ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis, the host and creator of The Dropout — which will return with new episodes this month as Elizabeth Holmes goes to trial for alleged fraud — is one of the top storytellers in documentary podcasting. This morning she’ll take Podcast Movement attendees behind the scenes as part of a can’t-miss video panel, “From Concept to Reality: The Power of Narrative Storytelling.”
The Dropout, which debuted in 2019, centers on a three-year investigation of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos. How did the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire find herself facing 20 years in prison for fraud? Rebecca’s dynamic reporting takes listeners inside an unbelievable story of ambition and fame gone terribly wrong. The Dropout was the first to feature the deposition tapes, pivotal in telling the real behind-the-scenes story.
In advance of this morning’s panel, the acclaimed journalist shared insights into building a top-rated true-crime hit. Be sure to check out the trailer for “The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes on Trial” which just dropped this morning, to hear how Jarvis will take listeners inside the courtroom and track Holmes’ trial in real time.
In your view as a journalist, what made this particular story worthy of a three-year investigative series?
Elizabeth Holmes. She’s a fascinating person, who made incredible claims, and raised far more questions than she answered along the way. What she said she could do with blood testing could’ve touched all our lives had she actually been successful. Her technology might’ve been in every drugstore in America if it actually worked. Those are huge stakes.
I originally started pursuing the story when Theranos was pitched to me as a way to save money on blood testing. I was working on a series for “World News with Diane Sawyer” about the soaring costs of healthcare, and Theranos was pitched to me as a solution. The thing that gave me pause, and the reason we didn’t cover Theranos as a solution, was that there were no independent scientists corroborating Elizabeth’s claims. When she started showing up everywhere, it raised even more questions.
The investigation really started because very simple questions didn’t seem to have answers, and the more I would dig, the more I found inconsistencies and really shocking anecdotes from former employees and scientists.
With seven episodes so far, The Dropout has received over 20,000 5-star reviews. Why do you think documentary podcasts have become so popular in the last few years?
I’m so proud of what we the team accomplished with The Dropout. It was our first foray into creating a narrative podcast, but I really felt from the earliest days that Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes were the perfect match for a podcast format.
I think all great doc podcasts serve a hunger for details and depth. When you find a story endlessly fascinating, you want more. Podcasts are the perfect format for delivery of nuance and texture. I love to read, and I consume far too much TV and social media, but there’s something special about podcasts. They can help you pass the time — on your commute or a road trip, while you’re cooking dinner, or on a run — and turn a mundane activity into something deeply fulfilling. And given the number of documentary podcasts available, there really is something for everyone. Podcasts are an excellent format for curious people who want more.
In long-form storytelling, the ‘slow burn’ approach keeps listeners in suspense. How do you plan out what information to reveal and when?
As a journalist, I always start with the questions. They drive everything I do. And I try to outline from the big umbrella ideas, down to the minutiae. With The Dropout, I really wanted to take listeners along for the rise and the fall and when I started investigating, there were still so many unknowns. So for every episode, there had to be space for the unexpected. The end of each episode has to lead to a pressing and urgent question that takes you to the next — a cliffhanger, ideally — that lets the listener know something big and juicy is coming next.
Revisions are a big part of the process. I lost count how many revisions we did to each episode. What reads on the page can look and feel so different than what you ultimately hear. I’m also a big believer that scenes/vignettes are instrumental in driving a podcast forward. With each episode, we aimed to recreate two or three really strong scenes and built voices and narrative around that. And speaking of voices, accents, emotion — I listen for those moments when I interview — when you can hear a twinkle in someone’s eye, or catch their personality really shining through. In my opinion that’s what makes a podcast crackle.
About how many people work on The Dropout’s production team? What role tends to be an ‘unsung hero’ that makes a podcast shine?
There aren’t enough words of thanks to fully express the gratitude I feel towards the team who made The Dropout podcast — a small, but committed group of people driven by curiosity and a willingness to experiment with a totally new (to us) format.
The core team — Victoria Thompson, Taylor Dunn and I — spent years digging into the story, and in the final months writing, re-writing, re-writing again, posing new questions, and hunting down new sources and documents. It truly took our every waking thought and effort to pull off, so much so that we all started having dreams about the story! Evan Viola, our incredible editor, was instrumental in bringing the story to life with sound and music. He patiently made revision after revision after revision and worked around the clock to bring it home. Finally, Layne Winn and Victor Ordonez were terrific research assistants, chasing down documents, stats and details at all hours of the night.
So much of the process for us was learning by doing, and while that can be daunting and chaotic, it was also incredibly freeing because we weren’t confined to a pre-ordained playbook. I’m so proud of our team — and so appreciative of how much each member cared about the story and the work. It was an exhilarating process and I wouldn’t replace it for the world. I’ve said this before, and I genuinely mean it, how audiences received The Dropout was icing on the cake for me. I genuinely loved the work, and working with this team.
If you could give documentary podcasters one piece of advice, what would it be?
Pursue the stories you can’t shake. Some people may not get it at first. They might not understand why you’re obsessed and they’re not…yet. That’s ok. If you find something endlessly fascinating, if the questions keep you up at night, if every stone you turn reveals hundreds of new questions, keep going.