Windows, Not Mirrors: an update on our Journalism program's podcast, Doubletake

Posted by Clara Harney on 10/4/22 4:29 PM

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Organ harvesting, clean comedy, and North Korea; these topics seem to have nothing in common, and the truth is, they don't. But on the new Doubletake podcast, produced by Dr. Les Sillars and 10 Patrick Henry College students, these topics have one important element in common: a good story

For around 10 years, Sillars has listened to podcasts as a way to pass time while driving or running. But a few years ago, he caught himself wondering, "Hey, maybe I could do one of those!" It sounded like fun. So, during the spring of 2020, he pitched a longform podcast idea to WORLD News Group. The resulting two-part miniseries about "Free North Korea Radio" was not as difficult to craft as he had expected.

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He went back to WORLD in 2021. "I'd like to try a series. What do you think?" And so, though it was nameless and shapeless, what would become the Doubletake podcast was born. 

Over the next year and a half, the Doubletake team worked hundreds of hours to develop and produce a podcast that is reaching thousands and thousands of listeners. "I think WORLD has been very happy with the results, and I'm thrilled," Sillars said. "It's exceeded my expectations." 

Doubletake is "journalism plus storytelling, informed by a biblical worldview," the podcast's website says. This is no typical interview podcast. "Bros with mics or host-moms with mics--I wasn't so much interested in that," Sillars said. He wanted a format not many Christians or conservatives have used: narrative storytelling in a podcast format, in the same vein as wildly popular podcasts like This American Life, or Serial.

This form of storytelling is telling a true story like a novel, explained senior Beth Whitehead, Director of Partnerships and Advertising for Doubletake. It's nothing like hard news you'd find in a newspaper.

With the name Doubletake, which Sillars says his wife coined, comes the idea of surprise. Each episode is focused on its own topic, with no teaser or hint to the next topic. Each episode also aims to tell a story that teaches people something they did not know about the topic, whether it be abortion, identity politics, or assisted suicide. 

Doubletake exists because Sillars and the team firmly believe that true stories have a real impact. "We believe in the power of storytelling," said senior Grace Torgerson, Doubletake's marketing director. "[Stories] communicate things that nothing else can." She believes that stories contain universal truths, or at least ask universal questions. 

As a Christian, Torgerson sees a special role for storytelling. Her worldview helps her understand basic human desires: "how we're all searching for a savior at some basic level." 

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The journey has not been easy for the team. For Sillars, the hardest part was simply figuring out a process: how could he help students who had never done a radio show produce one before the end of a school year? "There will come a time," he warned his team from the beginning, "where you will wish you had never started on this project." 

For alumnus Josh Schumacher, one of the Doubletake producers, learning how to produce a podcast from scratch while taking a full load of classes grew overwhelming. Interviews were stressful, and he spent most of his free time researching organ harvesting in China for his episode. "We just had a ball of stress on our chests all the time," Schumacher said.

Torgerson spent 30 hours a week during the summer to continue marketing for Doubletake. During the school year she was learning how to craft and market a podcast. She had never officially designed a website or a brand, so she had to figure it out on her own. 

Whitehead said the hardest part of Doubletake for her was nailing down the vision of the show. "It took many hours of us banging our heads against a whiteboard in Templeton and asking, 'Who are we?'" she said.

Torgerson remembers Sillars setting benchmarks in one Templeton meeting. He wanted to see 60,000 downloads per episode. "Are we gonna actually get that?" Torgerson thought. Zero to 60,000 seemed awfully far away. 

Yet, a year later, Doubletake is approaching that goal. The series, which dropped its eighth and final episode a few weeks ago, has a total of 440,000 downloads or listens, an average of over 55,000 per episode. Sillars expects the figure will rise as more people discover the show over the next few months. 

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When Schumacher graduated this past spring, the episode he labored over for two semesters was waiting to be released. It wasn't until August that he logged into his student email to find an email from Sillars saying that the show had 125,000 downloads. "It was really wild," Schumacher said. 

Once his episode was released, Schumacher questioned the impact of his work. Listeners rarely reach out or share how an episode impacted them. He found himself wondering, "Did this actually mean something? Like, did it?" 

It was only when he sent his episode to his high school debate partner's mom, who had convinced Schumacher to run a debate case on organ harvesting, that he felt a sense of resolution. Telling her 100,000 people were listening, and hearing that she was glad he produced it, helped resolve the stress and nihilism he had felt about the episode. 

Sillars is already looking forward to the next season. He hopes that listeners will continue to increase so the second season can begin with an audience that is already hooked. 

Ultimately, Doubletake asks people to look for truth outside of themselves through stories. "We wanted to give people windows instead of mirrors," Torgerson said. "If you try to look inwards . . . you will find only darkness within." Doubletake invites us to the window, and, even after just one season, it offers quite a view. 

This story originally appeared in PHC's journalism publication, The Herald. 

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