'The Moth Podcast' Looks Back at a Decade of Stories

 wired.com  4/17/2018 1:00:00 PM 

There’s perhaps no modern movement more synonymous with storytelling than The Moth. Beginning in 1997, the organization evolved from a living-room slam hosted by novelist George Dawes into a tale-spinning juggernaut, hosting hundreds of live events and workshops across the world every year. But there’s another version of The Moth that exists only virtually, and that has attracted an audience almost entirely distinct from those at its live events: The Moth Podcast, which turns 10 years old this spring, was perhaps the very first podcast to capitalize on the medium’s unique capacity to conjure intimacy.

From the earliest, pre-podcast days of The Moth, the nonprofit dutifully collected audio recordings from live events, at one point releasing a CD with a selection of stories—but it was nearly 11 years before anyone thought to do anything more ambitious with the massive archive of audio. In the mid-aughts, however, podcasting began picking up steam, and Dan Kennedy, a longtime Moth host and performer, immediately saw its potential. “We need to get into this space in a big way," he recalls telling the staff. "Storytelling is just so prime for it.”

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And so, in the spring of 2008, The Moth put forth its first humble podcast dispatch. Podcasting was still a nascent medium; no one really knew what to expect, or had any real sense of how the format could be leveraged. “It’s hard to overstate how low-tech the whole thing was,” says Catherine Burns, artistic director at The Moth: Some of the archived recordings sounded like they’d been taped underwater, and the nonprofit didn’t have its own studio for recording hosts’ introductions. Rather, they borrowed studio space from Paul Ruest, The Moth’s audio engineer, and in the early days, a Moth staffer with some basic audio skills edited together each podcast on her laptop.

But low-tech didn’t mean limitation; when The Moth Podcast debuted, it accumulated some 2,000 subscribers within a couple of weeks. The show’s producers were blown away. “A big show for us was 300, maybe 400 people,’” recalls Kennedy. Today, a Moth Mainstage event can seat as many as 3,000 people, but at the time, the fact that the podcast was reaching so many more people than had ever attended a single live event seemed like a tremendous win.

The show enjoyed steady growth for several years, bolstered by occasional features on This American Life, which could bringing 50,000 new subscribers from just a single, brief feature. Then, in 2014, Serial hit—and with its success came a rush of new podcast enthusiasts hungry for more content. “In the public radio and podcasting world, there’s definitely this attitude that all boats rise together,” says Burns. “When Serial blew everything up, we all found bigger audiences.” In the post-Serial era, The Moth Podcast’s subscriber count doubled, and today, the show boasts 46 million downloads a year—hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode, with some, like its special episode featuring global stories from women and girls, receiving over a million.

Though The Moth Podcast has come a long way from those early days, the show’s sound design remains relatively sparse, especially in comparison to the Radiolab-inspired genre of high-production podcasts. It eschews ASMR-esque sound effects and chill-inducing needle drops, leaving the focus on humans speaking into microphones.

Don’t let that simplicity fool you; packaging a single episode of The Moth Podcast is no easy feat. The Moth puts on nearly 600 live shows each year, producing thousands of hours’ worth of audio. And then there are those 11 years’ worth of archived audio that predate the podcast. Deciding what makes it into listeners earbuds is a multi-tiered process that requires dozens of people to listen to hours of audio per week, nominating their favorite stories.

A group of The Moth’s mainstage producers and directors then listen through two hours’ worth of nominations each week and sort their top picks into two piles: Those that will make it into the podcast, and those that will air on The Moth Radio Hour, the podcast’s public radio counterpart that airs on more than 400 stations.

The two shows are quite similar, and Radio Hour segments also populate in podcast subscribers’ feeds. But there’s one key difference: The stories that make it into The Moth Podcast can’t always be broadcast on the radio. The FCC prohibits “obscene, indecent, and profane” broadcasts, which disqualifies stories that contain a lot of cursing or adult content.

Beyond that, The Moth remains conscious the fact that radio isn’t necessarily an opt-in experience: A listener might just switch on the radio in their car, unprepared to be dropped into an upsetting tale. With that in mind, The Moth often saves those more intense or emotional stories for subscribers’ feeds. “On the podcast, we can put something out a little racier or a little more thought-provoking that maybe a mom in Mississippi doesnt want coming on the radio when she’s driving her kids to the grocery store,” Burns says. “Whereas with a podcast, people really choose where they listen. There’s an intimacy to podcasting that exceeds even the intimacy of radio.”

That intimacy has come to be a hallmark of podcasting as a whole. Earlier this year, when Apple began releasing more detailed analytics on listenership, many in the industry attributed sky-high engagement rates to the particular, one-way bond that exists between podcast hosts and listeners. “There’s a level of dedication that comes from podcast listeners that you otherwise don’t find,” said Panoply CTO Jason Cox at the time.

Fostering that dedication and sense of community is paramount to The Moth’s mission—and on the podcast, those qualities have the added benefit of building a fiercely loyal fanbase. After listening to just one five-minute story, Burns says, listeners “know this thing about [the storyteller] that it might have taken you 10 years to hear if you became friends with them. You start to realize how much you have in common with people.”

The Moth Podcast was one of the first to tap into the community-building potential of disclosure, with storytellers sharing tales that one might ordinarily only tell a close friend or therapist. But today, that ethos is rampant in the podcasting world, from Moth-like storytelling shows like Risk! to programming like Beautiful Anonymous, which leverages anonymity to give a whole new meaning to vulnerability.

Even shows from legacy media brands, like the New York Times’ The Daily, haven’t shied away from breaking down barriers between speakers and listeners: When host Michael Barbaro interviewed a coal miner last spring, for example, and began crying in the middle of the conversation, the show opted to keep the teary exchange, creating a moving moment that contributed to a spate of Barbaro-mania in the months following.

As The Moth Podcast ages, it’s evolving and expanding. In honor of its tenth anniversary, the show put out a call for a guest host, inviting fans to nominate themselves to take the mic for a special episode that will air in June. Burns dreams of one day starting a podcast under The Moth umbrella featuring stories from their high-school slams; another might focus on stories from The Moth’s global program. And Kennedy half-jokes that he’s considered asking Burns if he could start a sub-brand of The Moth podcast called “The Light,” featuring only funny stories. (“It’s a running joke that I have a narrow emotional spectrum and capacity,” he explains.)

But when The Moth Podcast’s team speaks about the show’s influence and reach, it’s not in terms of future franchises or download numbers. It’s in stories: The research station in Antarctica that hosted its own Moth-inspired story slam after listening to the podcast, or the individual storytellers who have returned, slam after slam, to share their stories. Community and connection, more than anything else, are what define the show—and its enduring appeal.

“The thing I love so dearly about The Moth Podcast is just watching this idea bloom of everyone coming together to share stories, and knowing that’s going all over the world,” Kennedy says. As difficult as life may get, or as unbearable as the headlines might become, on-demand storytelling offers a sense of instant companionship: “As long as we can get a pair of earbuds,” Kennedy says, “we can be together.”

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