Al Letson has a long and impressive list of occupations: playwright, poet, investigative journalist, and producer among them. Since 2013, he’s been the host of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. At the recent AFAR Travel Tales, a special event series with The Moth, he wore his storytelling hat—recounting an adventure in Malawi.
After his performance, Letson shared some thoughts with us on the art of storytelling and why podcasts are having their moment.
What first drew you to the worlds of radio and podcasts?
Chance, fate? You can choose based on your beliefs. One day I saw an ad for the Public Radio Talent Quest. It sort of sounded like it was NPR’s version of American Idol. I loved NPR and figured it was a competition to find a new folk singing talent. It turns out they were looking for new hosts, shows, and ideas. I applied and won. Ten years later, here I am.
What are some ingredients of a compelling spoken story? Are they different from the elements of a compelling written story?
I think the ingredients are the same; character—beginning, middle, and end—and some friction. I think the difference is how you tell it. People can’t hold on to numbers, and certain other sorts of details, when they hear a story the same way they can when they read it. So you have to build pictures with words that your listeners can inhabit, and still get across the same info.
Why do you think there has been such an explosion of interest in podcasts in recent years?
I think podcasting is one of the most intimate forms of storytelling. Usually when we listen to podcasts we are listening on headphones, or in the car. Most people also listen to them alone. A good podcaster takes advantage of that. When I’m hosting a podcast, I know that I am talking directly to you. That intimacy creates a connection that I think is hard to replicate.
What podcasts do you find most exciting today, either ones you are involved with or not?
Well I have to talk about my podcasts, “Reveal” and “Errthang.” They are really different shows, but I love doing both of them. Of course, The Moth is a favorite cause I’m a sucker for live storytelling. “In the Dark Season 2” is amazing. I also love “The Daily” and “Today Explained.”
Do you think there are ways in which travel stories are especially suited to The Moth format?
Definitely, travel stories are a journey. The best aren’t just about the external travel but the internal trek that the traveler is on.
What current projects are you working on?
Too many to list them all. I’m developing a TV show, working on a few comic books, finishing a new solo play, and working on some new podcast episodes.
Where did you travel on your latest trip and where are you headed next?
My last trip was to Paris (I love Paris!) while my next trip will be to Thailand or maybe Australia. I haven’t decided yet.
Listen to first-person accounts of life-changing travel experiences in a travel podcast series by The Moth at afar.com/traveltales.