Behind-the-Scenes with Tracy Mumford and Riham Feshir


Why did you choose to make 74 Seconds as a serialized podcast?

Riham : We’ve been following this story -- the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez -- from the very beginning and we knew there was a lot there.

This case was different from other police shootings we’ve seen here in Minnesota, and when prosecutors brought charges against the officer, it became historic. As far as we can tell from all the records we’ve looked into, Minnesota had never before seen a police officer face trial for shooting and killing someone while on duty. Until recently, fatal police shootings would typically go to a secret grand jury, which usually means the files would remain closed.

Police shootings have been on the minds of many people in recent years, obviously not just in Minnesota, but across the country. This was a way for us to tell this national story in a digestible and easy to follow format almost in real time.

So we decided, in addition to daily coverage on the radio, online and on social media, a podcast format would be the ideal way to cover the trial for an even wider audience - to dive deep into what it looks like for a police officer to be tried in a case like this. It was also an opportunity to explore issues that come along with police shootings that this case has highlighted: Police training, racial tension, gun rights, and the intricacies and nuances of our legal system.

It's kind of crazy that you turned this episode - After the verdict - around in just a day, and such an emotional day at that. Do you have any producing hacks for making something so quickly? What was it like to make this episode during a time of such shock?

Tracy : This was a difficult episode. We planned extensively, and we were able to throw the whole weight of the newsroom behind day-of-verdict coverage. That’s definitely something extraordinary that not many podcasts have: a newsroom backing them up for big moments. That also meant that we were collecting material from at least 10 different people, covering events over 12+ hours. With just a day to turn it around, we went chronologically through the material, placed our scenes on a timeline, and sliced that down to the best tape from each one.

We tried to think of all the questions that someone might have after the news broke. How was the verdict decided? What was the reaction in the courtroom? Did you hear from the prosecution? The defense? The families? What would happen next?

And then we went about answering them, as best we could, which meant finding a juror, going to press conferences, following the protest march. Trying to anticipate what the audience would need to hear, after being so deeply invested in the case, helped shape what we included.

You got a few amazing interviews for this episode - with one of the jurors, with Philando Castile's friend. Was it as simple as walking up to him with a microphone, or did you have a particular approach?

Riham : This was a busy day and it took a lot of planning for us to coordinate where our reporters were going to be so we could chase key interviews. The jurors were not talking immediately after the verdict and they were being escorted by sheriff’s deputies out of the courthouse. Our reporter Jon Collins ended up tracking one of them down a couple of hours later to talk to him about deliberations, and it paid off because we were able to get a little insight into what happened in that jury room. As for Castile’s friend, John Thompson, he’s been one of the main characters that our newsroom has followed over the past few months, so we look out for him when we’re in the field and he recognizes several of our reporters, too.

Tracy : Those two examples -- the interview with the juror and the interview with a friend of Philando Castile -- are actually perfect examples of the kinds of tape we’ve used in the podcast. In my mind, there are the “must haves” and the “must listens.” The juror, for me, falls into tape we must have -- a juror’s reaction felt essential, no matter what the specific reaction was.

The quiet moment with John Thompson, Castile’s friend, as he watches protesters shut down the interstate, that’s a “must listen” moment. You don’t know you’re going to get it when you go out into the field, you don’t know what it’s going to sound like, but once you hear it, you know it has to go in. We had a lot of tape of the protest, but when the reporter, Peter Cox, came back with that interview with Thompson, we knew that was the piece to use.

You go about getting “must have” and “must listen” tape in different ways, I think. “Must have” means tracking down the exact people and speakers you know you need, “must listen” tape means being in the right place and being open to how what you get can shape the story.

You really let tape breathe throughout this episode. What went into your decisions to play longer sections of tape, like the speech by Valerie Castile, Philando’s mom. How did you know which moments would be powerful enough to sustain listeners' interest?

Tracy : We knew that we weren’t breaking the news for anyone, in this episode. Anyone who was listening knew what the verdict was, and wanted more. This episode was about giving a sense of the reaction, and one of the best ways to do that was really let the tape breathe, as you mentioned.

You can get the news in two seconds, scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen. Long form audio, though, can let people feel the reaction. One of the freeing things about the podcast is that we had no time limit, we weren’t squeezing the story into a predetermined window. It let us do more than soundbites.

Soundbites, traditionally, convey one thing: one emotion or one idea. (They even teach you that a lot of times in News 101: Keep your cuts to one idea!) One emotion or one idea didn’t even begin to cover the things unfolding outside the courtroom.

To hear the entirety of Valerie Castile’s speech is to experience the emotional shifts: there’s grief, anger, disillusionment, more. Playing her speech in its entirety preserves that for listeners.

As for what will hold the listeners’ attention, you have to trust your own instincts: Am I still interested in this piece of tape, on the third, fourth, fifth listen? Then it’s going to hold your audience’s attention through their first listen.

What kind of responses to 74 Seconds are you getting locally and nationally? Do the responses from local and national audiences differ?

Tracy : We’ve had local, national and international reaction to 74 Seconds . At the local level, people appreciated the deep dive -- going beyond what you might typically hear on the radio while you’re driving. For the national audience, we were very focused on making the story relevant beyond Minnesota, and we’ve heard from people who are drawing parallels to their own communities. At an international level, we realized that there’s a deep interest in the U.S. and police shootings, which are much more rare in some of the countries where we have listeners.

We realized, anecdotally through Twitter, that we had a following in Australia. According to The Guardian , one month of police shootings in the U.S. outnumbers 19 years of police shootings in Australia. So we’ve had a lot of questions from listeners there about the entire system – and their questions about the shooting haven’t been phrased around “why did another one happen?” It’s been, “why one at all?”

Did you always plan on continuing the podcast after the trial's verdict came out?

Tracy : We knew the story wouldn’t just end with the verdict, but we had no idea what the verdict would be. You can prepare as much as you want for the possibilities (hung jury, guilty, not guilty, split on charges), but we’ve still been shaping the podcast’s identity post-verdict as we go. We have these must-tell stories, like the verdict reaction, or going through the investigative files, and then these want-to-tell stories, like the inventory of the car episode or the episode on the experience of being a black gun owner.

In some ways, 74 Seconds is almost three different podcasts: deeply narrative storytelling at the beginning, daily trial updates as they unfolded, and now a conversational exploration of issues of race, the justice system and policing.

Obviously, this story isn't over yet - but when will will 74 Seconds end?

Tracy : As I write this, we have three more episodes planned out, but things are always shifting. We’ve always talked about how this is a nationally relevant case, and after doing this deep dive into the day-by-day details, we want to zoom out again for a moment. This case isn’t happening in a vacuum, and we’re going to look at some of the larger national connections and consequences before we go.

That said, if something breaks six months or a year from now, we would hope to come back.