PODCASTS can have any number of formats. They could be a collection of stories on a theme, like This American Life or Radiolab. They can be more similar to a kitchen table conversation like Thinking Sideways, a serialised investigation like Serial, or a radio play like The Leviathan Chronicles. Every format has its strengths and weaknesses; they are all designed to showcase different things, and create different atmospheres. Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, by Earwolf, is an example of how even the most simple format can be done spectacularly.
The premise is simple; the host, Chris Gethard, has a phone line where he receives calls from members of the general public. The caller can talk about whatever they want, and Chris cannot be the first to hang up, although the caller can hang up at any time, and the call automatically disconnects after one hour. The caller is also kept anonymous, and those who do reveal identifying information are bleeped out.
This format, with its deceptive complexity, seems so difficult to get right. There are all sorts of potential problems, mostly stemming from the high reliance on an unvetted member of the public, with no training or experience, being able to tell a compelling story; storytelling podcasts are usually done by professionals or skilled amateurs. Beautiful Stories departs from this by having faith not only in the ability of everyday people to tell their own story, but that the resulting story will be interesting and compelling, a faith which happily pays off many times over.
This payoff may be from the selection of stories, it may be that many calls are made and only the best are selected, but it’s hard to ignore the impact of Gethard’s skill as a host. Many stories start out well enough, but feel as though the initial topic chosen by the caller may not be interesting or have sufficient depth. However, through skilled conversation and questioning from the host the conversations often take new, interesting directions which even the caller may not have thought of before. This is where the podcast really shines; in the conversation we gain insight into the experiences of people who would usually never talk about them. These vary from an honest conversation with a man who wants to change the direction of his life, to an insight into life in the military and the experience of a woman who has made huge sacrifices to live her dream.
Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People is a compelling and fascinating example not only of how any format, no matter how simple, can result in an excellent podcast, but also of the stunning diversity of life. It serves to remind us that everyone is the product of a thousand stories and, no matter how average or uninteresting we may imagine someone to be, everyone contains a fascinating inner world, full of struggles and experiences different from our own. This celebration of even the aspects of life which seem mundane to callers is what makes Beautiful Stories special; enhanced by the enthusiasm of the host, it comes together to make something somewhat unique and highly enjoyable.
I thoroughly recommend giving beautiful stories from anonymous people a listen. It is available on Itunes and on its website here.