An Interview with Phoebe Lett

July 16, 2020

With 25 podcast apps on her phone and an all-day listening habit, Phoebe Lett is one of podcasting's biggest fans. Well known as the founder of the NYT Podcast Club Facebook group, Lett now publishes listening lists for The Times, adding her voice to the small-but-growing arena of tastemakers shaping what gets heard. We spoke with Phoebe about what’s worth listening to today, and how she finds it.


On Air Fest:
Apps and tech companies keep telling us they’ve cracked podcast “discoverability,” yet figuring out what’s good to listen to when there’s a staggering array of shows out there is still a challenge. Where do you find shows to feature in your column?

Phoebe Lett:
I think actually cracking discoverability will be the sign from above that we have reached Peak Podcast App. Google is likely the best positioned to do it, I think, but the trick is they’d have to also have a habituated listening platform to house that discoverability, so I don’t see it happening just yet.

I have an embarrassing number of listening apps on my phone (just counted, it’s 25), and I love to watch what they’re doing with curated lists. In many, you mostly see bigger companies with externally hired PR teams cycle in and out. These are the same splashy banner ads that inevitably slide into my inbox in the form of a press release or five. While there are absolutely instances of a few good indies, those big budget shows inevitably crowd out others on those billboards. That’s what folks seeking out new content find most easily.

So I try hard not to recommend shows I see getting that platform love from Apple, Stitcher, Pocket Casts etc, if only because there are plenty of good podcasts to recommend without needing to double up. Plus, for every one of those podcasts with teams of support, there are indies trying to find their ideal audience, and a world of potential superfans looking for them too. I try to find those shows - excellent ones that everyone should know about but don’t yet.

Wow I still haven’t answered your actual question though, unbelievable! OK so podcasters (and their PR) started reaching out when I began running the NYT Podcast Club Facebook group in 2017, so that’s one way I find shows. Indies slide into my dms, asking me to check their debut or episode out, which is cool too. That reminds me, Twitter’s a great place to find podcasts too, because most shows will create some kind of presence there for content sharing (easily sharing podcasts: the other sign we will have achieved Pod App Nirvana). Twitter’s advanced search can be really helpful if you’re looking for a specific show needle in the podcast haystack.

When I began writing the lists with regularity last year, I turned to Ma’ayan Plaut. Ma’ayan’s curation of the RadioPublic pages was an invaluable resource for finding great independents from all around the world. Now that she’s at PRX she continues to always know the best new underloved show. Other sources are the under-appreciated but no less invaluable sources of pod journalism and recommending: Bello Collective (thank you Galen Beebe, thank you Elena Fernández Collins, thank you Ashley Lusk); Berry Syk of Podcasts in Color, Paul Kondo of Podcast Gumbo, Podyssey, the list goes on.

In the showdown between algorithmic vs. human recommendations, who wins?

My favorite question to hear is “what should I listen to?” I love the game of creating bespoke pod lists for someone’s specific interests. I tend to respond by asking what kind of TV and books do they like to engage with, to find out what sort of stories are they drawn to. Then, what kind of hobbies or interests pique their curiosity? Spotify can learn all this through data collecting, and hopefully will! But as Spotify is finding, recommending podcasts is a little more complicated than recommending music.

With podcasts, it can be really hard to pin down what exactly is drawing a person to it. Is it the subject matter? Easy. Is it this certain flavor of dry humor? Is it the speaker’s endearing twang? The friendship between the show hosts? The caliber of guests? The community engagement between show and audience? Those things are harder to quantify without asking podcasters to really atomize exactly what their show is, and the trick will be pairing that with totally atomized listeners. I know you said algorithmic, but Spotify is the only contender I see so far working the algorithmic rec game. Their problem is I don’t know too many people doing the majority of their podcast listening on Spotify (because of where I live and who I am, no doubt), but it isn’t reaping the data from the majority of listens to a given podcast episode. So they’re strong-arming pod fanbases on to the app.

Follow up question, have you ever recommended in your column a podcast that an algorithm originally recommended to you?

So like I said I try not to pull from the app curation lists already giving pods love, but I will say, when I’m looking for themed lists (as opposed to simply reporting new releases), Apple’s “Related”/”Listeners also subscribed to” algorithm can result in a pretty spot on pairing of two together. Despite my gripes with Apple, that’s the one thing that I gotta commend them for. That is the only “algorithm” that works for my weird listening needs.

At The Times, you produce several podcasts for the opinions section alongside your listening column. How do you balance your dual roles as critic and creator?

So I need to maybe break my charade here - I write about podcasts purely as my hobby job. My dream full time job would be to recommend and critique podcasts all day every day, but for now, it’s a lot more scrappy than that. My day job for the last five and a half years has been in the Opinion section, and I’m grateful that last November they made me their first and for a while only member of the audio team. Now I produce “The Argument” and help with Opinion’s audio projects in development, but the pod writing role is a side gig of love.

I will make lists or find audio angles for any section that’ll have me. My “column” is my attempt to will regular mainstream pod coverage into existence. For the last year, I’ve been a bit more successful in this scheme.

So I’m not a critic - the closest NYT comes to a podcast critic is when the distressingly sharp Amanda Hess covers them in her culture critique. Again, my wildest dream is to be allowed to listen to podcasts all day and write about them. But the thing that drives the writing I’m doing now is pointing the Times megaphone to connect worthy shows with audiences that would truly love them, if they could just find them.

Since I’m not a full time critic, I juggle listening to audio I’m making all day with listening to new (and beloved) podcasts basically any time I am not working. No matter the time of day or day of the week, there are always voices talking to me. I do not suggest this as a healthy balance.

The podcast ecosystem doesn't have the same infrastructure for elevating talent that we see in film, television or more traditional publishing. Does the podcast industry need that structure?

From my POV, what those industries have that ours doesn’t is “mainstream” attention and easy to target (and manipulate) audiences. I think Apple’s primacy in the podcast listening space is slipping away, and I think their lack of evolution around audience development on both the front and back end of podcasting is to blame.

Recently your column has become more responsive to current events. Through the lens of podcast recommendations you've been promoting podcasts about the Black experience and contextualizing current events with a focus on racial justice. How do you decide which voices to highlight?

What I’ve said above about finding podcasts that are underrepresented applies equally to how I weigh considerations as to whose voice could use amplifying. A lot of my list compiling time is spent trying to offer the least homogenous POVs I possibly can. The change in the column reflects a change in the section I am writing more regularly for, and what those editors want to offer their audience.

Lightning round final question! What have you listened to recently that feels super fresh and exciting?

Well to be a hypocrite right away and say a podcast that got a splashy Apple Podcast promo, I’m really jazzed about the LAist, California Love, because I love a pod-of-place, and think it’s a really beautiful love letter to a city I don’t totally understand how to love. I think “We The Unhoused” might be the show that the concept of podcasting was made for. I think Dylan Marron’s Small Triumph, Big Speech is my weighted blanket podcast for 2020. I think My Gothic Dissertation is the podcast I’ll listen to instead of going to grad school. Anything Rose Eveleth does excites me, so Advice For and From the Future is it. The new team of producers at the helm of The Heart are bringing their Bitchface sensibilities to revive and refresh a show that I sincerely mourned the loss of -- their mini-series so far are quintessential 2020 listening. Not new, yet somehow always fresh and surprising is the weird world of Richard’s Famous Food Podcast. That’s all I can think of right now but ask me again next week.

"No matter the time of day or day of the week, there are always voices talking to me. I do not suggest this as a healthy balance."

Phoebe Lett