s process for how you decide what to cut and what to keep, because part of it is using your gut and being like, I’m bored or I’m excited or whatever. But if you’re dealing with a lot of good stuff, you have to kind of create a more. Objective set of criteria to decide why something stays or why something goes. How have you? Sort of navigated that. Mm hmm.

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Speaker 2: That’s really tough. It’s mostly. Yeah. Honestly. And. And the other thing I’ll say is, like, my first pass is usually a long pass, so I’ll cut things that I know for sure I don’t want. Yeah. And leave in a bunch of maybes and then yeah, I’ll send it to the rest of the team, I’ll send them the audio and a transcript and be like, Please tell me what to cut. And usually they will see things that I didn’t see because I’ve been staring at it for way too long.

Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah. Audio editing fatigue is real. And you need other ears or ear fatigue, I guess.

Speaker 2: To your fatigue for sure. Yeah. There’s a certain point where I just like I kind of brown out and I’m just like in Pro-Tools, like, cut, cut, cut, cut. And like, I don’t know what I’m doing, but by the end I have, you know, an hour and 6 minutes instead of an hour and 25.

Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Speaker 3: In my experience, producers are often praised for being. Calm under pressure. Good at dealing with difficult situations and difficult people. Sometimes we usually need to be like the steady hand on the wheel, no matter what is happening around us. Mm hmm. I have mixed feelings about that role. Like it’s important to be that person. It’s also really hard to be that person. How have you dealt with that role of. Of being the steady hand on the wheel?

Speaker 2: Mostly dissociation. Well, boy, I’m like a pretty anxious person. Yeah. So when I’ve had to, like, be that person in a way where, like, it felt like all of the weight of being steady fell on me. Yeah. And not on the rest of my team. A lot of dissociation and I got through it, but, like, that’s a trauma response.

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Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And I think a lot of producers end up in this role because for one reason or another, we have the tools in our toolbox to be able to, like, do that. But I also think, you know, I’m the oldest daughter in my family. I’m the oldest period. And I definitely have a little bit of like Big Sister Bossy energy, and I can definitely lean into that if I need to. So, you know, that that’s another part of the job of producing that I do like is like I have a good excuse to be bossy and be like, Hey, everybody, listen to me. Like, I have a plan. Just follow my plan. If everybody does what I say, it’s going to be fine.

Speaker 3: I, too, am an oldest child and I have to do a lot of self reflecting now. I think that’s. Yet. Another key part of being a producer is being behind the scenes, which is fine. A lot of people are happy to stay behind the scenes. Obviously I am. I’m breaking that wall right now. But you can see who we both are. Yeah, we both are. But most of my work is behind the scenes, and it can be hard being behind the scenes. You know, it can lead to, you know, feelings that what we are doing is not as important. It doesn’t come with as much recognition. We’re not in the spotlight as much.

Speaker 3: I know you have written about this a little bit. How do you feel about the sort of behind the scenes nature of this work?

Speaker 2: Mm hmm. Yeah. I I’ve definitely written and talked a lot about this, I think, because when I got into podcasting, I thought that producers did what, like This American Life producers do, which is tell stories. They go report. They’re on mic. They tell stories. They’re essentially reporters. And I didn’t realize that there was a whole world of podcast production where the producers are essentially, like, interchangeable, you know, anonymous workers who cut tape. Mm hmm. And that’s not every producer on every show, but it’s a lot of producer jobs are like that. And, you know, I think that that is a problem in our industry. The sort of the problem of credit is a is a big issue. Like if a podcast doesn’t credit their producer at the end, then I’m deeply suspicious of how people are being treated.

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Speaker 2: You know, I’ve I’ve talked a little bit since that essay published. It was an essay in study hall about producing and social media work is ghostwriting. And since that’s published, I’ve talked a lot about it on like panels and interviews and things and a thing that I didn’t get to say in the essay. But that I think is really important to say whenever I can, is that when there are people working behind the scenes, that means that collaboration is happening because everybody can’t be the face of everything all the time. Like there has to be sort of a figurehead. Like when you think about a band, you know, there’s a frontman or frontwoman and then there’s everybody else who works together to make it sound great.

Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And so I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to to work in the background. I don’t always want to be in the background, although I’m happy to do so. You know, I thought I didn’t want to be a producer anymore, but once I started working on normal gossip, I was like, Oh, actually, like, I really love working ProTools and still really love cutting tape. And I love doing the literal work of, like, making a cool piece of audio that delights people.

Speaker 2: Mm hmm. And so, like, I think the most important thing, if you are in a sort of more quote unquote, invisible role, is like, are you feeling valued? Are you feeling heard and seen and listened to by the people you’re collaborating with? And if you are, that feels worth it. To me, and especially like if you’re somebody who doesn’t want the spotlight, you know, great. But the thing that’s just most important to me is that, like, people aren’t being treated as more valuable than other people just because they’re on Mike or not on Mike. Yeah, that’s. That’s like, the most important thing to me.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. When, when you do have a healthy relationship with your collaborators, being a behind the scenes person can be really rewarding, like helping someone else do their best work using skills that they don’t have and they need you for can be really rewarding. Like, I love that aspect of this work.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And it feels really good when you’re working with somebody who has, like, the inverse skills of you. Mm hmm. You know, I’m an introvert. I can do the audio work. I can do the logistical work. Yeah. You know, being on mic is really frickin exhausting for me. This is the last thing I’m doing today, and I’m done. I’m not talking anymore. Yeah, it’s not necessarily like an innate skill for me, so it feels really good when you get to work with somebody who has the inverse skills of you and you can like sort of yin yang together into like one great like power unit to make like a cool thing.

Speaker 3: Well. Alex Sujong Laughlin, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your creative process with us.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for having me. I’m such a big fan.

Speaker 3: And listeners can check out season two of Normal Gossip, which is out now.

Speaker 1: Cameron That was a fantastic conversation. I learned a lot. And it also got me thinking, which is as much as you can ask from any interview, I think I really loved hearing your responses to Alex’s thoughts about producing. I felt like some of your answers were very heartfelt, let’s just say, and I’m curious if there were any of Alex’s observations that really particularly resonated, like if you were given creative control over a Times Square billboard to improve the general understanding of what podcast producers do, what would you tell the world?

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Speaker 3: It would be a very wordy billboard. It would not function as advertising in any way. The obvious answer is probably the part where Alex talked about audio editing and cutting things down, because I think that’s something that listeners probably kind of understand but don’t fully understand. You know, they might not know how much content ends up on the cutting room floor. Sometimes it is a massive percent of what we record. For example, when we record interviews for this podcast, we typically talk to the guest for an hour. We have talked to guests for longer than that, and I cut it down to about 30 minutes. So that’s taking 50% of the interview and getting rid of it and.

Speaker 3: Another thing listeners might not understand is that doesn’t mean I am just lopping off entire questions and answers. I’m doing that a little bit, but mostly I’m streamlining everything. I’m making lots of little cuts. I’m cutting parts of questions, parts of answers, and that is where the producer also gets to exercise a lot of creativity.

Speaker 3: Yeah, you know, sometimes I look at an audio editing session when I am done with it and I see hundreds of little cuts. And I think I just made hundreds of decisions today because each cut is a little tiny decision, at least in the case of working. And it sounds like in the case of normal gossip, no one is telling me what to cut or what to keep in. No one is telling Alex what to cut and what to keep in. So as producers, we are thinking about the listener. We’re thinking about what they would want to hear. We’re deciding what the really good stuff is and what is cut able.

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Speaker 1: Yeah, and it’s different from print. You know, editors are have a very specific role in print. It’s also a lot of cutting, a lot of shaping, but it’s different with audio. It just is. And I even after many years of doing it, it’s hard to put those differences into clearly understandable words.

Speaker 1: I loved Alex’s insights into what makes for a good collaboration between host and producer, and especially how that relationship should be a collaboration rather than one where one of those roles is serving the other. But for the most part, it is the hosts who are on the microphone who listeners hear the producer is rarely heard from.

Speaker 1: And here I should mention that on working, at least when we’re doing interviews, you as the producer on the call, listening in will often suggest questions or you’ll point out where we’ve not provided enough background or whatever. But after you’ve done that, the host has to repeat the question for the tape, so to speak. So I’m ventriloquism to you. I’m getting the credit. Listeners don’t know that it was your suggestion. And I mean, on some shows, producers write the script, the questions. It varies a lot. Cameron I’m going to ask this in a really direct way as a podcast producer. Are you really okay with that? Yeah.

Speaker 4: Uh.

Speaker 3: For the most part, yeah. You could probably tell when I was talking to Alex about this that she and I both have sort of mixed feelings about this. There is part of me that really does like playing second fiddle, and I think that is a specific skill. Supporting someone else is a specific skill, and it’s rewarding in a specific way to help someone else shine. If that collaboration is good, if you really feel like a creative partner and you like the host you work with and you want to make that host look good, like that can be really satisfying.

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Speaker 3: But there are those moments like the ones you just mentioned. You know, I have worked on podcasts where I suggest a question for the host or maybe even I ask the guest directly. And whatever I just did, like, prompted this great response from the guests. And it becomes like a crucial point of the interview or the narrative or whatever. And I’m like, Well, no one’s going to know the impact that I had, but but I’m also really proud of like, of having that impact, like, just like knowing that it’s in the final product is really satisfying.

Speaker 3: But every once in a while, I obviously have the urge to wrestle the mic away because having a little bit of influence is not the same as fully driving the production in a direct way. You know, I love helping you come up with questions for guests, but every once in a while I’m like, Well, how would it feel to come up with all the questions and let my curiosity drive everything? And that’s unique. There’s nothing quite like that.

Speaker 1: No, my ears really perked up in that colloquy about how the producer has to be a calm presence, the steady hand on the wheel. And the thing is, I know I’ve said those words. I’ve told early career producers to develop that skill because an anxious producer will create an anxious host anxious guess. And that just doesn’t make for good audio. You want to, like, take the burden off the host’s shoulders so that they can focus on what they need to focus on. If they’re anxious, that’s not a good thing. Yeah.

Speaker 1: But then when Alex talked about relying on dissociation to reach that sort of zen state of calmness, that makes me concerned. Cameron, you are a very, very calm presence in the control room or these days on Zoom. Can you talk about how you reach that state? I mean, a lot of it is about experience and expertise, right?

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Speaker 3: Yeah, I would say it’s absolutely about experience and expertise. For me, it is a learned skill. It is not an innate trait because, you know, I think. In a lot of ways, anxiety is sort of good for podcast producing and a lot of producers I talk to, you know, we’re kind of control freaks like we. We worry professionally because we kind of have to we have to worry about all of the problems that could potentially arise and get ahead of them. We have to make sure everyone knows exactly where they need to be at exactly the right time.

Speaker 3: Sometimes I feel like I have to be everyone’s memory a little bit because like, hosts can forget things I can never forget things like I have to be there for when they forget things because they’ll ask me, What time is this thing? And I have to have all of that information. So it’s hard to have both a tendency towards anxiety. And we call him under pressure. Those are sort of contradictory.

Speaker 3: Yeah. So when I am calm, it might be because I appear calm, not because I am calm. But I’ve. I’ve learned that through practice and through some, like, bad experiences and being in high pressure situations that, uh, being calm under pressure is the only way to get through the pressure. Like I.

Speaker 3: Used to work in daily news production, which is way more high pressure and high stress than podcast producing. And I remember sometimes I had to like finish editing an interview a few minutes before it went on air. And I have a memory of someone say, like reminding me how little time I had over and over. And I remember learning to, like, ignore them or like get the message, but continue focusing on the edit because anxiety wastes time, worrying wastes time. And and like you said, anxiety is sort of contagious, like. So if you have that nervous energy, other people are going to start panicking. So. Being calm is is a way to get through it.

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Speaker 1: Yeah, yeah, it’s tricky. So we always keep something for our slate plus members.

Speaker 1: And as you said earlier on this week’s Sleepless segment, you asked Alex about which bits of the producer’s job she particularly enjoys and which bits she’s not so keen on. But for the entire working audience, which parts of the very varied job that is podcast producing do you like and which bits? Not so much.

Speaker 3: Well, I’ll start with my least favorite task, which I think this is shared by a lot of podcast producers. But guest booking is an absolute nightmare. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work in daily news production anymore. You know, it’s a key part of making podcasts. You got to have a guest. Yeah. But it can be really difficult for those of us who. Like I said, producers kind of want to have control of everything.

Speaker 3: Yeah. Uh, and guest booking involves a lot of uncertainty. You have to rely on someone else getting back to you. And there can be periods of time where you have bids out to different people and you haven’t heard anything, and you just can’t relax until someone gets back to you. And, you know, for for some production jobs, you not only have to have someone get back to you, but you then need to pre interview that person and make sure that they’re the right fit. And so you might have like a 30 minute conversation with them, realize they’re not the right fit. And then you have to go back to one of your other guests. And it’s hard because you just like the lack of control is.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. It’s very, very difficult. We can control everything else pretty much, but the guest element is its wild card. Things I enjoy. Audio editing is really fun. I really have learned to enjoy. Cutting an interview down from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. Like I have systems. That I think work really well. And I just love interviews. I’ve always loved interviews. Like, I watch old like Dick Cavett interviews on YouTube a lot. And so, like, I like the idea that I get to decide what the best version of this conversation is and sort of just like using your gut to figure out what is interesting and what’s not interesting and just. Making it what you want. Anytime I work with music, that’s really fun.

Speaker 3: Uh, scoring or dealing with sound effects and stuff. Audio editing is just really, really fun. And then anything that happens in a studio is really fun. Sitting in on interviews, getting to hear from really smart people is the best. All right. Well, that’s all the time we have this week. Unless, of course, you are a Slate Plus member, in which case you will soon hear a little something extra from this week’s interview. Not only that, if you’re a sleepless member, you will get full access behind the paywall on Slate.com. You can read all of the great articles written by all the smart people. You will get bonus episodes of some slate podcasts and bonus segments on other Slate podcasts. You’ll get a delightful newsletter and more. Just go to Slate.com, slash working plus to sign up.

Speaker 1: Thank you to our guest, Alex Sujong Loughlin. And thanks to our amazing multi-hyphenate host and producer Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week for Isaac Butler’s interview with music supervisors Bruce Gilbert and Lorne Michaels. Until then, get back to work.

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Speaker 3: Hastily plus members as promised. Here’s a small additional portion of my conversation with Alex Sujong Laughlin. I hope you enjoy it. I want to ask about radio and podcast producing. More generally, our jobs require a lot of different tasks. I personally have thoughts about like what my favorite and least favorite producing tasks are. Mm hmm. I, for example, think guest booking can be an absolute headache, and it’s terrible and I hate it, but it’s part of the job. Whereas I like everything that happens in studio. What we’re doing right now is my favorite part. Mm hmm. Audio editing is pretty fun. Do you have thoughts about all of the different tasks and what your what your favorite and least favorite parts are?

Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah, I agree with you. Booking really stresses me out, especially, you know, I’ve worked on shows that were weekly turnarounds where we like record Monday. Edit Tuesday release Wednesday.

Speaker 3: Oh yeah.

Speaker 2: And wow. So stressful. I love field reporting. I love when I get to go travel somewhere and spend, like, really intimate time with somebody and get them to tell me their story. There’s, like, this silly adage that I think, like, goes around journalism schools. It’s like if you walk away from an interview having fallen in love with your interviewee just a little bit, then you’ve done a really good interview. Yeah. And I. I really love that. Just like the real connection you get to have. Yeah. I love getting lost in the research in the early stages when you’re just figuring out what the story’s about. I love, like, you know, going into a store and, like, downloading a bunch of studies.

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Speaker 2: Uh huh. And I love fact checking, which is not always part of the process with producing. But if you’re doing a long form like narrative show, usually there’s going to be a fact checking element I love, like digging through documents and, you know, adding citations to the script. Mm hmm. And. And I really like scoring. I think. Scoring. Oh, yeah.

Speaker 3: Fun scoring is the best.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Speaker 3: I know you have answered this question before. This relates to Anonymizing, but working listeners maybe have not heard the answer to this. Have you ever heard from people who say this story is about me? What the hell? I don’t like the way I was portrayed.

Speaker 2: Not quite. Although we have heard from a lot of people who have said This is definitely about my knitting group referring to the knitting episode, which I will just say right here, because I’ve said in a couple of places more quietly, the true story is not about knitting at all. Oh, I am a an avid knitter. And so I was able to bring my knowledge of knitting and yarn and wool and knitting culture.

Speaker 2: Yes, to the anonymization. But the medium of that, that sort of craft drama would have blown up. You know who this was about? So, yeah, it’s not about knitters, which is really funny because there’s, there’s like a knitting Reddit that, like, got really mad about it and they like, they’re like, they don’t know anything about knitting. And I’m like, I’m sorry if I were recording it, maybe you wouldn’t be mad. But we had to we had to like, you know, funnel my knowledge into Kelsey and Rachel, who was the guest, and they did an awesome job, but, you know, maybe didn’t quite use all the accurate terms.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah. For for working listeners who haven’t heard that episode, there is a normal gossip story that is about a knitting group and it goes into tons of detail about different yarn types and synthetic yarns versus locally sourced artisanal yarns. And so.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Speaker 3: Someone who knows about knitting emailed you and was like, You’re writing about my knitting circle, but it’s not. The real story was not about anything at all. And you can’t you probably shouldn’t tell me what the real story was about because that’s. Yeah, it was against the whole thing.

Speaker 2: No, I shall not. But it really tickles me. How many people are like, this is definitely about my group. I’m like, No, but please tell us about your group. Yeah, she I was like, okay, if it’s not about knitting, then it’s definitely about fountain pens. I’m like, What? I had no idea there was fountain pen drama. Please share.

Speaker 3: You. You’d be happy to know that working host June Thomas, who will probably talk to me on this episode, is a pen and stationery fanatic. I know she can tell you all about that.

Speaker 2: Yeah, she. She indirectly introduced me to goods for the study.

Speaker 3: Oh.

Speaker 2: Just. Just because I listen to the podcast, I talks about it.

Speaker 3: Okay. That’s it for this week’s Slate Plus segment. Thank you so much for your support. We’ll see you next week.