Al Letson, The Art Of Podcasting No. 7

Al Letson is the host of State of the Re:Union, the podcast that takes on the individual communities that make up who we are as a nation, as well as the host and creator of Reveal, a new investigative journalism podcast. Recently he talked with The Timbre‘s Devon Taylor about the questions that haunt artists, American nationalism, poetry, white privilege, and what the future holds after State of the Re:Union says its farewell. Warning: this is a long one, but we couldn’t bear to pare it down much. 

THE TIMBRE

Everything go okay with picking up your kid?

AL LETSON

Yeah. It was just a slight miscommunication. I had to run like hell. But all good.

THE TIMBRE

Having kids sort of means you’re always on call, right?

AL LETSON

Exactly. There are beautiful things to it and then there’s like, “Ugh, Jesus.”

THE TIMBRE

I have a dog and I always laugh when people say that having a dog is like having a kid. I’m like, “No, because I can put my dog in a crate and go out for hours.”

AL LETSON

I wish I could put my kid in a crate sometimes.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> So you’re down in Florida, right?

AL LETSON

Yep.

THE TIMBRE

Where exactly in Florida?

AL LETSON

Jacksonville. I am all over the map. I have been living out of a suitcase for about 20 years now. Initially in, I guess, 2004, I became a flight attendant and I have been living out of a suitcase ever since.

THE TIMBRE

I read about how you were a flight attendant and that had been part of the inspiration behind State of the Re:Union.

AL LETSON

It totally was. Wait, was it 2004? Let me think. It was longer than that ago. I graduated high school in 1991, so it must have been… 1994. Sorry, that was bothering me.

THE TIMBRE

It’s okay. I understand. I’ll do that thing, and I can’t believe I do it, but I’ll start to say the wrong decade.

AL LETSON

Right! It’s what happens the older you get.

THE TIMBRE

I remember it happening to my parents and thinking, “How can you not know what year it is?” And now I don’t know what decade it is.

AL LETSON

<laughs> Yes! So, anyway, in the 90s I started as a flight attendant and it was great. At the same time I was also doing slam poetry and performing. It really worked out well that I was seeing the country, but because I was doing slam poetry and staying on a lot of people’s couches, I had a different experience than I think a lot of flight attendants do. I was actually meeting people and staying with them. Whereas when you’re just a flight attendant, you usually just go to a city and go to the hotel. You don’t really get to the see the community side of it. The poetry stuff is kind of what introduced me to he community side.

THE TIMBRE

So you would be working as a flight attendant and, let’s say, fly into Minneapolis, but rather than stay at the hotel with the other flight attendants, you would use that trip as an opportunity to do some slam poetry in Minneapolis?

AL LETSON

Sometimes. But most of the time I would actually take my days off and figure out where the next poetry slam was going to be and I would fly out there on my days off and then fly back to my base and work the next day. As a flight attendant–once you were there for like six months–you got to fly free anywhere. I think first class was five dollars. It was ridiculous.

THE TIMBRE

That’s amazing.

AL LETSON

It was. For so long I was so spoiled. Mostly I was doing it on my off time, but sometimes if schedules matched up, I would work a flight and go do a slam and then leave.

THE TIMBRE

Was that something you did strategically where you realized if you work as a flight attendant, it would offer you these benefits that you could use to further your other goals?

AL LETSON

No. It literally all magically happened.

THE TIMBRE

You always hear about people saying how these fortuitous combinations of events happen. But later it seems like they planned out their lives so well. It is never really that way.

AL LETSON

I know. At the same time this amazing thing happened, too, which was that I found out I had a kid that I didn’t know about. He was five. He lived in Seattle and I was in Florida. I had no idea how I was ever going to see this kid and then I became a flight attendant and it was easy. Being a flight attendant was the universe giving me love.

THE TIMBRE

That’s some news to get, huh?

 AL LETSON

I know. Crazy.

THE TIMBRE

That’s the nice thing about being a woman. There aren’t too many advantages, but one of them is that you never find out about a surprise kid.

AL LETSON

<laughs> You never go to sleep for nine months and wake up surprised.

THE TIMBRE

Fingers crossed.

Okay, so you were working as a flight attendant. So that was giving you the opportunity to move around and see different things and you had been involved in this poetry slam thing. What brought you to that? You seem to have these disparate interests, but I can kind of see the threads.

AL LETSON

It’s funny you ask, because in April, we are going to release an episode of SOTRU about poetry. We are working on a story right now about this poet who is the guy who all around inspires me.

THE TIMBRE

Who’s that?

AL LETSON

His name is Sekou Sundiata. He actually passed away recently. To go back a little bit, when I was in high school, I was very much into hip-hop and I was producing. I got a job when I was 14. I forged my birth certificate to say I was 15, which was old enough to work, so I could get a job and go to the recording studio.

THE TIMBRE

That’s such a great detail.

AL LETSON

It’s funny, on Facebook, all the people I know from high school ask me if I am still rapping. I’m like, “Uh, no.”

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

 AL LETSON

I was producing and doing all of that stuff from a really young age. When I got out of high school, I just really kind of felt like there wasn’t a place for me in hip-hop anymore. It was moving in a different direction. Not that I didn’t like it, but at that time gangster hip-hop was really popular, and I felt like I wasn’t getting enough traction. As much as I love NWA and all that, it is really not me. So I stopped doing it for a bit, so I felt like an artist without an art.

Then a friend of mine gave me Bill Moyers’ Language of Life, which was a series he did at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. It was great. He sat down and interviewed these poets. One of the first poets he introduced was this guy named Sekou Sundiata. And Sekou was just amazing. His interview was great, his poetry was amazing. In his interview he talked about how there is poetry in the every day language he spoke. When he said that, it literally changed my life. I think I always thought that, if you were a poet, you had to have perfect English and sound like an old dead white guy. It never felt right for me. When I heard Sekou say that, it freed me and I just started writing. Most of it was bad. Really bad. But you have to write 100,000 bad words before you get to some good ones.

THE TIMBRE

So he sort of helped you bridge that gap between hip-hop and poetry?

AL LETSON

Absolutely. He helped me understand what it was that I was trying to do–or what was missing for me from hip-hop was being able to express myself, and I could do that in poetry. Those two things connected for me and that’s how I got into performing. I love being on stage. I’m a classic middle child who really wants people to love him. It all kind of came together and worked out. It seems neat and like a game plan now, but back then it just felt like I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But when I stumbled into that tape, everything kind of made sense to me.

THE TIMBRE

I wrote about your last episode where you sort of went through the history of African American art in the United States. I thought it was a really exceptional episode. One thing that it made me think a lot about was the way that poetry is kind of at the root of a lot of different social movements. They might have slightly different manifestations or outgrowths in the way that the poetry is ultimately expressed, but it is about the expression often of something that isn’t a mainstream voice being heard. You could say this about the Beats and it’s certainly been the case for a lot of African American art where it is an oppressed voice that needed to find an outlet.

AL LETSON

Absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly. Those things play really well together. It’s funny, as I was putting together that first story where I was talking to the professor, Farah Griffin, I was thinking about how a few years ago I wrote a play that was specifically about African American art. In interviewing her, I felt like I had come full circle. I did that story in theater and now I am doing it on the radio. I kind of love that.

THE TIMBRE

I graduated with my Masters about a year and half ago and one of the things you have to do is a thesis. For me, it was a collection of essays. They are supposed to be thematically linked and I stressed about that a lot until I realized that you tend to write or talk about the same things in a lot of different ways. It’s what you want to say. The theme emerges without it being that purposeful. I guess you’ve found that with your work, too, huh?

AL LETSON

I was just talking to someone about this. We were talking about artistic process and it came up that artists are always trying to figure out the same damn things from the first piece of art they make to the last piece of art they make. The question may change given their age, but we’re all kind of consumed with something that is our question. I think that is how the theme emerges. We’re all circling back to that question.

THE TIMBRE

What is your question?

 AL LETSON

I would say… I am about to get deep.

THE TIMBRE

Get deep. I can handle it.

 AL LETSON

I would say at the root of everything I do in some way shape, form, or fashion, I am seeking redemption. It’s not that I have done anything horrible. It could just be that I was brought up in a very hardcore Southern Baptist world and every damn thing you do is hardcore bad. <laughs> At the end of the day, when you look at the work I am doing, it’s not just about my redemption, it’s about people and ideas and America. What I wanted to do with State of the Re:Union was try to give America a little bit of its heart back. That sounds really grandiose and pretentious, and maybe it is, but it comes from a good place. I think America is so much better than we realize and so much worse off than we realize. I wanted to create a show that spoke to that complexity. It is about the redemption of the American dream because I think the American dream has been kind of destroyed and blown up, and I would like to redeem that because the dream itself is a good idea, but the practice has not been without problems.

In my plays, I am always writing about characters trying to find some kind of redemption. One of my favorite books–it’s called Liberation, by Brian Slattery–is about this guy who is an assassin who used to kill all these people for money. Then he gets out and he decides to save the United States because it’s in a bad place. When he does, the last couple of lines of the book are about him looking up at the stars, asking the question of the universe if he is finally good enough. I read that and I swear I cried. When no one else would cry, I cried. Because I think I am always looking up at the stars asking the universe if I am finally good enough.

THE TIMBRE

I read this post of yours from a few months ago in the wake of the shootings in Ferguson and you talked about two Americas and the America you grew up in, which was a shadow America. You had this great point. I think you were talking about the black experience, but you could probably extend it to minorities in general–I don’t know, I don’t want to make that leap for you.

AL LETSON

No, I agree.

THE TIMBRE

You said that the minority experience constantly has to address or confront this mainstream experience, but the mainstream experience doesn’t have to confront the minority experience. It’s a very intelligent point and made a lot of sense to me. I wonder–because you are somebody who has written and spoken about this idea of racial experiences–when you talk about redemption if you ever feel this pressure to be the spokesperson for a larger group.

AL LETSON

I think actually one of the problems in America is that the media keeps nominating a spokesman for a group. Al Sharpton does not speak for me. Neither does Jesse Jackson. Neither does Ben Carson or Herman Cain. I am really hesitant to take on the idea that I can speak for a generation of people or anything. What I do think I can speak for is my experience. I think that my experience, while singular, is very plural as well. I feel like I can speak for myself and what I have gone through, but I think a lot of people can relate to that as well. That’s kind of where I position myself, which is a little nuanced.

It’s funny, after I wrote those Ferguson pieces, a couple of people from national media reached out to me to talk. I was pretty hesitant about it. I didn’t do any of it actually. Because I felt like I didn’t want to the spokesperson for anything. I’m just kind of speaking my truth. I’m not sure if that answers your question.

THE TIMBRE

I like that. I think that is a thoughtful answer because I agree that people do want to find spokespeople for a lot for different ideas and groups. I am from the northeast and I went to grad school in Memphis. Even that perspective, which was in no way that unique, but even being a northerner in the South, suddenly I realized that people would assign characteristics to me as though I represented everyone from the northeast. Like, “Oh, that’s a Yankee.” I found it really off-putting. You just want to be you. You don’t want to carry that much.

AL LETSON

Yes. It’s a lot of weight to carry. But then on the flip side of America, because we never deal with our history, we have to carry that weight, too. America has to have some serious conversations that actually move in a direction. We’ll get started in a conversation, but we never finish it. Because the changes that are needed in order for that conversation make people uncomfortable. I don’t know if you’ve read any of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work.

THE TIMBRE

I love him.

 AL LETSON

He’s the man. His case for reparations is brilliant. When you lay that out, it’s pretty clear that change is going to take work, you know?

THE TIMBRE

What’s amazing about a piece like that is it is so logical. He takes an historical approach. He’s not even taking an emotional approach. But a lot of people don’t even want to get past the first line.

AL LETSON

God no.

THE TIMBRE

I am really curious about that. Especially in the South, I confronted a lot of people that I felt like were really narrow-minded about race. One of the conclusions I have come to is that when someone has to take on a question like that, there seems to be this idea that, by acknowledging the harm or the oppression of one group, it somehow puts blame or undermines the efforts of a different group. I don’t think it has to be that way.

AL LETSON

I don’t think so either. I feel like when you start talking about race relations in America and you start using words like white privilege and you bring up the idea of reparations, I think what that says to a lot of white people is “The hard work I have done for X amount of years, you’re saying that was just given to me. Nothing was given to me.” I understand that. I don’t agree with it, but I understand why people feel that way.

I think what the conversation has to do in order to make change is get over that hump. People need to feel like, “Yeah, the work you’ve done you’ve worked hard for,” but also understand, as Ta-Nehisi laid out, when people came back from the war, white folks got the GI Bill. They created a whole middle class. They got good union jobs. And black folks were left out. If you look at where the descendants of each go, it makes sense where their trajectories are. It’s not saying that you didn’t work hard for it, but it’s saying that other people didn’t start from the same place that you did. They didn’t have the opportunity to work hard. It’s one of those things that is hard for people to wrap their heads around.

THE TIMBRE

There is this quote I have always loved: “Some people are born on third and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

AL LETSON

Yes. Yes! It’s true.

THE TIMBRE

It is true. It is okay to just say, “Yeah, I was born on third.” It is interesting that people are afraid to admit their advantages.

 AL LETSON

Absolutely. I would say I was probably born in between first and second base. I grew up with a middle class family. But I have worked with kids who didn’t even start off at the home plate. They were in the dugout when the game started.

THE TIMBRE

We could really extend this metaphor. They weren’t even at the ball park!

AL LETSON

They were outside trying to get tickets!

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

AL LETSON

After seeing what they go through, it made me rethink how we all start from a different place. We should be able to have that conversation and be also willing to think about how in the hell we can get more people to start from the same place.

THE TIMBRE

Do you feel like we’re having that conversation?

 AL LETSON

No. God no. I don’t think we ever will. I think Eric Holder was right when he said that America is a nation of cowards when it comes to race. I think he’s 100% correct. What we will do is that we will have a conversation about race that revolves around somebody dying or some big thing that happens. It’ll happen six months from now or a year. At some point, something will happen and we will be forced to talk about it again. We will talk about it in ways that aren’t really smart because cable news needs to keep their ratings up. And then we will go back to default. I don’t have a lot of faith in the whole idea of a national conversation. But I do have faith in looking at the young people on the ground in Ferguson and who are part of these movements that are really pushing, and I think that change happens when people get involved. I am very excited to see that there is some sustained action going on.

THE TIMBRE

I want to talk about the way your work with State of the Re:Union informed this viewpoint–or maybe the other way around–because it is very focused on a grassroots approach to America and having these conversations and what these communities thought and felt. I feel like that work really acknowledges the fact that America does not have a national identity.

AL LETSON

Yeah. Rewinding a bit, before I got started with State of the Re:Union, if you had asked me if I was patriotic, I would have rolled my eyes at you. I would have been like, “No. I guess I like where I live, but whatever.” That point of view came from where I grew up and the things that I went through. I never felt like America loved me, so why should I engage in this jingoistic view of loving America? But after doing State of the Re:Union, I love this country in a way that is hard for me to even put into words. I hate the politics of this country, but the people and the landscape, it’s just… beautiful.

I have been to 49 states at this point. Most of them we did some kind of reporting in. Some I just visited for different reasons. Sometimes I’ll be on the road and just driving and looking at the landscape, and it just chokes me up. It’s so diverse and beautiful. And the people I’ve met, they stay with me. I hold on to the things they have said to me. That’s what makes me fall in love with this country.

What I see all over the country is that we have these big national problems that nobody wants to talk about, nobody wants to figure out. The Republicans and the Democrats will play the same damn dance they do every day. They’ll shut the government down. All of that stuff will continue to happen. But on the ground, everyday people are just trying to figure it out. The solutions aren’t perfect, they’re not pretty, they’re not Hollywood-like, but they are in the attempt of getting it right. There is something about that friction that drives people to get up and do something that I am so in love with. For me, the grassroots is where it has to start, where it comes from. I have lost a whole lot of faith in the political process and I have lost a lot of faith in the people we call leaders on both sides of the fence, but I have not lost faith that the American people find ways to fix things or find ways to live.

On the flip side, I don’t know if that’s always good. With Reveal, the data team is working on these stories. Like they are working on a story in Oklahoma–how Oklahoma suddenly has all these earthquakes and they can’t pin them directly to fracking, but everybody knows it’s from fracking. People in Oklahoma aren’t in a big uproar about this. It’s like mankind’s ability to adapt. You live there your whole life and never had earthquakes. Now these bad actors come in and now you have earthquakes, but you’re okay? Our ability to be like, “Okay, we’ll just roll with it.” I don’t know if that’s a good thing either. But I guess we take the good with the bad.

THE TIMBRE

Somebody turned me on to the podcast, Inside Appalachia. It’s a great show. I know you have covered some of the Appalachian experience. It sometimes feels like what those people have had to get used to are things that if you lived in, say, New York or somewhere that is the center of the map for a lot of people, they would not be able to tolerate it. Things like not having drinking water. It would be unimaginable. But they live with it in Appalachia. I don’t know what happens where at some people you just come to accept that your voice won’t be heard and you have to just adapt.

AL LETSON

When we were reporting in Appalachia, someone called it a national sacrifice zone. If you live in this area, you are sacrificing your life and your children’s life for the good of the nation. When I heard that, I thought, “Wow.” I thought it before I even saw what is going on there. Then when I saw it, I felt like, “I have to agree.”

THE TIMBRE

That’s what gets me excited about podcasts. That they can give them a voice. Even though podcasts have been around for a bit, I think they are in their infancy of the power and potential of what they can do. We just published an interview today with Helen Zaltzman who does a podcast in England called Answer Me This!, and she has a new show with Radiotopia called The Allusionist. She said one thing that strikes her about podcasts is that there isn’t much of a hierarchy between the podcaster and the listener. You’re really going to get something that is kind of raw.

AL LETSON

I would agree with that wholly. There is less distance. When I got started with State of the Re:Union, it was like 2007 or 2008, if somebody heard the show and they liked it, they sent me an email. Now somebody hears it and they tweet to me. That alone has changed. Tweeting seems more immediate and easier to respond to. I can just say, “Thanks!”

I was just talking to a friend today. A friend of mine has this project and she is trying to figure out what she wants to do with it. I was just telling her, “You know, you keep talking to me about intimacy and what you’re trying to do, and there is no other form of media that is more intimate than the podcast.” It’s a beautiful medium because every time I cut on the microphone, I am in my head talking to one person. And the person who is listening to it is that one person I was talking to. Even though there might be 10,000 one persons, it’s still that one person. It’s kind of amazing. I love theater–god, I love theater–but I also think there is this beautiful thing that podcasting does that theater does not do or cannot do, which is be very intimate and reach a lot of people. In theater, it is hard to create an intimate moment on stage, especially when there are a lot of people in the room.

THE TIMBRE

Do you think some of that might have something to do with the fact that we are such a visual people? To some degree, that can invite shallowness. You kind of side-step that whole issue when it’s an audio-based art form.

AL LETSON

I hadn’t thought about that, but I think that’s probably spot-on. I think that video can get in the way. Pictures can get in the way of intimacy.

Do you know Hillary Frank?

THE TIMBRE

I know of her.

AL LETSON

She does the parenting podcast.

THE TIMBRE

Yes, The Longest Shortest Time.

AL LETSON

That’s it. Years ago she gave me some of the best radio advice. I have never told her this. She said radio is such a visual medium and the eyes in radio are the imagination. How you trigger the imagination, how you make people go places with you is so important. You just have to spend time with that. I think she’s right. I mean, I know she’s right. It’s been one of my guiding principles. When I think about a story, when I think about how I am doing things, I think about closing my eyes and what is that person seeing, feeling, or smelling? What are the senses that I want to wake up?

Going back to the question of shallowness. I do think humankind can be shallow. It’s just part of life. We all have it sometimes. I think if you take away that ability, people’s imagination has to fill it in. They kind of have to go with you. The imagination is more powerful and better than any computer-generated image or whatever. What your imagination can do is huge.

THE TIMBRE

And it might be more generous at moments.

AL LETSON

Absolutely. Oh god, yes.

THE TIMBRE

Where do you think podcasts are going to go in the future?

AL LETSON

My worry is that a lot of money will begin to come into it and it will become a bubble, and, like all things, it will burst. My hope is that people continue to follow Serial in the sense that Serial did something that no one else did, but not follow it in the sense that people want to be Serial. Do you know what I mean? Serial kind of broke the mold.

Ira and his crew are fucking amazing. I hung out with This American Life years ago when I was first getting started. It was a great experience. When I was there, we ate pizza and, to keep the lid open, they leaned the pizza on their Emmy. I saw that and I was like, “That is brilliant.” The metaphor I took from it was “Stay hungry.” It doesn’t matter if you have an Emmy, you just stay hungry. That’s what I love about This American Life. They stay hungry. That’s what I love about Alex Blumberg. He’s lean and mean and thinking about all of these big things. I hope that people get that from what Sarah and all of them did on Serial. No one had done that before. If people can keep thinking along that line, we really have entered into this great space of podcasting.

THE TIMBRE

Okay, so we need to get to your sad news: you’re leaving State of the Re:Union behind?

AL LETSON

I’ll be really real with you. I’m heartbroken. It took me a really long time to say that this is the end, but I got to thinking and the way you show something you love it is not just the way you treat it when it’s going but also how you let it go. I had the opportunity where I could have kept it going in a couple of different ways, but none of them felt like the right way. The show would be nothing without the producers I work with. Because they weren’t sure what was going on with the show, they had to get other jobs. With them being in different places, it was like, “I could do this, but I wouldn’t be doing it with the people I love.” It just made sense to end it. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly or that I even wanted to make, and maybe in a couple of years from now I could bring the idea back. At this point, it makes sense to kind of let it go.

One of my main producers, Tina Antolini, has her own podcast out.

THE TIMBRE

Gravy. It’s great, too.

AL LETSON

She’s great. I encouraged her to do it, but I don’t know how to do State of the Re:Union without Tina. Delaney is now working with me on Reveal. Taki and I could have probably figured something, but it just didn’t feel like right.

Ultimately the reason that the show kind of came to the end was really just about funding. It’s just about funding. Funding for a show like State of the Re:Union is tough. Our budget is not like a typical podcast. Our budget is like a broadcast budget.

THE TIMBRE

Because of travel?

AL LETSON

Our biggest cost was quite frankly the employees. Everyone got benefits and everything. It was quite expensive.

The other thing was that the show was started independently. If we had started with someone like WNYC, I don’t think we would be in this position. But we didn’t. And by the time we got going, it’s kind of a big proposition to ask a big station to come in and pick us up. The local station here in Jacksonville took us on, but they don’t really have the ability to raise the kind of money that this show needs.

But, to be honest, two years ago, I saw the writing on the wall. I’ve been preparing myself for it. But actually having to announce it is going to suck.

THE TIMBRE

But there is a new podcast. Tell me about the new podcast.

AL LETSON

The new podcast is called Errthang. Because it’s errthang I want to do. If I want to do it, I’m gonna do it. The first episode is me telling a story. The second episode is about comic books–but it’s about so much more. Then the third episode is a radio theater piece, which is in a roundabout way about the death penalty. Then the fourth episode is basically like taking my writing about Ferguson and expanding it a bit. So, yeah. I am just mixing it up. I’m having a good time.

THE TIMBRE

It almost sounds like a podcast column.

AL LETSON

I like to describe it as a podcast variety show. Every other week you’ll get something different. The only constant is that I will be the DJ bringing it to you.

THE TIMBRE

You said earlier that everyone is ultimately trying to answer the same question. I wonder if this will show that you are asking that same question through different forms.

AL LETSON

I think it absolutely will. I believe we keep asking those questions, and we’ll never get the answers until the day we die. But I’ll keep asking.

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

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