David Remnick: “Radio is an obsession of mine”

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(Photo: Rich Orris/PRPD)

Remnick speaks to PRPD attendees Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh. (Photo: Rich Orris/PRPD)

The venerable New Yorker magazine takes to airwaves and earbuds this weekend with the debut of The New Yorker Radio Hour, a co-production with New York’s WNYC. (Or “début,” according to the New Yorker­–esque press release.)

Hosted by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, the weekly show will include humor, adaptations of magazine features, and interviews with the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Gloria Steinem and Amy Schumer. Remnick spoke at the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Pittsburgh last month to preview the show and discuss his lifelong love of the medium. This is an edited version of his remarks. — Mike Janssen

David Remnick: Good afternoon. It’s a privilege to be here. I’d like to thank The New Yorker’s new partners in crime and radio: Laura Walker, Dean Cappello, David Krasnow and Emily Botein.

My subject, of course, is radio. Radio is an obsession of mine and the reason for that is simple. I was a childhood insomniac: an adolescent no-sleeper, an all-night listener, an eyes-wide-open ceiling-staring dreamer. And growing up where I did, north of Springsteensville, east Sopranotown, I was hungry for worlds that I faintly knew were out there, shimmering faintly somewhere past the horizon of my seeing. School was a colossal bore. Reading — what teachers called “outside reading” — is what nourished me by day, the radio is what nourished me by night. And, if I am being truthful, serious listening preceded serious reading.

As you can imagine, no small part of what I listened to on my radio was music. And I had a central consuming interest. Bob Dylan was for me what Dante Alighieri was for the Florentine youth of another era. Dylan’s protean songs comprised for me a cultural hub of authority. If a Dylan song said read T.S. Eliot, I read it, even if I had no idea what it was all about; if he said listen to Studs Terkel or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Ma Rainey, I listened to them. My urge to imitate was such that it’s a wonder that the person standing before you today is not a Born Again Christian Hasidic Jew with a mumbly Woody Guthrie accent.

It’s not by accident that not long ago, Dylan himself became a disk jockey, imitating, with sly affection, the late-night voices that he listened to as a kid in the Iron Range of Minnesota, those fifty-thousand–watt AM stations crossing the heavens at night and bringing him everything from Bobby Vee to Patsy Cline to Leadbelly. What made Dylan, what provided the central ingredients of his musical and lyrical vocabulary, was coming to his Hibbing bedroom out of a Philco speaker at two in the morning. That’s our point of intersection, me and Bob, and, I’d bet, you, too; we’re children of radio.

But that bleating, urgent, intelligent, voice was not all that came out of my speakers. Far from it.

I listened to radio endlessly.  I listened to Bob Fass’s show on WBAI, the Pacifica station in New York. The show was called Radio Unnameable. Fass would begin his freeform post-midnight show by saying, “Good morning, cabal!” If a record called “Teach Your Parakeet to Talk” amused him, he’d play “Teach Your Parakeet to Talk” in full. Why rush? Let the world rush. We were going to listen to this. Because it amused him. Fass was no phony, he was not a corporate DJ. He was human, he was alive, and he was as weird as the rest of us.

Other nights, with his studio shrouded blue in pot smoke, Fass would talk for hours with Brechtian actors, unhappy folksingers, the Mothers of Invention, Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, Beat poets, drunk sculptors, The Fugs, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, Stonewall activists, anarchists, socialists — perhaps a Republican, but I couldn’t swear by it. (Some of this I remember; some I’ve listened to years later.) On the air he conceived a Central Park be-in with Abbie Hoffman and, with a group of anti-war activists, a mystical plan to levitate the Pentagon.

The show was less a conventional radio program than it was a meeting point for a counterculture that I could only faintly imagine. Imagine what all this meant to an anxious, horizon-hungry adolescent at two in the morning in his bed in boring north Jersey, high beams from the street spookily strobing my ceiling. I’ll bet all of you have something like this lurking in your early imaginations. Radio nights.

When I wasn’t listening to WBAI, I tuned in to WMCA-AM, where a boardwalk huckster named Long John Nebel told believe-them-or-not stories of his experiences with flying saucers, voodoo and the CIA mind-control experiments. He did ten-minute-long commercials for Ho-Hos Chinese restaurant and jewelry made out of sand dollars. Long John was a first-class American crackpot, whose main sponsor for a while was NoDoz. Which was the last thing I needed.

Some night I’d listen to Jean Shepherd on WOR tell magical Midwestern stories about his childhood like “Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back.” I listened to pure talk, the conversations that were not at any table near to me. I listened to the suave café society conversationalist Barry Gray, who broadcast from a nightclub called Chandler’s; to the liberal Leon Lewis, an African American on the mainstream airwaves — a too-rare radio presence even now; I listened to the reactionary Bob Grant, a forerunner to Rush Limbaugh. And for music there was the breathy “Nightbird,” Allison Steele and the still-working Sinatra expert and  master of the dramatic pause, Jonathan Schwartz. Don’t tell my rabbi, but I even got some of my religious instruction from the radio: Alan Watts reading Buddhist koans and Baptist preachers on Sunday mornings and, on Sunday nights, a furious preacher and ex-calypso singer named Louis X — Louis Farrakhan — from Mosque Number 7 in Harlem scaring me half to death with his talk of “the blue-eyed devils.”

I loved the intimacy of the radio. They were talking to me. No artifice (even when there was). What appealed to me, very young and very isolated and very hungry for excitements, was the sound of intelligent voices. I loved the alien, the strange, the mysterious, the off-kilter, the outrageous. I loved the medium’s absolute dependence on writing, on conversation, on sound and on silences — the stuff of language. Radio, at its highest form of craft, was a form of found poetry. Compared to the radio menu available to me even then, network television was square, obvious, and almost invariably, and dully, commercial. “Television Unnameable” was impossible to imagine. TV was a medium on which Dick Cavett interviewing Norman Mailer was a revolutionary act. On “Radio Unnameable,” Norman Mailer was middle-of-the-road.

I don’t want to exaggerate matters. In my life as an adult the principal influence on what I do has been writing. But I think about radio all the time, and not only through the misted rear-view mirror of nostalgia. Not by any means. Contemporary radio, in conventional terrestrial form or in podcast form, informs my life and the way I think about my work.

When I listen to the narratives on This American Life, whether it’s about the 2008 financial crisis or about the reign of terror carried out by a wild turkey on Martha’s Vineyard, it pushes me to think more deeply about the possibilities of nonfiction storytelling, the need to go at things better, deeper, more strangely.

Just as writers like Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace have influenced the way you all tell stories (I am guessing, but I think I am right), what I am hearing on radio these days makes me think, too. Sarah Koenig and the Serial folks may have been inspired by some of the long-form nonfiction of our times, including in a certain magazine invented by Harold Ross and William Shawn, but their work, in turn, also pushes me to think about The New Yorker’s own future.

Similarly, listening to Radiolab, with its astonishing scientific and philosophical sense of inquiry, its beguiling soundscapes, its transparent relay to the listener, it reawakens the writing imagination. Niche podcasts — the best of them, the most innovative and funny and informative, from Marc Maron to Death, Sex & Money — may pose a certain challenge to a traditional model of public radio, but they’ve also widened the sense of what is possible.

I also feel a sense of kinship with you where it comes to news itself. The Internet age has done fantastic things for our ability to read and listen to foreign sources instantaneously; it’s expanded our reach. But at the same time the unintended consequences are also manifest. In many American cities, the local paper — the institution that once exposed corruption and informed the public about a rotten school or a local triumph, the paper that sent the criminal mayor to jail — well, that paper probably no longer exists, and it has not been replaced. We are, I think, in an extended moment when, for millions of people, the most reliable and deepest sources of news in the United States, along with a very small handful of newspapers like The New York Times, is All Things Considered, Morning Edition, The World, The Takeaway, and, yes, The New Yorker. (And I don’t think that is limited to blue-state America.)

What I am trying to get at is this: The New Yorker, along with our remarkable partners at WNYC, is in the midst of developing a radio program. And arguably the era of radio, once thought to be the era of Fireside chats and The Green Hornet, is now. It’s an exciting time to be doing this. And while I readily admit to the gall of it, we come to this project with a deep respect for the history and creative range of radio, particularly as it is practiced by the people in this room.

We also come to this project, I think, with certain shared values that are not in infinite supply. They include: deep reporting; a devotion to intricate and innovative storytelling; a refusal to pander to the audience; a sense of fairness but an unembarrassed willingness to take a point of view; precise and careful editing; a devotion to the truth with the knowledge that the full truth is always just beyond human reach; a willingness to spend resources to go to where the story is; a sense of modesty and decency and humor; and a willingness to correct mistakes. That we fall short of our own principles and values is a daily given. But that we are devoted to them must also be a given. If that is overly righteous, so be it.

We all have way too much respect and love for radio to think that all we have to do is put a bunch of New Yorker voices on the air and we’ve got ourselves a show. The medium has its own properties, its own demands, its own forms and possibilities.

Take, for example, the simple difference of order. There are  as many ways to read an issue of The New Yorker as there are readers. The most common is to start by vacuuming up the cartoons, read some short things (Talk, a review) and, maybe days later, maybe more, get to the longer stuff: the ten-thousand-word reporting piece from the Middle East, the Profiles, the critical essays. Radio is linear, it takes place in the hour of broadcast, or starting from the moment to press play. Even a podcast version of a given show asks your attention serially. You skip about at your own risk. This means that a radio show has different structural properties than a magazine or a website.

Different media demand different approaches. When I began as editor, it was 1998, and Condé Nast, which was initially averse to the Web, came to the game late. When we started a website well over a decade ago, we knew that we couldn’t just slap some print pieces online and call it interesting. We had to experiment with the form. We had to answer the question that is most essential: Why do this? Beyond answering the demands of the audience and the technological age, what did it mean for The New Yorker, a then-75, 80-year-old weekly magazine, to appear daily, hourly, constantly? We knew we had to be ourselves, insisting on long-form, not an endless parade of bite-sized “hot takes” on the issue of the moment. But that was just the start of a process of thinking, investment, and experimentation that continues today.

And now we have to ask similar questions about radio. The parameters are clear: One hour. Once a week. But the rest is up for grabs. What is it, this program? How do we reflect the particularity and diversity of voices in the magazine and online . . . on the radio? Surely, the medium makes different demands — and, out of respect for the talents of the best of public radio, this demands tremendous concentration, time, and patience, as well as imagination.

We are trying to create an hourlong program that is very much of The New Yorker, infused by its values, hosted by its writers and editors and artists, but also something unique, capacious, freewheeling. Jill Lepore and Patrick Keefe have taped narrative pieces, Allison Williams and Lena Dunham have recorded some very funny pieces. In the past couple of months, I’ve talked with Ta-Nehisi Coates, gone surfing with Bill Finnegan, talked about political correctness with Amy Schumer, sat at the piano with Robert Glasper . . . and my colleagues have worked hard with David Krasnow and Emily Botein of WNYC to create radio stories that range . . . well, there is no need to let every cat out of every bag.

As we proceed in developing this program, I’m mindful that in 1925, when Harold Ross and his partners began what they called “the comic weekly,” they were sure of only some of the elements that would become part of the peculiar elixir known as The New Yorker: cartoons, a short feature section called Talk of the Town, Caslon body type, and Rea Irvin’s inimitable Eustace Tilley. But when they began, the Profile, of the head of the Met Opera, ran precisely one page; where was the depth? The fiction was a fizzy joke; where was the real stuff? And there was no seriousness, no yang, to offset the jokey yin of the overall tone. As with all great creations — as it has been with This American Life, with Radiolab, and much else — the creation is cumulative. Any work of the imagination needs a core, a sense of values and self-possession, but it also builds. The New Yorker today is something the same, and something radically different than what it was. One of those differences now is that we’re going to be on the radio. It’s a thrilling prospect.

Thank you.

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  • Ike1

    If Remnick wants to hear the *real* heir to Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable then he should listen to WFMU. While WBAI has crumbled into angry factions of conspiracy theorists and ultra-extremists, WFMU has carried the mantle of free-form radio, though it leans more to the “Teach Your Parakeet to Talk” side of things than to the “hours of conversation shrouded in blue pot smoke” side.