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.