Sound Judgment

The host defines the brand with John Barth

Episode Summary

What does it mean to have “hostiness?” That’s the question that John Barth has been asking — and answering — for decades. John is one of most well-known and respected producers and talent recruiters in audio storytelling. For 16 years, he served as chief content officer of PRX. He was the founding producer of Marketplace and a key developer of shows ranging from The Moth Radio Hour to Reveal. He shares his behind-the-scenes methods for spotting great hosts and coaching them to be their most natural, dynamic selves on the mic in this ‘don’t-miss’ episode. We dissect Reveal’s Mississippi Goddamn (host Al Letson), and discuss Wondery’s Bunga Bunga and The Daily.

Episode Notes

How to be a great host: John Barth’s takeaways

1. What is “hostiness?” 
This is where John shines as both a talent recruiter and a content developer. As he says, he’s always looking for ‘the blue M&M” — “that special voice.” 

“It’s a combination of very different factors. There’s a likability in someone's voice or style. There's this innate sense that I’d really like to spend more time with them. There’s also this range of curiosity and joy and versatility that comes across when you encounter hostiness. But it’s that compelling nature, that if you saw them live on stage, you’d never want the show to end.” 

2. Consistent sound matters, and improves with a good host-producer partnership.
“Anybody who uses their voice professionally, you want to get to a consistent sound. If a good host can hear what makes them sound good in front of an audience, you want to implant that sound in their head. [As a host], after a while, you know your own range — and even on an off day, you can pull that out.” John’s job as an executive producer? “Helping talent be the very best talent they could be behind a mic.”

3. For a more natural and dynamic sound, talk about your passions before taping.  
John coached a reporter who’d never before had voice coaching. 
“First, I let her talk about the story, about her passions. When people talk about their passions, they automatically get a bigger range. You hear more color in their voice. So then, when it came to reading a script, we would do it again and again. And I would listen for moments of passion…and hold up the mirror. After a while, you hear the joy come out.” And then, John says, they would rehearse that script again and again, going over the most difficult and most promising parts. Often, he would direct her, saying, “Take me back to that scene that you're describing and feel that in the sentence.” When they finished, she couldn’t believe how great she sounded. “Sometimes, we just don't know what our own voice can do. And you need a coach, another pair of ears to say, ‘Ooh, that really did work.’”

4. “We’re not enthralled by copies. We’re enthralled by originals.” 
“The goal is certainly to read the script, but your voice and style is loose enough that you can really bring some expression of life to it. There's nothing worse than sounding like Walter Cronkite with the forced intonation and forced pattern. That doesn't mean credibility.”

5. A host defines the brand of the show. 
“When you're hiring a host, the host really does imprint their own sound, voice, and style on the show. So it actually begins to define the brand that you're creating. [On Marketplace] it took me a while to get to a host who embodied the sound that I heard from the show… There was an editorial vision, but there was also a sound vision. And it needed to be distinctive. I always imagined how the audience was listening to the show and the kind of listener I wanted to attract. So that had to be a certain sound.”

6. How to prep before taping. 

“Our goal (at Marketplace)  was to laugh uproariously before we went into the studio to do the live show. So we would tell a funny joke or dirty joke; we would be really snarky in his (David Brancaccio’s) office. My job was to get [David Brancaccio], as a host, not only loosened up, but comfortable with a real range of emotion. So by the time that mic went on, he could really bring his full self to whatever he had to do in those 30 minutes. I mean, it was so much fun.”

7. What producers do 

“It's sort of like directing theater and being a writer and being a cat herder. And, you know, everything all at once. People have no idea what producers really do.” (Elaine) 

8. Choose to learn storytelling from the very best — The Moth

When John first saw The Moth on stage, he went back to his boss at PRX, Jake Shapiro, and said, “We have just found our first hit.” He then became a key member of the team that developed The Moth Radio Hour. 
“The Moth knows probably more about hostiness than anyone. So if you think that storytelling is just getting somebody on a stage to tell their story into a mic, you don't appreciate what The Moth does to get to The Moth sound. Their  process is so respectful of finding not only the true story of the storyteller, but the voice of the storyteller and the hostiness of the storyteller.” 

9. Just because we are accustomed to a conventional broadcast voice does not mean it remains relevant today. Experiment. 
[About the search for a host of Reveal and the choice to hire Al Letson]

“What we needed for that show was a voice and a host who would help us redefine what investigative reporting would sound like. And that's why Al  was a natural choice for that job.”

10. Bring your identity to your story, and be transparent about it. 
In Mississippi Goddamn, Al Letson and producer Jonathan Jones (J.J.), tell the listener where they were born, what their races are (Black and white) and where they have lived. 
“Most journalists are trained to remove themselves from the story,” John says. ‘But that’s a false construct; you never really do.” Of course, he says, there are objective facts. “[And] it’s your eyes, your ears, your notes… And then it's also layered by all the experiences that help you see what you see or what you notice or what you miss…It's a false neutrality [to remove oneself from the story], because we're all individuals…It's rare to hear this acknowledged so plainly, but it really does need to happen that way, especially in a story like this.”

More about John Barth

Today, John Barth runs his own firm, Creative Media LLC. He does talent recruitment and content development for clients in public media, news and social impact. He also coaches people in their media careers. For 16 years, John was the Chief Content Officer of PRX, named by Fast Company magazine as one of the Top 10 Most Innovative media companies. He led the design and launch of Reveal with The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Moth Radio Hour, both Peabody Award winners. He was the founding producer of Marketplace and worked at Audible as director of original content.

A note about Sound Judgment: We believe that no host does good work alone. All hosts rely on their producers, the hidden hands that enable a host to shine. We strive to give credit to producers when it’s possible to do so. 

The episodes and shows discussed on today’s Sound Judgment:

Reveal: Mississippi Goddamn,

Host: Al Letson

Executive Producers: Kevin Sullivan

Series producer: Michael I Schiller

Producers: Al Letson and Jonathan Jones

Production manager: Amy Mostafa

Bunga Bunga
Network: Wondery

Host: Whitney Cummings

The episode: Trailer

The Daily
Network: New York Times
Host: Sabrina Tavernise
The episode: Utah’s ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb’


The Moth Radio Hour


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Sound Judgment is a production of Podcast Allies, LLC. 

Host: Elaine Appleton Grant

Project Manager: Tina Bassir

Sound Designer: Andrew Parrella

Illustrator: Sarah Edgell


Episode Transcription

This transcript was auto-generated from an audio recording. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

John Barth has built his career—his life, really—around his passion for great storytelling and for helping other people, as he puts it, reach the pinnacle of their audio dreams. You might not know his name, but he's been a key magic maker on many shows you almost certainly know, from Marketplace to The Moth Radio Hour. John is a host's producer, a talent recruiter, and coach with a finely honed ear, not just for a literal sound, but for what makes a brand and what enthralls an audience.

Despite his many accomplishments, John does not stand on laurels. In our conversation, you'll hear compassion, humor, modesty, and a reference or two to dirty jokes. If you've ever wanted to understand the mystery of hosting and how to get better at it, this episode is for you. Meet the man behind the people behind the mic on this episode of Sound Judgment, where we investigate just what it takes to become a beloved podcast host by pulling apart one episode at a time together. I'm Elaine Appleton Grant.

Elaine Appleton Grant

John Barth, welcome to Sound Judgment. I am so glad you're here. 

John Barth

It's so great to be here. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Now here's what we're gonna do today. We're gonna talk about your life in radio, and especially I wanna talk about how you have found, mentored, and helped grow the careers of radio and podcast hosts that so many of us have heard of and admire. Now if you're in the audio world and you haven't had the joy of meeting John Barth, I have to tell you—I'm gonna embarrass you now, John—what people say about him.

They say he knows so many people, and knows so much about what makes great hosting and compelling shows. But more than that, this is the word that kept coming up whenever I mentioned your name, John. It's “mensch.” Everyone says you are just such a nice, nice guy. And that is my experience of you. 

Now on this show, typically I have podcast hosts on to dissect their own work with me. John's not a current podcast host. You can think of him the way I do—more of a guy who knows his way around and knows all the players, a guy who obsesses over what makes great storytelling and the voices that bring it alive. So today we're gonna talk about this journey that he's taken and what he does, which has taken him from local public radio stations to NPR, Audible, PRX, and we're going to dissect a few passages from shows hosted by people who John admires.

But first, John, I got such a kick out of this. When I mentioned that I was gonna do this show, you wrote to me and said, at PRX, we talked about hostiness all the time. And I just laughed out loud. I had never heard of this made up word. What is hostiness? 

John Barth

You know, hostiness—yeah, what is that word? That's probably why we talked about it so often. You know, hostiness is kind of like finding the flavor of sugar, right? You know it when you taste it, you know it when you hear it. And it's a combination of very different factors. One is, you know, there's a likeability in someone's voice or style. There's this innate sense that, ooh, I’d really like to spend more time with them. I think there's also this range of curiosity and joy and versatility that comes across when you encounter hostiness, but it's that compelling nature that if you saw them live on stage, you'd never want the show to end. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

What did you do at PRX and—I don't know, maybe the other places where you worked—that had you talking all the time about hostiness? Why? 

John Barth

Well, that's a great question. Sometimes it was a matter of helping hosts or people making shows get better, or helping hosts listen more closely to their own natural voice…and, you know, I think that a lot of people who you may not think of as natural hosts—if you work at it, you can actually find your own inner hostiness. Everybody behind a mic gets insecure at some point, and they get a little bit lost and they don't really know, do I really still have it? What is my sound again? And part of my job was to hold up the audio mirror and say, see, you do have that! Listen to that show. 

You know, anybody who uses their voice professionally, you wanna get to a consistent sound. And so if a good host can hear what makes them sound good in front of an audience, you wanna kind of implant that sound in their head. And after a while, you know your own range and you—even on an off day, you can work at it and you can pull that out. 

A lot of it was just helping talent be the very best talent they could be behind a mic. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Give me an example, because I think that, you know, like we were saying, it's kind of an ineffable quality. 

John Barth

I remember one coaching session with a reporter who, when I sat down with her in the studio, she confessed to me that no one on her team and no one she'd ever worked with had ever coached her voice. She was a really good reporter, good producer, knew how to gather audio, and she didn't have a natural, compelling audio voice. And so we sat there for a while. And the first thing that I would do is I would just let her talk about the story, let her talk about her passions. And when people talk about their passions, they automatically get a bigger range. You actually hear more color in their voice. 

And so then when it came to actually reading a script, we would do it again and again. And what I would listen for is not only just what any producer does—where, where does somebody stumble? Where does the sentence not really work? But then I looked for moments of passion in how they wrote. And so some of it was just again, holding up that mirror and focusing on something. And after a while you do hear the joy come out. And it was like, okay, so let's do that again. But pause there and take me back to that scene that you're describing and feel that in the sentence. And after we were done, I was so moved because she said to me, I can't believe how good I now sound in this story. 

Sometimes we just don't know what our own voice can do, and you need a little coach and another pair of ears to say, ooh, that really did work. Helping them to hear themselves is really, really important. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Well, and you said something that I think is really, really important. And frankly, what I do when I'm coaching people is I say, you know, let's—this particular part is a scene, for instance. I want you to imagine that you're in that scene, or how do you feel when you think about that scene? Because it's very easy to get caught up—for anybody. I mean, you know, I was a reporter. It's really easy to get really read-y and sort of newscaster-y, and not think about what you're actually describing or saying, or a place or a time where you're trying to get the listener to feel that.

John Barth

That's right. And you know, the other one is that we all, when we start out in audio, are mimicking the people we admire. In the early days of PRX, I was worried because I started to hear everybody sounding like Ira Glass. So the same intonations, the same pausing, the same—you know, after a while it became a characterization. And you know, there's only one Ira Glass, and Ira Glass sounds the way he does because he's Ira Glass. So I'd always say to people, you're not Ira Glass, you're you. And so let's find out the you.

And you know, most editors who work in audio, if they're good, I'm hoping what they do with a lot of their reporters or teams—you know, this is what I used to do at Marketplace—before you read me the script, just tell me about the story yourself. Just talk to me about what it is you saw, what you felt, what stuck with you. And then when we would go through a script for the first read, I guarantee you they would be more lively than if they were just reading words, because I've already put them in the mood of kind of storytelling themselves without a script. So the goal is to certainly read the script, but your voice and style is loose enough that you can really bring some expression and life to it. There's nothing worse than sounding like Walter Cronkite with the forced intonation and forced pattern. Good hostiness is there's an authenticity that just comes with your own natural voice, but trying to find that natural voice and that tone is super important to get to. Some people never find it, but I think it always helps to have another set of ears to help you hear that. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

A very keen set of ears. It's not just sort of anybody, right? 

John Barth

That's right. I mean, I'm sure you, and many people listening—you know, we've probably at this point listened to thousands of audio stories. And it's like looking at good art versus bad art. After a while, your eyes and your ears get attuned to a certain level of quality and uniqueness, and then you actually have an aural set of standards or values that you really hew toward. So even though we all have fans, you know, as listeners—oh, I like that host differently than this host—there's a reason we do that. It isn't just a matter of taste. I think it's also ears that have been trained to hear certain things that seem to really work. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

What you're making me think of, of course, is that good writers—particularly, say, novelists—read a lot. They've always read a lot. And you're right, John, I've listened to thousands and thousands of audio stories. You've probably listened to tens of thousands of audio stories with the amount of work that you've done in radio and in podcasting. Let's talk just a minute about your journey. So you started as a reporter, am I right?

John Barth

Yeah, I did a lot of reporting in graduate school at the University of Missouri. Everybody was terrible. Me included. You make a lot of mistakes. And in my first radio job, I certainly made a lot of mistakes. And then I was lucky enough to get hired as a reporter at WHYY in Philadelphia. It was a really amazing time. It was really an amazing, internally competitive newsroom where people were not afraid to tell you if your work was good or really terrible. I had a unbelievably excellent news director and editor who had been a newspaper guy, but what he didn't know about audio, he certainly knew about news. And so, you know, I just relished every editing session with him, even if they were brutal, because over time, just like a good coach in a gym, you get better, you get stronger, and then you find the confidence to experiment a little bit and try things. And that was a newsroom that encouraged that. And even in a news context, it was really, really great. For me, that was just amazing preparation going to help create Marketplace, because when I went to Marketplace, I used to joke with Jim Russell—who was the executive producer—that I could hear a show on my head and over the—I don't know—six or seven years that I produced the show, I was always trying to get closer and closer to that sound.

You wanna hear a show, you wanna hear a story, you wanna hear a voice and say, can I get to that? If you don't have that audio vision in your head, it's—I think you're a little bit lost. Then you're just putting stuff together. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I find that so interesting. In fact, sometimes it's frustrating for me because I can hear a story in my head, but I'm working with other people and they're hearing a different story in their head. It's like, ah, you know, I have to let go of control a little bit. 

So at Marketplace, you were hiring hosts, right? You were going out looking for new hosts and you found some great ones. Talk about that. 

John Barth

Well, when I was there, we went through three different hosts. You know, when you're hiring a host, the host really does imprint their own sound, voice, style on the show, so it actually begins to define the brand that you're creating. It took me a while to get to a host who embodied the sound that I heard from the show. And I worked the longest with David Brancaccio, who I think is just a remarkable talent. And so there was an editorial vision, but there also was primarily a sound vision. And I guess—I owned that and it needed to be distinctive. I always imagined how the audience was listening to the show and the kind of listener I wanted to attract to the show. And so that had to be a certain sound. And so David embodies the willingness to pretty much do anything behind a mic to tell a story and enthrall an audience. He's a rock on tour and so—a rock on tour, he’s a natural storyteller and just as compelling. He has incredible humor, and when I worked with him, our goal was to laugh uproariously before we went into the studio to do the live show. So we would tell a funny joke, a dirty joke, we would be really snarky in his office.

But my job was to get him as a host—not only loosened up, but comfortable with a real range of emotions, so by the time that mic went on, he could really bring his full self to whatever he had to do in those 30 minutes. I mean, it was so much fun. It was great. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

It sounds like so much fun. You know, everybody's got different sort of hacks for getting ginned up, either to do a live show or to do a taping. I'm gonna have to remember that one. I've never thought about telling dirty jokes. That's great. 

You said something interesting. You said he was a natural storyteller. You know—I get this question kind of a lot. Is hosting something that you can learn or are you just born that way? 

John Barth

Well, there are skills that you can master, but you can't create talent. Talent is innate, right? But that's okay. I mean, there are people who are at the limit of their talent, which is—you know, it could be a B in terms of talent, but their skills, their mastery of skill, their ability to perform, is really, really high. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

And that's, of course, part of, I think, what this entire show will be looking at as I go forward, with everybody. I think everybody has a different answer to that question, but it's part of what we're trying to figure out. Part of what I'm hoping to discover with different people is what is it? Who can learn it? And maybe, you know, maybe not everybody can? I'm hoping that that's not really the case. I think hopefully a lot of effort makes a big difference. And I know it; I've seen it a lot.

John Barth

Can I give you an example? Anybody who produces a show should watch that 80s movie Broadcast News like 10 times. It is one of the best examples of someone who masters skill to overcome a lack of talent and ability, right? William Hurt, who plays the pretty boy network news anchor—you know, Holly Hunter, his producer, is the one that gets him in a zone to actually perform at that level of skill. And so everyone knows he's not a very good news person. He's not very bright. In fact, he admits it in the movie. He knows all of his limitations, but other people recognize what he is capable of doing and what it takes to support him. 

My dream consulting workshop would be how to create executive producers because this is what you need to do a lot of times. Even the best host on a Monday is generally not in their best state of mind. They're tired like everybody else, and so how do you get somebody to perform either at the highest skill level or the highest talent level on a day when in their gut, they may not be really feeling it? That just takes a lot of support, it just does. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I have to say, I absolutely love that idea. And if you decide to do a workshop on how to create a good executive producer, I am putting my hand up as a volunteer to work with you on that. Love to do that. I completely agree. It's sort of like directing theater and being a writer and being a cat herder and everything all at once. People have no idea what producers really do. 

So speaking of producing, John, you had this great run at Marketplace. It was a lot of fun. You worked with a friend of mine, David Brown, another wonderful host. And eventually you wound up at Audible. So after Audible… 

John Barth

After Audible, that's when I went to PRX. And PRX was…it was really two and a half to three people, just getting started. They had just really launched the website and their technology. And I was hired to essentially create the market for PRX to work. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Explain what PRX was at the time and what it is now. 

John Barth

Yeah, PRX was incredibly revolutionary. I'm a person attracted to startups. I love startups. I love that chaos and defining how something works. So, PRX's claim to fame was that it made it possible for anyone in the world to upload their audio to an open site,, and then public radio stations could quote, license that audio and download a broadcast quality file. So what this meant is that you could file and post audio from anywhere, and anyone who is a paid member of PRX could download that audio and put it on a radio station.

It was absolutely disruptive. And so my job was to convince public radio stations to use PRX. And on the other side, it was my job to encourage producers, especially independent producers, to begin finding a way to get more people to hear their work through PRX. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Ten years ago, I was a reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, and we would put our stories—as long as they had relevance beyond New Hampshire—we'd put them up on PRX. And every now and then somebody in, you know, Missouri would download it and play it on their station. And so it really was very helpful. And it was really helpful to news directors who needed to fill some time. Like, oh, I need a—I’m short one story in All Things Considered tonight, and what's out there? But now PRX may still do that, but also is a big podcast network.

John Barth

Yeah, PRX, like most media companies, faced the realization early on that as much as it could be a platform for other people's work, we had our own creative nerve that needed to be tickled a little bit. And so I was part of a team really pushing for us to develop more and better content. And so our first really big step in that direction was The Moth and The Moth Radio Hour. I was invited to a Moth performance in Boston. It blew me away. And I remember walking into the PRX office the next morning. I walked into Jake Shapiro's office, who was the then CEO. And I said, I found our first hit. It's going to take a lot of money and a lot of time, but this will be a massive hit. And Jake being Jake just said, yes. So it was not only trust, but it was an acknowledgement that he and I had worked together long enough, and had enough very funny and sometimes drunken discussions—I think that he trusted my ears to know, yeah, this could probably do it. And it took a lot of lifting. The Moth was great and they stuck with us through lots of work and we worked with Jay Allison and his team at Atlantic Public Media, but it became—it's a massive hit. That show is iconic now in public radio.

Elaine Appleton Grant

And beyond—well beyond public radio. It's amazing, and John, to know that you spotted it and were on that original team to develop it is just—it just warms my heart. And it just speaks to your love of storytelling and your good ear and all of that. We could have a whole episode talking just about The Moth. 

John Barth

I do wanna say The Moth knows probably more about hostiness than anyone. So if you think that storytelling is just getting somebody on a stage to tell their story into a mic, you don't really appreciate what The Moth does to get to The Moth sound. Their process is so respectful of finding not only the true story of the storyteller, but the voice of the storyteller and the hostiness of the storyteller. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

That is a wonderful segue into the second half of this episode. We're going to dive into talking a little bit about the work of hosts that you admire, John. You actually recommended that I listen to Mississippi Goddam, which is a seven part series that Al Letson, the host of the investigative podcast Reveal, also hosts. It is a Reveal series. I always like to acknowledge that as great as a host is, there's no great host, especially with a scripted podcast, that doesn't have a really good team that is…equally involved, just less obvious. That's less—yeah, they're not getting the attention. So we'll have the names of the team in the credits as well. So as I said, you brought Reveal host Al Letson to my attention. Before I play the clip for you, tell me a little bit about Al and why you admire him as a host so much. 

John Barth

You know, Al first and foremost is a performer. He is a multi-skilled, multifaceted creator. He's a playwright. He's a slam poet. He's an artist. He does comic strips. He's a screenwriter. He's a off-Broadway producer, off-Broadway actor. Al has done so many things with his life. He's a sponge for every one of those experiences. He's one of the funniest storytellers you'll ever meet. He's an incredible mimic. And that says to me that his ears are super attuned to voice and situations and styles and people. And like any good performer, he craves and lives off an audience. The audience is the oxygen that makes you aspire to something more. Al is very much that. 

And I think the challenge for us when we began Reveal is that there was a lot of pressure to say, oh, you need a journalist to host that show. And while Al's journalism chops were really strong, they weren't traditional. But first and foremost, what we needed for that show was also a voice and a host who would essentially help us redefine what investigative reporting would sound like. And that's why Al was just a real natural choice for that job. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Great, and we're gonna get into that in just a second. Let me just give a little introduction to Mississippi Goddam. It's Reveal’s years long investigation into the death of Billey Joe Johnson, an 18 year old Black man, a football star, in a small town in Mississippi. It's absolutely gripping. And from a hosting perspective, there is so much to talk about. Here's how he starts this seven part series.

Clip from Mississippi Goddam

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson, and the year is 1991. I'm a senior in high school, living in a little town outside Jacksonville, Florida. A middle-class Black family in a mostly white neighborhood. On the surface, this is the American dream. A big house, corner lot, manicured lawn, and a pool, but—if you know what to look for, you can see the cracks. Confederate flags are everywhere you turn. Neighbors who refuse to talk to you because of your blackness, and the occasional racial slur you hear in the wind or spray painted on the street. Racial intimidation, both large and small, was just a part of life. So much so you don't even think or reflect on it. You just bury it deep so you can live. And then one day, the oppression you've been living with is reflected at you and you just can't deny it anymore. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

This introduction works for me in so many ways and I'm curious about your reaction to it. The two big things that jump out for me are that the storytelling pulls me in immediately. He tells us, hey, we're not in today, we're in 1991. Then he describes something very personal and relatable: his neighborhood.

And there is something about the quality of his voice that is like—I don't know—like a bedtime story. What are you about to tell me? I'm on that street seeing the big house. I love the scene setting. And then the other thing, and we'll get to it in a second, is that it seems to me that it's a controversial decision to start a series about an investigation of a murder by talking about yourself, the reporter. What's the first thing that strikes you about this clip? 

John Barth

Well, yeah, it's telling that he begins with himself. And I think that Al has lived with this story, this investigation for a long, long time. So he's providing you right off the bat with a personal context of the storyteller. But he's doing it in a way that is so compelling, it just pulls you right in. I would think that most listeners to Reveal, so many people, you know, grew up in a suburban neighborhood. That's what he's describing. But he's also describing the underlying ick of racism that was present everywhere. The other thing that jumped out to me right away is I could follow the sentences and how they're constructed. They are written like a rap poem. Short phrase, short phrase, short phrase, short phrase, short phrase. And it has a rhythm to it. As I was listening to this, I always thought, oh, those remind me of the steady beats in a sidewalk. Just go back and listen to the rhythm of each sentence. Here's a beat to it. Al has an innate sense of sound. And what he's doing is he's getting you in the mood and the music, the original music, reinforces that beat, beat, beat pattern. I just love how this is.

Look, there's many ways to get into a story about racism. It can be didactic and beat it over your head. It can be way too subtle and doesn't really respect the horror of it. But what Al is doing is actually he is walking you through his life and his neighborhood as a way to get you familiar with his voice and tone, because we're gonna go into some really dark stuff. So I just think there are a lot of considerations in the way this was set up. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

That was about a minute long. And you can pull apart a minute long introduction, a minute long passage, and there's so much going on. As a host, as a producer, as a writer. He happens to be the writer also, which helps. That makes it a little bit easier. It's harder to write for somebody else's voice. It is somewhat controversial—or it could be for a traditionalist—to say, you are making yourself the subject of this story. Yes? 

John Barth

Well, in traditional journalism, you're not supposed to be part of that story. You're the author, but you are not the subject or the focus, right. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I wanna play another clip for you that really gets at a big question that I have and a change of heart that I've had. 

Clip from Mississippi Goddam

Al Letson: Before we get to that though, we should talk about race, because there is no way we can separate race from this story, or really any story in America. I'm Black, grew up in the South, and that has definitely shaped my worldview. 

Jonathan Jones: And I'm white. I was born in Scotland, moved to the United States when I was young. I lived outside DC, New York, and Philadelphia. And all of that shapes the way I see things. 

Al Letson: In this series, we feel like it's important to talk about that upfront, because race is tied so tightly to this story. Not because we're going to Mississippi, but because the story takes place in America.

Elaine Appleton Grant

What's happening there is that this is still very early in the first episode and Al is introducing his investigative partner, JJ. What's your response to that clip, John? 

John Barth

Well, it's supremely honest and it's reinforcing the power of point of view and experience, right? So when I said before that most journalists are trained to remove themselves from the story—well, that's a false construct. You never really do. It’s your eyes, your ears, your notes. It's what you see. And then it's also layered by all the experiences that help you see what you see or what you notice or what you miss. So, you know, it's a false neutrality because we're all individual. And he's acknowledging all of that right upfront. So whether the story is about race—it could just be about gender, it could be about anything. We're multilayered, complicated people, bringing—in the most negative way, our own biases, but in the most neutral way, just our full limited selves—to how we see a story. And it's rare to hear this acknowledged so plainly, but it really does need to happen that way, especially in a story like this. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I was very struck by it. And the reason is because I, like you, grew up as a traditional journalist where, you know—and even back in school, all of us, at one time, were told not to use the word “I” in anything we wrote. And I think one of the great things, particularly about podcasts now, but I think it's in radio now, to some extent, is that that's changing. Is that we want to have someone take us on their journey through this. We want to know their reasons for being there and how they feel. 

And I loved this clip because I no longer believe there is such a thing as objectivity. I just don't. We are—as they were demonstrating, there is absolutely something called a fact. That's not what I'm saying. But objectivity in the old sense, that we don't bring our lived experience or identity or geography to it—we can't help it. It's just who we are. What do you think? 

John Barth

Well, there are objective facts. We live in an age where we're being told that's not true, but there are. And so there are objective facts. The challenge for any of us who are putting together stories or certainly reporting is that in the heat of any one moment or any one story, we may not be privy to all of the facts. It's always the most frustrating aspect of reporting, is that you always know what you're leaving out and you always know you're probably missing a lot. And it's just the limitations of being human and it's really, really difficult. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I could talk about Mississippi Goddam all day, and I hope that maybe you will help me persuade Al Letson to come on the show. But let's spend just a tiny bit of time talking about a couple more hosts of scripted podcasts—because one scripted podcast and one host is not at all like the other. We tend to put things in buckets, right? 

So you told me about Whitney Cummings, the host of a Wondery show called Bunga Bunga.

Now this is a host you don't know. You're admiring her as a listener only. Here is a bit of the trailer. 

Clip from Bunga Bunga

Whitney Cummings: There's this charismatic, multi-millionaire businessman. He got a start in real estate with a loan from his father, and he owes his fortune and fame to television. He's had his share of controversies, lawsuits, tax fraud, comments about women, and he's sensitive about his hair. And then one day, he makes an announcement. He's going to run for office. People laugh. His opponents call him an idiot. But he wins. OK, you've got someone in mind, right? Now, move that whole story to Italy and multiply it by 100. From Wondery, the makers of Dirty John, Dr. Death and The Shrink Next Door comes—

Recording of Whitney Cummings: How do you say it, Silvio? 

Silvio Berlusconi: Bunga bunga. 

Whitney Cummings: Bunga Bunga. This is the story of the rise of the…

Elaine Appleton Grant

What is it about Whitney Cummings that works for you, John? Break that apart for me a little. 

John Barth

Well, there are lots of ways to talk about Berlusconi, but she starts with making something that you may not know more familiar. So making the Trump comparison is a doorway in. You know, her voice—can I say it? It's a little bit suggestive and a little bit dirty, right? There's a little bit of a wink, wink, and you can't tell the story of Berlusconi without acknowledging what an utterly corrupt, odious, creepy guy he is. And so just the whole tone that she's taking is setting you up for the oily corruption that we're gonna be hearing. 

And she's funny about it because, you know, you look at somebody like Berlusconi and you’re like, what a freaking train wreck this guy is. And so everything about her hosting—it is not straightforward, but boy, is it authentic to the story we're going to hear. I mean, she sets the mood. She sets the tone. I think it's brilliant. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I think it's brilliant too. And, and I believe she is an actor.

John Barth

Actor and comedian. Yes, that's right. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

And you can hear that. You can hear that she is finding this pretty humorous. And I like that.

John Barth

Yeah, almost the perfect host for this podcast, I would say. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

So there's the match, too, between the host and the podcast. You know, one can be perfect, and then that same host can be terrible for another podcast. In fact, let's move to a different show real quickly. Sabrina Tavernise. She is a new-ish host on the New York Times’ The Daily. 

Clip from The Daily

Sabrina Tavernise: The Great Salt Lake in Utah is drying up, creating a bowl of toxic dust that threatens to poison the air in one of the nation's fastest growing metro areas. Today, my colleague Christopher Flavelle on the struggle to avert that catastrophe.

Elaine Appleton Grant

Why did you recommend Sabrina Tavernise to me? 

John Barth

I really like her voice, but I just wanna have everybody just really listen to the scripting. The scripting of the open to The Daily follows a pattern. And when I heard that script, I thought, okay, I'm gonna try to imagine Michael Barbaro reading this. And I could, so the way that it's written is absolutely written to both her voice and to Barbaro's voice. She nails the critical words in each phrase. 

It is—I wouldn't say it's a perfect script, but it is perfect for the sound that she's trying to establish. So you know exactly what the story is going to be about, what is critical in this story. She just boom, boom, boom. She also has a—just a really friendly, but credible voice. And so Sabrina Tavernise is multilingual. And sometimes I think that people with a facility for other languages know the range and style of their voice maybe better than some other people do, because they've had to manipulate their brain and their vocal cords and their intonations in more than one culture. And when you do that, you really have to explore what your voice sounds like. And so what I hear in that open is a compelling sound, but it also has a real range of emotion to it. How could you not want to listen to that story, regardless of what the subject is? 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Right, right, right. You listen for rhythm and music, I'm hearing that. And I think that's a piece of it all. You are on your own now, John, as a recruiter in this business, and some of your time developing content. 

John Barth

Yes, I recruit for talent for clients inside of public media and outside of public media. And this is an age where talent is very much in the driver's seat, so it's tricky because anyone with a modicum of talent really does have their pick. And then on the other side is I'm involved in the broad area of content development, which can be anything from listening to somebody's podcast work and providing very, very detailed feedback, or helping somebody with a vision around podcasting—help them pull together a production team, and the documentation, and how to talk to funders, or how to talk to sponsors, helping them find distributors…

So I—you know, I'm carrying lots of different baggage to help somebody get to the pinnacle of what their audio dream is, and that's my job. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I love that. Help somebody get to the pinnacle of their audio dream. I love that. So what's going on when it comes to the need for talent, particularly hosting talent? 

John Barth

Look, my personal opinion is that podcasting has both opened the door to lots of unusual talent or skilled people. But in the course of that, I think sometimes we've lost a sense of what really great hosting is. This is gonna be a heretical comment, but I don't think everybody can be a host. Hosting is more than just putting your own voice out. Again, you always have to think about the audience. And there are lots of people who really don't care about the audience, they just want a big audience, but they're not really thinking about how does what I say, how I say it, how I say it in this moment versus another moment—how do I think that might be landing? And what's my job to really enthrall an audience to come back for the next episode or the next 10? And that has to be a very, very conscious effort. And that's part of what it means to be hosty. Yeah, I despair—I just hear a lot of voices that are—they're fine, they're okay behind a mic, but like everyone else, I'm looking for—I'm looking for the blue M&M, you know? The—ooh, that really stands out. Yeah.

Elaine Appleton Grant

You're looking for the star. 

John Barth

You're looking for the special voice, yeah. But in every artistic endeavor, that's what we're looking for. We're not so enthralled by copies. We're enthralled by originals. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Real quick, lightning round speed questions. What's the one thing about hosting you wish you had known, say, 10, 15 years ago—whenever—that you now know?

John Barth

Practice and warm up. Spend a lot of time working on your voice. Before you get behind that mic, warm it up, yell, sing, yodel, laugh, cry—but really, really get your emotion into your voice.

Elaine Appleton Grant

Who's your dream guest for Sound Judgment? 

John Barth

I have two. One would be Robert MacNeil, who used to host the PBS NewsHour. I worked with him as a host on a documentary and I was blown away by his skill as a host. It's just stunning. And then I guess I would say probably Terry Gross because I think that she knows the quality of her own hosting and she can talk about it, but she's not somebody who obsesses over it. She knows who Terry Gross needs to sound like. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I hope to have both of them on. John Barth, I cannot thank you enough. This has been such a delight. We won't let people in on all of our technical problems, but we solved them together, which just goes to show that he is a mensch. 

John Barth

Well, thank you. It's been so fun being here.

Elaine Appleton Grant

At the end of every episode, I try to give you just a few of the many takeaways from these conversations. Here are a few from today. You can find all ten in the show notes.

  1. What is hostiness? It's an ineffable quality to be sure, but it encompasses curiosity, likeability, versatility, and that feeling that if you saw the host on stage, you'd never want the show to end.
  2. We all want authenticity, a natural sound. But what does that mean? First of all, if you catch yourself mimicking Ira Glass or—God forbid—Walter Cronkite, shake that off. You need to sound like you, but a little better, with a full range of emotion. That's hard. What helps? A producer who like John will encourage you to feel the emotions of the story you're telling, not just read the words on a page. It always helps to have a coach with a finely tuned ear.
  3. A host comes to define the brand of a show—or anything else that relies on audio, I might add. John starts a new podcast or radio show with an editorial vision—that's the content—and a sound vision, a distinctive one that will attract the audience for whom the show is designed. 

Thanks for listening to episode two of Sound Judgment. Please take a moment to rate and review us on your listening app. And better yet, share the show with a friend personally or on social media. Tag us with the hashtag, great host. We need your help to grow this brand new show. Every single one of you matters. 

Do you have your own dream guest for Sound Judgment? Write to us at allies@podcast allies and tell us who it is and why.

Sound Judgment is produced by me, Elaine Appleton Grant. Sound design by Andrew Parrella. Our gorgeous cover art is by Sarah Edgell. Project management and all the things by the inimitable Tina Bassir. 

I'm so excited about the next episode. Just in time for the midterms, it's Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers of the hit show Pantsuit Politics. They talk about what it takes to be good co-hosts for each other and for their enormous community of devoted listeners. See you soon.