Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Here's the Thing

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Vital stats:
Format: actors, musicians, and intellectuals interviewed — by Alec Baldwin!
Episode duration: 20m-1h
Frequency: 2-3 per month

Here’s the Thing [RSS] [iTunes] is an interview show hosted by Alec Baldwin. Perhaps your curiosity requires no more detail than that. I wonder how much more detail the development of the program itself required. One easily imagines Alec Baldwin casually mentioning how he’d damn sure like to host one of those smart public radio shows, then a higher-up over at WNYC immediately giving the notion a pre-emptive green light. A prominent, name- and voice-recognizable middle-aged political liberal with a wide range of celebrity buddies (whoa, David Letterman?) a non-famous host would struggle to land? Add it up, and Baldwin almost slots too well into the existing machinery of American public radio.

Then again, one just as easily imagines a troubled gestation. Public radio, already a mildly anxious field, has fallen into the thrall of a lot of ideas about its relationship to the terminally anxious field of greater journalism. The industry has long provided refuge to many a program director who would dismiss the concept of an Alec Baldwin interview show out of hand as frivolous, unserious, insufficiently informational. I fear Here’s the Thing, despite its relative chastity of form, therefore qualifies as one of those Bold Experiments in Public Radio™. Somehow, the view of the show a comfortable no-brainer and that of the show as a brow-furrowing risk seem equally plausible. By the same token, Baldwin himself comes off as, simultaneously, an impressively thoughtful, curious accidental interviewer and a Hollywood actor “dicking around” between jobs.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” so this actually reflects well on Baldwin and/or his listeners. Actors strike me as especially possessed of this ability, though anyone who regularly listens to interviews with them — on one of those smart public radio shows or elsewhere — may with good cause hesitate to rank their intelligences at the first rate. I wondered if, perhaps, actors more willingly reveal their intellectual depths in the company of their own; if so, we’d hear it on Here’s the Thing. I mean, if Baldwin’s acting buddies — and you’ll hear from the likes of Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Andrew McCarthy — won’t open up to him, who will they open up to?

We professional interviewers might feel loath to admit that, sometimes, professions like acting or politics — those we secretly (or openly) look down upon — could make for better training than we ever got. On the level of basic human relations, and thus of conversation, an actor, or a politician, or even a salesman may well have sharper instincts than even the most driven “real” journalist. If Bill Clinton started a public radio show, I’d drop everything and listen to all his interviews right now. I feel I could learn much from a hearing a guy like Bill Clinton put his hand in the game, just like I’ve learned much from hearing Alec Baldwin do it. But about both men I would entertain the same faint doubt. Baldwin does sound genuinely interested in his guests and they subjects they discuss. But is he, really? Or are we hearing just another of his suite of actorly skills?

And does that make the slightest difference? I once asked a friend who works at a major public radio station in Los Angeles whether any of its daily talk show hosts actually care about the topics they discuss. Flatly he replied: “No.” If Baldwin fakes interest, he does it with a skill that, unlike most established public radio interviewers, at least doesn’t insult us. But given his selected guests and the directions in which he steers them, I suspect that he’s going with his heart, or his gut, or whichever body part an honest actor uses. When he brings on conservative commentators like David Brooks or George Will to spar, he does seem nearly as willing to learn from them as to beat them. When he sits down with Peter Frampton or Billy Joel and his piano, he does so out of clearly unfeigned fandom. When he talks to a pediatric endocrinologist, you know he cares about something to do with pediatric endocrinology. (Sugar addiction, in this case.) Nobody, I would wager, tells Baldwin whom to interview; nobody makes him gin up enthusiasm about what’s “hot” or “topical” or “good information.”

As a public radio listener, albeit one often disappointed though resolutely hopeful, I would always and everywhere rather hear people talking passionately about what interests them than mangling a topic that they think interests me. Alec Baldwin understands this, or his Here’s the Thing collaborators do. Charlie Rose, an early inspiration for my own interviewing, continually takes flack for “interrupting” his guests, but his willingness to actively participate has always struck me as a sign of engagement all too rare in the profession. Baldwin similarly interjects constantly, though in a fashion at once blunter and sharper than does Rose, always pressing for a detail or comparing a note. “Give me an example.” “How did that feel?” “Come on.” This manner doesn’t align with journalistic orthodoxy, sure, and I’ll bet it occasionally frustrates the guests, but it points to a kind of conversational vitality that I’d all but forgotten I wasn’t getting elsewhere. American public radio would do well indeed to throw open the gates to even more such unassimilated outsiders — you know, the way America itself used to do.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]