Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade is the Apple Podcasts Show of the Year.
Each year, Apple Podcasts editors look back on the most influential shows and seasons. This year, there was one powerful season that stood on its own.
The Apple Podcasts Show of the Year is Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade, a four-episode installment about the forgotten history of abortion. Susan Matthews, host of Slow Burn and executive editor at Slate, and Derek John, executive producer of narrative podcasts at Slate, talk about how this season came together and explain how they handled a major shift in the decades-old court case — right in the middle of recording their season.
Apple Podcasts: Slow Burn season 7 focuses on Roe v. Wade. What led you to that topic?
Susan: I had been interested in doing a season on Roe v. Wade since the very beginning of Slow Burn. I thought it had all of the hallmarks of a good season: A story that most people know the broad sketches of but maybe not the specifics, despite it being such an important inflection point in American history.
But it was really when the composition of the Supreme Court changed that made it feel more and more urgent. With Amy Coney Barrett starting her first full term and Dobbs vs. Whole Women’s Health on the docket, we knew that June of 2022 was likely when the court would issue a decision that could effectively overturn Roe and decided it was the perfect time to produce our Roe season.
AP: What, if anything, have you changed your mind about in the course of reporting this story?
Susan: One of my goals going into this series was to try to more fully understand the pro-life perspective. I wouldn’t say that the work changed my personal position on abortion, but I do think that my research helped me understand their position in a deeper way. I had really started to think that abortion was such an opportunistic issue that is championed by Republicans looking for support from evangelicals and other groups who oppose abortion on religious grounds.
It was really instructive for me to talk with people who actually have the deeply held belief that abortion is morally wrong, and to try to understand why they think that. I also learned that in the late 1960s, there was a political philosophy that was actively organized around “life” — people opposed abortion just like they opposed the death penalty and the war in Vietnam, which gives a new dimension to the phrase “pro-life” for me.
AP: How did your release plans adapt or change when the draft Supreme Court decision leaked?
Derek: Believe it or not, Susan had mapped out the season at least six months beforehand so we were already planning to release it during the June SCOTUS term. That foresight allowed us to do most of our reporting and tape gathering in advance.
However, once the news leaked, there was a flurry of late-night messages as we brainstormed how to respond. We ended up scrambling over the next 24 hours to finalize the trailer, artwork, et cetera, so we could publicly announce the new season in the leak’s aftermath. It was a wild few days as we realized these musty, old documents and forgotten stories we had been collecting were suddenly very relevant to current events.
Susan: For me, the main thing that changed after the leak was that it finally felt like people were accepting the idea that a decision that would overturn Roe was really coming. As a close court watcher, I think anyone who listened to the oral arguments in Dobbs in December 2021 felt it coming. It was really clear from how the justices approached their questioning.
But it was the leak that really made it feel not only possible but probable. So it felt like, all of a sudden, a lot more people were paying attention. Which was good for the show but alarming for the country — an interesting mix of emotions there.
AP: Which episode did your listeners have the strongest reaction to this year, and why?
Susan: I actually think the strongest reaction came in response to the very first episode about Shirley Wheeler, which was released right when everything was ramping up with the SCOTUS term. Shirley’s story is almost impossible to believe — that she would be charged with manslaughter for having an abortion, and that her punishment would end up being what it was (I won’t spoil that part).
I think Shirley’s story made our listeners start to imagine what life in America could be like without protecting the right to abortion, and I think Shirley herself is incredibly relatable. The story became a stark reminder that in a world where abortion is illegal, women can and would be held responsible for the first time in over 50 years just like Shirley was. All of a sudden people could think, “this happened to her, it could happen to someone I know, too.”
And we leaned into Shirley’s story as a kind of rallying cry for the millions of people who were affected by the Dobbs decision by rolling out a billboard campaign. The campaign, “DEFEND SHIRLEY WHEELER,” highlighted Shirley’s story and took place in states that had some of the strictest abortion laws throughout the country, including Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Idaho, and others. We also placed a billboard in Daytona Beach, Florida where Shirley was living when she was convicted of manslaughter for getting an abortion.
AP: What challenges did you experience while making this season?
Derek: Every narrative podcast of this scope and ambition faces a multitude of challenges, and solving them is part of the fun. But this particular season had the added emotional weight of a fundamental civil liberty being stripped away while we were telling the story of how it came to be in the first place. That sense of rhyming with history was both exhilarating and a bit frightening. There were some tough days for the team where it was hard to document the past and not think about what was happening in the present and the near future.
Susan: As a journalist, you’re always worried about being accurate and being fair, and this is a very tricky story to tell. People have incredibly strong feelings about the topic of abortion. I worried a lot about how to explore all sides and be fair to multiple perspectives.
Additionally, I wanted to make something that was actually interesting and satisfying to listen to, and wasn’t simply a dry debate of the issues. One of the things that I focused on, partly inspired by past seasons of Slow Burn, was just really leaning into the individual narratives, and thinking about how people felt and acted at the time, and reporting that honestly, instead of worrying too much about how that connected to the present. It helped the series stay grounded I think.
AP: What does podcasting offer you in terms of storytelling ability that other mediums may not?
Derek: This is the true magic of the medium, especially when it comes to bringing stories from the past into the present. The abortion issue has become such a calcified and tired debate in recent years. By digging up real stories from real people, employing archival tape and creative sound design, we hopefully breathed new life into the topic so that listeners felt a personal stake in how history unfolded.
Susan: One of the most memorable moments while making the season was one of our interviews with Nancy Stearns, a prominent lawyer who has worked on a number of high-profile abortion cases. We had already spoken to Nancy a couple of times, but we were finally able to talk to her in person in the studio. And our producer, Samira, had dug up some tape of Nancy giving a speech back in 1971. We told her we had it and asked if we could play it for her. She joked that of course we could, but were we really sure it was her?
As soon as we turned it on, I could see Nancy get a bit emotional. This was a speech she had given before a crowd of women more than 50 years ago. When people talk about the intimacy of the medium, this is what they mean I think. There’s something so specific about hearing someone talk right into your own ear… particularly if it is your former self. Playing that tape for Nancy and seeing her react to it in real time reminded me of the power of audio to really create an intimacy that I think is difficult to compare to any other medium.
AP: What’s the best piece of advice you have for other podcasters?
Derek: Always ask the uncomfortable questions... just make sure you’re still recording when you do.
Susan: The best advice I ever got about reporting is to get over the idea that you have to be some kind of official reporter or have some kind of radio voice. Just be yourself. People will open up more if you are acting like yourself.