Philosopher and Podcaster Barry Lam interviewed by Alex King
Barry Lam is Executive Producer at Host of the Hi-Phi Nation podcast on Slate, the only narrative philosophy show at a major podcast network, which is currently in its fifth season. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, and Associate Director of the Marc Sanders Foundation.
Hi Barry! Let’s start with some background about your podcast, Hi-Phi Nation. You got started pretty early on the philosophy podcast scene, right? What inspired you to start podcasting?
I wasn’t one of the earliest philosophy podcasts. A lot of interview or panel discussion shows came on before mine and to my knowledge probably have even bigger audiences than I do for being early and also good: Philosophy Bites, Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Tamler Sommers and David Pizarro’s Very Bad Wizards, and A Partially Examined Life.
I think that I was the first narrative show, or produced documentary or reported show. It was the first stylized production podcast in philosophy. I think some people have since tried to do narrative shows that are not lectures or panel discussions or interviews. As far as I know, I’m still the only one that’s prominent on any US network. There are definitely some shows like mine in Britain and to some extent in Australia as well.
As far as why I wanted to do it, I’ve always been someone who wanted to do what I admired and liked to consume. If I eat something I like I want to try to cook it. If I see something really nice I’ll always try to make it. I do this with woodworking, too. There was a time when I was obsessed with learning new woodworking joinery. I built an entire kitchen just to learn how to do mortise and tenon joinery.
There’s something that attracts me to engaging in the creative process of making something a lot like what I admire, and I admired narrative shows. I liked public radio. I like documentary aesthetics, narrative nonfiction aesthetics. I like the style, I like the emotional elements, I like that they are a way of delivering academic crossover content to people who aren’t geeks about it already. So I wanted to create the kind of show that I wished existed. If my show existed and were being done better by someone else out there, I would probably give it up and make content for that show as a contributor. It is stressful being a one-person operation running a show.
Ha! I hear you there. Running this blog is quite stressful for me, and I can only imagine how much more stressful it would be to do something as involved as narrative podcasting. So how did it go at first – were there a lot of unforeseen obstacles, or was it a pretty smooth journey?
It is a very hard process to learn how to become a narrative journalist. It’s not something you’re trained to do in graduate school, so the biggest obstacle was the narrative journalism elements – how to write good copy, how to deliver it (or what they call “tracking” in the industry). It’s still the hardest part. Every episode has cringe moments for me. The philosophy part I can do well, the storytelling part less so. And the integration of storytelling with philosophy is difficult. Maybe that’s why nobody else really did it, in writing or in audio. This season I spent six hours trying to write a seven-minute explanation of a paper that takes me an hour and fifteen minutes to teach, and I still wasn’t happy with the outcome.
The show wasn’t a smooth journey. It was an interesting journey. It was also a privileged journey. I had the privilege of being able to get fellowships right away just on the basis of the pilot episode. I was able to get a fellowship at Duke and then a few more, so in the first four years of the podcast, three I spent without any teaching, which was amazing. People come to me all the time with podcast ideas and want help implementing them, and I do my best to help them, but they don’t have the privilege of getting funding to dedicate their time to their shows without another full-time day job.
Wow, that is amazing. And you’ve been so successful! How would you say Hi-Phi Nation has grown and changed over the years, from those early days learning the ropes, to getting picked up by Slate and after?
Hi-Phi Nation grew the most in its first year, and since then, I’ve changed a lot. Number one, I speak faster, I read my scripts a lot faster. I think I’ve become a little less patient with myself in the production process, which means that I produce in ways that are a little bit more frenetic than before. I’m just following my instincts most of the time, and instincts change the more experience you have with a medium. Slate has given me a great opportunity by providing people in media (and not in philosophy) to listen to drafts and give me feedback. That’s a great help because you never know what it is that’s over somebody’s head, but more importantly, boring and uninteresting. You don’t realize when you’re drowning in academic philosophy for as many years as we have been what will come across as insightful and what will come across as pedantic. But I still own the show and I still produce it completely on my own.
It’s funny, within Slate I’m a freelancer, and independent production. But since I’m on the network I don’t get any indie cred.
Well we’ll try to set the record straight here! Now, how do you choose what topics to cover? There’s so much in philosophy that is relevant to people’s lives.
This is a tough one. Sometimes the people choose me. I get pitched all the time by people who have a book coming out or people who are working on something and typically I’ll look over their idea and see that if there’s a journalistic connection. Sometimes I can’t think of one, and if I can’t think of one, I’ll decline. If I think I can make a connection then I’ll interview the person and see what they have to say. If I think the tape is good, I’ll start looking for a story angle so that I can integrate it into an episode, and then I might seek out other philosophers to comment on a particular issue. For example, Evelyn Brister was working on the ethics of genetic modification and it turns out there are two very important things happening this year in biotech. One is that the first genetically modified mosquitos have been released into the wild to drive a certain disease-carrying species out of existence in the Florida Keys, and another is that we’re in the final stages of regulatory hurdles toward introducing a genetically modified American chestnut into the wild. That made it into the season. But there are a variety of reasons I kill a story that has nothing to do with the merits of the philosophy. Can I do a good job with this topic, can I find a good story for this topic, and can I map out a coherent 45-minute episode?
Sometimes I have an idea that I want to cover, so it is more like a research project. The very first episode of the very first season was something that I wanted to think about, which is the extent to which we have obligations to dead people. Last season, I did an entire series on the philosophy of criminal justice, from the political philosophy of discretionary power for police and judges, to mens rea requirements for criminal laws.
The current season is more like that. I’m featuring for the first time a biographical documentary about a philosopher, David Lewis. I was traveling and doing production for Hi-Phi Nation, and I found myself in Australia thanks to Seth Lazar. Because I went to Princeton, where Lewis taught for most of his career, I knew that Lewis spent a lot of time in Australia. So I thought that while I was there I might as well collect people’s oral histories of their experiences with Lewis. At the time his widow Steffi Lewis’ health was failing, so that summer I went to meet with her and we spoke for about three hours about David. During the pandemic, I didn’t have much time to find new stories so I thought, well I’ll dust off all of this tape and I’ll go looking for other tape about the life and works of David Lewis. I’ll try to do an intellectual biography, which is a completely new experience. That’s the first four episodes of this season.
How cool! This makes me wonder, too, if you could you describe the general process of creating an episode or a season. Do you plan an entire season at once or episode-by-episode? And how do you create the structure for the episodes?
My process is chaotic! I have mapped out entire seasons. I did that, for example, with the season on philosophy and criminal justice, which is the season I’ve wanted to do since I started the show. I knew I wanted to tell the story of criminal justice from beginning to end, from when criminal legislation is drafted, to when judges sentence someone, to when the incarcerated are released back into the community. And I knew I wanted to dig into the philosophical issues at each stage. Planning ahead of time gave me some useful constraints, but in the end, the series that came out wasn’t the series I set out to do because there were a lot of issues I didn’t get to. I really wanted to make an episode about the “violence gene” excuse in criminal law, but it never happened. You could make a whole podcast about philosophy and criminal justice. I’d listen to a show like that.
A typical episode starts with a paper I’ve read, or a philosopher I’ve talked to, for about an hour or hour and a half. That’s about a 15-page transcript, single-spaced. Then I’ll go hunting for stories, using Google alerts, internet searches, or other forms of digging like going through books people have written, footnotes, legal cases, and things like that. When I find something relevant to the philosophy, I try to find the name of a person who can relate that story to me. For example, with a legal case, I’ll look at the plaintiff, defendant, or lawyers who argued the case. Then I’ll try to find them by digging through the white pages or social media or other tools, and call or email them – or something connected to them – telling them who I am and asking about the story. If I can’t find them or they won’t talk, I move on to something else.
If I find someone, I’ll go interview them, again hour or hour and a half. All my interviews get transcribed. Things may come up in the course of the interview and I may talk to one or two other people that were part of the story. A typical episode might have four voices, but I’ve done some with more than twenty (I don’t recommend it!).
When it comes time to make an episode, I’ll open all of the transcripts and read through them again, highlighting the best parts. I cut and paste all the best parts into a single document and try to construct a coherent narrative out of everything, blending the philosophy with the story. This is by far the hardest and most time-consuming part. I typically work better off the audio than the written text, but I need both in front of me. I’ll cut out the audio from the highlighted parts, and cut them until they sound good, natural, and concise. Then I write my own narrative around the best pieces of audio. Once all of that is done, I do the soundtrack. I do everything for my show, with the exception of the transcribing, which I have a student research assistant do.
When a full draft is done, I send it to an editor at Slate who gives me feedback. Many times, I’ll send it to friends or my wife, and they usually give good feedback as well.
What a massive undertaking! Can you say more about the soundtrack and sound design? I’m really interested in how the non-textual elements are involved in this whole process and whether you think there’s anything aesthetically noteworthy happening here.
Sound designing and structuring around sound designing is something a lot of people do better than I do. They’re real pros. If I had the budget, I would let the pros do the things they do well. But basically, you want to think about sound design according to very important aesthetic considerations surrounding music and match it with the tone you want for your episode. Obviously, very rich romantic instrumental music with pianos and strings and horns will give you a very different tone than Trent Reznor-style industrial ambient stuff, which is a lot different than Philip Glass-style minimalism.
Non-fiction podcasting really has, for the most part, coalesced around minimalism. This isn’t universal of course, some story-driven shows feature mostly hip-hop beats. Hollywood film scoring music is way too dramatic for nonfiction podcasting. It is too much for documentary film too. If you heard Hans Zimmer under a podcast, you’d laugh. But for narrative podcasting, minimalism reigns supreme. There’s this group of musicians, Blue Dot Sessions, who have become the sound of podcasting for the last six years or so.
Sound and music play many roles in podcast audio. One role it plays is the role that chapter breaks, paragraph breaks, or even punctuation plays in print. Another role it plays is that of giving space for the listener to think, or at least telling the listener that the producer is giving you space to think. When music starts and when it ends give a lot of information to a listener about how to listen – for example, when something is important, or when something needs to be moved along.
One of the things I think about, and I have my students think about, is their driving theory of sound design in a single episode. You can have character-based design, scene-based design, plot-based design, or emotion-based design. Or, of course, you can have some mix of these. Character-based design is like leit-motif; you’re talking about someone or they’re about to speak or are currently speaking, and you give them a theme or a style of music. I like character-based design for humorous pieces. Scene-based design uses music as a marker for a change of scene. We were on a factory floor, now we’re on the streets. Plot-based design is intended to manipulate the listener according to the rising or falling action of a plot, to signal them about where they are in the plotline. Emotion-based design is just that; it gives an emotional color to something that doesn’t have one or already has one. When a podcast is rich with sounds, silence is very powerful emotion-based sound design. People might not know this but the most powerful moments they’ve ever heard on a podcast could very well have been amplified precisely because someone stopped the music at the right time. All of these are considerations when you’re designing a podcast episode.
Right. I think most people think of sound design in movies, but it’s interesting to compare the two like you have. On a related note, what do you think is aesthetically or artistically interesting about the kind of podcasts you make as opposed to documentary or educational films? I think most people assume podcasts are just films or shows that lack visuals (and lots of podcasts actually try to re-integrate visuals via YouTube), but do you think that the lack of visual constraints enables you to do things that you couldn’t otherwise?
I heard someone say that audio is a more visual medium than video. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. It is like saying that print is more auditory and visual than either podcasting or video. When all you have to work with is text, you have to do the work of making someone hear, see, and feel something with fewer senses at work, so the kind of work you do for the imagination has to be richer. The same is true of audio. I always cite this example, because Ira Glass does, but Chana Joffe-Walt had one of the best character descriptions ever in just eight words. She was playing phone tag with a distinguished elderly civil rights lawyer, and the only tape she could get was of the man saying, in a very choppy and slow way, “Hello Chana, this is ____, returning your call, I’m sorry to have missed you,” or something incredibly banal like that. In the kind of podcasting I do, there’s something called “writing to tape,” which is the narrative you write leading into a piece of tape, or out of a piece of tape. That’s the most challenging, most time-consuming aspect of a production, and Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the masters of painting a picture, a visual, of a person using the most banal tape. Her narrative was:
“You can hear the bowtie in his voice,”—“Hello Chana, this is _____ returning your call.”
Just that one little line does more in audio than an image of the guy does in video. You don’t ever have to learn to do anything like that in video documentary; the camera and the photos do all of the work for you, which is great in its own way. But forced to do this in audio, or in print, and you have constraints yielding creativity, like in all artistic endeavors.
One nice aspect of audio that makes it easier to do than documentary video is that you can edit and move around words and sentences at will without needing to cover up your edits by taking the shot away from your subject speaking, or by splicing two different angles of your subject (or by making a jump cut).
That is so interesting. And true – if you were filming, you’d have to zoom in weirdly on the bowtie to make people focus on it, but with narration, you can draw focus in different, sometimes much less clunky ways. Now I’d like to shift gears a bit. I am curious to hear more about the podcaster (you) as an artist/creator. First, do you listen to a lot of podcasts?
I listen to a lot of podcasts, all kinds of them. I listen to philosophy podcasts, I listen to public radio podcasts, some of the commercial podcasts, podcasts about how to do podcasts, a lot of journalism, some story-driven stuff. I love international reporting. I listen as a fan, I listen as a learner, I listen as a consumer of news. More recently, I’ve listened as a friend. People I know and have mentored have started their podcasts and I listen to see how they’re doing. Like every other podcast listener, sometimes I stay, sometimes I don’t. But I always do what I want others to do for me, which is give them a chance.
How has podcasting changed how you listen to podcasts, and vice versa? Do you get inspired by other podcasts?
I’ve changed a lot since I’ve been a creator. I’m much more able to identify why I think some podcasts are great and why others aren’t. There are many ways podcasts are good, not all of which someone can just learn to do. Host-driven podcasts, for example, are good because the personalities are attractive in various ways. Podcasts are a source of parasocial relationship, and in the same way that you choose friends based on factors idiosyncratic to your own needs and personality, different people are drawn to different podcast hosts. Other podcasts are good because their reporting is so good. And the best predictor of the reporting quality is the size of the organization; if you have the time and resources to have many people working on many stories and you air only the ones that are the best, you’re going to have a well reported podcast. Finally, some podcasts are good because they do something no one else is doing, and there are people looking for that particular thing. I am not a very attractive personality. I could never sustain a host-driven podcast. I have a hard enough time keeping five friends; I don’t know how it is possible to keep tens of thousands of them. The amount of work I put into Hi-Phi Nation just to have the listener base that I have pretty much sums up how hard it’s been for me to be just a functioning human being in regular life.
My biggest inspiration in podcasting is from people whose work is so good I want to emulate it, but where my talent runs out. These are the incredibly good and creative writers. Jonathan Goldstein [of Heavyweight and This American Life] is one of them, Chana Joffe-Walt [of Nice White Parents, Planet Money, and This American Life] is another. How can someone write and perform something with such charm and wit? If I had half of what they have, my show would be huge. In terms of crafting and sound design, I’ve admired Love and Radio for a long time. I was lucky enough to get to work with them on a piece a couple years ago.
Are there trends or fads in podcasting that you have noticed? What are some trends you like, and are there any trends you can’t stand?
I’m an industry watcher, so if you want to know the trends that are driving money and institutions, it’s the crossover from print to audio and back at all the major agenda-setting newspapers and magazines – think The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Yorker, etc. Daily news, daily opinion, and linking newspapers and magazines with radio stations and podcasting networks is a big movement now. The pivot to video failed, the pivot to audio is incredibly lucrative. The other trend of the last few years is consolidation and exclusivity. Podcasts are increasingly becoming exclusive on various platforms as companies battle to be the only source for audio.
In terms of trends in production value, like any other art form, people emulate what they like, which produces an overabundance of stuff that sounds the same, and then there is a reaction to that. There was a time everyone was doing “crunch crunch crunch, I’m walking through the woods and I see a woodpecker,” and a time after that when everyone was doing personal diary entry narratives.
I really like podcasts that get a lot more international perspectives in their stories, themes, and sounds, in way that is not just, “Here is some shitty thing that happens in some other country.” The American-centric way of looking at everything in podcasting, current events, social and cultural issues, culture war stuff, politics, even ecology, is something really grating to me. It pains me to have to contribute to it, but it is just too costly to do international reporting.
You’ve been hinting at podcasts as an art form or at least as having commonalities with existing art forms. Do you think that podcasting is an emerging art form? If so, how do you think that it is different from, say, radio?
Podcast is just audio delivered in a certain way: on demand, storable, and shareable. Radio was audio delivered in a different way: live, via signals in the air. There are artful forms of audio and nonartful forms of audio, and there are ways in which the material form of podcasting is more conducive to some forms of art, while live radio is more conducive to others. The golden age of radio with live scripted radio drama is something that some have tried in podcasting. I don’t know how much it has caught on; I don’t myself listen to much of it. The kind of artful drivel that characterizes the best morning drive radio, and also the worst of it, is not something that seems to translate well in podcasting even when you have funnier people involved. Something about improvised comedy bits being live seems to be part of the aesthetics of morning radio for listeners.
Radio also has formal constraints that give it some artistic advantages, but those formal differences give podcasting different artistic advantages. You have to produce radio according to a clock which requires station breaks at the half and top of the hour, shows must be built with commercial breaks, and shows must end at the top or half of the hour. It’s the same with TV, which is why all shows for broadcast television were 22 or 45 minutes. In radio, you presume people are listening on commutes, so they will tune in and tune out in 30-45-minute intervals, which is why radio has a lot of repetition. Podcasting gets rid of all of that. Podcasting has seemed to do wonders for the longform interview genre as well as my particular form, the documentary/stylized narrative. This is especially true for academic crossover content but also for trashy tabloid scandal-chasing storytelling. But I still have yet to see a giant fiction hit in podcasting, and I have yet to see a Joe Frank in the podcast world. (Look him up, he was a genius of live radio.) But radio simply does not support narratively-produced shows as well as podcasting does.
You may be familiar with the distinction sometimes drawn between art and craft: craft is just the application of skill (some think), where art requires something more than that. Do you think that podcasting is more of an art or more of a craft?
The people who do the best work are at least as much artist as craftsperson, if not more. Jonathan Goldstein is an artist. Nick van der Kolk and Love and Radio are artists. In contrast, a lot of narrative podcasting is craft. If you put in the hours and have the practice, you will be able to do everything I can do: find people, interview them, take fifteen hours, come up with a narrative arc, and make a 45-minute piece. There are shows that are extreme versions of craft, craft so good that you it’ll take you years or decades to master. Radiolab is like this. I think Radiolab is craft – master craft – but still craft. Listening to Radiolab is like looking at Japanese wood joinery. I might not ever be able to do that, but that’s because it would take me twenty years to master just the right way to hold a dozuki. This is not to say that art is more admirable or valuable than craft. To the contrary, I think we can live without art, but can’t live without craft. Still, when I listen to Jonathan Goldstein, or the aforementioned Joe Frank, who predated but anticipated modern day podcasting, there’s nothing I can do to train myself to do what they do. And you know their work is art because it’s also divisive. I have friends who can’t stand Jonathan Goldstein, and my students are just confused by Joe Frank. But no one is confused by Radiolab; they know exactly what it is.
In terms of the art/craft of podcasting, what would you say makes an episode easier versus harder to make?
Anytime you have too few or too many voices, an episode will be harder to make. More voices means more interviews, it means more transcripts, and it means more perspectives to integrate into a coherent narrative. Anytime you have too few voices, you have to make up for it in your own scripting, and scripting is torture for me. It’s very hard to do. The easiest episodes to do are those that have one great storytelling voice able to captivate people because they’re a great speaker. Last season for example I looked into the “Thanksgiving Day murders,” which happened thirty years ago in Maine. The reporter who covered those murders was a great storyteller. I edited her story down to ten minutes without even a peep from me as narrator, and in only a single day. I learned a lot about doing this kind of thing listening to Love and Radio.
Different philosophers are also easier or harder to edit. Meghan Sullivan, who is a friend, was very easy to edit. Jason Brennan is very easy. They speak unhaltingly, in complete sentences, with completely coherent structures to their ideas. I am the opposite as a subject, which is why I would make a bad interviewee and why I need to prescript everything I say on my own show. I know this because I have given a lot of interviews, and listen to myself as an interviewer extensively. My mind wanders; I can’t get a sentence out without halting and backtracking. But I’m representative of most philosophers I interview.
That makes a lot of sense! In terms of situating Hi-Phi Nation among other podcasts, I was wondering if you could speak to your podcast “aesthetic”. I ask because it seems to me that there are distinctive podcast “aesthetics” – in the way that we talk of distinctive visual aesthetics like punk or normcore fashion.
In the beginning, I tried very hard to make the aesthetics very personal. The distinctive sound and rhythms of how I think and my own emotional responses to material would be depicted in my pacing, the amount of space I would leave between edits, musical choices, things like that. What does just war theory sound like to me? What does a person’s war story sound like to me? Where do I think it needs space and silence, and what kind of intensity or lack-thereof should be in the background of Jeff McMahan’s voice? Does Jeff get a leit-motif or do only the soldiers? In the early days of the show, I was highly influenced by late 90s noise rock and early-oughts drone-y, dark electronica, and that is prominent in the pilot episodes.
But aesthetics in podcasting costs time and money, to be honest. You can go all the way and commission your own music and sound library, in which case you can be completely true to your own vision, or take music and sound libraries and re-edit and remix everything to your own vision. Or else you use an existing library which by definition will make you sound like a lot of other shows out there. That’s what I do now. The only remnants of the original vision I had are in the pacing of the show, how much audio, and how much space. These are a reflection of how I’m thinking about a particular story and issue. The sound designing itself is a matter of selecting for the tone I want a piece to be. For the David Lewis series, for example, there is a lot of loungey-jazz and a lot of whimsical minimalism, reflecting that I want his biography and philosophy to be depicted as more playful than hard-hitting.
I personally have flirted with a lot of different styles over the years as people who know me can attest, but I would say that for Hi-Phi Nation, the style varies by episode and varies by season. I’m always attempting to match a style with what I think the philosophy “feels” like to me. Criminal justice admits of a different style than Lewisian metaphysics.
Absolutely. So given all of that, how do you view Hi-Phi Nation’s role in the landscape of philosophy podcasting?
I’m the philosophy show you can send to your family and friends who aren’t philosophy geeks to put in their rotation along with their storytelling shows, their news shows, their psychology or economics shows. I’m probably not the show for someone who wants a two-hour in-depth discussion of a particular philosophy paper every week, for the philosophy hobbyists or professionals. I hope the philosophy geeks like the show, but I don’t create enough content to have a prominent role in the landscape of philosophy podcasting for the real junkies. I envy the shows that are bi-weekly discussion shows or interview shows, or that are just a normal written lecture that’s put on a podcast. Those shows can turn out content very quickly and regularly for the philosophy nerds. I have a seasonal production schedule, so I can churn out at most ten episodes a year, though I hope that changes once other people want to start contributing. I’ve had some success with this already. Richard Rowland at Leeds has done two pieces with me, one with David Killoren which won them an Australasian prize for philosophy in media. (Pitch me philosophers, get a piece on Hi-Phi Nation! It pays!)
Thanks! And despite your reservations, I bet all of the philosophy nerds will be very into the current season on Lewis. I have one last question for you. The blog’s title comes from a Barnett Newman quote: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” How do you think the analogy should read?
Aesthetics is for the artist as engineering is for the architect.
Note: All Hi-Phi Nation artwork is by Katherine Zhou, used with permission.