People Who Podcast: Bob Garfield Talks Inspiration in ‘Genius Dialogues’

In this divisive political climate it’s tempting to reach for that old saw that says “how come there’s never any good news?”

Bob Garfield attends the Brand Meets Story Panel during the 53rd New York Film Festival at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on September 27, 2015 in New York City. Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

This is People Who Podcast, where we talk to the people behind some of the most fun and interesting podcasts available today. Why do they make their shows? What do they love about them? And is podcasting actually a viable career option to today’s recent batch of graduates?

In this divisive political climate it’s tempting to reach for that old saw that says “how come there’s never any good news?” It feels very discouraging and unempowering to focus so much and so often on things in the news that so many of us feel we have to fight against. For those who are tired of reading discouraging things all the time, and especially for those who have gotten so tired of the news that they ignore it entirely, I am extremely pleased to be able to recommend to you that you listen to The Genius Dialogues.

The Genius Dialogues is a podcast on Audible Channels that shines a spotlight on select individual winners of the MacArthur Fellows Program. The program is part of a foundation that since 1981 has yearly awarded outstanding achievement in science, arts, and humanities with generous cash grants. There are currently 942 grant winners since its inception with the 2017 winners not yet announced, and the award currently stands at $625,000 paid out over 5 years.

Veteran journalist Bob Garfield is the host of the podcast and brings a hearty sense of wit, charm and candor to the proceedings. It’s kind of a radio version of A & E’s old Biography series or Inside the Actor’s Studio if it was open to people that influence our world for good. Bob gently prods his guests through a series of questions to get them to open up about their life and how they came to be at the place they are at now. And the place they are at now is amazing! I was thrilled and inspired to hear about the outstanding work of these geniuses and to find out about their process and work ethic. If you’ve ever wanted to hear more about how David Simon created The Wire then this is for you. Or if hearing about how language translation and cheap portable microscopes have been brought to the masses excites you, then The Genius Dialogues is also for you. Ultimately the guests on the show are so diverse across so many fields that anyone halfway looking for something to be inspired by will find something to get excited about.

In their stories of struggles and failures we can see ourselves, and recognize the commonality we have with all people. One of the main lessons is that hard work and the freedom to play with ideas, even ones that may not go anywhere, is what can truly change the world.

The talks are friendly, conversational, and even take on a breezy tone while still being packed with that most important element – storytelling. Tight editing, Bob’s focused questions, and the genius’s excited recollections of their journey towards accomplishment and self-fulfillment create a compelling narrative in only 30 minutes that wraps up every episode with 10 questions called the lightning round.

Bob also co-hosts another podcast called On the Media that closely examines important issues in the news, how they affect us, and the context of what to do with that information. Some of their recent topics like gerrymandering, and America’s history of anti-intellectualism have wormed their way into my brain matter, and opened me up to new ways of thinking. Bob deals with these subjects in an evenhanded and friendly manner which reminds us that the truth is not something to be feared, and that discussing complex issues in an open and honest way without letting emotion cloud our judgement is very freeing, and can give us hope for a brighter future. 

Observer: It’s been a pleasure listening to On The Media. I think it has a slight liberal bias, but it seems to be the most evenhanded commentary on the news that I can imagine.

Bob Garfield: Thank you. I don’t deny liberal, but I would hesitate to say bias because we’re certainly not doctrinaire except when it comes to civil liberties and the first amendment. What we pride ourselves on is evaluating everything on its face, then looking to contextualize it, and not to prejudge anything. However, I think we’ve given succor to those on the left who believe that we’re in a historically dangerous situation, because we think so too.

I love the ideas in The Genius Dialogues, and how you don’t insert yourself into interviews; very seldom do I hear you direct your guests towards anything that came from you. You give the interviewees questions culled from all your research on them.

Bob: In every case in the show there’s only one genius in the conversation, so it seems to me to be pretty stupid to monopolize the conversation in any way or insert myself where I don’t belong. On the other hand I have a filter problem, so if there’s something said that strikes me as odd or surprising or dubious I jump right in. I called one of the geniuses a moron when he told me he was blind till the age of 19 and didn’t realize it. But ultimately, the show isn’t about me.

Those little moments like that really make the show. You say what I imagine the listener is thinking sometimes, and come right out and say it.

Bob: There are two premises to this show. The first premise is that we as a society lavish attention on celebrities, and any number of Kardashians, and yet here are these people who are not only brilliant, but are brilliant for the sake of all humanity. The Macarthur Award recognizes not only creativity, but also self-sacrifice. Every fall 25 or so winners are announced, and they get a large cash prize out of the blue. In the intervening time, almost no attention is paid to the work that was generated to get that recognition; and the work is phenomenal, and their stories are remarkable and really fascinating.

I don’t know if you listen to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, but she’s very good at getting really intimate with her guests and asking penetrating questions that her guests are comfortable with answering because of the rapport she creates. So my notion is what if Terry Gross was a dick, and willing to break the conventions of interviewing? What if she was willing to ask really impertinent questions or sometimes just incredulous ones if the situation presents itself? Again, it’s not about me, but when the situation calls for it I’m not afraid to be me.

Some of the things your guests talked about on the show were endlessly fascinating and stuck with me, like the foldscope and duolingo for instance. How many things that were talked about on the show have you gotten to play with, and what were you most impressed by?

Bob: I have played with duolingo which is remarkable, but it was one order of magnitude more remarkable when I found out what was happening. The free language learning software is a great gift to people, and especially to people in developing countries where learning other languages makes all the difference to their lives. It turns that when you do exercises in translating a language, you are helping the service to pay for itself by doing translation for a commercial customer. Maybe CNN is buying transcripts of Spanish students translating CNN into English; which is so cool it’s like double dipping in human labor, and it just blew my mind. The foldscope is a real microscope, not just some dinky magnifying glass, and it costs about a dollar to make and gives you access to the microscopic world. It’s even got a battery that lights up the sample of whatever you’re looking at. That makes it useful for serious science, and puts it in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise have no access to the basic tools required.

Carl Haber was talking about recovering music and you played some snippets of some of the very first recordings. Do you know if it’s possible to go back and recover that audio further and clean up the sound?

Bob: I don’t know what computer technology can bring to bear on it. You know how in cop thrillers the computer slowly turns a fuzzy picture into a high resolution one? I think there’s only so much that can be done for these original recording media because they were so primitive. The first one you hear in this episode is literally etched with a stylus or a feather onto charcoal paper, and that was the medium for transferring sound waves onto a graphical representation. It took some doing just to get that to play in any recognizable fashion, and some of the early wax recordings that we play are equally difficult to hear. I was able to hear Alexander Graham Bell’s voice and that one guy swearing. It was pretty great to hear some 19th century profanity.

Do you think you would ever take a sample lesson from Elizabeth in Brooklyn?

Bob: No. I don’t want harm to come to my body.

I’m sure they have beginner classes.

Bob: They do, but it’s mostly little kids. I don’t want to hurt myself running into a wall or having a piece of equipment hit me because I’m too slow to get out of its way or fall on the other kids in the class who are maybe more spry than I. You have to understand that I am the oldest living American. I will be 62 years old, and I am not as quick on my feet as I once was. I think my days of pop action are probably long passed.

One of my favorite episodes was about the Amazing Randi. I’ve long been fascinated with magicians, and he sounded like he was following in the footsteps of Harry Houdini the way he was exposing people.

Bob: That’s correct in two ways. He became an escape artist, which was Houdini’s most famous skill, and he lost patience with those who used their magical skills to form a moneymaking type of cult around themselves. He’s spent more than half of his nearly 90 year old life now using his knowledge and skills to debunk false claims of occult supernatural esp and other supposed paranormal phenomenon, and he’s fought a battle for rationality in human understanding. It kind of reminds me of the multi volume book The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant where their central metaphor was that the world is fundamentally barbaric, and you have to constantly keep the jungle from encroaching on the clearing that is civilization. I think it’s the same way with human reason that there’s always the tendency to believe in what is easiest and more satisfying to believe instead of what evidence provides. The Amazing Randi has spent his life exposing frauds, and he knows that someone better take up for him when he’s gone, because it’s a never ending struggle.

You could say that about a lot of things I’m sure.

Bob: You can and have as you know!

Something you’ve said in the podcast a few times is the phrase “put that out of your mind” like when you were talking about the former basketball player Will Allen and you wanted the audience to take their generic image of a basketball player out of their head. What image should we put out of our minds about you?

Bob: I don’t know what people think of me to begin with, so it’s a little tough for me to say. That’s the thing about the radio, people form a pretty specific image of you. They feel they have an intimate relationship with you when they have no idea what you look like, what your life looks like, and how you present. I do a lot of speaking and there’s been years of people doing double takes because I’m not what they expected. They’re not expecting someone who exudes such transcendent humanity and raw erotic energy and the simple milk of human kindness. I just don’t think they expect that to be flowing from me, but of course it does. They should probably know that I’m the hardest working guy in the podcast business. I have a lot going on. I work 7 days a week and I’m fundamentally a loser.

This show means a lot to me, and it’s a lot of work. I spend a lot of time with these folks and I think the listeners would really benefit from hearing about their work because it’s so freekin amazing and often so inspiring. One thing about me is when I leave these people part of me is inspired, part of me is impressed, and part of me is just enlightened in ways I hadn’t known I could be. But a bigger part of me just feels like a piece of shit. I feel like such a parasite, what have I done to help the world? These people they just make me feel small. Not intentionally, but I’m glad to live in a country that has cultivated this kind of talent and devotion. I really am. Lately I sometimes get demoralized about the country, and these MacArthur Fellows have been just a breath of life for me, and I hope they have the same effect on the listeners.

It’s had an effect on me for sure. How do you go about picking the guests for the show or do you send invitations to all of the winners?

Bob: We have a pretty good reservoir of people to choose from; there are about 500 already. The first way I choose is whether I personally can be interested in the person and their work. It’s a pretty eclectic group; we have a hardcore choreographer, an organic chemist, computer scientists, artists, tv writer producer, urban gardener, investigative journalist. It’s a pretty good cross section of MacArthur honorees. I have to be able to get interested. Some things no matter how impressive I just can’t get my head around, so there’s that. I also have to come up with a few decent questions. If it’s so beyond my capacity, like astrophysics, that I can’t even summon a coherent question or even a stupid one, then I’m wasting my time. The guests have to be good talkers. There are a lot of accomplished people out there who are not at ease talking about themselves and their work. We talk to everybody for an hour or so before interviews are booked so we’re sure that the interviewing process itself will go smoothly. We spend hours with them, but it’s useless if its hours of 3 word answers or what I’m going through now which is the inability to form a sentence.

Six hours of talking and you cut it down to about a half hour. That’s pretty good.

Bob: The biggest trick is to cut out my questions. That shortens it up right quick.

There have been some interesting phrases on the podcast that seemed to get you a little frustrated like when Jorge Pardo said something like “the discourse of the machine?”

Bob: He used some expression that sounded to me like it was some sort of artistic bullshit like when artists write a statement of purpose to go with their exhibits. It smacked of bullshit, but he answered it quite quickly. There was a perfectly clear translation of his sentence that I was completely baffled by. It sounded like meaningless jargon, but it wasn’t.

Do you think you’ve agreed with pretty much everything your guests have said?

Bob: You mean assertions or viewpoints of the interviewees? No, but in several of the episodes, I was a little skeptical of the guests narratives. I’m thinking of one in particular, Elizabeth Streb. We went back and forth on her narrative of how her remarkable energetic unique art evolved. I felt she had some internal contradictions in what she was saying, and I further suspected she wasn’t being entirely honest with certain aspects of how her work evolved. I called her out on those things, and she gave a little ground. I’m not suggesting she was being dishonest. I’m just saying that maybe there was something that I noticed that she didn’t.

I play the role of pop psychologist and in some instances, like with Jad Abumrad, producer of Radiolab, and the Amazing Randi, drew people out on stuff that I don’t think occurred to them. I was pleased that I didn’t just necessarily accept their narratives of their life as the last word. None of them was a hostile or confrontational interview, not counting the part where I called Phil Baran a moron. I have a pretty good eye and ear for what doesn’t fit into this picture and in a few occasions I pointed those out. Remember I spend a good part of my interviewing time (in On the Media podcast) listening to people lie to me, so it’s not as though I’m there to glad hand. I like to get to the bottom of things even if I’m fundamentally sympathetic with the person I’m talking to.

It was very memorable when Manu Prakash said, “You have to populate the world with ideas.” What were some of your favorite moments on the show?

Bob: There were some beautiful things said, and because I am so old and reasonably senile I don’t remember anything or any conversation immediately before you; it just doesn’t stay. There was one moment though that just knocked me off my chair. I’m getting to the end of a long long conversation with Jorge Pardo, the globally prominent artist, and I wondered what art he hung on his walls. He said that he had one reproduction of a famous Spanish painting, and he didn’t have any original art on his wall not even from himself or other colleagues. “Do you like art?” I asked him. And he said “no, not especially.”

That’s worth the price of admission right there.

Bob: One Velazquez reproduction, and nothing else because he’s not a big fan of art. That’s like Joe DiMaggio saying he doesn’t like baseball.

Do you mind if I ask you the lightning round questions from the Genius Dialogues?

Bob: As God is my witness I have never been asked them or thought about them before so this should be interesting.

What is your favorite movie that you think is no one else’s favorite movie?

Bob: I would say King Rat a movie made in the 60’s starring George Segal of all people about a Japanese prison camp in Singapore during World War II.

What apart from your field are you fanatical about?

Bob: I would say film. You could argue that it’s part of my field because I’m a media critic, but film and literature. I really follow sports too, which is the real thing to get to your earlier question about what makes no sense within the larger context of me. If you followed my career there is nothing that would predict that I read box scores every day, but I do.

That reminds me of Hunter Thompson doing all those sports columns towards the end of his career.

Bob: I shot automatic weapons with him in the desert at a Soldier of Fortune convention in the ’80s. That was a highlight. He was a shitty shot by the way. Of course he might have been medicated.

What character trait best describes your self-image?

Bob: I gotta pick one. I know these are my rules. Persistence.

That’s needed today. Describe your most frightful recurring dream.

Bob: I’ve committed a horrendous crime, in fact a murder. Sadly what’s scary about it is not that I’ve committed the crime, but that the police are closing in on me. I’m 100 percent certain I haven’t murdered or harmed anybody, but that dream does happen every few years.

What fills you with rage and what do you do with that?

Bob: Congressional Republicans, and I tell everyone.

Indeed. What are you terriblest at?

Bob: Dancing. It doesn’t stop me from trying though, remember the persistence part. Much to the chagrin of my children I still go out there and shake it. It’s sad though. It looks like a seizure. It’s mostly at weddings or clubs when I’m traveling abroad. It’s not pretty.

What did you truly and exquisitely fuck up?

Bob: Oh so many things. I’ve carved out a decent little career but it’s built on mountains of failure. We don’t have the time to describe all the things that I’ve fucked up. I should also add that I didn’t do a great job with my adolescent children. They’re fine now. Two of them are adult women, who I’m very close to, and one is an adolescent child, but I’m keeping my head above water.


People Who Podcast: Bob Garfield Talks Inspiration in ‘Genius Dialogues’