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A different way to approach a controversial podcast episode

Nicholas Quah’s latest entry in his “Hot Pod” newsletter addresses Radiolab’s recent decision to pull a controversial episode:

[The episode’s lack of context] was an unambiguously explosive mistake for Radiolab to make, but I’m further perturbed by the team’s decision to take down the segment completely as a response to the pushback. In an environment where taking back something is every bit as political — and politically charged — as putting something out in the first place, this may well be a case where Radiolab’s effort to limit its contribution to a damaging situation is one that fuels it even further.

There may be some value to following in the footsteps of This American Life, when that team faced a retraction in 2012 with “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” which turned out to be the work of fabrication. You can still easily find the original radio story online, most prominently in the Internet Archive, and This American Life keeps the original episode’s transcript hosted on its website. There, the move was to re-report and re-contextualize, and to produce an entirely new episode around the correction. That move remains, to my mind, the gold standard to fixing an error in judgment in any form for two reasons: it does not shirk from ownership over the mistake, and it repurposes the breakdown into an even more valuable opportunity to more aggressively contain the damage while delivering a sense of justice where it can. That said, there are some potentially meaningful differences: most notably, where This American Life’s retraction was spurred by errors of fact, Radiolab’s segment removal was spurred by errors of framing. That’s a big difference that might not change very much about the proposed solution, but it’s a difference to consider nonetheless.

A great, nuanced take on this topic. The only thing I’d add is that perhaps one reason Radiolab didn’t take the This American Life approach is that errors in tone are much more challenging to explain than errors in fact. Certainly I’d imagine they are more difficult to fashion an entirely new episode out of.

[Full disclosure: I am name-checked in the article as a “prolific podcaster.” I’ll take it as a compliment!]