There are two basic premises to The Genius Dialogues, a new podcast hosted by Bob Garfield. The first premise: What if we treated recipients of the MacArthur “genius grants” as if they were rockstars? “As a society we lavish all this attention on celebrities and athletes and politicians and various Kardashians,” Garfield said in an interview. “But we don’t pay any attention to all these MacArthur geniuses who are doing really remarkable things. Not only are they inventing things and cultivating ideas, what they’re doing benefits society as a whole. They’re do gooders, and except for the windfall [of press coverage] they get when it’s announced in the Fall, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to their work and accomplishments.”
As for the second premise? “What if [Fresh Air host] Terry Gross were a dick? Imagine how the trajectory of the interviews would change if she were able to ask really impertinent, even obnoxious questions if the situation demanded it. She has way too much dignity and civility and good taste to do that. Luckily, I was born without the gene for good taste.”
If you’re aware of Garfield, it’s likely because of his longtime role as host of On the Media, a weekly public radio show produced by WNYC. The show’s been on the air since 1995, and Garfield’s public radio tenure stretches back to the 1980s. But The Genius Dialogues, which launched in May, isn’t distributed by any public radio station, nor is it currently available on free podcast apps. Instead, it’s paid for and distributed on Audible Channels, a platform that stubbornly refuses to even refer to its shows as podcasts.
Audible debuted Channels as an update to its app last year. Free to Amazon Prime members, Channels features a growing list of shortform audio shows that range from simple readings of major news publications like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to highly-produced narratives like Ponzi Supernova, a multi-part series that goes deep on Bernie Madoff’s multi-decade scam.
The Genius Dialogues is somewhere in between; it’s a Q&A show, but one that’s tightly edited and produced with a dash of sound design — basically what you’d find on a Fresh Air episode. I listened to several episodes, and while I don’t agree that Garfield acts like a “dick,” as he put it, he certainly isn’t afraid of being brash. “This will probably sound worse than I mean it,” he tells chemist Phil Baran in the first episode, “but you’re a genius and also evidently a bit of a moron. How do you not know until you’re 19 years old that you’re freakin blind?” (Baran’s answer: “Because I’m much more of the latter than the former.”)
What I like about the show is the heavy emphasis on each interview subject’s origin story. No matter how great and brilliant you are in a subject or field, there was a time when you were terrible at it and struggled to find your footing. Radiolab, for instance, is arguably the best podcast in existence, a perfect convergence of narrative, sound design, and the personal chemistry of its two hosts, but Garfield’s interview with Radiolab founder Jad Abumrad reveals it started out as a terribly boring Sunday radio show that nobody listened to. I’ve noticed an emerging trend of these “origin story” podcasts — everything from NPR’s How I Built This to Business Insider’s Success! How I Did It — and I asked Garfield if there’s a growing marketplace for them. “I don’t know what the marketplace is,” he said. “I didn’t pay attention to the marketplace when I built this, I just wanted to do it. And I just thought it was impossible to get an understanding for how these people came to be where they are without going back and starting at birth. A number of the episodes are highly dependent on getting to know how these people were as kids, if there was the illusion of pre-destiny. But I didn’t say, oh my gosh, I bet listeners are dying to learn about the origins of genius.”
I wondered why this show ended up on Audible Channels and not, given Garfield’s public radio roots, as a WNYC or NPR-affiliated podcast or show. In fact, Garfield had pitched the idea to NPR. A pilot was greenlit by Eric Nuzum, who was then the VP of programming at NPR. “And then he left for Audible about two years ago,” he said. “I said, hmm, you liked the idea then, do you like the idea now? And we started talking and negotiating with them.”
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I was surprised to learn there isn’t a lot of hand-holding for shows produced at Audible Channels — at least there wasn’t for The Genius Chronicles. I had imagined a studio full of sound engineers, story editors, and producers who worked to bring each show to life. Instead, the process for The Genius Chronicles was similar to what you might find if you were wanting to make a film or show for Netflix: Garfield and his production partner were given an agreed-upon sum of money and were expected to produce the show themselves. “What we do is decide who we want to talk to. We pre-interview them for an hour or so, and then we go out to where these people are and we interview the crap out of them. It really isn’t a formal interview. It’s somehow — I wouldn’t say more casual, but a little less rigid than the normal interview format. And we walk away with like five hours of tape or more. And then we come back and [producer Mickey Capper] hacks away at three and a half hours of it. And after we’ve talked about where we think the stories are, then Mickey and I sit down and turn that into 45 minutes. Then we send it to [co-founder and executive producer Molly Barton], who gives us notes, and then we have something that’s like 40 minutes. And then we send it to Audible, and they make their notes, and then we adjust to give a final product.”
I asked Garfield how producing a show for Audible differs from what he’s used to at WNYC. To his surprise, the process was much slower. “Let me put it to you this way,” he explained. “I used to be frustrated with the bureaucracy of NPR and WNYC. It would take too long to suit me for something to go from the ‘good idea’ stage to actually materializing in the light of day. Compared to what I’m accustomed to, Amazon is kind of glacial. Again it’s because they’re building something from scratch. They’re staffing up even as they do it.” This slower pace, however, worked to his advantage. “We had time to lovingly massage these episodes to make them just what we wanted in a way we never could have if we had the weekly deadlines of On the Media.”
The first season of The Genius Dialogues consists of 12 episodes, and Garfield said he doesn’t know yet whether there will be a second season, though he’d like to pursue one. After Ponzi Supernova debuted on Audible Channels, Audible began slowly dripping it out on free podcast apps, and Garfield suspects the same will be done with his show.
Given the closed ecosystem of Audible Channels, I wondered if Garfield thought it threatened the open access ethos of public radio. Most podcasts are platform agnostic, freely distributed across all apps, but a handful of shows have appeared as exclusives on Spotify, Stitcher Premium, and Audible Channels. This has worried some industry watchers who fear that Facebook-like walled gardens will be introduced to podcasting. Garfield, however, didn’t seem too worried. “If anything happens to public radio’s business, it’s not going to be because of Amazon,” he said. He pointed out that podcasting is still benefiting from a “rising tide lifts all boats” scenario in which the increasing popularity of the genre is introducing new listeners to shows.
“And as you know, it’s not entirely clear that there’s a business here, right? It is a golden age of content, but it’s not a golden age of revenue. I imagine there will be a whole shit ton of consolidation before long. So I don’t think there’s anyone in public radio saying hexes against Amazon.”