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What Does a Podcast Editor Do?

The job of a podcast editor can be hard to efficiently explain, because they do many little things in the service of one big thing: to make the show better for more people. They think about structure, emphasize tension, tighten language, and consider how the presentation of the story comes across to different types of people. Podcast editors — particularly for narrative nonfiction shows — used to be really hard to find, but this has changed a little bit over the past few years as the podcast industry grew in complexity. Nick talks with Catherine Saint Louis, who works at Neon Hum Media, about the role of the podcast editor, how she became one, and its increasing importance to the business.

This Land

Murder on the Towpath

Bear Brook

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SERVANT OF POD WITH NICK QUAH
Episode 10 Transcript: What Does a Podcast Editor Do?

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

podcast, people, editor, tape, listening, feel, producer, episode, host, thinking, catherine, person, land, cherokee, rebecca, point, story, structure, editing, treated

SPEAKERS

"Murder On The Towpath" Excerpt, Catherine Saint Louis, "This Land" Excerpt, "Bear Brook" Excerpt, Nick Quah

Nick Quah 00:01

Let's try something a little different. This is from the first episode of This Land, a podcast from Crooked Media:

"This Land" Excerpt 00:09

Sometime after, George's family would put up that white metal cross to remember where he died. It was important to George's family to have a symbol of their loss. Years later, Lisa, the public defender, would be driving along the road to discover this cross, and more importantly, where it stood. She realized if the cross marked exactly where George had died, the police had the wrong crime scene. It was a mile or more off what the state Bureau of Investigation had said.

Nick Quah 00:45

So that's the scene. Now, why would that matter?

"This Land" Excerpt 00:51

It mattered because both the victim and the convicted murderer are citizens of Muskogee Creek Nation. So if the murder happened on Indian land, the state of Oklahoma didn't have jurisdiction. They didn't have the right to prosecute Murphy, let alone sentence him to death. That roadside cross pinpointed exactly where George Jacobs was killed. And ultimately, it put his killer's open-and-shut conviction into jeopardy.

Nick Quah 01:22

So what are you thinking about? The structure? The details? The specific choice of language? You're probably not thinking about all of that. But if you are, I've got news for you: you might be a podcast editor. from LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah.

Catherine Saint Louis 01:53

I think a good podcast does three things: it educates, it enrages, and it entertains.

Nick Quah 02:00

Catherine St. Louis is an editor at the podcast production company Neon Hum. She edited This Land. Her latest project is Murder On The Towpath, a narrative podcast hosted by Soledad O'Brien.

Catherine Saint Louis 02:13

It's basically the podcast of these two women. One of them is Mary Pinchot Meyer, a painter, a mother, and a CIA wife, who is murdered on a towpath in the 1960s. A black man is accused of her murder and a black woman is actually his lawyer and defends him, and tries to save his life.

Nick Quah 02:35

Whether in podcasting or beyond, editors shape stories, they think about structure, tension, representation. It's a tough job, and it tends to require a specific kind of personality. Now, I should say, this conversation only focuses on one type of editor: the folks who work on longer form narrative nonfiction podcasts. It's different from editing something like audio dramas or interview shows. Nevertheless, some aspects of Catherine's editing toolkit are universal. For example, the turn.

Catherine Saint Louis 03:07

So like, a turn is kind of like, a big surprise, like, how to reveal a surprise. It's kind of like comedy. You know, like when people explain jokes, it doesn't work?

Nick Quah 03:17

Yeah, setup, setup, punchline.

Catherine Saint Louis 03:19

Like either you get it or you don't. Like, I feel like you know a turn is working when you've said just enough, and people are like, [gasps] "no!" right? Like, they have to have that "what!?" feeling. And sometimes you've written it and it's too staid, the way you wrote it, or it doesn't have enough mystery, and then you just have to keep rewriting it so that people just get that feeling. So at the end of the first episode of Murder On The Towpath, a podcast that we made with FilmNation that's on Luminary. The turn at the end of episode one kind of comes out of nowhere. Because what we don't tell people throughout that whole episode is that Mary Pinchot Meyer was not only a socialite who was very well connected, but she had had an affair with a very important man. And instead of saying what his name was, we just went to a speech of his, and his voice is so recognizable, that it felt great to just have people know it before that tape was done.

"Murder On The Towpath" Excerpt 04:28

A case which only gets more shocking and more complicated with time. That's because what Debby couldn't have known, what most people didn't know, was that Mary had had an affair with a very powerful man. I pledge you that we shall neither commit nor provoke aggression. That man was John F. Kennedy.

Catherine Saint Louis 04:52

And we had kind of played around with, "should we say JFK, and then go to the tape?" And I felt like it hits so much harder if you just heard the tape and you were like, "no!" It was almost a way of like not having to say it. I mean, ultimately, we did say it, after it. But it was a way of having the surprise come from just this kind of historic speech rather than us saying who it was.

Nick Quah 05:19

So, how did you become an editor?

Catherine Saint Louis 05:22

Well, I used to think I wanted to be a professor of English.

Nick Quah 05:25

Oh, really?

Catherine Saint Louis 05:26

Uh-huh.

Nick Quah 05:27

What were you gonna specialize in,

Catherine Saint Louis 05:29

Like 20th century American, like every other person out there. And that's what made me realize I would end up being an adjunct professor in Kansas without health insurance, and realized maybe there's something else I can do. But it's actually a professor who took me aside and said, "Catherine, you could totally make it in the ivory tower. You fall in love with a book and don't get out. But the truth is, is you might have noticed you kind of are really chatty." And I was like, "yeah?"

Nick Quah 05:56

She said that as if it's not a good thing for a professor to be?

Catherine Saint Louis 05:59

Well, she just was like, "Girl, you might want to try the outside world, cuz I've seen you and you could talk to anybody. And that's a skillset that not everybody has. And sure, you could deploy that as a professor. But you could also do a lot of other things." And by then, I think she was a bit tired of being an English professor, and had decided that she was trying to make people think hard about becoming one.

Nick Quah 06:27

Catherine started thinking about a life in journalism. And eventually, she ended up at the New York Times.

Catherine Saint Louis 06:33

I got there because I didn't get a fact-checking job at the New Yorker, and I was on my like, sixth, or seventh, or eighth--I can't even remember--interview, and basically they called me and said, "Hey, we loved you, but we want somebody who's more into politics." And inside, I was freaking out, and cursing myself, and really upset. But instead of showing any of that, I basically said, "Well, thanks so much. I really hope we keep in touch and maybe we can go for a coffee sometime." So I basically became friends with the guy who rejected me. And then, when he had a friend at the Times who needed fact checkers, he mentioned me to her. And that's how I ended up in the New York Times.

Nick Quah 07:19

As a fact checker.

Catherine Saint Louis 07:21

Well, so, what's weird is I actually started as an editor at the Times. So, the Times used to have this program where they took like, intermediate reporters, gave them two years to prove themselves, move them around through different departments, and then either hired them or didn't. Adam Moss basically made an intermediate editor position for me, and did the same thing for me. Gave me the lives column at the back of the magazine, all those memoirs, and I was also reporting this column called "What They Were Thinking," where there was a photograph of a pivotal moment in someone's life and I call them up--the person in the photograph--and basically got them to open up about that one moment.

Nick Quah 08:05

What did you learn from that experience--from that specific feature?

Catherine Saint Louis 08:09

That like, every moment there is actually something going on. And that if you come armed with empathy and good questions, and you get someone to trust you, they will tell you what's really going on. I mean, I remember there's this one picture at a kitchen sink of just this woman looking out of a window. And it turns out like, that was the day she either got divorced or filed for divorce, I can't remember. But she danced around what that day was for most of the interview, and then finally at the end said, "Yeah, oh, now I remember that day." So I mean, obviously, it wasn't like she had forgotten when she got divorced. She just, in the beginning, didn't want to say so.

Nick Quah 08:53

It takes some time to sort of like, open that conversation up.

Catherine Saint Louis 08:55

Yeah. And I think after a half hour she felt like "this girl can handle it." [Laughter]

Nick Quah 09:02

Catherine would spend 18 years at the Times. But near the end of her time there, she became obsessed with something completely different: podcasts.

Catherine Saint Louis 09:12

And I didn't listen to them in like, a normal way. [Laughter] I listened to them and then would like, jot down the structure of it, and listen to some podcasts like, numerous times trying to understand how it worked. It became this whole thing where I fell down a rabbit hole. And eventually my husband just sort of said, like, "Catherine, I know this is how you like to spend your weekend, deconstructing an entire podcast series and mapping it out on Post-It's on our wall, but I'm sort of thinking this might be a job." And I was like, please, is podcasting like, big enough for like, a lot of editors, or is it just the same editors who get a ton of work?

Nick Quah 09:57

So you had that sort of reticence that maybe there wasn't an economy for podcast editors at the time?

Catherine Saint Louis 10:02

Yeah, totally.

Nick Quah 10:03

Hmm.

Catherine Saint Louis 10:04

For sure. I just had no idea. Like, I wasn't part of the conversations where people were saying, "Oh my god, there aren't enough editors in podcasting." And also, I was still kind of confused about--when I say editor, I mean, story editor, someone who structures the story, someone who works with a producer. I ultimately left the Times and went to Transom, because I wasn't sure I wanted to be an editor. I thought maybe I'm a producer.

Nick Quah 10:30

Quick side note: Transom is a nonprofit that, among other things, organizes workshops that train audio producers.

Catherine Saint Louis 10:37

And then after going to Transom, I realized, wow, I could spend the next 10 years and probably not be as good a producer as like, half of the producers I listen to, or I could go into editing, which is literally how my brain works. There isn't--there are very few podcasts I listen to that I don't immediately start deconstructing. And Nick, it took me a while to realize other people didn't do that, like I didn't know. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 11:07

So there are so many places I want to go here, but I want to ask this one thing: why did you think that you weren't going to be a great producer?

Catherine Saint Louis 11:16

Because there were people who literally talked about being "in the tape," like as if they had gone like, to Hawaii, and I was like, "Really? Okay." So I'm sometimes quote, "in the tape" and I don't come out rejuvenated. I come out, like, lost and confused, or--and like a little crazed. Like, I've come out of a very deep, deep sleep, or a deep dream, a deep creative space. So, you know, that was a hint that I wasn't born to be a producer.

Nick Quah 11:51

Not a big fan of tape logging, it sounds like.

Catherine Saint Louis 11:54

Yeah, no, but you know, like, if you're gonna write for the ear, you have to kind of be in the tape and know your tape well enough to be able to know what all the ingredients are to be able to make the recipe, right? And for me, I really liked stepping back and sort of thinking about: okay, so you say you have good tape on this, we have this scene. We've proven this point with our reporting. How do we take all of those ingredients and put them in such a structure that people can't stop listening; that they have to keep listening and that we're unfurling the information in such a way that's seductive, so that you're giving them just enough to keep them going to the next point, but not enough, so that they keep listening.

Nick Quah 12:44

So how exactly does she do that? More in a minute. What do you think people usually mean when they say editor, or they think about a podcast editor? What do you think the sort of popular characterization is of what that job is?

Catherine Saint Louis 13:10

To be honest, I think people don't know what it means. You know, like, if you were to ask a whole bunch of people like, what does an editor do? And podcasting, they don't know. I think that's actually part of the problem and why we don't have a pipeline of more women and people of color thinking, "Oh, I really like podcasts. I want to be an editor." I think people think editor is something that happens to you after you've been a producer at NPR for a certain amount of years. And you get your first gray hair and someone's like, "yeah, she's an editor now."

Nick Quah 13:44

It's kind of like--it feels like it's that's how newsrooms used to--still work, actually. Like, you need to be a senior reporter to a certain point before you can become an editor.

Catherine Saint Louis 13:53

Right.

Nick Quah 13:53

Even though those are two very different skillsets.

Catherine Saint Louis 13:55

Exactly. While as I think an editor is someone who looks at the mechanics of storytelling, right, so that they are the person that the producer is talking to about how to get the good tape, and then how to structure that tape when it comes in, and also how to create moments that will be memorable. Like how to make the information that we've got stick in people's brains. Because when you listen to something, things can slip by so fast. So how do you make like, memorable moments that cannot be forgotten, so that people think about them a long time after?

Nick Quah 14:35

So let's stay there for a little bit because I feel like this is--this illustrates, I think, one of the sort of special moves that you alluded to earlier. There's that--there's a couple of moves with a first episode specifically as to like, making that argument: why should you be listening to this? Why is this worth your time? And I feel like one of those moves is like, this is why I, the reporter, or I, the sort of host of this, care about this particular issue, and I sometimes wonder whether that's like a move that is necessary sometimes. What what do you think about those opening gambits? What do you feel, as an editor, are the more effective ways of, of getting somebody to go like, this is worth my time?

Catherine Saint Louis 15:14

Right. I think the problem with most of those sort of host bios is they tell people how the person fell into the story. I think what's more effective is showing what this host is like, and showing their personalities so that you want to spend time with them. Like the best host, that's basically it. It's like you want--you keep coming back to it because you enjoy the host's company, because you trust him or her, but also like because they've put these clever touches in their copies so that even if they're talking about something very difficult, you want to stick with it. Like there are these moments that feel like you can trust them and you want to keep going on the journey. Because that's really what it is, right? Like you're kind of--I think the point in that first episode is not to convince someone that you have written many, many books and gee, you know--

Nick Quah 16:17

My Buddha feet is (?)

Catherine Saint Louis 16:18

Right, like, you know a lot about World War II, like, isn't that fascinating? It's like, no, I don't care. But if you got into this because of something that happened to you when you were a kid, or something random that you couldn't let go of, and it actually ended up having real stakes in your adult life.

Nick Quah 16:39

This is a perfect time to go back to This Land, which is one of Catherine's earlier projects with Neon Hum. Hosted by Rebecca Nagle, it tells the story of two crimes nearly two centuries apart, that provide the backbone to a recent Supreme Court decision that determined the fate of five tribes and nearly half the land in Oklahoma.

Catherine Saint Louis 16:59

And like, someone like Rebecca Nagel, she, you know, she was the person to host This Land because her family's history was like right at the core of some huge events in Native American history. And so it wasn't like convincing people that Rebecca was the right person to tell the story, like, her own personal family history put her smack dab in the middle of these things. So she just cares on a level that is moving. So that you don't need to oversell it. She's just the right one.

Nick Quah 17:31

Well, tell me more about that show in specifics. So what what was that process like? Walk me through the beginning of like, do you sit down, sketch out the episodes? Do you work through the problems? Do you work through the framing at the beginning, or is it all taped first, and then you figure it out after the fact? What was your approach to that show?

Catherine Saint Louis 17:49

I feel like the best way to approach things is to have an amazing outline.

Nick Quah 17:53

Hmm.

Catherine Saint Louis 17:54

That's very key to me too, in terms of like, narrative pacing and in terms of knowing where your cliffhangers are going to be. Like, I think unless you establish that it's really hard, I think to have a season hang together. It was a little hard for that one, though, because there was a Supreme Court case at the center of This Land, and the Supreme Court case was going to be decided while we were writing episodes. So we didn't really know how it was going to go.

Nick Quah 18:25

I guess I'm wondering, to what extent do you--are you shaping the host or the storyteller at the center of it? To what extent like, your job is to challenge that person or to draw out and provide a fuller picture of that person?

Catherine Saint Louis 18:40

I mean, look, it's very intimate to make a podcast with somebody. And the way you write shows a lot about yourself, right, and your biases, like, what you feel like is important. And the thing about This Land, and I think why a lot of people listened to it was it was all that Native American history that we were all kind of wondering why we didn't learn in high school. Like, seriously, how could I be in my 40s and learning this now? Right? So I think a lot of people were drawn to it for that reason. But I think there was this one part of the process where we were so focused on Native American issues that there came a point in their history where Cherokee people, so the people that Rebecca--Rebecca's tribe, they enslaved black people. So they took--stole a page from the American South and treated black people like property. And there was just a part in one of the episodes where, I mean, there were so many injustices in that episode.

"This Land" Excerpt 19:47

Allotment was devastating for all Cherokees, but one group had the least protection: the Cherokee freedmen. And that's because of racism, pure and simple. Cherokee Nation's racism. My tribe enslaved people before the Civil War.

Catherine Saint Louis 20:04

But this one was kind of not given, I thought, its due. And basically, I just, I just was very frank with Rebecca and said, "Look, people will have stuck with us this long because they want to know about this history, and they want to know how America broke its promise for Cherokee people and other nations that are part of this lawsuit. But no one's gonna listen to this podcast, that is a Black person, if you don't acknowledge how messed up it is that you treated us like property. Like, up until now, Cherokee people were the heroes of the story. And you just told me that actually, for a whole large chapter, you were anti-heroes. So you have to have a come to Jesus moment." And she did. I mean, it was kind of beautiful, because I think me saying it that way--I mean, I was pretty candid, which I am, I'm just like that. I was like, at that point, when I was listening to the mix, I literally wanted to throw my phone across the room and break it. Like that's how pissed I was that you were kind of--not glossing it over, but not treating it, like slavery has to be treated. And she totally got it and went away and wrote two different parts of the podcast that I thought was beautiful. And those parts were beautiful, but they really, I think, made a case for why people should continue to trust Rebecca as a host, and stay on the journey with her.

Nick Quah 21:45

Well, let's play that clip and just dig a little deeper into it.

"This Land" Excerpt 21:49

Over the course of this podcast, you've heard a lot of stories of Indians being oppressed, but my tribe is also responsible for the oppression of others. Starting In the early 1800s, we adopted the institution of slavery from the American South. And no, it wasn't kinder because we were Indians. There's no kind way to treat another human being like property. After the Civil War-- [Fades]

Nick Quah 22:15

So what was the emotion that you're going for there?

Catherine Saint Louis 22:17

Well--

Nick Quah 22:18

And how do you work that out?

Catherine Saint Louis 22:20

I feel like the line that she wrote and the outrage with which--the like little tinge of outrage when she says, "And no, it wasn't any kinder, because we were Native American," right? That felt like really real to me. And I, I'm not sure if that line she ended up improvising and wasn't in the script. But that's what I felt like we needed to hear in the context of talking about freedmen. So freedmen are the former slaves of Cherokee Nation that then became Cherokee at a certain point. And in that episode, you know, the fact that they were freedmen played into how much land that they got, and for a while they were treated differently. Look, it just would have been a big hole if she hadn't brought herself to that moment, and kind of understood how some listeners would take that.

Nick Quah 23:17

So are there any other shows that stand out to you in terms of editing?

Catherine Saint Louis 23:20

Did you ever listen to Bear Brook?

Nick Quah 23:23

Ah! Great show.

Catherine Saint Louis 23:24

I mean, there are a lot. Yeah, there are a lot that stood out, but Bear Brook, I felt like was incredibly ballsy because the experience of listening to it is like, the first two, or even three, episodes I feel like are all build up.

Nick Quah 23:42

Absolutely.

Catherine Saint Louis 23:43

And I feel like it breaks all the rules. It's like reading a 19th century novel where they like start at the beginning and patiently like lay out stuff, but the thing was, is I couldn't stop listening. So I re-listened to those early episodes a bunch to kind of understand; how are they getting away with telling me so little, and yet I can't stop listening? And the key were all of these kind of amateur sleuths, remember? Like, there were all these people who were not cops, were desperate to know what were the names of those bodies in the barrels.

"Bear Brook" Excerpt 24:20

Later, Rhonda would tell me she had a two-year-old niece who died of leukemia not long before she started on the Bear Brook case. Now she wonders if that may have had something to do with how she felt about the mystery. I just thought of the process our family went through and fighting to, you know, keep her alive, and then grieving her death, and then to think of, you know, a little child about her age who nobody seems to be coming forward for. That was--it's--the case struck me so hard because I saw those little unidentified children, you know, and felt like who's mourning for them?

Catherine Saint Louis 24:54

Who were these people? Who are their people? How did they end up dying in those barrels without anybody ever coming to look for them? And it was those characters that completely carried those first two episodes. That story doesn't really even get cooking, I dare say, until the two Episode Fives--for whatever reason they had two episodes five, they split them into two, I don't know why they did that. But anyway, that's when you find out so much. So Bear Brook established a very strange structure. I mean, not to give too much away. But everybody comes to Bear Brook thinking it's a true crime story. But is it? No, it's not. It's awesome! It's not!

Nick Quah 25:40

What kinds of people would you like to see come into the podcast editor positions? What kind of people do you want to see more of in the podcast editor position? And where do you think podcast publishers, producers should be looking to draw those editors from?

Catherine Saint Louis 25:54

I think that we need to understand that editors are not born, they're made, in the same way that we might take someone who doesn't have a ton of producer experience, and help them get to a point where they can cut tape, and Pro Tools, and collect good tape, and become a badass. I wish we took more young people of color, women, and guided them so that they became editors. I think we have to demystify that editors are somebody who are older, or who are established. I think it's like the way you view podcasts. And if you have strong opinions, and you have empathy, and you have a great sense of storytelling. All of those things should be a starting point to making the next generation of editors, and we can't kind of keep wanting different podcasts and not recognize that we need more Black editors. It seems absurd to me to think we can just have a Black host and then things will be different. Because, you know, some hosts only come in way at the end. Some hosts don't write the scripts at all. The person who's guiding all of that script writing, and all of that collecting of tape, and all of the structure. And a lot of the nuance is not only the producer that's writing scripts, but their editor. It matters to have that person in charge. And also, editors get to decide what stories are told. At Neon Hum like, we are getting into originals right now, and, you know, I'm part of the team that are deciding what stories deserve to be podcasts. So I'm bringing my full self to that decision making process. We just need a greater diversity of people. I feel like it's the same five people who are editing things. And things would sound different, but they would also--you know, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is editors are the people who speak up and sort of say, "okay, so this is how I'm hearing that. If you don't want that effect, then we need to change this."

Nick Quah 28:08

Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Catherine Saint Louis 28:11

Thank you.

Nick Quah 28:23

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.