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Christopher Lydon recorded the original podcast in 2003 with Dave Winer. — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
Christopher Lydon covered politics for The New York Times from the Washington bureau in the 1970s. He hosted The Ten O’Clock News on WGBH TV through the 1980s, and he co-founded and hosted The Connection on WBUR in the ’90s. He recorded the original podcast in 2003 with Dave Winer, twenty years ago this week. With Executive Producer Mary McGrath, he makes Open Source, “an American conversation with global attitude.” He spoke to our Editor, James Cridland.
JC: When you sat down with Dave Winer 20 years ago, and you recorded what became your first podcast - did you think this was the start of something?
CL: I did. There was a tingle of experimental adventure, and I thought it was a moment because the Iraq war was already a moment, in my view, completely unexamined and debated. Illegal American war. A horror story unfolding. And I thought on a podcast people could break the public silence and say, Just that. And they did. There had been no debate, no intelligent inquiry about that war, much less about George W Bush in general. And suddenly the people had a voice. I thought that was critically interesting and important.
JC: The latest research says that 42% of Americans are listening to podcasts every month. Why do you think podcasts are now so popular?
CL: Well, there are so many kinds, James, as you know better than I. I think the American people are starving for good conversation and they find enough of it to come back time and again to podcast. That’s a very broad statement, but I think we’re just we’re evolving a new conversational system in this far flung democracy, and podcasting has a peculiar place in it, a very energetic, interesting place.
JC: Instead of just bloggers and academics, podcasting is now dominated by very large companies. What’s your take?
CL: It’s not the way I expected it. I mean, the instant commercialisation of this space, it was a surprise and I’d say a disappointment. On the other hand, it’s okay. They have their audience, I guess - other people have ours.
We belong to Hub & spoke really some extraordinary people and voices all over the place. I love the spirit of this little collective.
Tamar Avishai - in The Lonely Palette - does art criticism for real people. Erica Heilman - in Rumble Strip - does her own reflections in the northern tip of Vermont with the natives - regular people - and that’s another peculiarly powerful voice. We do our own thing, but there’s room for everybody.
JC: The big corporate companies are in, but there are also individuals with their own voice as well.
CL: The voice part is key. It has much more force and interest, much more punch than a letter to the editor. I’m with Studs Terkel about this fabulous instrument, Vox Humana. It’s an amazing thing and everybody get access. That’s a leap.
JC: Has podcasting changed the way you thought it would, 20 years on?
CL: It’s bigger. It is more commercial. It’s not monopolized - you cannot monopolize the human voice. And it’s still growing. Media is a very fluid world, but I think if the Martian landed and said “take me to your real voices” to get the pulse of this nation, I’d say: “try the podcasts”.
JC: Arguably that’s what radio was for. You have a tremendous radio background as well - where do you think radio is going?
CL: That’s a very good question - and a dark question. I think podcasting is a terrible burden on radio, public broadcasting and otherwise.
I note that Vermont Public Radio has dropped the radio. It’s now Vermont Public. WGBH dropped the W as if to say we’re not a broadcast station anymore, we’re some sort of other service. I think they’re selling the peculiar brilliance of radio short.
It’s cheap. Anybody can listen on a very cheap instrument, whether you’re out farming or doing the dishes. It carries the human voice. I think radio has stopped believing in the higher calling of radio itself, and I think it’s a damn shame.
JC: If you were in charge of a radio station now, what would you be doing with that?
CL: I’d be doing a whole lot of things. I’d be doing a lot of podcasting. I’d ask Erica Heilman to teach the world how to listen, but also how to listen to regular people. Our podcast is public people, people who’ve written books or maybe won a Nobel Prize or hold a professorial chair somewhere, and they’re advocating something. I would do what Erica does so brilliantly, which is just get the voice of listeners. Jay Allison did great work on this from the beginning of listener IDs. Let people talk until the dime drops, or they cough up the secret.
JC: So more of other people’s voices on the air, rather than just the silky voiced host?
CL: Absolutely. Absolutely! I’ve got an untrained voice. I sound like my brothers. We talked the way our parents taught us to talk. There’s nothing trained about my voice, so we’re going to keep it that way.
JC: And, it’s a thrill - having played that ‘first minute of the first podcast’ so many times, it’s a thrill to see the face behind the voice.
CL: James: tell me, what do you get still 20 years out of that conversation with Dave Winer?
JC: It was a real moment in technology where all of a sudden we were moving away from blogging of the written word to the spoken word. I think it was it was such a change. That was clearly the first episode of Open Source. That podcast is still going 20 years on. How has it changed over the last 20 years?
CL: Well, of course, we didn’t call it a “podcast” in that first thing with Dave Winer. He had said to me: you know radio, I know syndication and programming. Let’s see what we can do. And that’s what we did. It eventually became called a podcast - and it keeps evolving. We call it “Arts, Ideas and Politics with Christopher Lydon” - that’s pretty much anything we find interesting.
I’m stunned and thrilled, actually, that the most satisfying shows - to me - have been about music from famous conductors, but also to my own musical passions. Billie Holiday, Johnny Hodges of The Ellington Band. We did a wonderful show with Robin Kelley about the rediscovery of Erroll Garner, a genius of incredible proportions. And these things somehow tap into stuff I love profoundly. I didn’t know we’d ever go there.
I did a podcast just a few months ago with my youngest brother, who was dying of ALS. He lived in Ireland, in a community with handicapped people that he had invented. And I thought that we could talk every day and make a history of this disease. And his life was so glorious and so much fun, and so creative and productive that it almost outweighed the incredible injustice of his ALS. But, it was an original thing and people did enjoy it. I rediscovered my childhood, the magic of my parents, and his. There were six of us, and it turned out to be a very wonderful set of lives, privileged by good heads but wonderful parents and a generally good steer in life. So there’s a surprise. You couldn’t have imagined that as a commercial radio piece, but it ran for about 30 or 40 minutes and it’s good.
JC: You have a 20th anniversary episode just out, haven’t you?
CL: Yes, with Erica Heilman. And there’s another just unbelievable joy to discover. That woman’s voice: it’s just magic. And it’s more than magic - it’s not just a beautiful voice, it’s a voice that says “talk to me, it’s safe to talk to me”. And she’s had incredible results with that among her neighbours, among her friends, among people she doesn’t know of all kinds. It was just fun to stop and think about once again what radio can do.
I was a child, so to speak, of Tony Schwartz, an advertising guy in New York, and I met him through politics, he did commercials for George McGovern. He did a famous Coca Cola ad - the real thing", and and all this sort of stuff. He said that the message comes in through the ears. The video is just to distract you, or to hold you. He would do an office clock with the second hand moving slowly around, only to tell you it’s almost over, but then he would deliver the punch line in a voice - and he believed that the voice was magic. Even in our evolution, listening to the sound inside the womb, the two hearts beating, but then out on the plains of Africa, listening for trouble, listening for wildlife, listening for everything is built into us. We learned so much by ear, and that enthusiasm is part of my work.
JC: I was listening back to one of Dave Winer’s very first shows, Morning Coffee Notes, and this wonderful episode, which is just the the thunder and the lightning going on, and Dave just commenting on the noise and the light show.
CL: Isn’t that incredible?
JC: Well, there are many people who now owe their entire career to your pioneering spirit 20 years ago.
CL: Ha - that’s funny. Neither Dave Winer nor I ever made a dime on on what we were in on creating. But podcasting has made life a lot more interesting for a lot of people. Three cheers.
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