Veteran New York Times journalist Catherine Saint Louis ’92 brings her storytelling skills to podcasts, while teaching her trade to others from underrepresented groups.
After graduating from Williston, Catherine Saint Louis ’92 majored in English at Princeton, got her master’s in English at Oxford, and worked at The New York Times as an editor and reporter for 18 years, before becoming a podcast story editor. She is now the executive editor at Neon Hum Media, where she edits narrative limited-run podcasts. Her work has included Spectacle, The Sellout, Fake Priest, The Thing About Pam, and Infamous. She also created and taught Neon Hum’s Editors’ Bootcamp to get more people from underrepresented groups into story editing. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 13-year-old son. We had a chance to catch up.
Tell us a little bit about your time at Williston.
Everyone says that you get more courageous as you age—that as a teenager you somehow haven’t found your voice and are a wilting flower. That was not the case for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more confident than I was when I was at Williston. I was able to speak up in class and able to speak my mind and be really unafraid.
What kind of student were you?
I think I’ve always been a little bit obsessive. I’m a “need-to-know-how-this-works” kind of person. In high school, that made me radically uncool. Other people were interested in dating and being popular. I really didn’t care. I was more interested in figuring things out. I was the nerd with her hand raised in math class. I’ve always been like, “I don’t understand the way this works. Can you help me understand?”
Doc Gow. He was a famed teacher in the science department. He was just pure enthusiasm. He couldn’t stop talking about the things he loved.
The most interesting topic you researched for The New York Times?
I loved being a health reporter. I was never ever bored. I covered everything from pediatrics to OB-GYN to oral health. I covered medical marijuana. Aesthetic medicine. I wrote a piece about women who give birth to babies who are dependent on opioids. I wrote a piece about family estrangement—it sat at the top of the most-emailed list for about three weeks. We have estrangement in my family, so it was really meaningful to me.
What was the skill that was most translatable to podcasting from your time as a reporter?
When I was at the Times, more than one editor said to me that I write the way I talk. And they were saying it kind of like a bad thing. Like, I was a little too plainspoken. But, of course, in audio that’s exactly what you want. You don’t want anybody to sound like anybody else. You want to have that feeling of gathering around the fire and someone’s telling a story.
Tell us about the Editors’Bootcamp.
There is such an explosion of narrative podcasts and heavily reported podcasts, and we need more editors. The idea of the bootcamp was: What if I actually offered eight weeks of free training to folks from underrepresented backgrounds—people of color, people who are trans, people who are Native American, who are Latina? What if I actually taught them what I know to give them a leg up so they can get work in the industry? The first year alone we got 250 applications for eight spots. Plenty of our graduates are now working as story editors! We’re definitely going to do a second year.
Your favorite story you’ve worked on?
I worked on a podcast this year—Spectacle—that’s making a lot of best of 2021 lists, and that’s just been such a blessing to see. It’s about reality TV. We like to think of reality TV as trash TV, but our team was like, no. Reality TV tells you so much about American culture. What we think about marriage. What we think about dating, race, employment. All these topics that are deep in the heart of American culture.
What do you think people who listen to podcasts don’t understand about the making of them?
I think that most people don’t know how hard it is to make a podcast. There’s this misconception that podcasting is as easy as getting two mics and having your friends come to your garage to have a conversation. And
that misconception impacts how much people get paid. It would be great if people were comfortable paying $10—or even $5—for a podcast they like, so that the people who work hard making the podcast can actually make a living. Podcasts—if you love them, why not pay for them?
What are you reading right now?
I’m rereading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I’m also reading the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones. I definitely listen to a lot more podcasts than I read books.
What do you miss about western Massachusetts?
I love the way the leaves change colors and I love going for a hike at Mount Tom and I like how liberal people are. I like going shopping at Sweeties and getting a sh*t-ton of Swedish fish.
CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS’ 5 PODCASTS NOT TO MISS
1. Relative Unknown
The host, Jackee Taylor, is the daughter of a particularly violent Hell’s Angel. She spends 10 episodes trying to sort through her childhood trauma. She’s got a newsy story to tell about just how messed up the witness protection program is, but the podcast is riveting because it’s raw and heartbreaking.
This eight-part podcast has haunting sound design, memorable characters, and great writing. Floodlines seeks to correct the story of Hurricane Katrina. Hell no, it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a government failure and the media got the story wrong. Don’t miss this one.
3. The Sellout
This nine-part podcast is about a politician dogged by allegations of corruption, harassment, and pathological pettiness. It’s about the residents who fought gentrification even as their neighborhoods were auctioned off to the highest bidder. And it’s about a community that feels the pain of betrayal from one of their own. Full disclosure: I helped make this one!
4. On Our Watch
Police officers who use excessive force, sexually harass civilians, or tamper with evidence face internal investigations. This podcast shows how police accountability actually “works”—with actual audio recordings of those investigations. Unforgettable reporting.
5. I’m Not a Monster
How this story unfolds is a big part of its appeal. Journalist Josh Baker is trying to figure out the truth from start to end of this 10-episode podcast. It’s about an American family’s journey from Indiana to the Islamic State group’s caliphate. It’s chilling and upsetting, but I couldn’t stop listening.