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Servant of Pod By The Book Episode 29
Sat, 2/6 10:33AM • 22:09
book, laughter, kristen, books, people, feel, living, wrote, steps, read, rules, date, life, frickin, hot chick, guru, influencer, care, loved, thought
Kristen Meinzer, Jolenta Greenberg, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:01
Kristen, how do you feel about New Year's resolutions?
Kristen Meinzer 00:03
Oh, I don't do them. [Laughter]
Jolenta Greenberg 00:06
Yeah, I don't think Kristen touches them... ever?
Kristen Meinzer 00:10
Correct. Yeah. I don't really see the point of it. It's such a very loaded thing to do. It almost feels like it's too much pressure. And if you fail that, it's your resolution, your whole year is ruined. And it's usually ruined within three weeks when you stop going to the gym, or when you start eating cookies again, or whatnot. And so, I'm just like, I don't want to set myself up for failure. I don't want to make a giant declaration on the same date that everybody else on the planet is, I just want to everyday do the best I can.
Nick Quah 00:42
What about you, Jolenta?
Jolenta Greenberg 00:44
I've always been a little bit pro-New Year's resolution. For a long time, in my early years--my teens, early 20s--I sort of enjoyed the momentum of like, "all the nations joining gyms, signing up for yoga, Whole 30 this, and more massages that!" [Laughter] I like the momentum, but I've realized, in doing By The Book, that momentum is pretty easy to recreate. And sometimes the bigger the initial excitement is, the less the changes stick. It's just what I have found, having forced ourselves to do tons of mini- resolutions, is sort of what By The Book can feel like sometimes...
Nick Quah 01:31 Yeah.
Jolenta Greenberg 01:32
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
...where I think, in the long run, I've learned Kristen is right: the ones that feel less like a sort of tidal wave of excitement and more like "here are a billion little tiny changes that over a long period of time add up to that big change you've been wanting."
Nick Quah 01:49
If it isn't clear yet, this is the dynamic Kristen Meinzer and Joleta Greenberg bring to their podcast, By The Book: Kristen's more skeptical, while Jolenta's a little more freewheeling. And that is what makes By The Book, and what it does, so fun. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the good, the bad, and the entitled in the world of self-help books.
Jolenta Greenberg 02:28 Hey, Kristen.
Kristen Meinzer 02:29 Yeah, Jolenta?
Jolenta Greenberg 02:30
Lots of us are feeling really stuck in place right now. Would you agree?
Kristen Meinzer 02:35
Oh, yeah. We're working from home, we're schooling from home, we're living at home, we're socializing on our video screens at home, we're crying at home, we're doing it all at home, right?
Jolenta Greenberg 02:48
Yes, very true. And under these circumstances, some folks are feeling more trapped and less in love with where they live.
Kristen Meinzer 02:56
Oh, but I bet we can try to remedy that right.
Jolenta Greenberg 03:00
Uhhh, yeah, with a book! Because I'm Jolenta Greenberg.
Kristen Meinzer 03:04 And I'm Kristen Meinzer.
Jolenta Greenberg 03:06 And this is By The Book!
Nick Quah 03:10
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg met while working on a news show and became fast friends. That's where Jolenta came up with the idea for By The Book, and knew she wanted Kristen as her co- host. Each episode, Kristen and Jolenta to fully commit to living by a self-help book for two weeks.
Kristen Meinzer 03:28
Sometimes the rules are explicit, sometimes they're implicit, but Jolenta and I work really hard to distill those rules, to find them in the books. And then every book we live by, I think the shortest was only four steps, but it ranges from roughly, usually it's somewhere between six and eight steps that we live by. The longest books sometimes have 10 steps.
Jolenta Greenberg 03:48
And there's always a vernacular, too, that we try to keep intact, even when distilling it, and when talking about it, and living by it, we try to use that as a tool to help sort of immerse us quickly. And then we have to backtrack once we make the episode to make sure everything makes sense and it doesn't sound like we're talking about jibberish intentions too much. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 04:11
They've tried out some of the most famous self-help books of all time, like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and The Secret.
It's sad that I have to just force myself so hard to say things that--other than being a popular, well-known comedian--the other things I'm asking for are super basic. Like, "like myself, feel confident that my dog's not a piece of ****." I'm not reaching for the stars.
Nick Quah 04:37
And they've also tried some recent classics, like The Gifts of Imperfection and Girl, Wash Your Face.
For a book that's supposed to be about living your best life and being happy, the fact that everything is focused on "listen to this lie you tell yourself, and "I lie to myself this way," and "don't do this!" I just thought, first of all, I don't tell myself these lies, and other people, I'm sure, would react better if you didn't just presume they were lying to themselves all the time. There's got to be a better approach to get into things.
Nick Quah 05:06
And they're willing to try all sorts of books, though there is one particular type of book they can't exactly experiment with.
Jolenta Greenberg 04:18
Kristen Meinzer 04:43
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Jolenta Greenberg 05:13
We've always wanted to try dating books or pickup techniques.
Kristen Meinzer 05:17 Yeah. [Laughter]
Jolenta Greenberg 05:18
But as we are both legally partnered, in monogamous relationships, our partners have requested we not, but I've... That would just be so much fun to try, and just make for such good sound of like, one of us psyching ourselves up, either getting a hit or a miss... Ugh, it would just be so much fun to make.
Kristen Meinzer 05:38
Yeah, living by The Rules would be amazing. If we could live by The Rules, it would be fantastic.
Jolenta Greenberg 05:43
That's the book about how to get a husband?
Kristen Meinzer 05:45 Yeah.
Nick Quah 05:46
Tell me more about it, because I've only heard about it passing.
Jolenta Greenberg 05:49
Oh, my gosh, the opposite of The Game. [Laughter]
Kristen Meinzer 05:52
Yes. It's essentially like, "Don't call him back for four days, only wear dresses, keep your hair long."
Jolenta Greenberg 05:58 "Make this chicken on date 8."
Kristen Meinzer 06:00
Yeah. There are a lot of rules about how to essentially play yourself down, to be feminine, not threatening, submissive...
Jolenta Greenberg 06:10 Chasable, but interested.
Kristen Meinzer 06:12
Yeah, all of the above. And the authors of that book, if I'm not mistaken, they were very, very highly educated businesswomen who just wanted to apply certain principles of business to dating. "You just gotta have your goal in mind, you gotta follow the steps, you gotta do this, and then by the end of this, you'll have a husband," and they did. But what most people don't talk about is that while both of them got married, I think it was only three years later, they both got divorced also.
Nick Quah 06:40
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
So what was it like when you first started to read these books and follow the guidance?
Jolenta Greenberg 06:45
I think what's been shockingly difficult throughout this process is distilling the actual advice from books as we begin the two weeks, and making sure Kristen and I, after reading it, agree, like, are these the sort of things that the book is outlining that will improve our lives, or did you read this completely differently?
Kristen Meinzer 07:10
I mean, I'll just be frank with you: a lot of self-help books are just really poorly written. They're absolutely...
Nick Quah 07:15
Well, that... That's what I was gonna say! [Laughter]
Kristen Meinzer 07:17 They're absolutely terrible.
Jolenta Greenberg 07:17
A lot of them are based on tweets. [Laughter] Or like, a fun idea with nothing behind it.
Kristen Meinzer 07:25
Yeah. And a lot of them are just like, "I felt this thing, and then I said this thing to myself," and then there's nothing there beyond that. Where are the action items? Where are the actual steps? What am I supposed to do other than just visualize this thing? A lot of self-help books are really like, "If you can dream it, you can do it." And it's like, "...And? And then what?" [Laughter]
Jolenta Greenberg 07:46
"And here's how I, a privileged, white, often male person did it."
Nick Quah 07:52 Yeah.
Jolenta Greenberg 07:53
"Yay. You don't have those resources, or the benefit of that doubt, bye!"
Kristen Meinzer 07:58 Yes.
Nick Quah 07:59
I don't want to stereotype, because I actually consume a lot of self-help stuff and I do personally take some good amount of value from some of it, but I feel like the kinds of people who are drawn to, who's saying that "I will write a self-help book," it takes a certain kind of character. [Laughter]
Jolenta Greenberg 08:14
Ohh, they're amazing. They are amazing people. That's one of my favorite things about this show, that I think has has never waned, is the fact that, essentially, in reading a self-help book, we get to read a
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
self-study in obsession, and how to alleviate, or feel like some sense of control over, what said person is obsessed with in any area of life, whether it's like home decoration, storage, meditation, you name it. It's a study in extreme people.
Kristen Meinzer 08:52
And there's something really interesting about the personality of someone who feels like they've figured it out enough that they should be a guru for the rest of us, because a lot of them, if you scratch the surface, it's like, "I don't actually know if you should be a guru. I don't think you should." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 09:10
"You're as messed up as I am!"
Kristen Meinzer 09:14 Yeah.
Nick Quah 09:20
After the break, Kristen and Jolenta's picks for some of the best, and worst, self-help books they've lived by.
Nick Quah 09:41
Since starting By The Book, Kristen and Jolenta have become published authors themselves. Kristen wrote a book called So You Want To Start a Podcast, and she and Jolenta wrote a book together called How To Be Fine, all about the lessons they've learned from reading so much self-help. And Kristen learned what the building blocks of a good self-help book are.
Kristen Meinzer 10:00
I would say state clearly what your premise is, then follow through with distinct steps and chapters. I mean, I'm going to introduce the book, tell you my credentials, tell you my overall philosophy, break it into seven sections, and these seven sections will be broken down further, and every single part will be actionable and easy to follow, and there will be examples in every single chapter.
Jolenta Greenberg 10:25
But if you were told to make a chart of just the steps, you could, so easily.
Kristen Meinzer 10:30
Yeah. And I think that one reason I was able to write that book as effectively as I did was because I'd read so many bad self-help books for By The Book with Jolenta. And with Jolenta, I'm like, oh, I could not write a book that's as bad as these ones. So I really thank you, all bad self-help book writers, because thanks to you, I wrote a better book. Thank you.
Nick Quah 10:53
They crawled so that you can run.
Kristen Meinzer 10:55 Yeah.
Jolenta Greenberg 10:56
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Nick Quah 10:57
And Jolenta? Would you agree that that would be the the right rule to approach a self-help book?
Jolenta Greenberg 11:03
Yeah, actual steps with the goal clearly stated. And also, I think, one of the books that I didn't necessarily love the advice, but I loved a section, was Dan Harris's Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics, in which he talks about how he is an affluent, straight white man who was born into an upper middle-class family, got a good education that was paid for--essentially, he was born on third base. So it's easy for him to preach about taking an hour to meditate every day when he has a nanny and health insurance. Just having that acknowledged makes the advice, to me, so much friendlier, and so much I don't feel talked down to about my station in life if I can't match where the author is also starting from, and I just thought it was such an easy thing to put in a book, and it really made a difference for me as a reader. And it's one of the only times I've seen it, and we've read over 50 books.
Kristen Meinzer 12:08 Yeah.
Nick Quah 12:09
Yeah, that's also come across to me listening to the show, and also reading a bunch of self-help books myself, is the sense that so many of these books are, most of the time, and to really reduce it down to a stereotype--I'm sure there are exceptions, really important ones--but it really does feel like, more often than not, even the notion of the project of mounting a self-help book comes from a sense of privilege, and also comes from an unawareness of how that privilege prevents it from being really universally effective. And I'm curious as to whether you've seen any really strong examples of a self-help book that really is grounded and understands its privilege?
Kristen Meinzer 12:48
Oh, yeah. I was gonna say, you hit the nail on the head there, Nick. There are so many books that pretty much are saying, "If I can do it, anyone can!"
Jolenta Greenberg 12:56
All books by influencers and bloggers.
Kristen Meinzer 12:58
Yes. And none of them mention, "Oh, my parents paid for a prestigious private school. I never had to take out loans to go to college."
Jolenta Greenberg 13:05
"When I was applying to Harvard, I got nervous I wouldn't get in. That was hard, but I overcame it. Yay!" [Laughter]
Kristen Meinzer 13:12
That's a real self-help book we looked at.
Jolenta Greenberg 13:13
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
That's a legit self-help book!
Kristen Meinzer 13:16
And that was her story of struggle, to show if she can deal with struggle...
Jolenta Greenberg 13:20 That was her one obstacle.
Kristen Meinzer 13:21
Yes. But yeah, there are absolutely books that I think do a better job of that. There was one we lived by this last season, So You Want To Talk About Race, that was absolutely one of the best self-help books we have not just lived by this season, but ever. And it's also just one of the best books I've ever read in my whole life. And a lot of it, for people of color, might be obvious, especially people of color living in America. But what I thought was so good about it is she speaks frankly about the mistakes she's made. She speaks frankly about the advantages she has. She speaks frankly about the times where maybe she was being biased towards certain people and wasn't doing the best that she could, and that was so refreshing. We hardly ever get to hear those kinds of stories in the self-help books we read, and especially when there's so much at stake in that kind of book. And that was just so refreshing. And it made this book that was so important, that much more relatable and less scary, I'm guessing, for a lot of the readers.
Nick Quah 14:25
what kinds of self-help books would the both of you like to see more of?
Jolenta Greenberg 14:31
I feel like that's easy. The ones that look outward more. There are the ones that look inward that are like, "You can cultivate this bubble of everything you imagine, and perfection, and try to keep it and curate it like an influencer." Or, there are the ones where it's like, "Let's try and push a bubble of contentment, as far out as we can and make neighborhoods happy," or, "Get involved in our political system and make changes," or, "Look at how we talk about and treat race." It's the ones that look outside of us.
Kristen Meinzer 15:05
Yeah, the ones that try to tackle the things that cause us to be unhappy in the first place, because if we're dealing with the systems and fixing those, that's going to do way more for us than just telling people to visualize each morning before they get out of bed. I'm not saying that visualization in bed each morning won't make that one person a little happier, but it won't fix the systems that are causing all those people to not want to get out of bed in the morning in the first place.
Nick Quah 15:29
So not self-help, but mutual aid, essentially.
Kristen Meinzer 15:33
Yeah, I mean, some people call it community care, some people call it self-help with a broader lens.
Jolenta Greenberg 15:39 Humanist self-help.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Kristen Meinzer 15:41
It's part of a social movement, more than anything, the idea that self-help and self-care... I mean, and part of it is just because self-help and self-care, this was originally an Audre Lorde idea, taking the idea of self-care as a revolutionary thing for Black women saying, "I take care of myself, and that in and of itself is a revolutionary act. It's one that says I belong here--taking care of myself, choosing to live, choosing to wake up each day, choosing to stay strong for the fight." That is a Black woman's vocabulary, originally, that was essentially stolen by a bunch of white self-help people.
Jolenta Greenberg 16:21 On a Karen's Pinterest board.
Kristen Meinzer 16:23
Yes, yes. So that's the origin of the term "self-care" in America. And so to broaden out beyond that, and to look beyond the individual and the community, and to think in terms of community care is kind of an extension of that. And I think that's what Jolenta and I are saying, that we think it's important to acknowledge the roots of where the terminology of self-care first came from, and then to broaden that to something that can help more than the individual.
Nick Quah 16:50
Hmm. Looking at the entire body of books that the both of you have tried out, what would you say has been each of your favorites?
Jolenta Greenberg 17:01
I'm gonna just say the first thing that comes to mind, which is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. And I know that sounds so basic, but I feel like it really helped get me from dragging a bunch of belongings with me every time I move to another apartment and not even thinking about what they are to now knowing what I own, and where chargers are, and what they go to, and being better at donating things as I am done with them, or just thinking twice about buying something if it's fast fashion. I feel like organizing my life and taking inventory of my stuff. And giving it away, and recycling it, and all of that helped give me a cleaner perspective on so many different things in my life. And that sounds so frickin' corny, but it's true.
Nick Quah 17:56
Safe space to be corny here.
Jolenta Greenberg 17:58
And I still fold my socks like cute frickin' pinwheels. [Laughter]
Kristen Meinzer 18:03
I really enjoyed living by Why Good Things Happen To Good People. It's not a perfect book, some of its... It has some cringeworthy moments in its writing, but the overall philosophy of doing good in the world doesn't just make the world a better place, which will then make us happier, but just the simple act of being kind causes us to have an endorphin rush that increases our happiness in the moment. Even talking behind people's backs and saying kind things about them, that gives us a rush and makes us happier, and I really loved living by that book. What's not fun about waking up each day and thinking,
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
how am I going to be kind today? How am I going to make someone else's life better today? I loved that. That was the whole book and I loved it. And I was so happy when we live by that book. I loved it.
Nick Quah 18:51
Feel free to punt this one if it feels inappropriate, but what are both of your least favorite book that you lived by?
Jolenta Greenberg 18:57 So many!
Kristen Meinzer 18:58 Oh God, yeah.
Nick Quah 18:59
Gotta pick one! [Laughter]
Kristen Meinzer 19:03
I hated The Four Agreements. I know it is a crowd pleaser. People frickin' love those four agreements.
Jolenta Greenberg 19:08
I was underwhelmed by that one as well.
Kristen Meinzer 19:12
That was very disappointing. There's a lot of victim blaming in it. And there's a lot of victim blaming in lots of self-help books, but that one in particular, it's like, "If you're abused, maybe you need to think about what you did to ask for it" is essentially what it's saying through half the book. It's like, uh, what? It's like, "Maybe it's just your fault your feelings are hurt, because no one can hurt your feelings. Yeah, so if someone beats you up, it hurts. But maybe you made the decision for that to hurt." And it's like, well, maybe they shouldn't have beat me up in the first place.
Kristen Meinzer 19:42
Yeah, but there was a lot of that in that book and Jolenta and I both were like, "Whoa, eek!" [Laughter]
Jolenta Greenberg 19:42 Yeah.
Nick Quah 19:49 Jolenta, what's your pick?
Jolenta Greenberg 19:50
I mean, my pick is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a ****, which I feel like is just sort of the same book wrapped in a ******bag veneer, where it's just... It's by this guy, Mark Manson, who used to be known for being a pickup artist and wrote a book on how to date models. And then he decided he's a self-help guru--because that's where the market shifted, most likely--and wrote a book about how he realized flashy cars and all the hottest chicks don't fulfill your heart, and getting turned down by a hot chick and hiking by a tall cliff really gave him perspective. And it's just written from like one of the most unaware vantage points, sort of like what you were talking about earlier, Nick--this guy has no idea how
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
privileged he is and just how awful he sounds while telling people to sort of get over their bullshit and follow their bliss.
Nick Quah 21:02
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate it.
Jolenta Greenberg 21:05 Thank you. It was so nice.
Kristen Meinzer 21:06 Thank you so much, Nick.
Nick Quah 21:20
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/ servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Servant of Pod Podcasts For The End of The World Episode 28
Sun, 1/31 3:54PM • 27:38
laughter, people, climate, feel, narrative, story, world, climate change, russell, death, power, happen, grief, podcast, long, writing, specific, pod, oil companies, unfair
Justino, Laurie French, Amy Westervelt, Sophie Townsend, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:07
We've made it to the end of 2020, one of the worst years in recent history, and a year that's felt pretty apocalyptic. So, to close out 2020, we figured why don't we sit with that feeling a little more?
Amy Westervelt 00:23
It can be very depressing, both in terms of what might happen with unchecked climate change, but also in terms of all this power structure stuff. The more I learn about just how well-funded and organized all of the the efforts have been to stop climate action, it both makes me feel like it's possible to do something about it, but also gives me a keen awareness of just how hard that will be. So, yeah. I'm a downer at parties sometimes. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 01:00
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: podcasts for the end of the world.
Nick Quah 01:25
Amy Westervelt has a history of forging her own path.
Amy Westervelt 01:29
I went through this period in junior high where I saw the movie Working Girl, and I thought that Melanie Griffith was so cool in that movie, and I wore power suits to junior high. [Laughter] I don't even know where my mom found them, or why she thought it was a good idea to encourage this, but like, full-on shoulder pad suits. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 01:58
Wait, what was the intent there? Like what were you...? [Laughter]
Amy Westervelt 02:03
I just thought that it looked cool, and it was sophisticated--and people mercilessly made fun of me. And I just was like, "They don't know. I'm so far ahead of the curve." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 02:17
She's brought that "give no ****s" attitude to her work as an award-winning writer, journalist, and podcaster. Amy's been reporting on the climate crisis for several years now, and she's the creator of Drilled, an investigative podcast about the fossil fuel industry, now in its fifth season.
Hora este rio Aguarico, hace tiempos, en la explotación petrolera de Chevron Texaco, vertieron miles de barriles de petróleo.
Amy Westervelt 02:45
This is a video of Justino on YouTube. He's standing on a bridge over a huge rushing river, and he's saying this river, the Aguarico River, long ago, when they were exploring for petroleum, the oil companies dumped thousands of barrels of oil into it.
Vertieron aguas tóxicas por este rio, por este rio, que a nosotros por miles de años nos proveía de alimento.
Amy Westervelt 03:11
"They've dumped toxic water into this river"--he means wastewater from oil and gas drilling--"into this river that for thousands of years nourished us."
Yo soy testigo de como a sido-
Nick Quah 03:23
She's also one of the founders of Critical Frequency, a women-run podcast network that produces shows about climate change and justice. That kind of information can be pretty difficult to absorb. So, how do you share this doom and gloom in a way that doesn't feel completely hopeless?
Amy Westervelt 03:41
The big thing for me, and this is the reason that I have, in the last, I would say 10 to 15 years in particular, really focused on on the accountability piece around climate, is that for me, there's something soothing about understanding that we're really talking about a fairly small group of people here. There's specific people who made specific decisions that put us all on this pathway, and it's not this... I find the the narrative of "general human failing" to be really unproductive. [Laughter] You know? "Welp, I guess we're just too short sighted to do anything about this." That doesn't make me feel like doing anything. But if it's like, "Oh, actually, we have these systems in place that have given an unfair amount of power to a small group of people, and we need to do everything we can to change that," that at least--it's a huge task, it's a massive undertaking--but it's at least something that could work. It's very specific, and it doesn't require widescale behavior change or us making a couple of giant leaps in our evolution. [Laughter] So, yeah.
Nick Quah 04:56
Say more about that, because my impression is that it does take evolutionary change, or widescale change. Can you unpack that a little bit more for me?
Amy Westervelt 05:04
I mean, yes, it does take systemic change. But I think that it's more specific and not like... We need to learn how to think long-term, we need to shift the focus of our society, there are massive energy structures that need to change, we need to think through power, and accountability, and all of those things. But there are actual examples in the past of societies doing that successfully, whereas there are no examples of humans, suddenly en masse, being able to think long-term. [Laughter] I mean, I think, actually, there's a lot of good examples in the Civil Rights movement that you can look at as like, "Okay, here's a movement that began with absolutely no idea that it would ever succeed." But... And, in fact, encountered loss after loss after loss, and kept going, and still continues today to push, and make incremental improvement, and all that kind of stuff. The issue, of course, on climate is that the window of time is dwindling. We have seen revolutions happen in human history--it is a thing that has happened multiple times. I do think that there's a possibility that that is something that could happen, and that might need to happen to actually do something about this.
Nick Quah 06:36
Hmm. So, from your vantage point as a journalist, and as a person who tells these stories, who makes these, essentially, media experiences for people to consume, who you trying to reach? What is the specific outcome in your mind? Like, "I'm telling the story of the season in Drilled, these are the people that are hoping to hit, and change their minds, and mobilize them somehow." How do you think about things like that? Or do you think about things like that?
Amy Westervelt 07:01
I do think about that. And I think that was actually a big part of the thinking around the show in general.
Nick Quah 07:08
The true-crime framing.
Amy Westervelt 07:09
The true-crime framing, yeah. I was like, if we can get this information out to people in a very digestible narrative way, then I think we could get a lot more people choosing to listen than would necessarily sign up for a very serious climate show. [Laughter] Which is pretty much all that existed when I started Drilled. It was like, "two serious people discussing climate," and I'm just like "Aww." [Laughter] There takes a specific type of person to tune in to that, and I don't think that they're the ones that necessarily need much convincing. So I do think there's people that were maybe kind of climate curious and this was an easy way to learn about some stuff. And then I've heard from a lot of people that it's given them something to send to more skeptical relatives, because--and this was another thing, too, that I learned in reporting the podcast, that--in the second season we followed this group of crab fishermen who wound up suing all the oil companies, and more than half of them were pretty hardcore conservatives who actually don't, quote-unquote, "believe in" climate change.
Laurie French 08:24
We're kind of both of the opinion that climate change has happened since the beginning of time. I mean, if you look at, okay, the dinosaurs began during Henry--I think it was Henry VIII, so I think we're going through a mini-Ice Age.
Amy Westervelt 08:39
Seeing what the oil industry knew and when, and what they did with that information, has shifted her view a bit.
Laurie French 08:45
Yeah, I would say there's some definite exacerbation.
Amy Westervelt 08:48
But ultimately, it kind of doesn't matter. For Laurie, it's less about climate change and more about fairness, the idea that everyone should be dealing with the same information, that people and markets shouldn't be manipulated, that most people and companies are at least trying to do the right thing.
Laurie French 09:06
And I would like to think that most people operate on an honest playing field, but they don't. And I don't know why I still keep getting surprised by that. I just do.
Amy Westervelt 09:17
And now, they're at a point where climate change is impacting their industry, and they're just like, "that's unfair. That's a rigged system. It's not fair." And so I think that very basic narrative, that's kind of the first thing that toddlers understand, fairness. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 09:34
Amy Westervelt 09:35
It's a lot more effective at getting through to a wider array of people than beating people over the head with the science and making people feel stupid when they don't understand it, and also even requiring that people understand the science enough to have an opinion about it one way or another, which I think has been just way too high of a bar that the climate movement has had for a long time.
Nick Quah 10:01
Like, "This is the science, the science checks out" kind of deal.
Amy Westervelt 10:04
Yeah, it's like, most people don't even have a basic understanding of biology, never mind climate science, which is many times more complicated, you know? So yeah.
Nick Quah 10:16
I'm curious, from your experience as a journalist covering climate stories, advancing arguments, and working against an environment of disinformation, of short-term thinking, etc., etc., etc., how do you change somebody's mind, from your perspective?
Amy Westervelt 10:33
I have had the best luck personally in doing that by--and this is, I think, part of what drives my obsession with primary documents--I think, seeing a document from a company, an internal document that shows exactly what their strategy was, is very compelling. I have only once had someone accuse me of Photoshopping. [Laughter] I think that really showing people that the data on things is very helpful. And also what I tend to do with people who--I mean, I don't always engage with the people that are like, climate-denier trolling. But I have had pretty good luck, actually, even with those folks of--you know, maybe the original person is never going to change their mind, but like three or four other people will be like, "Oh, thanks for providing that information. That was interesting." You know? I'll provide things and then I'll ask, for them, where does your opinion come from? What data is that based on? Show me your research. And that often ends the argument, because the reality is there's not a lot of good research that disproves that climate change is happening. So yeah, I do think that that tends to be helpful, to try as much as possible to get people to do their own research, so that it's not me telling them, they're kind of like, "Oh, I didn't realize there was this whole other layer to it." And then I do think that, because climate for so long was talked about as a science problem, I think engaging people in the broader inequality and powerful people weaponizing and abusing their power narrative is... tends to be more... it's just more relatable. [Laughter] Yeah.
Nick Quah 12:33
How do you find your footing in the face of most people being incentivized to look the other way? Or to see things not in the way that you see things? Where does that self-confidence come from?
Amy Westervelt 12:44
I think the thing that gives me confidence in the work that I'm doing now is that I feel like it's not about me. It's not my opinion. I think I've come to a place where I'm like, this is what's needed to protect everyone. And I feel like I've always been... I don't know, I've always sort of had maybe an overdeveloped sense of righteous indignation. [Laughter] And a feeling of obligation to fight for the underdog or fix things that are unfair. So anyway, that to me is what the climate story is about right now. It's more of a power problem than an energy source problem. So that gives me a certain amount of a thick skin, I think, because I just feel like I'm fighting for other people.
Nick Quah 13:45
Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really admire your work. And I wish you the best of luck for everything else that you get to do.
Amy Westervelt 13:53
Thanks, Nick! I wish you a lifetime of giving no ****s. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 14:00
I will internalize that. I will work really hard to internalize that. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 14:11
So, how do you function when your world is ending, but the rest of the world goes on? More in a minute.
Nick Quah 14:29
The thing about the end of the world is that it doesn't have to be some sort of cataclysmic worldwide event.
Sophie Townsend 14:34
The really difficult thing for me when he died was that my world had ended, and yet it hadn't. I mean, it clearly had not. I had children to get to school, I had a job--which I threw myself into--I had all sorts of things to do. So all the evidence suggests that the world has not ended.
Nick Quah 15:04
This is Sophie Townsend, an editor and producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the creator of the podcast Goodbye To All This. The show is a 12-part series about the death of her husband, Russell.
Sophie Townsend 15:18
We have breakfast and get the girls ready for school. Russell kisses us goodbye. His doctor has ordered a full body scan, just to be sure. And he's going, but just to be certain. And I have coffee with the school mums. Then my mobile rings, and I go outside to take the call. And I tell them what he tells me: a shadow on his lung. The tightness, the protein marker in his blood, and now, a shadow on his lung.
Nick Quah 16:08
After his death in 2012, Sophie started writing about her loss and widowhood. It wasn't until 2018 that audio production company Falling Tree approached her with the idea to turn her story into an audio memoir and submit it as a pitch to the BBC World Service.
Sophie Townsend 16:24
After some months going back and forward, they decided that they'd like a 12-part series, which seemed to me sort of extraordinary after doing little bits and pieces, and little moments from the last eight years since he died, to be given the freedom to actually tell the whole story from beginning to end. I mean, it hasn't ended because clearly grief doesn't work like that, there's not an end date. But to take that story of him being diagnosed, and getting sicker, and then dying, and then looking at what happened next, was a real privilege.
Nick Quah 17:17
To what extent does working on these pieces about Russell's death help you work through that grief?
Sophie Townsend 17:25
I think if you want to get over grief, probably going to a therapist is a better idea than making a 12-part podcast. [Laughter] I was thinking about it, because a friend said to me, "This must help you get through it." And I don't think it does. I think that's a very separate process. But I think there's something in me that is compelled to tell stories, and this is a story. And I have--"enjoyed" is probably not the right word--I think I've been slightly compulsive about shaping it into a narrative. And I think at times that feels like it helps, and possibly does, but I also think there's this... When you shape something into a narrative, and this is quite raw, and I haven't shaved off the difficult bits, but life is actually different to a narrative. And I think there's a lot of stuff that is sort of pre-language and pre- that sort of narrative drive of first, second, and third acts that sometimes I feel like, "Oh my god, I haven't dealt with the icky bits that lie beneath." Not even what I don't want the world to know, or that I'm trying to keep private, there are just very sort of... those cellular feelings that don't make it in there.
Nick Quah 19:15
So what you're saying is the act of building a narrative, and storytelling, is to impose or create a sense of order, and a lot about this experience is extremely chaotic and defies order.
Sophie Townsend 19:27
Yes, I think that's exactly it. And I think there is something about, particularly the episode about the night of his death, which is very much focused on the lack of... I have no clear memories of that night. So I've written it as sort of, "Did this happen then, or when did this happen?" And I explore that.
Sophie Townsend 19:56
I go to coffee, get back from coffee, make phone calls, answer the door to a friend who wants to visit Russell. I tell them he's sleeping. They leave, not wanting to disturb him. I pick up some groceries, I have lunch, I tidy upstairs--sweeping, not vacuuming, because I don't want to wake him up. I make myself a cup of tea and sit by him as I drink it. He's sleeping deeply still. And I think to myself, as I did this morning, "Good. He needs his rest.”
Sophie Townsend 20:44
And that was actually the time where I felt narrative is most useful. That was the first time I'd actually ever written about his actual death. It was therapeutic. It did free me up from a whole lot of vague feelings that were just sort of sitting there collapsed into each other. And it's not like I worked out exactly what happened, but I thought by writing through that I got a kind of a shape from all those. So I think there are moments in the story where actually writing stuff down has been really important.
Nick Quah 21:36
So, I've been listening to each episode as it comes out weekly. And hearing them released this way, I get the sense you're still working through stuff. And so I'm curious, how does it feel whenever a new episode gets released?
Sophie Townsend 21:53
Pretty, pretty awful, actually. [Laughter] I am really proud of this work. And I'm really deeply privileged that... I mean, what a gift to be given to be able to tell this story. But I have found each time it goes... I wasn't quite prepared for this sort of drip feed of it.
Nick Quah 22:25
Like the weekly cadence?
Sophie Townsend 22:27
Yes. That it would just... I feel like I'm reliving--not quite reliving, that's not quite the right word--but I kind of go back into that space. And it has been hard to, because obviously, I am a person that needs to work, and see people, and raise children, and I do feel like there's a part of me that every week has collapsed a little bit. And yet, I'm in a space in my life where I have to keep going. I had this idea, Nick, that it was just, "This is work. This will be fine. This is what I do. I'm a professional. I'll just get through it." But it has been much, much harder than that. I think, now, "Of course it's... What were you thinking? Of course it's hard." It has been surprisingly difficult for me.
Nick Quah 23:40
It's been nearly a decade since Russell's death. And so when you look back now, what do you think is at the heart of the story?
Sophie Townsend 23:49
I think it's a story about finding who I am. And I think back on my marriage to Russell, who was older and wiser than I was when we got together, more advanced in his career, knew himself in a way I didn't know myself. And I think... I mean, there were 100 reasons we got together. But part of what attracted me to him was because I felt so sort of all over the place. And kind of, "What should I do? Who am I?" And it was very comforting to me to be with someone who totally had it together. I mean, he obviously didn't have it totally together. But he was much more together and "grownup"--whatever that means--than me. And I think, since his illness and death, my struggle, as much as it's been about the grief of losing him and missing him--and I miss him terribly--there's been a sort of, like, finally, I got to look at who I was in the world, and what I would do, and coming up against that, and I've always been a person who has resisted growing up, and understanding money, and understanding how to pay bills, and it's all been very sort of like, muddle-headed, screwball-comedy heroine, which annoyed the hell out of Russell, and I just came up against... Actually, I don't know if you call it growing up or finding oneself, or... I think that's what the story is about: how do you live with yourself, and how do you proceed in the world, and who am I, and what do I want?
Nick Quah 26:18
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I feel like I have such a deeper understanding of the show now.
Sophie Townsend 26:25
Nick Quah 26:25
Thank you very much for talking to me.
Sophie Townsend 26:27
Oh, thank you so much.
Nick Quah 26:44
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Dream Second Season Bonus Episode
Sun, 1/31 10:53AM • 13:07
people, series, anthology series, episodes, picks, podcast, dunk, documentary, laughter, objects, hear, grouse, love, film, premise, habitat, washington state, upstairs bedroom, portrait, caroline
Ashley Ahearn, Caroline Crampton, unknown, Amy Nicholson, Vince Carter, Adnan Virk, Nick Quah, Halloween Dialogue, Lynn Levy
Nick Quah 00:08
Hey, everyone! This week we're doing something a little different. Instead of a full-length episode, we're giving you something more bite-sized, based around a fun theme: a dream second season of a podcast that only had one season. I spoke with Hot Pod contributor Caroline Crampton about it, and we each narrowed it down to three picks.
Lynn Levy 00:26
So, it was a hard-fought contest, but I think this spot goes to a series called Finding van Gogh, which was made... this is actually from 2019. The five episodes of series one came out September 2019. It was made by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, and it's about a painting called The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which is supposedly the last portrait completed by Vincent van Gogh. And it was sold mysteriously into private hands about 30 years ago. And this museum was running an exhibition, I think, of van Gogh's portraits and they wanted to be able to include this. So the curator started going, "Okay, well, maybe we can find out who has it and get them to loan it to us for this exhibition." Turns out there was quite a lot more to that process than just, we'll find out who has it and ask them.
It was dynamic. It was full of motion. It seemed to suggest the exposure of something that wasn't entirely observable on the surface.
Not a particularly pleasant man, but something makes him interesting.
In fact, one could argue that this is the most extraordinary portrait of all that he made in his short life. It's a very moving object to stand in front of.
Lynn Levy 01:47
They did five episodes, but I just feel like there's so much they didn't cover about van Gogh, about his relationship with Gachet, who was his doctor who was treating him for some of his mental health problems, and also about this sort of private art world in general that I would love to hear them maybe give this treatment to another Van Gogh painting, or indeed a painting by another artist that's in the museum's collection. I think there's loads of scope for where they could go with it.
Nick Quah 02:12
And it's bilingual. It's both in German and in English.
Caroline Crampton 02:14
It is, yeah.
Nick Quah 02:15
That's fantastic. More bilingual stuff would be really cool. Okay, so pivoting pretty hard into my full OCD nature away from art into sports, ESPN's Dunkumentaries, which is actually one of their very first podcast projects that came out a couple years ago, I want to say it's 2017 or 2016. It was pretty early on in the post-Serial podcast boom. It's basically an anthology series where different producers were given the opportunity to tell different stories about the nature of dunks in basketball.
Adnan Virk 02:47
When it's his turn, Carter is prowling the center of the court. And after about 10 seconds of pacing up and down, he sets off towards the basket.
Adnan Virk 03:05
It's an amazing reverse 360-degree dunk. The crowd goes nuts. And Carter is just strutting around and puffing out his chest.
Vince Carter 03:20
Because I was just, oh, I felt like I had wings. And when I did that dunk right there, I said these guys don't have a chance. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 03:28
What I like about it, in addition to just being a basketball nerd myself, is this notion of getting an anthology series, and you get different producers to approach the topic in their own way, and to think about the kinds of stories they want to tell off the theme, or off the topic, in this case it was dunks. I don't think anybody listened to it. [Laughter] I vouched for it really hard, in whenever it came out, like 2016 or 15, or whatever. And the thing is, is that I love this notion of just getting a ton of all-star hitters together and just making stuff about a random topic. I think that's a really interesting thing that I would love to see more of in podcasting, simply because we are in a place where we have a ton of all-stars right now and I would love to see that cross-pollinate. Okay, so what's your second pick?
Lynn Levy 04:10
So this is a series called On Things We Left Behind, which was actually the winner of a competition that I helped to judge in 2019. It was with LaunchPod and it was an acast-backed sort of "find the next hit podcast" thing. And then the winners got production support and budget to make their full series, and their full series finally came out in August-September 2020. It's made by the daughters of Somali refugees who are now all living in the UK. And it's about the objects that people who have to flee their country, for whatever reason, and move somewhere else, about the objects that they leave behind, and what those things end up meaning to them. And so the pilot episode that I heard as part of the judging process was about letter tapes, cassette tapes that families would record, and post back to people elsewhere in the world, and exchange and pass around communities. And that turned into a two-parter that is the beginning of the series.
It allowed for communicating important, factual things about people's lives, what's going on in people's lives. But also, what I love about them is that they also become like diaries, where people record the daily life, the family gossip, you can hear snatches of life captured in them. Whether that's goats bleating, or people conversing or laughing in the background. And I love the giggling--I think on many of the tapes I found from between my family, people giggling in the background, or you can hear children's voices.
These were slow-moving, long-distance, one-way conversations.
Lynn Levy 05:46
And I just think that concept has got such great legs. There are so many objects and so many communities that you could give that treatment to and they made some really, really moving and quite political stories out of it. So yeah, I would 100% listen to more of that.
Nick Quah 06:01
Wow, Caroline, some serious picks, I feel so fluffy with my... [Laughter] With the rest of the picks I have on my list. Okay, let's go to bat for this one. This, I kind of feel like, this is a pick that I'm gonna get some **** for. So I really, really liked Lynn Levy's The Habitat, which she made for Gimlet a couple years ago.
Caroline Crampton 06:18
I did too.
Nick Quah 06:19
Okay, so the premise is basically it's a documentary, which then Levy follows this group of essentially scientists, or scientist-adjacent people, who volunteered to live remotely in this sort of bubble, and their research of how astronauts, so that basically people can live on Mars, and in whatever colony situation that they're gonna set up there. And so it sets up this premise of a reality documentary series where like, what happens when you put a bunch of smart people, around the same age, in a very small enclosed environment for a very long period of time?
Lynn Levy 06:53
It's early on a Wednesday morning, and the crew has less than 48 hours to go before they get locked into the habitat. They've been together for a few days now, learning all the skills they'll need to pretend to be on Mars. And today, they're learning one more: how to map a new planet. We follow one of the high seas researchers, Brian Shiro, into a lava field not far from the habitat. People are in shorts and t-shirts. It's one of the last times the crew will be able to walk outside without spacesuits on.
Nick Quah 07:23
I'm not saying that I want an extension or a sequel to that specific story. But I, a, want to hear Lynn do more things, I would love to hear her lead another show again, and b, I just like this premise of settling into an extreme situation, and just documenting people. I would love to see someone try that again. Because I think there's a way that is slightly more accessible to do that, which is recording, as opposed to carrying camera equipment. There is a way in which inhabiting these characters, or being with these characters, without knowing how they look like, really sort of created a really interesting relationship response. So that's my second pick. All right, Caroline, last pick.
Caroline Crampton 08:02
The third one I want to mention is perhaps a bit more of a stretch in how I would envision the second series, but it's this series made by--I think local to you, Nick--Boise State Public Radio, Grouse.
Nick Quah 08:16
Caroline Crampton 08:16
Was that gonna be your third, too?
Nick Quah 08:17
That just came out? Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughter]
Caroline Crampton 08:19
Yeah. So they made this series called Grouse, I think in association with BirdNote as well. And I absolutely loved it as a kind of combination of memoir and documentary, and ecology, essentially.
Ashley Ahearn 08:33
Michael Schroeder and I stood on that blackened hillside for a while together, just looking around us and talking about the bird the way you might talk about a loved one who's terminally ill. Michael's old enough to retire, and he's been joking about it since I met him. But he told me he's not going to retire right now. Even though this could be the actual collapse of the sage grouse population in Washington state that he's been worried about for so long. He said he doesn't want to go out on a down note. That, to me, is courage. It's the courage to keep doing our small part, whatever that may be, even if we know our individual actions may not solve the bigger problem. The courage to keep loving the hell out of something, even if we know we may not be able to save it.
Caroline Crampton 09:21
It's about a writer who moved to a rural area in Washington state, and became very invested in the way that one species of bird is being affected by climate change, and the political battles over rural life, and all this kind of stuff. And I think it's a fantastic lesson. And I don't necessarily need eight more episodes about grouse. But it's an approach that I would love to see spun out as a sort of anthology series. So maybe it's a different writer in a different part of the world with a different ecological question, and it could sit under the same banner, if that makes sense. I think we have seen a few people attempt that kind of thematic anthology series over multiple seasons, as opposed to within episodes. And Dan Taberski's Headlong comes to mind in that. So yeah, I'd love to see them do that again.
Nick Quah 10:10
I like how both of us ended up responding to this theme with "I don't necessarily want to see a sequel to this, but I want to see something like this," which I think bodes well for anybody who has dreams to build an anthology series. Okay, another fluffy pick, let's do this. I really liked Halloween Unmasked, which is The Ringer's film kind of documentary thing from a couple years ago, about the movie Halloween.
Amy Nicholson 10:36
They think they're alone. Even so, they go upstairs for privacy.
Halloween Dialogue 10:42
Let's go upstairs.
Halloween Dialogue 10:43
Amy Nicholson 10:45
You retrace your steps to the front yard, look up, see an upstairs bedroom light cut off. You go to the back of the house, faster now. Further, inside the back door, is this still okay? And a hand, your hand, slashes into the frame. Your hand yanks open a drawer, you pull out a knife. No. No, this is not okay.
Nick Quah 11:10
The thing I liked about that franchise, or that show, in addition to the fact that was hosted by Amy Nicholson, who is a film critic and a film podcast host that I love to listen to and just consume her work, is that the documentary felt like very "MTV documentary," it was like really kind of fizzy, it was really bubblegummy, it moved really quickly. It was fun, it was enthusiastic, it had a certain energy to it that was very light. And it didn't feel like I was listening to kind of like a work documentary, a heavy documentary. But something about the way that I think The Ringer figured out a tone that I, as a consumer, really appreciate and would like to see more of, because I think traditionally I tend to sort of cluster towards podcasts that are hefty, like podcasts that see themselves and think of themselves as kind of bookish, but I'm also a massive consumer of pop television. And I love seeing those tendencies trickle down into podcasting. And I would love to see another film be taken up with the Halloween Unmasked approach. Okay, so I think that's it. You have your three picks, I have my three picks. Hopefully somebody out there is listening to this and will go like, "Alright, I will make something like this." Caroline, thank you so much for joining me today.
Caroline Crampton 12:18
Thank you very much for having me.
Nick Quah 12:19
And have a great holiday season.
Caroline Crampton 12:21
Yeah, you too, thank you.
Nick Quah 12:30
So that's it for this week. We'll be back next week with a new full-length episode perfect for the end of the year--and the end of the world. Remember that you can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios. Happy Holidays.
Servant of Pod Morra Aarons-Mele: The Anxious Achiever
Tue, 1/19 12:40PM • 27:11
laughter, anxious, people, introvert, anxiety, social anxiety, feel, pandemic, world, person, feeling, book, achiever, podcast, depression, life, talk, hear, work, thought
Morra Aarons-Mele, Kevin Love, Gabrielle Union, Catherine Shu, Nick Quah
Morra Aarons-Mele 00:01
We mythologize work. We mythologize and fetishize success. But one of the things that Putnam talks about is the third place, and how "bowling alone" is the loss of that third place. It's the loss of that bowling league, where people used to come together outside of work, and outside of church, frankly.
Nick Quah 00:20
This is Morra Aarons-Mele. She's an entrepreneur, and she hosts The Anxious Achiever podcast. The Putnam she's talking about is Robert Putnam, perhaps best known for the book Bowling Alone. In the most reductive sense, the book is about building community, and how hard it is to do that in the modern world.
Morra Aarons-Mele 00:40
For me, my third place has been the internet. [Laughter] And it's been women's communities, and it's been bloggers, and now it's podcasting. Honestly, and I think that if you tend to be a sort of introspective, anxious, introverted, ruminating, solitary-ish person--like I am, and it sounds like maybe you are--but who has a great desire to do good and a large ambition, finding your home in the internet is transformative. And you can do good with that. I really believe it.
Nick Quah 01:13
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: how Morra Aarons-Mele is bringing people together by breaking down mental health barriers.
Nick Quah 01:36
Morra, I want to start off by just telling you a couple of things about me. So I'm an extremely anxious person. And, being an older millennial, there's very little of my self-esteem that I think is separate from my professional success, which is why The Anxious Achiever really resonates with me. So thank you for making it.
Morra Aarons-Mele 01:55
Well, I want to thank you. I feel like every person, who is a person who is well-known and well-respected in their industry, who says things like you just said, is such a huge step forward. You know, that sounds cheesy, but it's so hard for me even to get successful people to go on the record to talk about their anxiety and their mental health. And so thank you--"A." [Laughter] And I have had clinical anxiety and depression--diagnosed--since I was 19. And I'm 44. And so, it's just been such a part of my life, sometimes really, really crippling, and sometimes sort of manageable, but it's my... I travel with anxiety every day like you, it sounds like, and I never heard anyone talk about it who wasn't a celebrity, or wasn't writing a memoir. It always seemed like something that the people that I worked with every day and respected wouldn't talk about. And yet I knew that that wasn't true, if you just look at the statistics of people who are on antidepressants in this country, you just do the math. And I wanted to start having those conversations. I was ready. I had nothing to lose, you know? I was sort of at a point in my life where I'm like, I'm a privileged, white, heterosexual person who's reached a certain age and has a certain level of means and security in her career; I'm gonna talk about this.
Nick Quah 03:34
Well, walk me through the biographical aspect of that. When in your life that you start wanting to talk about it, in your profession and publicly?
Morra Aarons-Mele 03:44
Only a few years ago. I really... I wrote a book about being an introvert, and I am an introvert. It's called Hiding in The Bathroom, because I have worked by myself in a way that a lot of creatives will resonate with, but in the corporate world was kind of weird. I left a pretty demanding corporate career in 2006, and started freelancing, and working for myself, and created a small business where I still mostly work from bed--even before the pandemic--or in my home office, I call myself a "hermit entrepreneur." And I always thought it was just because I was an introvert. You know, I didn't love being with people all day, or doing office politics. So I wrote a book about being a successful introvert. What I learned along the way was, I really have social anxiety. People who are happy introverts don't have near the level of angst that I do when they have to pick up a phone or go to a meeting, you know? They're like, "Well, this isn't my preferred way to spend the time, but I'm going to do it and then I'll go be by myself." And so I just always loved psychology--I actually have half a social work degree--I wanted to be a clinical therapist; I just couldn't figure out how to do it from a money perspective. So it was always my passion. And it was really through writing the book and realizing, "Hey, I don't think being an introvert is the whole piece of this." I think it's really about anxiety and social anxiety. And, again, going through the world as an anxious achiever.
Nick Quah 05:09
I remember hearing in one of the episodes that you also experience anxiety in the lead ups to conducting or giving interviews. I just want to also thank you for coming on the show. [Laughter] And I just want to say, I do have that.
Morra Aarons-Mele 05:23
Nick Quah 05:24
Yeah, it's not... It hasn't been debilitating for a couple of years now. But oftentimes in the half hour running up to one of these recordings, I always get this sort of pit feeling in my stomach, like I'm about to jump out of a plane.
Morra Aarons-Mele 05:37
Do you ever feel the urge to cancel?
Nick Quah 05:39
All the time. I mean, it's not just with interviews, it's just about everything else in my life. Like, even going to the grocery store sometimes, I'm like, "Ah, you know, can I cancel that this week?" Order it online or something.
Morra Aarons-Mele 05:51
Oh, my gosh. So this is interesting, because I actually had a journalist on my show, Catherine Shu, last week, and I was saying, "You're a journalist"--because she has this too--"Your whole job is to call people up and, like, ask them questions."
Nick Quah 06:05
Yeah, let's play a little bit of that.
Morra Aarons-Mele 06:06
How does it make you feel when you know that these powerful people that you’re talking about, or people who hope to be powerful, who are just starting out with startups, will only talk to you off the record about their anxiety and depression because they don’t want to be seen as weak? Does that hurt you as someone who has her own mental health challenges? How do you feel about that?
Catherine Shu 06:31
I think one of the things I was actually thinking about before talking to you is that I still get really anxious before interviews myself all the time. Even if it’s just going to be a 15-minute call and it’s a type of story that I’ve done hundreds of times before, literally, I still get really nervous. One of the things I always remember is that, especially for people who are a very early-stage startup, maybe somebody who’s just raised angel or seed, or even a series A, they’re probably more nervous about talking to me than I am to them.
Nick Quah 07:11
It seems like there are people who work in fields like journalism, or they do public speaking, even though they may have deep social anxiety, because for them, they figure like the gains outweigh the costs. They're doing this thing that they loved in spite of how it hurts them and that's what I get from your show a lot. But there's always this compromise being made.
Morra Aarons-Mele 07:31
Oh my gosh, Nick, I'm kind of having a moment, because I feel like you just hit upon something that I didn't really realize. But I think that's 100% true. And I think that's where the "achiever" piece comes in, and why I feel this work is important, because it doesn't mean that you don't do the thing, right? And I think that's what you're saying, and what you're doing in your work. You persist, right? [Laughter] When you have anxiety, but you are driven by your work, and your work is meaningful to you--or you have depression, or whatever challenge--you feel the horrible feelings, you want to cancel, you want to hide under your covers, but you don't. And you manage through it. And I think it's really important to hear those stories.
Nick Quah 08:22
In The Anxious Achiever Morra interviews big-name professionals about how mental health affects their work. She's talked to CEOs, politicians, professors, and even celebrities, like actress Gabrielle Union.
Gabrielle Union 08:33
For me, success has to look like being a real advocate and really being on the frontlines and figuring out a way of addressing my anxiety in the face of being a truth-teller.
Morra Aarons-Mele 08:43
Well, how do you? I mean, how do you besides… I mean, I imagine you work out a lot. But...
Gabrielle Union 08:48
Yeah, I work out a lot. But I also live with...
Morra Aarons-Mele 08:49
Where do you put all those feelings?
Gabrielle Union 08:51
With my therapist. With professional caregivers. And this is the privilege that I enjoy. I have the means to go to therapy more than once a week if necessary, that I can Skype my therapist, that I can… Not just my therapist. Any range of mental health care providers... And I understand that privilege even more in a time of widespread crisis where we need those people who have the ability and the privilege to speak out, to speak out. If you have the ability to address your anxiety… and for me, to address my PTSD… to address depression and still fight, we need you.
Nick Quah 09:43
Morra didn't think she'd end up making a podcast. She got her start in the early days of the internet, doing marketing and consulting for politicians. Soon, she became a political blogger and appeared on cable news as a pundit, but it didn't work out. She hated the spotlight, and she says her clinical depression helped torpedo that line of work. But what did stick around was her passion for creating community and using her voice for good. In 2011, she founded her company Women Online, an award-winning digital marketing and strategy firm. And that's still her day job.
Morra Aarons-Mele 10:20
I don't do my podcast all the time. It's seasonal. So I do it twice a year, which is nice. And I'm about to start writing another book, and so I have to figure out, do I go on leave with the company? Do I do what I did with my last book, wake up at 5am? I think all of us who are juggling... I hate the word "side hustle," but I guess that's what it is. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 10:39
I also have a complicated relationship with that term.
Morra Aarons-Mele 10:42
Oh my gosh, tell me!
Nick Quah 10:43
It's sort of part of this larger framework of discourse of... I'm just not into the hustle culture, because it's very male, it's very white, and it's also very commoditizing. Everything has to be a commodity in some way, and that always kind of rubs me the wrong way a little bit.
Morra Aarons-Mele 11:01
One of my weirdest claims to fame is in 2013, I coined the term "entrepreneurship porn."
Nick Quah 11:06
Oh, that was you! [Laughter]
Morra Aarons-Mele 11:07
That was me! [Laughter] I think that's exactly it. And it's you're performing. You're performing entrepreneurship, you're performing ambition, but that's not really the truth. Anyone who does it really knows that it sucks, and it's really hard, and it's not glamorous.
Nick Quah 11:24
Why do you think people are so intent on that performance of corporate life? I really don't get it. I think it's painful. And it feels super demeaning to hear people talk about how long they can go without sleep, because they're so committed to their work or whatever. Where do you think that mindset comes from?
Morra Aarons-Mele 11:40
I think it's very American. I really do. I'll never forget living in the UK for many years, and people being like, "I was at the pub all night, and then I went clubbing, and I don't do any work. And oh, but by the way, I aced..." You know. And I thought, gosh, this is so weird. Why aren't they bragging about how late they stayed up studying? I think it's a very interesting kind of American thing, that the early bird gets the worm, and it's amplified by social media. I wish I could go back in time sometimes and see what it was like to be a small business owner before Instagram. Before Fast Company magazine, before hustle culture. I don't know. I think that it's a bad habit we've all gotten ourselves into, and it's got to stop. And my only silver lining that I see in the pandemic is that it will force a reset on some of the hustle bull****. It has to.
Nick Quah 12:39
I not even sure if that happened. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns folks who were like, "Oh, this is the best time to write a novel," or whatever. I could barely get out of bed, let alone write a novel. [Laughter] I feel like there was that long discourse at the beginning.
Morra Aarons-Mele 12:54
I know, but I think that passed now that we're on month 84 of the pandemic. [Laughter] You know, it's weird--because you'll understand this as a small business owner, and as someone who basically is your own brand--if I don't create a little bit of FOMO in people, then they don't want to listen to me, or maybe they won't pay me to come speak, or they don't think I'm important. It's this inner dialogue, and I struggle with it. I have to look like I'm super cool, and out there, and amazing, even though I'm sitting in my suburban home office not talking to anyone all day, because I need to create the illusion. And I think that that's part of what we think entrepreneurship is, but, yeah, it's hard.
Nick Quah 13:35
So how did you figure out how to navigate that corporate professional world?
Morra Aarons-Mele 13:40
I think I just got older.
Nick Quah 13:41
Hmm. Tell me little bit about that.
Morra Aarons-Mele 13:43
Nick Quah 13:45
I'm asking this as a slightly younger person. I'm eagerly looking to get to, I suppose, your place in life, but, um... [Laughter] Help me figure that out. What did you figure out?
Morra Aarons-Mele 13:57
I think I figured out that it wasn't making me happy, it was making me way worse. And when you live with mental illness, you have to be a bit rigorous and serious about taking care of yourself. And, for me, I realized that I had to take care of myself. I have responsibility for small children, as well, and that's a real wake up call. But even without the kids, it was like, Morra, you can be this person that you always thought you should be, and you're just going to keep quitting those jobs, and you're going to keep crying in the bathroom, and you are going to be miserable. Or you can take a little bit of care about yourself, and do a little bit less, and see what happens. And the funny thing is, actually, it worked. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 14:49
I think part of where I still am is this apocalyptic notion of "if I do less, things will fall apart."
Morra Aarons-Mele 14:58
That's your anxiety.
Nick Quah 14:59
Yeah, and I remember hearing it from a bunch of different people, and it kept coming up in the interviews that you've had, and it feels like such a universal feeling. But at the risk of turning this into a Lifehacker article or something, what are your personal practices for slowing down?
Morra Aarons-Mele 15:20
I spend a lot of time by myself, even before the pandemic, because I work by myself at home. So I'm on calls and stuff, but I'm in my head a lot. And that can be bad, and it can be good. So if I'm in my head too much, I need a way to reframe, sometimes quickly. I'll call a friend or a colleague, I'll go for a walk. If I'm in a feeling bad about myself and underachieving funk, I'll write something nice or endorse someone on LinkedIn. I'll try to do something nice for someone else so I get out of my self pity. I think I've learned to try to manage my rumination time. And I don't know if that resonates with you, or anyone.
Nick Quah 16:00
Oh, that definitely does. Tell me a bit more.
Morra Aarons-Mele 16:02
It's really hard. If I wake up in the morning and I can tell, "Oh, man," I'm feeling bad, I'm feeling poor, I'm feeling broke, I'm feeling anxious, I get out of the house. I try to exercise, or I'll go to the grocery store, or the hardware store; anything to break the cycle. I think that it's really, really important to look inside your head, and if you're in a bad sort of spinny, stewing place, try to break it, because anxiety is not a reliable narrator. Right? Not a good place to be. And so that's really important. And I also know that I need a lot of alone time, but that a phone call can also change my day. That's the weird thing about social anxiety: you dread it, and you're scared, and you don't want to have that phone call, but once you're talking to someone you feel good, and you hang up the phone call and you feel better than you did before. And sort of remembering that, coaching myself and saying, "You want to cancel this call? But you love this work, this is important, you're going to feel really energized after--I know you don't want to record this podcast because you're feeling really down today. But you're gonna feel better afterwards." It's almost like going to the gym, right? You don't want to go but you're gonna feel better.
Nick Quah 17:19
Coming up: what Morra learned from an NBA star.
Nick Quah 17:38
So I mentioned this earlier, but so much of my self-esteem is tied to my career. And I'm curious, Morra, how do you build your self esteem at this point in your life?
Morra Aarons-Mele 17:49
Hmm. Gosh, that's a hard one, isn't it? I've sort of accepted that I'm a little bit neurotic, and anxious, and low self-esteem by nature. But I've also really gotten better at not listening to other people and having a much stronger internal compass. And it's the most wonderfully liberating thing in the world, honestly. And I feel free. And I do think some of it is getting older. But for me, it was really about--this is so corny--but doing the work that I love and accepting that I may never be famous, I may never have a number-one best-selling book, but that's okay. I'm still gonna keep doing it. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 18:37
Morra Aarons-Mele 18:38
But I think it's also it's also having a basic sort of--this is, again, corny--a moral code. [Laughter] This is what I stand for in life. Here is what being a good person means to me. And you know what? I'm ambitious. This is why I'm ambitious. It's about what I want to do and the mark I want to make on the world, not about... For me, I had to let go of years and years of my parents, and my coaching, and always being the person that I thought I was supposed to be, and just saying, "You know what? This is my code. This is my ethos. I'm okay."
Nick Quah 19:15
What has been your favorite conversation on the show so far?
Morra Aarons-Mele 19:18
Oh, God. They're all like my children. You know? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 19:23
You love all your children equally?
Morra Aarons-Mele 19:24
I love my show. I don't know if you feel this way, or if you talk to other podcast hosts who feel this way, but I love my show. It is something that I have created from its infancy--with a lot of help--but when I put a podcast into the world, it does truly feel like mine. And that's a very special feeling. So when people don't like it, it really hurts me. I don't know, I feel so personal about it. It's weird. I cannot say that I have a favorite guest. And I'm not just ducking the question. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 19:56
Well then let me reframe it then: what is the most surprising thing that you've learned from the show so far?
Morra Aarons-Mele 20:03
I think I've learned the prevalence of social anxiety.
Nick Quah 20:06
Even more so than before you started the show?
Morra Aarons-Mele 20:08
100%. How much people are truly battling their will to go into the arena of work and success every day. And I think that everyone needs to understand that. Whether you're 19 or you're 40 and you're walking into that room and you feel like you don't belong, I can't tell you how many people who are so impressive... I mean, I just talked to Kevin Love, from the NBA, the guy makes $31 million a year. He's a legend.
Nick Quah 20:37
He's been very public about his depression, yeah.
Morra Aarons-Mele 20:39
Yes! I mean, he is scared. He has social anxiety. I mean, this guy should be a king, right?
Kevin Love 20:48
As athletes, and as an athlete, we’re looked at as superheroes. I know that from growing up and having these superstars in my eyes, like Charles Barkley, or a Shaquille O’Neal, or even before that with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. I’m looking like… these guys are indestructible. Nothing can hurt them. Growing up as a young man, I thought to expose that it was just going to put me in a light where people are going to look at me as weak; not only my teammates or my counterparts, but as I got older, it was general managers, and ownership, and things that were going to really affect my livelihood, let alone the general public. So for me, it was something that before I press send on my first article with the Players Tribune, I was really, I guess scared would be the right word, and uneasy, and had a lot of anxiety, but it was, it just came a point in time and the perfect storm for me in that year that I just didn’t want to live in the shadows anymore.
Morra Aarons-Mele 21:46
I actually really like to talk to really successful white men on the show, because I feel like that's--ironically--although I don't think we need to hear from straight white men in other arenas, I feel like in the area of mental health, because they still hold so much power, it's good to hear from them. And so, yeah, when I hear someone who seems like they should have so much power basically express that they feel powerless, which is what social anxiety kind of is, it blows my mind every time.
Nick Quah 22:12
So you're a mother of three children. When you think about the working world that they're going to grow up into, how do you... Do you talk to them about this kind of thing? Or do you try to set their expectations a certain way, or think about the world that they're going to enter in a couple years?
Morra Aarons-Mele 22:31
I worry a lot about my kids. I see how their connectivity is so totally engaging, and so instant. My tween has just gone into the world of group texting, and...
Nick Quah 22:48
Oh, man. Big move.
Morra Aarons-Mele 22:49
Big move. He feels the need to be on that text. It is his social capital, right? And I just worry about that. I can't quite relate to it. I think that these are kids who... It's funny. They all want to start their own YouTube channel, and the overprotective mother in me is like, "No, you're too young!" But they're like, "Mom, you're all over the internet." Like, "What's up mom? You have a podcast, you're on Twitter, you're on Instagram, you're always sharing photos of me. What's up with that? You're a hypocrite!" [Laughter] And they're right! And so I realized that they sort of have to become brands of their own in life. And it's very weird. It's very weird to have parents, both my husband and I, sort of earn our living online, and to be raising children in this age, and have such conflicting feelings about it all is confusing. Yeah.
Nick Quah 23:43
Do you have a dream guest? Somebody that you really, really want to talk to that you haven't been able to book yet?
Morra Aarons-Mele 23:48
Well, okay, so, if you really want my dream guest, it's Oprah. [Laughter] I mean, let's think big here. Because one of the things that I love about Oprah, she's very open about the fact that she's an introvert, and that she really gears up for her work. And it doesn't come naturally to her, but that the skills... And she's super anxious, and she has developed and channeled those skills into her incredible empathy, right? Her social radar. Her power. And I want every person who's anxious and feels like they don't have power to think of themselves as like, a could-be Oprah. You know? [Laughter] Like, "If I could just manage this and channel this, oh my gosh, I could be Oprah!" [Laughter] It just gets me so excited.
Nick Quah 24:43
That's a really good answer. I didn't know that she considered herself an introvert, that...
Morra Aarons-Mele 24:49
Nick Quah 24:49
I feel like there's a lot of people who I would be surprised consider themselves an introvert for sure.
Morra Aarons-Mele 24:53
Yes, yes. And in fact, I have a whole list of celebrities. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 24:58
Who's the most surprising introvert to you?
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:01
Well, I think the most interesting thing is the amount of comedians who are really introverted and really, really socially anxious.
Nick Quah 25:11
You had John Moe on the show recently, and...
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:13
Nick Quah 25:14
That's his entire sort of like...
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:16
Nick Quah 25:16
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:17
Yeah, because of course, I mean, the truth is, anybody can go out there and wow the room. It's not about whether you're an introvert, or whether you're anxious, or even whether, frankly, you're depressed.
Nick Quah 25:27
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:27
It's about skill and practice. It's a leadership skill.
Nick Quah 25:31
Man, I'm just marveling at the extent to which the pathway to enlightenment, it's always you kinda have to like bushwhack through the corny... [Laughter] My entire sort of cynical millennial brain is contracting against that, but it's but that's absolutely... That sounds really valuable.
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:47
You just have to hang out with Gen Xers, Nick. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:51
I thought your entire generation was about being cool. [Laughter]
Morra Aarons-Mele 25:55
Are you joking? We gave up being cool in 1999. [Laughter] But, you know.
Nick Quah 25:59
Oh, man. Well, Morra, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Morra Aarons-Mele 26:04
Thank you. It's an honor.
Nick Quah 26:21
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Albert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod The Best Podcasts of 2020 Episode 26
Tue, 1/12 8:47AM • 35:04
podcast, year, laughter, people, episode, listen, hosted, series, pandemic, called, big, crime, long, story, true, rebecca, podcasting, sarah, shows, number
Sarah Larson, Leroy Johnson, Amy Brittain, Vann Newkirk II, Michael Brown, Imee Hernandez, Jillian Juman, Chana Joffe-Walt, Penny Rawlings, Shoshana Walter, Sarah Ventre, Children's Choir, Nick Quah, Jamie Loftus, Rebecca Lavoie, Patrick Radden Keene, Hanif Abdurraqib
Nick Quah 00:01
It's been the longest year imaginable, and like almost everyone else on this planet, I'm looking forward to 2021. But before we get there, we should do some looking back. After all, it's that time when critics are made to take stock of the year in culture and publish their lists of the Best TV shows, movies, books, and so on. I have a longer list of the best podcasts of 2020 coming out this week on Vulture, so watch out for that. It's been a strange year for podcasts. There's been a lot of consolidation and a lot of change due to the pandemic. But despite all that, there's also been lots and lots of new shows, some of which were actually great. In this episode, we're gonna talk about some of those shows and dive into the ones we really love. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the best podcasts of 2020.
Nick Quah 01:06
Recently, I called up two people who follow podcasts pretty closely. Sarah Larson, a critic for The New Yorker who writes a lot about podcasts, and New Hampshire Public Radio's Rebecca Lavoie, who is also the host of Crime Writers On..., a podcast that reviews true crime media--including, of course, podcasts. Here's our conversation about the best shows from this year.
Nick Quah 01:28
Okay, let's just kick off by talking a little bit about how the year in podcasting went. One thing I noticed personally, is that I don't think any one kind of breakout hit happened, with the exception, maybe, of the show that ended up being my number one pick. I'm curious--let's talk with Sarah here--what has the year in podcasting looked like for you? What did you find yourself paying more attention to? What did you notice being any particular trends? Anything that stood out to you.
Sarah Larson 01:52
Okay, well, I say this more as a person than as a podcast critic, but I feel like the year has kind of been divided into thirds, or at least pre- and post-COVID. You know, for me, in the writing I was doing for The New Yorker, I was actually, at the beginning of the year, traveling around following primary stuff. So I was listening to a ton of, you know, I listened to Stranglehold, I listened to all these political podcasts and primary podcasts.
Nick Quah 02:19
Shout out to New Hampshire Public Radio, one of the best shows that [Crosstalk]
Sarah Larson 02:22
Exactly! That was a great show. And then suddenly I started listening to a ton of COVID podcasts and things that all the normal podcasts that sort of adapted to deal with COVID, which was, you know, kind of everything had to do that. So I think there were other trends in terms of regular shows that popped up, but between politics and COVID, those things were pretty dominant.
Nick Quah 02:47
Those were definitely the big poles of the year in general, so I guess it makes sense that a lot of shows clustered. Rebecca, was that your experience as well, that the majority of the things that you saw pop that were COVID- or political-related?
Rebecca Lavoie 03:00
I would actually add a third pole to that tent that you're building over there and say that there has been a huge wave of TV/podcast co-production projects. That's something that has really, really exploded this year. I think about all the stuff that Pineapple Street has been doing with HBO programming, I think about a podcast like Morally Indefensible, which was sort of a meta look at the Geoffrey McDonald case that went with a TV series called, uh... I don't know what it was called, but I didn't watch it. The LA Times released It Was Simple, about the Betty Broderick murders, and that went with Dirty John season two. So there does seem to sort of be this surge--in thinking, anyway--that you can take one subject and reach a mass market by putting it on two platforms, or using one of the platforms to try to push the other--usually podcast is sort of like the ad for the TV program.
Sarah Larson 03:57
Rebecca Lavoie 03:57
So that's another big trend that I saw this year.
Sarah Larson 03:59
Nick Quah 04:00
Sarah Larson 04:01
That's a great point, yeah.
Nick Quah 04:01
Yeah, and I think it does tie it into the whole pandemic thing. Like, one, of the major conversations I've heard, when everything was sort of locking down, was a lot of TV productions couldn't be made, so a lot of actors were looking for other ways to stay in the culture, I guess, which kind of led to, I think, just more conversations and mingling between the TV set and podcast side.
Rebecca Lavoie 04:20
If I could just point out one other thing that I noticed this year by its absence, where the hell is the giant Gimlet show that we're so used to getting every year? Usually there's like one big production that that company rolls out, that gets, you know, maybe it happened and I just missed it, but it does seem, along the lines of what Nick was saying, with there being no huge breakout show, Gimlet with kind of seems to have--I don't want to say faded away--but they're certainly not producing the big HBO-style hit podcast this year.
Sarah Larson 04:49
Their hit podcast this year was "The Case of The Missing Hit."
Rebecca Lavoie 04:53
Nick Quah 04:53
Rebecca Lavoie 04:54
A single episode of Reply All, right? That single episode of Reply All is their loss leader for that company this year. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 05:02
Well, technically speaking, Resistance, which just came out, kind of fits that bill. It's a little late into the year, and it's I think only about four episodes in as we're recording this. It hasn't quite had that kind of press push, frenzy kind of thing that usually accompanies one of these big things that you're talking about, when it comes to a new Gimlet show. I think you're absolutely right. And part of this, I feel, is in general, things didn't really break through because I really do think everything came down to COVID and the elections this year.
Sarah Larson 05:32
Nick Quah 05:32
It's very hard to launch anything that's non-COVID-related and have it really meaningfully breakthrough. Rebecca, one of the reasons that I think I really want to talk to you for these round tables is you have this handle on the true crime podcast space that I simply do not have. [Laughter] What would you say are the major true crime podcast trends this year?
Rebecca Lavoie 05:53
Well, I would say one of them is--for me, at least--very bad, which is that these mass-produced, Wonder Bread productification of true crime podcasts that keep coming out, in these huge long waves. I mean, if I honestly have to listen to one more Wondery production--which I do, because, by the way, my podcast reviews podcasts, so I kind of have to--but they are all the same. They're all the same. And they sound so manufactured and so produced.
Sarah Larson 06:26
Rebecca Lavoie 06:26
The people who host them clearly have no connection to the field tape, or the interviews, or any of the...
Sarah Larson 06:33
You mean like Bunga Bunga?
Rebecca Lavoie 06:34
Yeah, yeah. It's literally just like, go into a studio, read this script, we've gathered all this tape, we've put it together, we put a sexy blues song at the start of it, and gave it a piece of podcast art with a hand in it, and there's your Wondery podcast. [Laughter] And that sort of seems... It's kind of happening, a little bit, across networks, but Wondery is sort of the leader in that, and it's just increasingly more difficult to find something in this genre that like, I love. That sort of deeply reported public radio-style stuff, it's hard to discover right now. And then when it comes to the crime stuff... I mean, one of my theories is maybe they're running out of murders, because a lot of... [Laughter]
Nick Quah 07:13
You never run out of murders, come on. [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 07:15
Well... A lot of them have been about con men instead of being about killings, or about, you know, you think of a show like The Missing Crypto Queen, or... There sort of seems to be this shift to people who pulled one over on someone else, rather than somebody who, I don't know, killed somebody.
Sarah Larson 07:33
Rebecca Lavoie 07:34
So that's a big trend that I've seen, too. But also another huge topic that's come up, that we also talk about a lot on my show, are podcasts about sexual assault and sexual abuse, which there's been a big surge of in the last year or so, and some of them have been some of the best podcasts of the year.
Sarah Larson 07:48
Rebecca Lavoie 07:49
Well, I don't... I'm like, "Should I spoil one of ones I..."
Nick Quah 07:51
Oh, no, no!
Sarah Larson 07:51
Oh, no! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 07:53
Let's save that for the top three. [Laughter] One last question for Sarah before we head into the top three stuff...
Sarah Larson 07:58
Nick Quah 07:59
Were there any types of podcasts that you found yourself listening to that surprised you under this past year?
Sarah Larson 08:07
You know, the things that really jumped out to me in this particular year were things that made me feel better, and especially things that were funny. And if things were genuinely funny, it was like a gift. It was like, if I laughed really hard, and not just the "Oh, this is clever," but in the like, "Hahaha!" I really felt like, thank you for making me do that, because I wasn't expecting it here alone in my kitchen in month X of the pandemic. [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 08:39
You know what's really also very soothing, Sarah, are podcasts where you have smart friends talking about something they are deeply passionate about that you care about at all. [Laughter] That's one of my favorite genres of podcasts. Like, I love A Date With Dateline--they're obsessed with Dateline, which I never watch. [Laughter] Awesome. You know, there's a show Steven Ray Morris, who produces My Favorite Murder, makes a show about Jurassic Park called See Jurassic Right, which again, I don't care about at all. Really fun to listen to. And, of course, Adam Ragusea's unfinished podcast about Sting, which was his follow up to his great podcast about Billy Joel, where he and his friend Meg just sort of rip apart songs and artists. I don't care about any of this stuff, but I love immersing myself in their passions.
Sarah Larson 08:39
Can I say one more thing about...?
Nick Quah 08:47
Go for it, yeah!
Sarah Larson 08:59
...what I... So, the things I did not want to listen to this year were podcasts about Trump, which I've enjoyed in the past, there have been a lot of great podcasts about all the terrible things that Trump and his businesses have done. I didn't necessarily... I just couldn't take it anymore. You know, so there was that. And I didn't want to listen to true crime, either. When the pandemic hit I just had less of an appetite than usual, and it might have even just been true crime burn out, a little bit.
Nick Quah 09:55
Rebecca, did you have any genres that you didn't find yourself wanting to listen to this year?
Rebecca Lavoie 10:01
Sadly, I have to kind of put true crime on that list, too, even though it's my job to enjoy it. [Laughter] But also, there just hasn't been a standout great podcast in that genre this year, other than a couple of comedy podcasts. And other than the follow-up episodes of In The Dark season two, which is like, a 3-year-old podcast that's still pumping out excellent content about the same story. There's just very little that I loved in that genre this year, and if I start listening to something and it's not great, I just think that the bar... You know, the bar is very low for a lot of listeners of true crime. It is extremely high for me, and I didn't hear anything this year that really crossed that bar.
Nick Quah 10:48
Okay, okay. You probably want to get to our actual picks. We'll do that after the break.
Nick Quah 11:05
Okay, so we've set the stage for what 2020 was like. Let's get to it. Our top three picks for best podcasts of the year. Sarah, what is your number three?
Sarah Larson 11:15
Number three is Unfinished: Short Creek. So, Unfinished: Short Creek is reported and hosted by Ash Sanders and Sarah Ventre. It's a really in-depth series, I think they were there for four and a half years. They reported it for a long time about this. People inside and outside of a group of fundamentalist polygamist Mormons, who live in a community on the Utah-Arizona border, and it really beautifully introduces you to the history of the group, and what the appeal of living in this community was like. It was almost, in its early decades, kind of like an Amish-type situation, with everyone helping each other out. And there's a lot of great sound work. There's singing, kind of eerie songs by children's choirs singing about the leaders of the group, and it's unnerving, but it's also beautiful. And you can see what the community felt like and what the appeal might have been.
Leroy Johnson 12:21
I've devoted my work to the building up and establishment of the Kingdom of God. This is not my work. It's the work of God.
Sarah Ventre 12:30
Leroy Johnson was in charge of the community from the 1950s to the 80s. Being a prophet meant his followers believed he spoke for God on Earth. But everyone we talked to described him as a warm, caring leader--a man of the people.
Children's Choir 12:45
[Singing] "Uncle Roy has taught us / How to live each day"
Sarah Ventre 12:50
This is a community pageant in Short Creek in the 90s. Almost everyone called Leroy Johnson "Uncle Roy."
Children's Choir 12:57
[Singing] "These are the things that / Uncle Roy has taught us"
Sarah Larson 13:03
They just were very sensitive to listening to the people in the community and the people who left it, and what the details of all that were. And it doesn't feel sensational. I mean, it's a very, to us, incredibly dramatic, or melodramatic, story, and it could be done luridly by any number of podcasters or reporters, and it doesn't feel like that at all. And, you know, the pacing is really nice, and the sound is really immersive and lovely, and... Yeah, they just did it as well as it could be done, I think.
Nick Quah 13:38
Rebecca, what's your number three?
Rebecca Lavoie 13:40
My number three is Nice White Parents from Serial Productions that--now owned, of course, by the New York Times.
Chana Joffe-Walt 13:47
There are about a dozen grownups sitting on small plastic chairs around a classroom table--the PTA Executive Board. Principal Juman is here, too. Imee’s leading, and the principal jumps in. She says she wants a minute to share how much the new fundraising committee had raised so far. Imee looks confused. Principal Juman goes on to say the new fundraising committee has had a lot of success.
Jillian Juman 14:10
The total they have raised, according to Rob, about $18,000.
Imee Hernandez 14:13
Jillian Juman 14:15
And then we just had a donation from a family a couple weeks ago, who wanted to be anonymous, that they’re going to give either 5 to 10 grand in December. So this is big money.
Chana Joffe-Walt 14:27
People seem unclear what to do with their faces. This is good news, right? But also: wait, what’s the Fundraising Committee?
Rebecca Lavoie 14:37
This is a series about the segregation of schools in the modern era and about the well-meaning liberal white people who continue to support segregation even as they're saying that they don't support segregation. And one of the things I really loved about this podcast and Chana Joffe-Walt's reporting is, first of all, she knows everything there is to know about reporting on schools. She obviously did this reporting for many, many years. But one of the things that I love about it, that almost no one is doing really well right now, is the way it covers whiteness, and the way that it really, really looks at white people through a lens, almost like we have sort of wrongly been looking at people of color through a lens for many, many years. Like, it really examines what whiteness means, it really calls to task the power of being white, and it's the kind of podcast that, if you're white, and listen to it, and you don't feel bad about being white after you hear it, there is something wrong with you. So I really, really loved this series. And if anyone out there hasn't listened to it--which I doubt, because it was very popular--I would recommend it.
Sarah Larson 15:42
There were three great podcasts this year about school segregation, basically--Nice White Parents and then also the second season of The Promise, which was an excellent series about a similar situation in Nashville, in one neighborhood in Nashville. And then The new Fiasco.
Nick Quah 16:01
Leon Neyfakh, right?
Sarah Larson 16:01
Yeah, which was mostly about historic stuff, but also in Boston. But I thought that that series was terrific. And they're all such important facets of the same problem. And I hope that people listened to them and took something out of it.
Nick Quah 16:20
So my number three pick is... a little weird? It's this show that came out all the way back in January. Pretty small show, it's independent, it's called My Year in Mensa. It's hosted by, and written by, this comedian--I believe she's also worked in other forms of the entertainment industry--Jamie Loftus. And it is basically an adaptation of a couple of columns she wrote over the years about her kind of jokey attempt, like a jokey journey, of applying for membership into Mensa, the high intell... the high IQ, quote-unquote, society, and her adventures moving through that space and being very skeptical about it.
Jamie Loftus 17:00
Now, I want to be clear that I am not doing this podcast series to strictly dunk on the Mensans. I will be dunking on them occasionally. But I'm more doing this to analyze how these sorts of groups came to be in the first place, and sort of what they have evolved into, because it definitely did start as a dumb joke, on my part. But people unfortunately contain multitudes--awful--and so what I'm gonna do is take you through the story via my experiences, and then go back in time to trace the history of these organizations, and ultimately figure out what the ****ing point of any of it was in the first place.
Nick Quah 17:42
And I love this show largely for two reasons. One is, from an aesthetics perspective, it's basically a one-woman show--she does the whole thing, she narrates the whole thing. It's a long monologue punctuated by some sound effects and kind of really humorous kind of oral texts, essentially. And it's four episodes! It moves like the wind. [Laughter] I you know, you cannot tell me, prior to going into this show, that somebody can do a four episode--four, or five, or six, however long the show is--a show in which one person is the primary voice, with minimal sound backing, and that it would be compelling in any way. And she totally does it.
Sarah Larson 18:21
That is awesome.
Nick Quah 18:21
It's a fantastic show. I will go to bat for this show anytime. Alright, Sarah, number two.
Sarah Larson 18:29
My number two is Reveal: American Rehab, which is... Reveal, the series, the long, ongoing investigative series is hosted by Al Letson, but the main reporters on this series were Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah. And the concept of the series is, it starts out with this woman, Penny Rawlings, whose brother is essentially trapped in this rehab program. It's like a residential thing called Cenikor, and people basically end up working there for free, or very little money, as a part of like, "work therapy," is the concept. And it's it's kind of bonkers, but beyond that, it's really abusive. And it's not really about people's sobriety so much as about making money for various somewhat nefarious interests.
Penny Rawlings 19:26
They told us that it was eight months. He would be there eight months, which is a lie.
Shoshana Walter 19:32
Cenikor's program was actually two years long.
Penny Rawlings 19:36
Well, then I found out he was not allowed to talk to us. We were not allowed to have any contact with him.
Shoshana Walter 19:43
Not until Tim had been there at least three months--no phone calls, no visits. And there was one more issue, a big one: Penny says a Cenikor staff member had told her that on-the-job training was part of the program.
Sarah Larson 19:59
But then just the way that it takes you through the history of the forming of the program, which actually reminded me a lot of Scientology--like, even the founder, the old tapes of the founder sounded a lot like L. Ron Hubbard to me, kind of in the energy, and the zeal, and the wackiness, and then how many people kind of went along with it. Also, the music happened to be great. There happened to be a lot of jazz musicians who were involved in this heroin rehab scene in the 50s, and they just had these great recordings of some of their music. So there are really colorful people involved, and the reporting was so, so well done, and sensitively, and divided up nicely, and vigorously, and they must have been reporting it for years.
Nick Quah 20:47
Rebecca, what's your number two?
Rebecca Lavoie 20:49
Well, I'll confess in advance that my number two and number one are actually both tied for number one, and they're very different from each other. And that's why I couldn't rank them. So I'm going to put, as my first number one, Canary, from the Washington Post. This is an outstanding podcast about this--it's very hard to describe, because it's hard to describe without spoiling it, and I really don't want to for anyone who hasn't listened to it--but the first episode is about a sexual assault that takes place, it's a street crime, a woman named Lauren, she's a hairstylist in Washington, DC, and she has a very difficult time in Washington, DC's court system around the justice around her crime. She kind of takes justice into her own hands--she hangs up signs around the neighborhood when the guy who attacked her doesn't get the sentence that she feels he should have gotten. But then at the end of the first episode--you know, there's a lot of journalism in this podcast, which I absolutely love. The Washington Post's Amy Brittain reported it, and the transparency of the journalism is she talks about publishing this article about Lauren, and then what happened afterwards. And what happened afterwards is actually what the podcast is about. It is shocking. It is stunning. It is beautifully made.
Amy Brittain 22:05
One day back in June of 2017, a young woman walked up and down a bustling street in Washington, D.C. She was carrying with her a stack of paper fliers that she passed out in bars, in restaurants, and in cafes. But these fliers, they were unusual. They weren't advertisements or lost and found posters. Instead they had screenshots of something called a case docket. It’s like a timeline of the major events of a criminal court case and it has the names of judges and lawyers and defendants. This docket showed that a man pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse. There were several photos of him, and at the top of the fliers, in bright red capital letters, it said: "This man has assaulted six women in D.C."
Rebecca Lavoie 22:58
One of the things that I often say on my show that, you know, not everybody loves the language, but it's it's true. A podcast that's especially difficult, like this one, carrying these heavy topics with it, it has to be well-made, it has to be entertaining--otherwise you will not want to listen to the next episode. And Canary really fulfills that. The way the story is structured, I just--I binged the whole thing in one day, and I loved it, and I didn't want it to end, despite the fact that it's about an incredibly difficult topic. I just thought it was a gorgeous podcast.
Nick Quah 23:31
I just want to confess here that I binged the whole thing after I filed my top ten list. [Laughter] And I agree with you, it's really, really hard to talk about this show without giving the game away. So should we just like quietly sashay to the next thing on our lists? [Laughter] Awkwardly step away from this pick? [Laughter] Okay, my number two pick, which is a very--I guess it's a very cliche pick for me, because this franchise was my number one in my top 10 list last year. It's Lost Notes: 1980. It's a show by KCRW, so it's KPCC's sister station—shout out. This season is completely hosted, written and hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib, who's this fantastic poet, essayist, cultural critic--incredibly interesting, just thinker about music and art, and this collection of stories... So Lost Notes in general, it's basically a collection, anthology, of stories about the music business and various people--artists and lives that sort of pass through it. And in this third season, it just clusters around all stories coming from the year 1980. So you have stories about John Lennon, and there's a really remarkable episode that links his... thematically links his death to the death of a punk icon named Darby Crash. And Hanif, as a poet, makes for a wonderful, amazing narrator.
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:56
Lesotho ran out of food, drink, and hotel space. People parked cars at the border and sat atop them, hoping to catch some sounds echoing out from the stadium. During the weekend, there were people who slept unbothered on the sidewalks, or who crammed themselves into the doorways of stores. There were emergency supplies sent in from nearby South African towns. The weekend itself was a celebration. A small fantasy of liberation peeled off from the decades of oppression. Oppression that, even during the concert itself, still hovered.
Nick Quah 25:29
And another thing that's really interesting about the show is how the actual story portions themselves are truncated--oftentimes, the story is told in about 12 to 15 minutes, maybe, and it's because of, you know, conditions of the pandemic, he was supposed to go out and do interviews, and my understanding was that it was supposed to be a more conventionally structured show. But the necessities of having to essentially flip it from a sort of documentary show into a series of essays--with, occasionally, long form interviews attached to the end, to substantiate the raw material of the episodes--the effect is amazing. And it really makes me think that there should be more essay-style shows. And 12-minute narrative episodes? Nothing wrong with that, would love more of that, especially when every word counts, which is a notion that poets prize in particular, I think. So that's my number two pick. I'll also not sure if either of you have heard it, but I will... This is my ride-or-die. This is my ride-or-die show. [Laughter] Rebecca, why don't we start with you for your second number one? Or "number 1B"? [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 26:35
Alright. My second number one is a podcast that you've all heard of. It is in a genre I typically hate, which is "a white guy explores something totally inconsequential for a long series"--long series.
Sarah Larson 26:50
I think I know what it is! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 26:51
Ooh! This is a topic of conversation. Yes, yes. [Laughter] We know where this is... Go ahead. [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 26:55
Sarah Larson 26:55
Although I have two questions.
Rebecca Lavoie 26:56
Of course, my tie for number one podcast is Wind of Change from Crooked Media and Pineapple Street Studios. I want to say first, because I have the chance to and I have the microphone, Pineapple Street, and Pineapple Street Studios, is making the best podcasts being made right now, period. Producer Henry Molofsky is the best producer in podcasting, period. I do not, don't @ me. Listen, I work at New Hampshire Public Radio with the second- and third-best. [Laughter] But he's the best. Wind of Change... [Laughter] It's of course about Patrick Radden Keefe; he heard a rumor that the song "Wind of Change" by the Scorpions was actually written as a piece of propaganda by the CIA, and he goes on a long, winding journey to figure out if that's true.
Patrick Radden Keene 27:42
And the thousands of fans around me, Ukranians of all ages--older people who remembered the song when it came out and younger people who learned it from their parents--they all raised their cell phones in the air and we all seemed to sway together.
Patrick Radden Keene 27:59
You hear that? That yelp of blind enthusiasm? That was me. I mean, everybody in the place was singing. People were smiling. People had tears in their eyes. This song felt so different from all the others. And there were moments where Klaus would stop singing himself and just hold his mic stand out to the crowd.
Rebecca Lavoie 28:16
The reason I love this show is because it uses sound perfectly. This story could not have been told in any other medium besides podcasting. He also takes us on side trips that don't matter. We go to a convention at one point that doesn't matter, but it's a subculture that I've never heard of that was totally delightful. And it's also an exploration of political propaganda, which is incredibly timely, and listening to Wind of Change and looking at my Facebook feed at the same time felt like things were syncing up a little bit. [Laughter] So I just love this podcast. I didn't want to love this podcast. Again, it's a genre that I typically am like, "Oh, another one?" But I couldn't help it. I was charmed by it. I loved it. And that is Wind of Change.
Sarah Larson 29:05
I totally loved Wind of Change, too. I just like the fact that you can go in having heard that song, and maybe not caring about it, and you come out feel... I mean, I was so moved by, you know, maybe the second episode, when he's in that crowd listening to "Wind of Change," he's at a concert, just getting all moved. [Laughter] But thinking about what it might have meant to the people hearing it, and the idea of maybe, if the CIA did, I mean, that's such a thrilling idea, even if it's wrong. It's a great, fun...
Rebecca Lavoie 29:38
Sarah Larson 29:39
There is just something lighthearted about the pursuit of that question, but it's also really serious. I mean, that's just a great combination.
Nick Quah 29:47
Sarah, what's your number one?
Sarah Larson 29:48
Nick Quah 29:50
That is also my number one. I kind of figured that we'd have the same one. [Laughter]
Sarah Larson 29:55
Floodlines is a masterpiece. It's just... When you hear a podcast that is truly great, and it's part of your job to be a podcast critic, there's just an extra personal thrill of, you know, there's something that's incredibly well-reported, beautifully put together, emotionally compelling. And also, the tape in this podcast. I mean, I love what Vann Newkirk said on your show, Nick, about when you said, "Why do this as a podcast?" And he said, I think he said, "New Orleans is a city of storytellers," or stories, or something like that, right? It's a city of good talkers, for one thing, and the characters in the series are just so compelling. And so, so interesting and funny, often, but the sound design is obviously gorgeous. I mean, that first episode when the storm is coming, is art, you know? I mean, I just had to listen to it a bunch of times for pleasure, because I was just so blown away by it. And also, as a host, Vann Newkirk is, you know, it's beautifully written, it takes exactly the right tone of knowing that, assuming the audience's intelligence, but not being stiff. He talks like a normal person and a fun, relatable person, but he's also serious. I feel like it assumes the best of the listener, and also has fun with the listener when appropriate. And then that interview with Michael Brown was also just a masterpiece, at the end, I thought. The way he really pushes him, but he also shows compassion, and I think it's quite damning but it's also, you know, it accepts him for the flawed human that he is, working in a flawed system.
Michael Brown 31:54
I struggle with—and I know you, you’re not gonna answer the question—but it’s like, What do people want me to apologize for?
Vann Newkirk II 32:04
The paradox of Michael Brown seems to be this: All of his efforts to defend himself, to not be made a scapegoat… they seem to make it impossible for him to perform empathy. To understand why an apology from him might mean something.
Michael Brown 32:20
And maybe that’s a blind spot of mine. Very well could be. Either a blind spot or an unwillingness.
Nick Quah 32:30
I think you kind of hit a nail here when you said that, you can even listen to... So let me just put it this way: there are a lot of really great shows, really good podcasts, really good television shows, really great novels, that are about... that are beautifully, excellently composed masterpieces about hard things that I will never revisit, because it's so hard to sit through that again. And that is completely not what you get with the Floodlines experience, largely because each moment--and I feel like each episode--is still dealing with something that has a lot to chew on, and it does so in a way that doesn't carry that heaviness, doesn't carry that burden. It takes the burden as a given and takes the trauma as a given.
Sarah Larson 33:10
Nick Quah 33:10
And it mostly sort of like, "Alright, let's work our way through this."
Sarah Larson 33:13
Nick Quah 33:13
In a way that feels artistically accessable. Yeah, I mean, there's also a lot of really small choices that fuel, you know, it's the sum of small things that make a really big greater thing. The fact that he sounds exactly the same as a narrator as when he's an interviewer, that's not common.
Rebecca Lavoie 33:30
Nick Quah 33:30
And that says a lot about the performance style, you know? And I'm like, "Yeah," you know, "I'm getting... I'm accessing this person's brain," as much as I am accessing his perspective on this investigation and examination that he's doing. It's a fantastic show, and I hope The Atlantic does more like this, and I hope he does more more work in this medium. It's fantastic. Sarah, Rebecca, thank you so much for taking time talk to me. I hope the rest of the year goes well for you guys, and we'll be talking soon.
Rebecca Lavoie 33:57
Thanks a lot, Nick.
Sarah Larson 33:58
Nick Quah 34:18
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Las Raras Episode 25
Sun, 1/3 4:00PM • 24:55
stories, podcast, people, las, migrants, spanish, catalina, freedom, country, chile, pandemic, outsiders, understand, year, producers, voting, audio, wanted, important, record
unknown, 911 Operator, Catalina May, Martín Cruz, Nick Quah
[Various Protestors Chanting: Gustavo, escucha tu lucha y nuestra lucha. (Gustavo, hears your fight, and hears our fight.)
La manifestación era completamente pacifica, y sin embargo- (The protest was completely peaceful, however-)
Loud bangs and screaming in the background.
-empezaron a disparar. Hijos de p*ta. Malditos. Nos están tirando gas. Nos están disparando. (-they started shooting. F*cking assh*les. D*mn them. They are throwing gas. They are shooting at us.)
(coughing and more screaming)]
Nick Quah 00:39
You don't need to be fluent in Spanish to understand what's happening here, because it's similar to what Americans have been hearing this year, too: protests calling for change. Podcasters Martín Cruz and Catalina May wanted to document what was happening in the streets of their city--Santiago, Chile--but also what was happening in homes across their country.
Martín Cruz 01:02
After the first protests--demonstrations, riots, whatever--we started to see people going outside to meet their neighbors, to start creating communities, and started to think about the new country we wanted to build. And a lot of solidarity. It created a new sense of community. That was amazing.
Catalina May 01:27
It was like the most beautiful and epic thing that I believe ever... Like, you couldn't believe how strong you felt, that you were part of our community. I never, never felt that before.
Nick Quah 01:42
These personal stories of freedom and liberation are at the heart of their podcast, Las Raras. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: how two Chilean producers are paving the way for narrative nonfiction podcasts in South America.
Catalina May 02:17
[Historias de libertad. Sus protagonistas y sus paisajes sonoros. Esto es Las Raras Podcast.
(Stories of liberty. Its protagonists and its sonorous landscapes. This is Las Raras Podcast.) ]
Nick Quah 02:28
For English-speaking podcast listeners, Las Raras may seem, structurally, a little familiar. It's a narrative nonfiction show with dynamic sound design. We've been getting stuff like this in the English-speaking audio world for years--Radiolab, This American Life, the BBC's Short Cuts--but for Spanish-speaking podcast listeners, Las Raras is unique--especially when they started back in 2015.
Martín Cruz 02:52
I was very new to this. I mean, I first heard the word "podcast" from Cata that year, you know? She was listening to Serial at the time and she was fascinated, obviously. She wanted to have a project, and she wanted to create something, and since she was a journalist and I was an audio engineer, a podcast was the perfect combination of our...
Nick Quah 03:21
So, it's a way to work with each other. [Laughter]
Martín Cruz 03:23
Yeah, "let's create something together." And a podcast is perfect: a project of our own, in our own way. And doing whatever we wanted, tell the stories we wanted, in the way we wanted, so a podcast, in a way, was perfect for that.
Nick Quah 03:43
"Las Raras" can be translated as "the outsiders," which perfectly encapsulates the stories Catalina and Martín like to tell. But it also describes how they see themselves.
Martín Cruz 03:54
I think that the protagonists that we seek are usually outsiders in a way; people that somehow are resisting the norms or challenging the status quo, and fighting for social justice. Also, their stories are not usually represented in mainstream media. So in that way also they are outsiders. I mean, we look for stories that are, a lot of the times, very intimate stories, very personal stories. And usually, these stories are in the margins of society, maybe, and also the media. So that's why we think "the outsiders," it's a good translation to our name.
Catalina May 04:42
Yeah, they are stories of resistance in general. And we call them... Our slogan is "stories of freedom," but that, sometimes, it's confusing for people in the US. We understand that you think of freedom in a quite different way as we do, but you can understand them as stories of resistance.
Nick Quah 05:03
So how would you define freedom?
Martín Cruz 05:05
Ah, I don't know, it's difficult because it's a very subtle nuance, I would say, how people look for another way of doing things, sometimes with very small decisions, but sometimes very radical decisions. So there's that kind of freedom, like to step away from norms, or what is expected.
Catalina May 05:31
Yeah, to fight social impositions, in a way, and find your own ways to live with dignity. And that's always challenging as well. Freedom for us is freedom of living the way you think is right, that is not necessarily the way that society says is right.
Nick Quah 05:55
Fighting the establishment is at the heart of Las Raras. But it's also something Catalina and Martín are experiencing in their own lives, especially this year. They joined Chileans all around the country as they took to the streets to demand change to their National Constitution, which was established by the dictator Augusto Pinochet 30 years ago. They decided to document it as much as they could, even through the pandemic.
Martín Cruz 06:20
It's been an amazing experience, but a very tough experience. Because when this all started, in October 2019, and we saw everybody going out to protest, to demonstrations to ask for social change, to ask for a new constitution, to ask for a new way of conceiving our country, our society. That was amazing, to experience this collective feeling. But at the same time it was very hard because the police brutality, the repression, was brutal. You know, a lot of people lost their eyes, literally, by the police shots. A lot of people died. We had a curfew. So that brings the ghost of the dictatorship as well. So we have these two mixed feelings: excitement, but fear or something like... That was so hard.
Catalina May 07:25
And also, it gave us so much sense of how important our work as podcast producers is. In general, our stories, as we were saying before, are intimate stories of resistance, but when these social uprisings started, we said, "Okay, so this is the story of freedom, la historia de libertad, of our country. So we have to record this. We have to report this," and we have been doing it, and it has been so important for us. We feel the urgency of being on the streets, of talking to people, of participating into this process. It has been great.
Nick Quah 08:06
Catalina and Martín produced a special three-part miniseries around the social uprising called Trienta Años, or "30 Years." In the series, they included stories from protests, but also community building, all leading up to the day everything would be decided: voting day.
Catalina May 08:24
Votando hoy. Me toca. (Voting today. It’s my turn.)
Martín Cruz 08:36
¿Hola, que tal? (Hi, How are you?)
Catalina May 08:36
Hay voy. Gracias. (I’m up. Thank you.)
Estoy entrando. Voy a votar, que emoción. (I’m entering. I’m going to vote, how exciting.)
Martín Cruz 08:36
Estoy entrando a mi cabina. (I’m entering to my booth.)
Catalina May 08:36
“Registro National 2020. Quiere una Constitución nueva?” (National Registry 2020. Do you want a new constitution?) Por su puesto. Apruebo. (Of course. Approve.)
A cacophony of various people: Apruebo…Apruebo…Apruebo… (Approve…Approve…Approve…)
Catalina May 09:00
Estamos en Plaza Dignidad. Ha sido un día muy emocionante. No sabemos los cómputos finales todavía, pero ya se habla de una paliza. Arraso el apruebo, arraso la Convención Constitucional. Nosotros estamos muy felices, así que es un día para celebrar. (We are at Plaza Dignidad. It has been an emotional day. We don’t know the final results yet, but there are talks of winning. Smashing with approvals, smashing for the Conventional Constitution. We are very excited, so its a day to celebrate.) ]
Martín Cruz 09:19
We wanted to record the whole process of voting, so I'm not usually in the episodes. You usually hear only Catalina's voice, but we wanted to show... To make it fun. So we both went to vote, with our lavalier microphone recording everything, and sending messages between each other. And what you can hear there is the two of us, voting at the same time, saying the same words: “apruebo”—"I approve”—to change the Constitution. And then what you can hear are the counting of the votes, in a school, and then people celebrating in the center of the city. And we went there to show and record this collective feeling of joy, you know? Was amazing, it was amazing.
Catalina May 10:12
We didn't know that so many people were gonna vote that day, because people have not been voting in the elections lately. And we are in the middle of the pandemic, as well, so that was difficult. There was uncertainty about that day. We were not sure that we were going to win. I mean, we knew that we were going to win, but we didn't know that it was going to be such a huge, huge difference. I mean, 80%. That's related with mainstream media, as well. Mainstream media here belongs to the elites. And they were telling us this country's very divided, "we are almost like in a social... A war." But we saw that that wasn't real. Like 80% of people wanted to change the constitution. So when we knew about that, it was so exciting, and we were there to record it.
Nick Quah 11:11
Coming up: how Las Raras arrived in America.
Nick Quah 11:27
In 2019, Las Raras was chosen to be in the first class of the Google Podcast Creators Program. And this year, Las Raras won an award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival for an episode made with producer Dennis Maxwell.
Martín Cruz 11:41
We wanted to tell a story about the humanitarian crisis in the border. We didn't know what particular story, but something related to that issue. And we started to talk with Dennis. And so together we started looking for a protagonist, or an institution doing something to help the migrants crossing the borders, so Dennis found these artists—that is, a Colombian artist that lives in Tucson, Arizona—and this guy puts crosses in the exact places where bodies of dead migrants have been found in the desert. He went over there and went to the desert with him to put a cross, and in the process in which we were reporting this story, we came across a piece in the New York Times in which they use these voices of migrants, that when they call the 911, you know, asking for help when they are lost in the desert. So we're starting to do the same process, to ask for these phone calls to the Pima County, to the sheriff department. And after like a month, we got more than 200 phone calls, so we started to go over... Through them and, I mean, this is an amazing material, it's like, made for podcasts in this way. It's only audio, you know? And this is the real testimonies of these people that are lost in the desert. So this was, for us, like the perfect material to work with to show the stories, the struggle behind these journeys, from firsthand. So it's very hard material, but it's amazing at the same time.
911 Operator 13:32
911, where is your emergency?
(crying) Estoy perdida. En el-desierto. En Sonora. Por favor necesito ayuda. (I’m lost. In the desert. In Sonora. Please, I need help.)
911 Operator 13:40
Are you lost en desierto?
911 Operator 13:43
Okay, uno momento for interpreter. [Dial tone, dialing sounds]
911 Spanish Operator
911, cual es tu emergencia? (911, what is your emergency?)
Si, necesito ayuda. (Yes, I need help.)
911 Spanish Operator
¿Estas solo o esta alguien contigo? (Are you alone or is someone with you?)
Si estoy solo. (Yes, I’m alone.)
Man 2 13:43
Somos quatro. (We are four.)
Man 3 13:43
Con mi esposa. (With my wife.)
Man 4 13:43
Somos tres. (We are three.)
Man 5 13:43
Somos cinco personas. (We’re five people.)
911 Spanish Operator
Y de que país es usted? (And from what country are you from?)
De Guatemala. / Mexico. / El Salvador. / Nicaragua.
Man 6 13:43
Yo voy para los Estados para buscar buena vida porque estoy muy pobre. (I am going to the States to look for a better life because I’m very poor.)
Man 7 13:43
Yo solo por necesidad vengo. (It’s only because I have need.)
911 Spanish Operator
¿Cuantos días tienen en el desierto ya? (How many days have you been in the desert already?)
Man 7 13:43
Ahorita ya va por cuatro días. (Right now, this is my fourth day.)
Man 8 13:43
Pero el coyote nos abandono aqui en el desierto. (But the coyote left us, here in the desert.)
Woman 2 13:43
Me dejaron perdida. (They left me, lost.)
Man 8 13:43
Encontré un señor de inmigración y le conte mi historia y no hizo nada. No me arrestó ni nada. Solo me dejo ir solo. (I found a man from immigration and I told him my story and he didn’t do anything to me. He didn’t arrest me or anything. He just let me go, alone.)
911 Spanish Operator
¿Y no tiene nada de agua? (And you don’t have any water?)
Woman 2 13:43
(crying) Amiga, no tengo nada de agua. (My friend, I have no water.)
Man 7 13:43
Traigo una poquita de la que agarre cuando llovió. (I have a little bit, that I got when it rained.)
Man 8 13:43
Necessito agua. Agua. Helada porfa. (I need water. Water! Ice cold, please.)
Man 9 13:43
Tengo cinco dias de no comer. (I have five days without eating.)
Man 10 13:43
No e comido hase tres dias. (I haven’t eaten for three days.)
Me doble el pie. / Mi mano se quebro. / (agonizing screams) /Ya me estoy muriendo. bueno? bueno? Me estoy muriendo. Me estoy muriendo./ (crying) Ya no se que hacer. Estoy vomitando sangre. / Mi compañero ya esta muerto. (I twisted my ankle. / I broke my hand./ (agonizing screams) / I am dying. Hello? Hello? I am dying. I am dying. / (crying) I don’t know what to do anymore. I am vomiting blood. / My friend, he’s already dead.)
Catalina May 15:11
It was kind of telling the story of migrants, but from outside, like looking at these stories from outside. So for us it was really important to get those voices to tell the story from inside as well. You know, we're not just observers, we want to show you the story, in the most real way of it, which is very hard. But we need to show this because it's so important. As Latinos, we are horrified about this. And we went a lot to the US last year because of the Google Podcast Creator Program. So we were very close to these stories last year. So we really wanted to show this material. I think it helps to bring the stories closer to people's hearts, because lots of people, they don't like migrants who are illegally entering the country, right? But I think that when you listen to their voices and their struggles, you can understand them better.
Nick Quah 16:18
Showcasing the voices of people forgotten or ignored by the mainstream is a big part of what Las Raras works to do. What was new, for this and several other stories in the latest season of the podcast, was working with other producers.
Catalina May 16:32
I want to explain that, in the Spanish-speaking world, there are not many audio producers, because it's a new medium. So there is not a long tradition of audio production in Spanish--I mean, in the style that we work, documentary-style.
Martín Cruz 16:53
In Chile, for example, that I can say, at least, we don't have public radio. So we don't have that kind of tradition, and that mindset the US has. So radio stations, for example, here are owned by a handful of, of, um...
Nick Quah 17:15
Martín Cruz 17:17
Corporations, yeah. And obviously, it's mostly the power for people that own the media. So things tend to get stuck, in a way, and always try to reproduce the things that get you money. So obviously, podcasting isn't in that perspective--at first, at least. Now, they are realizing that there is something here that it's worth it to explore, but they tend to resist against that change.
Catalina May 17:52
We have a strong tradition of storytellers here in Latin America, but it's mostly written.
Nick Quah 18:00
So how has the Spanish-speaking podcast world changed, or evolved, since you launched Las Raras back in 2015?
Catalina May 18:10
I would say a lot. There was almost nothing when we started. I'm gonna say this, because I think it's real. We crossed paths very early in our story with Martina Castro from Adonde Media, and she has been so important in the developing of the Spanish-speaking podcast industry and community. She created Podcasteros, which is this community of podcast producers in Spanish. She started EncuestaPod, which was the first survey to understand the Spanish-speaking podcast listeners. And so we started to understand that we were not like islands, there were other people doing this too. And at the same time, the industry started to grow, like mainstream media started to understand that they can try to have their own podcasts. So we are having more podcasts now--not only independent podcasts, but podcasts with more budget, for example. Sadly, I think that doesn't translate into a really high-quality...
Nick Quah 19:22
Catalina May 19:23
Yeah. I mean, especially thinking in mainstream media, they are putting money into creating podcasts, but I think that those podcasts are not good enough. I think there's no real understanding of the potentialities of this medium, but it's starting to grow and things are starting to appear, so it's growing. It's growing.
Nick Quah 19:45
So do you think podcasting is too America-centric, or too centered around English speakers?
Martín Cruz 19:52
I think we, as Latin Americans, look to the US a lot, in terms of culture. So the US having a more developed industry makes us look that way a lot. And, you know, we get all the movies from the US, we get a lot of information, and the trends come always from the US, but, obviously, that comes with the fact that we don't have an industry yet. So, yeah, if we want to listen to sound-rich audio fiction, we have to go to look for an English podcast, you know? We don't have that in Spanish yet, so developed. So, I guess, in the process of us creating an industry and having more shows, we could start looking away from that as a reference and starting to create our own ecosystem and our own reference.
Nick Quah 20:59
Tell me about your latest season of the show.
Catalina May 21:03
Considering that we are in the middle of a pandemic, we really wanted to show what has been happening this year, but we didn't want to talk about the pandemic especially. But we wanted to tell stories about the issues that have been important during this month. So our stories are not about the COVID crisis, but they are happening in that context. And, also, we were trying to tell stories, as we said before, from different countries, so we have a story from Argentina, from Mexico, Colombia, Spain, the US, and Chile. It's a kind of small system of only six stories, but we think of it as a boutique system, because the stories have lots of work behind, and they are very beautiful. We have really put lots of work and effort in these six stories. And we wanted to keep developing our narrative, you know? We are really trying to make more complex narratives. We are really trying to use sound as our main narrative and aesthetic element. And we're trying to make shorter stories as well. We want our listeners to take time to really listen to our stories--hopefully with headphones, hopefully sitting with their eyes closed. I know this is maybe not realistic, but we are producing these stories for that. So we're not going to ask them for an hour of their lives; we're only going to ask them for 20 minutes of their lives, to listen to a very strong story. So that's what we're trying to do this season.
Martín Cruz 22:54
We are always trying to reinvent ourselves, as well, to challenge our own narratives, our own structures, and to try new things. So we are playing with the structure of the story, we're playing with the use of archives, with the use of music, we created a lot of new music for the season, and a lot of that music was very different from what we were doing before. So we're always trying to push our own boundaries, a little bit, in all terms, you know? So I think you can tell something of that when you listen to our new season. I hope. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 23:41
Thank you both so much for this conversation.
Martín Cruz 23:44
Catalina May 23:45
Thank you for this invitation. We're really very honored. We hope we did okay. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 24:06
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Home Cooking Episode 24
Sun, 1/10 11:31AM • 26:54
laughter, people, podcast, thanksgiving, feel, cooking, episodes, friends, quarantine, food, year, mango, book, ingredient, wrote, laugh, celebrating, person, frittata, questions
Sam Sanders, Hrishikesh Hirway, W. Kamau Bell, Samin Nosrat, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:01
I want to thank you guys beforehand for this conversation, because I've just spent this entire morning listening to right-wing podcasts for research.
Samin Nosrat 00:08
Oh, Nick! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 00:08
And I'm in a bad place right now.
Hrishikesh Hirway 00:10
Research for this conversation?
Samin Nosrat 00:12
Nick Quah 00:12
Samin Nosrat 00:13
Hrishikesh Hirway 00:14
Samin has some really extreme views about...
Samin Nosrat 00:16
I feel very strongly about the right wing of the turkey.
Hrishikesh Hirway 00:19
Ah, you beat me to... I couldn't even...
Samin Nosrat 00:20
Is that what you were gonna do? [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 00:21
Yes, that is what I was going to say! Wow, I can't even do it now. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 00:27
It's impossible to chat with Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway for more than a minute without someone laughing. And that vibe--warm and delightful--is one of the ways their podcast, Home Cooking, has helped bring comfort to listeners.
Samin Nosrat 00:42
When people call, and I get to help them, that's easy and fun. All of us, it's just pure joy. It's easy and joyful. And if that's something that makes people happy, I'm happy to share it. You know? We've made a big fat whopping $0 on the show so far. [Laughter] We're not doing it for money, right? Like...
Nick Quah 01:05
You're doing it to fill your cup, essentially.
Samin Nosrat 01:07
Yeah, we're just... Yeah, totally! I'm just trying to get through COVID too, you know?
Nick Quah 01:15
from LAist Studios. This is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the joy of cooking with Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway.
Nick Quah 01:36
Even if you haven't heard Home Cooking, you've probably stumbled across either Samin Nosrat or Hrishikesh Hirway's work. Samin is a chef and writer who wrote the best selling book Salt Fat Acid Heat, which was adapted into a Netflix show back in 2018. She also writes for the New York Times and has been featured on pretty much every cooking show you could name. And Hrishi is the creator behind the podcast Song Exploder, which launched back in 2014 and became a Netflix series this year, he also co-created The West Wing Weekly and produced Partners for Radiotopia and MailChimp. With such intense schedules, it's hard to imagine how Samin and Hrishi would cross paths, much less become friends.
Samin Nosrat 02:16
I have been listening to Song Exploder for years, I think since like, there were maybe just 10 episodes? I think that was around the time I found it.
Nick Quah 02:24
Oh, the very beginning, then.
Samin Nosrat 02:25
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And yeah, and it's such a great podcast, and it has barely any Hrishi in it, which is why it's so good. [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 02:38
So I was like, "Oh, I love this podcast." [Laughter] And I really became a fan of it, and the craftsmanship of it, it's just really beautifully made. And I am a super fan in that way where when I like something, I want to know about the person who made it, and the brain of the person who made it. So I started following him on Twitter. So I was a fan of Hrishi's for a long time. And then, when my book was being published, a week before my book came out, for my first public event, with Wendy MacNaughton, who illustrated my book, we did this event at Pinterest, the tech company. Hrishi was also on the slate of speakers. He was like, going up right after me. And I was really excited to get to experience Hrishi's talk. But then, because of the way the thing was, Wendy and I did our presentation and then we went back to sign books. So we totally missed Hrishi's talk, but he got a copy of our book, and he watched our talk, so I think he became familiar with our work, and started following me on Twitter, and then we became Twitter friends. And then it took, I think, what, two years? How long did it take to actually meet in person? That was 2016. And then we didn't really hang out until 2018.
Hrishikesh Hirway 03:44
That was 2017.
Samin Nosrat 03:45
Oh, that was... I always think my book came out in 2016, **** [Frustrated Noises]. [Laughter] I don't know why! Yeah, my book came out in 2017, and we didn't meet until 2018. So that's like a year.
Nick Quah 03:56
Well, is that how you remember it, Hrishi?
Hrishikesh Hirway 03:59
Yes, yeah. I got my copy of Salt Fat Acid Heat from Pinterest as sort of a thank you gift for doing the event, and I fell in love with it immediately. You know, before I was even out of the building, I was looking at it, and taking pictures of pages, and then I remember driving back to where I was staying. I took a picture of the cover of it and was like, "This book is amazing." And I tweeted it. And that was when I looked for Samin, to tag her, and I saw that she was already following me. I was like, "Oh my gosh!" And so then we started following each other, and then became just sort of like, DM friends for a while, and then she started coming down to LA for her TV show. And then that gave us an excuse to start hanging out in person.
Nick Quah 04:38
It wasn't until Thanksgiving of 2018 that the idea of a podcast even crossed their minds.
Hrishikesh Hirway 04:44
One of the times when Samin was here visiting she came over to my house and I was getting ready to make mango pie, which is a family recipe, a dish my mom made every Thanksgiving, and...
Nick Quah 04:56
It's also now famous, apparently.
Hrishikesh Hirway 04:58
Right? Yeah. [Laughter] Samin ended up writing about that mango pie in the New York Times, and the way that happened is also the way that our podcast started, in a way, because I was having trouble getting the result of the pie to be exactly the way that my mom's turned out. It's supposed to be this perfect kind of golden, smooth texture, this mix of cream cheese, and Cool Whip, and mango puree. And I kept getting these little white flecks in the texture of the thing, and it wasn't right, didn't look right, didn't feel right, and so I was a little sheepish to call my family. And instead I called Samin and I was like, "What do you think the problem is here?" [Laughter] After a few exchanges back and forth, she successfully decoded the problem, which was that I hadn't brought all of my ingredients to room temperature before combining them. And I was like, "Oh yeah..."
Samin Nosrat 05:50
You really elide over the part where I told you what it was right away and you doubted me. [Laughter] And then you called your sister and then she told you... [Laughter] the exact same thing, and then you were like, "Oh, Samin, yeah, you were right." [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 06:04
And then, after I made it and I was like, "Oh, it worked," like maybe two minutes later I called--or I texted, I can't remember--and I said, "Samin, this should be a podcast. Samin Nosrat: Chef Detective," where she solves the mystery of whatever is messing up your dish. And she laughed and laughed. [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 06:27
Also, just so everybody understands, it was maybe six weeks after my show had launched on Netflix. I was still in the midst of what felt like a never-ending... I mean, it was many months long press tour.
Hrishikesh Hirway 06:40
Yeah, you were in LA to do a bazillion interviews.
Samin Nosrat 06:43
Yeah, and it was just it was really... You know, like, I was still in the middle of this whole thing. Like, I couldn't figure out... I was not in a position to be like, "Okay, cool. Let me start my next thing," you know?
Hrishikesh Hirway 06:54
Yeah. And I was also... I was making Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly.
Nick Quah 06:58
Hrishikesh Hirway 06:58
Already, I was doing six to seven episodes of podcasts a month. So it wasn't really something that either of us could feasibly do at the time, but I liked the idea so much, and I...
Samin Nosrat 07:08
No, but also, like, within five seconds, Rishi was like... I would say, in less than eight hours, he sent me a spreadsheet. [Laughter] You sent me a spreadsheet.
Nick Quah 07:17
Is that how your brain works? Like, when you think of an idea, it's all spreadsheets for that point?
Hrishikesh Hirway 07:21
Well... yeah. Google...
Samin Nosrat 07:21
You would have like a full production schedule and budget. Like... [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 07:28
I think it was a little later before we got to that point, but at some point, I definitely--long before we actually launched--I did have a schedule and budget. Yeah, I definitely think in terms of Google spreadsheets, or at least Google Spreadsheets is a way for me to map out the jumble in my brain when I get excited about an idea. I'm like, "Oh my god, okay!" And then, you know, then I can lay it out there and be like, "Okay, look, now it's something that I can send to somebody else," and it doesn't just feel like idea vomit.
Nick Quah 07:54
So this is one of those rare situations when somebody goes, "This is a great idea for a podcast," that it actually is. [Laughter] So what were the circumstances that actually led to the creation of Home Cooking?
Hrishikesh Hirway 08:05
Samin did... She posted something on Instagram, in her Instagram stories, about offering advice or something for people who were hoarding beans, or about to hoard beans, and it was a relief to see something helpful in the middle of the chaos of all this, and especially a lot of the anxiety and fear that was gripping everybody. So I texted Samin, and I said, "Okay, maybe this is our podcast." Instead of Chef Detective, which would have been a more complicated, in-depth, kind of, uh...
Samin Nosrat 08:36
Like, highly produced thing.
Hrishikesh Hirway 08:37
Nick Quah 08:38
"Down the rabbit hole" kind of deal?
Hrishikesh Hirway 08:39
What if we just do what you're proposing here? You know, let's just answer people's questions, because everybody is going to be home cooking. We can call the show Home Cooking. She said yes right away. She just said, "Okay, are we doing this?" And uh... [Laughter] I went, "Yeah, I think so."
Nick Quah 08:56
Home Cooking has a simple premise: answering questions from listeners about what to cook with the food they have at home.
Samin Nosrat 09:03
Sometimes my favorite questions that we get--and I don't know if it was the very first episode, but definitely in the early episodes--are the ones where it's people who have really very specific and kind of extreme constraints. So there was a bus driver, for example, in Seattle. And this was before we had really clear information about... you know, this was when people were still wiping down their groceries when they brought them from the grocery store. Like we just didn't know exactly how COVID was transmitted. And so she just was like, "I'm not sure what I should bring for lunch, and I don't have a way to reheat it. And so what can I bring for lunch, that's not going to be refrigerated? What are some ideas?" You know?
Hrishikesh Hirway 09:46
And that'll last, you know? That'll still feel good for lunch.
Samin Nosrat 09:49
And still will be delicious, and then if I can't, touch it, I can still, you know... So that was kind of a way to help somebody that felt really meaningful. Or another person wrote, and they had a really extreme budget. It was a really extreme budget, it was maybe like $20 for a week, or something like that. Those are the kind of questions that are then sprinkled in with, you know, like, "My garden gave 4 or 3,000 pounds of cucumbers, what do I do?" You know, or whatever. [Laughter] Or, "I got way too many squashes in my CSA box, what do I do?" Or whatever, you know. There's all different kinds of...
Hrishikesh Hirway 10:24
We got a question from someone who had had COVID and had lost their sense of smell as a result, and the olfactory systems are related, and so, she could not taste, and she was like, "What can I eat that'll still feel pleasurable?" And that was a really interesting one to tackle as well.
Samin Nosrat 10:43
When a person loses the sense of smell, which... I think the percentage of taste that is smell is something like 75 or 80%, so without smell, you really can't taste much.
Hrishikesh Hirway 10:55
Samin Nosrat 10:56
That's called anosmia. Some weird factoids that will help you: spiciness, like as in pepper, hot pepper, is not a flavor, it's not a taste. It's a feeling. So spiciness does something to your actual body, and that has nothing to do with smell or taste. So it actually causes you pain. [Laughter] You know, that's like what... [Laughter] It's mild pain that we get used to and that we come to love.
Hrishikesh Hirway 11:23
Like this podcast, for you.
Samin Nosrat 11:24
Yeah, kind of like this podcast, exactly. [Laughter] I would say one thing that you could do is start introducing different kinds of chili oils, and jalapeños, and spicy spices, to create some sort of sensation in your eating.
Nick Quah 11:44
After the break: how Samin and Hrishi bring their experiences to their podcast and their Thanksgiving tables.
Nick Quah 12:01
Quarantine cooking is truly the great equalizer, because it's not just average joe listeners who are having a hard time. Home Cooking also features some well-known names and celebrities who are trying to make do with what they've got. Like what goes into Sam Sanders go-to quarantine dish?
Sam Sanders 12:17
I was like, trying to think of my most "struggle" frittata, and there was one time where I was like, "Everything needs to be out of the freezer and fridge before I go back to the grocery store." And I made one frittata where it was just like--I don't know why I had it--like a package of diced ham, and some frozen snow peas. [Laughter] And that was the frittata. And it was filling, and it worked, and it still looked pretty.
Samin Nosrat 12:38
Hrishikesh Hirway 12:38
Was it good?
Samin Nosrat 12:38
That sounds actually pretty good. Ham and peas is a pretty classic combo.
Sam Sanders 12:41
Ham and peas, ham and peas.
Nick Quah 12:43
Or, how W. Kamau Bell is making breakfast for his daughters.
There's a thing that I have made for my kids for years, that I sort of stopped because I got busy, that is great for Juno. It's two-ingredient banana pancakes. You guys must know about this. You're a cultured people.
Samin Nosrat 12:57
Well, I heard about the two-ingredient banana pancake from Padma Lakshmi's Instagram a few years ago. [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 13:03
I've never heard about it!
Oh, yeah, well, it's kind of brilliant, especially for kids, because all it is is a banana and two eggs. So it's just like, so you can feed them pancakes but also feel like they actually got something inside of them other than wheat and, you know...
Samin Nosrat 13:18
Maple syrup and stuff.
Samin Nosrat 13:20
Hrishikesh Hirway 13:20
Is it literally two ingredients?
I mean you can put... you can spice it up. I'm sure Padma covered this, because she knows how to do stuff. [Laughter] But yeah, you can like... So I do mine with a little bit of baking powder, a little bit of vanilla and, and a little, just a hint, of cinnamon for the aromatics. I don't know if you guys know that word. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 13:36
And when the pandemic didn't end after the show's original four-episode run, Samin and Hrishi decided to just keep going.
Samin Nosrat 13:42
We were both happy to see the end of that four-part series. You know, and then after a couple weeks, we were like... We kind of missed it. I mean, I really like my friend, and we're both extroverts, and I love having a reason to be in constant contact with him--not that I need that, but--it's just a nice thing that we get to make, and we get to be in contact with outside world in this time when we're not really in contact with the outside world, and we missed it. We missed it. And I have to say there is a lot of joy in it for us and it feels like, as much as sure we're doing this thing to give some cooking advice to people, it feels like, really, people listen to it way more to get their mind off of the terribleness of the world. That's why we do it, and the point of it is, and it feels good to make something that is delivering that to people.
Nick Quah 14:31
Well, let's stay there a little bit. What do you... Where does the joy come from? Tell me a little bit about that for you guys.
Samin Nosrat 14:38
I mean, this is so sappy, but--and I'm not being sarcastic at all--but for me it's truly, I really love my friend, and I...
Hrishikesh Hirway 14:46
She's talking about me, by the way. [Laughter] She goes out of her way not to mention me specifically, but... [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 15:01
I really love Hrishi. Now you have it on tape. [Laughter] For all of eternity, you can just put it on loop and play it over and over again.
Hrishikesh Hirway 15:10
I'm gonna make... You need a picture frame for audio. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 15:16
I think it's your doorbell, that's what it is. [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 15:19
Or your ringtone! [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 15:20
Oh, my ringtone! Every time Samin calls, it'll be like, "I really love Hrishi." [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 15:27
I hate myself. [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 15:29
There was an episode where I made... [Laughter] Where I edited Samin to say, "Hrishi, you are so smart." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 15:37
Wait, you just cut different words together? Like a deep fake? [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 15:40
Samin Nosrat 15:43
Anyway... I don't know, like, I don't know. I mean, Nick, does... You're like... This is a therapy moment right now. Like, if you really want to know, for me, a lot of what I have gone through in the last two years, as I, in the growth of myself and my role in the world as a public person, and as a, you know, with this platform that I have, and all the increased visibility that I have, and figuring out what it is people want from me, and how it is that I'm supposed to do that, and give people in the audience what it is that will bring them the greatest happiness, is I feel like I'm a conduit of joy for a lot of people. But in order for me to be that conduit of joy, I have to be feeling some joy. And I have not been feeling a lot of joy. Like I was already so burnt out going into this year, and already really depressed; I already had a big bout of depression even before COVID hit. This has just been a hard year, and it's a hard time.
Nick Quah 16:41
Yeah. Is it, to some extent, that both of you kind of understand what the other person's going through, in terms of being a public person?
Samin Nosrat 16:49
Definitely, I mean, yes. I don't want to speak for you, but I feel... I'm really glad to have someone going through a lot of the same stuff.
Hrishikesh Hirway 16:57
I feel like my job on the show is to... How do I put this?
Samin Nosrat 17:03
Love Samin. [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 17:06
Basically. [Laughter] My job is to sort of just set the pins up for Samin to knock down, you know?
Nick Quah 17:13
Hrishikesh Hirway 17:14
Yeah, exactly. And because I know how much people love her, and how much they get from her wisdom about cooking, and also just from the joy of her personality. The jokes are so dumb just because I'm trying to get her to laugh. Because, you know... Somebody on Twitter a couple days ago was like, "Samin's laughter is all the tonic you need for happiness," or something like that. I mean, that kind of sentiment. I see that all the time. And so I'm just... you know, I wish I had better, more sophisticated jokes, but I'm just gonna do whatever I can to get Samin to laugh and get that on tape, intermixed with her dispensing this really valuable insight for people. I'm not specifically someone who is equipped to be able to help people in this way, but I can help Samin help people in this way.
Nick Quah 18:06
That's not to say that Samin didn't question the concept of Home Cooking. She wasn't buying that a show with such a simple premise could have real depth to it.
Samin Nosrat 18:15
I've been thinking about food and podcasts for a long time, and how I could make an interesting, and enjoyable, and entertaining food podcast. It's a puzzle, because a lot of food podcasts exist. And they tend to be conversational ones, or some of them are sort of reported ones. But they're not... To me, food is such a thing that food and audio are not natural partners. You know? You want to see food, and smell it, and taste it. It's not necessarily the first medium I would think of for food. And I love storytelling. And for me food is just a way into storytelling. Something that would take a lot of time. Like, in a way I imagined it like a fun, silly food... kind of sister of Mystery Show or Heavyweight. You know? And those stories take a year, sometimes, to produce, that's a huge time commitment and so much labor from so many people, right? And so when all of a sudden, Hrishi said, "Hey, how about this thing where we just like, collect questions from people and record in a closet?" You know, in my mind, my immigrant child self was like, "No, that's taking the easy way out!" [Laughter] Like, you know, "That's the cheating way!" and I couldn't possibly...
Nick Quah 19:42
I can relate to that feeling. [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 19:43
Yeah. [Laughter] "No!" And I just was like, "But if I'm going to put something out, it has to be the very best thing in the world, that's like the hardest, most epic thing that I could ever do." Like I could never put something out that's simple, and fun, and easy, you know? And so there was kind of an extended conversation where I was, I did have some doubt, and I was like, "Hrishi, are you really sure? Is this really the right thing? If I do this, does it take away that opportunity in the future? Will people be disappointed? Is it this dumb thing?" And I will say, it took me past those four episodes, but I did have this moment where I was like, "Hrishi, I was wrong." We have made something so joyful, and so beautiful. And you do such great work. I mean, Hrishi is so good at what he does. And I really went back and I apologize, I said, "I'm sorry if those original, like, insecurities and doubts that I had came off as any sort of doubt in your ability, because it really was about me, it wasn't about you, because you do such a great job." And he... Like, I sometimes listen, and I'll just laugh. And I'm like, "How did you create this silly, charming, joyful thing?" And then, you know, he composes all the music, and he puts it all together, and it makes this like, a podcast equivalent of pantry cooking during quarantine. It's like a quarantine cooking... [Laughter]
Hrishikesh Hirway 21:03
It's just a different idea. You know, just the need of it is different than telling that one long narrative story. It's like, how can we help people in the way that they need help right now? One of those things, I think, was really having something that would cheer them up. And this just felt like a direct way to respond to that.
Nick Quah 21:24
So this episode is kind of our Thanksgiving show, and I want to know what you both are up to for the holiday, and what do you think it's gonna be like to celebrate this year?
Samin Nosrat 21:33
I am going to go down to a friend's ranch in Southern California, where I'm like quarantining before, and I'm gonna... and then we're just going to cook a bunch together, and I'm going to be on a farm, and feels really... I'm excited to have something to look forward to, I've been looking forward to it for over a month. It feels important to have things to look forward to. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 21:54
Samin Nosrat 21:55
So, and they're, you know... She has three generations of her family are living there. So it actually will have that feeling of a family gathering, which will be nice. And I didn't grow up with Thanksgiving as a family holiday for me, so I've never felt like missing out if I'm not with my own family. So it's always been a thing where I gather with one group of friends or another. So to me, it's just, I'm excited to have something to do and somewhere to go. This is only the second time I'm leaving my house this whole time. So, but it does feel... I don't know, everything feels so upside down right now, so I'm so excited up somewhere to go. I, yeah, I feel I'm one of the lucky, lucky, lucky few who gets to go somewhere. And also because I live by myself and I'm just one person, I quarantine, and get tested, and I get to show up, and it's pretty uncomplicated for me. And also, I'm the cook. You know what I mean? Like, I'm excited to show up and cook whatever people want. I'm like, because that's the thing I've really been missing this whole time, cooking has been so un-joyful for me because cooking is not about food for me, cooking is about people. And there have been no people. So it's a big treat for me to get to have people to feed.
Hrishikesh Hirway 23:07
Honestly, for me, I feel like I'm celebrating Thanksgiving through our podcast. For me, Thanksgiving is such a family tradition. It was like, the big holiday in my house. I mean, starting with when I was maybe seven or eight years old, my family started hosting Thanksgiving every year. And it's really strange to have Thanksgiving without some contingent of my family here to celebrate with. But we've really ended up putting that spirit into the Thanksgiving episodes. So we're doing two parts. In the first part, we took on a bunch of listener questions, like we normally do; in the second part, which has not come out yet at the time of this recording, we're basically celebrating Thanksgiving the way that I imagined celebrating it in quarantine: we're calling our families. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 23:59
So, both of you are children of immigrants, and I ask this as an almost-immigrant myself, what is it like to merge your cultures into such an American holiday like Thanksgiving? Because for me, it's always been a bit of a block. I haven't personally really internalized Thanksgiving.
Hrishikesh Hirway 24:16
Oh, I think, well, one, it certainly helped me to start when I was so young, but our Thanksgiving was absolutely a hybrid event--it was a combination of an entire Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey, and mashed potatoes, and stuffing, and all that stuff, But then also because you can't have an Indian gathering, family and friends get together, without it also being a potluck. It was also a potluck full of Indian food. So, and my mom is vegetarian, she doesn't eat turkey, and so she would make Indian food. So we had, I think, probably the equivalent of like, three meals for 120 people for... [Laughter] Because we would actually have like 40 or 50 people, and all those people would bring food for everybody. It was really intense on the food side of things. But it was really nice because I always had, for me, Thanksgiving was always a combination of Indian food and Thanksgiving food together on the same plate.
Samin Nosrat 25:16
Which sounds so good, to be honest.
Nick Quah 25:17
Oh, yeah, that sounds amazing. [Laughter]
Samin Nosrat 25:18
So yummy and so good.
Hrishikesh Hirway 25:20
That was so nice, when Samin wrote about the mango pie, because that was... she wrote about that part of it. This Thanksgiving tradition, that is, you know, mango, so it has this really Indian flavor to it, but it's in the form of a Thanksgiving pie. And I was so happy that she saw that kind of hybridization, that, to me, represented entirely the spirit of what Thanksgiving was in my house.
Nick Quah 25:45
Well, thank you both so much. I really appreciate this, and I really love the show.
Samin Nosrat 25:49
Hrishikesh Hirway 25:50
Thanks so much, Nick.
Samin Nosrat 25:50
Thanks for your support.
Hrishikesh Hirway 25:51
Yeah, thank you so much.
Nick Quah 25:52
Good luck with everything.
Hrishikesh Hirway 25:53
Thanks for having us on.
Nick Quah 26:06
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Esuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Lauren Shippen: The Bright Sessions Episode 23
Fri, 1/8 10:11AM • 26:58
laughter, podcast, people, lauren, sessions, bright, character, episodes, big, hollywood, fiction, season, projects, couple, queer, westerns, feel, masculinity, webseries, idea
Lauren Shippen, Sam (Lauren Shippen), Caleb (Briggon Snow), Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa), Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:01
In 2014, Lauren Shippen wrote her first podcast pilot.
Lauren Shippen 00:05
And then I didn't do anything with it for an entire year, because I was just caught up in this idea of, "Who are you kidding? You're not a writer, you're not allowed to be a writer. You don't have training for that. You don't have any experience. You don't have a degree in creative writing. You've never taken a creative writing class in your life."
Nick Quah 00:21
As it turns out, classic case of imposter syndrome. Now, Lauren is one of the most sought-after audio fiction producers in the industry. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Lauren Shippen's journey from aspiring actor to rising podcast star.
Nick Quah 00:58
Lauren Shippen came to podcasting the long way around, after figuring out that what she thought she wanted wasn't actually what she wanted at all.
Lauren Shippen 01:06
I had gone to college for theater and music in the hopes of eventually moving back to New York, where I grew up, and being on Broadway.
Nick Quah 01:14
What's the big musical for you?
Lauren Shippen 01:16
Oh, I am a huge Sondheim-head.
Nick Quah 01:18
Ah! Not surprising. [Laughter]
Lauren Shippen 01:21
I feel like it explains a lot about me. And my favorite musical of his is Assassins.
Nick Quah 01:26
Of course, yeah! I actually saw a staging of it in New Haven, actually. I lived there a couple years ago.
Lauren Shippen 01:31
God! Oh, I'm so jealous. I've never actually seen it in person, because it was revived on Broadway in 2004, and my dad and my sister went, my older sister, and they didn't bring me because they thought that it was gonna be too mature, and I was 13 at the time, and then they brought the soundtrack home, and I listened to the soundtrack, and became obsessed with it. And actually, I was supposed to see it in New York this past spring, and of course, you know, with everything, theater got shut down. But someday I'm gonna see it in person, and it will be wonderful. But yeah, I wrote a paper on it in college. I'm such a nerd for that stuff. [Laughter] And I think that should have been a clear sign that I was obsessed with the ideas of Americana and masculinity from an early age. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 02:09
Lauren Shippen 02:10
So I got, like, halfway through my theater degree and realized that, actually, I was enjoying the music scholarship aspect of it a lot more. And so I ended up changing to be a music major, and doing more academic music writing, and briefly flirted with the idea of being a music journalist. Ultimately, by the time I got to the end of college, I realized that I didn't want to be doing musical theater, and that I didn't want to move back to New York and do the same show eight times a week. I think that that's an incredible thing, I love being in the audience for that, and that the magic of theater is something that can't really be captured elsewhere, but it is grueling, and you really have to love it in a specific way, I think, to want to get up on stage and perform the same two-and-a-half hours eight times a week. You know, that's an intense physical and mental feat.
Nick Quah 02:56
Yeah, it's a real paradox of that life that the meaning of success is that you do the same thing over, and over, and over again.
Lauren Shippen 03:01
Yeah, it really is. And I think, in getting more into television and serialized storytelling in college, I realized the thing that I loved about storytelling was getting to stay with a character for a long time. And so I moved to LA to hopefully become a TV producer because I thought, "Okay, well, like, I'm never gonna make it as an actor in Hollywood. Like, that's very silly." And I don't know what else I would do.
Nick Quah 03:25
You came to that realization very quickly. [Laughter]
Lauren Shippen 03:28
I did, but then I immediately reneged on it, because I got to LA, and I got a job at WME, one of the agencies, and was in the mailroom, doing the classic Hollywood route of being an assistant at an agency in hopes that you'll eventually move to a studio, or network, or what have you. I lasted like, three months at that job. And I... It was so high stress and low mental engagement for me, just because I'm not interested in dealmaking, I'm not... You know, that's not really what I wanted to be doing. And so I quit and decided to try acting full-time.
Nick Quah 04:02
Lauren went all in. She took acting classes and worked as an extra in movies and television shows. She also started hosting a friend's webseries about Dungeons & Dragons, which inspired her to think about what she could do on her own.
Lauren Shippen 04:16
But I was listless and doing the whole, like, working in a restaurant, and auditioning, and just being exhausted, because then the auditions I was going on were for roles that were really, really boring because it was like, the male lead's romantic interest who has four lines. And then you don't book that, and you're like, "Well, if I don't even book the thing that's, like, not going to be fun, then what am I doing?"
Nick Quah 04:36
So she created her own webseries, focused on Tumblr fandoms, while still trying to make it as an actor and working full-time. And in researching her series, she stumbled across a podcast that inspired her in a new way: Welcome to Night Vale.
Lauren Shippen 04:52
And I just thought, "Gosh, this is great!" and like, I can't do this. I'm not this kind of writer, and I don't have Cecil's voice, and I don't have this incredible music. But I can do the audio part, I have a music degree, I kind of know about audio editing, a little bit. And so I actually wrote the first script of The Bright Sessions in 2014. And so, I just sort of put it in a drawer and didn't think about it for about a year because I was just on the grind of working at a restaurant, come home, on casting websites, go to an audition the next day, make a YouTube video, go to acting class on the weekends, and also starting to actually make friends and have a bit more of a social life. And ultimately, the thing that sort of pushed me back into making The Bright Sessions, and then starting to write again, was in the spring of 2015, I got strep throat and it went very wrong, and I nearly died.
Nick Quah 05:37
In early 2015, Lauren was hospitalized for five days with a severe case of strep throat. A month after leaving the hospital, the illness returned more forcefully and dangerously. She was hemorrhaging from her jugular vein for two weeks, she developed chronic arthritis, and she had a difficult time getting around. Her doctors told her that if she wanted to be able to use her legs, she needed to stop standing during the day, which meant quitting her restaurant job. She ended up going back to the east coast to recover at her parents' house for a few months. And that's where the idea for The Bright Sessions came back to her.
Lauren Shippen 06:13
So I was just like... Sat on the couch, and watching Bake Off, and not doing anything. And maybe I can take the luxury of the time that I have now, right? Like I completely own up to the pure privilege I had of, A) still being on my parents' health care and not having to worry about a six figure medical bill. And having a place to go where I could be taken care of, and have my my parents helped me cover rent while I was in between jobs, and having some savings, and all of those things that just give you the privilege of time, and space, and energy to do things. And, you know, that was balanced out by the fact that I was in immense pain every second of every day. [Laughs] But I think I was able to sort of channel that into some writing energy. And by the time that I came back to LA, and had sort of gone through the process of putting my life back together with the job, and the voice lessons, and the speech therapy, and everything else, I had nine scripts, and a couple friends in acting class that I had been eyeing for roles who were very willing to do stuff for free, simply because I said, "It'll take two hours per episode max. And you won't have to do anything except show up and read from the script. Like, you don't even have to memorize your lines. This is gonna be the most luxurious thing ever." And they were just... They were so down.
Nick Quah 07:33
The Bright Sessions is a science-fiction podcast about people with superpowers called Atypicals. In order to cope with their powers, they see a mysterious therapist named Dr. Bright. The show is built around those therapy sessions.
Sam (Lauren Shippen) 07:47
You can’t tell anyone about this, right? I mean the same patient-doctor confidentiality agreement still applies?
Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 07:53
Of course. I can’t tell anyone what you tell me in this office.
Sam (Lauren Shippen) 07:57
And you can’t report me to any law enforcement or government agency or anything, right?
Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 08:01
Well, if you’ve hurt someone, or plan to, I would have...
Sam (Lauren Shippen) 08:05
No, no, no, no, no, I... Oh god, it’s nothing like that, it’s just... Well... Okay, you will probably think that I am completely insane. I mean, I think I’m completely insane, I have thought for fifteen years, but, well… here’s the thing: ever since I was a kid, I’ve been able to do this... this thing that for all intents and purposes should not be possible. And I’ve read every book that I can get my hands on and I have scoured what feels like the entire Internet and I’ve never come across any kind of explanation for it… and you probably will not believe me, but, essentially, unbelievably… I can time travel. And it sucks!
Nick Quah 08:56
One of the more intriguing qualities of the podcast is how its characters challenge conventional views on masculinity and gender roles, themes that Lauren often weaves into her work.
Lauren Shippen 09:06
One of the very first characters that came out of initially thinking about, okay, what kind of therapy patients would be interesting for this world in which people with supernatural abilities go to therapy, and talking to a friend about things that we found interesting and liking the idea of the typical male jock football player in high school, and that character trope, and then ultimately putting it on its head by having him be an extreme empath, and feel the feelings of everyone around him while he's existing in this body that is taught to repress his feelings and not express emotion in a thoughtful way, as I think is the lesson that's taught to a lot of young men in our culture.
Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 09:54
Sometimes, people don’t want others to see their sadness. He probably thought he was hiding it well, and the fact that you noticed frightened him. It brought into focus just how unhappy he is.
Caleb (Briggon Snow) 10:07
See what I mean? I knew how he was feeling and instead of fixing it, I made him more unhappy. You’re always talking about this like it’s some sort of stupid gift, that I can help people. But I always just **** things up.
Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 10:19
That’s because you haven’t learned how to control it yet. You’re so young and you’re dealing with so many of your own emotions that handling others’ is going to be overwhelming. Being a teenager is hard, you know that. I’ve said before that I think this ability get easier as you grow older...
Caleb (Briggon Snow) 10:34
Yeah, I know, I know. Being a teenager is rough, there are hormones and all that stuff, blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t change the fact that I suck. It’s not an excuse. Someone was sad and then I opened my mouth and now they’re sadder. And I don’t know what he’s going to do, or how he’s gonna react, or if he spent the whole weekend thinking about it... and would you stop that! I can feel your ****ing pity bleeding out of you and I don’t need it! I’m not some pathetic emotional loser, okay? I’m not like him!
Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 10:58
Okay, okay, Caleb. Caleb, it’s alright. It's alright.
Lauren Shippen 11:03
And ultimately the character ended up being a little bit different than I had initially conceived of him simply because I cast Briggon Snow, who's one of my best collaborators, in the role, and we found new facets of this character as we went along. And I think even before I cast Briggon, I was writing the first three episodes that Caleb was in and realized that he, that this character was in love with this other boy in his class, and I hadn't necessarily jumped into building that character of like, oh, on top of being an empath, he's also going to be queer. It just is something that came naturally, I think, because I was also exploring my own... rehashing my own feelings of sexual identity throughout high school and college, when I was figuring myself out. And this idea that he can be this masculine, athletic football player who also is deeply sensitive and emotional, and those two things are not at odds with each other. And that masculinity can still leave space for emotion, and for thoughtfulness, and taking what's usually the blunt instrument of the high school jock character, and trying to soften it a bit, and explore the positive sides of masculinity.
Nick Quah 12:15
So when you started making The Bright Sessions, what was the goal? Did you have one? Or did you just want to make something to call your own?
Lauren Shippen 12:22
You know, even at the beginning, my greatest hope was that it eventually would become something bigger. And that best-case scenario, get, you know, bought by somebody, and then they would make it into something that could actually make money...
Nick Quah 12:36
The very same quiet hopes and dreams that everybody has doing anything in that way.
Lauren Shippen 12:39
Exactly! [Laughter] And so I think for The Bright Sessions, the intent was very much to, I think at the beginning, just to figure out if I could do it. I think just writing the scripts, and directing actors, and editing the thing, and putting credits music on it, and releasing it on an RSS feed, and all of these things that I had no idea about, not necessarily thinking that I would find a big audience. But I think the thing that I hoped for, especially because my introduction to audio fiction was Welcome to Night Vale, and finding that show through Tumblr. "God, maybe like six strangers on Tumblr will go nuts over this." [Laughter] And I think that was really what I was aiming for. It was like, maybe I can make something that will speak to a niche fandom. Maybe people will end up caring about these characters in a way that I care about them.
Nick Quah 13:38
Coming up: Lauren finds her niche.
Nick Quah 13:56
The first season of The Bright Sessions launched in November of 2015 and wrapped in January 2016. By February, the first episode of the series had received 2,000 listens. The show, which had no funding and no budget, was gaining traction organically.
Lauren Shippen 14:14
And so I thought, okay, well, 2,000 people is like enough to do more. And so that February I started a Patreon and took a month off and said, "Okay, you know, I..." Because I already started writing a little bit of a second season because we were just having fun doing it. That's ultimately what led me to writing more episodes, was that we were having a good time, and I was having lots of ideas about what could happen next. But we went into this second season, launching this Patreon, having maybe like three patrons, two of which were my mom, probably. [Laughter] And not really knowing what the second season was going to be, other than I decided, in my infinite wisdom, I was like, "We're gonna do, instead of nine episodes, we're gonna do 20, and we're not gonna release three a month, we're gonna do it weekly, actually." [Laughter] And I'm just gonna launch this before I even know exactly what the end of the season is. And so, as a result, the spring of 2016, we released the second season, it's a bit of a blur. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 15:10
Lauren Shippen 15:10
Because I wrote 20 episodes in like, three months and fully produced them. But I think when I knew there was something maybe happening was actually late March. So it was like a couple weeks after we'd started the second season. I don't know what prompted me to search The Bright Sessions hashtag on Instagram, but I did, and someone had made fanart of one of the characters. And I was like, "Oh, my God, this is it. This is the thing that I wanted. I wanted somebody to care about this enough to make fan art."
Nick Quah 15:39
In the middle of the second season, Lauren was able to hire sound designer Mischa Stanton, who raised the production quality of the show. And then she started to get noticed by some big podcasting names--like Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale and the folks at Apple.
Lauren Shippen 15:54
It really was a couple of big players in the podcasting world at the time making a concerted effort to listen to new stuff and to elevate the stuff that they liked. And that's not to say that I wasn't grinding on social media, trying to get people to listen to it, because I was. For months that was like, where most of my time was going into, was spending time on Reddit, and Tumblr, and Twitter, trying to get people to listen. But I think that by the time that we had completed season two, we'd had a couple of those bigger folks spotlight us, and then it felt like, okay, now I have to think about what I'm doing.
Nick Quah 16:31
The Bright Sessions went on to have four seasons, plus a couple of mini-seasons, and it officially wrapped up in 2018, the same year Lauren's career took off.
Lauren Shippen 16:41
And then between July of 2018 and November of 2018, a bunch of things happened very, very quickly, and that was, we wrapped The Bright Sessions, the actual series itself, in May of 2018. I think I'd started talking to Luminary the month prior to that about spin-offs. And I knew that we were ending the show, and so I was like, oh, well, I can't give you the show. But I have this idea for these other Bright Sessions universe shows, and we had that conversation. And then that same month, basically, John Dryden reached out to me about working on Passenger List, potentially. And two months after our Bright Sessions wrap party, our final series wrap party, I, in the span of about six weeks, flew to London to direct Passenger List with John. While I was in London, I was working on this insane 30-page proposal for the Marvel job. I get back, I do L.A. production for Passenger List, and then I get news that... Oh, no, and then I go to Austin for Austin Film Festival, where I finish the final manuscript of my first book. And then I get back, and like two days after I get back from Austin Film Festival and turning in my book, I hear that I got the Marvel job. And so it was like, that felt very fast to me, because also at the time, I was starting to prep The AM Archives. [Laughter] And it sort of felt like, Oh, I all of a sudden feel like the most popular girl at the ball. You know, like everybody's asking me to dance, this is so exciting.
Nick Quah 18:12
In 2019, Lauren started her own podcast production company, Atypical Artists, and launched three Bright Sessions spin-offs, two podcasts--The AM Archives and The College Tapes--and a novel, The Infinite Noise. She's got more books and podcasts in the works, and even bigger projects on the way, too. So does she feel like she's made it?
Lauren Shippen 18:35
No, I don't feel like I've made it at all. I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I've had, and the collaborators I've been able to work with, and the projects I've been able to work on, and unbelievably grateful that, for the past 18 months, I've been able to make a living from fiction podcasting. But it's still a constant uphill battle, and I think the thing that I'm experiencing now is just the fact that audio fiction is much bigger, and especially with Hollywood studios getting into it, and maybe not... choosing instead to work with TV and film writers, that I'm still constantly proving myself to the people who hold the purse strings. And that, I think, is a feeling that I don't know will ever go away. Like, I don't know that anybody ever gets to a point where they're like, "Oh, I know I'll be able to sell my next show and pay rent." I would love to get to that point, but I don't know if that will be the case. And I don't know if podcasting will be that. Because the thing that I'm always fighting now is A) selling shows, and B) selling shows to folks who want to provide a budget that actually will allow me to pay people a living wage. I think the influx of Hollywood money into fiction podcasting is great, but I think there are certain attitudes around "Oh, well, but it's a podcast so we can make it for five bucks, right?" It's like "Yeah, no, it's way, way cheaper than a single episode of television, but it still costs money."
Nick Quah 19:56
Lauren Shippen 19:57
And yeah, so I think... I feel like I've made it in the indie podcasting scene. I feel like I'm a name that, if people are in fiction podcasting and in that niche community, that people are familiar with my work, but I don't think I've made it as a writer, if that makes sense.
Nick Quah 20:15
Is there anything you're working on that maybe doesn't fit the Hollywood mold, but you really want to make?
Lauren Shippen 20:23
Yeah, it's uh... so, a couple years ago, I played Red Dead Redemption 2 and got obsessed with cowboys and westerns. [Laughter] And the fact that...
Nick Quah 20:32
I believe I saw your tweet that said "big sad cowboy."
Lauren Shippen 20:35
Nick Quah 20:36
"Much relating to the big sad cowboy." [Laughter]
Lauren Shippen 20:38
Yes, I relate hard to the big sad cowboy. And I've always been really fascinated with ideas of Americana and ideas of masculinity. And I think that for me, the reasons that I've never really related to westerns before playing Red Dead Redemption 2 is because they are this really toxic American male fantasy that I have no interest in exploring. Whereas the reality of the American West is actually that it was way less white and way more queer than the Hollywood westerns would have you believe. And so I just started reading about the history of outlaw culture, and cowboys in the American West, and the various people who actually were occupying those spaces. And the long and short of it is that I want to make a queer cowboy rom-com. [Laughter] Maybe unsurprisingly, nobody's interested in making that except for me.
Nick Quah 21:31
Never know. You never know. You absolutely do not know. [Laughter]
Lauren Shippen 21:33
You never know!
Nick Quah 21:34
Yeah. [Laughter] So, that actually leads me to my final question, which is: what do you hope gets preserved within the experience you had coming up through the indie fiction podcast scene?
Lauren Shippen 21:46
I think the thing that I have loved about the space and the community for the past few years is this feeling of creative freedom, and is this feeling of, if you have an idea that you're passionate about, there is an audience for it, and some of them actually will pay you money for it. That's something that I hope gets preserved, is the idea that niche stuff can still exist and that you don't have to make the most marketable idea that then gets network noted to death. My queer cowboy rom-com, like, that's something to me that's like, oh, yeah, the audio fiction audience, there are people for this. There are people who will want to listen to this, because I know them, and I've talked to them about this project, and I do think there's an audience here for this. It's just impossible to sell to anybody, right? Because it's a period piece, and it's queer men, and it's a non-white cast, and all these things that Hollywood has a hard time wrapping their brains around. But I really like... that's a show. And there are a couple of other shows that I'm eyeing where I'm like, oh, yeah, I am eventually just going to make this through like, Kickstarter, or Patreon, or my own funds from another project, because I want to see this exist. And I don't really want to wait around anymore for people to give me the permission to do it. But that's really hard to do, and I really want to make sure I'm paying people well, and having the understanding that there are certain aspects of building a podcast that I just simply cannot do. And unless I want to dedicate years of study to something that I'm not going to be able to do, the least of which is just, I can't voice every single role in a podcast. [Laughter] Although I do... you know, in a couple Atypical projects, you'll hear my voice enough. [Laughter] In the wall, in the background, because I'm always the the loop cast person who jumps in and says the passerby lines, I've really learned the benefits of having wonderful note givers, and collaborators, and people who are helping you make this thing that you're making even better. But I think that there's also the struggle of doing a bigger project, and having a million cooks in the kitchen, who are all giving notes on a thing that you created, that you're the expert on.
Nick Quah 23:59
It sounds like the core tension is, on one hand, you want to get respect in those rooms. And on the other hand, you want to preserve this feeling of, I want to make things for community of people who like this thing that I like.
Lauren Shippen 24:13
Yeah. Yeah. I think I'm starting to find the balance of that of, okay, these are the projects that I do want feedback, and I do want notes in, or these are the partners--I've been developing a show with a particular partner for a while and they're a bigger sort of Hollywood-adjacent company, but their notes are great, and it's very few people in the company who are collaborating with me, and that's the kind of stuff where I'm like, okay, the pushback I'm going to get from this group of people on certain things are going to be things that make this story better. And things that are outside of my perspective that are important versus like, "Oh, well, I don't think that this particular bisexual experience is actually true to life. And it's it feels unrealistic," and it's like, "Well, it's based on my bisexual experience. So it's not unrealistic, but okay." [Laughter] Stuff like that, where you just kind of get "network-y" notes because they're thinking about the marketing or audience side of things, and you're still focused on the story. Yeah, I think that tension is exactly right, and I think... you know I recognize that I will not be able to get a huge budget to make exactly what I want with no input, and that that probably wouldn't even be beneficial to my storytelling overall. But I think it's about, yeah, finding the projects where I'm happy to compromise on certain things, and then finding the projects where maybe I want to cordon them off, and just do them in a couple of years, and just start saving up my own money for those projects now, because I want to make them in a specific way, and I haven't found that collaborator that's going to make that show with me in that way yet.
Nick Quah 25:40
Well, I look forward to watching the queer rom-com cowboy western.
Lauren Shippen 25:45
I really hope so. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:48
And I hope you get to play in Assassins one day. That would be dope.
Lauren Shippen 25:50
Oh, me too! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:52
Lauren, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me, I appreciate this.
Lauren Shippen 25:55
Thank you so much, Nick. This was so great.
Nick Quah 26:12
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod True Crime Pioneer Marc Smerling Episode 22
Tue, 1/5 12:23PM • 24:46
laughter, people, podcast, providence, crime, true, marc, story, tv series, life, interviews, city, zac, thought, piece, find, television, buddy, gimlet, recreations
Tony Fiore, Buddy Cianci, Marc Smerling, Mike Stanton, Steven Antonson, Kwame Kilpatrick, Nick Quah, Zac Stuart-Pontier, Jesse Friedman, Brian Andrews, Robert Durst
Nick Quah 00:04
What has working in audio taught you?
Marc Smerling 00:09
You can get rid of that camera. It's a lot easier. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 00:16
Marc Smerling knows what it's like to dive deep into the darkest moments of people's lives. He's done it a lot as a documentarian and as a podcaster.
Marc Smerling 00:25
If I sit across from you with a little mic in my hand and I'm back-and-forth-ing, very quickly, that mic disappears, and we're having a really good conversation. Now, imagine you're sitting across from me, and there's lights blaring in your face, and you've got to sit upright, and behind me over my shoulder--or, even worse, you're looking at a screen of me--there's all this equipment and people. When I talk about intimacy and podcasting, that it's coming in your ear, you know? It's very intimate, the experience of listening to a good story-based podcast. It's also intimate on the other side, when you're interviewing somebody, you're closer and you're more free to forget that what you're doing is making a piece of storytelling for audio presentation.
Nick Quah 01:16
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: behind the lens, and the mic, with true crime legend Marc Smerling.
Nick Quah 01:38
Marc Smerling is a documentary veteran. He's made feature-length docs like Capturing The Friedmans, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. And he's also made some of the buzziest true crime TV series of the last decade, including The Jinx, which tells the story of real estate mogul Robert Durst, who was accused and acquitted of murder. Marc and his team, including fellow writers Andrew Jarecki and Zac Stewart-Pontier, were so thorough in their reporting that they uncovered evidence that led to Durst's arrest and a new trial, including this damning, and now iconic, piece of audio.
Robert Durst 02:11
What the hell did I do? [Groaning] Killed them all, of course.
Marc Smerling 02:26
Well, the real reason I love doing podcasts is because of found audio, you know. I'm always looking for it. So there's some trials that are recorded in video, and there's some things that you can get in video, but there's almost always audio. When we made The Jinx, we were able to find audio tapes that were kept by the transcriber of the Galveston trial in the bottom of a file box that was in his garage. All of a sudden, we had these audio tapes, and you could be in that space. That would've worked great for a podcast, too.
Nick Quah 03:00
In 2016, Marc and Zac joined forces with Gimlet Media to release Crimetown, which became one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time. So what can podcasting do for you that TV or film can't?
Marc Smerling 03:13
Audio's so intimate compared to television. It's literally in your ear. So you're listening and you're making relationships based on just the intimacy you're having with the tape, as opposed to what you're talking about, which is, you're seeing something--either a recreation, or an interview subject, or some old archival--and you're processing another layer of storytelling that you're gonna have an emotional reaction to, and you're going to have some sort of reaction to.
Nick Quah 03:42
Marc Smerling 03:42
So, it's so intimate. I mean, it's... Doing Crimetown, it's my... Was my favorite thing I think I've ever done. It was such a great journey.
Nick Quah 03:50
Tell me about your jump into podcasting. If I've got my timeline right, you've finished making The Jinx, and then later that year, Crimetown was announced. What drew you to podcasts, and why this story?
Marc Smerling 04:02
We had gotten through with The Jinx; it was a long and arduous process. And I had married a woman from Providence, Rhode Island, and she was just this salt of the earth person. I love her to death. You know, I'd met her family, big Italian family, and so I knew this place, this magical place, where forgiveness reigns over violence and everything else. And humor is so prevalent. I'd met Buddy through my father-in-law, and I had fantasized about making a scripted version of a TV series based on Providence, Rhode Island, but I knew that people would say it was, you know, first of all, "It's provincial, who cares? Everybody's heard the Buddy story," but I knew that was going to be a mountain to climb. So I just... Zach and I just got a recorder and started recording stuff. We had been recording stuff, pretty much, months and months before we got into business with Gimlet, and Alex, who was added value for sure. And we just recognized right away that we had entered this really unique domain.
Nick Quah 05:03
So I want to hear about how you put the show together, because it feels like an epic; you're talking about all these different characters, all these different places.
Marc Smerling 05:12
Well, from the beginning, I knew that it would have to be a story told from the perspective of different characters that were interweaving, because everybody in Providence knows everybody, particularly in the world of crime and politics. So the process is very much going out and doing these really expansive interviews, and looking for source material, and studying the record to find out where these stories intersect. So the beautiful thing about a podcast, or like Fargo, the TV series, is you can go pretty far afield, as long as you bring people back to the central characters and their journeys. So for me, the central character, obviously, was Buddy, the mayor of Providence, and then these two organized crime figures who had been sort of strongarm and basically a hitman for the boss of Providence, the crime boss of Providence.
Zac Stuart-Pontier 06:05
This tape was played in court. The jury listened as Buddy told the city official not to cooperate with a federal investigation.
Steven Antonson 06:12
No I'm not. I totally agree with you.
Buddy Cianci 06:13
Don't let those guys intimidate you. Don't be a volunteer for the U.S. Government.
Steven Antonson 06:16
No. I'm not.
Buddy Cianci 06:17
Yeah. I mean.
Buddy Cianci 06:18
Who the **** do they think they are? They’re trying to put words in your mouth. This is a, this is just that U.S. Attorney's Office, or not U.S. Attorney, it's them trying to find an extortion because I got a club membership out of it which I didn't even want.
Steven Antonson 06:18
Steven Antonson 06:29
Mike Stanton 06:32
It was a key piece of evidence because it was Buddy on tape, not sounding very good.
Buddy Cianci 06:37
Thanks. And by the way, don't volunteer anything...
Steven Antonson 06:39
Buddy Cianci 06:39
Over there, you know.
Steven Antonson 06:40
Buddy Cianci 06:40
Just, you know.
Steven Antonson 06:41
Buddy Cianci 06:41
Steven Antonson 06:42
Buddy Cianci 06:42
Marc Smerling 06:44
And there were other people who weave through as well, but they're very big in this. There's a detective that goes through it, and there's Tony Fiore, the master thief, who goes through it as well.
Brian Andrews 06:54
Tony would purposely go into a neighborhood that he knew well, and he'd go down a dead-end street, knowing it was a dead-end street.
Tony Fiore 07:03
I took Brian, I mean, he’ll tell you, I took him down dead-end streets. Ya know, he’d follow me down a dead-end street like where am I going and then I'd stop and I'd just look at him and shake my head.
Brian Andrews 07:14
He just wanted to see who pulled down the dead-end street with him. And all of a sudden if he pulls down the dead-end street, and three of us pull down, caught again.
Tony Fiore 07:23
He said he was never so embarrassed in his life.
Brian Andrews 07:26
Embarrassing. Frustrating. Now you gotta worry about, did I just kill his plan, because now he knows the state police are watching him. Is he not gonna go through with what he's been looking at? Did I just ruin the whole thing by getting made? Pretty frustrating. Aggravating.
Marc Smerling 07:45
It does sort of revolve around these several lives. And that's how we structured it, and it was really about marking on a board where these stories intersect, breaking them off into episodes, finding out what's going on in the world around these stories that fertilize these stories, you know, what's happening in politics? What's happening with the banking system in Providence, wasn't there a huge bank run? And all this other stuff. and building this... You're right. It is an epic. I mean, it's sort of The Iliad, in some ways. It's like this, you know... It's about a place, and it's about all these people moving in different directions that all, sort of, are moving in the same direction.
Nick Quah 08:23
So part of what's so interesting to me about the show is how the Providence of Crimetown has kind of supplanted the actual city, in my mind. [Laughter] And I think that's probably the case for a bunch of Crimetown listeners, especially if they haven't spent very much time in that place. Do you have a sense of how the actual people of Providence feel about the podcast in general?
Marc Smerling 08:41
I mean, they love it, but the mayor of Providence didn't like it too much. [Laughter] I mean, he loved it. But, you know, he was like, "This is not who we are." And that's true. It's a piece of who they are, it's not the entire story of the city. But I think people in Providence recognize that it's a big part of the city. I mean, Buddy Cianci resurrected the city from the industrial downfall, and he put it on the map again. And he did so by being sharp elbowed and, for all intents and purposes, corrupt--making corrupt deals with unions, making corrupt deals with whoever he needed to make corrupt deals with. The underlying moral imperative for him, I think, was to be the big man in Providence, but also, the fallout of that is he actually raised the city. He raised the esteem of the city, he rebuilt downtown, he did some incredible things. And that's the beauty of Providence. There's always incredible good with the incredible bad, and there's tragedy with people, and there's forgiveness with people that I think is truly unique.
Nick Quah 08:54
I was going to say that it's a very American story of the city, but I feel like many cities have the story of like, it's built on a lot of sin, and the present condition is try to either cover it up or make up for it, you know? I don't think there's a single city in the developed world that--or anywhere--that did not have a bunch of eggs cracked in the process of making it the way it is. [Laughter]
Marc Smerling 09:50
Nick Quah 10:10
And then, the second season, you decided to shift over to Detroit. Tell me a little bit about that decision.
Marc Smerling 10:16
Well, honestly, that was the... I wanted, the second season, because Providence was so dear to me, I wanted Zac to pick a city that he was excited about. And there were several. And Detroit really rose to a very high level because we went on a little scouting mission there--they did, Drew and Zach--and they got access. And then, you know, Kwame Kilpatrick being at the center of it, and John, who's one of the producers, being able to make contact with Kwame in prison and start this conversation, that was key.
Kwame Kilpatrick 10:49
I was charged with RICO conspiracy. I'm absolutely innocent of that. And the feds know that. I made stupid decisions. I made ignorant decisions. I was arrogant and prideful in a lot of ways. And that's what I want people to understand. But I stand on the fact that those things that I was charged with in that courtroom, I am not guilty of.
Marc Smerling 11:15
To be able to have the guy at the center of the story actually in a conversation from a federal prison was a unique situation. So it sort of built itself around that.
Nick Quah 11:26
You use dramatic recreations a lot in your work. Why do you use them, and do you think recreations are essentially an interpretation of historical reality?
Marc Smerling 11:35
Yeah, well, everything's an interpretation of historical reality, when you start editing stuff. [Laughter] I always tell my editors that every edit is kind of a little lie, you know? There's no way around it. You cut somebody words out of the middle, or their interview in half, you're taking some stuff out, and, contextually, you're changing the story. So what we try to do is challenge ourselves here to keep to the truth as best we can while telling a good story. The reason to do recreations, honestly, is always because you don't have a way to tell the story that you can do without recreations. And the way I like to tell these stories is by putting the viewer, or the listener, in the story, as opposed to having people interviewed and bouncing interviews back and forth, and everybody's talking retrospectively. So you're sitting in a room with a bunch of people talking about these events, and you're getting their interpretations of these events. And then you're getting the storyteller's interpretation of these events as well, because they're editing these interviews together. For me, I'd like to take that middle guy out as much as possible. And I'd like to go to Providence, Rhode Island and sit in the grand jury hearing with all the witnesses for Buddy Cianci's grand jury, when he attacked the guy with a fireplace log. Let the listener, or the audience, make their decisions on whether they hate or love people, whether they think people are guilty or they're innocent, by listening to original source material. And then when it comes to recreating testimony, you're really, short of having it recorded, which we used constantly when we had it, you're bringing the audience into that courtroom and they're actually watching the trial with you.
Nick Quah 13:19
After the break: how far is too far when it comes to true crime media?
Nick Quah 13:33
You know, Marc, I've been doing all this research on you for this episode, and there's a couple of writeups that regard you as a true crime pioneer. What's your relationship with true crime and how is it reflected in your work?
Marc Smerling 13:45
Well, when I was a kid, I told my dad, I wanted to be a cop.
Nick Quah 13:48
Oh, really? [Laughter]
Marc Smerling 13:49
That I wanted to be a detective. And then I wanted to go to John Jay, and he was like, "That's enough. You're Jewish, and you're gonna go to a nice college that I will send you to." [Laughter] Which is maybe a not-PC thing to say, but anyway, I've always been interested in investigations; not necessarily for the glory of solving things, but for the very... I mean, I used to rebuild motorcycles, so it's like, for just the process of holding the pieces in your hand and trying to make them fit into the case. And going through that process is actually more satisfying, I think, than getting to the end of it. So I think, yeah, I started out in true crime. I think Capturing The Friedmans is probably--I may be wrong, and I'm glad to be proved wrong--but it may be the first found-footage-based crime documentary, in the sense that most of it is home movies collected by David Friedman, the son of Arnold, and the brother, Jesse. And that has been a theme ever since we made that film. I find going back in time and being in the room with Jesse was just so fascinating. Much more fascinating than people standing around talking about it.
Jesse Friedman 14:57
People are telling me, "Look what your father did to you! Look at the mess he got you into!" And Mommy believes them, and I don't. I tell 'em to get lost. Mommy says, "You're right." And "I've lived with him for all my life, and look at all these horrible things he's done for me over 30 years," which is... Amounts to nothing, except this.
Nick Quah 15:19
Here's a very broad question that's been asked many times by many people, but I'm still interested in hearing your thoughts about it. Why do you think people are so drawn to true crime? I've heard you say somewhere that it might have something to do with the allure of ambiguity, and while I find myself drawn to that, as well, I also personally have a lot of moral/ethical issues with how many true crime stories are presented.
Marc Smerling 15:44
Well, I think Zac Portier put it--one part of it--very well. He said that true crime is the the magnification of true life in a very dramatic way. It's everything that we think about that we don't understand, and it's to the nth degree, so we're looking to find some sort of explanation. "Why? Why did this guy... Why would he do this?" You know? We need to know. The world needs to make sense to people. Unfortunately, the world doesn't make sense. [Laughter] You know, it just doesn't. And people are even more nonsensical. So a well-done true crime show makes sense of a world and gives you a clear answer. And I'm not for that. I'm with you, man. I feel like Capturing The Friedmans was very ambiguous for a lot of people. Now would we have made it less ambiguous if we had definitive proof that the Friedmen family was innocent? Or proof that they were guilty? Of course, if we found something definitive, but if you don't find something definitive, it's not fair to make it up. [Laughter] And I think that what you do is you stick to the factual history, and you do your best to tell the story in an exciting way without breaking it. And without getting into, "Hey, can you make that more exciting? Can the ending be more definitive?" I have gotten on, you know, showrunner job calls with major studios, when they're describing shows to me that I know are--in my heart--are a moral issue. One which will, you know, probably come back to haunt me was the JonBenet Ramsey piece that they got sued for. And I... On the call, I was like, "You're gonna get sued." Where they recreated... You know, they accused the brother of the murder. And they recreated the scene with a watermelon, I think it was--I didn't watch it, because it was just... They pitched that on the phone, on a call with me, and I'm like, "You can't recreate something that didn't... You don't know happened, about a guy who you're not even talking to.” You know?
Nick Quah 17:43
So you were also one of the earlier voices of true crime in the podcast space. And you were also one of the earlier teams to work with Gimlet Media. What was that experience like, working with Alex Blumberg in that company, during that moment?
Marc Smerling 17:56
It was a great experience. That place was sort of a wide open field of creativity. I loved it. And I was by far the oldest guy in the room. [Laughter] But you know, it was just like being reborn in some ways. It was a great place to work, and just the energy of just excitement was there.
Nick Quah 18:14
Marc Smerling 18:14
I think everybody there thought they were doing something extraordinary. And I think they were doing something extraordinary. And you look at those original shows, and there's some great shows in there. Crimetown was very unique. We came in with a little more bandwidth, in a Hollywood sense, than I think they had at Gimlet. They didn't under... I remember going to the meeting and saying... We're making our deal, and Alex, I mentioned the word, the letters “IP,” and Alex was like, "What's IP?" So at that point, nobody had thought about the value of these things crossing platforms. It wasn't really like... We weren't doing it... I don't think anybody was doing it, except for maybe me, because I wanted to make a TV series out of it, for any other reason but to just make something great. It wasn't unlimited budgets, but the budgets were fairly healthy, and we all thought we were making great stuff. So... I don't think that happens a lot in Hollywood, honestly. It's very rare. It's hard, because there's so much pressure when you're making television. There's budgetary pressures, obviously, which are needed, and because now you can't just spend everything. But there also is pressure to adhere to things that studio executives see as successful. And it's been my whole life, that I try to not do that. To do something off, and different. It makes it extremely hard. When we went into Gimlet, "off" and "different" was the name of the game.
Nick Quah 19:43
In April, Marc launched his own TV and podcast production company, Truth Media, through which he released his latest works: a nonfiction TV series called A Wilderness of Error, and the show's companion podcast, Morally Indefensible.
Marc Smerling 19:59
On a fiscally responsible level, on a business level, I have gone forth and said, "Okay, we're making podcasts, hopefully to create IP for television and movies." But that's disingenuous at some level. I don't really feel that way emotionally. I love making podcasts. I love it. I feel like that is such a great creative opportunity. If it turns into IP, great, but not every show we're doing is an IP play. You know, for me, it's just about a creative outlet, and working with creative people who are fresh, and open to learning how to tell stories and push the boundaries. And in television, I'm doing that anyway. But it's... So, these two things are sort of supporting each other. I'm not so sure that... If you know this, Nick, but it's hard to make money in podcasts. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 20:45
I, you know, I'm very familiar with that. That's about half the conversations that I have. [Laughter]
Marc Smerling 20:50
You know, so without the television, it would be very difficult to run a company that we're running here, and the television does keep the lights on, and it does... It's a great opportunity for people. I've had podcast producers transfer into television shows as story producers. And that's been a really good experience for me, because they're fresh, and we can start from scratch, and visual storytelling can become one of their tools, as opposed to somebody comes in with their own ideas of what that is. And t's it's a great incubator for storytelling. That's what I'm trying to create.
Nick Quah 21:25
Before we wrap up, I've got a couple of lightning-round questions for you. First one: what's your favorite true crime show that you've consumed recently?
Marc Smerling 21:34
You know, Tiger King, I must say, it was fascinating. It was really fascinating. It was, I thought, well put together. But you know, it was one of those looks into a world and I don't think it was very sympathetic.
Nick Quah 21:46
Marc Smerling 21:47
And I had a problem with that. But as a piece of... It was... I watched every episode, it was hard to put down. I'll tell you what I like. What's the... Ozark! I love Ozark. I thought Ozark was great. Did you like Ozark?
Nick Quah 21:59
I do like Ozark. But it's funny you bring in fiction to this, and it's actually a really effective way to think about the genre.
Marc Smerling 22:07
Oh, yeah, that's... That's what Crimetown is, right? It's cinema for your ears. It's TV in your ears. And that's how we try to construct it. I'm always thinking about it that way.
Nick Quah 22:16
Last question: what is your favorite true crime media of all time? It could be a book, podcast, a TV show.
Marc Smerling 22:24
I loved S-Town. I thought it was masterful, and it was beautiful, and it was true. I love the movie M, with Peter Lorre.
Nick Quah 22:33
Oh, Fritz Lang?
Marc Smerling 22:34
Nick Quah 22:34
Marc Smerling 22:35
I mean, I remember watching that and being like, "Wow." That's sort of the first police procedural that was ever made. You know? It's just basically looking for a child murderer. And it was just so well done. I was just blown away. Anyway, I always read this stuff. Because back... You know, reading was the... I mean, everything. There's so much true crime--Rockford Files when I was a kid, then Law & Order as I got older--but reading was a big part of it. So Ross MacDonald was a Western author who wrote a series of books about Lou Archer that were made into movies with Paul Newman. They're amazing because they really... One of the things I love to do is dig into the motives in the sense of, who are the people involved in the story? And maybe that explains why they're doing the things they're doing. Dashiell Hammett, I thought, is genius.
Nick Quah 22:37
Great crime novels, yeah.
Marc Smerling 23:11
Even Jim Thompson. You know? I mean, that stuff's dark, but so great.
Nick Quah 23:31
Yeah. So you're a big fan of noir in general.
Marc Smerling 23:33
Yeah, I am. I am. All the Humphrey Bogart stuff, man. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 23:39
Marc, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate this conversation.
Nick Quah 23:42
Nick Quah 24:03
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Vann Newkirk II: Floodlines Episode 21
Sun, 12/13 5:32PM • 29:01
people, katrina, pandemic, levees, talk, questions, disasters, new orleans, science fiction, flood, reparations, laughter, apology, newkirk, feel, hurricane, hurricane floyd, interview, happened, moment
Fred Johnson, Vann Newkirk II, Michael Brown, Le-Ann Williams, Garland Robinette, Nick Quah, Lieutenant General Russel Honoré
Vann Newkirk II 00:00
Katrina has always been on my mind. I am from eastern North Carolina. A hurricane and flood destroyed my hometown of Rocky Mountain, North Carolina in 1999 and put the whole thing underwater.
Nick Quah 00:19
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd made landfall in the United States, on the coast of North Carolina. The storm caused widespread flooding for weeks, killing 51 people and causing billions in damages. And a 10-year-old Vann Newkirk II witnessed it all.
Vann Newkirk II 00:36
And so when Katrina hit, six years after that, and seeing some of the same things I'd seen, even years after Hurricane Floyd, the fact that people on the Black side of town still had to draw contaminated well water years and years after the flood that hit Rocky Mount, seeing people exposed to biohazards, to contaminants in the water, seeing how the response seemed to be racially disparate, we'll put it. Those were things that had been on my mind for years, and it seemed like there were motifs in what happened in Katrina that could explain almost everything that put me at unease.
Nick Quah 01:32
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Vann Newkirk II and the unending legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Vann Newkirk II has been reporting on environmental justice and public health for years. Before releasing Floodlines with The Atlantic earlier this year, which focuses on Hurricane Katrina, he was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, on Puerto Rico and its people. He's well-versed in what can go wrong before, during, and after disaster strikes. But even he was surprised by the response to the pandemic.
Vann Newkirk II 02:23
So the fact that America fumbled the response, and that all these elements of disinformation and politicization of what's going on, those things are not surprising. The depth of our failure is somehow surprising, even for me, as somebody who considers himself rather pessimistic; the really mundane ways that people completely botched this thing. They did surprise me. I'm a public health guy. That's my training. I have a Master's of Science in public health.
Nick Quah 03:02
And you worked for Kaiser at one point, right?
Vann Newkirk II 03:04
Yeah. So this is my jam, you know? [Laughter] People, you know, there's a generally high uptake of public health measures in the US. Smoking rates have gone down, drunk driving rates have gone down, people generally get vaccinated. Despite all the stuff that happens on the fringes, like the anti-vaccine movement, generally, people have been in good shape. And that's kind of been America's calling card in the world is, we've done really well getting rid of some of the ways that people most commonly die. And we've just not, we've not done any of those things in this pandemic. Any of the things that we like to say we're good at, responding to emerging threats, we haven't done it. I think one thing we should take away from Katrina is the fact that we do a really good job at taking care of people who we care about. And everybody else, the powers that be assess their worthiness, and if they are deemed unworthy, they get nothing. The extent to which people in power have been left vulnerable by some aspects of the pandemic is surprising to me. And the extent to which even they kind of espouse that "if I die, I die" philosophy about it all... I didn't expect that. But everything else has played along the basic lines of what we saw with Katrina. We saw, early on, people of color died the fastest, died the most, and had the highest burden of disease. If you follow the reasons why people actually suffer in any disaster, including floods, including epidemics and pandemics, it wouldn't be surprising to you at all, that Black, Latinx people had the most burden in this pandemic, because a lot of what we consider to be sort of new in a disaster, isn't really. You know, it's that people can't get to the hospital. They have to go to work, they cannot sit at home; essential workers, low-wage workers, are constantly in the line of biological hazard anyway. Those things played out absolutely predictably.
Nick Quah 05:18
So it's been 15 years since Hurricane Katrina. Why make this show now? And why as a podcast?
Vann Newkirk II 05:26
To me, it had been going on two years after Hurricane Maria, I've finally been able to kind of sit back and get a little more perspective about why what happened in Maria stuck with me so much as a journalist. And I kept going back to Katrina. There were lessons there, there were stories there, that I believed were key to understanding why America kept replaying the same script over and over again in these kinds of disasters. And the stars just kind of aligned for me. The other consideration was, if you've ever heard people in New Orleans talk, it's a storytelling town. It's a place where I feel most stories are going to be aided by audio, and when we're probably... You can't do them justice without audio.
Nick Quah 06:26
So what were the key questions you had walking into New Orleans?
Vann Newkirk II 06:30
Obviously, I had questions about what actually happened, about the order of events, about how we even came to understand the story of the levees breaking, and why it seemed that there were so many half-truths about both the situation on the ground and the immediate aftermath, and the reason why the city flooded. But also, I wanted to take the question, and give it to people who I was interviewing, what questions do you believe have not been answered in reporting and documentaries about Katrina? And tried to structure our interviews around some of those unanswered questions that people themselves, who were in New Orleans, who were in the Gulf Coast, had.
Nick Quah 07:21
Almost like a collaboration.
Vann Newkirk II 07:23
Oh, yeah. And I think you can see it in the show.
Nick Quah 07:25
Vann Newkirk II 07:26
A lot of my favorite moments in the show are ones where, you know, nobody really has the answer, but we're figuring out together, and where I am just as in the dark as some of the people I'm interviewing, or where information from another interview may be germane to me talking to a person right there. And so I tried to make things as collaborative, as back and forth, and create a storytelling structure that was as flexible as possible to incorporate new information, new questions, and new modes of storytelling as we went on. The original version of the story was much more, I think, weighted towards the factual: understanding what happened, laying out the fact that this wasn't a natural disaster, and it was really heavily focused on the two weeks after the levees broke. But as we were interviewing people, we kept coming up to the realization that Katrina just wasn't over...
Nick Quah 08:34
Vann Newkirk II 08:35
...for lots of people, that the thing we call Katrina--a flood, it's not even really the hurricane--it's the day the levees broke.
Nick Quah 08:44
Vann Newkirk II 08:45
The thing people use "Katrina" as shorthand for is a day, a couple days, that they watched on the news. But for the people we talked to, Katrina was this set of odyssean journeys that were not over yet.
Nick Quah 09:04
Vann Newkirk II 09:05
And so we had to change the shape of the show to accommodate that.
Nick Quah 09:09
It feels like that is the key to a lot of big events that have happened in American history in general, right? Like, nothing ever ends.
Vann Newkirk II 09:19
Nothing ever ends. [Laughter] Well, yeah, I mean, it's something we're... I'm glad that reporting on the pandemic has gotten a little better at doing, is like, there's not going to be a neat end to this thing.
Nick Quah 09:33
Vann Newkirk II 09:34
This is a gonna be a generation-defining event, and that's how we should rethink all disasters.
Nick Quah 09:40
Vann Newkirk II 09:40
They're not points in time. They are expressions, often, of underlying issues, and those issues don't go away when the storm clouds go away, you know?
Nick Quah 09:56
After the break, how Vann and his team made the best-sounding podcast of the year. There are a lot of reasons I wanted to talk to Vann about Floodlines, but one of the main reasons is the scoring throughout the series, which includes award-winning trumpeter Christian Scott. It is genuinely one of the best-sounding podcasts I have ever heard.
Vann Newkirk II 11:00
Okay, so first of all, all credit to our Maestro extraordinaire David Herman. I definitely had some input, producers definitely had input in how the final mix and music went, but a lot of this felt like divine inspiration from David. So we went about this, I guess, the traditional way people score podcasts--we had a sound bed that we had together, of things that inspired us from New Orleans. We were coming up with our range of options for putting together a library, and then he comes up with this idea, like, "What about if we go with Christian Scott?" And, you know, okay, I like Christian. I love Christian. Is he going to agree to work with us? And he agreed, and Christian Scott's folks really gave us a good selection of sounds to choose from. I think, armed with that and our original idea of the soundscape of the thing, we really wanted to balance the general brooding, the foreboding of waiting for a storm to come, with pieces of music that would accentuate the lighter moments. That was really important to me.
Nick Quah 12:23
One of those brooding pieces is called "Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas)," by Anthony Braxton.
Vann Newkirk II 12:30
There's the "100 Tubas," which shows up in Episode One when Fred is talking about the storm coming.
Fred Johnson 12:45
So we end up on the—some 10th, 12th floor, or whatever the case is. They having a hurricane party. I mean, they drinking their ***es off. I’m like, “No. No. Give me an O’Doul’s.”
Vann Newkirk II 12:59
The rain picked up late Sunday and never stopped. And in those high-rise buildings in downtown New Orleans, the winds started getting dangerous.
Garland Robinette 13:08
The wind started hitting, and it started howling a little bit.
Vann Newkirk II 13:12
That giant window behind Garland started rattling.
Garland Robinette 13:15
It sounded like whoop, whoop, whoop. Pop. Just exploded. And engineers came in, got me out real quick. Took me down a hallway. The station on the inside was just destroyed. Glass everywhere, furniture all—and they took me down to a closet. I broadcast all night from the closet.
Vann Newkirk II 13:50
So that, to me, is like the moment. When I heard it, I was like, "Oh my God, we got a show."
Nick Quah 13:57
So, Floodlines has a ton of moments that stuck with me, but I'm curious: what were some of your favorite stories or pieces of tape that were left on the cutting room floor?
Vann Newkirk II 14:08
Oh, there's a lot of them. Let me think. Well, okay, so, we used a very small sliver of the tape we got with General Honoré.
Nick Quah 14:21
Lieutenant General Russel Honoré 14:22
It takes a little time to do difficult ****. It takes a little longer to do ****ing impossible. But we gon’ do this ****. I mean, we did D-Day. We did Iwo Jima. This is the ****ing Army. We know how to do tough ****, but you gotta get the logistics set to get it done. You with me?
Nick Quah 14:44
That's General Russel Honoré, the commander of the task force that coordinated some of the military relief efforts.
Vann Newkirk II 14:51
Let's see. There was one moment, which ended up not being clear on tape, but we did actually tape him smoking four cigars during our conversation. [Laughter] Actually, I think the hardest thing to cut was, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward, and talked to a bunch of folks about what had happened, the trajectory of the neighborhood, and about the history of the neighborhood.
Nick Quah 15:24
Vann Newkirk II 15:24
And we weren't able to include those interviews in the final. You know, we went to places like The House of Dance and Feathers, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum; we went to all these different museums, all these different places, where people have done their best to preserve the history of New Orleans. I hope that the spirit of those places has made it through in the final product, but the tape didn't.
Nick Quah 15:52
So it makes a ton of sense that that would be a really hard cut to make, because it really shows this whole city lost its way of life for a while, and it's arguable if they'll ever get it back. In the last episode, you talked about the word "recovery." And I find that we don't really ever talk about the culture that's been lost when these disasters happen.
Vann Newkirk II 16:12
Right. So poet, intellectual, educator, activist, all-around just, you know, guy in New Orleans, Kalamu ya Salaam, he talks about what recovery actually would have meant. And it would be everybody having a chance to live better than they lived before the flood.
Nick Quah 16:35
Vann Newkirk II 16:36
And that conceptualization really stuck with me as a way to think about not just recovering after Katrina, but a way to think about all disasters, right? And...
Nick Quah 16:46
Vann Newkirk II 16:47
When you ask that question, you really get to think about like, what would actually have to go into it for that to happen? It wouldn't be enough to just move people back into where they were, just fix their houses; you would have to deal with the underlying issues that made them vulnerable to that flood in the first place. That made them so they had to spend weeks and months, across the country as evacuees, being called refugees, you have to deal with all those structures. And of course, that did not happen.
Nick Quah 17:19
So one of the last episodes of the show was this conversation with Michael Brown, the former FEMA chief who led the recovery and disaster management efforts.
Vann Newkirk II 17:28
In your mind, what was the worst thing?
Michael Brown 17:31
The levees would break. My press secretary was instructed, “You find every freakin’ outlet that I can talk to so that I can tell them that I think this is going to be really bad and that you need to get the hell out of dodge.”
Vann Newkirk II 17:48
You told them the levees [were] going to breach?
Michael Brown 17:49
No, I didn’t. Oh, no. I talked. There’s a fine line between—I’m never going to say to somebody “I think the levees are going to breach.” I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to—I’m not gonna panic people.
Vann Newkirk II 18:04
Would panic not have been a little bit... A little bit of panic been useful in this case?
Michael Brown 18:09
In hindsight, yeah. In hindsight. You know, now you’re asking me to look backward.
Vann Newkirk II 18:15
Well, that's the whole show.
Michael Brown 18:17
But, looking backward, I might have. I might have said, “I fear the levees could break.”
Nick Quah 18:26
So this really felt like the climax of the whole series. So I'm curious, what were you looking to get out of that interview?
Vann Newkirk II 18:35
Hmm. I was trying to understand the very basic question of... Okay, we have a federal government that, in all of our mythology about said federal government, can do whatever it chooses to do. This is the government that sponsored the Manhattan Project, the space race, that's done so many things in the American legend that were considered impossible, impractical, and to paraphrase JFK, they did them because they were hard, right?
Nick Quah 19:19
Vann Newkirk II 19:20
And so why was that just not on the table when it came to helping people, to saving people, during and after Hurricane Katrina? Now, I don't know if we got an answer that's going to satisfy everybody from that interview, but I do feel like talking to Michael Brown helped put some things into place for me. And also, again, I was taking pieces of this the whole time and asking people about interview questions that they want to hear answered. And I do think--you know, you listened to that episode--it meant something to Le-Ann, too.
Le-Ann Williams 20:01
I feel like it’s crazy. Like I’m like, it don’t. I don’t care about no apology, but y’all two, see—I’mma get y’all! Like him saying, “Le-Ann,” you know, “I’m sorry, Le-Ann. I’m sorry.” Like he right here telling me “I’m sorry.” I’mma get y’all two. Like the part when he was saying my name and talking to me made me feel like I matter.
Nick Quah 20:33
Yeah, I mean, she just got like... an acknowledgment, not necessarily an apology, but acknowledgement.
Vann Newkirk II 20:39
Right. Not an apology. [Laughter] So I guess, you know, that wasn't apology, it was qualified. But if she reacts strongly to being acknowledged, to having that qualified apology, just hearing somebody who was making these high-level decisions, who is the face of what went wrong, still, to lots of people in New Orleans, saying her name and acknowledging what she went through? That meant something.
Nick Quah 21:07
Yeah. What does proper acknowledgement look like? What does proper apology look like, in any of these regards?
Vann Newkirk II 21:16
That's something I think I'm still figuring out. I don't know that we have a lot of good templates for full-throated apologies from government.
Nick Quah 21:30
Yeah. I mean, there's the discourse about reparations, right? With respect to slavery.
Vann Newkirk II 21:34
Nick Quah 21:34
Vann Newkirk II 21:35
But I think that conversation about reparations is instructive.
Nick Quah 21:38
Vann Newkirk II 21:39
Because it makes clear that there has to be some attempt at redress, that there are two pieces to this that seem to be non-negotiable; and that's an actual acknowledgement of what happened, of taking responsibility for actions that led to that; and an acknowledgement of how it made a person, or group of people, a community, feel, how it materially affected them.
Nick Quah 22:09
Vann Newkirk II 22:09
And then, once you have those things in place, then that leads you to a place where you can begin the process of redress.
Nick Quah 22:17
Vann Newkirk II 22:18
Right? So if you acknowledge that you, your actions, caused a community to lose x billion, million, or a trillion dollars of wealth, or if it's something as simple as you acknowledge that your ineptitude or neglect caused somebody to lose a family member.
Nick Quah 22:37
Vann Newkirk II 22:38
Then you can begin to sort of figure out, how do I make good? How do I make amends on that hurt?
Nick Quah 22:46
Yeah. How much hope, as an individual, do you have of ever seeing that?
Vann Newkirk II 22:53
We're having conversations today that the mainstream wasn't having 10 years ago, in terms of how to ameliorate harm, in terms of why we even talk about reparations. And, I don't know, maybe some of that sensibility is leaking into how we do politics, and how we structure policy. So I'm not quite hopeful, but I'm not quite pessimistic either.
Nick Quah 23:25
Vann Newkirk II 23:26
I believe in people. I believe that human experience, human history, has always taught that if people exist, there are always going to be people who are moving for right, and good, for liberation, for the things that I consider are the marks of pious or moral living in the world. There has never been a moment, even when you think about the days in the deepest, darkest middle of chattel slavery in America... People who were enslaved, threw off the yoke, rebelled, violently sometimes, sometimes they shirked their work. You know, sometimes they did smaller acts of resistance. They did that every day, in a time where it was not clear that their children and their children's children would not live the same way they did. Even then, they still rebelled, and organized, and rose up, so that, to me, is I can never rule out movement on that level. On the other hand, I also know people, and I know that power doesn't stop moving to make itself more powerful, and that it's very difficult to get rid of entrenched power, and also understand that power and money are perhaps the most concentrated than they've ever been in human history right now. So I have to sit with those two assessments of human nature and figure out what goes between them.
Nick Quah 25:03
So what's next for you?
Vann Newkirk II 25:05
Most of my attention is in the obvious places: politics in a pandemic. I'm boring like that. [Laughter] But I'm also dedicating a lot of neurons to thinking about what I believe to be is a follow-up project to Floodlines, and to the work that I've enjoyed the most, which is thinking about disasters as ultimate expressions of enduring human inequality. And so I'm thinking about that a lot with this moment and climate change. It feels like all these different little things are popping up across the world that are making us feel like it's post-apocalyptic or whatever. But to me, they're all part of a whole.
Nick Quah 25:51
So I read somewhere that you're interested in science fiction. Is that also in your future?
Vann Newkirk II 25:56
I would love to. And I've written some things--of various quality. [Laughter] And that's all I'll say about that.
Nick Quah 26:06
What's your favorite science fiction media?
Vann Newkirk II 26:09
If it's got a spaceship in it, or... [Laughter] It's a 50/50 chance that I'll read it. But I'm really into, right now... I'm going back and reading--re-reading--N.K. Jemisin's books. The Fifth Season, I've read it so many times, but it feels so... It feels almost like an Oracle to me, in understanding a lot of the questions that I have about inequality and climate change.
Nick Quah 26:36
Vann Newkirk II 26:37
It's a good place to start, if you're into it.
Nick Quah 26:39
So what is it about science fiction that speaks to you?
Vann Newkirk II 26:43
To me, the ultimate lesson of science fiction is that no matter our level of technology, the basic questions of who you are and who we want to be are going to be the same. And so, most good science fiction, whether we consider it dystopian, or utopian, or somewhere in between, is trying to apply the same social, economic, sociological questions we have today and figure them out in a world that's way more advanced than ours technologically, right? The question of AI is when we think about that, seems like it's a Terminator problem, or a Matrix problem, but it's a Facebook problem, you know?
Nick Quah 27:30
Yeah. Yeah. [Laughter]
Vann Newkirk II 27:31
And then today, AI itself is a question about existing human bias.
Nick Quah 27:38
Vann Newkirk II 27:39
You know, and Waterworld is a movie about inequality. [Laughter] So that's what I like about science fiction, is it's a way to get people to think about these issues that are really so political today, and trick them into believing they're not political.
Nick Quah 27:56
I look forward to reading your science fiction book one day, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Vann Newkirk II 28:01
Thank you so much.
Nick Quah 28:13
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Halloween Special Episode 20
Thu, 12/3 7:27PM • 29:49
sound, horror, podcast, hear, characters, scary, spooky, night vale, laughter, monsters, faceless old woman, people, ghost, creepy, watch, movie, run, mabel, horror films, favorite
Mabel Martin, Jeffrey Nils Gardner, Rudy (Joshua K. Harris), Gregory (Robert Blythe), Jeffrey Cranor, Becca De La Rosa, Dan Powell, Abbie (Kathleen Hoil), Mabel (Mabel Martin), Jeff Emtman, Faceless Old Woman (Mara Wilson), Marc Sollinger, Nick Quah, Lily (Shariba Rivers), Eleanor Hyde
Jeffrey Cranor 00:02
You might have a ghost that is staring at the character, and we talk about the ghost's face, and we talk about the distance and the alienation from the ghost, and maybe we describe the ghost--or the specter--the figure that the protagonist sees. And then the ghost maybe starts screaming, maybe it's just yelling up at the top of their voice. Maybe it's like a banshee. Or maybe they're telling a story in a long-dead language that the character can't understand but gets it. And so you build all of this, and then suddenly you drop it out, because maybe the character blinks and then the ghost is gone, and it's silent.
Nick Quah 00:43
Here's a question I might regret asking. What makes a story scary?
Jeffrey Cranor 00:49
I think it was Stephen King that was like, "Spiders aren't scary. What's scary is seeing a spider, turning your head, turning back and the spider's gone."
Nick Quah 01:02
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Spooky podcasts. Just in time for Halloween. If you're a fan of spooky pods, there's no doubt you've heard this: [Music] That's the theme to Welcome To Night Vale. The tremendously successful show about a desert community where the supernatural runs amok. The show was co-created and is co-written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Jeffrey also co-writes another spooky-ish pod, Within The Wires, and has co-written several best-selling Night Vale books. Now Jeffrey is also making Random Number Generator Horror Podcast No. Nine with the voice of Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin. In it, he and Cecil watch and chat about classic movies like Psycho and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with cult favorites like Black Sheep and Dead Alive.
Jeffrey Cranor 02:17
The thing I've been learning about, watching so many horror films this year, and trying to read more horror novels, is that the stuff that's really effective really gets to the heart of our lack of security, and maybe our extreme guilt for how we feel about ourselves. And so, you know, ghosts, and monsters, and evil forces that can kill, or maim, or hold us prisoner--those things often are externalizations of the things that we feel inside. So I think tapping into a universality is really important. And I relate it to humor, in the same way that I think about the way jokes don't age well. And I'm not just talking about, like, culturally insensitive jokes. I mean in the way that certain styles of observational humor kind of run their course after a while. It's just, you know, the notion of making fun of airplane food is just not quite the same now as it used to be, because airplane food is different, and who gets airplane food is different, etc. But, you know, when you watch older horror films, it's really fascinating to see what people were going through, and watching movies from the 1970s, people were really tuning into Satan and stranger danger.
Nick Quah 03:30
Yeah, Satanic panic was a big thing back then.
Jeffrey Cranor 03:32
It's a huge thing. And we created those things as "horror markers" because what we were starting to realize was the the massive amount of abuse of children, or the kidnapping of children, more often than not takes place within families...
Nick Quah 03:48
Jeffrey Cranor 03:49
And within tight communities, and it's easier to imagine that it's just "The Devil." It's just some other entity, like Satan worshippers, that are doing all of this, when in all actuality, it's coming... The call is coming from inside the house. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 04:06
One of the more vivid, striking images that I kind of love in Night Vale is the faceless old woman, and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the creation of characters, and what it means to you guys.
Jeffrey Cranor 04:17
Yeah, it's so funny. It was such... It was a Twitter joke that Joseph made, way, way back in like 2012 or something, like... I think it just started with, "There's a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home." And that was the whole tweet. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 04:31
Which is something that the Night Vale Twitter account does all the time. [Laughter]
Jeffrey Cranor 04:33
Yeah. And I just thought that was a really funny tweet, and so I would tweet kind of like, "Well, I'm just gonna progress her character," so I would make little Tweets of like, "The faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is disappointed by your diary entry. You haven't mentioned her once." [Laughter] Or I don't know, whatever, you just make a joke, or something, and it was usually meant for being funny, off of this kind of loose horror trope. And then we we wrote an episode for it, and we structured the entire episode about the faceless old woman being in your home.
Faceless Old Woman (Mara Wilson) 05:01
I wish you could see me, just cleaning and reorganizing, making sense of the nonsense plants and muscles in your fridge, but you never look. If you would just glance left or right every so often, you’d see me. I’m right next to you, right now. I’m even in the mirrors, but you just stare at yourself, staring only at your overripe potato of a face. I’m there in every mirror, if you could just look for me in the background behind you. Also, what’s your wifi password?
Jeffrey Cranor 05:32
And it was entirely about the fact that you can't really see her. You know she's there, but she's constantly doing things, affecting your life. You know, kind of being a poltergeist, almost like being mean, or doing stuff that's almost prankish to you, and putting the listener into that almost... It was almost a second-person storytelling sort of mode. And so I think that, to me, was what got me really into her as a character, because it's so hard to imagine what something would look like, facelessly, and I think the unseen face is really, really scary, because you can't get a grasp on the being's humanity.
Nick Quah 06:15
That's kind of one of my favorite distinctions between a visual format and something that's not visual. Like, if it's text, or if it's audio, that you're able to lean into the undescribables. I think it's probably my favorite of all of the horror ideas of like, you see something, you cannot really mentally process it, and therefore you are ruined. Which is a little bit of what The Ring does, I think.
Jeffrey Cranor 06:38
I love writing Night Vale--and some of the horror elements of Within The Wires, too--in podcast form, because the podcast doesn't let you see anything, so you can only really give the listener little bits and pieces, and make their brains do all the extra work. And that's what's scary--when you turn around and the spider has gone from the ceiling directly above your bed, you're like, "Oh, crap, where did the spider go?" And then your mind is racing. "Is it in my... Is it in the bed now? Is it on me? Is it in my shoe?" And I think with podcasts, you can really do that super well.
Nick Quah 07:14
What is your favorite spooky podcast?
Jeffrey Cranor 07:17
In terms of spooky, I go back over and over to the first season of The Black Tapes, and Tanis, to some extent. But what The Black Tapes was doing, for me, is right up my alley. There's something about the structure of The Black Tapes that allowed these actors to play characters, ostensibly in our real world, describing things with a level of calm that wasn't like a narrator of a story, or that didn't feel like horror; it felt like, "This is normal life, and this is happening, and we are doing our jobs as investigators." So when we start describing the upside-down face, that's really unnerving. Or we hear the sound of the unsound. We have these characters have their natural worries about what this means for them as actual people, but they're also investigating it as journalists and scientists. And I find that really interesting, as people are carrying into the world as intrepid saviors, right? Like, if I watch a war movie, I expect all of the military men in the war movie to be very good at their jobs, essentially, because then it puts it on me to feel like, "Holy crap, I would never be able to do this, this is terrifying, I'm so scared for him." And I think that that's the essence that I've always gotten from from Black Tapes. I learned a lot about how you can structure interesting horror in a podcast from them, even though we both are using... Both Night Vale and Black Tapes are using "Here's public radio telling creepy stories."
Nick Quah 08:54
Jeffrey Cranor 08:54
But theirs is different, right? It's not Night Vale. It's doing something structurally very different.
Nick Quah 09:00
What is your favorite horror movie?
Jeffrey Cranor 09:05
Man, I would say The Host, because it might be one that was instantly entering my Top 10, but I did find in watching The Host it didn't feel quite like a horror movie. It's a monster movie. But it's...
Nick Quah 09:16
Jeffrey Cranor 09:17
It's so much more things than that. I would also put Fire Walk With Me up there, just because... Probably it's a feeling of nostalgia, of my first moment of really seeing David Lynch. I'd never seen the TV show when I watched the movie. So I think I was triply horrified by that film. But in terms of like, actual "horror" horror... Man. That's so tough to say. I'm gonna... I might just go with Halloween. It's so beautifully structured. It has a ton of problems, and from 2020 eyes it just doesn't feel that scary. There's something fun about watching people make terrible decisions. And this movie is filled with--not quite Texas Chainsaw Massacre-level--but it is filled with teenagers who don't have any clue what to do correctly.
Nick Quah 10:03
Jeffrey Cranor 10:03
And... But it's so inventively shot, and every time I watch John Carpenter, I realize that I'm watching a truly independent artist, even though he has studio funding and he gets funding from people. But there's a crazy, independent spirit to everything he does. I always find something weirdly experimental in his films. And the opening scene of Halloween, which is done entirely from first-person point-of-view camera of a killer, is one of... Yeah, it's just one of the most compelling bits of footage I've ever watched in a horror film.
Nick Quah 10:40
What is the most scared you ever been in your life?
Jeffrey Cranor 10:43
Like, just in real life?
Nick Quah 10:44
Jeffrey Cranor 10:46
Wow. So, when I lived in Queens, back in 2007 or so, my wife and I lived in a very tiny little apartment in Queens, and on the second floor. We had just been having a conversation earlier in the evening about just the idea of home invaders, and how scary that is. And it was that night, at like three something in the morning, that Jillian woke me up to say, "There's somebody at the door." And our bed was right next to the bedroom door, which is right across from the front door. And I was like, "I don't hear it." And then suddenly, I heard scratching, and it was like clicking; it sounded like somebody trying to pick our lock.
Nick Quah 11:29
Jeffrey Cranor 11:30
I got so petrified, and when I looked out the peephole, there was nobody there and I could see the doorknob turning.
Nick Quah 11:38
Oh, my God. [Laughter]
Jeffrey Cranor 11:39
And I was like... I was about to lose my mind. I was so scared, and I couldn't move because I'm like, "I don't want to make a noise." And so... And then the person started pounding on the door. And then when I looked back out, their face was right up against the peephole.
Nick Quah 11:57
Oh, my God.
Jeffrey Cranor 11:58
And I like... I wanted to scream and I couldn't; even if I tried, I don't know if I could have. And I just kind of like, stood there, and Jillian was like, "What? Who is it? What is happening?" And it's like, mouthing, "I don't know." And then I heard yelling from the hallway, and then I got more scared. And then when I looked out, I just kind of kept an eye, and then I saw the guy back away. And I saw him looking up the stairs in the hallway, and I realized the yelling was coming from our upstairs neighbor, who was telling his drunk friend, "I'm on the third floor, *******!” [Laughter]
Nick Quah 12:33
Jeffrey Cranor 12:34
And I was like, "Oh, my God." That is that close relationship between you and horror right there. [Laughter] "Thank God."
Nick Quah 12:39
Oh, man. Jeffrey, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.
Jeffrey Cranor 12:43
Oh, thank you, Nick. This was great.
Nick Quah 12:51
After the break: we asked some podcast creators to talk about how they make their shows sound extra spooky. I got to say, the universe has already given us enough tricks this year. So this week, how about some podcast treats? Hey, how's that for some Halloween-themed narration? We reached out to a couple of podcast makers and ask them to talk us through some of the process involved in giving the show that spooky flavor. We'll start off with Jeffrey Nils Gardner and Eleanor Hyde, executive producers of Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery.
Jeffrey Nils Gardner 13:40
So, Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery is the story of a young woman, Lily Harper, who moves to Mt. Absalom, a small town in rural Ohio, to take care of her ailing mother Dot. She moves into the town's boarding house, which is run by her mother, and there she finds ghosts, conspiracies, and a new family in the house, and the town's strange assortment of residents.
Eleanor Hyde 14:08
How do you make a scary or eerie moment in a podcast? So much of telling any story is about telling the audience what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to. And in a gothic story like ours, what is scary, or eerie, or weird is often a thing that is just at the edge of attention. So it's sort of like seeing something moving in the corner of your vision, and when you turn there's nothing there. Or you hear a noise, but you can't place what it is or what it's doing there, but it's clear that it's important.
Jeffrey Nils Gardner 14:48
In Season One, Episode Six, our characters are exploring the basement of the boarding house during a really bad storm. We're able to use the impermanence of audio to create a really frightening space, letting the dimensions and distances in the room slowly change, and letting those reverbs give your brain different information than the characters are delivering through their dialogue, or through the information you took in earlier in the scene. So it's this strange thing where you suddenly can't trust the responses that your ears are giving you.
Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:38
Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:39
Lily (Shariba Rivers) 15:40
[From very far away] Guys!
Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:40
Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:42
Lily (Shariba Rivers) 15:43
[From very far away] Guys, where are you?
Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:45
Over here! [To Abbie] We're getting further away.
Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:47
That makes no sense. We've been heading towards her voice.
Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 15:50
You know what else doesn’t make sense, is to keep doing the one thing that we’ve proven doesn’t work. Science, right? You don’t keep pushing the same defunct hypothesis.
Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 15:59
Alright, fine. We head in the opposite direction. For thirty seconds. And if that doesn’t work, we try something else. [Footsteps resume] Lily? Twenty-nine, twenty-eight...
Lily (Shariba Rivers) 16:10
[From slightly less far away] Can you hear me?
Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 16:11
Yeah! [To Abbie] Does she sound closer?
Abbie (Kathleen Hoil) 16:13
We were facing her, I know we were facing her.
Rudy (Joshua K. Harris) 16:16
Who cares? It’s working. Lily!
Jeffrey Nils Gardner 16:18
This was inspired by a number of things. I mean, obviously, it owes a great deal of DNA to The House of Leaves, an incredible novel that does the same thing, kind of, with the written word. You know, there's also an interesting way in which it was, in some ways, inspired by some time I spent in an anechoic chamber at Northwestern University. An anechoic chamber is a room that is isolated and insulated, in this case by roughly 10 feet of acoustic foam on every side, in a floating room that had been decoupled to prevent external noise and reverberations from the elevators in the building, and things like that. A really strange thing about being in a room like that, with absolutely no echoes, is that there is so much spatial awareness that is lost, I found myself unable to sometimes tell where someone was speaking from if I wasn't looking right at them because I wasn't able to get all of the extra information that our brains get from sound bouncing off the walls. And so we tried to play with a kind of similar thing with that. By changing the aural dimensions of the room, we could really destabilize the listener and create a kind of cool effect.
Becca De La Rosa 17:54
I'm Becca De La Rosa.
Mabel Martin 17:56
I am Mabel Martin.
Becca De La Rosa 17:58
And together we run the horror, speculative, surreal podcast Mabel. We describe our show as a podcast about ghosts, family secrets, strange houses and missed connections. We also like to say that it's about the overthrowing of every oppressive hierarchy.
Mabel Martin 18:16
Yeah, Mabel is a women's horror story before anything else, and I think that's because women in particular have a very innate understanding of horror, as beings whose bodies in some way are always being culturally and intellectually dissected and discussed, and in some way made to be separate from ourselves. So I think for me, what I set out to do was try and create a context in which I could articulate that. I think it's going pretty well so far.
Becca De La Rosa 18:56
I think so too. [Laughter]
Mabel Martin 18:58
We both really like to use a lot of deconstructed sounds, so you'll notice a lot of glitching in the soundscape. There's a lot of things just made slightly wrong. There's a lot of sound effects that have been slightly had their pitch altered. And things that sound wrong in a way that you can't really define, I think, is the epitome of a sense of dread that you can't really escape from. To me, the idea of an inescapable house has always been very interesting. And probably, in the mind of the cultural consciousness, I think one of the stickiest points of horror.
Mabel (Mabel Martin) 19:46
The house would fold itself up and let me carry it in my pocket if I asked that of it. All I ever need do is call. But it might not let me do the opposite. It might not give me the chance to keep my word. I... I don’t... Anna... [Static growing louder] Anna... I... I don’t think I’ve left the house after all, Anna. I think I’m still inside it... [Phone message beep]
Becca De La Rosa 20:31
I think that bit works, especially because we had established the house as its own being, its own entity, its own perspective, and so there, again, is an inexplicability of, "What does this fundamentally non-human, but built by human hands, thing want? What does it want of me? What does it think? Where does it eat? Where does it sleep?”
Mabel Martin 20:54
What makes something scary? I think, for myself, what makes something scary is--how do I say this? Something, fundamentally, growing where it shouldn't, or something fundamentally being where it shouldn't, or something thinking where it shouldn't, or something eating where it shouldn't. So a sense of "out-of-place-ness," I think I would distill that as. That's what makes something scary, which I guess you would also say that is back to the inexplicable. And I think ever since we crawled out of our caves, you know, as people, we've all been afraid of the dark.
Jeff Emtman 21:47
I'm Jeff Emtman. I am the host of an independent podcast called Here Be Monsters. It's kind of based on this theory that I've had, and I continue to pursue. And the theory is that most things that we're afraid of come from things we don't understand. Most things that we're afraid of come from the unknown, right? And the metaphor that I use is it's kind of like, you know how, like, on those old nautical maps, they would have these monsters off in the ocean, these sea monsters that would devour your ship. And they'd be they'd be drawn in there, around the areas that we didn't fully understand of how the ocean worked. You know, it probably comes from this like, place of like, "Where'd Tim go?" And it's like, "Oh, Tim went out on a ship a couple months ago and never came back." It's like, "Oh, I wonder what happened." And it's like, "Oh, I don't know, maybe a squid got him, or maybe a sea monster..." The Kraken got Tim. And it's like, well, I mean, in reality, probably shouldn't have built his boat out of toothpicks, or bread, or whatever he did. But instead, sometimes it's easier to imagine that there's evil out there, lurking, that devoured your friend. Because I think that my eeriness sensor is a little bit miscalibrated, I actually don't find that many sounds eerie--I just find them interesting, more often than not. In Here Be Monsters, one sound that I often like to mix in, whenever I get the opportunity to, is the sound of bird calls, right? And so it's like, yeah, that might be songbirds at times, but a lot of my identity, as a young adult, was formed around being in spaces where there were seabirds present. [Sounds of waves and seabirds] A couple of times when I've put sounds like that into episodes, I've gotten feedback from listeners, that this is a weird sound to be into. Because some people, it turns out, find those sounds to be really creepy. And I was wondering, so there must have been some thing that I missed, some memo that I missed as to why this sound that I love is hated by some people, right? And I remembered, oh, there's that movie Hitchcock's The Birds, which is all about being terrorized by birds. And I know that that like movie affects some people. I think my mom saw it, and she's kind of afraid of crows, you know? And it made me wonder, which came first? Did the fear come first? Or did The Birds come first and then stoke the fear? Which then got people to watch the movie, which then got people afraid of birds, which got people so-and-so... It's like which is first? The fear of The Birds, or the crow, or the egg, you know? The chicken or the... The chicken or the egg, or the crow or the egg, right? In conclusion, I'm going to propose something. Let's call it an eeriness compromise. If you hear something, and you think something's creepy, I want you to not discount it, right? Like horror, and fear, and disgust are not emotions that are necessarily, like, the opposite of beauty. These are all parts of the human condition, which is a much more complicated and strange mélange than these false dichotomies that we often set up, because not everything that is scary is bad and evil. I think it's likely an illusion. Monsters only really exist in the eye of the beholder. And if you listen to something eerie, just--for me--just leave open the possibility that that eeriness can also make you feel warm and loved.
Marc Sollinger 25:13
Hi there, my name is Marc Sollinger. I'm a radio producer, I'm a writer, and a director.
Dan Powell 25:19
Hi, my name is Dan Powell. I'm an audio engineer, sound designer, and composer.
Marc Sollinger 25:22
Together we run Dead Signals, which is...
Dan Powell 25:25
...An audio drama production company dedicated to telling sound-rich, and at times spooky, fiction stories.
Marc Sollinger 25:30
The show that we're best known for producing is called Archive 81. It's a weird fiction cosmic horror podcast with found-footage elements.
Dan Powell 25:38
One question we get asked a lot is what makes something feel scary or terrifying in the context of a podcast?
Marc Sollinger 25:43
From the writing side, you don't want to over-describe something. Podcasting is a medium where it pays to give the audience enough space to imagine what the monster, what the terrifying situation, is. Their imagination is always going to be more horrifying than what you've put down on the piece of paper, or the Google doc, or whatever.
Dan Powell 26:02
That's pretty much what I'd say from my end, as well. Yeah, less is more. Letting the sound be more impressionistic and suggestive, rather than totally on the nose, is a better way to evoke a sense of dread. So how do you do that on a technical level?
Marc Sollinger 26:15
Well, podcast horror needs to be audio-specific. There's a reason that a lot of good audio drama is found footage or a fake podcast. And it's not just because, you know, we're aping Serial, it's because it plays well in the audio medium. You want the creepy object to be, you know, a tape, rather than a painting because, okay, you can describe a painting, but you can play a tape.
Dan Powell 26:39
Right. So like, for example, if you were to have a strained conversation between two characters. [Audio distortion] It might make more sense for the interaction to be a phone call; maybe an anxious phone call, where the battery's too low and everything's breaking up. Because that's a familiar situation we all know. And it's one that only exists within the domain of audio.
Marc Sollinger 26:54
Dan? Dan, you're breaking up, I can't hear you.
Dan Powell 26:58
Somebody help me! [Audio distortion ends] Probably one of my favorite examples of this, that we've done, is a guided museum tour from Season One of Archive 81.
Marc Sollinger 27:07
So essentially, it's just a British man reading off a bunch of creepy museum exhibits, which sounds like it would work better in text. Sounds like, "Hey, wait, why is this creepy?" But it's creepy because the audience gets to do most of the work. They get to fill in the stories behind these little descriptions
Gregory (Robert Blythe) 27:29
Object 411K. Walrus tusk carving of an unknown deity...
Dan Powell 27:35
Soundwise, this was a situation where the subtlety really paid off. I tried to focus on using subtle distortion and modulation to draw attention to particularly ominous moments in the script. And rhythmically, the way the tape edits jump in and out also set the mood.
Gregory (Robert Blythe) 27:48
[Abrupt tape edit] Object Unknown. We have been unable to catalogue this particular piece. Gazing upon it directly is... difficult. [Buzzing, distortion] It might be advisable not to linger in this particular corner of the exit. [Harsh tape edit]
Dan Powell 28:05
I actually used a sound library sourced from old, decaying newsreels. So what you're hearing is the literal sound of analog data loss and degradation. Anyway, we hope you've enjoyed hearing about some of the ways we make our podcasts creepy.
Nick Quah 28:21
Thanks to Marc Sollinger and Dan Powell of Archive 81, Jeffrey Nils Gardner and Eleanor Hyde of Unwell, Becca De La Rosa and Mabel Martin of Mabel, and Jeff Emtman of Here Be Monsters. Be sure to subscribe to these shows. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Hanif Abdurraqib Episode 19
Sat, 11/28 3:40PM • 25:38
people, laughter, legacy, album, music, artist, darby, world, thought, crash, john lennon, feel, creating, owe, life, year, fan, story, kinney, voice
Ruby Crystal, Nick Quah, Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib 00:01
I'm the youngest of four and I came up in a house where I did not have... What being the youngest of four means, among many other things, is that you so rarely have control over the music that gets played in a car, in a house, right? [Laughter] And then by the time that I was driving myself around, there was no one in the house for me to drive around. And so... [Laughter] And that creates a kind of joyful isolation of music fandom that begs this kind of myth that you are the only person loving the music you love in the way you love it.
Nick Quah 00:33
This is poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib.
Hanif Abdurraqib 00:39
Part of what I really have loved about the past couple years is that I get to put that myth to bed. I get to go out into the world and have someone be like, "I read this thing you wrote about this band, and I experienced it in that way too." Or something that has really bugged me out over the past couple years, people being like, "Yo, you wrote about this show; I was at that show!" You know? [Laughter] And I'm not talking about arena shows, right? I'm talking about like...
Nick Quah 01:02
Hanif Abdurraqib 01:03
...Shows where there were like 100 people, 50 people in the room. And that has been so fulfilling.
Nick Quah 01:09
And now Hanif has a new way of building communion with people who follow his work as the host of the latest season of KCRW's Lost Notes, which he fully curated. The show centers around great untold stories from the music industry, and this season focuses on a single year: 1980. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: "How To Love Critically," with Hanif Abdurraqib. Now, let me just say right off the bat, I love this season of Lost Notes. It's gorgeous. But I'll admit, I had some reservations going into the series. 1980 doesn't really stand out--to me, at least--like a year with a clear hook that embodied a cultural shift.
Hanif Abdurraqib 02:09
So I landed on 1980 for a couple reasons--one, because, I think of course, we're celebrating the 40th anniversary of a lot of the musical happenings, or all the musical happenings in that year. But because I also thought 1980 presented a real opportunity to examine the way music happens. And it doesn't just happen in a vacuum. There are a series of conditions that lead to the way that music is created and consumed. And I felt like 1980 had a real strong rash of stories that leaned into that idea.
Nick Quah 02:40
What were the major themes that you were sort of thinking about when you settled on 1980 and also started looking through stories?
Hanif Abdurraqib 02:46
I thought that it would be largely a series about grief, and loss, and rebuilding, and reinvention. And I suppose in some ways, it still is, but the first idea we had was the John Lennon/Darby Crash story just because for me that was so unique, and so heartbreaking, in some ways.
Hanif Abdurraqib 03:08
Darby Crash died on December 7, 1980. By the time the news of his death began to circulate, it was well into December 8th. While Mark David Chapman paced outside of John Lennon's apartment with a record, Darby Crash is being pulled, lifeless, from a house. While word was spreading around the L.A. punk scene about Crash's death, Lennon was signing his name on his eventual killer's record. While radio stations in Los Angeles began to start their marathon of Germs songs, John Lennon lay dying in New York, at the doorway to his apartment. News and radio stations broke away to deliver what must have seemed like a larger, more urgent heartbreak.
Hanif Abdurraqib 03:57
But then, you know, some other things--as I began to kind of go down this road--some other things materialized, like the Hugh Masekela/Miriam Makeba story, them going back to Lesotho in 1980, December 1980, to play what was effectively a homecoming concert; and Grace Jones making the first of her Compass Point albums, those things kind of organically fit into what I was trying to do. And it helped to not make an entire series about grief, and loss, and tragedy, and to offer something beyond that. It felt compelling too, to kind of tell some stories of how people reinvented themselves, or how a quest for infamy--like someone like Darby Crash--how a quest for infamy can be derailed by a greater loss, and thinking a little bit too about legacy. You know, I think that I spend a lot of time thinking about an artist's legacy, and how difficult it is to have full control over that.
Nick Quah 04:54
Yeah, that was the thing that really stood out to me. For me, that Darby Crash/John Lennon story is one of the starkest examples of just how tricky legacies can be. Darby Crash, the former lead singer of the punk band Germs, takes his own life because he thought he would achieve cultural immortality. And then it happens just a day before Lennon was shot and killed in New York City, which completely overshadows Darby's story in the media. So, Darby had this plan of how he would be remembered, and there's just no way you can plan for that. And this goes for music artists create too, right? Like, you hope that people are on the same page as you but you can't be certain.
Hanif Abdurraqib 05:34
Well, you know, the whole thing is that you can't control the way the music is received when it enters the world, right? And you can't control the way that you are perceived as the creator of the music, once the music is in the world. And so it always and forever strikes me as this really fascinating thing, that someone like Darby Crash wanted to determine his own legacy, and he thought his death would do that for him. His inability to be alive and move through the world anymore would present an opportunity for his legacy to be defined by his absence. But even that plan was flawed. But I also think about The Secret Life of Plants, Stevie Wonder thought he was doing something that no one else could have thought to do, you know? He was creating a soundscape for a movie he was incapable of visually watching.
Ruby Crystal 06:25
Research conducted in the Soviet Union leads scientists to believe that plants may think. Attached to delicate electronic instruments, a cabbage plant registers annoyance to the exhaling of tobacco smoke on its leaf surfaces.
Hanif Abdurraqib 06:42
Enamored with the idea, Wonder had the film's producer Michael Braun describe each image in the film to him. This allowed Wonder to take the task of creating the film score, translating the descriptions into sound. The Secret Life of Plants album is compositionally as ambitious as anything else Wonder had attempted. The moods of some songs shift rapidly, from sparse and airy acoustics to large sweeping synthesizer arrangements. Other songs shift in glacial movements in an attempt to mirror the slow growth cycle of a plant.
Hanif Abdurraqib 07:29
And it's an achievement, but when it entered the world, it did not get treated that way. And so part of one's legacy, I think, is not only how do you create, but how do you react to a world that might not always be as excited about your creations as you are?
Nick Quah 07:44
So when we talk about legacy, we are often also talking about death. So for example, like John Lennon's last album, Double Fantasy.
Hanif Abdurraqib 07:52
There's that thing in the Darby Crash/John Lennon episode where I talked about--which is something I didn't know that this happened to the extent that it did--where Double Fantasy reviews come out when John Lennon was still alive, and they were pretty lukewarm. I mean, even saying they're lukewarm might be generous, they were pretty bad. [Laughter] And then after John Lennon passed, those reviews got pulled and new ones got dropped in. You know, new, more glowing ones got dropped in. And that felt really complicated to me. I don't know if the best way to honor someone is to not be honest about how we feel about their creative output, even in the immediacy after their loss. Especially someone as titanic as John Lennon, who undoubtedly had and has a body of work that is imperfect, but still pretty packed with more brilliance than, I think, some of his peers. And so that made me start to think, too, about what does the critic owe the dead? What does the fan of music owe the dead, if anything? And I think we owe them the same honest affection--key word, honest--honest reflection that we would give when they were alive. I think if you genuinely love an artist, and have loved an artist for a long time, you have maybe even unintentionally prepared for a world without them in it. I can't count the amount of years that I had thought about how hard it would be to lose Little Richard. And that doesn't mean that I had pre-written Little Richard's eulogy, but it means that when someone dies, for me, it's easy to unlock that box where I had kind of stored all that pre-determined grief, and all that pre-determined celebration, and all that pre-determined memory and history. And sometimes that's complicated in the stories of most of the musicians who die. It's never smooth. It's never easy.
Nick Quah 09:38
Hanif Abdurraqib 09:39
If you have a real genuine connection with a musician, it stands to reason to me that you have perhaps already prepared to mourn them as they get up in age, as you live alongside them and they increase in age.
Nick Quah 09:51
So when you're doing a piece like this that looks backwards are you, to some extent, mourning that time? Or like you're mourning that version of the artist?
Hanif Abdurraqib 10:00
I think somewhat. I mean, I think you can mourn a version of what an artist was and still make space in your mind/heart for what an artist is capable of being. I was thinking about that last Leonard Cohen album and how much I loved it, and how my affection for it existed, in part, because I had made space for what Leonard Cohen was still capable of being at that point in his life. The last Bowie album. I mean, these are people who made records on the way out, intentionally or unintentionally, and those records resonate, because with any luck, there is still space for the world to not only see those artists as they were, but offer a space for them to be who they are. A Tribe Called Quest is another one who made a late-career comeback album and it really resonated, I think in part, because people were open to receiving the growth of that artist. They hadn't cut off... Their imagination hadn't cut that artist off at what their highest point had been, and I think we really, if we're lucky, we really owe that to our artists.
Nick Quah 10:59
Do you think that the concept of a legacy has changed in the 21st century, as opposed to like, the 70s, 80s, 90s when we weren't living in this overly-connected media world?
Hanif Abdurraqib 11:10
Yeah, I mean, I also think that people just have shorter memories, kind of, around musicians. [Laughter] I think, in particular, musicians and athletes, but I think it's because we see so many different versions of them in our lifetimes. And we see it in a way that feels more touchable, because of how the internet is. And I know he's a bit of a hot-button topic, and I don't know how much actually want to get into him as a person, but I think about how many times, like, how many different Kanye West's have I seen in my lifetime?
Nick Quah 11:42
Hanif Abdurraqib 11:43
And that's someone who had, you know... Like a lot of people got first familiar with, like 20 years ago? And 20 years is not that long of a time, you know? And in that 20 years, he has shaped and reshaped himself, and so his legacy has become different things, and the way that people cling to his legacy has become different. And he is not even 45 years old, and so...
Nick Quah 12:06
That's crazy to just wrap my head around that fact.
Hanif Abdurraqib 12:09
Yeah, yeah. You know, I mean, like he...
Nick Quah 12:11
Hanif Abdurraqib 12:12
When I talk about legacy, I talk about widening an ability to understand that the things we love are not always going to go down easy, but that doesn't mean that we have to love them less.
Nick Quah 12:24
So to what extent do you think about your legacy, as a person who puts things out into the world?
Hanif Abdurraqib 12:29
I don't. [Laughter] I mean I don't know that I do. I think that if I'm lucky... This is a good question, and one that caught me off-guard admittedly, because I don't think about my own legacy that much. [Laughter] You know, if I'm lucky, I hope that I'll be thought of as someone who tried to corral my excitements and deliver them in a way that maybe offered some excitement to other people, or to perhaps be remembered as a conduit for secondhand excitement, but more than that, I'm just someone who loves music. I'm a fan of music, and I think that so much of my writing life has been dedicated to tearing down the hierarchy between "critic on high," dictating to the masses, and the masses, right? I think that what most excites me is idea that I'm just a fan who is existing alongside other fans, and with any luck, we can kind of walk hand-in-hand towards some revelations about things we love, or things we don't know we love yet.
Nick Quah 13:34
So that's the thing about your work that I'm so drawn to, is that you're not just such a, like, a good fan, or a listener, or an audience member. It's like you're really good at loving something. And I guess I have no idea how to phrase this question other than to ask like, how do you love something the way that you do?
Hanif Abdurraqib 13:52
It's interesting, because I do hear this about myself, my work, a lot. And I think that, you know, without getting too deep into like, a therapy session here. I think that I fail... I fail, and have failed, in love and in great many ways in my life. And so it isn't lost on me that I think what I am doing... I'm, in some ways, loving the easy thing, or I'm loving something that does not feel insurmountable or movable to me. Because I understand that love as fleeting in a way that is not going to be as painful as some of the other ways that love has been fleeting in my life. And so I think if I am good at loving things, it's because I want to keep things close while I can, and while I still feel good about them.
Nick Quah 14:43
Hanif Abdurraqib 14:44
I'm not saying that I believe in music as disposable, obviously. I'm not saying I believe in music as something I can throw away. What I'm trying to get at is that the music I love the most is music that has altered my life, has altered the lives of people around me, and music that has been the bridge to my loving the world better than I could without it, and so I want to keep that close. But I have to do an understanding of "the bridge has already been built." And I'm thankful for the bridge.
Nick Quah 15:12
Coming up: what do artists owe their fans? I think one reason I respond really strongly to your work is how you generally approach music and culture as a fan, rather than as someone who's more removed from the work. I can empathize with that, but it it makes me think about how nowadays there are so many types of fandoms, and there's also been the rise of "stans," like, really intense superfans. In your mind, what is the difference between a fan and a stan?
Hanif Abdurraqib 15:50
As someone who's not really a stan of much myself, I do think that being a stan, you're on the front lines, it appears, at least from a distance, in a way that can reduce nuance and clarity, but also can be fulfilling. I'll say this: I get that there are ways that, particularly online, stan culture can be toxic and not necessarily fulfilling for everyone. But, man, I also just like... So many of the folks who are immersed in it are young folks who are excited about an artist or a band, and who are reaching for connection with other young folks through the music they love. And there's something about that on its face that feels really beautiful to me. It feels really not entirely unlike things that I did when I was younger, I just didn't have the same type of platforms that a lot of younger fans have now. In some ways, I admire that; I still feel very connected to that. I came up in these hardcore scenes, these punk scenes, where you are defined in part by your connection--half to the music, but half to the people. And so I don't ever want to let that go, and I don't ever want to discourage that.
Nick Quah 17:01
Yeah, no, I mean, I think I asked that question largely because I am a little bit envious sometimes of people who can feel that way still. And part of it is age maybe, but also part of it is like, I think maybe some of life experiences are such that I can no longer really fully 100% believe in anything anymore. You know, there's a little bit of self-protection that happens with somebody who's skeptical of stan culture in some sort of way. Being able to love critically, I feel like is the hardest component of this.
Hanif Abdurraqib 17:28
It's like, I don't know how else to do it, because I don't know if I can live a life, or in a world, where I demand accountability out of myself, out of the people I love, out of my internal communities, and then put on only rose-colored glasses to look at the things I have affection for, you know? And sometimes... The last Sleater-Kinney album is a really great starting point for me to consider this, right? So the last Sleater-Kinney album--I love Sleater-Kinney. I feel like that is a defining, you know... Sleater-Kinney, for me, is one of the five greatest bands of all time. And the last Sleater-Kinney album just wasn't hittin' for me. And I think my first instinct was like, "Oh, I'm so disappointed. And I'm so whatever, whatever." But then I was like, you know, I think a real way to look at this critically and generously is to say, one: first off, in my lifetime, I've gotten more great Sleater-Kinney albums than anyone could ask for from any band they love, you know what I mean? But what does a band like Sleater-Kinney owe? They don't really owe me their stagnation, you know? If it's a question of, "This band is growing, and growing in a direction that I can no longer chart with them on," at least the band's growing, you know? No band owes any of us this kind of stagnant nature. I mean, no one was demanding that out of Prince, you know? Even as people were hand-wringing over Prince's many evolutions, there was still **** on those Prince albums that none of his peers could pull off. And so that's kind of how I think about critical generosity, which doesn't mean I have to love everything--I can come down firmly on the side of "this isn't for me." But if I love a band, and have loved the band for a while, or artist for a while, it allows me to kind of broaden the generosity I'm able to give them.
Nick Quah 19:19
So do you think an artist or a cultural figure ever owes something to their audience?
Hanif Abdurraqib 19:24
You know, a thing that I always have to think through is that I am both someone who is a critic and an art maker. And I used to be one of those people, you know--I would say around like, even as recent as 2016-ish--I was one of those people who was like, "When is this artist gonna put on another album?" You know, it'd be like two years, I'd be like, "Where's the next album?" That kind of thing. [Laughter] And that's cool and all, until people start asking you when your next book comes out, you know, like, it's cool until... [Laughter] You know, you put out a book in 2018, and then 2019 rolls around and people are like, "When is your next book coming out? Your next book is not out yet." You know what I mean? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 19:55
Yeah, "Why are you working on podcasts instead of your book?" [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 19:57
Yeah, you know, and then it's like, "Oh, this isn't... this is hittin' different now." [Laughter] And so I think it's really helped me kind of extend the same grace that I look for, as a person who creates things, to the people I love who are creating things, and to honor process. And so with that in mind, I never think that an artist owes anyone anything--the public, at least. When I start thinking about it like that, it allows me to be so grateful that we get anything, you know?
Nick Quah 20:34
I'm curious, how did you find writing for a podcast, writing for the ear, different from writing poetry or prose?
Hanif Abdurraqib 20:42
For me poetry is a sonic... Writing is a sonic practice. And if we're lucky, we're... If I'm lucky, and I get in a good groove, then I am writing for the ear always, or I'm writing with an understanding that the language is a vehicle through which music can be carried. That felt a little challenging, perhaps, as the pieces got longer, you know, I mean, bears mentioning that the format of Lost Notes: 1980 was going to be that we had people kind of dropping in and doing interviews, and kind of this like thing where I was not the sole voice in most of them, but COVID happened here in March, when we were just getting down to recording, and so recording studios closed, and it was kind of like, "Well, guess you're just writing these kind of audio essays now." [Laughter] This isn't a format I'm normally operating in, and so... And I don't particularly like the sound of my own voice, and so... Maybe I shouldn't tell... Say this publicly, but I will: in the draft stages, when they were sending the feedback, where it was like, "Okay, listen to this episode," I would only to listen to little bits of it, and then I would just send emails back like, "Sounds good!" [Laughter] Because I'm not trying to hear my own voice. So honestly, I have...
Nick Quah 21:55
Well, I'm surprised to hear you say that you hate the sound of your own voice, and as a person who hates the sound of my own voice, I say this because you do a lot of poetry readings, you do a lot of readings in general, that I think... Wouldn't that kind of lead in to you hearing your voice a lot more often?
Hanif Abdurraqib 21:55
Yeah, but I don't ever hear my voice the way other people hear my voice, you know what I'm saying? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:07
Yeah, that's a good point right there. [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 22:12
In our heads, we all sound cool, or we all sound... I do hear my own voice often. But I hear it through the filter of my own confidence, perhaps.
Nick Quah 22:21
So all the episodes of Lost Notes: 1980 are out now, and I'm assuming that you're already working on a bunch of other things at the moment. What's next for you? What are you working on now?
Hanif Abdurraqib 22:32
My next book is called A Little Devil in America, and it comes out in March, and it's pretty much wrapped. So for the people asking where my next book is, that's it. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:41
That's your book of essays, right?
Hanif Abdurraqib 22:42
Yeah. It's a book of essays in celebration of various modes of Black performance. And I'm currently working on SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE, which is this music archival website that I created, and I'm bringing it to life as best as possible.
Nick Quah 22:57
Yeah, tell me more about SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE, because it seems very cool, but very ambitious.
Hanif Abdurraqib 23:03
It's too ambitious. But yeah, I mean, it's an ambitious project that I really believe in, and it's, in some ways, a community project, because I'm not doing any writing of my own on the site, other people are doing the writing, and I'm kind of getting to shepherd the writing into the world. But it's also a site where you can scroll through very long playlists, and look at old magazine covers, and watch old performances on YouTube for every year from 1968 to 2005. I am doing a big project that I can't yet talk about, but hopefully I'll talk about it soon. And honestly, fam, I'm like, you know what's wild is this is the first year in a long time where I haven't been spending most of the year working on a book at all. You know, Little Devil was kind of done when the year started--I've had to tweak it a bit, but it's mostly done. And I set out the beginning of this year to be like, this is the year where I am going to spend some time doing projects that are fun to me, and then just relaxing. And I think I fulfilled the first half of that with SIXTYEIGHT2OHFIVE, and Lost Notes, and some of this other stuff. I do need to find time... So the big project I'm working on now is a project of nothing, the project of emptiness, the project of an empty calendar. I'm gonna be at home, I'm gonna bake, I'm gonna play video games, play some piano--I got a piano in the house now so I'm gonna play around on piano a little bit--and kind of just stay in bed.
Nick Quah 24:23
Yeah, man, that sounds really good. [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:24
I know. Let's hope I get there. That's... [Laughter]
Nick Quah 24:27
Yeah, I'm rooting for you, man, I hope you get your new thing. [Laughter]
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:31
Our fingers are crossed. It's so close, yet so far away.
Nick Quah 24:35
Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:37
No, this was a real joy, Nick, I appreciate it.
Nick Quah 24:53
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Kara Swisher Episode 18
Thu, 11/19 4:42PM • 24:49
people, power, question, laughter, sway, kara swisher, kara, talk, spalding gray, jesus, thought, wrote, recode, struck, interview, theater, early, idea, feel, elon musk
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Kara Swisher, Nick Quah
Kara Swisher 00:00
I think people have their little dog and pony show like, "Here's my act! Ahh!" I have an act, you have an act. Everyone has an act. And very few people have genuine discussions anymore, right? It's all performative.
Nick Quah 00:13
There is a mythology around Kara Swisher, and it goes like this: she is the tech journalist known for cutting through the bull**** of the most powerful people on the planet. Like Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos.
Kara Swisher 00:26
You know, we're not going to get to this, you know, "let's put on our pajamas, and cuddle up, and have a real talk" kind of thing. But I'm hoping that it will be... That's the idea. You know, the idea is, "Alright, look, I know what you want to say here. But do you understand the price of what you're doing?"
Nick Quah 00:46
And on her new podcast, Sway, she wants to go beyond the tech world into the heart of the matter: who has power, and how do they use it? From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the power of Kara Swisher. Kara Swisher is a journalism legend. She's been writing about the intersection of technology and business, and its effect on our world, since the 90s. And she is regarded as one of the most influential and important journalists in the business right now. She's also an experienced podcaster who's launched two successful shows: Recode Decode and Pivot, with Scott Galloway. Now she's launching one with New York Times Opinion. This time, she's focusing on power. And she says the title, Sway, really showcases the vibe of the podcast.
Kara Swisher 01:49
The idea of persuading, since it's for the opinion section, to sway someone is a nice... You know, in this sort of twitchy, horrible, partisan time we're in, swaying someone is actually a better way. It's like persuasion, versus debating or forcing your opinion on people. And so I thought that was a nice connotation. There's another connotation of it's bringing fresh voices, or being fresh. And I like the idea of fresh. It's got a wind feel, I don't know, it just...
Nick Quah 02:15
[Laughter] So tell me, what's the difference between... So what are you trying to do with Sway that's different from what you were doing with Recode Decode?
Kara Swisher 02:23
The main thing that is different is that it will really do the gamut of everything, not just tech or business. I had started to move out of my concentric circles, I had done all the tech people, and then I did a lot of big business people, because they were impacted by tech, but tech was always the formation of it. And then it moved out to... I did a lot of politics in the last year or two--two years, it's maybe three--and then started doing--I didn't really get to artists--and some science, more science, and stuff like that. And so I was moving outward already. And I think the New York Times, if you define it as power, and what it is in this country, because that's really what's happening right now. It's shifts in power, and who has it, and how do you get it? How do you take it? I think really does sort of explain it. And it gives me permission to talk to just about anybody about that stuff.
Nick Quah 03:12
How do you define power?
Kara Swisher 03:14
Well, it's interesting, I kind of define it in a different way than other people. I mean, there's obviously traditional power, like you can look to who holds the big jobs, whether it's in law enforcement, or entertainment, or science, or things like that. You can define it by people who have ideas, to me. And that's one thing I was doing on Recode Decode that I am going to be doing a ton more here. I think I had a lot of people before they became powerful, like Stacey Abrams, I had very early, when she was a state legislator. And I just was struck by her language. This was before she was mentioned as anything, really. Same thing with Shoshana Zuboff, who is a professor at Harvard. I had her on very early, talking about surveillance capitalism, which was the topic of her book. And so I think they have power because they're starting to persuade people of new ideas. I also want to talk to people not in power, and what's that's like, and how they can get there. There's obviously these emerging movements that have been there forever, but are starting to gain different either political grounds or intellectual ideas. And then I want to talk to people who are in power and why they think they need to grasp onto it, right? Why they need to hold onto it. One of the reasons I loved covering the Internet in its early days is that when I got to the Wall Street Journal--I had been covering it for The Washington Post, and then wrote a book about AOL--I got there and there was a power structure. There was... Media was the most important... Media moguls is who they interviewed, all the media moguls, all the time. And I came in and I was like, "This new medium is going to decimate everybody, and it's going to flatten power." Right? Or/and spread it out. And I remember being greeted by people there, like, "Oh, you're in the CB radio area, Kara," and I'm like, "No, this is going to change... These people are going to be the most powerful people in the world. They're gonna be the richest, they're going to be..." and nobody agreed with me. I thought that was like... I remember that, how quickly industries can be decimated--in this case by a technology, and it's usually a technology. And that was always fascinating to me, how quick it happened, and how the collapse was so vast, and now we're in a societal collapse around politics and civility, and...
Nick Quah 05:19
Kara Swisher 05:20
...And information, really.
Nick Quah 05:22
Do you feel like there are fewer people with more power these days? Than like...
Kara Swisher 05:26
Nick Quah 05:26
...10-20 years ago?
Kara Swisher 05:27
Oh, yeah, I mean, look at I mean, what what I spend my life doing: yelling at Facebook, right? [Laughter] So, really. And I was early to that, I was like, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, do we understand what they can do?"
Nick Quah 05:37
Kara Swisher 05:37
Yeah, I do. I think it's really quite amazing that, not just in terms of the ability to reach citizenry, but having no accountability, and vast sums of money, and the coalescing of power around certain--actually individuals, in this case--much like, you know, back in the day, when we had these giant monopolies that were then busted up by Teddy Roosevelt and others.
Nick Quah 05:58
I feel like companies like Facebook, and Twitter... You know, they were once up and coming companies, and I get the idea that they still see themselves as underdogs.
Kara Swisher 06:07
Well, you have to figure out, "What, are they just lying to themselves?" Or what's going on in their minds? "Oh, I'm still wearing my flip flops and hoodies, so therefore, I'm a regular guy." I remember talking to a lot of them, including Zuckerberg, and you know, he always tried to be "regular guy," and I'm like, you're not a regular guy, you're a billionaire. "Well, I can still be the same." I'm like, "You can't." You have enormous power or enormous... I think one of the things I was always struck by, among a lot of them, is very few of them took the responsibility of the power they had. They pretended it was like, if you look at--Zuckerberg is a good example. He uses terms like "we," and "the community," and "together we will." Yeah. And I was like, you run the whole thing, and you control the whole thing, and you made certain you did, so why is there a "we" going on here?
Nick Quah 06:50
Kara Swisher 06:50
So I was always really struck by the inability to acknowledge their power and at the same time take responsibility for it. Because when you do that, you have to admit that you might have done things that were problematic. And they have. And then they don't... They aren't like regular people, right? Secretly, behind the scenes, they have... their hoodies are made of this cashmere they can only get on the top slope of Peru, and the sneakers are perfectly crafted to their feet, and they're eating food that was grown by, you know, small children, who were very well paid, by the way, you know what I mean? Like...
Nick Quah 07:22
Kara Swisher 07:23
Whatever, I'm teasing, but it's an unusual group of people who hold enormous and potentially rapacious power that pretends that they're benign. And that's always struck me as unusual.
Nick Quah 07:34
Well, let's flip this around a little bit. Who would you say is an example of an individual who appreciates that power difference?
Kara Swisher 07:41
The power they have?
Nick Quah 07:42
Kara Swisher 07:43
Nick Quah 07:45
The adults. [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 07:46
The adults. Tim Cook understands his power. And I think he does. he doesn't pretend he's a benign force. He doesn't. I've never heard out of Tim Cook's mouth, "That was mean, Kara," or "I didn't deserve that." He's an adult, he takes it. That kind of stuff. I would say, again, the adults. Reed Hastings, from Netflix, he's an adult, he knows what he's doing. He knows what he's disrupting. And he knows the power he has now.
Nick Quah 08:11
So what would you say is our way out of this moment we're in right now, with all these corporations holding this much power? I mean, short of government intervention, which I don't think is happening anytime soon.
Kara Swisher 08:21
I think it is government intervention. I don't think there is any other way. I don't think you can... You know, people are naturally inclined to want to move to power and money, right? I don't... Like, this is the human race. So you know, as much as we hope that we're better, powerful people get things, right? So I think that if you're allowing unfettered power with no accountability, the only way to deal with is the government of the elect of the people. Whether you like your officials, they're elected compared to everybody else. And so, you know, there's flawed but elected, and so... And maybe the whole system's screwed, and we should change that, but they are the closest thing we have to us, and our voices. I think taxing these people better, and not letting them decide what diseases or things like that we're going to solve; as a society, we should decide, with, by elected officials, and elected government regulators, and the people they put in place. I think government's The only way... I think that that's, historically, that's how all these companies have been brought to heel--and not down. I don't think they should be brought down, I think they just have to be brought to heel.
Nick Quah 09:25
So they can be shamed into better behavior, essentially, which it feels like the current modality of activity now, is public shaming.
Kara Swisher 09:32
Well, I don't know about that. We can have a long debate. I don't... this "cancel culture" thing is not our biggest issue in our society right now, although a bunch of really privileged white people think it is. Here's what I think's happened is, a lot of people have had a lot of ****ty takes for a long time from positions of power, and then people say, "Hey, that's ***ty." And they're like, "You're attacking me!" Like, too bad. Stop having ****ty takes. Stop saying offensive things and then cherry picking the results. It's just... Jia Tolentino wrote about... a really beautiful essay on that. That's what she was talking about.
Nick Quah 10:01
Yeah, that's in The Trick Mirror, right?
Kara Swisher 10:02
Yes. Wonderful. Wow, what a talented... That's another person, her. I want to talk to her, because I want people to hear her voice more widely. Like people's voices, and ideas, like that really fresh... She's a fresh--besides being a beautiful writer--she has fresh ideas, I think. Fresh takes on things. I want to introduce voices that you need to hear more of.
Nick Quah 10:23
Kara Swisher 10:23
At the same time, as doing the, you know... talk to Gavin Newson about the fires, talk to Nancy Pelosi about the election, talk to Elon Musk about neural nets and "Battery Day." Those are all going to happen.
Nick Quah 10:41
Coming up: Elon Musk, Spalding Gray, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jesus. More in a minute.
Kara Swisher 11:01
Do you feel a duty to pay them and make sure they're okay, despite the fact that you don't agree with how they feel about COVID versus how you feel about it?
Elon Musk 11:09
Let's just move on.
Kara Swisher 11:09
"Just move on." That's what you want to do.
Elon Musk 11:15
Kara, I do not want to get into a debate about COVID, this situation.
Kara Swisher 11:21
Okay. All right. Okay. I want to finish up talking about...
Elon Musk 11:23
If you want to end the podcast now, we can do it.
Kara Swisher 11:25
Okay. What did you say? No, we don't... I don't want to end it. I just want to understand the way you feel. But I do I feel like I understand where you are.
Nick Quah 11:31
Kara Swisher is known for her direct interview style. And she says that she can do this because of the power that she has.
Kara Swisher 11:37
I think my power is--I know it sounds crazy, but--going, "Huh? What you just say? I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense." I think I say what everyone's thinking a lot of the time.
Nick Quah 11:48
Like, cutting the gaslight, essentially.
Kara Swisher 11:49
Yeah, I'm willing to say, like, "What? I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense." And I think most reporters, by nature, are... even though there seems to be like, "Oh, reporters are so mean," I'm like, most of them are really polite. Right? They don't ask that question. And then when they do, like, for example, when you see it out play in these White House sessions, they're asking reasonable questions. It's just that they're made to seem like those are rude. "That's a nasty question." Trump always does that. That means it's a good question, whenever he does that. Some are nasty questions, some... But so what? You're just trying to provoke an insight. I try to do an interview where if I never have an interview again, it's fine. Right? I'm not trying to hold on to access or get them again. And I think that's what makes it better. At the same time, I'm not disrespectful. I don't think I'm like, "Aren't you the idiot everybody knows you to be?" You know, I don't want to treat people like they're wrapped in cotton batting; at the same time, I don't want to needlessly poke them unfairly. It's kind of a weird dance. But I think I do say, "Huh?" Like, a lot. Like, "What? I don't understand what that just said, that's..." Or, "That's bullshit." Like, "That's not true, why are you saying that?" And it's not like, they said something, like, "Defend yourself." If you're going to say something inane like that, you have to explain it.
Nick Quah 13:07
Getting to the truth: that's what Kara wants. And interestingly enough, she found her inspiration for that in the theater.
Kara Swisher 13:15
There was a show that I saw at the Kennedy Center when I was in my 20s. I covered theatre for The Washington Post in my spare time when I was just a newsie. Yeah, I just had a column called "Backstage." I love...
Nick Quah 13:28
It's like, a classic column name, too. [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 13:30
"Backstage!" "I'm backstage with everybody!" Yeah, it's a good name for a podcast! I'll bring it back. [Laughter] Spalding Gray. I went to the theater all the time. And Spalding Gray, who... For people that don't know him, he was an actor, he ended up committing suicide, a very tragic story of him. But he was also a wonderful writer, and playwright, and all kinds of things. He wrote Swimming To Cambodia about his time doing Apocalypse Now. Beautiful writer, beautiful thinker, great actor, all... Just sort of this renaissance man in that regard. And he had a show at the Kennedy Center, I don't remember the name of it. And what he did is he plucked people from the audience, just every night, three people from the audience. And he had conversations with them. And they were riveting. They were just the stuff he... His whole contention was everyone has a wonderful story, if you only get it from them. And so I really was always amazed by that. Every time I went--I went, I don't know, half a dozen times--just these stories, you couldn't believe it, what these people had gone through, or the kind of pathos he got out of them, and their life story, and their experiences. And I just... And they weren't anybody. They were like, some guy, or some woman, and I thought that was just really... I'll never forget it. I'll tell you. It's stayed with me, 30 years later, this ability, and I think his contention was everybody is interesting. Everyone has a story to tell about their lives and their experience and I can make it interesting. You will be interested in this person even though they don't have a movie, or they don't... You know, aren't a sports star, or run a corporation. I just thought that was a beautiful piece of art and journalism at the same time.
Nick Quah 15:11
But her love of the theater stretches way back before she was a journalist.
Kara Swisher 15:15
Yeah, my mom and my dad, when I was living... We went to theater a lot. I went all the time to Broadway. I never was on stage, which is interesting. I was... Actually, you know what, in fourth grade, I played Cordelia, in a really bad version of King Lear. I know, I can't believe fourth graders were doing that. For a fourth grader, I was excellent. In any case, that was my end of my stage career. I always thought that people "putting on a show" was really interesting, especially choices they made around, not just the play or how they interpreted it, but the lighting, and the revelation that they would bring you because of the immediacy of the closeness. It's so analog, and it's so... You're right there, and you can see them--and not just big shows like Hamilton, which did send a shiver through me when I saw it. But I saw the early versions of Rent, I'll never forget that. When you're... sometimes in the theater, I have revelations about life in ways that are really profound. Like Angels in America is another good example: two parts, very long, huge commitment of time. I went and saw that a dozen times, because I thought it was beautifully written, it was about an issue that was important to me, which was AIDS. And being gay at that time period, it captured it. It had Roy Cohn in it, the person who we really should go back in time and like, find a way to throw into the ocean, because he had such an impact on so many awful people. He's sort of the font of awful that then begat other awfuls, including Donald Trump. The ability of people to get on stage and give you a revelation is what I think I'm trying to do; is give you a little revelation into the truth of the people I'm interviewing, and willing to ask a question that people would sort of, I always like when there's a sharp intake of breath, when I do live events, and I ask a question, by the audience, like, "[Gasps] She just asked that?"
Nick Quah 16:57
Yeah, like Mark Zuckerberg.
Kara Swisher 16:59
I think I was one of the--I think I was the first person to ask about these issues in Myanmar. You know, people have done great reporting on it. But no one had asked him, they're too polite to ask him. And I was essentially like, "Don't you feel guilty about all these people dead on things that you made, and because of your sloppy management?" You know, I asked it in a more deft way, but that's essentially the question.
Kara Swisher 17:19
Can I ask you that? A specific about Myanmar? How did you feel about those killings and the blame that some people put on Facebook? Do you feel responsible for those deaths?
Mark Zuckerberg 17:28
I think that we have a responsibility to be doing more, to be doing more than...
Kara Swisher 17:33
I wonder how you feel?
Mark Zuckerberg 17:34
Yes, I think we... I think that there's a... There's a terrible situation where there's underlying sectarian violence there, and intention. And it is clearly the responsibility of all of the players who were involved there.
Kara Swisher 17:49
And he's like, "But solutions are where I really... I think we all together..." He did a "we" kind of thing. "We hear..." This is your fault. Like, I'm sorry, I want to know why you did this and how you feel about it. And he went back and forth like that for several back and forths. And I didn't let up, and I was like, "No, you're going to answer this question." And then I talked about who should be responsible. And then we used that clip in the marketing for this, is where he said... I said, "Who should be fired for this?" And he said, "Well, I guess because I'm in charge, it should be me." And what they didn't include was right after that, I said, "Okay. But to be clear, you're not gonna fire yourself right now? Is that right?"
Mark Zuckerberg 18:23
Not on this podcast right now.
Kara Swisher 18:24
Okay. All right. Well, that would be fantastic. I mean, I think you'll do okay. So, let's get to the the privacy and data part of it. One of the things you kept saying in Congress, which really drove me crazy, because you said it, like, I counted...
Mark Zuckerberg 18:32
You really want me to fire myself right now?
Kara Swisher 18:37
Mark Zuckerberg 18:39
Just for the news?
Kara Swisher 18:40
Yeah, why not? [Laughter]
Mark Zuckerberg 18:41
Kara Swisher 18:43
Whatever, Mark, whatever works for you. Now...
Mark Zuckerberg 18:45
I think we should do what's um... what's gonna be right for the community. So I...
Kara Swisher 18:49
All right, okay.
Nick Quah 18:50
So you spend all this time with these super rich, super powerful people who the average person might see as disconnected from the world. And all that coupled with this really divisive political reality we're in. So I'm just curious, I mean, how hopeful are you, really, for the future?
Kara Swisher 19:08
Well, it's hard not to be like, "Ugh, Jesus." You wake up and you're like, "No." Like, when you're sort of like, "I'm getting back in bed," like, what the hell? And at the same time, I do think it... Everything is arrayed against the forces of good. They just... You know what I mean? And I always I use this example a lot. This idea of "Star Wars vs. Star Trek" point of view of the universe, right? Star Trek is like, "We're all gonna be together and we're gonna figure it out, And even the villains will change their mind and become with us, be part of our team of multiracial, multicultural, multi-everything group, and we'll all pull together as a team, and we'll beat evil in every episode that..." It never ends sadly on that show, you know what I mean? And then you have the Star Wars themes, which are all about the Empire always striking back, right? No matter what these people do, "We're gonna, you know, we put up our sword, we're gonna do the fight!" It doesn't end well for anybody in that movie. It just doesn't. And they die, right? And badly! And so I don't know why I'm so up, given how dire everything is. I have no idea why that is. But I do think--I still do think--that individual people, at a price, can change things. And I want to put a focus on both the bad people doing these things and understanding their evil natures, essentially, and the good people. And I think that really great big ideas do move humanity forward. Just like in Angels in America, the line at the end is, "The world only spins forward." I was in the middle, I didn't... I had a lot of friends who died of AIDS, I remember it was dire. It was like, "We're never gonna solve this." And then we slowly... the community slowly worked its way out of it. And gay people were never going to get rights. And then everyone's getting married, I have another new baby, I never would have thought that. And here we are. And then history then slaps you back, and then you push forward. And so I do have a sense that it's really important to put a light on the people who are pushing us forward despite all that we're dragging behind us. And I think that's what I am going for here in a lot of ways.
Nick Quah 21:25
Very, very last question. Dream guest: one dead, one alive.
Kara Swisher 21:31
Oh, that's a good question. You're a good interviewer. Nick.
Nick Quah 21:34
Oh, I appreciate that.
Kara Swisher 21:35
Gosh, that's a really interesting question. I think about that a lot. Obviously Trump. I'd like a go at him too. Everybody would, right? He seems to like, talk to the door. He's like, "I'll talk to you," he's talking to everyone. So I don't know. I mean, I'm so hostile to him on Twitter. I think he'd love it. Like, why not? Well, Putin, I guess. I think Putin's a fantastically evil person. Not fantastic in any way, but just like, I'd really like to have a real conversation with him. I don't I don't understand what motivates that person. Dead? Oh, so many people: Cleopatra, book to interview. Julius Caesar. I'd like to interview Shakespeare that would be the... Well, I'm back with white guys again. I can't get away from them. All right. Here's one who is not a white guy, which everyone always portrays as, Jesus. I'd like to interview Jesus. The historical Jesus.
Nick Quah 22:27
Like at the time? Or like, if he can pop up right now and you...
Kara Swisher 22:29
Well, he's coming back, I don't know if you know that. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:31
Right, well, some people don't, but...
Kara Swisher 22:32
Allegedly! [Laughter] He's coming back and he's real pissed. He's gonna be real pissed. Jesus, the historical Jesus. Yeah.
Nick Quah 22:40
Oh, man. That's a... I don't think I've ever heard that answer before. I think that that's a really...
Kara Swisher 22:45
I'm going with Jesus, Nick.
Nick Quah 22:46
Kara Swisher 22:46
How much do I get for that?
Nick Quah 22:48
You get 500 points. [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 22:49
What would be your first question to Jesus? "So you're back." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:55
"How'd you do it?" [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 22:56
"Glad you're back. Tell us how that worked. Tell us how you did that resurrection thing." What would be your question for Jesus?
Nick Quah 23:03
Kara, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.
Kara Swisher 23:05
No, seriously, Nick, what would be your question for Jesus?
Nick Quah 23:07
My question is just, "Did you ever think everybody would **** this up this hard? And because of you?" That would be my question.
Kara Swisher 23:13
Nick Quah 23:14
I mean, because that's the thing that we're afraid of, that somebody misunderstood what I was trying to do.
Kara Swisher 23:19
Nick Quah 23:19
And turns me into... I think a lot of celebrities probably deal with this, where they had a certain idea of something to do going forward.
Kara Swisher 23:24
Nick Quah 23:25
Artists do this all the time.
Kara Swisher 23:26
I would say "Was it worth it? The death, was it worth it? Or would you rather have your father flooded everybody, just like the Noah era?"
Nick Quah 23:33
Damn, that's a good question. Do you think...
Kara Swisher 23:36
Oh my god, every Evangelical's gonna come after me now, but that's okay. Whatever. I'm booking Jesus! [Laughter] On Sway!
Nick Quah 23:45
Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate this. I've been a fan of your work for so long.
Kara Swisher 23:49
Thank you so much.
Nick Quah 24:03
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Albert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Roman Mars Episode 17
Mon, 11/9 2:08PM • 28:03
laughter, roman, people, podcasting, world, story, radio, mars, invisible, independent, totally, ghazi, book, regrets, love, part, person, abstaining, building, pr
Sandy Allen, Roman Mars, Delaney Hall, Nick Quah
Roman Mars 00:03
Here at the San Francisco main library, and that is Dennis Paoletti. If you walk into the library, there's a five story atrium. He's an acoustic designer. And it also is very hard and reflective with all of the plaster, concrete, reflective materials. Companies hire him to make their buildings, and boardrooms, and cathedrals, and public spaces sound better.
Nick Quah 00:30
If you're a longtime podcast listener, you probably know this voice. It belongs to Roman Mars--99% Invisible's Roman Mars. And this was the first episode:
Roman Mars 00:41
It's a hack, a jankity retractable movie-theater-style velvet rope partition, that helps create the proper traffic flow. And right there, 15 feet apart from one another, a minor triumph, and a minor failure, of design.
Nick Quah 00:59
That episode clocked in at just four minutes and 20 seconds. What was once a short experimental podcast is now one of the most popular shows in the history of the medium--but in many ways, still doing the same thing: inspiring listeners to take a closer look at the world around them. And Roman Mars is happy to be our guide. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Roman Mars. When Roman Mars moved out to California in the late 90s, he had no plans for fame. He just wanted a job.
Roman Mars 01:59
I applied to work at Pixar...
Nick Quah 02:02
Oh, no way!
Roman Mars 02:03
Nick Quah 02:04
Roman Mars 02:05
I mean, I was just looking for anything that was stable. Because there was no podcasting industry, there was no... and there was no work in public radio. I was pretty desperate. So I really was like, we're gonna need to exchange all of it for some degree of stability.
Nick Quah 02:18
And I don't think I know this about you, but before you became a radio producer, what did you want to do?
Roman Mars 02:24
I wanted to be a scientist. More than anything, I always loved science. And I went straight into grad school to study population genetics of plants. I didn't have a particular affinity for for plants, but I love genetics and evolutionary biology. So I thought I would be a researcher or a teacher.
Nick Quah 02:42
What about evolutionary biology was... spoke to you at the time?
Roman Mars 02:44
I just liked understanding the world. I like to understand where we are, and how we got here. It just delighted me, to read and learn. And I still do that. That type of discovery is really, really important to me. And so I wanted to be a part of it, or at least see it up close, of how it was done.
Nick Quah 03:01
Yeah, I'm sure there's a lot of lines to be drawn from that, to the stuff that you do on 99% Invisible, because you're looking at physical structures through that kind of lens.
Roman Mars 03:10
Yeah, it's really not all that different. It really... I mean, grad school really taught me a way to think. And when I first got into radio and journalism, I thought I would basically be a science reporter. But I fell into this other stuff that I loved: the storytelling, and the and the mixing, and the putting new music on stories, and stuff like that, and then that ended up sort of dominating for most of my career in the beginning.
Nick Quah 03:36
In 2010, Roman teamed up with public radio station KALW and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco to create 99% Invisible, or 99PI. The show has gone from a side project made in Roman's bedroom to a fully-staffed office in the Bay Area, paid for in large part by loyal listeners and wildly successful crowdfunding campaigns. In 2014, Roman founded Radiotopia, a collective of independent podcasts in partnership with the nonprofit audio platform PRX. It's been a pretty busy decade. And Roman says sometimes it feels even longer than 10 years.
Roman Mars 04:13
It's one of those things--it didn't go by in the blink of an eye, because there's been so many changes and iterations, and so the continuity of it, and sort of the assigning of a date of its birth, is really kind of weird to me.
Nick Quah 04:27
Roman Mars 04:29
Because each thing was its own moment. The first Kickstarter was its own moment, in the way it was born, that... and then moving into the office, with a bunch of teammates, was a real difference. And you know, everything about it, it's just changed so much, that it barely feels like the same thing. But I am glad I've done it as long as I have, partly because I think it was easier to start a podcast then, you know, there were fewer of them, and easier to get people's attention. And also, it gave me some time to figure it all out, while this industry was forming around it.
Nick Quah 05:04
And I take it that you have the feeling that if you were to start this today, it just would not be the same; or at the very least, you wouldn't be able to do it this way.
Roman Mars 05:13
No, I mean, I know this a little bit because I do this other show called What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. But it's like, Trump Con Law has a fraction of 99PI's audience, but it also takes me like, three days to do. [Laughter] Every episode of 99PI taking, you know, six to eight weeks and a bunch of people. And so it's like, well, would I create seven Trump Con Laws or one 99PI? It makes much more sense to make seven Trump Con Laws, which explains the state of podcasting. [Laughter] Because economically, 99PI doesn't really make a lot of sense these days. I mean, it does well now, it makes money now, but...
Nick Quah 05:56
Roman Mars 05:57
And it's totally valuable, it's just, it is a much more "Shoot the Moon" plan, if you were to launch it today, than it was 10 years ago.
Nick Quah 06:06
So I know of you that you have this really strong punk and independent sensibility.
Roman Mars 06:11
Nick Quah 06:11
Does it feel like you're stuck in there as a big indie, like The National or something? [Laughter] How do you position the show, or how do you understand the show, in the larger context now? And then, did you think that it would end up this way?
Roman Mars 06:28
I kind of had no imagination for how it would end up, because this is not how I thought podcasting would necessarily go. All I know is, I knew that we were making something that people really, really liked. And whenever you're doing that, that's meaningful, either monetarily or just emotionally. And I knew for a long time, when I thought the show was undervalued, or podcasting was undervalued, or even public radio programs were undervalued, by the system, that if we went directly to the audience, that they would be corrected more to their proper value. I always knew I was going to be kind of independent because I just was... You know, I just wanted to solve the problem myself, and anytime I had to ask permission, I never got permission. And so I was just like, well, I just have to do this. I'm not someone who necessarily has this ethic that with the right partner, or with the right boss--and it's not that I'm totally against it, or I feel like people who do sell their shows are doing something wrong, it's not that way at all. It's just that every time I've had that situation, it's never worked out that well, you know? There's been approaches for acquisition before. It's never like, "No, are you kidding me? This is against my religion," or anything like that. It has nothing to do with that. It just has to do with the fact that I'm always trying to solve the problem the best way I can, for my show and my staff. All I really wanted was for my people to have good jobs, for us to make the thing we like, and whatever path that is, is the right path, in my opinion.
Nick Quah 08:04
How would you describe what you get out the most, right now, of working on the show in year 10? What is the thing that really draws you back to work? Because I can barely fathom a life where I'm working on the same thing for 10 years. [Laughter] Let alone like five years, even.
Roman Mars 08:21
Well, so in the beginning, what really got me going was telling the short little stories, and having fun with them, and developing a tone and a way to interact with the audience, which was really fun. And then what really took over was solving the problem of making a thing, when there was no industry to make a thing, like there is now. [Laughter] And I was really into the business of it. And for a while, I was totally fascinated by the Kickstarter campaigns, and the ad sales, and developing all that stuff. So to make sure the people who I admire, the people who work for me, can make the thing they want to make, and be secure, and feel good. And I was totally in love with that as an issue. I also loved my connection with the audience, and being a host, and all that sort of stuff. Now, I have to admit, the solving the problem of the money is less fun for me. It's just...
Nick Quah 09:19
Is it because you figured it out? [Laughter]
Roman Mars 09:21
It's a little bit that I've figured out part of it. And also it's that thing where like, I feel like I can't do it as well as other people can do it anymore. I love that people have figured it out. So now, I think the things that excite me the most are just like... I still love every episode. Like, I put it out and I'm proud of it. I still like a really good interview, where I read someone's book, and they're brilliant, and I have a really good time, and you get into a flow with someone. I love that. I love really affecting the conversation on things, like I love... It can be its own kind of pain, but Like, whenever there's a flag thing in the world, you know? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 10:04
Yes, you're still on that horse.
Roman Mars 10:06
The proposed design consisted of a white field--that's the background color--with a--oof--with a city seal--in gold--in the center, flanked by two red roses on either side, and then the words "World Port of the Pacific" on top, and then the words "City of Roses" below. Oh, boy. I think I might have to go lie down.
Nick Quah 10:38
Roman Mars 10:39
I love that we've had a show, and I've created stories that have really changed the way people think about things, and moved a conversation forward. And, you know, that's sort of fun. So that stuff is pretty joyful. So most of it is the good interaction with the audience that keeps me going.
Nick Quah 10:58
You know, I struggle with boredom a lot. So I'm curious: how do you keep going back and falling in love with this project year after year?
Roman Mars 11:07
The great thing about journalism, which I didn't quite realize when I started, what that's what I was doing, is that you get to become a little bit of an expert of a thing for a few weeks, and then you get to tell the story of it. And then you get to do something new. And so a show like mine, and journalism is the perfect antidote to somebody who gets bored a lot, because I don't really spend a lot of time on any one subject. And for the most part, the things that I explore, you hear about as a listener, and so sometimes my opinion about something like, you know, "What is your favorite building in Cincinnati?" I actually have an answer for that, so that's a good example.
Nick Quah 11:46
Well, what's the answer? [Laughter]
Roman Mars 11:48
The first reinforced concrete skyscraper is the Ingalls Building in Cincinnati--I have to actually fact-check that before you put that on the air. [Laughter] But I think it's the Ingalls Building. You can leave all this hemming and hawing in, but it'll be something like that.
Nick Quah 12:03
He's right, by the way. We checked. So it's not the material that wears on Roman. Rather, what gets to him is the rhythm of producing a weekly show. It's relentless. And when that pace gets to be too much, Roman's had some of his staff fill in, like senior editor Delaney Hall.
Delaney Hall 12:21
This is 99% Invisible. I'm Delaney Hall, filling in for Roman Mars. Maybe you've heard a story like this: how, once upon a time, on the outskirts of the town where someone grew up, or where they went to school, on the edge of the woods, there was a scary old asylum.
Sandy Allen 12:42
Over the last few years, so many people have told me versions of this story.
Delaney Hall 12:47
That's writer Sandy Allen, they wrote a book called A Kind of Miraculous Paradise, about mental health care in America.
Sandy Allen 12:54
And often, when somebody learns that I write about mental health, they will launch into their old asylum story, how they used to break into one with their friends, or how someone they knew saw ghosts there--the details vary.
Roman Mars 13:08
It was a really great moment, because I was working on some stuff with the book, and I was like, I just don't have time for this episode at all. And I just want to not hear it, and I don't want to be in an edit, I don't want to host it, I don't want anything to do with it. And then I listened to it. And I was like, "Oh my god. My show is really good!" You know, like... [Laughter] I really enjoyed it. It made me feel so good.
Nick Quah 13:37
Yeah. Did it make you feel jealous, a little bit?
Roman Mars 13:39
No, it didn't at all, because I know my place in the world. I know. [Laughter] Like, it's okay, I still have those feelings of fraud like everyone does. But it made me realize, I was like, "Oh, I would be a fan of my show." And that was what I was trying to do when I made it, I was trying to make the show I wanted. And you lose a little bit of perspective on that when you're in it, because you just don't have as much fun with it. That moment was fantastic.
Nick Quah 14:12
Has the popularity of 99PI totally killed Roman's indie cred? More in a minute.
Roman Mars 14:31
This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars. Humans have been living in cities for a really long time. But like a lot of things about the past, getting around cities used to be just needlessly difficult, because we didn't have reliable maps, or street signs, or even addresses. An address is something we all take for granted...
Nick Quah 14:55
This may be a weird question, but how much of the show is actually you, and how much is being left off the mic?
Roman Mars 15:00
"How much of the show is me?" What do you mean?
Nick Quah 15:03
Yeah. Okay, so here's my relationship with the show: I understand you to be a very obsessive, interested, curious, nerdy, kind of chill person--patient--because of the nature of your dulcet tone--you know, comforting, soothing voice, all that ****. [Laughter] Yeah, like... But once in a while I just get this flash where I'm like, I think he might be a really sassy, sarcastic person, and I don't hear that. [Laughter] So I guess my question is how much you leave off the off the mic?
Roman Mars 15:27
Oh, for sure. Okay, so how much of Roman Mars is a character? Like, is...
Nick Quah 15:30
Yeah, yeah, that question. Yeah.
Roman Mars 15:32
So definitely a character. So all the things that are represented as the "host of the show," of 99% Invisible, are aspects of my character. It's sort of a heightened, aspirational version of me. And it is definitely a more generous, empathetic version of me. And the thing is, though, it's not just something I'm putting on for the show. I can put this on, when I'm out in the world, and I'm a better person. [Laughter] Like, I'm a kinder person. I definitely am a person who... You know, do I read every plaque as a person? No, probably not. I try, you know, but I get in a hurry, and I get... and I have strong opinions about things, I'm much more like... I definitely react to the world and believe in things. And that can be shocking to some people. But I do think that a listener of the show has a good idea of who I am as a person. But there's different aspects that are heightened at different moments, for sure.
Nick Quah 16:31
Yeah. What would you say is one aspect of you that most of your listeners would be surprised to know about?
Roman Mars 16:39
I mean, I think the sort of aggressive "punk rock-ness" of it all would be... is surprising to people, maybe. To me, it's like, I make sense as a person, because I'm the person that it's centering upon. [Laughter] So to me, there are no contradictions in these things. But I can imagine people having an image of like, tweed coat, listens to classical music, a kind of Niles Crane type of person. And I get that, but to me, it's totally like, the thoughtfulness is the thoughtfulness of a person who grew up in sort of indie/punk culture, and... Yeah. ...Loving of the world and holding the role to a high standard as part of that, too. Like, I was never part of the sort of nihilistic punk culture, I was much more in the American hardcore, like, "the reason why I'm angry is because I love the world so much, not because I think it should all burn."
Nick Quah 17:31
You identified as straight-edge, right?
Roman Mars 17:34
Yeah. So, I mean, I still don't drink, or do drugs, or anything. That stayed with me. And that was a little bit... it was something to do with this sense of control over my place in my environment. And the fact that I just had encountered a lot of alcohol and drugs kind of early in my life, and it was not for me, it was very bad for me, and it was bad for a lot of people in my family. And so, rather than abstaining, I discovered straight-edge, and realized that I could be a part of something, rather than be abstaining from something, and it gave me a lot of purpose, for lack of a better word, you know? So like... So a lot of those things are a huge part of who I am. And they're reflected in the show, like, I think only recently did I do, I allowed an announcer read for alcohol on the show, just because of COVID, and I have to, you know, balance the books, so...
Nick Quah 18:10
Roman Mars 18:25
I had to let that go. But there was like, for 10 years, I didn't do any alcohol of any kind, because I just... not because I felt that anyone should live the way I do, or I was really against it--I know and love people who enjoy alcohol quite a bit. But it was like... it didn't feel like it was genuinely from me, and that felt against my ethic more than anything. But when it's other people, you're like, well, maybe I need to, like, consider this. And so that's what ends up happening over time, is that you get all these responsibilities, and you have to think through them, and really get to the root of it. And as you get older, and you have more people depending on you, that becomes the ethic that matters the most. I think that's what changes.
Nick Quah 18:25
Yeah. The next frontier for Roman and 99PI? A book. It's called The 99% Invisible City. And it was co-written by Roman and the show's digital director, Kurt Kohlstedt.
Roman Mars 19:19
I love making a podcast, that's the thing. But there's a certain point where you have all this information, and all this worldview of how 99PI approaches the world, and realize that like, if you... "Oh, I remember they did a show about revolving doors at one point in like, Episode 112," or you do a search on it, and it's really just like... it doesn't serve the information anymore, to be locked up in this linear audio format over 10 years. I mean, it was just really like, the reason why is because there was a reason for it to exist, and before this point, the show did the job and now it was failing to do the job, when you want it to like really like access and enjoy the information and the stories. And so... So the book just made a ton of sense. And it was also just like, there's a certain point where you're like, as big as podcasting is, there's still like a huge percentage of the world you're not reaching. I just really wanted to have 99PI, as a concept, reach more people. And also, it was just like... Kurt, who worked on the book--so hard on the book--we just felt we could do it. He drove it forward. He was the project manager and co-author. It really was just one of those things, just like, when you have a small team, an independent team, when you have a person who's raising their hand and saying, "We can do this," you just go, "Okay," and now it's done, you know.
Nick Quah 20:44
After doing the show for so many years, any regrets? Anything that you would have done differently, maybe?
Roman Mars 20:51
Well, yeah, I mean, I don't live... I don't really go and get obsessed with my regrets. I mean, I do know that there's definitely things that I would... well, not that I would change... It's just like, when something grows sort of organically, with just the money you have, you move forward, you don't have a strategic plan in mind, you know? [Laughter] And so...
Nick Quah 21:14
Roman Mars 21:14
You know, especially as all this stuff is falling apart, and there's no office, for example, it's like, "Well, why did everyone have to be out here? Why didn't I just build the team from all over all the time?" Because clearly you can do it. And so it was kind of like... There was that, and then, you hit things where it's just like, well, there's a huge diversity problem within Radiotopia, and it's like we... because we're looking for people who can do everything, and own everything, we're building on the biases of the whole industry that came before it. And it's really hard to fight it--and it's not an excuse to not keep fighting it.
Nick Quah 21:48
What Roman is talking about here is something we've been seeing in the media industry: a reckoning for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in predominantly white spaces. In the podcast world, one of the places that's recently been called out has been PRX, which helped Roman build the independent podcast network Radiotopia.
Roman Mars 22:07
That's the thing, I don't really... I've never worked for PRX. But I had some influence, to try to make Radiotopia to be what it is. But you do just wonder like, "God, if I just could like, frickin' hire people." You know, like, if... this way, it would be totally different, and create shows, like how people create shows. And right now, the structure really doesn't serve the moment sometimes. It serves people like me. And so those are the things I have regrets about is like, is not anticipating it. But it was really hard to anticipate that stuff 10 years ago... Yeah. ...for sure. But that's the type of thing that I think about today.
Nick Quah 22:45
So I would be remiss not to ask you about what went down at PRX. Just a little background for everyone: not long ago, an employee at PRX, a Black woman, made the decision to leave her job during the pandemic, because she felt like there was no future for her at the company due to systemic racism. She wrote a really impassioned open letter to the organization, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about that situation.
Roman Mars 23:08
I read that. I was sort of shocked by it. I was surprised it wasn't handled well in the moment. I do think that when you have a history with somebody, when somebody says they're sorry and they're going to work on it, you either hear that and you think, "Well, I believe them," or you hear that and say, "This is just like everybody else, and I don't believe them." And I must admit that I land on the side of believing people working hard on things, than not. And so in this case, I've just been like, keep me apprised guys, because it's just like... it reflects on me. It reflects on the show, we felt the need to talk about it a little bit as a show.
Nick Quah 23:50
On the 99PI website, Roman put out a statement in support of the employee who left PRX. In his statement, Roman described how he and his staff have been discussing the inequities in their own show, and how they're hoping to improve it through initiatives like rethinking staff structure, increasing the diversity of voices in their stories, and better pay for freelancers.
Roman Mars 24:09
The whole point... I mean, this is what makes you question the idea of what... What does independence mean? Okay, so the show is independent, it does its own thing. But what other people do affects it. And so like, how independent is it really, you know? What does that mean? And I don't know. And that's... All this stuff is sort of swimming through my head right now, and I don't have a good answer for you. You know, to me, the part about independence that matters is, if I see that anybody who I work with is not behaving in a way I'm proud of, then me working with them is always on the table, you know? But I also... I have a long history with PRX existing in this world where they are really trying to fight for making public radio more accessible, and better, and so I come to them with a little bit more benefit of the doubt than I think maybe other people do, you know? Yeah.
Nick Quah 25:02
Do you... To what extent do you think about your legacy? And do you see 99% Invisible, at this point, as the sort of sum of your life's work?
Roman Mars 25:14
Do I think about my legacy? I don't really think about my legacy all that much. Um...
Nick Quah 25:19
So like, 50 years from now, when people think about Roman Mars, you don't have an opinion of how people would think about Roman Mars?
Roman Mars 25:25
Well, I have an opinion that I want them to think well of me, like that I was a fair person, and kind person, and that the show was good. So yeah, I think there's that. I think, over the time... You know, five years ago, I think the show really defined me, and now I feel like I could do something else and it would be okay. Or like, not work for once? That would be okay. [Laughter] Like, it's not as important in the broad sense of my life, even though I do truly still love it. It's just...
Nick Quah 26:00
Roman Mars 26:01
My best days are the days where we have an edit, and there's a new story, I haven't heard any part of it yet, we're doing the read to tape, and it's just like, "Oh, this is so good." That puts me in a good mood. And I just want as many days like that as possible. That's what I want the most.
Nick Quah 26:21
Roman, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Roman Mars 26:24
It's my pleasure. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Nick Quah 26:41
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios. Okay, favorite Dischord band.
Roman Mars 27:19
Jawbox and Shudder To Think, I loved that sort of like, the third generation of... that's when I came in. So like Jawbox, Shudder To Think, Circus Lupus... Early 90s. I needed to find something besides Fugazi, because everyone kind of owned Fugazi. Like, if you were to say, like when you're asking about my legacy, if somebody says, "99PI or Roman Mars is the Fugazi or the Dischord of podcasting," I would be like, "That's a fine legacy. I'm totally good with that." [Laughter] This all goes in, Nick.
Nick Quah 27:51
Alright, no, yeah, we'll put it right after the credits, if you don't... [Laughter]
Roman Mars 27:53
It all goes in. You have to put it in.
Servant of Pod BONUS Podcast Picks
Sun, 1/3 12:25PM • 4:50
podcast, cam, middle, week, rigor, bozo, upturned, varsity jacket, recreates, hanif, sarah marshall, saturated, podcasting, chronicles, happening, michael, boisterous, clown, coming, laughter
Michael Hobbes, Tyler Tynes, Chelsey Weber-Smith, Sarah Marshall
Nick Quah 00:01
Hey folks, Nick here. This is Servant of Pod from LAist Studios. We're taking this week off to catch some Z's. Servant of Pod will be back next week, and I'm really excited for the run we're about to kick off. Trust me, it's gonna be fun. However, I don't like taking a break and leaving you with nothing, so this week, I'm going to tell you about two podcasts I've been really enjoying. The first pick is a podcast called You're Wrong About. It's hosted by two journalists, Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes, and the show is basically them going back and re-examining something that's been largely misunderstood in the culture; more often than not because that thing was blown up in the media in inappropriate ways. The show really, really runs the gamut. They've had episodes on the y2k bug, the OJ Simpson trial, Kitty Genovese and the concept of bystander apathy, and they recently celebrated their 100th episode, which is about killer clowns.
Sarah Marshall 00:58
Let's all look up Bozo The Clown.
Chelsey Weber-Smith 01:02
You need it, because this guy is the archetype for everything scary, I think, that came after.
Michael Hobbes 01:08
Sarah Marshall 01:09
Oh, oh, you were not kidding. [Laughter] Like, I was expecting... [Laughter] I didn't think that I wouldn't find him scary, but I really didn't think I would find him this scary.
Michael Hobbes 01:19
Yeah, that's horrifying.
Sarah Marshall 01:21
The eyebrows are really upsetting.
Michael Hobbes 01:22
Sarah Marshall 01:23
Sometimes they're more arched in the middle, which is more alarming.
Michael Hobbes 01:27
Sarah Marshall 01:27
It's a really exaggerated, big, red, upturned mouth shape.
Michael Hobbes 01:32
Also, the lack of head hair. He has these giant, like, three foot long, almost pigtails coming off of the sides of his head, but he has no hair on the top of his head, which is really unsettling.
Chelsey Weber-Smith 01:43
Which is It.
Sarah Marshall 01:44
Chelsey Weber-Smith 01:45
Which is Pennywise The Clown.
Michael Hobbes 01:46
Sarah Marshall 01:46
Chelsey Weber-Smith 01:47
Ronald McDonald came out of Bozo.
Sarah Marshall 01:49
He burst out of his chest and then scurried away. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 01:53
Now, there are a lot of podcasts out there that have this premise--the debunking show is a strong genre. But the thing that I really admire about You're Wrong About is its rigor. Sarah and Michael do their research, and they attack their subjects from so many directions, that what's really happening is that they're flooding you with material. That abundance is kind of crucial to the experience and recreates this feeling of reaching the part of any research process where you can see all the angles, all the views, to a point where you're so saturated that you get to a place where you feel like you might be closer to the truth. So that's the first pick. Here's the second: The Cam Chronicles. It's a pretty short documentary series with rigor. And while I'm personally not a big football fan--I'm more of a basketball and English soccer kind of guy--I think The Cam Chronicles is a really tight, excellent character study of someone who's very much still in the middle of playing out his public story. That someone, of course, is Cam Newton--now the quarterback for the NFL's New England Patriots, and a longtime totem of the Carolina Panthers. The Cam Chronicles is about a lot of things, but it's primarily about the idea of legacy and the burdens that come with being a Black professional athlete--one who aspires to be an icon, at least at one point, in America. It's fascinating stuff. And even if you're not a football fan, you should check out the show for the strength of its host, Tyler Tynes. I love Tyler's narration. It's funny, it's energetic, it's melodic, it really highlights his personality.
Tyler Tynes 03:21
For the first 30 minutes of practices, boys run ladder drills and curl through route trees. Cam is nowhere to be seen--at his own clinic, no less. That is, until suddenly... Cam emerges, it seems, completely out of nowhere, donning green sunglasses and a matching varsity jacket, in the middle of the field. He's absolutely massive, as big as he looks on television. He's holding one of his babies, Chosen, by the hand. Then he's bouncing around from group to group of teenage boys, yelling and getting everybody hyped--an explosion of boisterous energy, dancin' to the hits by Drake and Future.
Nick Quah 04:01
There's a conversation that's been happening for a long time about the whiteness of podcasting and podcast aesthetics, and Tynes's performance is such a great example of all the different ways that podcasting can sound. So those are two listens that I've been thinking a lot about lately. And if you haven't checked them out, please do. Alright, so, over the next couple of weeks, we've got a bunch of guests I'm really excited about. We've got Roman Mars, we've got Kara Swisher, we've got Hanif Abdurraqib coming onto the show. I'm Nick Quah. I'll see you next week.
Servant of Pod Forever35’s Self-Care Revolution Episode 16
Sun, 11/8 2:13PM • 27:22
laughter, people, podcast, listeners, kate, care, feel, women, talking, shows, thought, practices, hosts, fun, shampoo, topics, unquote, interview, produce, aoc
Doree Shafrir, Nick Quah, Madeleine Albright, Kate Spencer
Doree Shafrir 00:01
Okay, people have been asking for months why we haven't tried Briogeo.
Kate Spencer 00:08
I use their shampoo.
Doree Shafrir 00:10
Okay, we haven't talked about it.
Kate Spencer 00:12
Sorry. I like it, I use it.
Doree Shafrir 00:14
Kate Spencer 00:15
At first blush, Forever35 may seem like any other light-hearted product driven chat cast.
Doree Shafrir 00:20
I haven't used the scalp treatment yet, so I cannot weigh in on that, but I have used the shampoo, the conditioner, and the massager.
Kate Spencer 00:28
Doree Shafrir 00:28
I really like all of them, and I'm alternating using that stuff with the shampoo and conditioner from their "Blossom and Bloom" line which is supposed to be volumizing, and I also got this volumizing powder.
Nick Quah 00:41
But at its core, the show and its hosts are going way beyond their passion for haircare. It's retail therapy of the highest order, with the emphasis on therapy. From LAist Studios, This is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Forever35's self-care revolution. Back in 2018, writer Kate Spencer was on a book tour promoting her memoir, The Dead Moms Club. She was stressed, and overwhelmed, and looking for an outlet.
Kate Spencer 01:27
Ultimately, it just stemmed out of an idea of something that would be fun to do that I pitched to Doree. Because Doree and I are good friends, and I enjoy all my interactions with her, and I thought it was just... it was kind of a fluke, I just texted her and said, "Do you want to start a podcast about skincare but also, like, about more than skincare?" And it really went from there. And I guess my podcast listening at the time was either like, political podcasts or true crime. And while I enjoy both those genres, a podcast--or comedy, you know, the comedy world, which I kind of come from--I didn't feel like there was a space talking about the things that I was texting my friends about.
Nick Quah 02:09
One of those friends was fellow writer Doree Shafrir. She was working on her own podcast, Matt and Doree's Excellent Adventure, where she and her husband talked about their struggles with infertility. But Kate's idea about the skincare podcast stuck with Doree. So she said yes.
Doree Shafrir 02:27
I don't think Kate--and Kate has said this, so I'm not projecting--I don't think Kate actually expected me to take her up on it. [Laughter] Or at least not kind of mobilize.
Kate Spencer 02:40
Well, that's what I think makes us a good team, Doree, is that I like to just spout off ideas, and you actually can take all ideas that you have, or that I have, or we both have and, and see them into action.
Doree Shafrir 02:52
Aw, thank you, that's so kind.
Kate Spencer 02:53
It's true, though. Like, if I had said this to someone else, and they had been like, "Yeah," I would have never gotten it off the ground. But I feel like you really have the drive, and the wherewithal, and the knowledge to get it going. That's...
Doree Shafrir 03:07
Well, I think when I see a good idea, I'll run with it. It's not just any idea that I'm gonna run with Kate, it's got to be a good one. You had a good one.
Nick Quah 03:17
That good idea became Forever35. In 2018, Kate and Doree released their first episode.
Kate Spencer 03:24
These are the things that are good distractions from the other challenges in life.
Doree Shafrir 03:30
Kate Spencer 03:30
This is how I...
Doree Shafrir 03:31
What would you describe as the other challenges in life?
Kate Spencer 03:34
I mean, just our current political and social climate, Doree.
Doree Shafrir 03:36
Kate Spencer 03:37
And, you know, work.
Doree Shafrir 03:40
Kate Spencer 03:40
Doree Shafrir 03:41
Kate Spencer 03:41
Like, work and career are the same thing.
Doree Shafrir 03:43
Yeah. Uh huh.
Kate Spencer 03:43
Doree Shafrir 03:44
Yeah. sometimes not.
Kate Spencer 03:46
Parenting, for me.
Doree Shafrir 03:47
Yeah. Trying to be a parent, for me.
Kate Spencer 03:49
Yeah. There's a lot of crap going on.
Doree Shafrir 03:51
There's a lot. Also, just like, getting older.
Kate Spencer 03:55
Yes. Getting older...
Doree Shafrir 03:57
I mean, it's a lot. It's all a lot.
Kate Spencer 04:00
It is. This is gonna be therapeutic.
Nick Quah 04:04
Forever35 embraces all aspects of self-care. Even the kinds that might make some people feel guilty.
Kate Spencer 04:13
Our audience is predominantly women-identified people. And as with anything that goes along with something that women enjoy, we're often made to feel badly about it. Or there's an association that it doesn't have value, or it's not worth our time, or we could... "Why are you wasting your time on this thing?" When I actually think there is deep value in self-care practices and what it can provide people on all sorts of levels. So I don't particularly feel guilt when it... I think what we're trying to avoid is feelings of guilt for taking time for ourselves and taking care of ourselves.
Nick Quah 04:52
I gotta say, and I think this may be largely me projecting, but I have an extremely hard time being at peace with the notion of caring for one's self. Part of it is maybe cultural, and part of it feels like the way my brain is wired. Having made the show for a few years now, has talking about self-care made it easier to actually do it?
Doree Shafrir 05:15
You know, I think it's helped me expand my definition of self-care. It's not just about buying an expensive serum, or getting a massage. Like, it doesn't have to be something that costs money. Maybe it's meditating for five minutes every day, maybe it's taking a walk, maybe it's calling a friend. Those are all... to me, those all fall under the rubric of self-care, and I think doing the podcast has really helped me understand that.
Nick Quah 05:45
Kate Spencer 05:45
I think too, I think of self-care, on a larger cultural scale, in which self-care is not something we have ever really been granted or allowed to treat as important. We haven't ever really been, I think, permitted culturally to explore these ideas. I think of it now on on that scale, as well, as well as a serum scale. You know, you gotta love a serum, it feels good to put something on your face. But like Doree said, I think there's a lot more to it than just that.
Nick Quah 06:14
Yeah, so like, a little bit of consumerism, but mostly plugging the gaps of capitalism, really.
Kate Spencer 06:19
Yeah, it's tricky, because there is a pleasure to be found in engaging in consumerism. And, you know, that is something that we've kind of run up against, as we've explored this topic.
Nick Quah 06:31
Yeah. So I feel like that's how I tend to get a lot of my sort of personal self-care going, is in making purchases. So a big part of Forever35, as I understand, is that it is sort of talking about certain products and certain experiences that that require purchasing, and things like that. How do you balance that out, routing it through a certain sense of consumerism and something that's beyond it?
Kate Spencer 06:54
I think we try to be really conscious of accessibility, in terms of cost. And that the cost is not something that gets in the way. I think with Amazon, it's tricky, right? Because, on the one hand, Amazon does allow for many people to buy things that they might not be able to buy locally. But on the other hand, you're feeding... you're feeding a beast, for lack of a better word. And, you know, we both consciously, really try to reconsider where we purchase things from, and neither of us are perfect in any means. And it also... also part of it, for example, I love being able to purchase a small-batch skincare product that is cruelty-free, and vegan, and sustainably made, and I know who's making it, and I'm supporting a small woman-owned company, but there's a cost involved in that and an inherent privilege involved in being able to make that kind of purchase. But I think these are all considerations that we think about, and we grapple with, and we are certainly not perfect with any of it. And it's an ongoing learning process in being more thoughtful consumers.
Nick Quah 08:06
Doree Shafrir 08:07
I would also say that our listeners are actually really great about checking us, and letting us know when they feel like our privilege is showing, and we aren't thinking about people who might not be able to afford the small-batch, women-owned, etc., etc., products. And this also comes into play with clothing, thinking about size inclusivity, and balancing that with sustainably and ethically made clothing. That's just not always possible. So these are all things that our listeners have really opened our eyes to, and I think... I mean, I know... I don't wanna speak for you, Kate, but I think we are both grateful to them for that.
Kate Spencer 08:53
Oh my gosh. It's... I feel like we've learned so much from the people we are lucky to have listening to this podcast. It's been amazing. And they've helped shift our practices. Like, you know, we would... we did a lot of linking to Amazon for things in the beginning, especially books, and now we use Bookshop, and just different choices like that, that I feel like our listeners have been really helpful in guiding us.
Nick Quah 09:15
Kate and Doree's relationship with their listeners was practically a back-and-forth from their first episodes. They started a Facebook group just a couple weeks after launching the show. That allowed listeners to interact with topics on the show, but also with the hosts themselves and with fellow listeners. Now the group has more than 20,000 members and around 100 subgroups. It's so big that Kate and Doree had to hire two people to manage it.
Doree Shafrir 09:40
Another aspect of self-care is boundaries, and setting boundaries, and we've been pretty vocal about that on the podcast. And so that is a boundary that we both set, that we are not going to be super active in the Facebook groups. We do pop in every once in a while. If someone tags me in a post, I will usually respond, but I almost never start posts unless it's a kind of announcement that I need to make. And I think, actually, our listeners kind of like that we have set up this mechanism for them to talk amongst themselves. And we're kind of... we're there if they need us, but we're not micromanaging the Facebook group or any of the communities.
Nick Quah 10:24
Okay, so to what extent do the listeners shape what you talk about on the show?
Kate Spencer 10:29
They've certainly raised topics that I don't think I ever envisioned us even talking about, which has been amazing. And it's always really fascinating, what will spark a conversation. You know, I think that's what makes this experience of creating this podcast very two-sided. It's not just Doree and I driving all the conversations, it really... it's actively involving ourselves with what our listeners want to talk about. And that has been really fun, and really satisfying, and that's what, personally, continues to blow my mind about the podcasting experience, is the relationship with the people who listen to your show.
Nick Quah 11:09
Hmm. So, you alluded to this a little bit earlier, that the show kind of took off in a way that you didn't quite expect. At what point did you realize that you had something special here?
Kate Spencer 11:24
I think it was when we almost immediately started hearing from people over email, like, with questions or comments, or wanting to contribute or add to the conversation in some way, and that was really amazing, just people writing in. And about three months into doing the podcast, we decided to add doing this mini-episode once a week where we reply to these emails in a podcast, because we are getting so many, and they were interesting. And then also, there's people seeking advice, which was kind of mind-blowing. And so that was... I mean, obviously, you know, we're able to see our numbers go up, and we're able to see when we are written up on a really cool website, or, you know, featured in some sort of podcasting list, but I think that was when the kind of like... the relationship establishing between the people listening and ourselves was really what sealed it for me, personally.
Nick Quah 12:19
And now, about two years into it, you decided to launch a spinoff show, thereby expanding the Forever35 platform, or brand. Do you see Forever35 as a quote-unquote "brand," or something like that?
Doree Shafrir 12:34
Well, here's some news that we can break on the show, Nick:
Nick Quah 12:40
Doree Shafrir 12:41
We just reupped our deal with acast for two more years, and, as part of the deal, they are going to help us produce some more shows. So we are actively starting to look into producing more shows. I think we're both just really excited to take what we've learned from doing Forever35, including creating these intensely engaged communities, and doing that for other shows that we believe in.
Kate Spencer 13:14
Doree Shafrir 13:15
Great. [Laughter] Phew! Thank God
Kate Spencer 13:17
Nick Quah 13:18
What's the vision with this new slate of shows? Like, what do you want this to be?
Doree Shafrir 13:23
You know, I think that we still feel that, despite the success of our show, that the audience for shows targeted to women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, that are not true crime, there's still a big audience for those shows. I mean, you look at... we are not going to start producing the next Serial, that's just not our label.
Nick Quah 13:48
So no true crime for either of you. [Laughter]
Doree Shafrir 13:49
No true crime. As much as I enjoy listening to true crime, it's just... it's not the type of show that we want to produce, nor do we feel equipped to produce it. We feel like we've done really well with these conversational shows that really kind of welcome the listener in, we get a lot of feedback that people say we sound like their best friends, we sound like their big sisters, and that's the kind of cozy vibe that we want to create. And so the shows that--and we can't really talk about what we are potentially developing yet, because everything's in the very early stages--but the types of shows that we are discussing are conversational shows, hosted by women-identified people, on topics that we feel are sort of within the Forever35 universe. You know, we're probably not going to launch the female Ben Shapiro.
Kate Spencer 13:56
[Laughter] Oh, God. "Probably?"
Nick Quah 14:15
So, can self-care topple the patriarchy? More in a minute.
Kate Spencer 15:14
What's fascinating is we have listeners that are in their early teens. And we were like, "What are you... you're here?" and they were like, "We're here!" So, you know, the intention is definitely creating content with an older bent because that's where we are in life, but I think it appeals to a broader range of people than just the kind of target demographic that one sets out with.
Nick Quah 15:38
Forever35's core audience is women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. But Kate and Doree are here for their younger listeners too.
Doree Shafrir 15:47
But it's kind of in like... the same way that fashion magazines tend to be targeted to women in their 20s, and maybe 30s, women of all ages read them. It's just that the focus is on younger women, and youth is kind of venerated. We're saying, like, "Come along for the ride," like, "If you're 13? Great, we welcome you," but like, these are the things that we're going to be talking about, these are the topics that we're gonna be talking about, and this is our perspective, and kind of take it or leave it.
Nick Quah 16:19
So why do you think there is a lack of media, in podcast creation specifically, for women over the age of 40?
Doree Shafrir 16:27
I think if you look at who's in charge of greenlighting shows, you'll get your answer.
Nick Quah 16:31
Hmm. Well, they seem to be like older men, right? Like the...
Kate Spencer 16:34
Older white men.
Doree Shafrir 16:35
Nick Quah 16:35
Older white men, yeah, who place bets on younger people. It's just... even that itself is an arrangement that doesn't quite make sense to me.
Doree Shafrir 16:41
Totally. Totally. So, you know, I think that was one of the things that we liked about signing with acast, is they had women in positions of power, to greenlight shows, to set budgets, to make decisions. And a lot of the other networks that we spoke to did not have women in those positions.
Nick Quah 17:04
This might be more of a broader historical note, but I'm curious as to how self-care became so... I'm not so sure this word is used pejoratively, but just in the sense that there's this sort of discourse around it, that it became sort of feminized, that it's very located in this... defined in gender, and I'm curious as to your perspective on why that is. Because it seems like a notion that should be applied universally, in some respects.
Kate Spencer 17:30
I mean, because women are trying to survive in the patriarchy, and so we've got to come up with a bunch of tools to make... [Laughter] to somehow get through. I mean, honestly, you know, I mean, we're... household labor falls on women, emotional labor falls on women, the pay gap is real, and the disparity is more real for Black women than it is for white women, And, you know... So it's like... I don't know, I'm not an anthropologist, or a sociologist, or anything, I'm literally just a writer and a podcaster, but you know. And I think ultimately, it's unfair. It's like, we don't have systems in place that actually take care of these groups of people. And so, in many ways, people have had to figure out things for themselves, in order to exist in our systems of society. That might be a very dark way of looking at it.
Doree Shafrir 18:26
I also think that men do practice self-care. They just don't call it that.
Kate Spencer 18:30
Yes, Doree. Yes, totally.
Doree Shafrir 18:33
They get together to watch football, they play golf, they... You know, there are things that are coded male...
Nick Quah 18:43
Doree Shafrir 18:44
...that, to me, fall under the rubric of self-care, but because--and this is sort of a chicken-and-egg issue--but because self-care has been, quote-unquote, "feminized," they are reluctant to call it that.
Nick Quah 19:00
Hmm. What is a better way to articulate this moving forward, then?
Doree Shafrir 19:05
I think self-care is a good way to articulate it! I think men need to get over this, personally. [Laughter] Like this... that question kind of reminds me of all the discussion around "lean in," right? Like the whole premise of "lean in" is that women should be leaning in so we can better be accommodated by the patriarchy, I guess? But like, why aren't we just changing the whole system? And I think that's fundamentally the question that we are trying to answer is like, let's change this whole system. Like, we don't need another term for self-care, we men to not be afraid of being quote-unquote "girly."
Nick Quah 19:52
Yeah, I guess it's it's also kind of tough to justify a stereotypical definition of self-care when the world feels like it's falling apart.
Kate Spencer 20:00
I think certainly there are times, where things are really challenging in the world, and then you're like, "How are we going to do a podcast where we're talking about, you know, like facewash?" [Laughter] Like, certain topics can feel trivial, but at the end of the day, I really think we think of self-care as this really large umbrella term, and so much of it is mental healthcare, and that is so crucial--right now, especially. So, I think ultimately, in many ways, it's gotten more relevant, and more important, and more necessary. Just different. You know?
Doree Shafrir 20:37
I think it is something that you are actively doing, to bring peace to yourself, and comfort to yourself. Nick, I don't know what is going to bring peace and comfort to you. It's probably not what brings peace and comfort to me. But we can both be mindful of that definition as we go about our lives.
Nick Quah 21:03
So what's bringing you peace right now?
Doree Shafrir 21:06
One that I'm really into right now is The Nap Ministry.
Kate Spencer 21:09
Doree, I knew you were gonna say that! [Laughter] Oh, my God, I love it!
Doree Shafrir 21:13
Well, you just know me so well. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 21:15
I'm afraid I have no idea what that is. [Laughter] Could you explain, please?
Doree Shafrir 21:19
So well, their bio is, "We examine the liberating power of naps. We believe rest is a form of resistance and reparations." And they have really reframed my thinking around rest and, quote-unquote, "productivity," why we do the things we do, and what our priorities are, and normalizing rest, normalizing naps. And I just... I've just really kind of learned a lot from this account, and I feel like it's influenced what I talk about on the show and how I think about my own priorities.
Nick Quah 22:00
Self-care practices as a priority are a hot topic these days, even for people you wouldn't expect.
Kate Spencer 22:08
I mean, we had Madeleine Albright on this year.
Nick Quah 22:09
Yeah, I was gonna bring up that that was probably the most... [Laughter] Yeah.
Doree Shafrir 22:14
That was iconic.
Kate Spencer 22:15
[Laughter] That was surreal. That was surreal. She was so amazing.
Madeleine Albright 22:20
So, at a cocktail party, she looked at me and said, "You're really brave not to have had a facelift." And I thought, "Hmm." I actually didn't know what to say right off the bat. And it was only later that I thought of rhetorical ways of answering it, because I was so taken aback that somebody would say that. I do think that we do put an awful lot of emphasis on how people look, and looking young, when you're way past that.
Kate Spencer 22:53
It was like... It was also just crazy. Like, we... It was during the pandemic, so I was in my closet. Like, I'm just sitting in my closet talking to Madeleine Albright and started... You know, it was... You get very emotional because you you're talking to... I mean, she's just an... Like, a prolific icon, and she was so cool, too. She was so open and generous with her time and her... the conversation that she had.
Nick Quah 23:20
So, who's on your dream guest list? I remember reading somewhere that AOC's on the list?
Kate Spencer 23:26
Oh, yeah, we've like, literally begged on podcast episodes for someone to connect us to AOC. [Laughter]
Doree Shafrir 23:30
I mean, she's always posting about her skincare routine, her lipstick, like...
Kate Spencer 23:36
Like, "Oh, come on!" [Laughter]
Doree Shafrir 23:38
And she talks about self-care in a really brilliant way, and she's so fun. She has a fun sense of humor.
Nick Quah 23:43
And she's advocating for policies that would support self-care.
Doree Shafrir 23:45
Kate Spencer 23:46
Exactly, she's the dream. I mean, so... Actually, there are so many politicians--Ayanna Pressley, I would love to talk to; I mean, obviously, Michelle Obama; Kamala Harris, listen. I mean, it would be fun. Who else is a dream?
Doree Shafrir 24:01
Tracee Ellis Ross, we would love to interview.
Kate Spencer 24:05
Oh, you know who we talked about, Doree, like jokingly, but also kind of serious? Jennifer Aniston.
Doree Shafrir 24:10
Oh, yeah! [Laughter]
Kate Spencer 24:11
Like kind of an icon of our youth.
Doree Shafrir 24:12
We would love to interview Jennifer Aniston!
Nick Quah 24:15
So what would be an ideal guest that's not alive right now? Like, historically, if you could interview somebody who has long passed? Who would that person be?
Doree Shafrir 24:25
Kate Spencer 24:28
Oh, my gosh, can I be really dark? Is that fine?
Doree Shafrir 24:30
Nick Quah 24:30
Kate Spencer 24:30
Okay. I mean, for me, I would love to interview my mom, because my mom died 13 years ago. And this was never something... Like, I want to pick her brain about all the weird routines that I saw her do, and how she felt about all these things, and all I have are bits and pieces of stuff that I've like, thrown together. Like I've talked about her face cream that she was using and things like that, but I would love, now that I am older, to get to really sit down with my mom and learn about her self-care practices. Because I truly don't have much of a context for them, she died when I was 27. So I know she's not famous, but like she did...
Nick Quah 25:07
No, no, that would be such a fascinating continuation of your memoir.
Kate Spencer 25:10
Yeah, I mean, I know. I know. But I just like... That stuff that I actually really would love to get her thoughts on. And maybe she would, generationally, she would have a very different take on things. I don't know.
Doree Shafrir 25:20
I'd love to have Dorothy Parker on. She'd be so keen on me. [Laughter] I mean, all these people in the past, like...
Kate Spencer 25:28
There's so many interesting women who I think practiced self-care, but also really carved their own paths in the world.
Doree Shafrir 25:36
Kate Spencer 25:38
Oh, come on! [Laughter] Princess Di! Doree, you know, no disrespect to my mom, but Princess Di over my mom. Then my mom. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:49
I feel like this is a spin-off situation, hopefully. [Laughter]
Kate Spencer 25:52
I could do this for days. I love dreaming up guests.
Doree Shafrir 25:55
Interviewing historical characters. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:59
Kate and Doree, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Doree Shafrir 26:02
Thank you for having us.
Kate Spencer 26:03
This was really fun. Thank you so much.
Nick Quah 26:26
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod: How Happy is Gretchen Rubin? Episode 15
Thu, 11/5 1:26PM • 22:25
people, book, gretchen, happier, memoir, podcast, podcasters, laughter, happiness, thought, sister, writer, life, voice, author, called, research, subject, world, hear
Gretchen Rubin, "Happier" Excerpt, Nick Quah
Gretchen Rubin 00:00
The idea of being happy doesn't mean that you would be “10,” on the 1-to-10 scale, 24/7. That is not possible. That's not even a good life.
Nick Quah 00:11
This is Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author, podcaster, and a prominent voice on the subject of happiness. And yeah, happiness is a little tricky right now, given that we're in the middle of a global pandemic and a moment of racial reckoning in the United States.
Gretchen Rubin 00:27
Obviously, there are times when it's appropriate to feel angry, or resentful, or bitter, or agitated, or fearful, or uncertain, or disappointed, or guilty, ashamed, all these things. But the question is: given your circumstances, and given the events of the world, are you as happy as you can be?
Nick Quah 00:49
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. On this week's episode: Gretchen Rubin's empire of happiness. So, let me show my cards here for a second: I'm a big consumer of self-help books. And I realize that as I say this, I feel pretty self-conscious about it. Self-help is a contentious area. And Gretchen Rubin would be the first to admit just how loaded that term is. But does she even think that what she does is self-help?
Gretchen Rubin 01:29
I would say it's "self-helpful."
Nick Quah 01:29
Gretchen Rubin 01:31
Nick Quah 01:32
Tell me the distinction.
Gretchen Rubin 01:34
I just feel like self-help... I love self-help, but for a lot of people, it has very negative connotations, as your question suggests. You could also call this a reported memoir. I think this is a form that's really catching on. I have many friends who have written reported memoirs, where you use your own story and your own experience as the underlying structure, and it gives it some narrative movement, and some suspense, and that interest that comes from one person's story, but then there's a lot of research and, for some people, actual reporting that goes into it, to widen it out and make it beyond one person's story. So it's sort of a combination of a memoir, and reporting or research. Mine fall in that camp. I do a tremendous amount of research, but I think it reads much more like, "Hey, this is one person's story." And I think that does make it more accessible or more interesting to some people.
Nick Quah 02:28
It's funny, when I hear "reported memoir," I think of David Carr's The Night of The Gun.
Gretchen Rubin 02:33
Yes. Right. Well, he really reported on himself, yes.
Nick Quah 02:36
Gretchen Rubin 02:37
Because he was like, "I don't remember, because I was a drug addict, so I had to actually go look things up."
Nick Quah 02:41
Gretchen Rubin 02:42
Nick Quah 02:43
So, calling it a reported memoir, do you think there's less baggage with that? Because there seems to be a general distaste, or criticism, or negativity towards self-help as a genre.
Gretchen Rubin 02:53
Yeah, even though it's wildly popular.
Nick Quah 02:55
Yeah, even though it's wildly popular! A little bit. I don't know. There's a lot of... like pop music, almost. I'm personally a big consumer of self-help stuff.
Gretchen Rubin 03:04
Nick Quah 03:05
I want to explore that a little bit. Why is there this disparity between, on the one hand, the consumer popularity of it, and the fact that it is helpful for a lot of people? But there's a lot of critical arguments that I think find some genuine theoretical purchase in some areas. But...
Gretchen Rubin 03:21
Nick Quah 03:21
Talk to me a little bit about that.
Gretchen Rubin 03:24
Well, I think it's a very earnest form, and some people just don't like earnest. I remember when I wrote The Happiness Project, somebody said to me, "Earnest doesn't sell, you need to be ironic." And I'm like, an ironic book about this? No, that's just not gonna work. And I'm a very earnest person, too. So I think that's part of it, I think part of it is, it's often kind of light, or there's a lot of bad examples of it that are very striking and often very popular, so they're in your face. And also part of it is there's--and I'm very much caught in this--there's the astrology and there's the astronomy. So there's the astronomy of it, which I think people do take seriously, then there's the astrology of it. And many people are somewhere along that continuum. And I think if you're more on the astronomy side of it, then you really sort of dismiss the astrology.
Nick Quah 04:08
Gretchen Rubin 04:08
Even though sometimes those things really penetrate to people and can be quite significant to them. So I think it's kind of caught in that tension as well.
Nick Quah 04:15
Hmm. So you're saying it's like, this is a genre that's typically been defined, at least popularly, by its bad examples, as opposed to its good examples,
Gretchen Rubin 04:23
At least by the people who are criticizing it, yes. You know, the thing about things like happiness, it's like all the big ideas have already been discovered. This is too big a subject. The greatest minds in human history have thought about how to be happy. So anything that's new, or particularly flashy, is probably kind of questionable too. So I think, sometimes, to get heard in a noisy marketplace, people sort of push it too far.
Nick Quah 04:48
Gretchen argues that her work is less self-help, and more about what makes people tick. And she uses her own internal compass as guidance. Gretchen went to law school because she didn't know what else to do. While she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, she found herself thinking about more than case law.
Gretchen Rubin 05:06
On my lunch hour, while I was clerking, and I was wandering around Capitol Hill, and I just asked myself a rhetorical question--you know how you do, you sort of pose yourself these questions--and I said, "Well, what am I interested in that everyone else in the world is interested in?" And I thought, well, power, money, fame, sex. It was like, "Power! Money! Fame! Sex!" And I immediately ran out and started doing all this massive research on what I consider to be one giant subject: "power money fame sex." And I often get really preoccupied with subjects and will do tons and tons of research on them just for fun. But this sort of took over, and I was just working on it all the time. And I finally realized, this is the kind of thing a person would do to write a book about a subject. And I thought, well, maybe I could write that book. And I went out to a bookstore and got something called like, "How To Write and Sell Your Nonfiction Book Proposal," and I just followed the directions. So it wasn't so much a rejection of law as it was that I felt this immense pull, and not just toward writing, but to writing this particular book.
Nick Quah 06:08
She published Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide in 2000, followed by two books on a couple of the most powerful men in the world: Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Was that, in your mind at the time, like, "I'm gonna try to build up a publishing career here, and just gonna come up with a bunch of different ideas?" How did that phase of your writing career play out?
Gretchen Rubin 06:28
Well, you know, with each book that I write, it's almost like I become incredibly interested in a particular subject. So it's almost like I can't help but write that book. And that's something that's not uncommon among writers. A lot of times they'll have sort of a blocking project where it's so important to do a particular project, that you kind of can't help it. And it's funny, because I think looking at all my books, now, those books look sort of out of place. But to me, they fit extremely firmly within everything I've done, because they're really examinations of human nature, which is really my subject. My subject is human nature. So those books were really about how can we understand human nature better by understanding these particular lives?
Nick Quah 07:05
And so in that era of your book writing, what did writing those books help you understand about human nature? And/or, what did you understand about "power fame money sex" that you didn't before writing the book?
Gretchen Rubin 07:17
Well, I think one of the things that I really grew to understand is that with strengths come weaknesses, and usually they're the same thing. Like Jack Kennedy's strengths were in many ways, his weaknesses. Churchill's strengths were his weaknesses. His tremendous belligerence, his love of war, served him so well at certain times of his life, but at other times, he was highly criticized for it--justly. And so it's sort of like when you look at someone, you say, "Well, this is a strength and a weakness." So it's a question of like, how do you get the benefits of the strengths, but how do you understand the weaknesses that come from it? Like one of the things I understand about myself is I'm highly disciplined, but that also means that I can be rigid. So I have to learn how to... Okay, how do I shake off the bad parts of rigidity, but then take advantage of the discipline that I love? So I think that's one thing that really came... I really saw playing out in both those lives over and over.
Nick Quah 08:09
Yeah. And so that sort of exploration of human nature, eventually would bring you to the concept of happiness, right?
Gretchen Rubin 08:15
Nick Quah 08:16
What was that trigger? Why were you working on that idea?
Gretchen Rubin 08:19
Well, I was finishing up my JFK book. And I had... and I was waiting for it to come out. So I had sort of open space in my head, which I don't often have. And I was on a city bus, in the pouring rain, and I looked out the window and I thought, "What do I want from life anyway?" Which I never asked myself. I thought, "Well, I want to be happy." But I realized I never spent any time thinking about like, "Am I happy? What does it mean to be happy? Could I be happier?" So I ran to the library the next day and checked out a giant stack of books about the science of happiness, the philosophy, memoirs, anything to try to understand: what is happiness? Can I be happier? And at first, it was just something for me, I was just interested in for my own life. And I actually had the thought, like, "I should do a happiness project." So that was how the idea struck me. But then I just got deeper, and deeper, and deeper into it. And finally I thought, "Wow, this is such a big subject. It's so rich and interesting. Maybe this should be my next book." And then I've been just expanding out from there ever since.
Nick Quah 09:23
And eventually, it would become her thing. More in a minute.
"Happier" Excerpt 09:47
Hello, and welcome to Happier: a podcast that gives you strategies and tips for how to build happier habits into your daily life. We discuss cutting-edge science, the wisdom of the ages, lessons from pop culture, and our own experiences.
Nick Quah 10:03
Gretchen's 2009 book The Happiness Project became a New York Times bestseller. And five years ago, she launched her podcast Happier, with her sister Elizabeth Craft.
Gretchen Rubin 10:14
My sister and I, for years, had been saying, "We should have a radio show." So I was like, this is even better than a radio show. So I called her and I was like, this could be a big public failure. I'm just telling you right now.
Nick Quah 10:26
Gretchen Rubin 10:27
And she's like, "Sure, I'll do it. 100%. That sounds great." We had Car Talk as our model.
Nick Quah 10:32
Gretchen Rubin 10:33
We are the Car Talk of happiness, yes.
Nick Quah 10:35
That makes a ton of sense in hindsight. [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 10:37
Nick Quah 10:38
Gretchen Rubin 10:39
Because part of it is that it's information. There's tons of information, but delivered in this personal way. And through this relationship of sisters, just like, Click and Clack.
Nick Quah 10:49
And when Gretchen says it's personal, she means it. She always tries out the advice she shares in her books and podcasts on herself before sharing it with her readers and listeners.
Gretchen Rubin 10:59
You know, really, when I'm writing, I'm writing for myself. You know, they say "research is 'me-search,'" and so I'm always writing what I need to know. So I'm always kind of my own guinea pig. And I think that's a really important test. Because look, you can give people tons of great advice, if you don't try to take it yourself. You know? [Laughter] And a lot of times I read stuff, and I'm like, "That sounds good on paper, but I don't know if you tested that out on very many people, because I don't... that's not what I see playing out." And I'm so fortunate that I am in constant contact with people, so I get so many examples of people that I think then can enliven it. Because a lot of times when somebody tells you a principle, it's not that you disagree with it, you're just like, "Yeah, but what does that mean for me?" and then you hear, "Well, this is what one person did," or, "This is how it played out for somebody else," then you can make it real in your own life. And so I'm really fortunate that the world is my research assistant, because I get so much richness from hearing these ideas play out with far more people than I could ever actually talk to in one lifetime.
Nick Quah 11:25
Yeah. The show started in 2015. It was produced at the now-defunct production house Panoply. That's where I met Gretchen. And she was one of the few authors using podcasting as a platform to share published content.
Gretchen Rubin 12:12
I was surprised that more people didn't do it. I mean, at that time, you have Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons, which was doing extremely well. It was a limited run series that was done specifically to promote the book, Magic Lessons. And I thought it was a huge example of a success. And I was surprised that she stopped the podcast, given how successful it was. But I remember going to a presentation and being like, "Oh, my gosh, every author is going to try to get in on this." But what you realize is that, first of all, a lot of people aren't interested in it. Second of all, like our content on Happier, which is very much tied to my written content, it really lends itself. Like, being a biographer of Winston Churchill, that wouldn't be as easy... like, we've had, this podcast has been going for five years, we've never missed a week--we're super vain about that. We've never repeated an episode, we've never done a "favorites," "greatest hits," we've never missed an episode. Because this subject lends itself to the form. So there's a great marriage between the content and the podcast--what people go to podcasts for. So I think there's a lot of authors where that would have been harder to do. But then you look at someone like Dani Shapiro, and Family Secrets, and how her book Inheritance was very specifically her story, but then she realized that there was such an appetite for this kind of story as she was traveling around the world doing her book tour, that she thought, "This could be a great podcast." And it is a great podcast. So it's not about her book Inheritance, but it definitely comes out of her book Inheritance, and it's definitely tied to her. How much she's recognized as a writer, I think.
Nick Quah 13:38
Yeah, well, it seems like there's almost two emerging models here. One is the "author makes a nonfiction investigative series" or something like that, like what Malcolm Gladwell and Pushkin Industries is doing, and then there's this other notion of community-driven, personality-driven--not a big fan of the word "personal brand," but I feel like it's relevant to this discussion. I feel like that's the second model that's happening.
Gretchen Rubin 14:03
I can take "voice." I think "voice" sounds better for writers.
Nick Quah 14:06
That's a fair... that's a much better edit. [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 14:07
Nick Quah 14:07
Gretchen Rubin 14:10
Nick Quah 14:11
Gretchen Rubin 14:13
I run into that all the time. People are like, "I don't want to have a brand!" Like, "But could you have a voice?" Yes, we're all very comfortable with the idea of "Yes, I have a voice."
Nick Quah 14:20
Yeah. And in that situation, the product is yourself, basically. Does that ever get exhausting?
Gretchen Rubin 14:27
To me, it's really, really energizing. And again, I think it's the way that my content is always... I'm always sort of test-driving it against myself. Also, you know, having my sister as my co-host, Elizabeth Craft; I mean, my sister herself is a super accomplished writer. She's a TV writer and showrunner in Los Angeles. She's brilliant. I've called her "my sister the sage" since we were like 12 years old--I'm five years older than she is. And it's funny, because when we started, somebody said, "Well, you're gonna have to really fight with your sister because people are really interested in conflict. And if there's no conflict--"
Nick Quah 14:54
Who's giving you this advice?? [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 14:56
Oh, a lot of people! Like, one of the biggest things I had to do was figure out the bad advice and the good advice. So they were like, you have to have conflict. I was like, that's a problem, because I have less conflict with my sister than literally anyone else in my life. But what we realized is we don't have conflict, but we have differences. We see things differently, we have different experiences, we have different challenges. And so we can talk about those differences so that people will often say, "Oh, I'm more of an Elizabeth than a Gretchen." But then it also kind of gives us more things we can talk about, because she's got different issues and different takes than I have. And certainly different ideas. You know, she has so many great ideas.
Nick Quah 15:30
And as of now, has her own show, Happier in Hollywood. And you built something called The Onward Project.
Gretchen Rubin 15:37
Nick Quah 15:37
Could you tell me a little bit about that decision to build a... I guess we can call it network, but, you know, kind of like an imprint?
Gretchen Rubin 15:44
I'd say it's kind of an imprint, yeah, I guess.
Nick Quah 15:45
Gretchen Rubin 15:45
That's the metaphor to use. Yeah. And so the idea is, these are shows that are gonna make your life better, in one way or another. So there's everything from Side Hustle School with Chris Guillebeau, that's basically "how to have a side hustle," which... now more than ever. And then the latest addition is Kate Bowler's Everything Happens, and she is somebody who really talks about the very, really super challenging things from her memoir Everything Happens. It's about her getting... having stage four cancer and living with that, it's about how to make your life better in all these different ways. And one of the things I really hope to do is to invest more in it, and to build it out much more. I haven't done that to the degree that I really want to do, really, to scale it up. Yeah. Because I think there's a lot of possibility there.
Nick Quah 16:27
Tell me a little bit about the thinking around that, because I think there's a... I feel like in the podcast industry, right now, we kind of moved away from this model of thinking about things in terms of podcast networks. And I think there's a lot of companies nowadays that kind of view themselves as publishers, that have multiple projects. But with something like The Onward Project, you're essentially building a stable of individual people, and individual writers, and voices.
Gretchen Rubin 16:52
Nick Quah 16:52
What is the, on the one hand, opportunity here, but on the other hand, what is the responsibility over working with an author that you brought into this model?
Gretchen Rubin 17:01
Well, I think one of the big key things is discovery, right? Like I can't believe we've talked this long, and we haven't talked about discovery! Because any time you talk about podcasters, all they want to talk about is discovery, because it's a huge issue. How do you help people discover stuff that they like? How do you get people to listen to podcasts? How do you help them find the content that's really going to grab them?
Nick Quah 17:20
You're, I think, one of the few podcasters that's very public about trying to solve that problem on your own terms. And you built that Gift of Podcast website, right?
Gretchen Rubin 17:27
Yes, giftofpodcast.com! Podcasters, listeners: this is like... it's a cheap... you just, I'll email you this PDF, and you can fill it out like a gift certificate, so you can put a ribbon around it, give it to somebody for their birthday, or for a holiday. And you're like, "I'm giving you the gift of podcast, I'm giving you the gift of 20,000 Hertz, because I know you love music and you love sound, you'll love 20,000 Hertz!" Because it's free, anybody who has a smartphone can listen to a podcast. Finding a podcast that you love, or discovering a podcast for the first time, is like the most mind-blowing, exciting thing. So everybody go to giftofpodcast.com and we can grow the pie. Yes, I'm getting on my high horse. Grow the pie!
Nick Quah 18:05
[Laughter] It's like a--
Gretchen Rubin 18:06
Let's get more people listening to podcasts!
Nick Quah 18:07
Well, that's one thing I really like about you, you're--
Gretchen Rubin 18:11
Share 'em here! Let's fight for it!
Nick Quah 18:11
[Laughter] You're really, really giving back to the community in this way. And I appreciate the earnestness of it. Like, every time I try to phrase things in that way, I feel very self-conscious about it. [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 18:20
Well, it helps all of us. It helps great content to get discovered, which it's harder, and you talk about this all the time in your newsletter and on Servant of Pod, as more and more people come into it, it's harder and harder for independents, unique voices, people who don't already have a huge hook to get heard. But one way we can help is by shining a spotlight on things that we know other people would like. And if you you... maybe you've got a giant newsletter, or maybe you just give it to a friend... Believe me, every podcaster's like, "Tell a friend, that would really help me out." I mean, how many people say that in their in their closing? "Please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us, and tell a friend. That really helps listeners find our show." Right? We've all done it.
Nick Quah 19:01
This might be a non sequitur question, but it's really not--and I'm just curious: to what extent do you view your work--either as an author or a podcaster--to what extent do you see it as a form of service?
Gretchen Rubin 19:15
Well, I think it is a form of service in that what I hope is that I make it feel easy, and possible, and enticing for people to do the things that would make them happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. And I think a lot of times there are things people could do that just haven't occurred to them. I mean, one of the things that the research shows is, sometimes there's this idea that if people are happy, they just want to like drink margaritas by the beach all day long. But research shows that happier people are more interested in the problems of the world. They're more interested in the problems of the people around them, they're more likely to vote, they're more likely to donate money, they're more likely to volunteer their time, they make better leaders and better team members, they're more likely to help out if somebody needs a hand, and so I think that it's one way to try to help people have the energy and the wherewithal to turn outward. If you feel like you're "good," then you can turn outward and think about, well, how can I help other people?
Nick Quah 20:14
Okay, so what do you think is a way that we can help ourselves, so we can help other people, given the state of the world right now?
Gretchen Rubin 20:23
So we talk about “Power Hour,” which is when you set aside an hour every weekend to do all the nagging tasks that you never... things that can be done at any time, or done at no times. So these... that's when you do like, go to the hardware store for that weird light bulb or whatever. So a listener proposed a wrinkle on that, which it turned out people keep talking about, which is “Empower Hour,” which is when you take an hour every week, and you think of something to do to put your values into the world. So people have done things like write their congressman, or research organizations to donate money to, to support causes that they believe in, reading books about, you know, policy that maybe you're not going to... you'd have to set aside time to study those books because they're not just your average "read a chapter before bed every night" type of book. So that's a way where we also try to show to listeners ideas for how to make ideas real. Yeah, you say you want to be an anti-racist. What does that look like for people? What are they actually doing? Maybe that'll give you an idea of your own life. Maybe you can actually make change real.
Nick Quah 21:22
Gretchen, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate this.
Gretchen Rubin 21:25
Oh, Nick, I always love to talk. Thank you for having me.
Nick Quah 21:28
My pleasure. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alford, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristin Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Season 1, Episode 15
Wed, 9/9 3:33PM • 22:03
people, laughter, podcasting, gimlet, uncivil, radio, called, john, whiteness, transom, history, voice, wrote, movements, music industry, felt, piece, tremendous talent, studies, scene
"Things I've Seen" Excerpt, Chenjerai Kumanyika, "Uncivil" Excerpt, "Scene On Radio" Excerpt, Nick Quah
"Uncivil" Excerpt 00:01
This story starts back in the spring of 1796. On a warm evening in Philadelphia, Ona Judge, a young enslaved woman in her 20s has recently received some terrifying news. She found out that she was going to be given away as a wedding gift to her owner's granddaughter, that she would be returned to the South, a place that she had no interest in living, and she made a decision. She made a decision that she would escape.
Nick Quah 00:29
This is a scene from Gimlet Media's Uncivil, which Chenjerai Kumanyika co-hosted with Jack Hitt. Chenjerai is interviewing scholar Erica Dunbar.
"Uncivil" Excerpt 00:39
Fear had to have been in the forefront of her mind. She must have been terrified. She knew that if she had been caught, that that was a federal offense, that was a violation, and she also knew that if she were caught, she more than likely would be punished physically by whipping. Perhaps even worse, she might have been sold off to the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean, which basically was a death notice.
Nick Quah 01:12
Ona Judge, a former slave of George Washington, is largely unknown to American history. And for many Uncivil listeners, white and otherwise, this is the first time you're hearing any of these extraordinary stories, which is exactly the point of the show. And part of Chenjerai's larger goal. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week on the show: the many hats of Chenjerai Kumanyika. Chenjerai has the spirit of an activist. But 20 years ago, that activism looked a little different.
"Things I've Seen" Excerpt 02:03
I've seen true genius, too often elude the meaningless / Appreciation of this mediocre nation / I've heard the mindless repetition, of empty words without tradition / Turn original verbs into submission / I smelled this malignerance addiction, but I guess I wouldn't be right / If I said the blunt was like a baby pipe / THERE AIN'T GON' BE NO REVOLUTION TONIGHT / Half my warriors as high as a kite / Lost and they lost all they fight / And I've tasted the bitter tragedy of lives wasted / And men who glimpsed the darkness inside, but never faced it / And it's a shame that most of y'all are followin' sheep / Wallowin' deeper than the darkness, you're fallin’ asleep
Chenjerai Kumanyika 02:38
What the game needed was a group that was kind of like The Fugees, but not quite as talented.
Nick Quah 02:44
Chenjerai Kumanyika 02:48
I've been a hip hop artist for most of my life, you know, since at least like fifth grade.
Nick Quah 02:53
Chenjerai Kumanyika 02:54
In the lunchroom, beating on the tables, getting humiliated at times in the lunchroom hip hop battles in fifth grade. But in '95, I formed... some friends and I formed a group, and in 1999 we got a record deal. And the group was called Spooks, which is a controversial name. We really meant it at the intersection of its racial connotations and it's CIA connotations, because we were inspired by a book by Sam Greenlee called The Spook [Who] Sat By The Door.
Nick Quah 03:28
Yeah, that's also a movie, right?
Chenjerai Kumanyika 03:30
Yeah, yeah, it was. They made a movie version of it, which was, certainly the movie version, was banned. I'm not sure how long it was banned, or what the story was, but it was definitely a controversial movie because it involved a Black agent infiltrating the CIA. And so I think that we were... we kind of thought that we were like, "Yeah, he was infiltrating the CIA and we're infiltrating the music industry," right? [Laughter] That was kind of our... I don't know if we were infiltrating the music industry as much as we were just being exploited by it. But I think that we actually wound up getting a gold single in France. And then we got a gold album in the UK. And then we got gold singles in Sweden, and places like that, in Belgium. Which has caused some of my friends to clown me because they'll say, "well, doesn't it only take like 5000 records to go gold in Sweden?" and I'm like, "yeah, but you ain't got a gold record, leave me alone." [Laughter] "Let me live." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 04:25
But even with that success, the shine of the music industry started to wear off.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 04:30
We saw the negotiations, right? We negotiated a record contract. So in that process, we were like, "oh, y'all actually want to take everything from us?" That's something again, I would encounter--I would encounter that again later in podcasting as well.
Nick Quah 04:43
Yeah, well, we'll definitely get there in a bit. [Laughter] Eventually, he moved back home to Philadelphia, where he started developing after-school programs for kids.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 04:54
And in a way, I was always torn, because when I was developing these kind of hip hop programs where we're, after school, teaching kids how to produce, helping them think about their careers, I was like this, in a way, is also the power of music. Power of music is not only a commodity, because for the youth, and folks I was working with, it was just like, it was a way they were living. It was a way, in Philly, at a time when there was a lot of violence, where kids wanted to get off the street, and they were processing, in their music, the stuff they were going through often in very violent lyrics. And I just felt like, wow, and it was... I mean, honestly, I remember one time, if I could just give you this scene, I remember me, as a sort of working hip hop artist, but after school, I had this program at a school called Friere Charter School at the time. At the time, I didn't really have a critique of charter schools--now I do. But there was like about 20 kids who were in my program, and they just had equipment that I brought, my own equipment at first, we're making music, and they just stayed after school, making music, and making up dances, and making--writing beautiful poetry. And they would just do it. They were doing this for like four or five hours, and these are kids in high school, and I just was like, damn man, this is... in a way it's like, this seems like what music is for.
Nick Quah 06:11
So that felt like a very formative moment in your education career?
Chenjerai Kumanyika 06:16
Exactly. So essentially, it's really important for me to shout out Sam Richards, who was a mentor of mine. He was formerly my sociology teacher, when I was in undergraduate school. And he was an advocate for me, because I wasn't a great undergraduate student, because I was doing all kinds of other things, and he said, "Hey, man, I'm going to be an advocate for you to get into Penn State's communication program," because Penn State has a leading communication program. He advocated for me and helped me to get in and I'm indebted to him for that.
Nick Quah 06:49
Chenjerai did go to Penn State, and ultimately got his doctoral degree in media studies. And that's why he started thinking about dabbling in narrative audio.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 06:57
I became aware of an organization called Transom, because the thing at that point when I was just listening to public radio, I was experiencing, actually, some of the growth of podcasting. I was listening to different shows, namely, This American Life and a little bit of Radiolab.
Nick Quah 07:12
Chenjerai Kumanyika 07:12
But I didn't think of it as podcasting, I just thought of it as public radio. And then when I came across Transom, I was like, Oh, this is a place that trains people how to do this. And I was like, Well, I have, I got some interesting stories in my life. I mean, I'm a sort of failed hip hop artist. I got a story. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 07:30
Interesting that you call yourself "failed," but I don't think so. [Laughter]
Chenjerai Kumanyika 07:32
I mean, I'm nice. Don't get it twisted, I'm nice on the bars, but I didn't really... [Laughter] You know what I'm saying?
Nick Quah 07:38
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 07:39
So I was like, Okay, and so I applied for the Transom story workshop, I was able to take a podcasting week-long workshop with Rob Rosenthal. It was incredible, right? And so, after that, I wrote a piece, "Vocal Color and Public Radio." I was invited by Jay Allison and Rob Rosenthal to write this piece. That piece was published on Transom, and I think that that piece is really, in some ways, responsible for why I'm even involved in radio because a lot of people identified with it because it was like, me not being sure if I have the right voice. I mean, and by the way, is that ever something that you've struggled with, or worried about, whether or not you have the right voice to do radio? I mean, I think your voice is gorgeous, Nick, I wanna say.
Nick Quah 08:25
I appreciate that. It's actually something I do struggle with, but I have kind of a post-colonial context of it. So I was born and raised in Malaysia. So I go back and forth between various sort of Creole-like Malaysian slang to essentially something that sounds like the BBC, which is what I grew up watching. So that's a little bit of what I struggle with personally. But I think that piece that you wrote for Transom, was, I think, I believe is the first thing I read, or work of you that I've consumed. But it's really the first one that really made me go, "yeah, there's something about the public radio system that feels a little bit pernicious, in its aesthetics." So let's lay the foundations here a little bit: tell me what the argument was of that piece.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 08:29
It was an argument that the sort of vocal aesthetics that there's... that under the guise of professionalism, there has been a certain kind of aesthetic--and mandate, even--or maybe set of standards, that have stepped in as what a good radio, and professional radio, voice sounds like, and that that voice is essentially some version of whiteness.
Nick Quah 09:38
In the Transom piece, he shared an example of that so called professional radio voice, like the ones you'd hear on NPR.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 09:46
“For John, losing a fish is no small thing, because John is a fisherman with a capital F.”
Nick Quah 09:52
But he also read it in his own voice.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 09:55
“See, what you might not understand is that for John, losing a fish is no small thing. John is a real fisherman. I mean, this guy's caught hundreds of fish in his lifetime.” But my argument was also, in this piece that I wrote, that there was dimensions of understanding what American experiences, and what people's experiences, and what's going on with social movements, and what's going on with capitalism, and race, and all these other things, in gender, and sexuality, that are being crowded out by virtue of this professional standard, right? It's so it's like... and that was tricky territory, because it wasn't about me to try to say what a white and Black voice is, right? It's like, that's very scary territory, because you can move quickly into an essentialism like, "well, talking Black is one thing," but people seemed to relate to it. And in fact, I had journalists, women journalists, reach out who were telling me how they had been coached and told that their voices weren't enough and weren't right. I did that and I think that that led a lot of people in radio who are experienced, really experienced journalists and created opportunities for me to work, and so John Biewen reached out.
Nick Quah 11:04
John Biewen is the audio program director at the Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University and the host of Scene On Radio, which was Chenjerai's first major podcast gig.
"Scene On Radio" Excerpt 11:14
[Phone rings] Hello? Hey, Chenjerai Kumanyika? Yeah, who's this? John Biewen. Hey, John, what's going on, man? How you doing? How you doing? I'm alright, you? I'm good man. You know, one day at a time. So I'm doing this crazy project looking at whiteness. And I'm just not sure I'm up... I'm not sure I'm the right person for the job. I'm a little concerned about my perspective as a white dude. And thinking I might, I maybe could use some backup. Somebody to kind of check me a little bit and bring in... help flesh out the story with the perspective, your perspective as a person of color in this world. What do you think? Right. You're not asking me to speak for all people of color, are you? Yes, of course. Okay, good. Because, yeah, that's what I do. So... [Laughter]
Chenjerai Kumanyika 12:11
It turned out that obviously John was up to something far more radical in what he was doing, which is that he wanted to enter into the idea about the history of race, where it comes from, what it has to do with America, from the vantage point of whiteness, and his embodied experience, right? Because I think part of what makes Scene On Radio, and "Seeing White," very attractive to people is the way it starts out with this sort of gentle set of assumptions that a lot of white liberals have, who are well meaning people but may not quite understand everything that's going on. So I mean, I think that having that experience, and then seeing how people resonated, and I was like, oh, wow, it really resonated. I mean, I just gotta say, every single... from the moment we dropped that, my email inbox has been full of people who listened, and were affected by it. And one other thing I just have to say on this note: we live in a time where it seems like a lot of people have already figured out what they think. And it's almost impossible to have genuinely transformative political conversation sometimes because people kind of already know what your... I think everybody has their talking points and they're sort of just waiting for the other person to jump in. But I get to see something very different. I get to see people who are really learning. I also do organizing, right? And so it's very instructive to me, because movements can't always wait for the least educated people to catch up. Sometimes we have to force what we need to happen, because people's rights and lives are at stake. In Season Four I said, "While white people are learning, Black people are dying," right?
Nick Quah 13:52
Chenjerai Kumanyika 13:53
But I definitely see, through what's happening, with seeing why, that people can change.
Nick Quah 14:02
It was a profound experience and Chenjerai was just getting started. More in a minute. Chenjerai wanted to do more with podcasts. He wanted to unravel American history--to ransack it, as he says in the intro to the podcast Uncivil. Here's where things get interesting. Chenjerai gets the opportunity to make this show with Gimlet Media, the poster child for corporate podcasting. Given Chenjerai's history with the music industry, his organizing, his interest in radical politics, his critiques of capitalism, why did he say yes to Gimlet?
Chenjerai Kumanyika 14:56
Are you calling me a sellout, Nick? Are you saying I sold out?
Nick Quah 14:58
[Laughter] No, I guess I'm calling back to working through the music industry to infiltrate it, right? [Laughter]
Chenjerai Kumanyika 15:06
Ah, yeah. I mean, no, it's really great, what you bring up, and again, let me just say I actually approached some of my mentors before I did this. And so, because I was aware, and knowing that history, that we have history, there's tensions, we kind of know how this plays out. Gimlet was a sort of venture capital, ad-funded thing, that was operating in that mode, and I knew that those tensions would be there. So I had conversations with various folks about it. But I approached my work at Gimlet like an experiment, because I did see and realize that there was an opportunity to do a massive historical education and political education project into something that I think not enough people understand. One thing that continues, I think, to be the case is that many of the leading voices in media, people who are writing op eds, it's stunning to me how little history we know. And I include myself in that, because I'm not traditionally a historian, right? I just play one on many podcasts. [Laughter] So I approached it as an experiment to say, "Okay, well, Alex Blumberg, personally, is reaching out to me and saying, I want to invest in... help to promote and create this radical history of the Civil War. And I want to do it using our platforms, and we're going to fund it with ads and everything else, but we're going to get it out there. I want it to be as good as possible. I'm going to bring the tremendous talent at Gimlet to do that."
Nick Quah 16:36
Uncivil turned out to be extremely popular, and would go on to become the first Peabody Award-winning show for Gimlet Media. It reached more people than Chenjerai could connect with on campus. It held a different kind of power. But the irony of the situation didn't escape him.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 16:54
Gimlet was a place with tremendous talent, but people were working really hard, and I in the early phases when I was there, I mean, I can't necessarily attribute this to anybody, but it was my feeling that some of the people, because of their vocation as storytellers and journalists, and because of their identification with Alex Blumberg and Matt [Lieber], who they felt were nice guys who had their best interest at heart, they were tolerating things that in my mind was like, we should have a union.
Nick Quah 17:25
Chenjerai Kumanyika 17:27
Nick Quah 17:27
So a few years later, they do.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 17:29
Right. And so to me, if Alex, or someone else, or whoever was to say, "Well, sure, we had to make compromises with capitalism, but look at all the beautiful things we've created. You know, isn't that ultimately for the good?" I would say, "Why did your company unionize?"
Nick Quah 17:47
Chenjerai Kumanyika 17:48
"What were the things that caused people to unionize?" That's another side that has to be looked at and I think that that is not limited to Gimlet, rife throughout the podcast industry.
Nick Quah 17:59
Despite that cognitive dissonance, Chenjerai is still making podcasts. He produced a multi-part interview for The Intercept with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the acclaimed scholar of prison abolition. And now he's back at his first home, Scene On Radio with John Biewen. In Season Four, they take on the history of American democracy.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 18:19
One thing I really want to be clear is, what I really think we try to do, and one of the reasons why I love history, is that history, I think, gives us an empirical basis to wrestle with the questions we're asking, so we're going to talk about police or race. It's like, where do police come from? That's an empirical question. But then the answers, it has a lot to do, and answers, gives us tremendous answers, for what's happening now, where we should be going. And I think the same is true of other areas, that we engage the history.
"Scene On Radio" Excerpt 18:47
And you know this very well, but this chant is a staple at marches and demonstrations. [Clip of people chanting "This is what democracy looks like"] What I think that chant captures is that protest is what democracy looks like. At least it's one really important part of it, right? I mean, protests have played a real crucial role in pushing for change in the past, think of the suffrage movement, think of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, or pickets organized by organized labor, right? People out there, making their voices heard directly, forcing those in power to listen, demanding change, and demanding justice. [Clip of people chanting "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!"] But okay, more specifically, what does democracy look like?
Chenjerai Kumanyika 19:37
So I definitely encourage Season Four, "The Land That Has Never Been Yet" is what we called it.
Nick Quah 19:41
And of course, Chenrjerai has a lot of projects in development--you know, with all that free time he has,
Chenjerai Kumanyika 19:48
I think what happened is, somewhere along the line, I forgot how to only wear one hat at a time. You know? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 19:54
I can relate. [Laughter]
Chenjerai Kumanyika 19:54
Because I'm hired as a professor of media studies, but for me to do that job well means I got to understand the movements I'm studying, because I study cultural industries and social movements. And I understand those movements by being a part of them. And then also, as a professor of media studies, I feel like it's important to communicate to audiences beyond the academy. And as a podcaster, obviously, I'm drawing on the knowledge and research from the academy, and my access to movements. So I think in that sense, those categories kind of all flow together, but I wish I could only do one thing--I can't, and I just just hope that my wife doesn't choke me.
Nick Quah 20:32
You know, I can relate on many, many levels. [Laughter] Chenjerai, thank you so much for this conversation.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 20:41
Oh, thank you so much for having me on, and I look forward to the next Hot Pod, man.
Nick Quah 20:44
Hey, I appreciate it! Keep safe.
Chenjerai Kumanyika 20:47
Nick Quah 20:48
Chenjerai Kumanyika. Season Four of Scene On Radio is out now. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
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