Q&A with Lee Mengistu, producer on Revisionist History
Lee Mengistu is an audio producer at Pushkin Industries, where she helps make Revisionist History and other projects, like Malcolm Gladwell’s forthcoming audiobook on Paul Simon’s career. Her work has been published by NPR and the New York Times, as well as independently as the former producer of Mad Chat, a podcast about mental health depictions in pop culture. She is a proud graduate of the University of Kentucky and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Podcast Brunch Club members will remember that we listened to an episode of Revisionist History as part of our playlist on FIXING THINGS. We’re excited to feature the following Q&A with Lee.
What is your role on Revisionist History?
Lee: As a producer, most of my job is in the show’s details. Much of that is in the latter half of the production process. I give feedback on scripts, help direct Malcolm in recording sessions, work with our composer Luis Guerra to sprinkle in the most appropriate (and lovely!) music, and mix episodes.
How was the show conceived?
Lee: This was a few seasons before I joined the team, but from my understanding, Malcolm started Revisionist History as a form of procrastinating on his next book. He wrote an outline of episodes on topics like cars, sports, and the economy, which he took to our executive producer Mia Lobel. She promptly responded, “This is great, but no woman will ever listen to this.” So he revised them, and that’s actually how the pilot episode, “The Lady Vanishes,” came about. We still have some form of that conversation every season, but always come out with stronger episodes because of it.
How do you go about getting the stories/ideas?
Lee: Malcolm famously does not take pitches. They really all come from him! He’s constantly intrigued by the nuggets of information he picks up throughout the year through conversations and research for his various other projects, or a weird bit of archival tape he absolutely must build an episode around, like a press conference by the reclusive Howard Hughes. Then in January he’ll really dig in with our research producer extraordinaire, Eloise Lynton, and do some reporting. And then in late spring he’ll write a script and present it to the rest of the team, when we start to translate them into podcast episodes.
Malcolm Gladwell is a well known writer. Why did he decide to dip his toe into podcasts?
Lee: As someone who’s made a profession out of learning, I think Malcolm just enjoyed the process of mastering another way to tell stories and finding creative ways to build arguments around undeniable, audible evidence. There’s really nothing like the intimacy and power of audio storytelling. And now he loves it! I would not be surprised if the rest of the books of his career came in audiobook form.
What do you hope people take away from the show?
Lee: I really want people to remember that facts can be questioned. Not in a denialist way, of course, but just simply, why are things the way they are?’ For so long most of history has been interpreted in one way by one dominant perspective. But there’s so much we can learn from where humanity has been before, even if it’s as simple as asking, ‘Why do we wash laundry the way we do?‘
If people like Revisionist History, what other shows might they like?
Lee: You’ll probably really like another two other shows from Pushkin, The Last Archive and Into the Zone. They both go deep on bits of history in really unique ways. Outside of the network, I’d also recommend Back Issue, which is more of a fun, modern take on recent pop culture/history, and The Experiment, which examines the history of American ideals.
Posted October 26, 2021.