The 76th Annual Peabody Awards Finalists were celebrated on May 20, 2017. We caught up with Northwestern Professor and MA in Sound Arts and Industries Associate Director Neil Verma to chat about the 2016 honorees, including some of the year’s most powerful audio stories.
A: Well, first of all, the Peabodys are primarily for broadcasting, although the meaning of broadcasting has been evolving. The Peabodys take their slogan “Stories that matter” seriously – they believe in lifting up work that is excellent and also has something to say about contemporary society. I think it matters that [the Peabodys] are located at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia – as an academic award system, the Peabodys draw on actual faculty for input and judging.
Q: Recently, the Peabodys adjusted their system for making selections. What do you know about how the process has changed?
A: While they tend to divide their awards among documentaries, news, children’s programming, TV series and radio programs, for a long time there was no fixed allocation system in terms of categories and the number of awards. Instead, the board simply selected the most meritorious works. Recently this has changed. Now the system is to select 60 finalists, then winnow this down to the top 30, which is now called the “Peabody 30.” This system is still interestingly flexible. This year, for instance, Beyonce’s Lemonade album/video was a winner, and that’s something that crosses a number of media platforms all at once.
Q: The Peabody Awards focus on the art of storytelling. What aspects of sound industries can contribute to excellent storytelling?
A: Recent winners in the podcast category show expert use of editing, music and recording technique. It’s no longer the case that good writing alone can carry a podcast or radio show, although the award still focuses on expert reporting.
Q: Among the selections in the Radio/Podcast category for this year was In the Dark. What do you know about this podcast?
A: In the Dark is interesting because it picks up where Serial left off, working a true crime case, but doing so in a way that addresses many of the concerns that professional radio reporters had with the earlier program. Rather than focusing on an individual, it takes on a systematic problem in the procedures of investigation in a specific 27-year old case. What was wonderful about the first season of Serial was its uncertainty of focus – the story was always going in so many directions. What’s wonderful about In the Dark is its powerful and clear sense of focus and order. The Peabody Awards can reward both types of production, and that’s a testament to their flexibility.
Q: Can you talk a little about the significance of another story the Peabodys recognized this year, The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel?
A: Mars Patel matters because it is the first “audio drama” to win a Peabody Award. The show is a children’s serial program about a set of mysterious disappearances at an elementary school, and the acting is first rate. It’s a fantastically well scored and designed program that can draw children into this medium for the first time.
Q: What do this year’s recognized works tell you about the greater radio/podcast industry and sound industries in general?
A: Looking at the long list on the radio works, what strikes me is the disappearing line between work that was “born podcast” and work that was “born radio.” That distinction is becoming less and less clear. The rise of audio drama is another development – along with Mars Patel, Gimlet Media’s Homecoming was another landmark piece, probably the most important audio serial since Limetown in 2014. For me, the Silent Evidence series by The Heart was a bracing and powerful series. That program is consistently one of the bravest podcasts out there, and it’s nice to see its work represented in the list.
Q: Big picture, how can sound industries benefit from earning recognition from the Peabody Awards and other mainstream awards programs?
A: Looking at the radio categories, you see some well-known production outfits represented (This American Life, NPR and several radio stations), but you also see newer podcasting shops (Gimlet, Panoply) and true independent producers as well (Transom, AIR, Radiotopia). It’s exciting to see the blend of entities working in this space, but there is a lot more work to do to bring in novices and outsiders. Podcasting is getting much better, but maybe too predictable.