An Advantage of Awkwardness

To my ears, Love + Radio has one of the freshest sounds of any radio show around. The episode “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” (warning: not kid friendly) is a perfect illustration of how to make radio that feels immediate. It’s an interview with a man who runs a strip club from his house, and it’s a lot more.

This piece does a lot right, especially in its use of music, and in the intensive re-shaping of recorded sounds, through editing.

There’s one neat trick in particular I want to focus on: This piece makes excellent use of a difficult/awkward interview, and it does so by keeping the producer in the story.

First, some background. Love + Radio is produced by a guy named Nick van der Kolk, and there’s not much information about him on the internet. He usually inserts his voice into the show in subtle ways, but I’ve never heard him host. The shows tend to consist of one or several stories, carefully and thoroughly soundtracked with music. The biggest dissimilarity it has with a show like This American Life, is Love + Radio never really tries to draw a moral from its stories, the way Ira Glass likes to. Also, the movement of a show is pretty organic. Van der Kolk tends to just connect his stories one to the other, not really announcing where one begins and one ends. In other episodes, short, creative interludes break up longer stories. It’s a form I’m drawn to, but it can be disorienting to a new listener. “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” is a single story, but, as with most Love + Radio pieces, it kind of asks you to figure out where you are. So let’s get to that trick.

The piece includes a rendition of van der Kolk’s attempt to get an interview with Thunderbolt. Two actors perform the dialogue, in which Thunderbolt is fairly rude — at least aloof, and asks for money. “You’re trying to date me, not the other way around,” he says. When the interview finally starts, we hear Thunderbolt complain that no money was brought. Van der Kolk tries to explain that his radio station is a non-profit. It’s a somewhat antagonistic conversation, and van der Kolk, sensing this, offers to buy beer. Thunderbolt insists on tequila. We know this will be an interesting conversation, and he loves to talk; we can also hear an antagonistic edge, a resistance to give the interviewer what he wants.

Van der Kolk decides to include their interactions, and, even though he kind of apologizes for it at one point, the inclusion of van der Kolk’s perspective is really important.

Some radio producers, such as the Kitchen Sisters, like to excise themselves completely from what they make. That’s an admirable tack. But a lot can be gained from opening up the hood, and letting the listeners hear how the piece got made. In this story, we start by hearing Jay, the protagonist, relate a story of being shot when he was a child. Van der Kolk’s questions play a prominent role in the tape. This is nothing too deviant by radio standards. Even straight-forward programs like Marketplace will use tape of the reporters asking question in scene.

But next comes something more unusual. We hear a phone ringing. Is it Thunderbolt’s? we wonder. We hear a beep, someone answering the phone. Then van der Kolk’s voice, “So, Noah, can you describe what Thunderbolt’s house looked like after we arrived?” Noah, who presumably is van der Kolk’s co-producer, launches into a description of the place. It’s a cool trick, reminding one of Radiolab’s penchant for embedding narrator within narrator, up to three or four layers deep. The effect is nicely disorientating. It keeps the listener on his/her toes, and it gives the listener a feeling of participating in the creation of the story, rather than the passive receiving of a “made” story.

If you ever have an interview that goes badly, let this episode of Love + Radio to remind you that it’s possible to make something brilliant out of something that initially seems like a bust – because the bust – and how you got yourself out of it – can become a critical part of the story.

The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt
Produced by Brendan Baker, Nick van der Kolk, and Nick Williams for Love + Radio in 2011
28 Minutes