Series 21: For the Love of Podcasts | Episode 06
This American Life’s Bim Adewunmi on the Magic of Stories Big and Small
Our next episode of For the Love of Podcasts takes us to the gates of one of the most beloved audio shows of all time, NPR’s This American Life. And here to take us by the hand and lead us through the gates is producer Bim Adewunmi! Bim has had a rich media career, working for the BBC, The Guardian, and Buzzfeed News before starting her own podcast called Thirst Aid Kit then joining the ranks of This American Life. Radio was Bim’s first love (she’s had the same radio in her house for two decades!) so it’s only fitting that she works with the OG, circa 1995 podcast, telling stories from every corner in America from summer camp magic to a used car lot to African American blueberry farmers in Michigan. Bim’s perspective on uncovering hidden story gems, polishing and presenting them in an engaging way is equal parts fascinating and inspiring, and she reminds us that what we put into a story is just as important as what we leave out of it—and to appreciate narratives both big and small.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here. I am your host of the For the Love Podcast, and here you are with me. Welcome to the show.
So we’re in a series right now called For the Love of Podcasts. Look, this is my show and so I do what I want to do, and I love podcasts. So as my guest said today, this is very meta, a podcast talking about podcasts. I don’t care. We have had some really outstanding hosts on the show.
And oh, are you in for a treat today. The NPR and public radio nerds among us might need to find a paper bag to hyperventilate into. You have been warned. Oh, I loved my conversation today with the amazing Bim Adewunmi. Bim, B-I-M.
She was born and raised between the UK and Nigeria, which she’ll talk about a little bit, before she moved to the States about four years ago. Her career is just this winding path through entertainment journalism. She’s worked in radio and magazines; she was a lifestyle columnist and editor at The Guardian for many years. And then a culture editor, and senior culture writer, at Buzzfeed News, where her work was actually nominated for a national magazine award. Nice. Clap, clap. She is currently the cohost of the wonderfully named podcast, Thirst Aid Kit, which is hilarious. It seriously, but joyfully, explores the ways pop culture shapes desire. She’s got a really cool cohost; we’ll talk about her, too.
But what we’re going to deep dive into today is Bim’s work as a producer on a little show, you might’ve heard of it. It is called This American Life. No big deal. This American Life, of which BIM is a producer—I mean, talk about an OG podcast. This American Life’s been on the air since 1995.
Back before podcasts were what they are today, it had a different name. Back then, it was called Your Radio Playhouse. So good move on that name change. If you don’t know about [This] American Life, it’s hosted by Ira Glass, and the show is divided into acts and it tells individual stories throughout the episode, but they’re all kind of wrapped up into one beautiful theme. It’s just a masterclass on how to put out an amazing podcast. You really never know what you’re going to get. Like one week, it might be about people who decided the only way forward was to burn the whole house down, and the next week, it might be people switched at birth, or kids at summer camp, or a car salesman at work. It runs the gamut. So some of them are very ordinary kinds of stories, but told in such an intricate way that it makes them unforgettable.
And of course, This American Life has had so many brilliant podcasts and creators come through their ranks. Sarah Koenig and Serial, another brilliant podcast called S-Town. If you haven’t listened to those, what are you doing?
I could go on and on and on about the importance of This American Life, but I am excited for you to meet the producer Bim, and hear about her incredible life and work, her charming and hilarious stories. I mean, she really pulls up the curtain for us and gives us a look.
So please enjoy my conversation with the amazing Bim Adewunmi.
Jen: Okay. I am delighted to welcome you, Bim, to the For the Love Podcast. I am just such a fan of everything you put your hand to, frankly. So thank you for saying yes to somebody else’s podcast when this is, like, the stuff of your life already.
Bim: Yeah, it’s kind of meta, looking inside a mirror while looking in a larger mirror, but it’s all good.
Jen: That’s right. So what I will do is, I will tweet this and then I will screenshot it and put it on Instagram, also very meta. We’ll just dial it in as much as we possibly can.
Jen: Okay. So I have told our listeners about you, your amazing credentials, the work that you do as a grownup, but I would love to go back in the story, if you don’t mind, to the beginning and hear a little bit more about your childhood, in your own words. If you would just tell us a little bit about young Bim, what was it like growing up? What kind of a kid were you? Just sort of in general, what was your childhood like?
Bim: Right. Well, I was very lucky, because I grew up over two continents, basically. My family is marvelously placed between the UK and Nigeria. My parents are British Nigerians, they moved to the UK in the 70s, and I came along in the very early 80s. I’m the second child of four. And oftentimes, I think of that rather as the bulk of my identity, that I am a second child who is also an older sister to two young men. I feel like a lot of my philosophy in life hews very closely to being a second child, which is, I’m not like this out-and-out leader. I will lead if I have to, but generally speaking, [I don’t like to]. My sister is incredibly smart, she’s very wise. I’m used to looking to her and [saying], “Hey, what do you think?”
Jen: Sure, sure.
Bim: And either she confirms or she deviates from what I’m thinking, and if it’s better for me, more often than not, I will go with my wiser sister’s idea.
On the other hand, I was also a very theatrical child. I was very dramatic. I was also deeply sensitive, much to the annoyance but eventual acceptance of my family. I mean, in many ways, I was an annoying child. I was loud, and at the same time, oddly introspective. I’m a huge diary keeper. I kept imagining my life and saying, “Eventually, someone will want to read about this, so I better write this down.” Like I said, I had a very slated sense of my own importance. I was like, Oh no, people are going to want to know about your childhood. I’ve gone back to read some of my diaries, and they are the most boring, mundane nonsense you ever read. But I really believed it.
I grew up in a very supportive household. I was a secure child. I was, in many ways, deeply privileged. That happened in Nigeria and in the UK. My parents were very indulgent of me, and I think that really helped me kind of figure out what it is that I liked and what I didn’t like. And that allowed me to settle into myself without much interference. I think that’s something that’s held me in quite good stead when it comes to my life, my career, my feelings of self.
Jen: Oh, I love the way that you put that. I’m also tickled to hear you cite you [being the] second child as your north star, because I am the oldest of four and I am like, “Where is my microphone? May I run for office? Would somebody like to vote me up?” I mean, it’s so funny, what you’re saying is so real.
I love how you just talked about your parents steadying the ship for you as you moved into young adulthood. So to that end, when did you discover—I mean obviously, you’re a journal writer, so something was in you [at] birth to write stories—that you love both hearing and telling stories? And I’m wondering, did your family cheer you on in your career choice? What eventually made you pack up and move across the pond?
Bim: Well, I mean, I learned very early that I loved hearing stories, but I also really loved telling stories. One of my memories is very distinct. I must’ve been about five or six. I come from a very large family, extended family. So I think there was a whole bunch of us—this is when we were living in Nigeria—and everyone was talking, and we’re not allowed to talk because everyone’s chiming in and doing all this stuff. And I was trying to get my story out, and no one was listening to me because I had a very small voice. So apparently, I climbed onto the coffee table and I yelled, “Everybody shut up!”
My dad, very gently, was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, no, we do not do that.”
And I was like, “Well, no one’s listening.”
Dad was like, “You wait your turn.”
I was so justified. I was like, “No, you don’t understand, it’s because no one’s listening and this is the only way.
And my dad was like, “No.” I remember my dad’s face, [his] eyebrows [were] up. Like, What are you doing? I was like, Oh, okay, I guess not this. I loved telling stories.
I think initially, I was a bit of a confused child. The classic second child, as we’ve established. I remember my sister, for example, knew who she was going to be and what she wanted to do very early on in life. And they [my family] would ask me a similar question, “Bim, what do you want to do?” And I would always have these really wafty answers, “I don’t know, a butterfly.” And they’d [be] like, “No, no, no, no, that’s not a real job.” I was kind of indulged as the second child, who gets to drift a little bit. My sister was the person on the straight and narrow, and I was someone who was discovering myself.
So for a long time, I said to my family that I was going to go into pharmacology, because it seemed like a smart, sensible thing to do. And everyone kind of indulged that. They were like, “Okay, sure, that’s what you want to do.” [Except] that I was terrible at sciences.
Jen: That’s going to make that a tricky career path.
Bim: Yeah, very tricky. And so eventually, I switched and I said, “Oh no, actually I think I’m going to become a journalist.”
And my dad, after me saying for years I was going to be a pharmacologist, was like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
And I was like, “Wait, what?”
And he was like, “Yeah, it seems sensible. You’ve always been very good at English language, English literature, and you’re a good blah, blah, blah. So yeah, that sounds good.”
And I was like, “Wait, why didn’t you stop me when I said I wanted to go into pharmacology?”
And he said, “Oh no, you seemed quite happy with that.”
And I was like, “Sir, if you have an opinion, I urge you to raise your voice.”
Jen: Now is the time.
Jen: On the front end of a $100,000 degree.
Bim: Truly. Bless him. And he was like, “Oh, I just assumed, yeah, journalism sounds good for you.” And I was like, “Oh great, thanks, Dad.” So yeah, I switched in the middle of doing all my sciences. I was in chemistry, and biology, and psychology, and then I switched in my second year at sixth form and started doing stuff for my journalism career.
That’s what I ended up studying in school. And my parents were supremely supportive, and I’m really glad of it. They are very wonderfully hands-off when I need them to be. And that kind of really allows you to kind of go forth and do what you want to do.
I was a journalist for a good number of years in the UK. I was working at The Guardian, obviously, but before then, I did a little bit of radio at the BBC. I also worked on local newspapers, which are obviously now mostly dead because journalism has truly changed. I remember when we graduated, we had a conversation with one of our lecturers, and we were like, “Huh, you’ve prepared us for jobs that don’t exist anymore, thanks.”
Jen: Really, yep.
Bim: It was a difficult time to graduate, but I was very lucky. My degree was in multimedia journalism, so I did radio with TV and print. I did a bit of radio, but did not like TV, so that stopped very quickly, and then I went into print and I had a really nice career. It was a freelance for many years, which is one of the most precarious places that a person can be. But I did that and I loved it and I learned so much and I have the benefit of [meeting] some really wonderful editors along the way. People who would probably balk at me calling them mentors, but they wear that [hat]. They really nurtured something and helped me become a better writer, and a very good editor. And that’s something that I still have with me now.
And again, these are transferable skills, they don’t live and die in one place. So that’s been a truly lucky break for me.
Jen: Did you have your eye at all on the United States or was that more like a matter of circumstance and opportunity? Or was that you thinking I’d like to try my hand over in that place, in that culture?
Bim: It was a bit of both. People think about America in a very specific way, and that’s because of the culture that gets exported. I think for many people, so much of America seems familiar to us before we even arrive here. The architecture looks a certain way, all the various accents, it’s such a massive landmass. It’s endlessly interesting. And it has all these different kinds of cultures within this larger culture. So I think I was always interested in the idea of being in America. That was something that was at the back of my mind, one day I would like to work in America.
So I left The Guardian, I went to work at Buzzfeed News in London. They [had] a London office, they still do. And the option suddenly became something that was more concrete. Knowing that they had an American office, I asked at the part where they offered me the job, I was like, “You have an American office, I would like to go there, perhaps for one year, on the sort of a secondment and work out of that office, and that was it. That happened.
So I did a year in the London office as culture editor, and then I moved to New York. And one of the things I asked for when I was leaving was, “Okay, so when I get to America, I don’t want to edit anyone anymore, I want to do some writing. I want to go back to being a writer.” Because I was editing in the UK, which I found really fulfilling, but I was also getting itchy feet because I missed writing so much. I think we all know our strengths, and I think I was a very good editor, but I think I’m a better writer. So the urge was to get back into writing. So yeah, I moved to America partly because I’d always had this idea of living here, but also the opportunity presented itself.
One of the curious side effects of globalization is that New York doesn’t feel all that different from London.
Jen: That’s a great point.
Bim: People would be like, “Oh, what’s New York like?” And I’d be like, “Oh, it’s London with accents. It’s exactly the same pace of life. It’s exactly just as expensive.” Maybe New York is a little bit more expensive. I think America in general is more expensive than the UK.
There are definitely things I miss. I miss the NHS desperately, I miss the BBC incredibly. I miss it like a cousin. I miss a lot of things, but I also think about all the great things I’ve been able to do here. I think, for sure, my career is very different because of my time in America. I think I’ve been able to really do some really, really wonderful journalism, and have access to stories that I wouldn’t have been able to reach if I was still in the UK. I’ve made some really amazing friends here. I’ve had this really, really wonderful experience of coming to America, in addition to all the usual nonsense that comes with being someone who is not in their home country. And also, America in these times. I was meant to be here for a year, I was going to cover the election.
Jen: Aha. Bless.
Bim: Right. What a world?
Jen: What a world, you came over here to cover.
Bim: Surely. But I thought, Oh, I’ll be done in a year. Whoever will be in the office, will be in office, and then I’ll just go back to London. It’ll be fine. And then Trump won. And I was like, Oh, I guess I’m going nowhere. So I spoke to my editor, and I was like, “I think I should stay.” And she was like, “Yeah, I think you should, too.”
Jen: Okay. So you just course corrected, like on the spot, decided to stay. I mean, I can see why, it’s just a constant news cycle at this point. And we’re relying on journalists at this point to do their work with integrity, and that matters. Gosh, it’s always mattered, but it matters so much right now.
Jen: Let’s talk for a minute about you making the leap over to podcasting. How was that for you and what made you make that decision? Were you just interested in a new canvas upon which to paint? And of course, podcasting is such a fantastic sort of community right now. What a wonderful way to get and give information. I’d love to hear you talk about that transition and what that was like for you.
Bim: Sure. I think a very important thing for me is that I have always loved radio. My very first professional job as a journalist was in radio. I think is a deeply important and intimate way to get news and opinion to people. I always found it a very romantic medium. I have a radio that I have had for about twenty years, well, just under twenty years. It’s a proper [radio]. You tune in, it has an aerial, and I have to scan to find the station, et cetera. But it’s traveled with me all over the world, and I’ve taken it with me when I’ve been to Nigeria. I lived in Berlin for a few months, I took it with me so I could tune in.
I remember listening to NPR when I was in Berlin. Shout out to Terry Gross, I listened to a lot of Terry Gross when I was in Berlin. It’s gone with me when I moved to California, it’s come with me back to New York. It lives in my bathroom constantly. I turn it on first thing in the morning. So I really loved the medium.
I always wanted to come back to radio. As much as I love writing, and I really love writing, it seemed to me that radio has a different way to reach people, and podcasting is obviously the other [way]. You don’t even need a radio for podcasting. I just really love the kind of stories that you get to tell. Audio is such a special medium. I think so often as a writer, you are writing something, you’re writing it in your own voice, and then however it gets interpreted is in the reader’s head. And I think that is a wonderful thing, because it allows you to place yourself in a story in a very particular way.
But I think the other thing with audio is that you actually get to hear it in the writer’s voice, in the person’s voice. And that is quite a special thing that is an entirely different way to consume media. So I really loved that. It felt like a new canvas, yes. But also one of the oldest canvases, in terms of my own personal history. I love radio. That’s what we played when we were little. My sister and I would pretend to run a radio station. It’s something that I felt incredibly drawn to, and so when the opportunity arose to come to This American Life, it just seemed the most perfect no brainer.
Jen: Yeah. I mean, honestly. That’s just a peak experience, show, host, everything. I’d love to weave our way through your podcasting career. You cut your teeth on Thirst Aid Kit. Hilarious. It’s the funniest name I’ve ever heard. So I’d love to hear about that a little bit. And then just earlier this year, right, you joined This American Life as a producer?
Bim: That’s right.
Jen: Yeah. So no big deal. Just This American Life, that’s all. So let’s hear about Thirst Aid Kit, we’d love to hear what brought you to This American Life. Were you a fan like the rest of us before you joined? Ira Glass is kind of the gold standard of podcast hosts and very OG. So we’d just love to hear that whole thing. How you started, how you got there, what it’s been like since you’ve been on the show.
Bim: Right. We started doing Thirst Aid Kit back at Buzzfeed News in 2017. It felt like this place where you could have these conversations about what kind of podcasts you want to make, what you want to say, and what you want to do. And you were listened to. So the idea for a podcast had been swirling around, [and we said], “Let’s try something.” They’d already had massive success with Another Round, which was hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heven Nigatu. There was evidence of success and ability, so that was never the worry. But trying to find the thing that we would talk about, it would [have to] be something that could grow, that could be.
And my friend Nicole, who is this amazing poet and writer, she is perhaps one of the best storytellers that I know. We met on the internet, and we’ve been talking for years on the internet, and we finally met a couple of times. I was in New York, she was in New York before I moved here. And we met in person and we were like, “Oh my God, we get on in person too. This is great.” We would often joke sometimes on Twitter and be like, “Oh my God, are we cousins? Are we long lost cousins?”
So she became a friend, and then she moved to New York to work on her writing. We were talking and something we’d always wanted to talk about was this idea of how pop culture essentially designs who we fancy and how we fancy them. And none of this is incidental. Nobody arrives as a baby on this planet and knows exactly all the people they’re going to fancy before they die. It’s something that is cultivated in us. And I think we were so interested in the idea of exploring pop culture. We’re both huge pop culture fans, [we were] both a little bit boy crazy when we were little. So we clearly have ideas of how we got to be the way we are. The things that we like, the things that we see, and those two things kind of working together.
And we were also very aware that we were two black women talking about this, and it felt like there was a lack of that in the arena, generally podcasting, but also specifically about pop culture, and in particular lust and desire. So it felt like a really organic thing, and we were so, so lucky. I think people often imagine a podcast to be maybe two people in a room, just riffing. And if I told you the amount of planning [it takes] to make the sound spontaneous and fun, you would not believe me. I think for many people, it’s kind of like, “Oh, you and Nicole just have a chat every week.” And I’m like, “We do not. We spend a week preparing to bring you that stuff.”
So, yeah, every time I look at Nicole, I’m like, wow I really lucked out, and I got like the best person to do this with. She’s also a very good friend and I love her dearly, so that’s been a really wonderful experience.
Coming to This American Life, I had just left my job at Buzzfeed News. I wrote a play and it was being staged in London, and it felt like a very good time to look into that as a thing that maybe I could dedicate more hours to. So in the end, there were a number of things that went into the decision, and then basically I chose to quit my job at Buzzfeed News, despite being generally quite happy there. And in the middle of that, I was told about this vacancy at This American Life, and I was like, Yeah, sure, why not? What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll have quit anyway, so it’s fine.
And instead, I got the job, and I was like, Huh, I guess I’m not going to have six months to write my next play, I’m going to have to do this. And again, [it was] one of those really wonderful things where yes, I had been a fan for so long. I had a favorite episode, I would tell people about my favorite episode. I was a fan even when I was living in London, where it wasn’t there every week, I didn’t listen to it live on the radio. I kind of listened to it [sporadically], but I really, really loved the show. There was this thing of, Oh wow, I’m going to be working on something that I really enjoyed and admired from afar for a very long time. I’m from London, we’re British, so we’re very cool people. Coming into the interview, Ira was sitting there, and I was like, Oh my God, it’s Ira Glass! You have a moment kind of like, Oh my God, it’s his radio voice, but in person. Wow. And you get over it, obviously. But initially, I was like, Oh my God, Ira Glass! And then I was like, Stop calling him by his full name in your mind.
But it’s been wonderful. He’s great to work with. I think about people who have been doing a job for a very long time and are kind of tied to this identity is a very specific way. I mean, obviously, with listening for literally decades, he’s very, very accomplished. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and more than anything, I think he is still incredibly interested in learning about the world, about stuff. And that to me is really something that I want to grow in myself, where you don’t ever feel as though you have all the answers all the time, but remain open to things.
One of the first stories I ended up working with in my time here was producing Ira on a story. On the one hand, you’re kind of shaky because you’re like, Oh my God, I better get this right. Ira is incredibly patient and just genuinely a good teacher. It’s really very much a case of, “Okay, now you try it, now you do this, now you do that.” And it’s wonderful. It’s been a real gift for me, because at this point, I’d been out of radio for several years, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to make my return. Everyone here at This American Life has been so good about lending me an ear or telling me about this bit on ProTools or whatever. So it’s been one of those things where I’m bringing all these transferable skills from all my other jobs, all my other lives. But also, I’m actually learning on the job, and it has been quite exhilarating to be learning new skills in real time.
Jen: I’m glad to hear that.
Bim: Yeah, it’s great. It’s really great.
Jen: I’ve listened to Ira also for years and years, we all have. And I am really inspired and admire his sense of wonder and curiosity that comes through loud and clear. Just sort of a naturally open-handed position toward his guests, and toward life, and toward big questions and circumstances. I love that. I have come from a sort of community that’s a little bit more in love with certainty, and being right or wrong, and knowing all the things. So I’ve actually learned a lot from that approach, that there’s just a wonderful way to live your life, which is with curiosity, and I see that and I’m glad to hear that behind the scenes is just as sort of open-handed.
I think a lot of my listeners are probably wondering, because it’s such a niche position and not everybody knows what it is. Can you just explain what do you do? What does a producer of a national radio show and podcast actually do? What does that look like? Will you give us kind of a peek behind the curtain at what sort of falls on your desk and the chess pieces that you move around?
Bim: Sure. I will do my best to kind of elucidate what exactly it is I do. Because sometimes I wake up and I’m like, What am I doing?
I think a good deal of this, the way I have been working anyway, and as I come to understand it, essentially, I am looking for stories to tell. I think very specifically, on This American Life, we do the big and the small. We have stories that are hitting the national news and the smaller, what we would call— back in the day, because I am very old now—“human interest stories.” I cut my teeth on the features desk of The Guardian.
So there’s a good amount of sifting and trying to kind of locate the correct stories that you want to tell, and broadening that net, to include stories that perhaps you have half an inkling on, you have some knowledge, but not all the things. And I think that’s a fairly good place to begin.
I do a lot of reading. I think people don’t recognize how much work it is to locate stories and to make them new stories, but also old stories, things that you’ve heard before but told in a different way with a different narrator with a different lens, whatever it is. There are only so many stories for people to understand, and I think what you’re looking for each time is reframing that to make it make sense in the current landscape.
So yeah, I do a lot of that. I read, perhaps, too much on the internet. I read a lot of books as well. It’s remarkable how many stories are lingering inside other stories as well. I think people do a lot of big reading, and then forget the smaller elements of what makes a big story and then you think, Oh no, this is an untapped line in this particular story. Oftentimes, a sentence will stick with me that I read ages ago or somewhere in a different story, and I’m like, Wait, this person mentioned their mother, where is the mother? And then you go and look for that. And there she is. She has this fascinating story. So I think a lot of it is uncovering and trying to figure out how you want to go in and how you want to do it.
With This American Life, everyone knows every week we have a theme, and then we find stories along that theme. And often, stories will present themselves, maybe even around the largest or with the smaller story. That’s something to think about. I think you’re also thinking quite strategically, very tactically. The show is an hour long on the radio, so you are also thinking of stories in terms of how long it will take to tell a story. And so that’s another part of my brain that I’m engaging. I come from initially newspaper and magazine writing where you had a word count, because you had a page outlined, you had a layout to fill. And then I moved to online writing where the word count was less important.
Bim: Yes, exactly. And then you come back to radio, and it’s like time is absolutely of the essence. You absolutely have to get it right. So that’s been a really wonderful way of retraining my brain to get as much pertinent information into a story as the time will allow, and making it something that feels complete, regardless of how long it is. That’s a very different skill as well.
So yeah, ultimately, I’m doing a lot of reading, I’m doing a lot of calling around. I love talking to people, trying to kind of coax stories out of people, trying to understand if there is a story there, which is another important skill. Old school newspaper speakers used to call it news sense. Trying to figure out what feels like news and what is actually not that interesting. It’s kind of like how your dreams are very interesting but only to you.
Jen: That’s right.
Bim: But then, every so often, you have this conversation where you think, Okay, that’s a story. So that’s always thrilling, to hear something and go, Oh no, I know what this is and I’m so interested in it. And bringing that story to a pitch meeting, and seeing people’s faces light up and thinking, Yep, I did it. That’s great. That feels really good.
That’s the other thing as well. For every story you present, everything you pitch, wherever there’s a yes, is just as likely to be a no.
Jen: Yeah, that’s right. You can’t be too precious about any of it.
Bim: You really cannot. Your skin gets thick quick. I thought it was a great idea and everyone’s like, “We’re telling you, categorically it’s not.” You go, “Oh, okay, good, thanks.”
Jen: That’s so great. I appreciate you explaining that, because as consumers, it’s easy. It’s like you mentioned earlier about you and your partner on the other podcast. It’s easy just to listen and think, Oh well this just feel super organic and you probably just hopped on here and just spun a yarn for this amount of time. But in reality, the amount of labor and heavy lifting that goes on behind a well-run podcast is so much, and being able to curate stories and information is a real specific skillset. We get the finished product. What we think, Well sure, that story came across your desk and you just sort of jotted down a few notes and off you went is just the farthest thing from the truth. It takes so many hours to produce that one hour.
Bim: And people. It takes real people time. I think people forget that the talking is just one part of radio. We have an amazing sound engineer, it’s a whole team of people making it sound a certain way. There is sound design, there is music rights. There is some of the commission music, all of that goes into making one hour of radio that you know to expect you’re going to listen to your local NPR station and get This American Life. And it’s like, for that seven-minute piece, twelve people worked to make it sound effortless and make it sound like something you wanted to hear and wanted to stay with, and something you’re going to talk about with your friends. It’s a lot of people hours that go into making it and to make it sound so effortless.
I think about that all the time. It’s something that you don’t want to sound overproduced, but you also want it to sound like, Yeah, we’ve done some work here. This wasn’t just a thing. Like you said, it’s not jotting down a few notes, it’s intense. And sometimes you have a four-hour conversation and then literally it becomes a twelve-minute story and you think, Blimey, all right, great.
Jen: So I’d love to hear, I don’t even know which adjective to pick, but if you’re looking backwards, what is one of the most fascinating or the weirdest or most surprising story that you have uncovered? Either as a producer or [one that you] covered as a journalist?
Bim: Right. I haven’t gotten that many weird or out there stories so far in my time at This American Life. There is—not that I can even talk about it right now—one I’m working on right now that is just really small and delightful and perfect, and I’m sure you’ll hear it in the coming weeks.
There is a story that I remember from when I was working at Buzzfeed News, and this was a thing that started out quite small and then got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I ended up doing massive amounts of research and I learned so much, but we were talking very specifically about farmers in America.
We had this back and forth conversation. My editor and I were thinking about ways of covering this and whatever. And then we kind of narrowed it and said, “Okay, well let’s talk about black farmers, talk about African-American farmers.” And we ended up, again, talking about this and uncovering all this stuff, or just learning all this stuff about the ways in which so many black farmers had been duped out of their land over the years, and just understanding how it is that the number of black farmers was so small compared to the number of black people in this country, and the history of black people on the land in this country. A very specific shift from rural life to urban life. Essentially, the ways in which governments and several agencies have conspired to make sure that land was no longer in the hands of black people.
It was like this very disturbing thing on the one hand. And then I began talking to somebody who’s a friend and she mentioned that her family had blueberries. This was their business, they were blueberry farmers. And I’d never ever thought about blueberry farmers in my life prior to that. I eat blueberries, I enjoy a blueberry muffin or blueberry pancakes, but it’s not something that I’m thinking about. And she said, “Oh yeah, when we were kids, that was basically our summer job. We would go back to the family homestead in Michigan, in the small, small town, and in the summertime, we would essentially pick blueberries and that was how we earned some of our summer money.” And I thought, Okay, well this is amazing. Here in this very newsroom, my actual friend, her family is in this business. They are farmers and have been for a couple of generations. There’s history there.
And so we went out to this small town called Covert, Michigan, which is already a great name. Covert. I was like, This is a character, this is great. And we got there, she has this very, very old relative, Miss Carly, and she was amazing. Miss Carly, she was great. She was in her nineties. She was slightly deaf. She was incredibly cheeky, she was very, very funny. I remember she said, “What’s your name?” And I said, “Bim,” and she was like, “Huh? How do you say Bim?” And she goes, “What kind of name is that?” And I said, “It’s Nigerian.” And she was like, “Mm-mmm, you’re in America now.” And she was so funny, she was a delight. She was one of those people who played in her church and she was incredible. She used to be a teacher and she said, “When I came out here, my husband said he was going to do blueberries. And I was like, all right,” and so it became a very wonderful kind of side part of her life. She was involved, but she wasn’t involved. Her son, he’d been doing it for ages, but he was worried about legacy. He was worried about whether his kids would want it, because he’s in the small town in Michigan, his kids are in urban areas, they’re in Chicago and whatnot. They’re interested in stuff like music production and other stuff. He was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is something my father worked very hard on.”
It was fascinating. I went out, I learned about all the various varieties of blueberries. I learned about the harvest times. I learned about the best. I picked myself a bucket of berries and it’s incredible, backbreaking, hard work. It can only be done when the sun is at the highest point in the sky. You are sweating. Because blueberries have to be dry, you cannot harvest the blueberries when it rains. We went to the processing plant. I learned so much, and it was just endlessly fascinating. Every new bit of information led to yet more information, and it was just this incredible learning experience for me.
So I was writing the story, having come from a place of zero knowledge to being sort of an expert, which is kind of what writers do. You learn something, you become an expert, and then as soon as the story’s filed, you empty your brain of it and go learn something new. And I think this was one of the more intense ones. It means that every time I eat a blueberry now, I think, I wonder if this is a Jessie berry or a Michigan berry? And it feels really good to be able to have this very specific knowledge that is useless outside of this arena. But it feels good.
Jen: Great. That sort of goes back to what you said earlier about some of the great stories [being] the big macro stories. They’re huge, they’re everywhere, they’re ubiquitous. It matters. But just as important and even sometimes more delightful are these little blueberry stories that is that entire process of learning and research and experience and then ultimately, production delighted you, it delights your listeners and your readers. That is just as exciting for us to consume when we get something so charming and beautiful and precious in this horrible world. And I love that you give both credence, that you say, these both matter as we tell stories, both the big and the small, and I positively see that in your work.
Let me ask you this. So just kind of to that end, obviously, throughout your career from beginning to now, you have had tremendous reach on the things that people see, and then ultimately what they think about both big and small. And so I wonder if you can just talk for another minute about what that means to you and what you hope that your audience, wherever they find your work, wherever they have intercepted your work, what are you hoping that they take away from what you are producing and putting out into the world?
Bim: It’s a difficult thing. I think we all obviously come to our work with intention. I’m Muslim, and one of the things that we learned a lot when we were kids was that there is power even in intention. It’s not the be all, and then obviously once something comes out, it depends on how other people interpret and so on. But a good intention I think is something that I think about a lot, just from that experience. To come to something with a very specific intention is very important to me.
I think one of the things I think about is when you write something, in as much as you have an idea of what you want to say, you are also trying to leave some room so that the reader can also join in and learn something, sometimes with their own research. I think putting in information, especially when you’re writing online, you can put a link to something and people will click and that’ll take them down a rabbit hole of stuff.
But even if they’re reading it in a newspaper or magazine, I think a physical newspaper, a physical magazine, if you put enough questions into the way you write, if you put enough curiosity, if you make people kind of think, Huh. I wonder what this means? This is again going back to when it comes to writing, crafting a story, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. What I’m always looking for when I write or make any kind of story, really, is for people to ask a question, get an answer, but also push them into asking more questions, further questions, and make them go somewhere else and look for something else. I think that’s the thing that I want.
I always say, “I hope my work makes you look up other work.” I think I want someone to look at something and say, “Huh, I’ve learned something today and I want to learn more.”
Jen: I really appreciate that, because we just wrapped up a series on this show essentially about media literacy, and what we’re seeing en masse right now as a part of the average media diet is low hanging fruit all the time. And it’s almost the choice of the people to have incredibly encapsulated ideas, completely summed up with a period at the end, definitive statements that we ingest and then just go, “Well, that’s what it is. That’s the beginning and the end of the story and no further investigation is needed, and now we know even more where we stand.” And it, of course, reinforces the bias that we’re looking to reinforce. And so I just find your approach important, and largely missing from the average media consumer right now, which is I’d like to come to this piece with a sense of openness or curiosity to it that I’m going to do a little bit more work and dig a little bit further.
I think that has a lot of journalistic integrity to it, and I really honor that in your approach. I’d love to see our culture swing back to that in some way, where we are not just digesting this just sort of garbage journalism, for lack of a better word. I’m not sure what even to call it at this point, [stories] that are simply not much more than just bias reinforcements.
And so I hope to see that, and I hope that other people are taking their cues. Most of the journalists that I have spoken to and interviewed have full integrity, and they take their calling and their work so seriously, and I would love to see your work more honored in our culture.
Bim: That’s very kind.
Jen: Let me ask you this question, then we’ll wrap it up. With all the media experience and exposure to people in stories under your belt, I am curious, who do you think that we should be hearing from more right now? Who should we be listening to? What kinds of stories do you think we should be talking about, whether it’s your own or just culture at large? Like if you said, “This is either a person or a place or a storyline I hope our listeners start paying more attention to,” who would that be?
Bim: I think, inevitably, when we talk about mainstream journalism, we are talking about fairly established ideas and stories. And so I think increasingly we have to be turning our attention to the people outside of that. When I think about the things that are missing, I think about myself. I come at a point of several intersections. I am black, I’m a woman, I’m a Muslim, I am a foreigner, I’m an immigrant, I’m Nigerian, I am British. I have this accent, I’m straight. There are all these labels that come with me and, very crudely, if you were to put them into a column, there are some minuses, there are many pluses. So I think increasingly, we need to find the people for whom society has stacked up the minuses.
I think about all the voices of the fringes. People often say that thing about they haven’t got a voice and that’s completely untrue. People have a voice—we just don’t amplify them for various reasons. And so, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to get more people to tell stories from those communities.
There’s been a horrible state of the murders of black trans women. And this is something that is happening in real time. We are observing it. We see the hashtags, we see the names, we have all these stories of all these women and nothing seems to be happening. I think it’s one of those things where we say the names, we mourn, we rail against it, we talk about it, and then nothing changes.
It is something that I think, If I was a member of that community, what does that tell me about how I am seen, how I am viewed, my worth in this community? And I do think that all of us have a responsibility to look after our most vulnerable society members. And a lot of the time we’re not, because it’s not convenient or it seems like more hard work or, Who will read about this, who will listen about this? I mean, you won’t know until you do the thing. And I think in terms of what journalism’s job is, it’s to ask questions and to do your best to make sure those questions are answered and situations, conditions, are made better. We have to be able to go to the places of power and make change for the better, because it feels like it’s one community, but in reality, it’s all of us.
We’re all in this. I think about the social contract. Many of us are here because somebody else sacrificed something.
Jen: That’s right.
Bim: I think about myself as a black person railing against the way in which black stories, black communities, have been covered in mainstream press. We can all recognize when we see racism. We understand when we see that. And yet, you don’t necessarily think about other people who are in a different –ism.
I think that’s something that we all can stand to do a lot more about. I think [we need to] not reduce the experience of black trans women to purely violence. We are all human beings. There are joyful moments and days and years for all of us. And I think what I’m trying my best to do is to not tell a narrow story about a person or a people’s existence. We are not all the worst or the least good thing that happens to us. There are so many ways to tell stories.
And like I said, when you tell a story, think about what you’re leaving out. Sometimes, whatever you feel you’ve left out in a story, perhaps that’s where you need to refocus your attention too.
I do think a lot about who we need to be hearing more from and increasingly, it’s less from people like me, which is a very rich thing for me to say as I talk on a podcast about my career. But I think there are ways that we can elevate the voices of people—people who, by the way, have never been quiet, they just have been ignored. And so, I think that’s an important thing to note.
Jen: Oh, wow. That’s like the perfect way to close. I couldn’t possibly agree with you more and really appreciate that wisdom here at the end.
Jen: All right, this is the wrap up here. This whole series is, obviously, about podcasts. We’re asking every guest in our series these questions, so just off the top of your head. Here’s the first one. As you are producing and creating right now, do you have a dream guest?
Bim: Right now, I do have a dream guest. It would be Danai Gurira. She is a Zimbabwean American playwright and actor and activist, and I think she is endlessly fascinating. I think she’s wildly talented. I love her plays. She’s a big part of why I write plays. I am endlessly inspired by her. She’s also beautiful, and I want to ask about her skin care regimen.
Jen: Okay. Well listeners, we will link over to all of her work, too, so you could peek into who this fascinating person is.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve learned thus far from your work on This American Life?
Bim: My favorite, I’m not entirely sure. Oh, let’s see. My favorite thing. Honestly, I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but it’s the most useful thing, and that is that I am learning ProTools, which is an editing platform, and I am learning it at a rate of knots and I am fascinated by how little I know, but also by how quickly I’m learning. So it’s been like a revelation for me. That, Oh, it turns out my brain is still receptive to learning things, that’s wonderful.
Jen: How delightful.
Jen: Very last question, and this we ask every guest in every series this question, from an author that I love and your answer can be whatever you want it to be. It can be important and meaningful or it can be like absolutely frivolous. So you just pick it. But the question is, what is saving your life right now?
Bim: The obvious thing is to say friends, because they save my life every single day. But I think in terms of a thing, I have to say it has been [one thing] for a very long time now, but it still works, and that is reading fan fiction.
Jen: Nice answer.
Bim: I love fanfic. I think it is just the most consuming, the most wonderful, and best of all, it’s free. It lives on the internet. People who make it love what they do, and they love their community of readers, and I am grateful to be an enjoyer, a reader of fanfic, because it really has pulled me out of some of the most depressing days so far and I don’t see that stopping or changing anytime soon.
Jen: Nice. Oh, good. Shout out to the fanfic writers. I love that answer.
Okay, Bim, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate literally everything you said today. I was listening, I was jotting down my notes over here and just really learning from you, and grateful that you’re out there doing what you’re doing and giving us such amazing content to think about and to learn from and to consider. Just keep going. We are over here cheering you on in every way.
Bim: Thank you. I appreciate that very much. And same to you. Thank you so much. I’ve obviously been watching you from a distance for a while, and I’m really, really glad that you exist and are out there doing work.
Jen: What a nice thing to say. Okay, back we go, back to our other podcasts. Thanks, Bim.
Bim: Thank you, Jen.
Jen: Woo. I loved that conversation. I don’t know if you can hear it, but could you hear my head nodding and nodding and nodding? Especially there at the end, when she said, “Let’s start listening more to the people for whom culture has stacked up the minuses.” I was like, Whoa. I’m really grateful for her time. Wasn’t she charming and interesting and smart and funny? I’ve got a link for those of you who want more information, everything Bim related, everything This American Life related we’ll have linked over. Go to jenhatmaker.com, underneath the podcast tab. Amanda’s set out for you every single link, which includes the entire transcript of our interview, plus pictures and bonus stuff, like definitely be using that resource.
Okay everybody, thanks for being here week in and week out, more to come in For the Love of Podcasts. Come back next week. See you then.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!