Vol. 1, No. 1

Population Healthy Special Editions: Coronavirus Pandemic

Population Healthy Special Editions: Coronavirus Pandemic (University of Michigan School of Public Health) originally covered a variety of public health topics, but is now focused on the pandemic in an ambitious “special edition.” Currently three new 5–10-minute episodes are produced every week to unpack public health issues from multiple perspectives, including the scientific (what goes into creating a COVIDd-19 vaccine? How are infections traced?) and the social (why is the disease hurting the most vulnerable? How did Detroit become a hotspot, and what are its citizens doing to respond?). The podcast does not delve into political or economic aspects of the pandemic, but rather stays focused on population health issues.

Drawing on the University of Michigan’s “community of experts” within the School of Public Health, the podcast aims to provide information to help people respond to the challenges of the pandemic with solid information. From the first episode, the tone established is one of reassurance. Listeners will not only learn about the current pandemic, but will come away with a basic understanding of public health issues: applying epidemiology to local healthcare practices or the basic science of health at the community level. There is a special focus on Michigan, as may be expected from a land grant university, but the information provided is widely applicable. 

Overall the production is nicely done, integrating introductory background knowledge into interviews. There’s a good variety of expertise on display to illustrate the contours of public health as a discipline. While the podcast may lack the drama and urgency of shows more engaged with the unfolding political response to the crisis, it offers good information and encouragement to listeners to respond in ways that will keep us informed and healthy.

Fact-based: 5 of 5. Though the “community of experts” is limited to the university’s faculty, each brings their knowledge to bear on the subject without being overwhelming.

Host: 4 of 5. There is no intrusive “star” hosting the show, but the host does a good job of weaving together background information with interviews. 

Production: 4 of 5. In a few cases the sound quality is not excellent, but not in a way that detracts from the information provided. The editing is tight and keeps the flow going nicely.

Storytelling: 3 of 5. To be fair, the material isn’t really presented in the form of stories—but the explanation of ideas is handled well, rather like a good university lecture boiled down to interesting and informative key points. 

Perspective: 4 of 5. The contribution this podcast makes is the focus on public health concepts applied to the crisis, which makes it informative but also reassuring.

Action-Oriented: 4 of 5. As a form of outreach to the community, the experts who contribute to this podcast do a good job of relating their knowledge to what individuals should know and can do to get through the crisis. 

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

Columbia Public Health Now

Columbia Public Health Now is a podcast from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health which is currently focused on providing trustworthy scientific information about COVID-19. The host, Maria Andriella O’Brien, received both her MBA and MPH in Epidemiology from Columbia University and is now the deputy chief of staff at the School of Public Health. In each episode, she chooses an issue related to the virus—where did it come from? How are scientists studying it? What have we learned from past epidemics?—and interviews a faculty expert who can provide solid information for the general public. 

The production quality is good, though the scripted Q & A format makes for a dry listening experience. The emphasis is on providing accurate scientific information without spin in the belief that the public will be safer if well-informed.

Fact-based: 5 of 5. This podcast is very much about the facts, seeking experts on the Columbia faculty to speak to the crisis from a scientific perspective.

Host: 2 of 5. Unfortunately the podcast sounds overly scripted, as if the host is reading the questions for guests without much animation or warmth, and that detracts from its listenability. 

Production: 4 of 5.

Storytelling: 3 of 5. The Q & A format tends to make each episode sound very similar and a bit dry.

Perspective: 3 of 5.

Action-Oriented: 3 of 5. “Listen to the experts!” might be the action this podcast advocates. Respect science. Not a bad message, just not enormously inspiring.

Overall Rating: 3 of 5.

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.