Benjamen Walker, The Art of Podcasting No. 24

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything is a podcast from–you guessed it–Benjamen Walker. It’s a member of the Radiotopia network and Walker describes it as a show designed to connect the dots. What are those dots? That’s something Walker is still figuring out, but, as far as we can tell, it doesn’t much matter when a podcast is this good. Recently he sat down with The Timbre’s Devon Taylor to discuss the difficulty of defining his show, the freedom of podcasting, the decline of public radio, and how we just might be descending into a 1984′esque dystopia.

THE TIMBRE

Now where in France are you right now?

BENJAMEN WALKER

In Burgundy.

THE TIMBRE

Sounds lovely. Are you learning more about wine country?

BENJAMEN WALKER

Nope. Just chillin’.

THE TIMBRE

Do I hear birds chirping in the background?

BENJAMEN WALKER

You do.

THE TIMBRE

You are living an idyllic existence over there.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Podcasting at its finest. <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

We are really obsessed with your show at The Timbre because every episode feels like it’s kind of deepening, and kind of changing, and it’s this ever moving target of like, “What is Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything?”

I think so often podcasts fall into these really niche categories, like, “Well, we’re going to do a podcast that’s interviews with this subset of the population, and only people who have done this…” and it’s really specific. And you’ve really run the other direction where you’re like, “Don’t try to define me. This is my theory of everything.” I would love to hear a little bit about what your vision of the show is.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Well, you know, on the one hand, it’s really liberating and exciting that you can connect with listeners, and they can realize that your show’s really big and expansive. But at the same time, it also really confuses the hell out of a lot of people. <laughs> I get told time and time again, “You know, it took me a bunch of times to finally even understand what the hell this was about.” Or I’ll get an email like, “You know, you’re my favorite podcast, but I don’t know how to recommend you to anybody because it’s really hard to describe.”

I get really jealous sometimes of those shows you describe that are really clear, like “This is a show about science and food,” or “This is a show about the internet.” But yeah, I never wanted to be kind of tied down. I mean, what’s so great about this medium is that you really can do anything. And I’m not a journalist, so why would I limit myself to only talking to real people when you can have made-up people as well? It just seems that audio is such a medium where anything is possible, and I wanted to have a show that could kind of be a home for that idea.

THE TIMBRE

I think what strikes me about the show is that it doesn’t feel like it’s a show that’s approximating a different medium. It doesn’t feel like, “We’re attempting to bring you stories that would usually have a visual component, or would usually be written,” or “These are audio interviews that would play just as well as filmed interviews.” It feels like you’re really taking advantage of the medium in a way that just couldn’t be done through anything else.

BENJAMEN WALKER

I think what’s so exciting about this medium is that you don’t need like a whole film crew. You know, I live in New York City, in the East Village, and there are always film crews in my neighborhood. And even with the indie ones, it’s amazing to see how many people it requires to just make this happen. Whereas me, a microphone, my laptop, and a Skype connection… I can do anything.

I think in this country, in the history of media, audio always was sort of a stepping-stone. It’s like you did radio to get to TV. Even like radio serials became TV serials, which became, you know, Marvel movies. <laughs>

But I think we’re at this moment where people are like, “Oh, yeah, this thing can just be great, in and of itself.” That’s what’s been so exciting about this year post-Serial. We’ve finally arrived where we can be not just things that wish they could be on the radio, or things that would be on the radio if the bosses would give us a chance. We can just to be our own thing.

But I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll wake up, and I’ll be like, “Maybe I should just work in TV–it would be so much easier. This is ridiculous.”

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> Why do you feel like it would be easier?

BENJAMEN WALKER

I don’t know if it would be easier. It still seems that like, even though with all this attention that’s come our way this year, it’s really new. I mean, a year ago, I was embarrassed to say the word “podcast” out loud. It still feels like this is not going to last. It won’t be long before the whole thing crashes and burns.

THE TIMBRE

You’ll be panhandling on the corner.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah. I’ll be kicked out of France.

THE TIMBRE

But, sure, the barriers to entry for podcasting are lower than they would be in terms of film, but you’re clearly such a writer. I wonder why you are drawn to audio rather than just straight writing.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Over the years I’ve really developed a sense of writing for audio, and actually I think it’s inverse-proportional to my skills as a writer-writer. I feel like I’ve gone downhill. Whenever I try to write things out on paper, they just look like a 12-year-old wrote them, whereas I feel I can do pretty awesome things writing for audio and using my voice. So I guess there’s just an investment that’s gone into that.

But at the same time, you know, it’s not like the show is completely random. Having the ability to do anything, I’ve kind of focused on the things that were always important to me. I mean, I call the show Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, rather than The Theory of Everything, because it’s not like I’m explaining the entire universe. It’s just more the universe that I’m interested in and the one that I feel that I want to explain through my own personal sensibilities.

THE TIMBRE

It’s funny that you use the word “explain” because I feel like that’s what you don’t do. You tackle these really big topics that I think people generally have a tendency to be very preachy and didactic about, but you really aren’t. And I don’t really know how you do it because you venture into some of the most controversial topics in terms of economics and politics, but you never come in and say: “Here’s what it is and this is the way you should feel about it.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

It’s not like I’m trying to solve something. But like this year has been sort of a technology year. I just feel like, at this moment, with all the rah-rah cheerleading that’s been going on about the supposedly greatest entrepreneurial internet businesses from Uber to Airbnb, it’s appalling to me that there are other sides to these stories not being really talked about. And that’s more what I wanted to do with both of those series. I’ve never seen anything where someone just talks to a bunch of workers. It just blows me away.

THE TIMBRE

Absolutely. I guess what makes it especially unique to me is the journey is something that the listeners are going along on with you. Often journalists will go out and do investigations, and then they will bring that bring back to listeners, or readers, or whatever the media may be. But if feels like you’re saying, “Okay, come along with me, and let’s check this out.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

I think that’s what I mean about sensibilities. I can only make things about topics I’m interested in, in the same way that I wouldn’t want to do a show about one topic, because then I would get bored. Having worked as a producer for talk shows in the past, little stints here and there, I know having a host that just phones it in… I mean, not only does it sound bad when you’re making it, but you know, as a listener, how bad it sounds, too. And I’ve never wanted to do that.

THE TIMBRE

I feel like your shows fly a little bit in the face of the public radio idea of like, “Let me tell you what I’m about to tell you, then I’ll tell you it, and then I’ll tell you what I just told you.”

You’re seeming to approach your shows like, “Okay, here’s a question I have, let’s go on this journey together, and let’s figure out what we figure out. And then at the end, you can draw your own conclusions from the information that I’ve presented to you.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yes.

THE TIMBRE

And that’s really radical, as compared to public radio.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah, I mean, when you put it that way, it sounds radical. It’s just more that… You know, I feel that my shows have conclusions, they’re just maybe presented in a way that the listener sort of has to put the pieces together him or herself, or they won’t get there.

THE TIMBRE

Absolutely. Which is a real departure from a lot of what we hear on public radio.

Speaking of which, you do come from a background in public radio. Tell me a little bit about that.

BENJAMEN WALKER

I started in Boston at WPUR, and I worked for a few years at WNYC. But I always just felt that there wasn’t really a place for this on the radio because the American tradition is more about news and information. So I did some work on some shows, and I was kind of on the margins of the system. But it was kind of frustrating. Which is why podcasting has been so exciting because there just becomes, automatically, more room for voices like mine.

To be honest, it’s not my problem what’s going on with public radio, but it does make me sad that they’ve just basically lost all of their institutional knowledge, and this whole generation of younger-aged producers who are all fleeing and being rewarded starting their own podcasts. It’s kind of sad to see that. It’s almost like they don’t care… they didn’t really get it. This is the consequence of the last ten years of, basically, Car Talk reruns.

It is sad because I come from public radio, and I love it. And I definitely worry—or at least wonder–about its future. I don’t worry about it; it’s not my problem.

THE TIMBRE

You mentioned that you felt like you were on the margins in public radio. What do you mean by that?

BENJAMEN WALKER

At that moment in time in our culture public radio had to define itself as being this place for news and information. And I get that. Especially from 2000-2008 during the Iraq war… That was like a pretty serious time when that institution was under attack from people who wanted to shut it down. It wasn’t really the time where you’re going to start a conspiracy theory program.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> Right.

BENJAMEN WALKER

So I felt like I was on the margins. I understood why there wasn’t really a lot of investment going on in, say, fiction. I remember being jealous of the BBC, or the ABC, or even the CBC, where there was a little more room to experiment. I totally got why there wasn’t a lot of room, but, that said, I still feel that there was way more that could have been done. Maybe not with me, but some of my other friends who also ended up sort of leaving.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, I kind lump you with this group of people… People like Scott Carrier and Joe Frank, and these people that just never really seemed to fit that mold, but were, nonetheless, completely unique voices, and are completely unique voices. But there just doesn’t seem to be room for many of those voices in public radio.

BENJAMEN WALKER

I’m thinking even more of really popular shows, or ones that could have been. The system never really saw potential or wanted to believe in them. You don’t have to go all the way to hit the experimental visionary types. You know what I’m saying? The fact that those aren’t there is not so much troubling to me as just how much more stuff that’s even closer to what the brand has always been that also was really never able to find a home. Does that make sense?

THE TIMBRE

It does. To what do you attribute that?

BENJAMEN WALKER

I think it’s just that, again, it’s just an age problem. There’s an audience that you have to serve that’s already there that wants to hear Car Talk, that wants to hear Prairie Home Companion. And it’s also just that the radio had a limited number of spots.

But that said, the people at the top had no vision to sort of invest in the future. This is the legacy. I really hope that the legacy of some of these bosses of the last ten years will be this moment. I mean, it’s really sad. It really, really makes me sad. But again, it’s not my problem.

But also, there’s the sad way of looking at this story, but then there’s the more exciting one, which is: Look what’s going on right now. It’s awesome. It. Is. Awesome. And I don’t work in public radio, so it’s not my problem. <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Do you think that these institutions are going to die off, or you think there’s going to be like—

BENJAMEN WALKER

I don’t want to talk about them anymore. It’s just more of an observation… it just makes me sad. And I feel that the legacy of this explosion of all of this awesome energy that’s going on–I mean, that’s their legacy. That’s it. They are one of the reasons that podcasting is exploding. It’s like this lack of visionary thought is one of the reasons that all this exciting stuff is happening.

THE TIMBRE

Okay, so we won’t talk about the sad, slow death of public radio.

BENJAMEN WALKER

No, let’s talk about the exciting side.

THE TIMBRE

So where do you think podcasting’s going?

BENJAMEN WALKER

It’s so bizarre to me because one year ago it was a totally different thing. I mean, Serial actually changed everything. EVERYTHING. And that’s so bizarre–to think that something could change that fast. So I really have no idea. I hope a lot of these people who are starting up shows understand that it takes a while, you know? It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like publishing, where you get a viral hit, and then you’re set. No, it doesn’t work that way. You have to keep making these shows and create a world and it just takes a while. I mean, Sarah Koenig spent many, many years honing her genius craft before she did Serial.

THE TIMBRE

Speaking of Serial, serialized shows in general are something we’ve talked about a lot. And I know you’ve moved in that direction with your multipart episodes.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Oh, serialized shows saved my life! I’m so thankful for them. Doing these more multipart series has saved my show. It’s really, really working for me.

THE TIMBRE

What do you mean it saved your show?

BENJAMEN WALKER

I mean, I think trying to wrap them up into one episode just would never work. I could never do a show in 30 minutes on any one of the topics I did this year. I mean, again, a lot of this year was internet and technology, with “The Dislike Club,” and “Instaserfs,” even “New York After Rent.” I couldn’t have done that in one episode. Maybe 90 minutes, maybe a 90-minute episode. Like “1984”: I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to split that up, so that was one episode. And I could do a longer episode, but also, I worked on that one for years.

THE TIMBRE

You worked on your “1984” episode for years?

BENJAMEN WALKER

Oh, yeah.

THE TIMBRE

How long did it take you? How many years?

BENJAMEN WALKER

I’ve been collecting all the sound clips for a long time.

THE TIMBRE

What was your original vision of it?

BENJAMEN WALKER

To use the diary entries that I made when I was 12.

THE TIMBRE

Are those actual diary entries?

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah, some of them. There was an actual diary, yes.

THE TIMBRE

So the way that episode is structured is it plays back and forth between your diary entries from 1984 and then kind of what’s happening at the time. So you’ve got like a million clips– I don’t know if you licensed those, or if you’re just hoping nobody gets mad, because the licensing would be a nightmare, I would imagine.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yep. It probably would be.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> But the effect is that it’s this mosaic of your experiences and pop cultural moments from 1984, with this driving question of: Was George Orwell’s concept of 1984 accurate or not? And I guess what I want to ask is: What was your vision of that show when you started it so many years ago? Did it kind of arrive at where you thought it would, or did it go somewhere totally different?

BENJAMEN WALKER

It came out exactly how I wanted it to, even with some great surprises at the end. I mean, that show has all of my themes in it, you know? This belief in technology, the whole idea of escapism, the whole idea of finding your own place in the world. I mean, all of the major stuff, all of that is in there. The whole idea of the underground. I just feel that all of that is in that show.

We’ve spent the last few years saying like, “Oh, we’re living in 1984, we’re living in 1984.” And I think that one of the questions for me about that narrative has always been: What if we don’t notice that we’re already living in 1984? Which was what I felt, even as a 12-year-old, at that moment in American history.

THE TIMBRE

One of your themes seems like it’s this idea that there are things that are happening, and then there are the stories that we’re telling ourselves about the things that are happening. And this rub between them. And you’re going, “Well, you know, let’s actually probe this thing.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah, that’s the “Where’s the beef?” slogan. This thing that still exists today. We have this whole poser stance that we want to know what’s really going on, or dig deeper. But I really feel that we pay lip service to that idea of digging deeper, when it’s more of a thought crime. <laughs> It really becomes like the thought crime. Which again, if you remember in the book, it’s like honey traps to catch people who might actually want to know what’s really going on.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, because it happens so slowly. It’s like anything else, where you can pinpoint certain moments in hindsight. Like some of the stuff Reagan says in your “1984” episode. You can go back and you can point out those statements, and they seem really inflammatory. But those statements are being made right now. Not that statement, but other statements that will, in retrospect, be inflammatory, or be these seminal moments, these watershed moments. It feels like that’s what you’re trying to do on your show sometimes is say, “No, history is happening now–these moments are happening right now. We need to be finding them, and we need to understand them.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah. That’s why this Uber thing is so amazing. Like when you think about all the dystopian corporations in the science fiction novels, they all can be traced back to Uber. <laughs> Uber’s the beginning. Even its name, it’s just like, come on. It’s just like all of these horrible things in the future… If you had to write their backstory, it would have been Uber.

THE TIMBRE

Do you feel like people are paying attention, or do you think they have to wait until it gets to that, you know, Wal-Mart moment, before anybody goes, “Oh, gee maybe…”

BENJAMEN WALKER

No, I don’t think there are any Wal-Mart moments anymore. <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

No?

BENJAMEN WALKER

No. I mean, just watching what’s going on right now, a lot of these things are kind of obvious. Some of these things are very, very obvious. Even Airbnb in cities. I mean, I use Airbnb when I travel. Airbnb’s awesome. But, you know, to say that they’re not having an effect on cities like San Francisco or New York is preposterous. It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, you talk about 1984, but I feel like with so much of the stuff that’s happening, it kind of makes me think more of Fahrenheit 451, where it’s like we’re all so distracted and everything’s moving so quickly, and there’s just like this endless blur of things happening around us that there’s no room to stop and look. And it feels like your show, you’re trying to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Pause, and look.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah, yeah. For sure.

THE TIMBRE

Do you think people are pausing and looking?

BENJAMEN WALKER

<laughs> I don’t know. I have no idea.

THE TIMBRE

What’s the response been like, specifically on “New York after Rent” and the “Instaserf” serials?

BENJAMEN WALKER

The response I get to the shows is pretty awesome. I mean, I have to say that if a listener can handle being confused for a little while… <laughs> Once they actually sign on and listen, I think… I get two camps. I get tons of people who are really awesome and thoughtful and have a lot to say.

And then I get, of course, people who are like, “Dude, what the hell is this show?” And it’s not like I blame them. I’m very happy with how the show’s going, but, at the same time, I do wish there was a way I could have it both ways, and have it so it could be a little more accessible. Because I don’t think it’s inaccessible. It’s just hard to get into. Yeah, I think my show’s very, very accessible. It’s just really hard to get into.

THE TIMBRE

Well, we are kind of trained to be lazy, where we need to know exactly what something is. That speculative nature of it is a little bit outside of the way we’re trained to absorb entertainment.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah. But it’s also the radio thing. I think that coming from a radio background, you didn’t have to worry about that because you’re on the radio. I knew how to catch people. I think I almost designed it where, if they just left the radio on for a bit, they’re going to want to keep it on. Whereas, I feel in the age of podcasting, you don’t have that. They’re like, “Next.” You know?

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> Well, there are so many podcasts, and there are so many bad podcasts that I think you have to prove yourself a little bit more than when you’re already vetted by an institution, and they’re holding you up and saying, “They’re good. Listen to this person.”

BENJAMEN WALKER

But I think that can piss listeners off even more if they don’t understand it. I really do feel like with the narrative sort of style—the friendly, introductory style–that so many podcasts that we both love have, it’s almost setting the bar even a little higher for people like myself, who might not have such an easy way into the show. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

I feel that the radio had worked really well in that sense. Whereas, maybe now, in the era of very explanatory set up, you know, “This is what’s going on,” that might even be harder for me. We’ll see. I don’t know. What do you think?

THE TIMBRE

I feel like sometimes the premises that shows have are kind of false, in the sense that they’re really just designed to give listeners a feeling that there’s a focus.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Totally.

THE TIMBRE

And then they can explore whatever they want. And you mentioned earlier, if a show is a show about the internet or whatever… I think that’s such a brilliant premise, because the internet is everything, right? Everything’s on the internet. It’s not like a show about the internet is how to build the internet. It’s about all the things that live on and off the internet, but have some slight connection with it.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Oh, totally, totally. Except the problem is, I hate the internet. <laughs> So that just would have never worked for me. But I agree with you. It’s an amazing premise. But yeah… I’m just really excited to not focus on technology and that so much next year.

THE TIMBRE

So what do you think you’re going to focus on next year? Do you know yet?

BENJAMEN WALKER

A little bit. I think work is a theme that always excites me. You know, the whole idea of, as we move towards the robots doing everything, what the hell are we supposed to do? And that whole idea of creative unemployment. <laughs> I think we’re going to do a lot of stuff with drones, which is not so much a technology story as a more of a warfare story. And then I think ISIS is probably going to be in there, too.

THE TIMBRE

In what way?

BENJAMEN WALKER

I’m not sure yet. It’s going to be a couple serious things and hopefully just more experimental. I’ve been recording so much this last month, just weird sounds. I feel like the themes this year were big, just because I was interested in them, with Uber, and with Airbnb and housing and work. But at the same time, I feel like there’s a lot of small themes, too.

THE TIMBRE

You’re an essayist.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Maybe. I’d say… I like that word, yeah.

THE TIMBRE

I say that just coming from that background where so often the themes are sort of reverse-cast on collections and on writers. Where they realize in retrospect what their interests are or what those connections are. But really it’s just a desire to explore the world and just explore these questions as they arise in your mind. And not say, “Well, I have to go cover this because I’m an economics writer.”

It seems like you’re just somebody’s who’s going, “Hmm.” And there are themes that arise out of that curiosity that spread across several episodes, or even whole seasons, or even your whole show, but they take a bit to suss out, because they’re not that overt.

BENJAMEN WALKER

Yeah. Totally. That’s more what I meant about how having a framework to make the show a little more accessible would be awesome, but yeah… I just haven’t figured that out yet. <laughs>

I think as I hit the stride, if I can keep this going for another year, then it will become less and less of a problem. The problem, really, comes down to discovery: How do you get someone at this moment in podcasting, when there are so many millions of shows starting daily… how do you get someone to check something out that really is a little harder to engage with? That’s what I’m saying.

I don’t know if my show’s going to survive the “Check this out” part–especially when the main email I get is, you know, “I love your show, but I have no idea how to recommend it to my friends.” <laughs>

 

~

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.

Loading...