From Sportswriter to Podcaster

How Albert Chen remade himself to keep telling the stories he loves

Albert Chen had the dream job in sports journalism for nearly 20 years. He started as an intern and worked all the way up to senior editor of legendary sports magazine Sports Illustrated. And then, everything changed. Suddenly, the lifelong print journalist had to find a new way to use his journalism skills and passions.

A meeting with Stitcher producer Jordan Bell changed his life and led to a career in podcasting. Now he co-hosts, with Bell, Stitcher’s All American: Tiger Woods, a top 10 sports podcast on the iTunes charts.

Chen is part of a growing group of print journalists who are transitioning to a new medium of storytelling and he wants others to know exactly what they should and shouldn’t expect when it comes to trading the keyboard for the microphone.


Dream job

Chen grew up in Hastings, Nebraska, hometown of Cornhusker legend Tom Osborne, before moving to Maryland as a teenager. He attended Yale University, which doesn’t offer a journalism major, so he chose to major in economics while he worked for the weekly student paper The Yale Herald. “I spent more hours at the dingy newspaper office than I did at home or at the library,” Chen says.

The first “big break” of his career came when he was chosen as an intern at Sports Illustrated. Generations of sports fans would kill for an internship at SI, but Chen says that he had been hoping for a different publication.

“I wasn’t even necessarily a sports guy,” Chen says. “At the time, you applied for internships at Time Inc. which was the parent company for magazines like People, Fortune, Time, and Sports Illustrated. When I applied I ranked Time and Entertainment Weekly at No. 1 and 2 and I ranked Sports Illustrated third.”

Albert Chen. Photo Credit: Taylor Ballantyne

Still, Chen was far from disappointed by this choice. His desire wasn’t to work for a specific publication; it was to learn how to write in-depth longform stories. SI was famous for doing just that, so he dove right into the internship and learned as much as he could from the iconic sportswriters and editors like Gary Smith and Tom Verducci who worked at the publication. His internship eventually turned into a full-time job in 2000 as a researcher and fact-checker, which allowed him to sharpen his investigative reporting skills.

The next big break came via a little luck of the Irish. Back in the early 2000s, magazines like SI had huge budgets and invested heavily in the storytelling side of their publications. They could afford to send a young Chen to South Bend, Ind. for a week to report a story about #20 Notre Dame’s matchup against #7 Michigan in September of 2002. The game had the potential to be a huge win for Notre Dame, one of the most legendary programs in college football but one that had struggled in previous years. If the Fighting Irish won the game, the story would be a major feature in the magazine. If they lost, it would have been a relatively minor game.

“I reported out a story that I thought had a very good chance of never seeing the light of day, but Notre Dame did beat Michigan,” Chen says. “That was a Saturday and I had to turn around a five-page feature story for Sunday morning. The story ran, and that was my first big story, and then I had a lot more writing opportunities after that.”

Chen went from a researcher and fact-checker to a trusted writer for the biggest sports publication in the United States. For more than a decade, he traversed the country and the world interviewing stars, investigating stories, and writing major features and cover stories for SI. He traveled to Taiwan for a week to do a story on then-Yankees star pitcher Chien-Ming Wang and he spent a month writing a cover story on the Texas Rangers’ enigmatic superstar Josh Hamilton.

“They had the resources to let you as a writer really get into a story,” Chen says.

But the writer’s life can be taxing, especially the traveling and the lack of time in the office with coworkers. So, in 2016 he switched roles again, this time to become an editor. Now he was consistently in the office guiding stories from ideation all the way through to the final moments before publishing. Chen liked the collaboration of being an editor more than the loneliness of being a writer. Working with writers and other editors to craft the perfect story prepared him for the next step in his career.


Podcast junkie

Chen has been obsessively listening to podcasts dating all the way back to when they were called “audio blogs.” Before the pandemic shifted his routine, he had a daily New York City walk and subway ride where he’d consume podcasts like The Bill Simmons Podcast, Winds of Change, Serial, This American Life, Reply All, and more.

He had always hoped to transition into the podcast medium one day, but he wasn’t sure how . Then in 2019 his time at SI came to an end due to a variety of circumstances, including uncertainty about the direction of the company under new ownership. Chen left with bittersweet feelings. For 19 years, he’d only ever worked for one company, but he also needed the break. During his time as SI senior editor he had also published his first book, Billion Dollar Fantasy: The High-Stakes Game Between FanDuel and DraftKings That Upended Sports in America. He didn’t take any time off to write or promote the book, so to say Chen was burned out would be an understatement.

During Chen’s time at SI, budgets had shrunk and the ability to spend huge amounts of time and resources on stories was a thing of the past. Podcasts seemed the best home for journalists to do big investigative stories, but he was unsure how he would enter that world without any prior experience. And looking for a job in a totally different industry wasn’t going to be easy.

“I was very interested in audio, and I had been for a while. ” Chen says. “I had no idea how to get from SI to working on a show that I was truly interested in working on.”

So he started having conversations with anyone he knew in the industry. Unbeknownst to him, at the same time, Stitcher producer and host Jordan Bell was formulating an idea for a show called All American that would focus on the stories of athletes. She had one specific athlete in mind for the first season: Tiger Woods.

Photo provided by Chen

 

But there was a problem. Bell wasn’t a big sports fan and needed a co-host who could be a guide into that world. A mutual friend who had worked on a podcast at SI before moving on to Stitcher knew Chen was looking to break into podcasts and introduced the two. They met for the first time in December 2019 to talk about the idea. Chen had no idea the meeting would turn into him co-hosting a show; he was just interested in learning more about the industry.

“I was willing to do just about anything—write, edit, consult, get coffee for Jordan, whatever!” Chen says. “The main thing I wanted to do was to learn about podcasting.”

Chen had never covered golf, but as a sports fan was very familiar with Woods’ story. However, he had his doubts about whether a podcast about the golf icon would work since the story is already so well known.

“I told her ‘Do you really want to do a podcast on Tiger Woods?’” Chen says. “There have been 25 books written about Tiger Woods, there have been documentaries, there is a documentary coming out this fall, there has just been an insane amount of time spent on talking about Tiger Woods.”

But he and Bell talked it out over the next hour and half and he came to see the merits of her idea. She wanted to take a different approach. Instead of telling his life story, they would look at how the media has portrayed Woods through the years. Normally this wouldn’t be a great idea, Chen says, but for an athlete as unique as Woods it made perfect sense.


A whole new world

After months of planning and recording a test episode, Chen and Bell got to work recording the real episodes. For a guy who spent years writing longform stories, and subsequent years editing them, the research part of podcast creation came naturally. But there were major differences in the writing part. For one, instead of being narrative-driven, the show was modeled after some of Chen’s favorite podcasts like Reply All and My Favorite Murder, which tell a story via a conversation between the hosts.

And he was no longer a writer fighting for each word with an editor or the editor fighting to sharpen a writer’s story. Chen found the podcast script writing to be a much more collaborative, but sometimes ruthless, business.

Typically, one of the hosts would write a script, send it to the other and it would be almost completely rewritten. In the print world, this would feel insulting to a writer. But Chen says he quickly learned not to take that part of the process personally.

“If you’re a writer who is used to a certain process, well, this process is completely different,” Chen says. “You just can’t be that precious with every word.”

Chen says he’s found the transition to podcasting fairly easy because of the people he’s working with, but has friends who have found the process much more challenging.

“I know former journalists who have moved from print into the podcasting world, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition for some,” Chen says. “I think we’re all finding out that making a podcast is incredibly hard work. So I feel very fortunate to be working with such talented people at Stitcher who really know how to make great podcasts.”

Each episode takes about the same amount of research, time, and writing that he used to spend on a 5000 to 6000 word feature story for Sports Illustrated. All told, the podcast will involve a similar amount of work as his book did.

After the Tiger Woods show wraps up, Chen doesn’t plan on ending his foray into podcasting. Talks are already in the works for season 2 of All American, which would focus on a different athlete. A new season will allow him to continue digging back into his journalistic roots to produce a sports podcast with unrivaled depth and insight.


Editor’s note: I love the marriage of this story and this podcast. Chen wrote the types of stories that “All American: Tiger Woods” covers in depth, so to tell his story, even if briefly, is sweetly meta.

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