Jonathan Goldstein, The Art of Podcasting No. 17

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of CBC’s WireTap and a frequent producer for shows like This American Life. Additionally, he has written several books, including Lenny Bruce is Dead, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!, and I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow. Recently The Timbre‘s Devon Taylor talked with Goldstein about his work as a radio producer, how he incorporates his family into his shows, his experiences in acting class, and why it’s so hard for him to talk directly to the audience.

THE TIMBRE

You’re a true-blue Northerner, right?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yeah. I’m living in New York now, but I just moved here this summer from Montreal.

THE TIMBRE

I was wondering about that. PJ Vogt mentioned you live in New York, but I always assumed you were up in Canada. So this is a new development.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Often when we assume, we make an ass of you and me, but in this case, you made an ass out of neither of us.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> I’m so glad.

Now you were in New York as a child, but you were in Canada for most of your adult life, correct?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yes. And it’s really crazy and coincidental, but I am actually now living not very far from where I lived when I was four years old. My father is a New Yorker and my mom is from Montreal. We moved to Montreal when I was four. But in a random sort of way, I’m not very far from where I was born.

THE TIMBRE

That sounds like something that would be on your show. Like, we end where we begin. Some sort of interesting musing like that.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I think someone was telling me that, oh, what’s his name? I’m totally blanking on his name. For fuck’s sake. The anti-apartheid guy.

THE TIMBRE

Nelson Mandela?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yes! Thank you. I heard that Nelson Mandela said that a man should be born and die within the same small space. Or something like that. So, with any luck, I’ll be dropping dead in the streets of Brooklyn.

THE TIMBRE

Fingers crossed for you.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

So, WireTap is a really interesting show because whenever I try to describe it to anyone, I find myself really unable to. I feel like it’s sometimes really lighthearted and funny and other times very, very deep and dark. The format will change. The style will change.

I’m really curious how you would describe your show.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I’m not really good at describing my show. I’m not sure if that’s a shortcoming of it, but the way you describe it makes it sound like it might be okay. I think it really has to do with my interests. I feel very lucky because I don’t know that there is a lot of media out there than can really run the gamut between seriousness and comedy in quite that way.

I feel lucky that I can have something that allows me to be kind of whimsical in that way. My hope is that there is some kind of unifying aesthetic. That there is a sensibility.

THE TIMBRE

It seems to me that you’re the unifying thread. I mean, of course you’re the host of the show. But if you listen to even a handful of episodes, your sensibility shines through and it never feels jarring when you kind of jump genres. It’s more like “Where is Jonathan’s brain going this week?” It’s unified through you rather than an artificial premise placed on the show.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I’m glad to hear that. There have been episodes that have felt a little more risky, but sometimes in retrospect, it just seems like I felt funny about it. I think sometimes I think about this stuff more than other people are concerned. It seems that people don’t care as much.

Are you familiar with Joe Frank?

THE TIMBRE

Yes.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I did an interview with him some years ago. I guess now he is close to 80. He was saying that the things that interest him now are about aging, but he doesn’t know if his audience would be interested in that. I said to him, “We love being along for the ride. Listeners of your show will follow your voice wherever you go. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about.”

The idea that maybe people might feel that way about what I am doing in some capacity is really kind of a great feeling. It is not something you can quite see. I don’t know if he was able to see that. I can’t see it, but I have faith that maybe that’s the case.

THE TIMBRE

Well, let’s dive into your background a little. You don’t come from a radio background, correct? You started out as a writer and wrote several books?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yes. I started working at This American Life in 2000 or so. At the time, my first book was coming out. It was kind of a weird experimental book. I didn’t have radio aspirations, but I really loved This American Life.

THE TIMBRE

What brought you there?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

There was an editor of an old Canadian magazine called Saturday Night. His name was Paul Tough. He was involved at the very beginning of This American Life.

I was doing a summer show some time around 1999 for CBC. I was traveling around Canada and I did each episode in a different province. Paul heard something in what I was doing and he felt like I would be a good fit.

But I didn’t really grow up in a house that listened to the radio or any of that kind of thing. Though when I was young I used to make radio plays. I guess that was really the start.

THE TIMBRE

I’m really curious about this show in Canada. I was not aware you had done that. I thought This American Life was your first foray into radio. How did you end up doing radio prior to that?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I didn’t have a lot of success getting my writing published. But I was able to make some inroads doing essays on the radio. It didn’t pay very much, but I really loved doing it. I was able to get my writing out there.

I think it was only when I started working at This American Life that I started thinking of radio as this separate medium with its own language and rules. Prior to that, I just saw it as a megaphone to get my writing out there.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

So I was doing these radio essays on various shows and there was someone who was piloting a show on the CBC called Road Dot Trip. She heard some of my work on the CBC and liked my voice. She got me to be the host and travel around Canada.

It was in the very early days of the internet, so the concept of it was that I would be able to connect with listeners over the internet, which was a very new idea. I would be sending my audio back to the CBC in Toronto via the internet. Via this 56K modem. They gave me this huge digital camera that you had to actually stick floppy discs into.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> Oh man.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I know. You could put maybe one or two pictures on it.

I have episodes of that show in my parents’ basement on audio tape. I don’t think it exists anywhere on the internet.

THE TIMBRE

Well, go get it out of their basement.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

You think I should put it up online?

THE TIMBRE

Totally. “Jonathan Goldstein, The Early Days.”

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

It was a lot of me hanging out in convenience stores in Nova Scotia.

THE TIMBRE

Your ability to “hang out” on the radio is fairly unmatched. One of my all-time favorite episodes of This American Life was the home video one where you narrate a video you took as a teenager during Rosh Hashanah. I was in tears laughing when I heard that. I don’t think anyone else could just describe what is happening on a video tape and make it so enjoyable.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

After hearing that piece, David Sedaris said you could tell stories about what a kind of dopey kid you were, but it’s an amazing thing when you’ve actually captured a moment of it on tape.

THE TIMBRE

Yes, it’s beautiful and awkward and touching all at the same time.

You use your family a lot on your shows. You seem like such an outlier in your family. Everyone is sort of in the moment and you seem more like you want to linger and examine the meaning of moments. It’s always an interesting juxtaposition.

Do you feel like that difference is what drew you into telling stories?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

You know that those people on the show aren’t my real parents, right?

THE TIMBRE

What? I didn’t know that.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I’m just kidding.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> Oh, that dry Canadian wit.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

To answer your question, I think being able to write or introduce a microphone into the situation felt like a comfort to me growing up. It felt like something normalized me. Maybe it provided the feeling religious people get out of being watched by God. Some kind of objectivity.

I think I suspected growing up that everything was maybe out of the ordinary or funny. When you’re a kid, you’re so easily embarrassed. Finding the comedy in it was a survival thing. Comedians have said this, but I think it was also a way of controlling the humiliation. If you knew you were going to be laughed at because of your crazy family and how loud they were going to be in restaurants, trying to change why you’re being laughed or being in control of your being laughed at is a thing that makes you feel like you have a handle. You have some control over your life.

THE TIMBRE

It’s almost like you could use a camera or a microphone to put a wall in between you. Like, “I’m watching you. I’m not a part of you.”

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Right. There is a moment in that Rosh Hashanah video where I acknowledge the fact that I have the camera up to my face all night to create some emotional distance. It also puts up a physical obstacle between me and my family.

THE TIMBRE

Tell me if this is too personal, but do you feel like you still use your recordings as a way of filtering or controlling your world?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I think sometimes it’s a way of putting parameters up. I have heard that Howard Stern only wanted to deal with emotional issues and complicated family stuff on the air–partly because he just wanted it to be fodder for the radio show. I don’t know what his psychology about it is, but I can relate.

When you’re recording, it’s almost meditative. I listen to people in a different way. It brings out better qualities in me just knowing I am being observed and recorded for posterity. It also gives rules of engagement. I think it helps you look at your situation with a little more perspective if you imagine people eavesdropping on your conversation.

THE TIMBRE

Does that take you out of the moment, though? Are you constantly an observer and not living the moment?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I don’t know. I guess it’s different for everybody, but for me it helps me engage. Maybe it has to do with my natural disposition or something. I think there is always this self-conscious split that exists in my head, which is that I am in the moment and I’m outside the moment. I think in a way recording allows that tendency to have a reason for being.

THE TIMBRE

Hmm.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

It’s a duality. Being aware and also being aware of my awareness. It can sometimes spiral and be a source of anxiety and self-consciousness. But I think recording allows that tendency to be used for good and not ill.

THE TIMBRE

I recognize so much of that kind of thinking. So much of what you’re saying is very much the writer’s way of looking at the world. The need to grapple with issues on paper and control and organize the experience.

Do you think there is a split between being a producer and being a writer? And what do you consider yourself at this point?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I’m not sure what I think of myself at this point. I think maybe I’ve had greater ease as a writer and producer for radio. Maybe it’s a human tendency to look at it as suspect or lower than just a writer who has to face the existential void of a white piece of paper. As opposed to a radio producer who starts with tape and writes around that tape and has something to kind of sculpt and mold into life. That feels like a different kind of conjuring.

But the way that you phrase it–what is that distinction that you see? Between a producer and a writer?

THE TIMBRE

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not always sure if there is a distinction. Sometimes I see it and other times I don’t. It sounds like you see them as two very separate beasts.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I do, but I guess in recent years less so. Maybe because my voice has changed. I know that there is this idea in radio that you should sound like you’re talking to somebody. That you’re having a conversation. That you should write the way that you talk.

There has been this evolution in radio. I think that was something that Ira championed with the creation of a show like This American Life. It has been evolving ever since. You look at shows like Radiolab where, from what I understand, there is a script, but there isn’t necessarily a written script. The writers will talk through their stories to make sure it sounds as conversational as it can.

I think it’s okay to sound like you’re reading off a page. I don’t mind it. It’s probably a way to highlight my strengths and hide my weaknesses. But I think even when you sound conversational, it’s still going to sound mannered.

I say all of this maybe as a defense. In WireTap, I don’t really address the audience. For the first many years of the show, I used to have someone who introduced the show because I didn’t even want to do that. I didn’t even want to say “Hey, this is Jonathan Goldstein and you’re listening to WireTap.” I wanted someone else to open the curtain for me. I would already be engaged in this conversation and listeners would be eavesdropping.

THE TIMBRE

Right.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

It’s because I’m not good at talking to listeners. When I was doing those essays for the CBC, I would do my reading and I felt like I was good at that. Then the producer would say, “At the end, you need to throw back to the host with ‘I am Jonathan Goldstein. Thanks for listening and goodnight.'” That was always the hardest thing for me to do. I would do take after take after take and they always sounded really wooden and stilted.

I remember the producer was like, “Just to get a casual goodnight out of you, I am actually going to get up and walk out of the studio. Pretend you’re saying goodnight to me.” Even then I was like, “I’m Jonathan Goldstein. Goodnight?

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

There are certain people who have such a gift. I have watched them on the mic and I think ‘Holy cow.’ Recently we were recording with Robert Krulwich and the lack of self-consciousness or the performative ability is just beautiful.

But if you can’t do that, you have to figure out your way.

THE TIMBRE

And your way is to be observed by the audience, not address the audience.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Maybe it’s a more aristocratic model. Maybe it’s because I’m withholding and hostile. I don’t know. I guess we just try to do what we can do. If we’re lucky, we can figure out how to do things that play to our strengths and hide our weaknesses.

THE TIMBRE

Often your shows will sort of begin with this meditation about a larger concept. Do you organize your show around a desire to explore a certain idea or do you have a lot of pieces and you find threads between them?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I think it’s a little bit of both. Sometimes by virtue of having a weekly show and deadlines, you have to make do. And sometimes there is a magical alchemy that takes place. Sort of an intuitive process and linking different story ideas together.

My favorite shows are ones that feel like a particular idea is examined from different angles. I think also my favorites are probably ones that kind of flow one piece into the next without a lot of exposition. I like the more elliptical connections.

THE TIMBRE

Do you have an example of a show you’re particularly proud of?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Uhhh. Oh boy.

THE TIMBRE

C’mon, brag a little bit.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

We just re-ran one from last season that seemed to have a good variety of different kinds of pieces. I don’t know if you heard it, but it’s where we sent Starlee Kine to report on this memory that my father had about growing up in an apartment on Coney Island that had a third faucet that dispensed seawater.

THE TIMBRE

I remember.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

There was another piece about this mystery subway platform in New York. And then this story about a Minotaur that moved to Brooklyn.

THE TIMBRE

I loved that episode for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorite reasons is your uncle, who pretty much just shuts the conversation down when he is done with it.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

The amazing backstory about that is that when Starlee calls my dad, he mishears her name and calls her Ilene. Then when Starlee calls his brother Sheldon, he says the exact same thing. He says, “Ilene?” The thing that’s crazy about that is that my father doesn’t really talk to his brother. They haven’t talked much in almost 20 years. It’s amazing to me that they both said “Ilene” when they picked up the phone.

THE TIMBRE

It was funny because your dad can be kind of funny and cantankerous, and then your uncle was like that on steroids. Your dad seems to come from such a different way of thinking about the world.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Different than me or different in general?

THE TIMBRE

Different than you.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

He’s different than me because–as you can tell from talking to me–I will really stutter my way through my thoughts and really reconsider and then qualify and then amend.

My dad is so great because you will call him up, ask him a question, and he may not have any expertise on it whatsoever, but he will totally have an opinion and then double-down on that opinion and commit to it and ride that commitment all the way through to the point of absurdity.

THE TIMBRE

Aside from your father, you do seem to have these characters that are cantankerous foils to you. Like Howard and recently you had Benjamen Walker on. Why do you choose that format?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Me kind of playing the straight man?

THE TIMBRE

Exactly.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

As a producer, I defaulted into this kind of straight man presence where I am just kind of setting people up for the gags. I don’t really get to be funny on the show or not funny in the way that my friends might find me funny in real life. Sometimes it makes me feel less free as a performer. I guess in the beginning I thought having someone who was too bratty or obnoxious as your host every week could get grating. I wanted to have guests with big personalities and kind of showcase them with me as the straight man.

THE TIMBRE

I think it’s very effective. You need that interplay. You can hear dynamics between two hosts, like we talked about PJ Vogt. The dynamic he and Alex Goldman have on Reply All is certainly amped up for radio. There is a little bit of that performance.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Back in Montreal, both PJ and I had the same drama teacher.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, really?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yeah, we both took these acting classes. I have no drama background whatsoever. I thought maybe it would help me step up my game as a performer.

I have worked with improv actors and I felt like I didn’t really know the rules of improv and I was breaking all the rules. Originally I wanted to take an improv class, but there were none available.

I ended up taking this class with this improv teacher named Jacqueline McClintock. Her expertise was in a thing called the Meisner Technique. It was sort of a strain of method acting where you put yourself in the moment and you sit opposite your partner and you just repeat to each other. Have you ever heard of this?

THE TIMBRE

I don’t think so.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Your partner will make an observation about you like “You have brown eyes.” Then you say, “I have brown eyes.” They say, “You have brown eyes.” It doesn’t matter what you’re saying. It’s about the way that you say it. I have watched people do this and it can keep going for like a half an hour. It can become emotional and intense and fascinating.

I was never very good at it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of what I do, which is sit in a studio and do line readings. With this thing, it was about getting out of your head and being in the moment and reacting rather than having a preconceived sense of how you’re going to say a line.

THE TIMBRE

That’s fascinating.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

The teacher that I had would squat beside me and yell in my ear. My default was to go into a kind of dead-pan mode. My voice would flatten out. She saw it as sort of like a resting place where I would safely perch when I was feeling, uh–

THE TIMBRE

Vulnerable?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Vulnerable and uncertain about what I was doing. She would squat beside me and yell in my ear, “Stay in the moment!”

THE TIMBRE

Have you ever ended up taking improv classes?

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I never have.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve always been curious about them. My sense is that the whole “Yes and” approach you can integrate into your life in this larger way.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

With my business partner, if I shoot down an idea or I’m not really into something, he’ll be like, “That was so ‘No But.'” I’m just like, “Oh, god.”

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

When I go through the tape I have recorded for the show, the thing that drives me crazy and that I end up hearing myself say over and over is “No, no, no, no, no” and “Yeah, but.” I think it’s a part of the reason why I feel most comfortable working with people who I know pretty well. I can have poor improv etiquette.

THE TIMBRE

Yes!

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

When I try to work with improv people, I feel like I’m too controlling to just let things kind of unfold in the way that they’re supposed to. I don’t know how I feel about that.

THE TIMBRE

Well, whatever you’re doing is working.

It’s been a real pleasure talking to you. I feel like I could talk to you forever.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

Well, thank you for talking to me. I hope you’re able to hobble together something out of this. I don’t know that I’m the best at this sort of thing.

I just read a quote from Saul Bellow in this article that Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker last week. Saul Bellow was asked about his work and he said something like, “I’m a bird. I’m not an ornithologist.” I really liked that. So, I’m a bird.

THE TIMBRE

Well, to extend the metaphor a little further, I enjoy watching you fly.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN

I’m not a flying bird. I’m one of those birds that sits in a tree and craps on picnickers.

~

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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