#GrowthGoals: One content creator’s forage into the podcasting space. A blog series exploring the well-intentioned attempt of a content creative to learn about a new trade.
What’s the podcast script beating up against my chest? I didn’t know for some time until I was driving up a country road in wine country California.
Just miles north of the Kincade Fire, I started to listen to the NPR podcast called ‘Dolly Parton’s America.’ Somehow, I figured it would soothe me, make me feel safe.
Driving up the winding roads up into the Redwood forest, which usually makes me car sick, Dolly’s voice put me in trance. Listening, I got to the heart of why I want to create a script for a podcast, and it dawned on me why creatives use podcasts to find their own voice and purpose.
Why your podcast script should resemble a persuasive essay
Back in the day, I used to teach the dreaded “Writing the Essay” introductory course at New York University. One out of maybe 2,000 NYU freshman loved that class and said it changed their life, while the rest gave scathing reviews of how difficult it was. And I know why — the essay is an art form. Practitioners rarely pull it off.
But in that first episode of ‘Dolly Parton’s America,’ I recognized it as a sonic essay, a persuasive one at that.
Podcasts can be a lot of things: a dialogue, a conversation, a reportage. But the best ones beat up against your chest with the rhythmic pulse of a rarely well-accomplished persuasive essay.
‘Dolly Parton’s America,’ let me count your essay (ways):
Those of you who want to follow closely along should read a free transcript of Episode 1: “Sad Ass Songs” to truly understand how a stand-out podcast is made of its many intricate parts.
- Host Jad Abumrad sets the scene: He situations us in Flushing, New York, where a tweetstorm is emerging. There are hundreds of fans, a diversity of compliments and praises coming out from a Dolly Parton concert, all from women. This catches the attention of writer Sarah Smarsh, who is reading the live tweets in Austin, and to boot, this is all happening during a contentious 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
- Abumrad introduces his idea: “So that was one thing that caught my attention. That in this very divided moment, Dolly seems to maybe be a kind of unifier. And after doing a little poking around, the data does kind of bear this out. If you look at her global Q Score, this is a measure of how well people think about your brand, globally. What they do is they assemble a very diverse sample of people, they ask them a bunch of questions, and out of all of these different brands that are out there, all these different performers, she is in the top 10 globally in terms of everybody’s favorites. But she’s almost number one when it comes to lack of negatives, if that makes any sense. Like, people have the least amount of negative things to say about Dolly Parton than anyone besides maybe Adele. And by the way, this Q Score data is fascinating. I haven’t dug into it too much so I can’t claim to fully understand it, but Beyoncé? Number 52. What? Lady Gaga, number 41. It’s wild.”
- Abumrad brings in the personal pronoun “I” into the situation, which, in a good essay, turns the “I” into a universal “we”: He describes how growing up in Tennessee he saw Dolly everywhere on billboards and TV screens. He describes how after Dolly was in a minor car accident, his father, who cared for her, became friends with Dolly. And he begged his dad to introduce him to Dolly for an interview.
- Abumrad formulates the questions which will force him to examine his hypothesis with evidence via interviews, research, and dives into rabbit holes. He postulates: ”Does she consider herself the grand unifier? Does that include everyone?… I fell into so many different rabbit holes. Profound questions of America kind of rabbit holes.”
- Audio clips in this podcast work as evidence does in an essay. It works to create context and a sense of returning to the moment (often in the past) to build on. Sound clips include Clinton/Trump debates to show tension of 2016 elections; audio clips from talk shows and interviews with Dolly on Johnny Carson or with Barbara Walters. Each sound clip builds on different aspects of Abumrad’s arguments on whether Dolly is a national unifier.
- Abumrad uses repetition for resonance. Dolly says: “Oh, I used to write a lot of sad ass songs.” As he repeats and returns to these words, each rendering is a contouring in the argument: Dolly was the butt of jokes, but from her perspective, the jokes weren’t always on her; they were on the public. He explores how creating the space for concession is a way an essayist presents information and space that is contrary to one’s argument. How can Dolly be a unifier if she’s the butt of jokes?
- Abumrad takes historical digressions littered throughout the podcast, such as the history of the Knoxville girl song and how it stems from old English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ballads. It seems a digression, but it’s not. Same with his exploration into Dolly’s song “Down from Dover.” Dolly’s song about an illegitimate pregnancy came before Roe v. Wade. It’s no digression. It serves as more evidence to round out Abumrad’s argument that Dolly was way ahead of her time, and yet she remains deeply rooted in her Tennessee history.
In this first episode of ‘Dolly Parton’s America,’ the structure and script form a sonic essay that deepens and contours with each new episode. Listen and learn, and you too will find you’ve been persuaded, gently nudged and quietly entranced by the magic of Dolly.