Vol. 1, No. 1

Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction

Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction (CNN) releases new 5–15-minute episodes every weekday. The show’s host, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an Associate Professor in Emory University’s Department of Neurosurgery and the Associate Chief of Neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, is certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery

Listeners will know the host from CNN: Dr. Gupta is used to being on tape (camera in the cable TV world) and reporting in short segments, which is great for a daily podcast with bite-sized episodes. He has great presence and is a well-known, and fairly trusted, medical resource from the media. Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction is just what I would expect from a CNN daily podcast. 

Each episode tackles a topic that the general public might be wondering about, often something recently reported on in the media. As of mid-May there has been a short series of episodes addressing how the future will look for certain industries—restaurants, airlines, and education. Earlier episodes featured Dr. Gupta and friends answering questions about dating, personal financial planning, mask guidance, and how to survive isolation during COVID-19.

The very quick, 10–15 minute daily episodes don’t allow time for different viewpoints. What you are hearing is Dr. Gupta’s, or his guest’s, definition of the fact vs. the fiction. It’s on-brand with CNN, which may alienate some listeners, although my view is that it’s also not particularly leftist in its approach. I don’t usually feel compelled to do anything differently after listening, and I can hear more interesting stories with more experts on other COVID-19 shows. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about the show, but also not a lot to write home about.

Fact-based: 3 of 5.

Host: 4 of 5.

Production: 5 of 5.

Storytelling: 3 of 5.

Perspective: 3 of 5.

Action-Oriented: 2 of 5.

Overall Rating: 2 of 5.

Vol. 1, No. 1

The Readout Loud

The Readout LOUD (STAT) is a weekly podcast hosted by Damian Garde, Rebecca Robbins, and Adam Feuerstein. STAT bills The Readout LOUD as its biotech podcast that digs deep into “industry goings-on.” At the outset of each episode, the hosts charmingly share where they’re reporting/recording from, and it’s always the same since they’re all sheltered-in-place, but they try to switch up just how they describe the closet they’re in or tell a funny fact about the quarantine in their city.

This podcast existed before the COVID-19 epidemic, so the weekly episodes include regular biotech reporting content in addition to the COVID-19 content. The COVID-19 content is always first, and there are some human-interest COVID-19 stories mixed in for the second of three segments, usually leading to a regular biotech snippet. Hosts rotate reporting duty so it’s a nice mix of different styles and voices throughout the episodes. 

The content can be a bit technical for the average non-biotech industry listener, but I like that science is primary over politics in this show.

Fact-based: 5 of 5. I trust a biotech research media outlet to give me the facts about COVID-19.

Host: 5 of 5.

Production: 5 of 5.

Storytelling: 3 of 5. At times the level of technical explanation gets too detailed, which could alienate some listeners.

Perspective: 4 of 5. I like that this show fills a niche I hadn’t heard much from yet, the biotech sector—presumably the people doing the work that will help us move beyond this crisis.

Action-Oriented: 3 of 5.

Overall Rating: 4 of 5.

Vol. 1, No. 1

Social Distance

Social Distance (The Atlantic) is a thrice-weekly podcast tackling coronavirus news in near real-time, hosted by Dr. James Hamblin and Katherine Wells. Publishing new shows this frequently is impressive to pull off as it is time-intensive to script and edit a show, and if there are guests, to line them up and insert their point of view purposefully. The show’s public health expert, Dr. James Hamblin, a Lecturer in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine, is certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine

Each of the 20-30 minute episodes tackles a (U.S.) culturally relevant topic each day, ranging from how procuring food is changing to whether we should get deliveries. Hamblin’s outlook is decidedly more grave than his co-host Wells’s, and listeners should appreciate that honesty from a public health expert. Wells’s informality and desire to crack jokes is then a frustrating dichotomy for me as a listener. Levity isn’t really what I want out of a COVID-19 podcast aiming to educate me on how things are going on the front lines, in Congress, and in places less affected to date. The hosts actually addressed the role of humor in an episode from mid-April, with Hamblin making the excellent point that he believes science communicators should use different styles to share science information, because there are some people he wouldn’t reach unless he used some humor. But, the humor just doesn’t land for me; it feels too forced or awkward.

The Atlantic’s reporting skews left but generally has well-reported pieces in print, so I expected well-reported and fact-based journalism in the podcast. I have been disappointed, as it feels like a daily check-in between two hosts and whoever they can get on the show that day, including people who are related to the hosts. The problem with bringing a family member on to a podcast where you’re conversing about COVID-19 preparedness, effects, and public response is that a strange disparity is introduced, confusing the listener about whether this is a show about science/policy/government or a storytelling show about how people are coping. 

There are some things I think the show does very well. The podcast makes an effort to bring different perspectives (bioethicist Arthur Caplan and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb), although many are staff writers at The Atlantic, which sometimes seems like they grabbed whoever was willing to be recorded from their closets at home. I commend The Atlantic for providing transcripts of all episodes to make the podcast accessible. And it really is a lot to even record a podcast frequently—sometimes you just don’t feel like talking and it’s impressive that the pair has kept up the cadence, including recording daily for podcast’s first few weeks. However, there is room for improvement overall, especially with editing and scripting.

Fact-based: 3 of 5. I wish The Atlantic put more resources onto this show to help do research, fact check, and provide the hosts with more talking points.

Host: 2 of 5. Wells and Hamblin are not an ideal pairing; they do not have good chemistry on air which makes some of the episodes painful to listen to. 

Production: 2 of 5. Large, well-established media outlets with good reputations should edit their podcasts and record more material than 20 minutes to make a 20-minute show. That does not appear to be the case here. The audio is not particularly clear especially on Wells’s end and I believe this is fixable. I don’t believe that a podcast needs to be published the same day it’s recorded, which is what is happening with this show. If a few more hours were allotted for editing, I think it would make the end product cleaner and more interesting. 

Storytelling: 3 of 5.

Perspective: 4 of 5.

Action-Oriented: 2 of 5. I haven’t really changed anything I’m doing because of something I heard on this podcast, nor have I felt the urge to recommend it to anyone.

Overall rating: 2.5 of 5.

Vol. 1, No. 1

Don’t Touch Your Face

Don’t Touch Your Face (Foreign Policy) is hosted by James Palmer and Amy Mackinnon, writers at Foreign Policy, a centrist magazine that has four other podcasts. It is a daily podcast that focuses on the global spread of COVID-19, how countries are containing the virus, and how society is being impacted. 

Topics addressed by the show since its inception have included Iceland’s unique take on social distancing and effort to get as many people tested as possible, how different countries are using borders to prevent the spread of the virus, and how countries with authoritarian leadership are faring. The focus is certainly the global perspective, which I think is one of the best ways for us to collectively choose the best path forward for all of society—we should share what is and isn’t working across the world to save the most lives.

What differentiates Don’t Touch Your Face from some of the other COVID-19 podcasts I have listened to is that it weaves a thread through multiple segments seamlessly: the segues are very logical and the hosts tell the audience how each piece relates to the next. This has to be difficult in a show that is only 20 or so minutes long, if the team is trying to fit in three or more guests or stories. It’s therefore a very satisfying listen. 

The show started out as a daily podcast, and in early April it moved to a twice-weekly release schedule. I don’t believe the hosts mentioned the reason for the adjustment, but when I heard it, I thought it was a perfect pivot. For several episodes leading up to this change, Mackinnon solo-hosted while Palmer was out sick. She reported often that he was hoping it wasn’t COVID-19, and would be back soon. I kept listening in part because I really enjoy the show, but also because I was afraid for Palmer, and wanted to hear that he was okay. 

On the episode The Price We Pay, Palmer was back and confirmed he was in fact recovering from COVID-19. Mackinnon’s interview with him and his wife were terrific—there were some very honest, poignant moments that helped strike home the point that COVID-19 is absolutely going to affect someone you know if it hasn’t already, and the price paid by not just the infected but the families of those suffering is immense. They made the point that if someone can’t get out of bed for two or three weeks, it’s not just a regular virus that they’ll soon forget—this is a major impact on people’s lives. It was really well done, including the segues to the accompanying pieces. 

This is one of my favorite podcasts about COVID-19—it’s definitely worth a listen.

Fact-Based: 5 out of 5.

Host: 5 out of 5. Great chemistry between the hosts, who are good on audio — something not all writers are good at. I also want to commend the hosts for fitting this in to their regular writing and editing schedules: both have been continually authoring content over the last several weeks on Foreign Policy as well as doing the podcast.

Production: 5 out of 5. Excellent editing and great choice to move to a twice-weekly release schedule.

Storytelling: 5 out of 5. The well-woven thread makes each of these episodes very listenable.

Perspective: 5 out of 5. At the end of each episode, I feel like I got some global perspective from a non-biased source. There’s no directive that I should believe a certain thing about what I heard, just information I can make decisions about on my own.

Action-Oriented: 3 out of 5.

Overall: 5 out of 5.