Podcasts are the future of biography

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The biography is moving beyond the book. From S-Town to Mogul, podcasters are now channeling their inner David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin to tell deeply-reported, sound-rich audio portraits of private and public figures in American life. In an evolving medium, it’s an evolving genredubbed “narrative biographical podcasts” by The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson.

Traditional biographies might not be the sexiest literary genre, even when the subjects have led extraordinary lives. They’re often lengthy tomes, dense with historical information and banal details, impressive and historically important feats, but not necessarily the most engaging, especially in a media market defined by sugar highs.

A few years ago, the word “podcast” wasn’t even part of the vernacular. Now everyone has one (including CJR). And an increasing number of shows are exposing biographies to a new generation. They’re capturing individual lives in soundbites, structuring stories with sound, and inviting audiences along for the journey. It’s not about capturing every detail of someone’s life, just the most important ones.

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Within the last year, podcasts dissected the lives of people ranging from a small-town Alabama recluse (S-Town) to a famed fitness guru (Missing Richard Simmons), and not without controversy. The stories, usually told in a series of one-hour episodes, are multi-layered, provocative, and dynamic. Unlike the written word, audio biographies let you hear the excitement in a character’s voice, the crackling sobs of their sorrow, the nostalgia of a childhood memory. Listeners hear from the subject directly, or people who knew them best. It feels real, and the wall between biographer and audience disappears.  

Whether you agree with their approach (or the ethics of their reporting), one thing is becoming clear: Podcasters might just be the new biographers. Here are a few standout biographical podcasts we suggest you add to your listening queue:

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Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, Gimlet Media

“He was a king and kingmaker.” So begins the first episode of a new show from narrative audio powerhouse Gimlet Media, and podcasting company Loud Speakers Network. In six episodes, Mogul chronicles the rise and fall of legendary music executive Chris Lighty, the man largely responsible for the modern era of hip hop. He was the man behind  some of hip hop’s hall of fame: Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, and Fat Joe. Lighty died by suicide in 2012; the series starts with a powerful reading of the eulogy his mother delivered at his funeral. That raw emotion is a thread throughout the season.

Reggie Ossé (a.k.a. Combat Jack) takes on the dual role as host and biographer. The former entertainment lawyer was a contemporary of Lighty’s (they ran in similar circles). His voice is familiar and authentic, and the listener trusts his “insider perspective” on Lighty’s life. Through in-depth interviews with Lighty’s family, friends, and former celebrity clients (plus gorgeous sound design), Mogul is both a story about the birth of hip hop and a hip hop legend.

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Missing Richard Simmons, Pineapple Street Media

For a few years, you couldn’t escape Richard Simmons. The fitness guru had an aerobics empire, and his energetic, larger-than-life persona made him a frequent guest of David Letterman and Howard Stern. But three years ago, he suddenly stepped out of the spotlight. He pulled back from close friends, and stopped teaching classes at his exercise studio, Slimmons. Told in six chapters, this podcast aims to understand why.

Dan Taberski, a filmmaker and acquaintance of Richards, takes listeners on his journey to investigate the disappearance. Much was written about the ethics of pursuing this story, with The  New York Times’ Amanda Hess calling it “morally suspect.” It’s a fair argument. Taberski is invasive in his approach, but his intentions seem good. Taberski was a Slimmons regular, and he expresses his respect of and concern for Simmons in the podcast. The biographical study of Simmons left many wondering: Is this our business? The answer is still up for debate. On the one hand, the podcast reveals the often-overlooked complexity of someone like Richards. He’s so much more than his late night talk show appearances. On the other, it places Richards’ life under a microscope without his permission.

 

Making Oprah, WBEZ

Oprah Winfrey is ubiquitous. There’s not a single person in this country who doesn’t know her name. Now journalist Jenn White is telling everyone the behind-the-scenes story of her iconic TV talk show. In the three-part series, the show details her show’s humble origins to its daytime dominance, while also delving into Oprah’s rise as an American icon.

The Chicago-based public radio station uses interviews with publicists, producers, and even Oprah herself to tell a holistic story of the famed host. It’s a fascinating look at who Oprah was before she became the Oprah we know and love.

 

S-Town, This American Life

If you haven’t heard of S-Town, you’ve been living under a rock since April. Make that a boulder. The creative force behind podcast darlings This American Life and Serial looks at a small town in Alabama through the life of an eccentric gadfly, John B. McLemore. Narrator Brian Reed first visited Woodstock (what McLemore calls “Shit Town”) after getting an email from McLemore about an alleged murder. By the end of the second episode, the podcast shifts into unexpected territory, transforming into a piece of “aural literature” full of twists and turns. By the end of the second episode (spoiler alert), the audience learns of McLemore’s suicide.

And, so, the series shifts from a Serial-esque true crime into a poetic commentary on the human condition. Reed obsesses over the life of McLemore, and over the course of the podcast, produces a humanistic biography of both McLemore himself and the town he loathed. Like Missing Richard Simmons, many questioned the ethics of the show. A veteran reporter and producer, Reed brings the life of a private person into the spotlight as though he were a fictional character from some Flannery O’Connor-esque Southern Gothic tale. Secrets are revealed, and drama unfolds as Reed pokes and prods in the aftermath of the tragedy, though he does so with respect and sensitivity.

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But wait, there’s more:

  • StartUp, Gimlet Media: The first season is a makeshift biography of the company’s founder and podcast superstar, Alex Blumberg. The fourth season focuses on Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, as he attempts to launch a new company in spite of his controversial past.
  • Meet the Composer, WQXR: The show takes listeners inside the minds of famous contemporary composers. Some, like the story of Henry Threadgill, is more biographical than others.
  • You Must Remember This: An independent podcast, YMRT explores the secrets and/or forgotten histories of early Hollywood, including this series-within-a-series about the parallel lives of Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg.
  • Millennial, Radiotopia: It’s not quite a biography, but the first part of season one was a documentation of post-graduation life through the life of host, Megan Tan.
  • Crimetown, Gimlet Media: Here’s yet another Gimlet podcast anchored by a biographical sketch of a historic figure. The show’s main subject is crime in Providence, Rhode Island, but it examines it through the life of the late Mayor Buddy Cianci.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.