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🎤 Interview: Rekha Murthy
Rekha Murthy is a podcast strategist who believes that podcasting is at its best when it includes a wide range of voices and lived experiences. She offers content strategy, editorial, and audience development services to clients of all sizes – from big companies and public radio stations to independent creators, influencers, and journalists. Rekha is a founding team member and lead curriculum designer of Spotify’s Sound Up program for underrepresented makers around the world. She is a Peer Group Co-Chair for The Impact Guild, and recently served as a Founding Governor of The Podcast Academy, which hosts The Ambies. She spent years at PRX + Radiotopia, NPR’s All Things Considered + NPR Online, and web and mobile startups. Other passions include good journalism, street media, graphic novels, saving our planet’s livable climate, good friends, long walks, knitting scarves, and her little girls.
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Rekha and I conducted our interview via email. Read her unedited responses below.
Before we dive into your roles in the social impact ecosystem, can you share a little about your journey into podcasting / storytelling?
Growing up, NPR was the only thing on in my family's car (shoutout to New England Public Radio, formerly WFCR). We were in the car a LOT, since back then, before the internet 😱, we had to drive for shopping and errands. WFCR had a classical music format, but what stayed with me were the news and spoken word: All Things Considered, Car Talk, Prairie Home Companion, etc. I loved the familiarity and comfort of the sound, the variety of topics, and the feeling of connection to the rest of the world (back when foreign news bureaus were still a thing). Also, Car Talk and PHC made my dad laugh, which was not easy to do, so that's another nice association I have.
Out of college in the 90s, I worked in the Web startup scene in New York. Every morning, I listened to WNYC through a small cassette stereo with a retractable antenna. But startup work culture was too much for me. So I quit, moved back with my parents, knit all my "what's next?" anxieties into a very wide, very long scarf with tiny stitches, and called WFCR to ask for an internship. Bless them, they said yes. Till then, I thought most radio jobs required you to be actually *on* the air, as a host or reporter, and that intimidated me. At WFCR I learned about behind-the-scenes roles like producer, and I was hooked.
When I saw a posting for a News Writer and Editor at NPR Online, I applied, and got it! So I headed to NPR in Washington, DC, in 1998. NPR Online was headed by the late MJ Bear (who has an ONA fellowship in her name). We were a small, scrappy team, and I summarized radio pieces for NPR's fledgling website and posted streaming audio (anyone remember RealAudio?). I had no formal training in news and journalism, and MJ and my other colleagues helped me learn on the job.
Then, I got a chance to try out radio production as a Production Assistant at All Things Considered. I was contract at first, and then fortunate to be hired as fulltime staff. I got to learn from a talented and generous group of hosts, producers, editors, and directors. And I got to call the voices of my childhood - Robert Siegel, Linda Wertheimer, Noah Adams, and many others - colleagues!
When I left NPR for grad school, I wasn't sure I'd return to public radio. I loved it, but I worried that if I chose radio production as a career, my job options would be limited to DC or the one or two stations in a given market, with a very slow path to advancement. I was drawn to the dynamism and newness of the tech sector, and I did that for a while. But eventually PRX came along, merging two things I enjoyed - good audio and new technologies and pathways. I was there from 2008 to 2015, and my time there set me up beautifully to take advantage of podcasting's explosion when I left to go independent.
Sounds like a clear, well-considered path, right? Not so much. It took me a long time to figure it all out. If I were to write a memoir of my career (not happening), here's the title.
What makes a good podcast?
Hmm. Let's try a list. I'd encourage your readers to think about what they would add to it.
When it blends the creator's passion for the topic with respect for the listener's time.
When it either introduces the listener to something new and interesting, OR when it makes their own lived experience feel seen and heard. Bonus if it does both.
When it has "color": stories, illuminating details, fresh insights.
When stories and good narrative structure are there, but not at the expense of important context.
When the insights, facts, and stories clearly come from deep research and are treated with care.
When it features people, creatures, places, or things who aren't the usual suspects.
When it makes you feel things: interest, suspense, spiritual nourishment, joy, anger, amusement
When it's no longer than it needs to be.
When the sound quality and scoring are the best they can be. That said, I don't want to raise the bar so high that great stories and important perspectives get shut out. Some of the best podcasts I've heard are simple in design and rich in substance.
You have worked on a variety of shows, and most seem to have some sort of social impact focus. Gravity, about how to reframe our collective approach to hardship; This Land, about threats to indigenous sovereignty; Twenty-Four Seven, a show about the caregiving crisis; and Drilled, about accountability for those behind the climate crisis.
Why are these sorts of shows what you gravitate towards?
I guess I do work with a lot of serious shows! But it's also very important to me to work with shows that bring uplift, hope, joy, and action. Shows like Bring Birds Back, Future Hindsight, Fresh Off The Spaceship, and Holding Court, plus the myriad of shows I've help guide through the Spotify Sound Up program - Dope Labs, FOGO, In Those Genes, Looking for Esther, to name a few.
Why these sorts of shows? Because there are plenty of the other kinds - pure entertainment, chat, true crime, political takes by people who already have plenty of exposure, and so on. Many podcasts have changed my life, showing me so much more than my traditional education and mainstream media diet ever did. I want more of those kinds of podcasts in the world. I want podcasts that do something different, that don't replicate older media forms with their limited scope of who gets heard, what gets centered, and who can pay the subscription to consume. I want depth, creativity, and, yes, lightness.
What do you believe the audience should take away from shows like these?
Another list for your readers to expand on:
New insights and learnings.
Feeling seen or heard.
Relaxation and refuge.
A desire to share what they've heard with a friend or acquaintance.
Motivation to act.
Some of the above.
I'd like these to happen within a listening experience that's invisible, meaning that the listening isn't a chore, that you hardly realize you're doing it, because you're engrossed and/or entertained.
In the 2013 preface to The Design of Everyday Things, product designer Donald Norman writes, "Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself."
It's a huge challenge to pull that off, but worth aiming for!
What are three things creators should have top of mind when creating these types of stories?
No issue has been "done enough". No issue is too "niche". If you care about it and think you can bring something fresh or better, go for it.
Proceed with rigor and respect. Find credible sources, and not always the obvious sources - dig deeper when you can. Bring respect and care - many social impact issues are sensitive to the people and communities involved. If you're not sure of the best way to handle something, ask someone who might know.
Don't feel a responsibility to darkness. Some things are dark, and pretending otherwise is inauthentic. But we are so much more than our struggles. Where there's light, try to find it and honor it.
For listeners, what is a tip you would give about finding a show about a social issue?
In podcasting, word of mouth is still the best way to find things. Ask friends or acquaintances who are familiar with the issues you care about. What shows do they listen to? Who are the voices they trust in podcasting and beyond? Next best: Search Podchaser or ListenNotes for the names of trusted people in that domain, and see what shows they've guested on.
Beyond storytelling about social issues, you volunteer with the organization Mothers Out Front, which mobilizes to address the climate crisis. How did you get involved?
I have kids. I think about their future all the time. I also feel both responsibility and pleasure from engaging with my local community. A parent at my kids' school invited me to post flyers on street corners next to gas leaks that our gas utility has not repaired. I attended a couple of rallies and felt the power and joy of showing up in person, together. Mothers Out Front volunteers are welcoming, effective, and flexible.
Channeling my energy at the local level, where I'm more likely to have a tangible impact, helps me cope with the grief and helplessness that so many of us feel about the climate. It has also brought a sense of communion, like when 300 of my neighbors joined a vigil at Town Hall to mourn a bald eagle who died from rat poison.
What are some activities you have done with the organization?
I led the Green Team at my kids' school for a year, and was delighted to see how eager kids are to learn about nature and how we can help. We learned about bird migration, how textiles are recycled, and we planted three new trees on our school grounds as part of our town's Tree Canopy program.
What advice would you give to people looking to find an action to take that aligns with their values?
This is the most socially active I've ever been, and I've learned that anyone can take action. You don't need to be in communications or law to advocate for policy, nor a scientist to address the climate crisis. If you can't make a regular commitment, don't let that stop you from occasional participation. Depending on if you'd like to start locally or have a broader reach, ask around, search around, read, and listen.
It's also worth seeing how you can do good from your professional perch. I'm fortunate to be at a stage in my career where I have a lot of experience and connections, and I try to use them for good. I welcome new people and organizations into podcasting, helping them find their own authentic voice and find listeners with whom to have an impact. When I help launch a new industry initiative - Sound Up and The Podcast Academy being two of the most recent - I do my best to infuse inclusivity and generosity into that work as well.
What was the last thing you listened to?
Ghost Herd from KUOW in Seattle.
What was the last social impact action you took?
I participated in a call with my congressional rep's office urging action to ban second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs) in my state. SGARs kill raptors and other wildlife, and they're completely unnecessary.
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be?
Rebecca Solnit, who has a way of connecting disparate issues into a coherent whole and describing systems as they truly are.