Have you ever been tempted to move into the commercial sphere?
Truthfully, public radio is now way healthier. There is nothing like our show on commercial radio. To do our show, even at a modest level, you’re talking about a budget of a million dollars a year. When we started, our budget was a quarter of that. You just can’t raise a million dollars a year on commercial radio for a once-weekly, hour-long show. The economic model isn’t there. I think that if people in other parts of journalism understood the lush situation we’re in in public broadcasting and public radio especially, they would make the switch. There’s a huge, healthy audience that wants the shows, and the internet audience is still growing. Podcasting is still in its early stages. People will donate money. You can make an economic model that works. I look around at people working in newspapers and magazines and they’re very, very nervous.
It does seem that, certainly in the States, the public-radio model might prove more sustainable than current media empires. Perhaps where we’ll see good quality journalism survive is on places like your shows.
That is very optimistic.
I work as a journalist. I have to be optimistic.
I think also, the aesthetics of the radio show fit so well with the aesthetics of the internet. We just got lucky. We were doing people telling personal stories, it’s a very one-to-one kind of thing. Everything on the internet is kind of like that.
It has that intimacy. On that theme of telling stories, one of the things that always comes up in the media when people are talking about you is this notion of you being a storyteller, rather than a reporter. Is that a distinction that appeals to you?
I’m so glad you asked that because it doesn’t at all. Storyteller sounds so twee.
It does a little.
Oh my God. Storyteller sounds like I’m some guy, sitting on a log with a banjo and some hay sticking out between my teeth and I’m going to tell you some yarn about back when, here on the farm. Mostly, I’m like a professional editor. That’s most of my job. And I’m a reporter. I’m a journalist. We’re doing true stories. Storyteller has a weird feeling to it, in the same way that the word documentary has a weird feeling.
So where does this come from, why do people refer to you in this way?
[Long pause] I guess they’re just trying to bother me. They’re just doing it to annoy me. It’s the only possible explanation. It’s not like I’ve ever even said this out loud, publicly. They can just intuit. They listen to the sound of my voice and the sum body of everything I’ve ever said in public and think: What would irk him the most? [Laughs] I think that people feel that there’s something about the show that is not journalism but people telling stories. I understand why they feel that way. It’s not an unfair thing to think. I suppose, once you have people telling stories and it’s a show about stories then you are pretty much a storyteller. I’m the one who put the log out on the porch and who brought in the hay. I’m the one who bought myself a corn-cob pipe. It’s unfair that I would accuse people.
I guess, given the way the show is structured and as host, you do give it an anecdotal quality.
Yeah. We say “stories” instead of saying “documentaries”, because “documentaries” sounds entirely negative.
Why do you think that is?
“Documentaries” sounds like it’s going to be good for you, you’re going to learn something. Who wants that? Seriously, I make documentaries for a living and I don’t want that.
I suppose it’s the same thing as when something becomes work. I spend a lot of time reviewing films and I really like not having to watch films now.
I make a distinction between films that are pleasure and that are work. Even if I’m going to enjoy the film I have to review, there’s a little light in my brain going, “No! This is work! Switch it off!”
Goddamn, that’s a busted mentality. It’s like, people in Hawaii, where do they go on vacation? Holy fuck. So, you can’t go to the movies for pleasure.
I can, but it has to be for something that isn’t classed as work.
In the stage show I do with the dancers, one of the things I talk about is how, once something you really love becomes your job, you have to repeat it so many times that it just kills the love. That’s what you’re talking about. If you’re a dancer, you’re not just dancing for fun. You’re dancing eight shows a week. Sometimes I go out and give these talks about the radio show, so that we can make money. I know I’m a totally solid performer, but I’m not a good enough performer that I can do three weeks in a row. I’ll be onstage and I’ll completely dissociate from what I’m saying. I’ll be talking about the radio show and things that really mean something to me, but if I have to do that three weeks in a row, I’m not a good enough actor to do it. I can’t do it with a straight face.