No matter what kinds of podcasts you listen to—interview shows, scripted drama, actual plays, audio documentaries, or whatever else—just about every host, editor, and producer has planned, written, or recorded segments or even whole episodes that never made it into what pops up in our feeds.
There are plenty of reasons something doesn’t make it into the final cut. Sometimes it’s something ordinary (but frustrating) like an unavoidable technical glitch. Other times editorial or creative decisions change the direction of a story. Another culprit is the fast-moving, ever-changing news cycle that renders certain topics either obsolete or incomplete in the time between conception and episode release.
We asked five of our favorite podcasters to tell us about a time they wrote and/or recorded something that ended up not making it into the world, either at all, or at least not in the way they planned.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Josh Gondelman, Head Writer/EP, Desus & Mero
Talking about: Make My Day
During the more isolated part of the pandemic (and possibly again in the future), I hosted a one-on-one game show called Make My Day, where the premise was that one contestant's challenge was to cheer me up over the course of a game I invented for them. Not only was the contestant guaranteed to win, but each week the guest was (secretly) assured of beating the show's all-time high score, which was set the previous week. It was an incredibly silly premise, which was incredibly difficult to explain to people, but we had a small and lovely group of listeners. Also, it required me doing a lot more math than I'd anticipated to make sure the scores worked out.
But! That wasn't always how the show was supposed to go. It was initially conceived as a panel show for three contestants. I'd even done it live a couple of times, and had so much fun riffing with the panelists in front of an audience. In early 2020 or late 2019...who knows, time means nothing to me now...I got a few hilarious comedian friends (Tom Thakkar, Alison Leiby, Shalewa Sharpe) into a studio to record a pilot episode for the podcast.
The recording was a blast, and I was excited to move forward with the podcast. But by the time we got the little audio flourishes, sound effects, and theme music right, the topical games we played were out of date. And by the time we set a date to record a new, contemporary pilot and launch the show, it was mid-March 2020, and the entire premise of getting a panel into a room to record a show was, well, fraught.
After a few weeks, one of our producers (shout-out to Rich Korson) proposed a one-on-one version of the show, which would be simpler to record and edit remotely. So we gave that a try, reconfiguring the show to be a competition with a single contestant. We did one more pilot that never saw the light of day (Alison Leiby AGAIN generously participated in an unheard podcast. Thank you, Alison!) because the goofy new format still needed some tweaks, and then ended up launching a couple of weeks later.
Hrishikesh Hirway, host of Song Exploder; co-host of Home Cooking and West Wing Weekly
Talking about: Cookie Exploder
In early 2016, I had an idea to start a travel podcast about the best cookies in different cities, called Cookie Exploder. In it, I would find the best cookie in the city, and then interview the chef who created it about their process. It started off as a half-joke I made during a Reddit AMA, but then I got excited about the idea and decided to try actually making it. For the first episode, I interviewed Marian Mar, a chef who made this mocha fudge cookie that blew my mind.
But after that, I didn’t know how to actually build it into a podcast, because I imagined following the concept and format of Song Exploder. But Song Exploder ends with everyone getting to hear the song that was discussed. And no one else could get to eat the cookie! So I didn’t know what to do to give it a satisfying conclusion. And it just sat and sat.
I had basically given up on the idea, and then I mentioned it to Samin Nosrat one day — the first day we ever hung out — and she suggested I try doing it as a live event with Pop-Up Magazine. She had done a story with them about cinnamon, and everyone in the audience got a marshmallow with this specific cinnamon on it to try. Eventually, in the fall of 2018, that’s what I did. I used the audio I had recorded (two years before at this point), and when I got to the end of the story, everyone got a mini version of this cookie that I loved. The podcast never came to fruition. But! That first conversation with Samin, in a lot of ways, led to us starting the Home Cooking podcast together, in March 2020.
Alex Sujong Laughlin, freelancer writer, audio producer at Normal Gossip
Talking about: A news organization’s news and commentary podcast
I was on a team launching a podcast for a news organization. It was brand new, so we were excited to take this mandate from up above and make it our own. We had all these visions for the types of stories we'd tell. We spent six or seven months ideating the show's identity and brainstorming all kinds of different formats we could use to make this feel like a fresh and new take on the news. We found the perfect story to anchor the first episode. It was a mix of investigation, cultural criticism and really empathetic storytelling, and we spent a couple weeks putting together a non-narrated piece on it. I was so proud of it because it felt like it really nailed the vision of what we were going for.
But the week before we launched the podcast, some editors up above told us they didn't want us to lead with that story, they wanted us to lead with a pop culture story. The team was frustrated and it seemed that the only explanation was that it was a difference in editorial vision. We ended up having to throw out the non-narrated piece for this culture story, and the non-narrated piece was never published. It still lives on a hard drive somewhere in my desk.
Ahmed Ali Akbar, freelance writer and host of See Something Say Something
Talking about: “Underground Aams Trade,” parts 1 & 2 for Proof
I was doing a piece for America's Test Kitchen's Proof podcast. It was the beginning of reporting for a piece I did for Eater that ended up winning a James Beard Foundation Award for Feature Reporting. I had this big story about these [imported] mangoes coming over [from Pakistan]. People are spending like $300 for the mangoes…and picking them up from the airport, doing all this work, which seemed like a huge hassle. Why do [the mangoes] cost so much? So the big question of why it cost so much came from the irradiation requirement [ed note: as Ahmed reported in his story for Eater, imported fruit is required to receive a dose of radiation to prevent agricultural pests from coming with the fruit]. I found this facility in Texas that did the irradiation. I found the author of a paper on e-beam radiation. His name is Dr. Suresh Pillai from Texas A&M. He was like, “Come give us a visit.”
I flew down to Texas…. and what I found there was a new character that I didn't consider. Let’s call him Q.
Dr. Pillai said, “The person who really is doing the day-to-day here is Q. He’s the operations manager.” Q is a Texan white guy who has a drawl. He sounds amazing. And he talked about emailing with the Pakistanis and getting them to get their boxes [of mangoes] right. He praised their technical know-how. It was just a very unexpected interview. I couldn’t have planned for it.. So, I was excited—I got more than I expected.
I wrote the script. And then the people [production team] who listen to it say they can’t really understand what he [Q] is saying. [They are asking] “Why do we need to talk to both of them? Why don’t we just talk to one?” I realized that even though there was an amazing human behind this who was doing interesting work that I wanted to highlight for the listener, it was distracting. I had to choose between the two. At that point, I think Dr. Pillai was the stronger option.
It doesn't mean that Q's work was not important or that he shouldn't have been centered, but unfortunately, you have a run time with audio. So I had to cut. I was sad to lose it, but I think it was the right move. For a listener, it would've been distracting. So we just kept the scientist and ended up cutting the operation manager, which feels kind of bad, but that's kind of the cruel work of audio at times.
Dexter Thomas Jr., documentary filmmaker and host of Authentic: The Story of Tablo
Talking about: Authentic: The Story of Tablo
Ed. note: Authentic tells the story of Korean hip hop star Tablo, who was at the height of his career when a false accusation about him spread (like wildfire) on the internet and threatened to derail his career.
One of the things that I was really concerned about with Authentic is that we're making this show assuming that a lot of the audience is going to be from the States because it's in English. One thing that I was extremely concerned about is that people would listen to this and come away with the thought that “Koreans are so weird.”
The entire conceit of Authentic is this really dark, scary conspiracy theory that ruined a lot of people's lives and it centers around how people are acting online. And I know just [from] observing how Americans can act is that it would fit right in with their preconceived notion of what quote unquote “Asians” are like. And this could reinforce those preconceived notions.
And, and I could sense [that concern] a little bit in Tablo, and I could sense it less in some other people that we interviewed, but I could feel it. And we [the production staff] had a lot of conversations about, “Do we need an extra section just to lay all [the context] out?”
But then I think at some point we realized, “I have to trust that the viewer is going to think about this. That we've given them enough. We've given them enough material and enough things to think about that hopefully somebody just doesn't walk away with this thinking, “man, Korea is a weird place for those people over there.”
I had paragraphs of narration written. It went through different iterations. The rest of the production staff took me really seriously. And I should say there were, there were pieces of Korean history that I felt like were going so far into a rabbit hole.
[F]or an American listener, giving them a 60-second encapsulation, or frankly, even a two-minute encapsulation of Confucianism and its effects on the education system is not helpful because all it does is push an entire people away from you.
At the end of the day, I had to accept that there will be some people who will willfully it makes them feel better to listen to this and think of this as, oh, this is a weird, true crime story...And I had to accept that and realize that there are people who are actually compassionate and curious. [People who] would like to know about somebody that they might not come in contact with all the time. And that those people would actually be open to realizing that what's happening in that society is very similar to what's happening in our society. And perhaps you should be listening to that society a little bit more because they experienced something before us.
Sally Tamarkin is a writer, editor, and sensitivity reader. She writes Mars Investigations, a Veronica Mars rewatch newsletter; hosts the podcast Oh, I Like That; and makes things for tabletop roleplaying games with Cloud Curio. You can see their work at sally.gay.