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NPR's Throughline still brings history to news, five years later

 June 11, 2024 at 2:52 PM PDT

S1: Welcome in San Diego. It's Jade Hindman today , the host of the NPR show Through Line. Join us to talk about the show as they celebrate five years of bringing historical context to current events. This is KPBS Midday Edition , connecting our communities through conversation. You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition , I'm Jade Hindman. History belongs in the news. That's the ethos of NPR's award winning history podcast , throughline. They're now celebrating their fifth anniversary. And joining me now is co-host Rund Abdel-Fattah. Rund welcome.

S2: Thanks so much for having me.

S1: And also from teen Arab Louis , welcome to Midday Edition , Ramstein.

S3: Thanks so much. Thanks for having us.

S1: So , Ramstein , take us back to when you and Rund were first brainstorming this show.

S3: So it's still surreal that we're doing what we're doing today. But our idea is really basic. We didn't see there were history shows back in what , 2017 , 2018 when we started this conversation. But what we wanted to do was make something that takes what's happening in the world today and gives a historical explanation or context. We both felt like that was missing , and not even just intentionally. But , you know , news is limited by time. Each segment can only be so long. So what we were hoping to do is to make a show that an NPR listener could listen to and have a better sense of the historical context behind the stories in the news. The other part of it is we wanted to we wanted the show to be very entertaining and engaging , to feel very sort of modern and immersive. And that was basically the idea , why don't we make a really fun show that's about the history of current events , and I'm happy. You know , in many ways I feel like we've achieved that , and it's really wild to look back on it and think , what started in just lunch conversations between Rund and I at NPR headquarters , when we work there together , has has become , you know , a weekly radio and , you know , podcast show that reaches tons of people every week. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Let me tell you , you guys are speaking to my soul with this show. But Ron.

S2: It's probably the most challenging part of of the show in some ways is fusing topics. There's like a limitless amount of topics , to be honest , so that that's never the issue because we're always just thinking about what's in the zeitgeist , but also what's what. Are we curious about what's happening in the world ? We sort of and what are things like , what are cool stories that more people should know about ? So there's this a lot of different places where we draw inspiration from. But once we decide on a topic , you know , the process of really narrowing , narrowing in and figuring out what to what to cover in 50 minutes , which might seem like a lot , but actually , you know , when you're taking on , I don't know the history of health insurance in the US. It's a big topic. It goes back a long time. Right. And so , you know , there are a lot of choices that have to be made. But in order to make those choices , we have to do a lot of research. We have to talk to a lot of experts. We have to test our assumptions. I think that's one of the most important parts of the process , is figuring out where our blind spots and and pushing against them , um , and then and then doing our best to bring the story as accurately as possible in that sort of super engaging way that Romney was describing around being immersive , being entertaining , telling a story while also communicating , you know , you know , the nuance and complexity around whatever the topic happens to be for that week. Wow.

S1: Wow. And we actually have a clip we'd like to play. This is from the episode James Baldwin Shadow. Take a listen.

S4: He got us. He understood. He understands the contradiction at the heart of the country.

S5: What is it you wanted me to reconcile myself to ? I was born here almost 60 years ago. I'm not going to live another 60 years. You've always told me it takes time. To take my father's time. My mother's time. My uncle started. My brothers and my sisters , not my nieces and nephews. Time.

S1: Ram. Walk us through the process of putting together this episode and really diving into James Baldwin's philosophy.

S3: So this episode came out , I think it was right after the George Floyd , uh , murder. Uh , so it was obviously a very emotional , tense time in the country and in the culture. And we did an episode on the history of policing not that long before , but it felt like there was another kind of deeper emotional element to the conversation that we hadn't covered. And I got , uh , Eddie Glaude book about James Baldwin and read some of it. And then I saw him on , on TV talking , and it was one of those moments where I stopped everything else I was doing and just , like , paid attention to him. And he might have the I think the presenter let him talk for about three minutes straight. And I was so moved. And so we decided Rhonda and I really wanted to touch on this topic from that emotional perspective , and we felt that James Baldwin , his voice , what he captured in a lot of ways , he was kind of , you know , like what Eddie Glaude said. He was kind of like the de Tocqueville of his time , meaning he mirrored back in a lot of ways , you know , American culture and American history to Americans. And so his role as a sort of chronicler of that history , and I would argue in some ways a historian in the way he did did that work was so powerful. And Eddie Glaude , the book goes so deep into the psychology and the approach James Baldwin had , and we wanted to highlight that. So that really went into the idea , and it was a simple one interview episode. But Rhonda and I , when we did that interview , was very emotional. Eddie Glaude got emotional. We got emotional. And that's a big part of what we try to do. It's not just information , but it's an experience. We want to elicit empathy and get people to think differently and challenge their own assumptions. So that was really the thinking behind that episode. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Ronald , how did that episode hit for you ? Yeah.

S2: The thing that , um , I mean , we still quote that episode back to each other sometimes , um , don't take the bribe , you know , but but one of the things that , um , really sticks with me till now , um , when when Romney is talking about that emotion that was coming through when we were doing the interview and that that really comes through , I think in the final version of the episode is , um , is captured in a very small thing. But I think a significant thing , which is Eddie Glaude says he calls him Jimmy at various points in the episode , and there's just something about the intimacy that you that you get and that you and that you can feel when you spend time , um , looking into these stories , looking into the story of someone like James Baldwin and sitting with his words , um , the experience that Eddie Glaude , I think had working on that book comes through. And just the fact that he's he's calling him Jimmy , you know , and you feel like they're that they're friends. And that's like the beauty in some ways of of the work. When we really hit kind of the peak of this work is when it feels like you really are in touch with people across time , and that the words that , you know , James Baldwin was speaking in reference to very different circumstances or maybe not so different circumstances. Right. Um , it just it reminds you that , um , that we're on this kind of , uh , on this arc together. And I think that is something that , um , that in that episode , you , you feel , you know , often it's like an intellectual idea that comes across. But when you can make something resonate in that way and , and have an emotion to it , um , I think it just stays with you more and.

S1: You know , whether people know it or not , you know , history and how it's told is at the center of so much public discourse and battles over censorship right now. What role does throughline play here ? I mean , where does it fit in with the current moment ? And I'll toss that one to you.

S2: I , we like to think that we're cutting through some of the , some of the noise. Um , and what I mean by that is , you know , we are trying whether we're covering , I mean , whether we're covering kind of the , the debate , um , over , you know , textbooks or the war on Gaza. Um , we're trying to take a step back and think about the bigger narratives. What is missing ? The same things that we apply to all topics. But I think I think it feels more important than ever right now. Um , the stakes do feel higher. But our approach , in a lot of ways remains the same that we've had from the beginning , which is diligent research , testing our biases , testing our assumptions , and pushing. Ourselves and our listeners to be uncomfortable at times. We're not afraid to do that. If that's where the facts lead us , then that's the story we're going to tell. And again , of course , there's a lot of very kind of controversial topics at the moment , um , that we're not shying away from. And we see that as our responsibility as a show , especially at these times.

S1: This is KPBS Midday Edition. We're back after the break. Welcome back. You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. From Teen Through Line just launched its rebrand. Talk to us about that and what's next for the show.

S3: Like many other shows , I think we've grown a lot since we launched in 2019. This show , I think , has become more experimental. We've kept listeners on their toes or we've tried to with the topics that we pick , and I think it's gotten more , even more immersive as we've all gotten basically better at the craft and art of telling stories. So in that light , I think we wanted the branding to basically reflect that , uh , improvement and that complexity. So that's really the idea behind that. Um , and in terms of the future for the show , we want to keep pushing our own limits and pushing the listeners limits. As Ron said , our goal is to not make people comfortable or not to make people feel safe in their own assumptions , but to challenge them. Just like we're challenging our own every single day with this work. So what the future holds for throughline , I think , is to continue to expand the breadth and complexity and immersive quality of our episodes , but we're also hoping to expand beyond just the audio realm to hopefully be able to experiment more in the video realm , potentially , uh , with books , other things like that , because we think there's a whole audience out there that may not be podcast listeners or radio listeners that we'd like to reach , but we'd also like to just continue to expand our audience and can , you know , expand the range of experimenting we do.

S1: It really is a show everyone should be tuning into. I've been speaking with Through Line co-host Rund Abdel-Fattah and from Tiny Arab Louis. Thank you both so much for joining us today.

S2: Thanks so much for having us.

S3: Thanks for having us.

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Throughline co-hosts and creators Rund Abdelfatah (left) and Ramtin Arablouei (right) are seen in this undated photo.
Throughline co-hosts and creators Rund Abdelfatah (left) and Ramtin Arablouei (right) are seen in this undated photo.

History belongs in the news. That’s the main ethos of NPR’s award-winning history podcast, Throughline.

"What we wanted to do was make something that takes what's happening in the world today and gives a historical explanation or context," said Ramtin Arablouei, a co-host and creator of the podcast. "We both felt like that was missing, and not even just intentionally."

On Midday Edition Tuesday, the creators behind Throughline talk about what goes into an episode and where the show fits in the current historical moment.


  • Rund Abdelfatah, journalist, host and co-creator of Throughline
  • Ramtin Arablouei, journalist, host and co-creator of Throughline