RiYL at 50: A Primer

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I’ve received a grand total of one irritated letter about the show’s format over the course of 50 episodes. Not bad. Frankly, I’d expected a lot more casual listeners to be upset with the show’s complete lack of introduction, but this is the internet. Context is everywhere. There’s a description on the Boing Boing and Tumblr posts and one attached to each episode’s iTunes description.

From the beginning, one of the driving principles of RiYL was a conscious decision to buck the formatting foist upon the podcast world as shows made the transition from radio: the back announcing, the resetting, the overexplaining. If we view podcasts as simple extension of radio, we miss out on their value. Sure, I’m forever grateful for the ability to listen to the Radiolabs and This America Lifes [sic] of the world at my own leisure, but why do shows created specifically for this medium need be tied to old parameters?

I can name several podcasts I love, once I’ve made it past the first 15 minutes or so. For reasons that seem largely tied to old models, introductions are largely the realm of self-obsessed monologue. The idea here has simple: let’s dump people right into the middle of something.

Mark at Boing Boing began calling these “cafe conversations,” a description I’ve since totally taken to. Lots of times the interviews conducted for RiYL occur in the middle of literal cafes or diners or bars, bustling environments far away from the isolated eggcrate studios in which so many interviews are conducted. Once I finally hit on a mobile rig that worked well, I think the nature of the show really started to congeal. There are a number of phone interviews in amongst those early episodes, but after settling on a Tascam and two mics, I haven’t looked back.

There’s trimming happening, sure. The show’s editor Brian T can attest to the fact that you’re better off not hearing me explain the microphone set up to the guest at the top of every episode. On a whole, however, the flow and length are often pretty close to where we start out. Referring to online artwork, comics theorist Scott McCloud called the internet an “infinite canvas,” and I think that hold here. Server costs aside, I firmly believe there’s a place for long form conversations with interesting people.

There are plenty of places to get five minute soundbytes, but what the internet and podcasting affords us is the ability to treat an internet like an opportunity to eavesdrop on your favorite artist — or some other fascinating creative type who perhaps you’ve never heard of, but when they begin holding court on the stool next to you at the bar, it’s impossible to stop listening.

I’ll be the first to admit that the sort of free-flowing conversational interview that has come to define much of the show over the past 50 episodes doesn’t always work out. Not coming to the table with a specific set of questions has resulting in some interviews that didn’t quite go according to plan, but when things work out, it’s beautiful, with conversations taking you in direction you never anticipated when you sat down. Take the conversation with Scott Aukerman in which we discussed his writing the screenplay for A Shark’s Tale or this week’s Rhett Miller interview where a conversation about 9/11 yielded fascinating insight into the compulsion to create.

That’s the sort of stuff that makes this goofy little experiment worthwhile.

At the risk of negating all of those words above for the sake of a little contextualizing, I’ve decided to celebrate episode 50 by providing new listeners with a starting point. I realize that 50’s not a huge number when compared to many podcasts out there, but it feels like a significant milestone for someone who’s created and abandoned more podcast than most have listened to.

With that in mind, here are 10 personal favorites from among the 50, listed in alphabetical order by first name (so as to not play favorites amongst the favorites). Any should offer a reasonably good place to dive in.

Dave Allen: The former Gang of Four member discusses his journey from playing bass in one of post-punk’s most influential groups to becoming what he refers to as an “interactive strategist” and how to adapt in an ever-changing music industry.

David Cope: A former UC Santa Cruz professor who has been programming computers to compose classical scores since the 60s, this conversation touches on some fascinating implications of removing human beings from the creative process.

DJ Spooky: Conducted in the middle of Union Square in Manhattan, we discuss the importance of cities as the sirens and car horns create a symphony all around.

Jesse Thorn: My former college classmate and current host of NPR’s Bullseye opened up his podcasting studio for a conversation about sticking to your creative guns when the world doesn’t seem to want what you’re selling.

John Roderick: We sat down on The Long Winters’ frontman’s couch and just kind of let the tape roll on this one. Probably easier to list off what we didn’t discuss.

Karen Green: Columbia librarian Karen Green explains how she brought comic books into the ivy league university’s hallowed halls.

Marc Maron: Interviewing the interviewer about interviewing. Also, it was August in New York, so we naturally discussed the differences between LA and NYC.

Mark Frauenfelder: The Boing Boing boss and I sat down to discuss the role of curation in a world of woefully imbalanced signal to noise.

Martha Grover: Recorded in an empty Portland hotel lobby, the zinester discusses her parade of day jobs, battle with Cushing’s syndrome and how much our chemical makeup defines who we are.

Rodney Anonymous: When interviewing the Dead Milkman frontman, it’s best to just point the microphone and get out of the way.

Tim Stevens: My former Engadget boss and I sat down in a noisy Manhattan diner to discuss the state of technology journalism and that novel he’s been meaning to write.

And of course there’s episode 50 with Rhett Miller of the Old 97s, which just landed today. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be featuring interviews with Chris Hayes, Ben Harper, The Black Lips, Erik Friedlander, James Kochalka, Ultragrrrl and Peter Kuper, to name a few. Stay tuned! Oh, and you know, don’t forget to leave a rating on iTunes…

@44 minutes ago

Episode 049: Bob Fingerman

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In April of last year, Image Comics published Maximum Minimum Wage, a hardcover compilation of Bob Fingerman’s long-running Fantagraphics series. To this day, Minimum Wage and the subsequent collection Beg The Question remain the cartoonist’s best known work, telling the close-to-home tale of an artist struggling with work, love and life in New York in the 90s.

After a 15 year hiatus spent on various comics projects and a trio of prose novels, Fingerman picked up the story again in January with a new series bearing the same name, set three years after the end of its predecessor. I met up with Fingerman in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife to discuss returning to a project after nearly a decade and a half and how to get back into the mindset of younger, poorer time.

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@1 week ago with 12 notes

Episode 047: Box Brown

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Full-disclosure: Box Brown is the artist behind RiYL’s logo, so in a sense, he’s sort of been on-board since the very beginning. For my part, I’ve been aware of his work since the earliest days, when he first began exploring the medium, posting his loosely autobiographical comics on messageboards of established cartoonists like James Kochalka. With several years and a number of self-published floppies and webcomics distance, I feel comfortable saying those early strips were really, really rough.

I can’t think of a single cartoonist whose work I’ve watched progress from such an early stage. And it was no doubt that exact drive to put his stuff out in the world that helped Brown improve by leaps and bounds, culminating with the forthcoming release of his first full-length book, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, which examines the man behind one of professional wrestling’s largest legends.

Brown and I met up at a coffee shop next door to Locust Moon, my favorite comic shop in Philadelphia. We discussed giving it all up to pursue your dream — and, like zine publisher (and friend of Brown) Robert Newsome before him, the cartoonist was more than happy to discuss his lifelong love of professional wrestling with a podcast host who’s only just beginning to familiarize himself with the subject.

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Oh, and as we approach episode 50, I’m asking listeners to let me know which RiYL episodes have been their favorite, thus far. Please send any feedback to riylcast@gmail.com
@3 weeks ago with 54 notes

Episode 045: Molly Crabapple

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One of the things this show has afforded me is the opportunity to catch up with folks I haven’t spoken to for some time. Molly Crabapple and I both became less involved in the New York comics seem at roughly the same time, albeit for very different reasons. The artist has transformed her instantly recognizable Victorian cartooning style into a one woman industry of sorts.

In fact, she jokingly noted recent online accusations that this so-called “Crabapple” person was actually a collective of people posing as a single person, and it’s easy to see why. She’s been plenty busy, between art exhibitions, murals, illustrations and an increasing interest in social justice, which recently led Rolling Stone to call her “Occupy [Wall Street]’s greatest artist.” It’s a fascination that has taken her around the world, to unexpected locations like the courtrooms of Guantanamo Bay.

As usual, she’s keeping a tight schedule, the night we meet up in her Manhattan studio / residence, about to run off to work on a mural she’s not really at liberty to speak of, just yet. So we’ll have to keep this one short, but I think we did a pretty good job cramming as much in to 30 minutes as possible.

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@1 month ago

Episode 043: Doug Gillard

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I’d just watched that bizarre Beatles anniversary tribute in a bar the night before, the 50th anniversary one, where John Legend and Alicia Keys did horrible things to “Let it Be,” and Paul and Ringo, the nice guys that they are just sat there in expensive suits and smiled. I only mention this because I couldn’t help but let such a spectacle inform this conversation with Doug Gillard, who, along with members of Nada Surf and Cat Power, has been paying homage to the early days of the fab four off and on for the past few years in the form of Bambi Kino, a tribute to the Beatles’ Hamburg days.

The existence of that group was only recently made known to me, with the band having gotten back together recently to do their own Ed Sullivan anniversary tribute. My own familiarity with Gillard goes back to his days in Guided By Voices as the guitarist for the band’s final pre-breakup formation. In the wake of that band’s dissolution, Gillard’s signature black Les Paul seemingly popped up in every group under the indie rock umbrella, from the Oranges Band to Nada Surf.

Only recently was I exposed to his solo work, as though the seemingly endless parade of bands weren’t enough to occupy his time. Gillard performed a handful of songs as part of a tribute to the recently deceased musician/critic Scott Miller. The solo acoustic set was a low-key affair — a far cry from the booze-fueled bombast of a Guided By Voices live set. True to form, Gillard’s new record, Parade On, delightfully bounces between sounds as diverse as the bands the guitarist calls home.

Gillard, a fellow Queens resident, graciously agreed to swing by my Astoria apartment to discuss all of the above over a little Maker’s a mug of green tea.

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@1 month ago
#doug gillard #guided by voices #nada surf 

Episode 50: Rhett Miller

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“She Loves the Sunset” from 2008’s Blame it on Gravity is a peppy little number about love and loss. It’s a good song from a good record, but hardly a standout in the Old 97’s catalog. What makes the track so fascinating is its origin story, and while I’m generally one to wince at the prospect of discussing 9/11 three minutes into an interview with the front man of an alt-country band, the events that led Rhett Miller to write the track entirely on a toy güiro borrowed from a marionette in the wake of the biggest attack on US soil are fascinating indeed.

Among other things, it’s the story of a musician compelled to make music at all costs, a story that plays out several times on the band’s forthcoming record Most Messed Up. “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential,” Miller sings in the lead off track. “And most of this stuff should be kept confidential.” But if it doesn’t break his own rule, “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and a number of other tracks from the LP certainly bend it as the band tackles precisely what it means to have been playing in a band for longer than many of its fans have been here on Earth.

Miller and I took up that conversation over some whiskey and plate of pepper backstage at New York’s City Winery.

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@20 hours ago

Episode 048: Avi Reichental

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Like the rest of the world, I’ve been utterly fascinated at the technological prospects and societal implications of 3D printing for the past few years. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to explore the space for other outlets, but have been looking for the right way to approach it by way of the RiYL format. When 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental swung by the city to address the Inside 3D Printing conference in Manhattan, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The company has been at the forefront of the space since 1986, when co-founder Chuck Hull invented the process of stereolithography, which gave rise to the world of industrial additive manufacturing. The company’s been a player on the business side since then and has also spent the last several years developing a consumer facing arm for the quickly growing world of desktop 3D printing.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, of course, but I think we make a valiant effort, tackling the the viability of consumer technology, the on-going patent wars and the recent controversies surrounding 3D printed weapons.

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Oh, and as we approach episode 50, I’m asking listeners to let me know which RiYL episodes have been their favorite, thus far. Please send any feedback to riylcast@gmail.com
@2 weeks ago

Episode 046: Ben Lindbergh

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My knowledge of sabermetrics is elementary, at best. I know that it’s utterly transformed baseball analysis and helped get a lot of plush clubhouse jobs for an army of number crunching math geeks. I know that it involves a close examination of traditionally undervalued statistics like on-base percentage and foul balls. I know it’s caused writers and managers to rethink the amount of emphasis put on traditionally overvalued indicators like batting averages and strikeouts.

Like most the rest of the world, the majority of my knowledge on the subject begins and ends with Michael Lewis’s 2003 sports writing masterpiece, Moneyball. Since the book was released, sabermetrics’ influence on the sport has continued to grow, affecting both back room analysis and on-field play. It’s also helped to redefine baseball journalism, most prominently in the work of Baseball Prospectus.

The site has roots reaching back to the mid-90s, in the form of an annual still released each year ahead of the new season. Commonly regarded as a sort of spiritual successor to Bill James’s pioneering publication, Baseball Abstract, BP has maintained a cutting edge analysis of the games widely read by fans and management alike.

The site’s editor in chief Ben Lindbergh sat down with me the week prior to opening day in a Manhattan cafe blaring the hits of the 90s to discuss how a group of statistic geeks have transformed our national pastime.

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@4 weeks ago

Episode 044: Shlomo Lipetz

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I first encountered Shlomo Lipetz backstage at the City Winery. The 6’4 mustachioed gentleman is a tasked with booking acts the restaurant/venue, a job that lets him interact with the likes of Nick Lowe, Glenn Tilbrook and an impressive roster of well-known musicians who’ve played the intimate sit-down setting. It’s a job that only promises to grow more hectic with the recent openings of satellite venues in Chicago, California and Nashville.

A cool job by any measure, but it’s Lipetz’s afterwork passion that made me want to sit down with him in front of a pair of mics. A few times a year, he returns to his native Israel, where he dons a hat and glove to play the part of the country’s greatest native baseball player. “How many people can say they’re the best at anything?” I ask. Lipetz waves the question away modestly, pointing out that, in the country of eight million, fewer than 2,000 people actually play the sport.

The sport’s history in the country is just as anaemic. In 1986, when Lipetz first learned of the game by way of a Mets game on a trip to visit relatives in the States, the country had a single decent ball field, albeit one entirely lacking in a pitcher’s mound — an essential element for the position Lipetz would later adopt.

Returning to home after the visit to New York, Lipetz cobbled together a team using classmates who were, at best, vaguely familiar with the sport. The pitcher describes his early days with a certain fondness, games played in sweats with mismatched jerseys and adult softball mitts on repurposed soccer fields.

The early losses were, naturally, brutal, with the team scoring its first run in its second year of tournament play. By 18, however, Lipetz’s ball playing skills were strong enough to earn him a military deferment and to land him a gig playing the sport at a school in Southern California.

Lipetz and I sat down at City Winery during a Bob Mould soundcheck to discuss the state of the growing sport in his homeland.

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@1 month ago

Episode 042: Amber Papini and Nathan Michel

Hospitality lived up to their name, for the record, when I paid a visit to their Red Hook apartment. A day after the release of their second record, Trouble, things were decidedly low key in the apartment shared by vocalist  Amber Papini and percussionist Nathan Mitchel. When I arrived, there was no indication that the band had only just released a new record, only food on the stove and some quiet before the touring storm.

We exchanged some words about Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett, both in-studio hummers, as I untangle a mess of cables. I off-handedly make a comment about a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung sitting nearby with a bookmark nestled halfway through. Mitchel answers that he’s attempting to get into the mind of a critic in the wake of the album’s release. “You’re not a critic, are you?” He asks. I’m not sure how to answer.

I enjoyed the conversation, though I did feel myself falling back on stock music journalist questions, from time to time, as Papini and Mitchel passed the mic back and forth. It wasn’t so much out of habit as a genuine interest in the goings-on of a band the week of their sophomore release. By outward appearances, things appear mostly the same in their lives, but the buzz generated by the release of the band’s self-titled debut in 2012 has certainly amped up expectations for the record’s followup.

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@1 month ago