The Human Side

Megan Hall MPH’15 is a storyteller who specializes in translating complex ideas into language everyone can understand. We talked to her recently about podcasting, and why the medium is such a powerful tool for social change.

You started at Brown as an undergrad where you worked in communications with student radio and the College Hill Independent. After establishing a journalism career at RI Public Radio, you came back to Brown to earn an MPH. What brought you back and why was public health training the right fit for your career?

As a healthcare reporter at RI Public Radio, I’d learned a lot on the ground about how our healthcare system works, but I was looking for a way to connect the dots in a broader way and to build a career that involved more than just reporting on the work of other people.

The School of Public Health’s motto—learn public health by doing public health—really appealed to me, and it fit my situation. Learning about public health in the classroom while living it during my day job was an incredible opportunity to deepen both experiences.

You are best known to Brown audiences as a podcaster, but podcasting as a medium didn’t even exist when you were an undergrad. How did you make your way into the field?

When I came to Brown as an undergrad, I concentrated in Urban Studies and thought I’d be a city planner or a community organizer, but I spent most of my free time working at Brown Student Radio and interning at Rhode Island Public Radio. And when I received a Fulbright Scholarship to study community and regional planning, my final project was a radio documentary. I think at some point I realized that audio storytelling was my true passion and that it could be a powerful tool for social change. Back then, we told stories on the radio. Podcasting is really just the same thing on a different platform.

And now you are paying it forward: You teach an undergraduate course at Brown on podcasting, Podcasting for the Common Good: Storytelling with Science, where students actually produce an episode of the Public’s Radio podcast Possibly. What is it like to be in the teacher’s seat at Brown?

We actually first offered this course in the spring of 2020. That March, I had to scramble to figure out how to turn this very hands-on class into something that could be done remotely! But we managed. I have to say, I love teaching. At one point I even thought about becoming a professor, but this is the best of both worlds. I get to tackle fun projects with all sorts of organizations, and then pass on everything I’ve learned to enthusiastic undergrads.

Tell us about your current podcasting work.

Right now, I have a few major projects that take up most of my time: I work with student reporters to produce and host Possibly, a podcast/radio segment that is a partnership between the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio (formerly Rhode Island Public Radio).

I’m also the producer for the Boston Globe’s Rhode Island Report, a weekly podcast where Globe journalist Ed Fitzpatrick and other reporters interview newsmakers in the state. That’s been a fun return to my journalism roots.

I also create podcasts for Scientific American Custom Media. My favorite project involves interviewing the winners of the Kavli Prize, an award that honors scientists in the fields of astrophysics, neuroscience, and nanoscience. I get the chance to talk one-on-one with truly brilliant people. I’m always struck by how patient and humble they are as I work with them to break their complicated discoveries into language everyday people can understand.

I also host and produce the School of Public Health’s Humans in Public Health podcast, a limited series that runs during National Public Health Week where I profile interesting people and research at the School.

People love listening to podcasts when they’re working out or traveling, but the form has more to offer than hands-free convenience. What do we get from podcasts that we don’t get from articles we read, or from traditional broadcast journalism?

I always tell my students that good audio is emotional and personal. What podcasts have to offer, if they’re done well, is the human side of a story. When you read a quote in a newspaper or online, you can’t hear the person’s tone of voice. Are they whispering? Yelling? Laughing? Holding back tears? All of that is revealed when you listen to someone talking.

And these emotional stories can hit us in a way that print can’t. They draw us in and make us care. For example, I knew very little about the Syrian Civil War, and I probably wasn’t seeking out a lot of information about it. But then, a podcast called the Sporkful, a show about cooking, released an episode about a delicious sandwich made at a shop in Aleppo. It seems silly, right? Who cares about lunch in the middle of a civil war? But this quest to figure out how the sandwich was made and if the shop was still open drew me in and made me care about the conflict more than any newspaper headline.

In the same way, we can talk about the impact or the need for certain public health interventions, explain policy, or share health messaging in a way that’s real and interesting when we use the voices of real people. That’s the power of creative audio storytelling.

In terms of the difference between radio storytelling and podcasts, the big difference is you have more freedom when you’re not on the radio. You can set the length, the frequency, and the topic and you can even change your mind in a way that you can’t on the radio.

The COVID pandemic has shown us the incredible power of online communications to do both harm and good. As a professional communicator, what do you say are the most important lessons of the pandemic?

People get overwhelmed by numbers. Experts and celebrities aren’t always the best messengers for important health information. If you don’t explain why a health policy is in place, and just expect people to “trust the science” you won’t get very far. Find a way to share information that’s engaging and accessible. Make information clear, but don’t talk down to people. Personal stories and stories based in your own community are often the most powerful and effective.

How does your Brown training inform your current work?

Brown has trained me in so many ways! I’d say my undergraduate training at Brown taught me to seek creative solutions and new perspectives. Any story is richer when we consider that we might be wrong, or mistaken. Getting new points of view adds complexity and authenticity to any project.

In the MPH program, I gained a greater understanding of how public health experts design, analyze, and evaluate health interventions. Knowing the back end of this work makes it
easier for me to interview scientists of all types. I might not know a lot about their specific discipline, but I understand the research process and everything that involves.

I see myself in many ways as a translator, or a bridge, between experts who have very specific knowledge that needs to be unpacked or decoded before it’s useful for communities
and everyday people. The MPH program made it easier for me to have a foot in both worlds.

What is your advice for current public health students, especially those interested in a career in health communication?

Be curious! Every time you learn something, think about the ‘So what? Why does this matter? How might it affect me and the people in my community?’ Practice explaining what you learn to friends and family members. Pay attention to what interests them and what makes them glaze over. What kinds of follow up questions do they ask?

Don’t assume you’re an expert on something just because you read about it. Work with and talk to people with lived experience. I was eight months pregnant in one of my health intervention courses and three young men were presenting their plan for preventing gestational diabetes. They said pregnant people should exercise for an hour every day and eat no sugar. I was incensed! How many non-pregnant people exercise that much? And pregnancy is hard. Sometimes you just need to eat a cookie.