In December, The Cut on Tuesdays wrapped its final episode. The podcast was the first audio experiment of The Cut, a New York Media fashion and lifestyle publication, produced in collaboration with Gimlet Media.
Running for just over a year, The Cut on Tuesdays was anything but safe, with episodes covering topics like sexual assault, mental health, pubic hair, and how to quit your job. The way the podcast tackled taboo subjects was fearless, often injecting humor into women’s issues with wit and nuance.
It’s safe to say that this experiment was a success. The podcast was named one of the New York Times’ five great podcasts of 2018 and did not end its run for lack of listeners.
For Molly Fischer, stepping in as a host was something new. Now a full-time features writer at The Cut, Fischer is excited to step back into her writing roots but is armed with lessons from her adventure into podcasting.
Fischer chatted with Storybench to share her journey with The Cut on Tuesdays and what she learned through the process.
When did The Cut decide it wanted to do a podcast?
Molly Fischer: Gimlet had approached New York Media about the possibility of doing a podcast in conjunction with The Cut. I think it was spring 2018, and then I got involved around that summer. My first mic test was in June or July, and then it was August when it became my full-time job. We were going full steam ahead, getting ready to launch in mid-October.
We wanted to have six weeks where we were doing dry-run production, making and recording things as if we were producing the show and releasing it, except not releasing it. We had several months of big-picture talking about what we imagined wanting the show to sound like, what kind of voices and stories excited us, what kinds of things we wanted to be sure distinguished us from other shows out there, what aspects of The Cut we were most excited to translate into an audio format. By Labor Day or so, we had a list of the first handful of episodes we anticipated wanting to run for October through December of 2018. Of course, some of that came true, and some was subject to change. But I was rereading an interview (senior producer) Kimmie Reglar and I did. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the things Kimmie and I talked about very early on that ended up being born out of the show as it actually existed. It captures what we were thinking about in the show’s earliest days ended up being prophetic.
What did you learn about telling stories for audio?
In general, I had a ton to learn. I was very much learning on my feet. It is a totally different experience, having been an editor and a writer and done reporting for writing. It’s a totally different experience when you are A) trying to get the kind of material that will be compelling for audio purposes; and B) thinking about the kind of presence you will be as an interlocutor. I think about sometimes how often when I’m reporting for something I’m writing, a lot of what goes on on my end is not strictly trying to tease out particular stories or responses from the person I’m writing about who is sitting in front of me. You realize how much you do need to be thinking strictly in terms of what the person is saying and how explicit it often needs to be. You have to get the person to tell the story in such a way that you’ve got all the plot points as much as possible, and you’re not going to have to jump in and do too much explaining or scaffolding. We were comfortable on the show using plenty of writing at times, just because it was something we liked doing and had fun doing, but you’re making all these different calculations along the way. And working with a team of producers on the different interviews we were doing was such a luxury coming from a print and web background, having someone else who’s a voice in your ear, who’s making sure that you follow up or clarify things that need to be clarified.
Did you have any audio experience before joining the podcast?
No, not at all. I was lucky to have some friends in the field who talked me through some of it, but I did not have first-hand experience by any means.
Did working on The Cut on Tuesdays sway your favorite way to tell stories, or do you still consider yourself a writer first?
The reason we wrapped up the show is because I do feel I am, at the end of the day, a bit more of a reader than a listener and a writer more than a talker. But it feels really exciting to have this new skill set and also be bringing a new set of experiences to the work I’m doing now. I think when you’re working on a piece of audio journalism like this, you have to be so in tune to the experience that your audience is having in the moment: what is going to be confusing to them, what is exciting to them, what things might be jarring or boring. You are very aware throughout the editing process, refining the experience that you want to be giving them the journey you want to be taking them on. Turning to prose, I’m surprised by how much more attuned I feel or how much more exhaustively I’m inclined to tinker the things that manage what the reader is experiencing on that level.
Can you walk me through the creation of an episode and how you were involved in the inception of a story idea?
This may be a little roundabout, but I think a little roundabout is probably useful in illuminating the process as it tended to work for us. I don’t know if you’ve seen anything about the book Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. But Anna is a friend and I had read her book a long time ago. I was kind of like, okay, this book is going to be all over the place. I’m excited about it, other people will be excited about it, we should figure out something to do with Anna because Anna is bookable. We tended not to find that it was very interesting for us to do things that were straight-up promotional. It worked best when we could have a specific story or a specific angle or kind of an unexpected narrative way of approaching a person who we were interested in. The book was very much a coming-of-age story and has a lot to do with thinking through your relationship to your job and what it means to do work that is meaningful. And so I was like well, why don’t we do an episode about quitting your job? We could talk to Anna for that. So we talked to her, and we talked to a number of other friends about quitting jobs. And as we were working on the episode, we had a lot of tape we were excited about, a lot of fun conversations, a lot of things that felt personal and conversational and intimate in the ways that we liked our show to be.
But the structure of the episode was not hanging together the way it needed to be. It felt like even though Anna was the initial inception and was part of the initial concept for this episode, the interview we had done with her was throwing off the structure of the episode as it was coming together. So we decided to take the interview with her and cut it so that instead of being about quitting jobs it was about starting new jobs, and we made that the foundation for a follow-up episode about starting new jobs.
Those episodes were later in the season. Is that how you formulated most of the episodes?
That’s an extreme. But there’s been a lot of us thinking out loud as a group and in conversations with one another and trying to recast, reshape to figure out the right way into ideas and people and topics that interested us. That’s always been the case at The Cut as well. Something would start with a conversation in The Cut’s Slack chat room, and it’ll be a while before we figure out exactly who we want to assign the story to or how we want to frame the story or what the angles should be. But, you know, it arises organically through this collaborative, ongoing exchange of ideas.
Were there any guests you booked for the show that you thought you’d never be able to get?
Well, I think getting Elizabeth Warren felt like a coup for us for sure. We had said to Rebecca Traister that we would be very much interested in figuring out a way to have her and Elizabeth Warren in conversation on the podcast. And that was kind of a big, big goal we had set out for ourselves. And we weren’t sure if it would come to fruition. I think it was a useful example of using New York Magazine and The Cut and Gimlet’s strengths just because Rebecca Traister is a journalist who has tons of experience, who is super well-sourced and is plugged into this world and able to get someone like Elizabeth Warren to invite her into her house and sit down with her. Doing it via audio made it feel distinct and like you were experiencing Warren’s candidacy in a different way than you would reading a magazine profile.
Were there any episodes you wish you could go back and re-record?
I don’t know. I think I’m pretty self-critical and have a hard time stopping editing and tinkering with things. I have to just decide that when something’s done, it’s out the door.
Certainly, a learning curve for me was making sure that I was keeping my eye on the ball in terms of always getting the material we needed to tell the story effectively. I certainly can think of interviews where I could have executed them more skillfully, but I think, you know, water under the bridge.
What was it like working with the team at Gimlet?
I think that there was something really fruitful about hashing things out as a team that way, to get a real sense of what material we were most excited about, what things we found funniest, what things we found most moving, what things we found too annoying to include. That was nurtured by the process there.
This was really an exciting, successful experiment for us, and we love working together with Gimlet. Good feelings all around.
What is it like to say goodbye to The Cut on Tuesdays, and what do you hope the audience walks away with?
I’ve been blown away by the nice things we have heard from people and have been surprised and delighted by how much it seems like the show was able to become a part of people’s weeks and their lives. You know, it’s still startling to me to feel like you have that kind of intimate relationship with your audience, that they’re not just carving through some headlines and getting annoyed and screenshotting or whatever, but they’re sitting there with you and they’re here for a half-hour or 45 minutes at a time. And I’m going to miss that, and I’m going to miss our team. But we were all kind of experiencing it in a very high school graduation-ish way where everyone was moving on to other projects they were excited about.
And I should also certainly say that I am really pleased and proud of the show that we made, and I’m glad that we got the chance to make it. We were able to wrap it up as we did when the moment felt right, but then there will certainly be more audio offerings, more phone conversations, more voices of The Cut coming in audio form in the future. We will be back.