Ever wondered what it takes to produce an NPR or Gimlet-style narrative podcast? Well today, we’re about to find out.

Tight Lipped is a storytelling podcast that makes public what is often thought of as “private pain.” And in this episode of Wit & Wire, producers Hannah Barg and Noa Fleischacker are here to take us behind the scenes on their production process with their episode, “Did I Dream?” which was released in May 2020.

I’d always had a bucket list item to produce a narrative episode, and this 18-minute episode has been a massive labor of love.

Curious how long it took me to produce? Tune in to find out 🙂

In this episode, you’ll learn…

  • How Noa’s personal story inspired the idea for Tight Lipped
  • Why storytelling podcasts are so popular, and how they’re produced
  • How to think critically about your interviews to find the best sound bytes for your episodes
  • How to add narration to your episode, as well as scoring
  • What are the pros and cons to choosing a narrative format for your podcast?
  • How long does it take to produce one episode of a narrative show?

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NOTE: This podcast was transcribed with help from a free AI tool called Otter.ai. Please forgive any typos or errors.

Melissa Guller:
It was 2018, and none of Noa Fleischacker’s medical visits were going very well.

Noa Fleischacker (Voice Memo):
I could barely even do my physical therapy exercises this week, it was so painful.

Melissa Guller:
But on top of that, she was confused. It felt like none of her doctors really knew what was going on, so she started to confide in good friends like her former roommate, Hannah Barg.

Hannah Barg:
I was living in Israel at the time and Noa was living in Chicago. And the way that she would update me about what was happening with her progress was that she would send me voice memos.

Melissa Guller:
Here’s an example from April 30, 2018.

Noa Fleischacker (Voice Memo):
Anyway feels like part of the whole problem that every doctor and physical therapist and whoever that I meet has to base what they're doing off of anecdotes of other patients rather than off of actual clinical trials and like research that's been done.

Melissa Guller:
The kind of female chronic pain that Noa was experiencing is rarely talked about, but it turns out that it’s incredibly common. As in,10-28% of people with female anatomy experience female chronic pain in the United States.

Hannah Barg:
Essentially, once we figured out that there were names for these conditions, both Noa and I started talking to everyone we knew, or everyone we saw regularly.

And the responses we got from everyone was, “I have that” or “my best friend has that”. And it was pretty shocking to suddenly feel like everyone we knew was living with some sort of chronic or regular pain.

Melissa Guller:
And with so many stories coming to light, Hannah and Noa started to realize that they were on to something.

Hannah Barg:
Because I'm an audio producer, I was like, this is such a fascinating story. Noa’s going through it in this moment, like we should really record that. And because Noa’s a community organizer, she was like, “Wow, there are so many structural issues that play or we need to organize around it.” And that's really how Tight Lipped came to be.

Melissa Guller:
After months of research and recording, Tight Lipped launched in May 2019 as a storytelling podcast that makes public what is often thought of as “private pain.” Over the last year, they’ve heard from listeners around the world reaching out to share their own stories. Some have even admitted to breaking down in tears while listening. Because thanks to the stories they’re now hearing like Noa’s, for the first time, they don’t feel alone.

Melissa Guller:
Welcome to Wit & Wire, where we help people create podcasts that make an impact. I’m Melissa Guller, and today, we’re exploring the narrative (or storytelling) format by going behind-the-scenes on Tight Lipped’s recent episode called, “Did I Dream?” which was released in May 2020.

The idea for this episode stemmed from an interview that Hannah conducted with a woman named Lara Parker.

Lara Parker (from Tight Lipped interview):
I'm a writer and I work for Buzzfeed.com, the website. I live in Los Angeles and I have what I like to refer to as Vagina Problems

Melissa Guller:
Even before their interview began, Hannah already knew a lot about Lara because she’s a fairly public figure.

Hannah Barg:
We listened to some interviews she did on other podcasts. And then we also read articles that she wrote for BuzzFeed and watched videos that she made about this.

Melissa Guller:
And all of that research helped Hannah prepare for the interview, which lasted for about 60 minutes. Here’s one clip in particular from the raw recording that really stood out:

Lara Parker (Tight Lipped interview):
I ended up in the emergency room after passing out while running in college, in like student union center. And I mean, later what we found out was that we think I had an ovarian cyst burst but at the time, I just was overcome with like the worst abdominal pain I had ever experienced in my life

Melissa Guller:
Before we hear the rest of the clip, Noa noticed something important.

Noa Fleischacker:
One of the things I think that people also do when they're telling you the story is they're like, telling you what's happening then, but then also infusing what they know now. And it kind of ruins the whole story to at the beginning, say like, Oh, actually, it was an ovarian cyst, then she went to the hospital to try to find out what it was, like you can’t say that then.

Melissa Guller:
But in our everyday lives, it’s something we all naturally do. The more we retell our stories over the years, the more we add to them when we learn more information . But although that segment had to be cut, here’s the next part of the clip, part of which does end up in the final episode:

Lara Parker (Tight Lipped interview):
I like crawled to the women's bathroom, I was like screaming, vomiting, writhing in pain, delirious pain, started hyperventilating.

So I had like a first generation iPhone and I tried to open the lock screen with my finger but my hands were clenched up because I was hyperventilating, you know that happens sometimes when your hands you just can't move them, you lose the ability to move them.

Melissa Guller:
From there, Lara goes on to describe her trip to the emergency room in detail. As she was recovering, she took the prescription drugs advised by her doctors. But as the pain started to subside, she started questioning herself. And that’s when the Tight Lipped team started to notice a theme.

Noa Fleischacker:
She's like, “Wait, am I just being dramatic? Am I making it up? Was this real? Did this really happen to me?” This happens again and again in Lara's experiences and stories. And that's what the story was about was like, “What happens when you start to question yourself after being gaslit?”

Melissa Guller:
Medical gaslighting is the feeling when a healthcare provider makes you question your sanity, or if your symptoms are real at all. And after Lara’s interview, Noa and Hannah knew that this was the story that needed to be told. It was also already on their radar as an episode topic for season one.

Hannah Barg:
We decided that our whole first season was going to focus on doctor stories and what happens in a doctor’s office. And medical gaslighting is one of the most common things that we've heard from listeners from interviewees from stories we've read. So it's a very common phenomenon unfortunately.

Melissa Guller:
From there, the story about gaslighting really started to take shape. As they honed in on that story, Hannah and Noa realized that they had a ton of followup questions for Lara, so they did a second interview and ended up with 2 hours and 10 minutes of raw audio from just Lara’s story alone.

After those interviews, it was time to start scripting. Step one is to transcribe the interviews. From there, Hannah and Noa will go through the transcripts to highlight or bold the sections they find the most compelling, like the clip we just heard.

Hannah Barg:
Always when I write the first script, my instinct is to tell it in the same way that she told it. But then you realize, if you're giving away what the story's about at the top of the episode, why does anyone have any reason to keep listening, and you want to build a script and a story that's interesting enough, intriguing enough that it pulls the listener all the way through.

Melissa Guller:
It was becoming clear that restructuring is a huge part of storytelling, and with Tight Lipped, they spend a lot of thoughtful time figuring out what the overarching story arc should be, and how everything should unfold. And with this particular clip that we just heard from Lara’s interview, it was actually a huge challenge for the Tight Lipped team to figure out where it belonged.

Hannah Barg:
It was a really long discussion, and it took many drafts for us to figure out where to put this. Because this is not the beginning of Lara's story, nor is at the end of Lara's story. It's just like one really disturbing moment that she had in an Emergency Room with a doctor. So I think originally it was like in the middle of the episode. And we ended up moving it up to be the opening story, because it's so thought provoking. And she says so many powerful things about that moment that we thought that was the right place to start. But not all episodes or radio stories are told chronologically.

Melissa Guller:
In addition to the sequencing, you have to be really discerning about which clips make your final cut. You’ll have way more recorded content than you could ever use, and there’s a term Hannah used called “Killing your darlings.”

Hannah Barg:
It's cutting out a lot of lines that you think are really good or really powerful, but actually don't necessarily serve the story you're trying to tell.

Melissa Guller:
We actually heard a good example earlier, where Lara was really struggling to use her iPhone because her hands just weren’t working.

Hannah Barg:
So I really love that detail because it's so descriptive and you can really imagine Lara writhing in pain, not knowing what to do and needing to like unclench her fist in order to contact someone. And we kept it in for a long time because I really liked it. But ultimately, we realized, we're trying to do a lot with the Lara episode. And this is a place we can cut. This is a detail that we don't actually need.

Melissa Guller:
Another surprise may be just how little of the original audio ends up in the final cut. In this case, only about 10-15 minutes of Lara’s recordings end up in the final episode. And they’re all really short, punchy moments.

Hannah Barg:
Often we try to keep clips under like 30 seconds. Because people can’t pay attention, and it’s easy to lose interest.

Melissa Guller:
To keep those clips short, it means that a lot of plot actually moves into narration, and now that I can speak from experience producing even this short episode, I can attest that it takes a ton of work to get the balance between narration and inserts just right.

Noa Fleischacker:
Basically, every sentence in our draft is like, written and rewritten over and over, because we're trying to get the language as clear and succinct as possible. And so that often takes a lot of time and a lot of editing.

Melissa Guller:
And during their editing process, one of the Tight Lipped editors had an idea for a really creative way to explain the origin of the term “gaslighting.” Here, let me play you a short clip from the finished episode, which actually starts with a brief movie scene:

Tight Lipped, Episode 4, “Did I Dream?”

Gaslight:
Paula: Did I dream? Did I really, really dream?
Gregory: Yes, Paula. You dreamed it, you dreamed all day long.

Noa Fleischacker:
That’s the 1944 film - Gaslight - based on a play by Patrick Hamilton. In the story, Gregory is trying to isolate and confuse his wife, Paula. He turns the gas lights in the house on and off -- and then insists that she’s imagining it.

Gaslight:
Paula: Are you telling me that I dreamed? All that did not happen?
Gregory: All that did not happen.

Melissa Guller:
Did you notice the scoring in that clip, too? Hannah does all of the scoring and song selections for Tight Lipped, and she shared that scoring is used in three main ways: to highlight key points, to help scenes transition, or to add punctuation. For example, in the opening scene with Lara’s ER visit, Hannah found a song that would highlight Lara’s emotions.

Hannah Barg:
The tone and the beat of it, is sort of like getting faster and like building tension about what's happening. It sort of feels like a bomb that's ticking and is about to go off. And then the music cuts out when she's in the hospital. And it’s actually to highlight the moment where it says “Mind you” in the quote, and then the music cuts out and Lara says, “Literally…”

Lara Parker (Tight Lipped episode):
Literally told me to just like take ibuprofen next time.

Melissa Guller:
To really feel the impact, let’s listen to the opening scene from Tight Lipped’s finished episode, called “Did I Dream?” which you’ll now recognize as a reference to the movie Gaslight.

Tight Lipped, Episode 4, “Did I Dream?”

Noa Fleischacker: When Lara Parker was in college, she went out on a run. Suddenly she doubled over. It felt like someone was ripping her open, from the inside out.

Lara Parker: I just was overcome with like the worst abdominal pain I had ever experienced in my life, I like crawled into the women’s bathroom, I was like screaming, vomiting, like writhing in pain, delirious pain, started hyperventilating.

Noa Fleischacker: Somehow, she managed to reach a friend who called an ambulance.

Lara Parker: The doctor at the ER after I arrived in an ambulance, mind you, literally just told me to just like take ibuprofen next time.

Melissa Guller:
I wish I could play you the full episode, but for now, did you notice how much of the original interview became narration? For example, in the original, it’s Lara who says, “I went for a run.” But in the finished cut, it’s Noa who tells us that Lara was out running when the pain hit. And did you hear the tension in the scoring that Hannah talked about? There’s a lot of nuance that goes into not just song selection, but the timing, too.

Hannah Barg:
Something I've learned is you want to have like an adequate amount of silence between scoring as well. So then we have a whole section here where it's silent where Lara is starting to understand what is happening to her. And the music enters again when we get to the next sort of aha moment for Lara where she starts to question herself.

Melissa Guller:
I do hope you’ll take the time to listen to the finished scene and to the complete episode, which you can find a link for in the show notes. Because remember, so far we’ve only heard maybe 30 seconds of the 32 minute episode. And Lara’s voice is far from the only one in the final cut.

Noa Fleischacker:
So there's Lara, who she's the main subject of that episode. There's me, I'm hosting. And then there's this clip from the movie Gaslight. So that's kind of its own voice.

Melissa Guller:
Noa goes on to list 3 experts and a total of maybe 10-12 voices that appear in just this episode, including a selection of very short voice memos collected from their community that appear near the end as a voice montage. Tight Lipped uses this strategy in almost every episode as a way to reinforce how common these issues are.

Now thinking about all 12 voices and how much I’d already learned about production, at this point, I had to know how long this whole thing took. And when I asked Noa and Hannah about their average episode production time, from start to finish, here was their reaction.

[Laughter]

Hannah Barg:
So we had the first interview with Lara in November. And just creating a draft like it takes hours to edit the actual like written script. And then it also takes hours to build the audio draft. And then we do it like 15 times. So it takes us a while before we start to realize like exactly how we want to tell the story. I would say the first few drafts of every episode we know that’s not how it’s going to be, ultimately. But we have to start somewhere.

Melissa Guller:
With a narrative episode, or any project, really, I think it’s important to just start, because it’s much easier to edit than it is to start from scratch. And obviously everyone’s process is different, and the amount of time and money you have will make a huge difference, but for Noa and Hannah, all of their thoughtful work has been worth it. Especially when they get to read the reviews and hear from members of their community who finally feel understood.

Tight Lipped Testimonial:
“Listening to this podcast felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. There is something about hearing another voice articulate what you’ve been experiencing that truly makes you feel less isolated.”

Melissa Guller:
Since their launch in May 2019, Tight Lipped has put out 4 great episodes, which breaks down to about three months per episode. And before we wrapped our interview, I had to ask. What else is the Tight Lipped team up to next?

Noa Fleischacker:
One of the big things that we're working on right now is making sure that the future episodes actually dig into the way that medical racism plays into how people are diagnosed and really expanding the voices that we're hearing from.

Melissa Guller:
And ultimately, this is about so much more than just a podcast.

Noa Fleischacker:
I really think of the podcast as a tool for this organizing project that we’re working on. Ideally what that looks like is around addressing the research gap, the fact that these conditions are majorly under researched and underfunded. The stigma and shame surrounding these conditions, all these kind of much bigger cultural, social, medical issues.

Melissa Guller:
And in the end, what is it really about storytelling (or narrative) podcasts that makes them so special?

Hannah Barg:
I think the reason I love storytelling podcasts and the reason I find them to be powerful is because it allows you to connect with and empathize with a person that you don't know, but also might be able to connect with in a lot of ways.

Melissa Guller:
And although it takes a ton of work, and most likely a small village, the benefits to producing a narrative podcast are huge. So if you are considering producing your own narrative show, I hope this experience with Tight Lipped has helped you understand a little bit more about the process.

Based on my own experience producing this episode, I can certainly say without question that it’s been the most time-intensive episode I’ve ever hosted or produced out of the 100 plus episodes in my career so far.

But truthfully, it’s also been the most creative, and in a lot of ways, the most interesting. And in case you’re wondering how long my episode took, the answer is 28 hours over the course of 6 weeks, and two boxes of Thin Mints.

Melissa Guller:
To listen to the full episode of Tight Lipped called, “Did I Dream?” visit tightlippedpod.com, or check out the link in our show notes right here in this episode of Wit & Wire. You can also follow them on Instagram @tightlippedpod where they share incredible content and resources.

If you enjoyed this episode, I hope you’ll subscribe and then recommend this episode to a friend by sharing the URL witandwire.com/tightlippedpod. At Wit & Wire we’re more than just a podcast; I’m on a mission to help more diverse podcasters create and launch great shows, so if you want to check out our online courses, or if you know someone who has been thinking about starting a podcast, send them over to witandwire.com to check it out.

This episode was hosted, produced, and edited by me, Melissa Guller, from Wit & Wire. The music you hear is from Blue Dot Sessions, which is Hannah’s favorite place to find music for Tight Lipped. And special thanks to Hannah Barg and Noa Fleischacker for not only participating in interviews, but for also providing a wealth of knowledge and support during the production process. I’m so grateful.

And thank you, of course, to you, listeners. Your reviews and support of Wit & Wire mean the world to me.

I’ll see you next time, podcasters.

Podcast spotlight: Tight Lipped

“Tight Lipped is a storytelling podcast that makes public what is often thought of as ‘private pain.’ We ask big questions about female chronic pain. We explore how gender, race, sexual orientation and class impact women and non-binary folks’ experiences of healthcare and of their own bodies. Our show focuses on conditions that are extremely common (like vestibulodynia, vaginismus and endometriosis), yet carry with them a social stigma and often impact mental health, identity and intimate relationships.”

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Hey! I'm Melissa, the founder of Wit & Wire. My podcasts have reached thousands of listeners and hit six-figure downloads, and I also hit the charts as the #2 Career Podcast in America for Everything is Teachable.

It’s my passion for teaching that brought me to start a podcast in the first place, and I founded Wit & Wire to help more passionate, diverse creators like you expand their impact and income through podcasting.