Aim For the Heart
Where should we, as interviewers, aim our curiosity?
As renowned journalist Cal Fussman puts it: "Aim for the heart, not the head. Once you get the heart, you can go to the head. Once you get the heart and the head, then you'll have a pathway to the soul."
If your aim is steady, doors previously locked in the interviewee’s heart creak open.
And if your aim is true—with mutual trust and curiosity melding together into a connection with the heart, mind, and soul—you may find that dark, uncharted hallways materialize.
Flashlights in hand, you can step together into the unknown.
Signal Flow: Catherine Saint Louis
Industry game changers and valiant minds from creative professions share their wisdom, adversities, and paths to innovation.
Catherine Saint Louis, Executive Editor of Podcasts at Neon Hum
Catherine Saint Louis is the Executive Editor at Neon Hum Media, a podcast production company. She helps oversee The Binge, Sony Music Entertainment’s limited-run subscription offering, with a new podcast out on the first of every month. She spent 18 years at the New York Times as a reporter and editor. She joined Neon Hum in 2018 and has since edited limited-run podcasts such as My Fugitive Dad, Betrayal on the Bayou, Sympathy Pains, Fake Priest, and The Sellout. The next podcast she edited drops in February: Hello John Doe: A Sleuth, A Family and A Serial Killer. Catherine started Neon Hum's Editors' Bootcamp with support from Sony Music's social and racial justice fund. You can find her at @cslwrites on X and @cslspeaks on Instagram.
I’m a story editor, but what that really means is I’m the person worrying about the story. I worry about the outline, the facts, the twists and turns, where we reveal what, how characters develop over an arc, how the whole story develops over an arc, where the cliffhangers are.
A story editor is kind of like a showrunner, but they also have to keep themselves at a distance. They need to be the listener’s advocate.
It's my job to constantly worry about why somebody might stop listening. What can we do to make people remain engaged? What can we do to make the stakes clearer? What can we do to make this character more interesting and nuanced?
I dare say that if they could make Walter White engaging in Breaking Bad, if you could truly fall for a guy who makes meth, lies to his wife and children, and is a killer by the end—if you can still like that guy, then the storytellers are doing their job.
Subtle tweaks are what get people behind someone for a long time in a podcast. Like the antihero of Betrayal on the Bayou. He has a lot of issues. Some of his victims call him the white devil. He’s a cop, he's not necessarily likable. But he has this ability to work cases to the bone and get anyone to talk to him. His name is written on prison walls because people were like, if you're in trouble, call Chad Scott. He's going to pick up the phone. If you call him at lunch, he's going to pick up. If you call him in the middle of sex, he’s going to pick up. He’s going to come through for the people who call him, and that makes him likable. Even though he spent a very long time at the DEA cutting corners and really sticking it to people of color.
There are so many different kinds of podcasts and I happen to specialize in what I think is its own distinct art form. Just like a novelist would never presume to tell a short story writer how to do their work, or a novelist would never presume to be able to write a poem very well, I think the limited-run narrative series is a very distinct thing. I think those podcasts have more in common with a limited-run show on HBO, like Mare of Easttown. Although that’s pure fiction and I’m working with nonfiction and reporting.
What really helped me in my job is I had a whole life as a reporter and an editor at the New York Times for 18 years before I transitioned to podcasting.
I like to start the writing process with an extremely clear, detailed outline that breaks out scene by scene, episode by episode, when we will reveal what. And as a team, we move those bits around and having conversations that help us understand how our story operates, what is best for the story, and what we're aiming to make.
You need to figure out the facts before you can figure out the story.
Another important piece of the process is a living document that you update with new reporting as it’s happening. In this latest show called Hello John Doe, big things happened in our reporting that exploded dreams we had. What we envisioned was no longer an option. And then we go back and we re-outline those three episodes and then re-outline them again, and then go to the client and say, “Does this feel like it could work?” And then you try it, and you see if it works. And you pray the ending you fashioned can come to life.
If you can’t answer the question of why you're telling the story, you're screwed. If you can’t say in two sentences what the podcast is about and why it’s important to tell now, and you can't imagine a random person on the street being at least halfway interested, it’s over before it started.
The stories that work best are the ones where people can see why they should care.
A good example of that is the first six or so minutes of Believe Her from Lemonada. They’re speaking to people who have heard many, many stories about domestic violence. And then they say, but have you ever wondered why you haven't heard this other story? That other story is the story we are going to tell you. It's just so urgent, the way they put it. It feels so novel and fresh. You’re like, I’m in, I have to hear this person's story.
You make a podcast differently if you spend every waking moment worrying you're going to lose listeners. I’d argue that the best makers and the best journalists and the best podcasters are professional worriers.
I think it's really important to not only tell a composer what your podcast is, but also what it isn't. And then from there, have a conversation where someone like Matt McGinley, who we worked with on My Fugitive Dad, can ask us questions about the podcast that will inform how he starts to think about the music he wants to make.
When it comes to music, you always start with a theme. You’ve got to get the theme right before you can move on to anything else. And I mean, honestly, Matt is unique, because Matt would nail a music cue in like one or two passes. It’s shocking how many version 2’s we used with Matt. There are few people who can do that.
On the editorial side, we worked very hard to create what the show is, that's why we have 14 versions of episode one. So I can only imagine how difficult it is for composers to be like, “Oh, I talked to this random editor, Catherine, and she seemed really excited. I haven't listened to any of the actual scratch tracks. And now I’m supposed to imagine this world sonically in my head and give birth to it.” It's very difficult.
Nikole Hannah-Jones has a great talk from the Third Coast International Audio Festival. I urge everyone to listen to it. It’s about the fact that you can have the most interesting, high-minded, well-intentioned story, like she had with modern-day segregation in schools. But if you don't understand that most people are going to come to it being like, I went to high school, I know everything there is to know about this topic, then you’ll miss out on a lot of listeners. You need to understand how hard you have to work to make the case for people to dedicate time from their day to listen.