I love the podcast series Heavyweight, which started as a Gimlet Media show in 2016 and is now part of the Spotify podcast empire. It's funny, well-written and surprising. It is also heartwarming. I need it! During the show, host Jonathan Goldstein assists his guests in confronting unresolved past conflicts, which can range from truly traumatic experiences to smaller spats.
The fourth season premiered this week, so I spoke to Goldstein about his show making process, which he is looking for at guests, and, of course, whether he buys this idea that we're all the & # 39; golden age of podcasts live & # 39; . "
For the sake of clarity, this interview has been slightly modified.
Season four started this week. How long have you been working on these episodes?
When last season ended, literally the next day, we went over our storylines, the things that had entered us. But even outside of it there were a few stories – in fact almost half of the stories, at least three of the stories – were stories that were not ready for various reasons last season, simply because they were more of a long-term obligation. So some of the stories in this season have been breeding for several years. The difficulty is that you are dealing with people who postpone things for years, and that is part of the story, so it will be ingrained in the actual trick of getting things within deadlines.
The story of my girlfriend Marie-Claude for example. We were childhood friends and a few years ago she decided that the children were adults. She never really had a career and she wanted to be a broker and she had met all criteria except grade 11 mathematics. And Marie-Claude and I went to high school together, and we were both bad at math and a kind of math phobic. So now it's one of those nightmares where you have to go back to school, and she had to try to get to class to get the mathematical equivalence of high school, and she just put it off and put it off. We couldn't even do it last season. That is hopefully, it is still a bit in the air, but hopefully it will be a part of this season. That is a long answer to say that, yes, some of them have been going on for years.
What about the thread with which you work on the episodes? Are you banking them all for the season premiere?
No, like, it's coming out Thursday, and we're still deep in the mix, and even retracking things, hearing holes in the plotting, and in some ways we get a little neurotic and we doubt ourselves. Those are all things that I believe go together with publishing.
How big is your team?
This season I have two full-time producers and we had a producer a few months ago. We also have an editor that we share with another show. Then there are many people who have taken part in editing, such as after I have chosen the phone with you, we have an editing with Alex Blumberg. So if it's available, I think it's great to give him a final edit where we get closer to the end product. I love having his ears on it. And sometimes we bring in people from other shows. Just like for this first episode, PJ Vogt was in it. It's very cool to ask the people you work with whose things you admire and whose taste you like and trust, to be in it. My wife, Emily, will also listen to the latest versions to hear if it is missing something. As you know, you will soon be in the weeds, sometimes you will not see the big things.
How does the scripting process work and who do you trust with your scripting operations?
It is all part of a package. Normally you start with radio production, or as I learned, with the best tape and then write around the best tape. Sometimes these stories don't always happen that way.
It really comes together as a piece with the tape. Much of the tape that is not necessarily funny will feel more and more fun when written in a certain way to sometimes emphasize my own craziness.
In the beginning, just like the couple's first episodes, I was alone and just starting over. And now with producers, they can present the editor what we call the playthrough, where they can present some sort of rough with preliminary writing and tape. And they have grown into the role, and they take more freedom in writing and being able to make jokes is very exciting, nice to hear.
Then it just goes through so many designs. We work via Google Docs. It's weird. Before I worked on the radio, I usually wrote. I had written a book with short stories and such, and it is just so lonely, but with this, also because of the technology of Google Docs, we are often all in it. There is a point in the process that I should be alone with. But often we are just joking around and making each other laugh. That means that there is no fixed rule. Although we are in the fourth season, I have the feeling that I am still trying to figure it out.
There is an episode in the season that is more personal about my relationship with a psychiatrist that I went through until I was 20. He started writing. With such a story I think, because it was so personal and started writing in my head, and that was one where I was alone. It was more an idea of a personal essay.
I have always imagined that you as a writer are valuable to your words, so it is great that you trust several people and that they also write.
I like that and also like it, they are starting to learn my voice more, or that voice is developed as the season progresses. We try to find the right balance between jokiness and sincerity, and sometimes you cross the line, but the best are when you feel like you've nailed it, when that alchemy is pretty perfect.
I think it also turns to people for their strengths, such as knowing that certain people are really good at thinking big. Some people are really good at jokes. But even when I'm not sitting at an old-fashioned desk with a pen and paper, even when we're working on it as a group, there's just a lot of consultation about word choice and just doing well. It is a bit of a different process than writing for yourself or writing for the page because it is things that start as a kind of baroque or even flowery. You want to write well and you want to become a writer. But you also want to be a decent broadcaster, which means that you are inclusive and ensure that your points are clear and that you meet as many people as possible.
Sometimes there will be a joke that none of my producers know what the hell I'm talking about and that sometimes feels good because you have to throw one in for yourself. But other times it's kind of, well, if they don't get it, nobody will get it.
In many of your episodes you talk to your friends and family. Have you exhausted them all?
Well, I am at the back of that train because the story about my girlfriend Marie-Claude might end that. And it is complicated in all ways that working with your friends can be complicated. There is another story that started with a friend of my wife, this man I met at a wedding. We had a cigarette outside and he told me this whole story. Now that I'm done with my friends, I need to get to know my wife's friends.
I think at first I made that leap from the first season, where it was fairly personal and was within my comfort zone in terms of my small group of friends and family, entered the second season, where things were mirrored by people I didn't have don't know and looked at me a bit like an expert, it was very daunting and a little scary. But what evolved, I think, was just trying to give them the thing they need and also tripping my way through things and even trying to make tripping and part of the awkwardness come through, as almost a way to get the subjects .
There were certain things that I didn't even hear so funny that a producer would say, "Oh, that's hilarious." Such as, where you dropped the tape recorder. I'd cut that away, but they say, "That's really funny that you dropped the tape recorder." Those moments of vulnerability, or just extreme unprofessionalism, or being clumsy, become what people relate to. What was nice to see is that you can sometimes make a joke and spend a lot of time making it, and at other times you just have to drop a tape recorder on the floor and something real comes across. It is funny, but it is also vulnerable, and people sometimes find it just as good, if not more, sometimes.
Have you done preparations or research into mediating conflicts? It seems to be a lot of pressure to help a stranger solve a problem from his past.
It is actually like throwing myself at the grenade. It is difficult because, as I said, people have been delaying this for so long. Because I came from a fictional background, the thing that attracted me was that no one could get hurt. It was all very theoretical. You just shook all the ants in the ant farm, or whatever, in your mind.
I think I just feel that the first line of the whole thing is that I don't want to make the situation worse. As if I feel like I can't help or don't help, I don't just want to penetrate because of intrusion. Sometimes it's very simple. Something that seems insurmountable to the person in the middle of it, the subject, when it is really worth a few uncomfortable hours to get rid of something for the rest of your life.
I don't know if you've heard the episode about the woman Julia who wanted to confront the girls who bullied her when she was on junior high. They came to her door and they rang the doorbell, and she was too scared to open the door. She has been telling the story for so long, and there the story ended for her: "They rang the bell. I don't know if they would bully me or apologize any more, and I never found out, and I never think I could "For me it just seemed to come up with the question:" Okay, well, let's see. & # 39; For her, that was the craziest thing she'd ever heard. This enabled her – to actually give her permission. to ask those questions – the power with which she started to snowball, and she became more and more brutal, sometimes it just gives people context, gives them a forum to do the work themselves and you just sit back, that's If you can, create a kind of forum where someone can talk to a person they really want to talk to, and the less work you have to do, the better it will get.
An episode that I really enjoy is about someone banned from a pizzeria, without giving away too much. How practical are you in episodes such as those in which the guest is a stranger to you? How does the process work to get them open?
He wrote an email that really struck me. It just seemed like it was written by a 19th century census or something. It was so formal. I thought, "Oh, this man is a real character," in a good way. But yes, he held out his hand to us and he was very open. You also get people who know the show at that time, so he knew where he got involved. He knew the sensitivity. He saw the comedy in it, so I felt a little freer than I would otherwise be to kibitz a little with him or treat him like a cousin. He also knew Gregor and got a kick out of him and didn't find Gregor scary, too loud or whatever. But I think that has created a nice dynamic. If I didn't feel like Joey had a sense of humor about it, I think I might have been a little more anxious about being as handy or even as didactic as we were with him.
An episode I wanted to ask about was the first episode of season two in which you reconnect your friend Gregor with the musician Moby. How is that episode now outdated now that Moby has actually been canceled because he claimed that he had dated actress Natalie Portman?
Has it been officially canceled?
I think he is about to cancel, if not completely canceled.
There is something, I do not know if it will ultimately work to his advantage, but there is something absurd about him. There has been some feedback after all that hassle about that episode. It's interesting because the story hasn't changed, but the way people hear it has changed. I remember that during the broadcast people thought Moby was very generous and noble and brave to talk about his fight against depression and suicidal behavior. He came from a very unique vantage point. There are not many of us who can talk about everything and still be unhappy. I found that interesting. We were not going to tell a story about a celebrity. It was just a plot point in Gregor's life. My friendship with Gregor was what I found most interesting, and Moby would become a part of that story, but it was really an important part of that story. But then people saw the things he said differently. I do not know if you have listened to it again after its cancellation.
I didn't listen after his cancellation, but I did listen a second time, and it felt super cringey to hear Moby talk about how he actually relied on African-American folk songs to make a platinum album and launch his career .
We had a very different expansion. That is the editing process, as we went back and forth, we add more editorial commentary about what he actually does. Then it just felt like it wasn't really part of the story we told. But I will say that in the aftermath of the whole hassle with Natalie Portman and everything, people just heard what he said differently. That is interesting, and that is what changes the moral authority of someone's voice. People said, "Wait a minute. Why didn't he just go to the Queens storage unit to dig it up or pay someone?" They just asked Moby more, it seemed, after the whole thing.
You have a whole dick in your show with the ads that are, at least for me, equally enthusiastic. That is different from most podcasters. What is your perspective on advertisements read by the host, especially from a public radio background.
Mainly from a very unenthusiastic background. I'm not very enthusiastic, so that's nice of you to say that you hear genuine enthusiasm in my voice. I think part of it is that the middle of the work of making the series, when I go into the studio with Jorge, our editor, feels playful and it is a kind of pause. Coming from public radio, coming from a place where you just never thought there would be money for making audio documentary. There's just something like, "Holy cow, I actually have a sponsor to do things like this." It just seems a bit crazy.
I think it's a chance to play. I will also say that it is nice that we use a kind of ironic approach to the advertisements. Our hope is that our advertisements will look more silky than other shows. When sponsors come to us, they know a little bit what they are starting to do, so that we can feel freer and more playful.
Do the sponsors ever push back on what you deliver? How does that relationship work?
It really depends on which company we work with. Some of them say, "Do what you want." Others, like I just got a copy that was just like, "This is the copy and you have to read it." And I kind of like, "Okay, great." Sometimes you just want to break your voice and sometimes they are open to that. Sometimes the companies come to us through intermediaries, such as through other agencies, so there are all kinds of cogs in the machine.
What's nice is that someone in the team, somewhere in line, is a fan of the show and they know a little bit about what they get and they let you have fun with it or encourage you to have fun with it.
It is nice to hear that I am enthusiastic. Speaking of public radio, all producers, all audio people, you had to make promises where you actually just come out and talk directly to the listener, and you say you have to give us some money. I just wasn't that good at it. There was always just this level of irony with me that I was hiding a bit. I was just ashamed. Maybe it's a Canadian thing, or maybe it's just an I thing, but to come with your hat in your hand and say, "Hey, do you think you can give some money for this thing?" super uncomfortable for me. As a result, I was really bad during the promise. Some people were really good at them, and I don't think I was. So I don't think I can really come out and sing the praise of the product exactly, but I can dance around it a little and do what it is that we do.
Yes, because you don't have to beg for money.
I really feel that we can do what we do because of this, so I feel pretty good about it.
You came on public radio and then went to the startup world at Gimlet Media, and now you are part of one of & # 39; the world's largest audio companies at Spotify. Do you understand this idea that it is the "golden age of podcasts"?
My opinion is that I would say that I have trained a specific skill in radio production for which there simply seemed to be no market. I worked at This American lifeI learned this specific thing, and now that there is a world where there is a lot of really good stuff, and a person can earn a decent income from it, it is just something I could never have imagined.
I thought it was great and I would continue to do it without money. I did a show – not that it wasn't for money – but I did a show for 11 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation with not the same kind of listeners, but I loved it. I would just keep doing it because I like doing it. So to be in this environment that you want to interview me about the beginning of a podcast season seems just weird and great.
When I left This American life, I went to Canada, and I was the only person who actually used Pro Tools at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So the pond just seemed small.