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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.

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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.

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Vol. 1, No. 1

Coronapod

Coronapod (Nature), hosted by Benjamin Thompson, Noah Baker, and Amy Maxmen, releases a new 20-minute episode every week. Based in Britain, Nature is a premier source of primary science articles by scientists as well as science news written by journalists. The journal, Nature, has been published since the mid-nineteenth century and is currently regarded as one of the top journals in science. The organization also published many specialized science journals and has been innovative in online communication, beginning a podcast in 2018. Starting in mid-March 2020, many of these podcasts have focused on the pandemic and, while it’s not possible to subscribe only to those podcasts, they are clearly labeled with the title “Coronapod.” These segments combine personable chat among the hosts that seems unscripted but is informative and brisk as well as more traditional science journalism covering topics such as what we can learn from South Korea and China, what’s happening with drug trials, diagnostic developments, and whether masks are recommended or not, all with a focus on the science.

Unlike some of the podcasts that present science for a non-specialist audience, Coronapod is rather like the journalism featured in the journal, written for an audience of scientists who want to keep up with fields beyond their own, yet accessible to non-scientists with an interested in science. There’s no “let me explain this scientific concept in terms you’ll understand” feel to it. It’s smart, well-produced, informative and, as a bonus, features some lovely British accents. As one might expect from a premier science journal, it’s an excellent source of solid scientific information that is lively and interesting.

Fact-based: 5 of 5. It’s honest about what science can and cannot yet tell us, but keeps the focus on the science.

Host: 5 of 5. The three hosts seem very comfortable with one another and provide a human face to preface more journalistic segments. 

Production: 5 of 5. The hosts are broadcasting from a basement in London, a home in Sussex where a pile of duvets and cushions are used to improvise a sound booth, and an apartment in Berkeley, California—but it sounds like it comes from a well-equipped studio.

Storytelling: 5 of 5. Both the chat among the hosts and the news segments are well done and keep the pace lively and informative.

Perspective: 5 of 5. Don’t look here for political analysis or cultural critique, but if what you want is quality science journalism, this is your podcast. 

Action-Oriented: 3 of 5. This is news reporting, not advocacy, and it steers away from “news you can use” features to focus on “here’s what’s happening in the world of science.” 

Overall Rating: 5 of 5.

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Vol. 1, No. 1

Epidemic

Epidemic (Just Human Productions) releases a new 25-30-minute episode every week. The show’s hosts are Dr. Celine Gounder, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine who is an expert at infectious disease and epidemiologist, and Ron Klain, who has long worked in government and coordinated the United States response to Ebola during President Obama’s administration. Just Human Productions is a non-profit organization that strives “to change the way people think about health and social justice” with storytelling that pairs evidence-based, solutions-oriented journalism with human stories. Previous podcasts tackled subjects like youth and mental health and gun violence in America.

The focus in this podcast is on how the United States is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, covering policy decisions (should WHO have moved faster to declare a pandemic?), medical science (what does “airborne” really mean?), and social justice issues (how does a history of racism influence who gets sick? How are the failures of our healthcare system affecting the virus’s impact?) The podcast intends to help people understand what they can do to protect themselves and their communities and examine how the government is responding. 

The two hosts invite a good selection of guests who are well-qualified to speak to the thematic issues of each 25-30 minute episode. The production values are strong, and the variety of topics keeps it interesting. 

The podcast series began in late February. Each episode has a transcription available at the podcast’s website, which is helpful—but they do not include a broadcast date, which is a drawback given how quickly events unfold and what we know changes.

Fact-based: 5 of 5. The range of subjects covered is wide, but recruiting interesting experts as guests gives the podcast a valuably wide perspective on the crisis.

Host: 5 of 5. Both hosts have an engaging vocal presence and do a good job of introducting and discussing topics with their guests. 

Production: 5 of 5. Good sound quality, editing, and pacing.

Storytelling: 5 of 5. Though the Q & A format could become dull, the choice of guests and the well-paced, well-chosen questions keep it engaging.

Perspective: 4 of 5. It may be hard to find new things to tell an audience inundated by COVID-19 news, but this podcast does a good job of exploring a wide variety of angles, finding depth and nuance. 

Action-Oriented: 4 of 5. Though the focus is on the bigger picture – how is the government responding, and what does that mean for the public? the episodes conclude with questions phoned in by listeners that address what individuals should do to protect themselves and their families. 

Overall Rating: 4.75 of 5.

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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.

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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.

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Vol. 1, No. 1

America Dissected

America Dissected is a podcast from Crooked Media, a podcast network with a progressive, liberal orientation. The show is hosted by Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a physician who taught epidemiology at Columbia University, served as executive director of the Detroit Health Department and Health Officer for the City of Detroit, and in 2018 was a candidate in the democratic primary for governor of Michigan. 

The podcast was started in 2019 to address the intersection of health, science, and government. The second season, launched in March 2020, is entirely focused on the Coronavirus pandemic—its epidemiology, what scientists know about it, and how public policy can address it. It includes interviews with scientists, elected officials, public servants, and first responders. 

The podcast promises to deliver “what you need to know about Coronavirus,” including what led to the crisis and what public policy responses might work. It combines basic science and health information in an accessible form with analysis and commentary on how the government is responding, without mincing words about political perspectives the host finds wrong-headed. The production quality is high, with an animated host who combines his experience in health care policy and knowledge of the science of viruses in a compelling series that is not only informative but invites citizen engagement in tackling the crisis.

Fact-based: 4 of 5. The host is knowledgeable and shares scientific and epidemiological information, but in the political analysis tends to become more analytical and critical than strictly factual. (Not a bad thing, and the host has plenty of experience working in the public arena….) He brings in impressive guests to comment on the issues, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal to discuss the stimulus bill and Naomi Klein to discuss disaster capitalism. 

Host: 5 of 5. It’s easy to get caught up in this podcast because the host projects engagement and does a good job of bringing in guests. 

Production: 5 of 5.

Storytelling: 5 of 5.

Perspective 4 of 5.

Action-Oriented: 4 of 5. Some of the episodes are informative and thought-provoking, without necessarily suggesting action (though certainly inviting civic engagement); however, show notes indicate that Crooked Media has established a Coronavirus Relief Fund, which gives listeners an opportunity to act.

Overall Rating: 4.5 of 5.