For many, investigative journalism was their gateway to podcasts, with shows like Serial. Now, as the popularity of the medium grows, new programmes breathe life into the genre by exploring topics at the heart of some of today’s most crucial issues. Nice White Parents, a limited series on segregation within the New York City public school system, digs deep through archival documents and audio to confront us with a historical narrative all too poignant as American schools prepare to return – or not – to session this coming fall. We spoke via email to reporter Chana Joffe-Walt to ask about the development of the show, and the research that brought it to life.
POD BIBLE: At a time in America’s history when discussions of racism are at the core of so many topics – politics, health care, gender and sexuality, employment – how did education come to the forefront as the area you wanted to explore?
Chana Joffe-Walt: I’ve always been personally moved by the ideal of public education, and as a reporter the reality of public schools is very rich! Schools are a great reflection of the larger society. All of the big dramas and tensions of the country can be found playing out in real time in schools. The stakes are enormous because each child gets only one education.
PB: With a country as geographically massive as the U.S., how do you tell what is really a national story without making it hundreds of hours long and including every city in America? How can narrowing your scope assist you in tell a wider story?
CJW: I don’t really set out to find a story that will represent The Story of American Schooling. I just try to find a situation with people and tensions that I find compelling. I want the story to feel specific, but hopefully speak to some larger themes. In this case, I was interested in school segregation, which is a national phenomenon but can feel abstract when talked about on a national scale. New York City, where I live, is an excellent setting because it has some of the most segregated schools in the country. I think what actually makes this story feel like it speaks to larger themes is that it is not just a portrait of present day but the entire history of one school. As reporters we draw conclusions from an examination of a particular moment in time in American schools. I’d never seen all those different moments in a school’s history told as one story. I think it’s a different and useful way to understand a bigger picture of public education.
PB: How did you develop the name of the podcast? Do names get workshopped based on how people respond to them, what the language calls to mind, etc?
CJW: We tried a lot of different titles. For a while we were leaning towards a title that emphasized the repetition of history you can see when you lay out the history of a school. “The Story of the Story of IS 293” was one we liked for a little while. But we kept coming back to something that explicitly focused attention on white parents. The more the series was edited and focused, it was clear that what was notable here was the disproportionate power white parents have in public schools. It’s something that is rarely discussed, but is shaping our public education system all the time. It felt valuable to hang a lantern on that and say this is worth looking at.
PB: Once you decided to create Nice White Parents, did you find anything surprising in your research regarding the audio?
CJW: I really appreciated the conversation with one of the parents who wrote letters in 1963, Elaine. She was self-reflective, honest and generously willing to interrogate her own choices. There is a lot of defensiveness around these issues. I learned so much from speaking with someone who was genuinely willing to question herself and be honest about how difficult that is to look at yourself, what you believe in and the choices you actually make.
PB: Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating the audio experience of Nice White Parents? How do you find the right balance of soundscape, scripted narration, archival sound, and interviews?
CJW: I worked with an incredible editor, Julie Snyder, who was constantly trying to make sure there was a narrative and conceptual thru-line to carry you through all five episodes. The hardest challenge we had in terms of sound was figuring out a way to make a historical story feel emotional. We invested a lot of time into finding archival footage to help those episodes feel human and intimate. I discovered I really like archival research!
PB: If so, What are the working relationships with producers and engineers like for this programme, and how important are those collaborations to Nice White Parents as a finished product for podcast listeners to enjoy?
CJW: Yes. Every person I work with is incredibly talented. I am not saying that because I have to. It is weirdly true. The editors, production, fact checking and managerial team are all exceptionally competent at what they do and also good at at least four other things that are not their job.
PB: Can you tell us about the archivists and researchers you worked with in creating this podcast? Many of our readers, both fans and creators themselves, don’t realize that the archives of audio and information they are able to use to create content has to be curated by someone.
CJW: Sure! Early on, an education historian named Rachel Lissy took me on a “field trip” to the Board of Education archives in New York. She showed me how to navigate all the boxes and her enthusiasm for the hunt was contagious. I went there many times. We worked with another education researcher named Francine Almash. And we also hired an archival producer named Rebecca Kent who helped us go through news footage to find stuff that was personal and not too generic. I relied a lot on the guidance of scholars who do this kind of work all the time to find things that were specific to the school and its story. It’s really hard to know where to look. There are so many small collections that have great stuff. It’s time consuming but every so often you find something really exciting so it’s hard to stop.
Nice White Parents is a limited series from Serial Productions. You can find the series on Spotify, and everywhere you enjoy well-researched audio goodness.