What Makes a Good Podcast Episode?
Stories about urban legends are at their best when there are real people at their center.
by Brian Dunning
September 5, 2017
Today I want to offer listeners a special treat. A lot of times I'm asked which ones are my personal favorite episodes. Are they the ones with the craziest stories? The wackiest conspiracies or alt-med schemes? The ones with the most surprising science outcomes? In short, no. Stories are adventures that happen to people, and science is a process followed by people. Crazy schemes are contrived by curious people. Our greatest urban legends were invented and perpetuated by people who had some reason for doing so. My favorite episodes can't really be described by the type or magnitude of the event, the claim, or the story; but rather by the people in those stories. Today we're going to look at how some ordinary people became involved in extraordinary circumstances, and how their humanity brought their stories alive.
The main lesson I've learned about science communication from doing a decade of Skeptoid is that entertaining stories in which the science is applied is the way the general public prefers to learn, and what makes a story entertaining is the human interest angle. So it should be no surprise that Skeptoid episodes in which the human interest is most profound generally turn out to be the ones that elicit the most positive listener responses.
Often this human interest is found where one least expects it. My personal favorite example is episode 241 about a famous UFO story that claims a small town cemetery in Aurora, TX contains the buried remains of an actual alien whose ship crashed there in 1897. This story has been told on TV shows such as UFO Files and UFO Hunters in 2005 and 2008, all stemming from a major investigation of the site in 1973 by the large international UFOlogy group MUFON. They prepared a 199-page report concluding the story was true. The town wouldn't let them dig in the graveyard so they found no body, but they did extensive metallurgical tests of scraps found at the reported crash site.
The shocking thing was that the true version of this story was right under their noses, yet ignored. In 1897, Aurora had been declining since 1890, due to a triple-whammy of devastation from a blight that destroyed its cotton industry, two epidemics that killed many of its citizens, and finally a fire that wiped out what little of its main street had remained. Two old men, Proctor and Haydon, lifelong friends who had lost their families to the epidemics, were among the few lonely survivors who stayed, having nowhere else to go. Their one remaining amusement was to run their own local newspaper, which had virtually no readers. The rest of Texas was enjoying a popular joke of inventing and publishing wild tales to satirize a series of famous hot air balloon flights over the state. Proctor and Haydon added their own version, turning the balloon into an alien spaceship and giving a comical account of its crash through the town. The April 19, 1897 edition of the Dallas Morning News picked up their local story and included it on a full-page feature of the editors' sixteen favorite satires on the balloon craze. It was this obvious joke page that the 1973 UFO researchers somehow managed to conclude represented actual news reports.
I found that Proctor and Haydon's actual story was both tragic and poignant. They'd lost their families, their fortunes, everything; and I love to imagine them toasting the success of their satire as the only two customers in Aurora's only diner, having made some hard times a little bit easier. Given this context, the fact that UFO hunters took this as a serious event — and ran metal detectors around and did tests — isn't just mind-numbingly silly, it's actually sad.
I find this theme over and over again: an actual human tragedy exploited by cranks to try and prove their pet pseudoscience. Episode 385 was about Frederick Valentich, an Australian teen who died when he crashed his small plane offshore at dusk in 1978. The only thing known about the circumstances is that he was circling and reporting a UFO, and so it's been claimed by UFO proponents that he and his plane must have been abducted and whisked off into space, and it's the strongest proof of alien visitation yet. But the truth was much more human. Valentich, like many young lads, had always been fascinated with UFOs. He had just recently seen the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a read of his radio transcript reveals that he was re-enacting the famous air traffic control scene from that movie, where controllers talk with commercial airplanes beset by alien spacecraft. Such a gag on controllers was not a wise thing for any pilot to do, but he was a teenager who loved to fly and loved his UFOs. Sometimes teenagers do silly things, because they are passionate about the things they love. And while he was enjoying his gag and circling his plane at dusk over the ocean, he did exactly what investigators found he did: became unwittingly caught in a condition called spatial disorientation, which is sadly a death sentence for almost all pilots that it happens to. There are lessons in Valentich's death, but there's even a little bit of joyful insight into who he was. To me, that's the story that matters, not the embarrassing claim that he was taken to another planet.
Not all of the characters we've uncovered have been especially admirable, but even the unsavory types often do what they do for very human reasons and it helps us to better understand them. Roger Patterson was one such character, profiled in episode 375 about the famous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967 showing a Bigfoot striding purposefully across a forest clearing and iconically turning to look over its shoulder into the camera. Thanks to investigative journalists like Greg Long, we now have a fairly complete history of Patterson's execution of the hoax, and no reasonable possibility remains that the film might be authentic. A picture emerged of a man about as dislikable as could be. Dishonest, untrustworthy, rude, lazy; a petty thief, a breaker of promises, a scorner of contracts. And of course, the creator of a fraudulent film that fooled millions and lined his pockets. What are we supposed to empathize with here?
Alone among his crew, Patterson knew that he was dying of cancer, and that he and his wife hadn't a penny to their name. He took on her brother as a partner he knew could be trusted after his death, and formed Bigfoot Enterprises to promote the film and cash in on licensing fees. It was the one successful venture in his life, and the most important, as it provided for his soon-to-be-widowed wife. For once, Patterson planned something well and executed through to the end. His plan included breaking contracts and stealing intellectual property and not paying for rented camera equipment, but it worked, and his wife did live comfortably after he died. His story was of a desperate anti-hero, and it's the human interest angle that is by far the most interesting part of this particular Bigfoot hoax.
Episode 511 was about the 1993 destruction by fire of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX, which conspiracy theorists charged was set deliberately by the FBI to murder everyone inside. Well, this particularly distasteful conspiracy theory was done away with in the episode, and the real drama here was about the 46 children involved. Ignoring the vitriolic claims of the conspiracy mongers, the FBI spent six weeks camped outside the compound, knowing that the apocalypse cult inside planned to all die one way or another, taking all 46 children with them if they could. In the end they managed to get only 21 of them out, most of whom the FBI "bought" by giving radio time to cult leader David Koresh to ramble. Buying innocent children from a murderer intent on killing them is about as dramatic as a story can get. And to underscore just how real that situation was, the 25 whom the FBI were unable to buy were all either shot, stabbed, or burned to death by the cult members. Yet the popular tellings of this story neglect that unimaginable drama, and instead focus on paranoid, political conspiracy mongering. I ended the episode with a description of the 21 survivors who watched the fire kill their families on a television at a nearby Methodist Children's Home. It was a heart-rending scene, and I felt it was important to end it that way, to keep the attention where it belonged.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that I broke down a lot recording the end of that show, and had to do plenty of editing. To me that's the sign of a good show. If it's real and impactful to me, it will be the same to the listeners.
Another such moment was episode 213 about the Amadeus version of history that says Salieri murdered Mozart. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact. Writing the end of that episode, I read the personal accounts of some who were at Mozart's interment, one written very matter-of-factly, another with great emotion. As one of his closest friends, Salieri was among the very few mourners who made it all the way to the cemetery gates, as far as they were permitted. They tarried for a time on a bitterly cold but clear morning, until finally repairing as a group to Mozart's favorite pub. It was another case where the modern version of the story is a stupid little conspiracy theory, obscuring what was in fact a moment in time of sadness shared by close friends.
Many of the subjects that we cover on Skeptoid are kind of the opposite; rather than being stories about interesting people, they are stories created by people, some of whom can tend toward the "unusual" end of the spectrum — they make up weird stories, often with honest belief in them, and promote them aggressively, sometimes creating whole subcultures of followers. In fact there have been quite a lot of these. I'll mention just one: Betty Hill, famous as one half of Betty and Barney Hill, the couple who basically invented the "alien abduction" phenomenon in 1961. While it's common for UFOlogists to squabble over details of their story, many take it at face value as a literal, factual account. In fact the true story here has nothing to do with their 1961 abduction, or with any of the other numerous alien encounters Betty Hill claimed over her lifetime; rather she herself was the story. She was probably schizophrenic. For the whole of her recorded lifetime, Betty demonstrated an inability to distinguish between reality and imagination. She could look at the sky and believe she was seeing fleets of flying saucers at any time; she even said more than once that she communed with aliens on a daily basis. Given her state of mind, the outrageousness of the famous abduction episode suddenly becomes believable and fits right in with what we'd expect someone in her condition to come up with. I didn't go into this very deeply in the episode, but if I were to do it again, I would. You're never going to understand any urban legend, conspiracy theory, alternative medicine scheme, or paranormal claim until you understand the people behind it.
Anyway, that's the process I've used so far, and it is what has worked for me. And now that you understand me a little bit better as a person, maybe you'll find there is a bit more you can draw from each show.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "What Makes a Good Podcast Episode?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
5 Sep 2017. Web.
17 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4587>
References & Further Reading
Colloff, P. "The Fire That Time." Texas Monthly Magazine. Texas Monthly, 1 Apr. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-fire-that-time/>
Cowan, G. "The Last Flight of Frederick Valentich." The Skeptic. 1 Dec. 2009, Volume 29, Number 4: 26-30.
Long, G. The Making of Bigfoot: The Inside Story. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 2004.
Nickell, J. "Betty Hill, First Alien Abductee, Dies." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jan. 2005, Volume 29, Number 1: 9-11.
Porterfield, B. A Loose Herd of Texans. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978. 174-184.
Texas Almanac. "When Airships Invaded Texas!" Early Balloons in Texas. Lloyd Cates, 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 11 Jan. 2011. <http://lloydcates.squarespace.com/early-balloons-in-texas/>
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