QueueTips Newsletter

QueueTips - No. 8

Reply All: ‘Man of the People’

More than ever, history can teach us about our present. In podcast world, there’s a show about the fall of the Roman empire, there’s a “hardcore” one, there’s another about the history of Hollywood. There’s enough hours of audio to teach us about the causes and effects of things that happened in our past, so that we — in a cliche but abstract way — don’t repeat them in the future. But then, on January 18 of this year, Reply All— my favorite show of 2016— published “Man of the People,” a 100-year-old story as current as the NPR news reports we get when we say, “Hey, Alexa, what’s new?”

“It feels like it could have happened this week, basically,” host and producer PJ Vogt says, before launching into an episode about John Brinkley, a con-man who used a new form of technology (the radio) to gain fame and fortune during the first half of the 1900s.

It’s an episode that defiantly is about the reality in which we find ourselves. It’s a story about why we as a society are susceptible to big-personality, truth-averse blowhards. It’s a story about Donald Trump. However, instead of explicitly making it a story about Donald Trump (published during his inauguration week, nonetheless), Reply All merely winks at it for 45 minutes. They mention Brinkley’s nightmarish medical practices — he implanted goat testicles into “impotent” men’s scrotums and called it medicine—his ties to fake schools, his aversion to apology, his sleuthy sidestepping of the law for personal gain, his spite-filled ambition to run for public office, and — finally — his demise at the hands of a persistent investigator. Only once is “Trump” even mentioned — as a reference — in the episode, and that doesn’t come until the 35:50 mark. It’s a masterful bit of patient storytelling, and it’s a big part of why Reply All continues to be my favorite podcast each week. (The episode is also being turned into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr., if you needed an example of podcasts as a pervasive force in the culture.)

Right now, everything in our offline and online conversations is about government and the state of the world. I thought I could get away from it with a trip to Spain, except there, three different people heard my rusty Spanish and asked me where I was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” I said, knowing what was next. One person asked if he could apologize (yes, you can, that’s nice), one made fun of me for 30 minutes about what-the-hell-is-going-on-over-there, and one shook his head and said he had “nothing to say to me.” It’s inescapable, the topics that have become daily talking points at the dinner table and in podcasts. It’s good to resist in this way — to listen constantly to the never-ending hum — but it’s also exhausting. We will persist, we must, but it is genuinely tiring and on top of that we don’t know what we’ll all be like when this is over. 

But what most of that wall-to-wall conversation and coverage misses, I think, is nuance. It lacks proper perspective. It’s difficult to pull yourself away, of course, but that’s where “Man of the People” succeeds. It lets us sit back and enjoy a story of a deranged man who surgically implanted goat testicles into men’s bodies and was inspired by a trip to Nazi Germany while it refuses to bash the present against our foreheads. 

“What is it about a liar like him that we have a hard time dealing with?” Vogt asks Pope Brock, a man who wrote a book about Brinkley. Brock pauses for quite a long time and answers:

“Don’t you want to be rescued? I know I do. [laughs] You know? When somebody stands up and says, “You know what? Bring me your anguish, bring me your problems, and I will fix them. I will make it all right. You know, that puts Brinkley in a line of demagogues going back to the dawn of time, right up through today.”

And with that, and only after 35 minutes, Reply All subtly brings long-dead Dr. John Brinkley to the present.

Lots of stories and podcasts and conversations now feel like the most important chore of our lives. Expand your viewpoints, they say. Try to understand all the angles. Put in considerable effort to protest or make a difference somehow. Protect each other, especially those in the most need of it. All of it is deliberate, active, pointed at the current. It’s tunnel-visioned, which is a good and important tactic for the times. But in fighting that trend, “Man of the People” is kind. Gentle, even. It refuses to rub our noses in the reality, and it’s a welcome respite from the incessant — albeit very necessary — noise of the last few months and the next four years.

QueueBits

  1. The next newsletter is probably going to be about the state of sports podcasts and the talk-show format, so it’s a nice surprise that Bill Simmons has returned to the world of relevant podcasters. Some of his most recent shows — with comedians Seth Meyers and Bill Burr, NYT supercritic and podcaster Wesley Morris, Warriors coach Steve Kerr and forward Kevin Durant, and the writers of the Showtime show Billions — have reminded me how much I enjoy his conversations and his connections to land such big guests. I’ll run through this more next time, but although The Ringer as a network is still finding its place, it’s nice to see its flagship show return to form.
  2. The Heart’s new mini-season is about feminine men, and it is so wonderful.
  3. The guys from Keepin’ it 1600 have spun off and started Pod Save The World, which featured the last interview of President Barack Obama while he was still in office. Obama also joined David Axelrod on the Axe Files. Both conversations are soothing, insightful, intelligent, and act as good therapy for our current times.
  4. I adored “Rose of Long Island” by The Memory Palace. Nate Dimeo’s stories remain some of the most beautifully written, beautifully spoken podcast episodes out there right now.

Ok, that’s it for now. Keep your chins up. Drink your coffee. Listen to your stories. Keep at it.

-Grant

QueueTips Newsletter

QueueTips - No. 7

Love & Radio: 'The Living Room

So, 2016’s closing up shop, which means the barrage of year-end listicles is almost done. You’ve almost made it.

To me, the end of the year is something to enjoy and cherish. It affords us the opportunity and time to reset, regroup, and reflect on what’s happened in the recent past so we can plan for the future. But looking at things in terms of calendar years can also make us forget things faster. Once the year’s done, we’re on to the next one and all the things it will bring with it.

With that in mind, I want to revisit a bit of audio from a different year. I’d like to take you back to March 2015, when Love & Radio published “The Living Room,” which is in my estimation the finest podcast episode I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly one of a very few that I think about often (along with Invisibilia’s “Entanglement,” The Heart’s “Ghost: Bobby,” and The Dollop’s “Boston Corbett” live episode with Patton Oswalt). “The Living Room” is such a memorable bit of audio that I vividly recall being in a grocery store parking lot, in the middle of a snowfall, spending the last 10 minutes of the episode in my idling car until it was over. I couldn’t leave before it was done.

The story is told by Diane Weipert, who, through big windows, can clearly see into her neighbors’ apartment. The two people who live in that apartment are a young couple, and for years Weipert watches their lives together. She sees everything. She considers closing her blinds, but she doesn’t and instead keeps looking. It’s a story beautifully told, and if it weren’t for a bit of interchange between an unnamed interviewer and the narrator, I’d wonder if it was scripted audio drama. The ending, told from Weipert’s wallflower’s (or in this case windowflower) perspective, is emotional and devastating, especially because the audience is intruding. You want to say something to the neighbor, too, just as the narrator does. But you can’t. Weipert hands us binoculars and we look.

The creepiness is fairly admissible in this case, though, because it’s not malicious. We’re hearing normal, human curiosity in action, and because of the strength of the story, somehow we see what Weipert is describing. We’re looking through that bedroom window with her, feeling as she does: a bit dirty for peeping, but ultimately just interested in how other people move and live when “no one’s watching.” Plus, once we’ve pressed play on the episode, there’s really no turning back. The narrator can’t close the curtains; neither can we.

Like many Love & Radio episodes, “The Living Room” is one-sided. We don’t ever hear from the young couple next door, even when Weipert sees their lives take an unexpected turn. This, I think, is where this episode is not only a visceral bit of storytelling but a conversation-starter about the form of audio stories in general. There’s real force and weight in having one narrator, one timeline, one straight-ahead story (I’d argue it’s potentially podcasting’s most powerful form), but it creates an imbalance. Is it OK to tell a real-life story, even one without any true journalistic stakes, with only one microphone? Is it doing a disservice to only tell one side of the truth? (Coincidentally, this is why the Modern Love column and podcast at The New York Times has always made me cringe slightly. We hear from the spurned…what about the spurners?)

Another tactic of the podcast industry — even its more journalistic arm — is a frequent use of anonymity to protect its storytellers and interviewees. “The Living Room” doesn’t directly use anonymity to protect the person you’re hearing tell the story, but it doesn’t reach out to the subject of the story — the spied-on couple — either. I’m not sure that letting your interview subjects change their names or hide their voices devalues the story at all, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having. If the producers of “The Living Room” had gone across the street and asked the subject of the story for permission to use this story (even without identifying them), and she’d declined…is losing the story worth that bit of courtesy? Is there any obligation to extend that hand of kindness to the subject?

To its immense credit, “The Living Room” toes this line exceptionally well. Weipert says straight-up she may be getting “it all wrong,” a reassuring admission that she’s only guessing at the truth. Most storytelling shows — even the best ones — rarely acknowledge that possibility, but perhaps implicit in the producer-listener relationship is the idea that what you’re hearing is coming from intriguing but ultimately unreliable narrators, and maybe that’s fine. It certainly helps turn “The Living Room” into a lasting episode and my favorite not just of 2016 but of all of them.

QueueBits:

Ok, fine, I’ll give you the rundown of my favorite shows from the year and a few choice episodes, because in the Year Of Our Internet 2016, the list is essential:

Shows (with apologies to Serial and many other shows to which I haven’t yet listened):

  1. Reply All
  2. Code Switch
  3. Revisionist History
  4. The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified
  5. Still Processing
  6. Home Of The Brave
  7. Keepin’ It 1600
  8. Love Me
  9. The Heart
  10. 2 Dope Queens

Episodes:

  1. Debatable — RadioLab
  2. The Reckoning — Still Processing
  3. The “Yes Yes No” segment of Reply All
  4. Shadowed Qualities — StartUp
  5. The Problem with the Solution — Invisibilia

Lastly, you should go see La La Land immediately. Seriously. Leave work or home, take everyone you know, offer to buy them tickets as a holiday gift, and go see La La Land. It’s remarkable. When you’re done, and when your post-movie fog has cleared, listen to Song Exploder’s episode about how that Emma Stone solo scene came to be.

La la laaaaaaaaa,

-Grant