Podcast Playlist: 'Wild' Author Cheryl Strayed Launches New Show With New York Times

NYT-Sugar Calling-Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of The New York Times

The first episode of 'Sugar Calling' will feature a conversation between Strayed and writer George Saunders.

Cheryl Strayed is launching a new podcast in collaboration with The New York Times.  

The Wild author has reteamed with The Times to release Sugar Calling. In the show, which premieres Friday evening, Strayed will share her wisdom (and that of her writer friends) with listeners. Each episode will feature Strayed on a call with one of her friends, talking about their worlds at this moment. Her first guest is Lincoln in the Bardo author George Saunders.

Strayed began offering advice in 2010 when she took over the "Dear Sugar" column for literary website The Rumpus. She and "Dear Sugar’s" creator, Steve Almond, later teamed up to write a column, "The Sweet Spot," for NYT. It was accompanied by the Dear Sugars podcast, which was produced in collaboration with WBUR until it ended in 2018.

Wendy Dorr, managing editor of shows for NYT Audio, says The Times approached Strayed working together on a new project as the novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. began to grow. “Cheryl has often been a person that people turn to when they are troubled, so it felt natural to check in with her when everything was happening,” she says. “She expressed a desire to speak directly with friends of hers who are writers.”

She adds, “It felt like the right thing that our listeners need in this moment."

Though there have been production challenges as the audio team works to launch the show remotely, Dorr says they are “leaning into the low-fi aspect of it.” The production, done via Google Hangouts, is meant “to sound very natural, like you are listening in on a private phone call that Cheryl is having,” she explains.

The first episode of Sugar Calling will debut in the feed for The Daily as part of its new series of Friday evening episodes, dubbed “A Bit of Relief.” After that, new episodes will drop Wednesdays.

Sugar Calling joins a slate of NYT Audio podcasts that include The Daily and Still Processing with hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris. “We only want to put things into the world that matter to people,” Dorr says. “Right now, the priority is to bring human stories that we need to hear.”

In other podcasting news:

— The team at NYT Audio are not the only people looking to bring new audio programming to listeners during the coronavirus pandemic. Scrubs stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison are reliving their time on the NBC sitcom with a new series, Fake Doctors, Real Friends With Zach + Donald, produced in partnership with iHeartRadio. Braff told THR the show was in the works before people began to work from home but he and Faison realized that “it could be good to distract people, make people laugh, particularly because the show was such a love letter to hospitals and the medical community.”

— Another project that is premiering during the shutdown is Joe Buck and Oliver Hudson Have Daddy Issues. The show, which is produced with Cloud10Media and will drop new episodes every Thursday, features the longtime friends talking about all things fatherhood. Their guests will include Bill Simmons, Jon Hamm, Troy Aikman and Paul Rudd. Buck says, “No topic is too sacred, and I think people will see a side of me they didn’t realized existed.”

— Before the coronavirus outbreak hit, podcast listening was on the rise. Per Nielsen's Podcast Listener Buying Power report, Americans were listening to 43 minutes more on average each week. But the shutdown has meant that fewer people are commuting to work, and according to Podtrac, podcast downloads dropped 4 percent for the last full week of March. But every podcast company is seeing different trends. IHeartRadio says podcast listening is up 6 percent month-over-month, a number that is even higher in cities where there are shelter-in-place mandates. In a March 30 blog post, Spotify said that in-car streaming is down but at-home streaming is up. The company says podcasts about news and self-improvement have seen an uptick, and Podtrac notes that downloads for business shows are on the rise. In addition to business shows, iHeartRadio, says its listeners are turning to podcasts covering finance, education and entertainment. Meanwhile, true crime listening on its network has seen a slight decline.