October 19, 2015
David Remnick in the studio.

David Remnick in the studio. (Courtesy photo)

A quintessential man of print is turning to radio.

David Remnick, boss of The New Yorker, is a journalist-author-editor of eclectic tastes, sophisticated intellect and whirling dervish energy. He assigns, edits, gets off his butt to leave Manhattan to do actual reporting and writes cogently on multiple platforms. Now he’s got a new vehicle for his, and the magazine’s, mix of the incisive, the wry, pop culture, history, sports, foreign affairs and, well, you name it.

The New Yorker on Monday formally unveiled plans for “The New Yorker Radio Hour,” a radio show and podcast co-produced by The New Yorker and WNYC Studios. It will debut Saturday as part of the New York public station’s weekend offerings and will air on other public radio stations.

The one-hour show will reflect a potpourri of profiles, storytelling and conversation. The first show will include Remnick chatting with author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a personal saga from magazine staff writer Jill Lepore and New Yorker cartoonists chronicling the famous but fatiguing weekly cartoon-submissions process at the magazine.

It will not include the reading aloud of New Yorker stories, no matter how great. This won’t be a magazine version of books on tape. It’s a different medium, which he well knows and detailed during a phone chat.

It turns out Remnick and I share an ink-stained wretch newspaper past, a reverence for the late New York Post columnist Murray Kempton, profound respect for Muhammad Ali — and a love of radio.

And being a man of many enthusiasms, it was unavoidable to touch other topics, including the state of media and, of course, Vladimir Putin. Remnick, after all, was a Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post and won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for “Lenin’s Tomb.”

I adore radio. I did a midnight sports show on the college radio station and eight years of co-hosting, mostly from Washington, a politics show on WGN-AM, the Chicago powerhouse. I grew up in New York City, hiding a small transistor radio under the pillow and covertly listening to it after my folks declared it was time for bed. It was my connection to a faraway America. Tell me about your history with radio.

I was a childhood insomniac. I was living in a pretty dull town in New Jersey, and I would listen not only to the obvious music and rock and roll that would be blaring on my clock radio but to all varieties of talk that would go on all night. There was Bob Fass on WBAI Radio, a kind of meeting post on counter culture. Bob Dylan would pop by or Abbie Hoffman would talk about a demonstration at the Pentagon. There were strange comedians, all sorts of radicals. It was incredibly casual and strange and evoked a sense of a greater world beyond my town. There was a guy named Long John Nebel [actually, a very influential talk radio host]. You [Jim Warren] were on the Upper West Side, nearer the belly button of the universe. I was on the other side of the river. To have these emanations from the radio, or being broadcast from Midtown Manhattan, had a transfixing kind of effect. Allen Ginsberg would be reading something or a strange National of Islam preacher, Louis X [Farrakhan]. If you listen to the radio today, the level of innovation and creativity and strangeness on things — like Ira Glass or RadioLab — is kind of thrilling. The idea of taking this thing, The New Yorker, and figuring out how to translate it into into radio terms or a podcast, is a wonderful challenge.

Talk to me about this relatively new species, the podcast, in general. What seemingly separates the good ones from the not so good ones, and why you think it’s a good fit for you and the magazine?

A lot of them are narrow cast. So if you’re interested in comedy and the people behind it….say you want to listen to Marc Maron….a lot are a little bit more narrow cast than the old radio shows. What is thrilling is sense of inventiveness of trying new things. Look at “Serial.” They’re taking a very old method, which begins with serial publication of things like Dickens and Dostoevsky, and then make it new. In formal terms, it seizes on, say, the old New Yorker long-form series of the 1950s and 1960s, which uses techniques of story telling and suspending story telling, and the tension of that, and creates a new thing.

What do you have already lined up?

I like and appreciate radio enough to know you just can’t slap a bunch of New Yorker stories on the radio and talk them out. It’s dull and an insult to the form. It would be a mistake. You have to find things that fit to the form, whether, fiction or conversation. I won’t read you a profile over the radio. That is lazy and not interesting. Using people who are funny on radio in creative ways. There’s a piece by Jill Lepore, an historian at Harvard, about a childhood obsession, that that will be done in multi-parts. I will do the interviewing part of the show as far as extended conversations. The first one is with Coates about James Baldwin, with a sense of focus, not just his newest book. We’ll try to bring a sense of intensity and focus.

Are there any radio folks whom you check out? Ever listen to, say, Rush Limbaugh?

Oh, yes. I’ve listened to Rush. I used to listen more when on the road and in rental cars in the middle of the day. Now I listen when something has been said [of note in public discourse] and I might catch an extended snatch. But now I know what he is about. I grew up listening to Barry Gray [on New York’s WMCA-AM) and others on the right and far right.

In this multi-platform world, what’s the challenge for you, if it exists at all, in maintaining a set of values and standards that you presumably want to be synonymous with the magazine?

Our values are to be very clear to ourselves and to our readers and, now, our listeners; to offer a sense of maximal truth and fact checking and accuracy. A sense of seriousness when that is called for. A sense of deep play when that is what we are about. And a sense of ambition, of journalism that puts pressure on power, or that is unafraid, and innovative. The trick here is being not only respectful but creative about the individual medium. Radio is not just a bunch of things read off print. The Web, our approach to the Web, has evolved as we have gotten better. In the beginning all we had the resources for is [putting print pieces online]. It was just a new bottle. Now, it is in addition to what we do [in print]. We use its speed, video and audio. But we adhere to what we’re about, a set of values.

OK, now a different question since I can’t resist: You know Russia very well, won a Pulitzer for your coverage. Tell me briefly about Putin right now and, also, the certain conventional wisdom of his hoodwinking a weak Obama; a view that clearly irks Obama.

Oh, I listen to Russian radio and, behind the bluster, the swagger, the reports of his immense cleverness, his tremendous anxiety and weakness. The Russian economy is in terrible shape, the politics of Russia are increasingly authoritarian, which is not a recipe for future prosperity or good relations with the rest of the world. Clearly he wants to divert international attention from Ukraine and keep a foothold in the Middle East. As anyone has discovered, any military involvement comes with an enormous cost and uncertainty about what the next day brings. When I hear people in the press or candidates go on about what a genius Putin is, they don’t understand the sense of weakness, of isolation and the anxiety.

A media question: The Boston Globe just announced layoffs. It’s the latest in a drip, drip, drip reality at mainstream media outlets. Meanwhile, VICE seems to be thriving and Comcast just invested $200 million in BuzzFeed. Play media savant: what the hell is going on?

If you tell me that new institutions that are native to the Web, and intelligent about the Internet, will both fill in the space of institutions that are fading, and even exceed them in journalistic ambitions, and putting pressure on power, not merely tickling the funny bone, I not only can accept that but worry less about the future. But if the fading of certain institutions, as imperfect as they were, is not replaced, then I wonder who will discover what was going on in the Catholic Church in Boston, or put a corrupt mayor in jail, because that is essential in a functioning democratic republic.

Final question: How much do you sleep? You edit much of the magazine, you get out of the office and report and write. You crank out books and, now, a podcast.

I get enough.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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