A Rational Conversation: Music-Less Music Podcasts, Part One - with Tom Scharpling of 'Low Times'...
“A Rational Conversation” is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
In recent months, a new type of podcast has appeared: the music podcast – but without any actual music. Instead, these podcasts revolve around in-depth interviews with musicians, but no songs are performed, no mixes are done, and they feature no pre-recorded examples of the subjects’ work.
An excellent example of these podcasts is Low Times. Created by Tom Scharpling, host of The Best Show on WFMU, along with Daniel Ralston and Maggie Serota, Low Times is produced every other week; past guests have included Lou Barlow, Janet Weiss of Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney, Vito Roccoforte of the Rapture, Damian Abraham of Fucked Up, and Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet. Below, in the first of a two-part series on the nascent music-less music podcast phenomenon, Scharpling discusses with Ducker how Low Times came to be, and what he hopes it can become.
Eric Ducker: Music has been an aspect of The Best Show, but what was the impetus to start a music-focused podcast?
Tom Scharpling: A long, long time ago I did a fanzine called 18 Wheeler where I did interviews with musicians. I really enjoyed doing them, and always entertained the idea of doing another music-based fanzine at some point, but could never get it together. In the meantime, The Best Show took off; I was talking to musicians on the show, which made me miss it even more. I started podcasting the radio show in 2005 or thereabouts: it got a great response from people, so I felt I had a good handle on what podcasting meant to listeners. I started talking to my friends Daniel Ralston and Maggie Serota about working on some projects together, and the idea of doing an audio version of what I would’ve wanted the fanzine to be kinda made sense. We were all into it, so the magazine that I had always wanted to start became Low Times.
ED: Do you feel like the podcast medium has a particular appeal or benefit for a music interview-based show? Or is it the format that makes the most sense on a practical level, both for you and this era we’re living in?
TS: As opposed to what, doing it as a magazine or a radio show?
ED: Yes. Or an online video show, or a blog…
TS: An online video show would require too much budget to look right, and there’s the issue of logistics – like needing the performer to be at our location to shoot it, and having a crew on hand to pull it off. That would require a fair amount of money to do properly. Anyways, there are enough music blogs right now, and that doesn’t interest me. I like the freedom that doing it as a podcast allows us. It’s not restricted by FCC regulations like my radio show is (although that’s ultimately an advantage for a comedy show in my opinion). It comes down to wanting to get the stories and lives of people who make music, and podcasts allow a pretty clear path from the artists’ mouth to the listeners’ ears. I’m really not interested in turning Low Times into a venue to express my taste in music. I already have ways to express what I like and don’t like musically, and there are enough people out there playing the part of the music expert, anyway. It’s infinitely more interesting to hear someone who actually makes music talk about their experiences than to hear someone tell me their opinions about music; watching people be interviewed is pretty boring to me. That’s the beauty of radio and podcasting – they are passive media. You can live your life while listening to Low Times or The Best Show. You can’t do that with TV or Internet video.
ED: In terms of interviews with musicians, there are two basic directions they can usually go: 1. Talk about the music itself (how it was made, what inspired it, how it has changed, and so on.) and 2. Talk about the more personal stuff (personal history, guiding philosophies/ideologies, and gossip). Is one of those approaches more interesting to you than the other?
TS: I’m interested in both directions. Sometimes one is richer than the other, depending on the subject. I’m interested in seeing how the person’s life affected their art, and vice versa.
ED: Do you find that most musicians feel more comfortable taking one direction or the other? And if they seem less comfortable on one side, do you ever keep pushing the conversation in that direction to get them to talk about something they don’t usually discuss?
TS: All the interviews I’ve done have been pretty effortless in this regard. I just have a conversation with people about stuff, and if they talk about certain things, I’ll keep talking about them. I don’t have any ulterior motive with the interviews: if someone doesn’t want to open up about certain things, that’s fine by me. I would hate for them to come away from the experience feeling used. The line kind of defines itself during the conversation.
ED: The reason I ask is because there are now several popular confessional podcasts; I’m thinking specifically of comedy podcasts. I’m curious if they are creating certain expectations for listeners that the hosts and subjects have no interest in meeting or addressing.
TS: I’m not sure if anybody is talking about anything they don’t want to on podcasts. It’s a pretty easy thing to not talk about certain subjects if you don’t want to – you just don’t talk about them! Are you referring to WTF as the comedy podcast?
ED: That’s the prime example, yes.
TS: I’ve done the show more than once, and Marc [Maron, WTF‘s creator] isn’t doing anything remotely resembling the bullying or browbeating of an actual rough interviewer. I think people miss out on the subtlety of what he’s pulling off with his interviews. I think at this point a lot of people come on WTF truly ready to spill their guts; he’s not putting them underneath a lamp, getting them to spill their secrets or anything. And if they don’t, it’s not like he criticizes them or anything.
ED: Yeah, I don’t think he takes an actively confrontational tone, or even the Barbara Walters cliché approach of trying to make people cry. I just sometimes wonder if, for instance, listeners come away from his Mindy Kaling interview disappointed she didn’t get into any real personal dirt. I’m happy without it as long as I get some good insights or information, or at least some decent banter. The podcast format is still relatively new, so I’m trying to figure out what people want to draw from conversation-based shows. Obviously you can’t generalize across subject or host or listeners, but I wonder if over time any expectations will be established.
TS: It feels like there are enough people out there doing podcasts that audiences will be able to find the shows that speak to them. If someone wants cringy stuff, they will find the show that speaks to them. I thought the Mindy Kaling interview was fine: by not cracking herself open and revealing every secret, she revealed herself in a way. And 95 percent of the people doing podcasts now won’t be doing them in three years. It’s no different than webisodes or viral videos a few years ago. People hoping to have a career try it out, thinking that it will be their ticket to fame. And when it inevitably doesn’t do that for them, they will quit.
ED: How do you choose whom to have as guests on Low Times?
TS: I put a list together of people I was interested in talking to, then started reaching out to them. And Daniel and Maggie did the same thing with people who interested them. It was pretty simple, actually.
ED: Did you choose most of them because you like their music, because of their personal history, or because of their personality?
TS: So far, everybody I’ve talked to has been someone whose music I was a fan of. But I would talk to someone who had great stories over someone who I liked musically, but was a snooze conversationally, any day.
ED: Are you familiar with their personalities before you request an interview so you can try to protect yourself from duds?
TS: So far I’ve known enough about the subjects. We’ve always ended up with an interesting interview in one way or another. No duds on the horizon, fingers crossed!
ED: Was there ever talk of including some musical aspect to the show, like the interview subjects doing an acoustic song or two as the most obvious example.
TS: Not really, no. To me, that’s not very interesting. There are enough places to get some version of that. If we did that, suddenly the interview takes a back seat to the performance. Which is not the goal of the show – we want the conversation to come first.
ED: On earlier episodes of the show, the topic of albums that the subjects weren’t allowed to listen to growing up was brought up a few times. Are there any themes or topics you want to be a through line across all the interviews?
TS: We’ve tried those on and off, but there hasn’t been any real preconceived topic that we want to stretch through every interview. There might be a little bit of a learning curve there as well — I can’t speak for Daniel or Maggie, but I feel like the interviews have been strong enough that we don’t need a mandatory part of a conversation. Early on, it seemed like a device we could utilize in an interview to see what we got back from it.
ED: I think all interviewers have those. A few fallback questions that will hopefully give some insight. I was just curious if it connected to a larger theme or idea you had.
TS: Not really. I think we were ultimately interested in what we would get out of it. I haven’t used those questions in awhile.
ED: Up until now, most of the guests have been from the indie rock and punk worlds. I assume that’s where the interest/expertise from you three is, but are you considering expanding to people from other genres?
TS: We’ve been actively planning to expand the range of who we interview, absolutely. I want the show to be wide open in terms of who we talk to, both age-wise and genre-wise. Right now we’ve skewed pretty hard into indie/punk because that is where our initial connections have been. I am looking forward to getting some hip-hop on the show, for starters.
ED: Are most musicians you’ve approached pretty open to doing the show? They don’t usually get the opportunity for people to hear them talk for at least 20 minutes. I imagine some of them would feel like their prayers have been answered and others would be terrified.
TS: Yeah, it’s been a mixed bag. Some people have been really nervous about it, but most people seem to get the appeal of the show and are excited to be talking about their music, rather than letting the music do the talking. It’s a chance for them to be a little naked, talking without hiding behind their instruments. And yeah, the conversations are wide-open and not constrained to a specific topic. I also enjoy talking to artists outside of their promotional cycles if at all possible, because then we are not the nineteenth interview for them that day.
ED: That’s one of the things I appreciate about it, too – that it’s not part of the obvious press cycle. But then there are musicians who only do interviews when they have to.
TS: We will gladly talk to someone when we can talk to them. But if I had my druthers, it would be between albums. It’s more interesting to me to see someone during that part of the creative process.
ED: How much are the broadcast interviews edited?
TS: There are some cuts made for clarity’s sake. There’s not a ton of cutting by any stretch, just enough to make sure everything is on point. We don’t want the interviews to be boring – but the last thing we want is to have the show feel like some version of an NPR music profile.
ED: Do you think there are any limitations to the podcast format for this show?
TS: None that I can think of, no. Are there any you can think of?
ED: I don’t know. I mainly work in print, or online writing and video, so there are a lot more opportunities to shape an interview into a narrative. But I don’t think that’s what you’re going for. Sometimes I’ll listen to podcasts where people are talking about one subject or telling a story that’s really interesting, and then they get sidetracked and never return to what they were talking about. I guess the podcast is more about enjoying the flow and development of the conversation.
TS: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think the interviewer has to make sure that things stay on track and that questions don’t go half-answered.
ED: I wonder if artists are excited to have these opportunities to speak openly without an editorial filter, or if they sometimes secretly prefer to have a profiling writer there who can transform their thoughts and stories into something coherent.
TS: I would think that they would prefer to have the ability to have what they said represented over the possibility of it being rammed into whatever preconceived narrative the writer might already have, no matter what they say.
ED: Do you think most writers go into articles with a preconceived narrative?
TS: I did magazine writing for about six years, so I know what it’s like to write about a subject. It’s up to the writer to fit their article to what the subject says, but there are far too many lazy writers out there for that to be the norm.
ED: You mentioned wanting to start having hip-hop guests. Are there any other future plans or ideas you’d like to explore with the show?
TS: I want to talk to some old timers and get their stories. It would be nice to figure out the parameters of what the show can be, even if it means we try some things and fail.
ED: Parameters in terms of who you talk to, or are you talking more abstractly?
TS: I don’t even know what I mean by that. I would hate for the show to be defined as me/Daniel/Maggie doing one-to-three interviews with guests. Michael O’Donoghue always regretted how “Saturday Night Live” found a basic structure that was more or less immovable from 1975 on. So at the risk of being vague, I want the show to be whatever it is, and not be beholden to some structure that we came up with.