Love and Radio is a podcast with episodes that, like good art films, you can return to again and again and always find details you missed. It’s the opposite of the radio documentary that assumes listeners are only half there; every bit of the story structure and every bit of the sound design is meticulously crafted, so you don’t want to miss a single detail. The show covers a broad range of people: a “humiliatrix”; a former bicycle racer and reformed bank robber; a black pianist who befriended and convinced KKK members to give up their robes; a writer with poetic voyeurism.
Nick van der Kolk, the host of Love and Radio, spoke last weekend at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago. He talked about how quickly innovations can cease to be innovative, and how the makers of Love and Radio constantly look for new ways to tell stories. During the current season, they undertook the ambitious storytelling exercise of mixing the documentary format with staged interviews; at first it seemed to be a story about three suspiciously carefree people in a polyamorous relationship. About 15 minutes in, the music changed, and Davecat, the only man in story, revealed that his wife and mistress were actually Japanese sex dolls. Actresses had been performing the story that Davecat had imagined for his dolls, in a staged documentary interview with van der Kolk.
I spoke with van der Kolk about this story, and how Love and Radio maintains a specific feel with a diverse range of stories and storytelling techniques.
HANNAH HARRIS GREEN: How did you end up doing the story about Davecat and his dolls?
NICK VAN DER KOLK: A couple people actually suggested the story to me. And in general, I’m interested in stories that make me feel some sort of personal conflict. If someone’s doing something that I feel very clear on — whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing — that doesn’t pique my curiosity. Those feelings of ambivalence are what I go for.
When I glanced at the Atlantic article about Davecat, I was like, this is just kind of weird. I kind of forgot about it, and picked it up again a while later when I was trying to get new story ideas, and actually read it for real. And I found that in the interview he gave in Vice, he was incredibly self-aware, and articulated some things about relationships that I thought were surprisingly observant. I thought: Okay, I think there’s more here than what I initially thought. That’s always a good sign. I usually try to avoid people who have been covered a bunch in the news, but this was a case where I had a feeling that we had our own spin on it.
He’d been interviewed a bunch, and I sort of assumed he had been burned a couple times. I felt like, Okay, how do I get in this guy’s good graces? So I got on twitter and I tweeted at his wife, who is a doll. (Her Twitter account is run by him.) I asked if she thought her husband would be up for an interview, and she wrote back and said she would check. The next day he emailed me, and I didn’t get back to him immediately, so she tweeted at me and said: “Oh, you know, by the way, I told Davecat — did he ever get back in touch with you? Let me know if he hasn’t, I’ll put the thumbscrews on him.”
I started reading more about the fictional world he had created. I was instantly like, I want to bring life to that fictional world, and I want that to be the entry point.
So I emailed him, and told him my idea to hire actresses to play his wife and mistress, and he said he was totally down.
When I started listening, at first I thought: this is too normal for Love and Radio.
A normal story about polyamorous relationships, right? I mean, that’s the ideal form of a Love and Radio story: it starts out kind of weird, but you get deeper and further down the rabbit hole.
Have you ever gotten a pitch that made you say: “This is too weird for us”?
Oh yeah, all the time. Because the show often has these sensationalistic themes, people think that’s all I’m interested in. So I often get pitches for stuff that’s just salacious, but then there isn’t a “yes and” moment. I think actually, more than anything, the most important aspect of the show is how long it is, weirdly. That dictates the level of complexity in the stories.
So anyway, I’m not really answering your question.
We often get these salacious stories — I think the most memorable one was a guy who was an advocate for dolphin sex. And, like I said before, I need to feel some level of ambivalence. I don’t feel particularly ambivalent about that.
One thing that’s unusual about the show is that the interviewer’s voice is often far from the mic or over the phone.
That’s intentional. It wasn’t just a stylistic choice. I wanted to create the interviewer as a very present but somewhat mysterious character. There are a ton of reported pieces where you have a host or a reporter taking you through step by step. In that case, it’s like you’re hanging out with your buddy the reporter. They’re going to show you this interesting person, but they’re also going to hold your hand and make you feel comfortable. That’s the most common, but there’s also a fairly common tradition of non-narrated pieces. The Kitchen Sisters is a great example of that. And I felt like there was there was an in-between that could be hit that didn’t really exist anywhere else. So I was just moving in, trying to fill the vacuum.
Do you want the interviewer to be a mysterious character just so the audience is uncomfortable? Or do you want them to actually be wondering who the interviewer is?
When you do a non-narrated piece with no hint of someone else in the room, it becomes more of a monologue. That’s a very different — the audience has a very different relationship to someone delivering a monologue, because you are wholly, 100 percent in their world. I want people to feel deep empathy for everyone on the show, but I also want to remind people to have this little voice in the back of their head, a little remove from this person’s emotional reality that allows them to see it with more of an objective lens. That’s the purpose of keeping those questions in. And you know, we’ll keep questions in that aren’t necessary for context. I’ll put one in there just because I want to remind people that someone else is in the room.
You’ve lost subscribers because of a specific story — which I won’t name here — and its controversial content rubbing people the wrong way. Now that you’ve gained so many listeners, are you afraid of becoming more risk-averse?
Oh, absolutely. It’s an extra thing I have to fight against now. And I think about potentially starting a second show where I don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff, where I can get back to that kind of chaos.
Would it be very different from Love and Radio?
It would be totally unlistenable. I mean, maybe the most hardcore Love and Radio fans would like it.
I love making stuff and just playing it for a room of six of my friends. I find that just as emotionally satisfying. Now we have, I think, a few hundred thousand listeners, and that doesn’t feel any more emotionally satisfying to me than playing in a room of eight people.