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An Essential Podcast Unlocks Its Vault

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

There’s a news angle to this column, but let’s start here: One of the very first podcasts I heard other people talking about with any amount of reverence, back when I lived in New York and did things past 9 p.m., was Love and Radio.

Led by Nick van der Kolk, Love and Radio is an arty, challenging, some-would-say-revolutionary podcast that takes great pleasure in screwing around with the boundaries of what one usually expects when listening to a radio story or even a simple interview. The shape may shift and warp, but the standard L+R experience is essentially a portrait refashioned as a funhouse mirror. Subjects can be mundane but also distinctly peculiar at the same time: a crime-scene cleanera former soldiera hypnotist, artists of various kinds. The stories told are rarely straightforward; up often becomes down. Sex and sin are common thematic threads, particularly across the earlier seasons. When I think about L+R’s shot selection, I sometimes think of Las Vegas, and I mean this as a compliment.

For the public-radio-derived corner of the podcast universe, van der Kolk can feel like a kind of provocateur — which, of course, is a condition that leaves a strong impression. “Love and Radio was the podcast that made me interested in podcasting,” Avery Trufelman (Articles of Interest) told me recently. “It drew the line between what was radio and what this new medium could be.” Discussing the show, she recalls the Third Coast Award–winning “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” (produced with Brendan Baker and Nick Williams), which features a moment in which the titular Thunderbolt, an “in-home strip-club manager,” points a gun at van der Kolk midway through the interview. (Nothing malicious, don’t worry.) For Trufelman, the scene bottles up the significance of what Love and Radio brought to the game. “It really meant that all subjects, all perspectives, all forms and variance of journalistic integrity are on the table now, for better or worse,” she said.

Van der Kolk created Love and Radio with Adrianne Mathiowetz, the documentarian and photographer, back in 2005. The show started as an expansion of their college-radio-era experiments, in which they interviewed friends and professors. According to lore, it was Adam Conover — of Netflix’s The G Word With Adam Conover, by the way — who introduced him to podcasting as a format. “I’m pretty sure that makes us the longest continuously running narrative podcast in history,” van der Kolk told me. “No one has corrected me, so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

In 2014, Love and Radio was part of the original crew making up Radiotopia, the collective of independent podcasts managed by PRX that became a focal point for a certain artistic temperament within the medium. It stuck with that pack until 2019, when van der Kolk signed a deal with Luminary, the venture-backed startup that sought to build a podcast-subscription service and turned heads for its willingness to pay considerable sums for exclusive deals with podcasters. Van der Kolk released the show’s seventh and eighth seasons under this arrangement.

Who knows how many people subscribed to Luminary, or ended up listening to those episodes, but — and here we come to the news hook — soon everyone else will get the chance to listen to those Love and Radio podcasts that were on Luminary. Van der Kolk recently struck a deal with Headgum’s distribution arm, Gumball, to widely release those previously paywalled seasons. The first episode of the seventh season will be released to public podcast feeds everywhere tomorrow, with successive installments following on a biweekly basis straight through to the end of the eighth season. When I asked over email about the shift to wide release, van der Kolk had a straightforward answer: The Luminary contract expired, and his general preference is to have his work be as widely accessible as possible. “While balancing that with the financial needs of production,” he added, hence the original Luminary deal. Of Luminary itself: “I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of how I think the rollout could have been handled differently or how the show was marketed, but I liked everyone I worked with, I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I wish them all the best.”

It should go without saying that a boatload has happened since Love and Radio played with the paywall life. For one thing, there’s a global pandemic, — I don’t know if you remember. The podcast world consolidated in the interim, Spotify did its thing; everyone else followed later. Radiotopia lost two major pillars, 99% Invisible (sold to SiriusXM) and Criminal (sold to Vox Media, my employer); earlier this month, the collective announced that its executive producer, Julie Shapiro, was leaving for Novel, the U.K. podcast studio. I was reading old articles about Love and Radio for this column when I stumbled on this quote: “The podcasting world reminds me of indie music in its heyday: devoted fans, dedicated ‘label owners,’ dogged creators doing their own thing until an audience is revealed,” from Miranda Sawyer as part of an interview with van der Kolk she did for The Guardian in 2016. How things change.

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that van der Kolk remains somewhat mysterious. He’s older, obviously, now in his 40s. Also, he now lives in Europe, apparently, and has for some time. We were supposed to chat over the phone, but a series of intra-European summer-travel nightmares (and my own scheduling mishaps) resulted in us having to settle for written correspondence instead, and so when I tried to get some color on what his life is like, he replied, cryptically:

Today, I live in a ~200 year old Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in the rural northwest and begin my day by shoveling coal and peat briquettes into the boiler. Most days I end with a prosecco in the garden with my partner, where we play a game to see who notices the last birdsong of the evening. Then, occasionally I fly somewhere to interview someone about how they’d smuggle knives into prison in their rectum. It’s a weird life.

Many follow-ups came to mind. Of domestic specifics, obviously: Is the barracks a restoration job? Where do you purchase peat briquettes? How’s the Wi-Fi in rural Ireland? What’s the mortgage like? But I’m on deadline, and those queries will have to come another day.

I did, however, ask van der Kolk for his thoughts about the contemporary podcast business, hitting the ol’ reliable theme of the tension between art and commerce. First of all, he notes that he’s embarrassed to say he hasn’t been keeping up with new podcasts. These days, “If you see me in headphones, I’m probably listening to music or audiobooks.” (He did, however, note that he’s listening to Crypto Island.)

And on the scene more broadly, he seemed pensive. “It does feel like the Wild West of the 2010s, has come to the close, doesn’t it?” he wrote. “And the people with resources are much less comfortable with taking risks. But I’ll admit it’s kind of disappointing that we, as an … industry? Medium? …. have finally cultivated a large audience and a lot of excitement, and yet there’s very little out there that feels like it’s breaking new ground.”

Interestingly enough, I know some quiet fans of The Midnight Miracle, the Luminary exclusive co-hosted by Dave Chappelle, who would disagree.

The core team of producers on Love and Radio’s seventh and eighth seasons are Steven Jackson, Phil Dmochowski, and Julie DeWitt. Contributors include: Robin Amer, Nicki Stein, Noam Osband, Andrew Gill, Jonathan Groubert, Anne Ford, Thomas Curry, Ryan Katz, Mariah Woelfel, Mooj Zadie, Carter Conley, Stephanie Lepp, and Peter Lang-Stanton.

If you’re looking for a place to start with Love and Radio, van der Kolk suggests:

— “The Silver Dollar

— “A Girl of Ivory

— “The Living Room

And if you’re wondering what highlights await in the new seasons, his favorites are: “La Linea,” “The Other Hand,” and “Before the Law.”

What I’m Listening to This Week…

➽ Speaking of Radiotopia, the new Radiotopia Presents project, My Mother Made Me, features the poet-author Jason Reynolds (Look Both WaysLong Way Down) constructing a kind of joint memoir with his mother, Isabell. Four episode mine precious wisdom from a vibrant parent-child dynamic.

➽ Completely missed that the MUBI Podcast, Rico Gagliano’s excellent audio documentary series on global film (underwritten by the eponymous high-brow streamer), is back with a new season. Three episodes are out now; the first is on the Cinémathèque Française, the tiny French cinema of revolutionary import.

➽ Speaking of film, I’m told that Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary’s movie-curation podcast, The Video Archives, comes out this week, for those who might be interested in that kind of thing.

Meanwhile …

➽ Welp, Desus & Mero has ended, with both men said to be “pursuing separate creative endeavors moving forward.” Thus, Bodega Boys is almost surely, definitely over.

➽ You’re Wrong About is staging a four-city West Coast tour in September … that has almost sold out. Or already sold out, depending on when you’re reading this.

➽ Pushkin is buying Transmitter Media, the independent production studio, further beefing up the size of its staff. The move presumably allows the Gladwell/Weisberg-led firm to take on more work.

➽ Vulture’s resident mad genius Rebecca Alter spoke with Double Threat’s Tom Scharpling and Julie Klausner about their episode with Dylan Farrow unspooling Alec Baldwin’s recent inexplicable interview with Woody Allen.

➽ Hey, did you hear? Spotify playlists are TV shows now, apparently.

An Essential Podcast Unlocks Its Vault