I have now listened to all seven hours of S-Town Podcast and here are my thoughts:
1. If you are a podcaster, a radio maker, or an audio drama producer, you really need to listen to this. This is a gripping and endlessly fascinating portrait that is a game-changer for radio journalism in its depth and nimble wrangling of disparate story threads. The series not only atones for Serial‘s shaky second season, but somehow manages to top that justifiably famous podcast’s gripping first season, which is no small accomplishment.
2. It has one of the best first plot points I have ever heard on radio, which occurs at the end of Episode 2. I don’t want to spoil the twist, but let’s just say that the surprise not only causes us to become even more invested in the story, but consummates an exquisite tonal shift. We are led to believe that we are listening to journalism, but it turns out that this massive series is more akin to a Ron Chernow biography, with supreme attention to the specific psychological details that cause one person — in this case, the brilliant and remarkable geometric maverick John B. McLemore — to live a specific life.
3. The series is smart enough to both present a panoramic portrait of its main character and to leave certain questions oblique and unanswered. In doing so, the contradictions inherent in McLemore transmute into something even more poignant, more representative of a chasm in current American relations between urbanites and small town residents, between North and South, and between the dark and the light. It’s there in the way Brian Reed, our seemingly knowing guide, confesses what he doesn’t know and mispronounces “palaver.” It’s there in his fear and his uncertainty.
4. Uncle Jimmy and the tattoo parlor early in the series: Jesus, this is stunning “you are there” reporting. Usually such atmospheric details are buried because a radio show of this type becomes more about the journalist puffing up his own ego and wanting to land streetcred (or a self-congratulatory appearance on the Longform Podcast). Brian Reed, however, somehow manages to be both thorough in his investigation, yet not always knowledgeable or certain about what he’s getting into. I’m sure that much of this tone has to do with the expert editing contributions of Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig, but I hope this tactic becomes more prominently practiced! Podcasters, you have the technology! Go out into the field! Take risks! Dare to be vulnerable! Don’t get comfortable with your armchair Skype recordings. Stop hiding behind your “I’m a badass journalist” narration and be humble! Confess what you do not know! Be active!
5. If I have any criticisms, it is probably with Episode 5. The series loses its way a bit with Rita, straying from its concise focus on McLemore by conveying information that could have been communicated in half the time. Plus, we never quite get the full story of Tyler, the adopted young man who McLemore took under his wing. But this minor flaw is more than atoned for by the surprising personal revelations in Episode 6, in which “grief manual” takes on an unanticipated meaning.
6. In many ways, this series is a celebration of autodidacts. But it’s also one of those portraits that actually has you wanting to feel more compassionate and more present with misfits, outsiders, and those seemingly brilliant people that all of us seem to think we know, but we really don’t.
7. I love the clockmaker subculture and all the horologists in far-off corners of the world. Biographies often become too steeped in one subject, but McLemore’s influence upon others is a vital part of his story. Reed and company get huge props from me for expertly balancing the presentation of a man’s life with the “fingers pointing back” from his peers.
8. The series’s final half hour is harrowing and emotional stuff. It hits you like a locomotive. And you’ll know it when it happens. It is such a perfectly crafted moment. You feel this incredible emotional wave slam into you where you realize, “Oh my god! Oh no! That’s his real life! That’s his pain.” S-Towngoes there in ways that I didn’t think possible from the This American Life crew. So kudos to them for amping it up. It’s inspiring to see all these radio veterans show us that they still have a few new tricks up their sleeve.
If you have seven hours, get on S-Town soon. You’re going to want to listen to this before the clickbait media merchants bombard us with their insipid and needless contrarian “S-Town is overrated” hot takes. Do not listen to them! This is great, highly compelling radio. And it has very much inspired me to do better work as an audio drama producer.
PMACast- A Pretty Much Amazing Podcast: I have no idea if this tremendously useful musical podcast, which has prominently featured rocking indie staples, is permanently defunct or merely resting, but I am including it here in the hope that the producers resuscitate this show on a regular basis, for the clear passion and the fine assiduity that the producers (and guest contributors) put into finding new tracks was a very worthwhile part of my rotation. (Link)
Psychology of Eating: I am not really a fan of confessional call-in shows, largely because the people who produce these types of affairs tend to be predatory carnival barkers in the way that they respond to a person’s long-standing grief with pat reductionist answers that don’t even begin to chip away at pain’s lifelong hold upon a troubled person. Yet there is something both revealing and bizarre in Marc David’s approach that keeps me coming back. David spends an hour listening to someone — and it always seems to be a woman — coming to terms with her relationship to food and eating and how this has drastically unsettled her life, often her self-esteem, and her image of herself. These subjects are often living very good lives that they cannot seem to see and, through these conversations, we come to understand the insidious role that body image plays on many women, that the way in which these women seem to believe that they must walk the earth without a single ounce of fat on them is a remarkable and needless burden that deserves great consideration until we can inhabit a world that is more equitable in accepting people. (Link)
Radio Diaries: It’s hard to believe that this always fresh offering of notable historical figures has been around in various forms for twenty years. For this is often a tremendously moving portal into some of the important people who have slipped through the cracks — whether it involves tracking down Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks but who has been needlessly overlooked by historians, or listening to the perspectives of prison guards who hold watch over juvenile offenders in North Carolina and see and intuit more than you might think. (Link)
Relic Radio Sci-Fi (Link), Relic Radio Thrillers (Link), and Strange Tales (Old Time Radio): (Link): If you want to get up to speed on old time radio (or are interested in exploring the Robert Johnson-like roots of OTR), these three podcasts are the ones you need to listen to. In addition to featuring old stalwarts like Suspense, X Minus One, Quiet Please in active rotation, there are also slightly more obscure shows like The Creaking Door, Inner Sanctum, and The Zero Hour included in the bunch. Old time radio has a rich history extending many decades, one inexplicably overlooked as we enter a putative “golden age of podcasting.” And once you begin to pick up on the theatrical cadences and dramatic energy that these old shows had to offer, which is hardly confined to the piqued cliches that some attempting to follow in radio drama’s footsteps are regrettably mimicking, you’ll start to get a sense of what podcasting may be capable of as it continues to blossom.
Reply All: Okay, I have to confess that there’s something ineluctably techbro and tendentious about Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt that can be very off-putting, even though this duo has started to actively pursue viewpoints well outside of their “Wassup?” default setting. The pair isn’t always fair to their subjects, often jumping on listeners to condemn a particular point of view before having a chance to take it in, and can be needlessly self-congratulatory at times (the obnoxious “Yes Yes No” segments, in particular, have got to stop). So why am I recommending it? Because Reply All is still a worthwhile contribution to tech-related podcasts, especially when the stories pursue some seemingly pedantic but surprisingly rich subject such as how the man who invented pop-up ads lives with his ethical legacy or the remorseless and obdurate vigilante behind Ripoff Report. When Reply All allows its subjects to speak and tell their stories, it offers interesting insights into how technology summons human obsession, for better or worse. So I’m not ready to give up on Reply All anytime soon, even if I wish that its two hosts would stop gazing at their navels and look more outside of themselves. (Link)
Ronna & Beverly: This podcast is so good that it is often hard to believe that this show, ostensibly helmed by two fiftysomething Jewish women from Boston, is actually the work of two extremely brilliant improvisers named Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo. The two stay resolutely and hilariously in character as they interview comedy and TV celebrities for more than an hour, probing noisily into a guest’s love life, bringing up Israel, dishing up celebrity gossips, contemplating the size of Jon Hamm’s penis, offering many politically incorrect observations, and torturing their sound engineer Sam about what he does during his outside time. When guests go along for the ride, such as this terrific conversation with Stephen Toblowsky, Ronna and Beverly excels at levels matched only by The Colbert Report. (Link)
Serendipity: If the future of radio drama is ripe with possibility, then Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson are determined to burst through its natural limits with Serendipity, a recently introduced podcast that counts five episodes so far of varying experimental range. The debut episode, “Every Heart Has a Limited Amount of Heartbeats,” established an uncannily vivacious standard of field recording, intense incantations, and aggressive collage that immediately seized my ears and refused to let go. And while subsequent episodes have offered slightly more traditional fare, there remains great poetic promise in this program to back up Heppermann’s bold call to push storytelling boundaries. (A good introduction to Serendipity‘s ethos can be found through this Radio Drama Revival episode, which includes an interviewer with Ann Heppermann.) (Link)
Serial: There’s been some debate over whether Serial‘s second season can match the first (with many gossipy ADD types abandoning Serial for the true crime Netflix sensation, Making a Murderer), or whether the current story of Bowe Bergdahl isn’t so much the work of Sarah Koenig, as it is Mark Boal putting together a movie with crass opportunism. But Koenig’s reporting is not to be gainsaid so easy. She has spoken directly with the Taliban and, while Bergdahl may not be as sympathetic a subject as Adnan Syed, Serial is still pursuing very important questions on how someone condemned for treason and cowardice should be understood through his own constantly shifting motivations, which has caused me to listen to each episode at least twice. (Link)
Seriously…: This is a recently retooled version of several BBC radio documentary feeds, which appears to be the Beeb’s effort to attract younger listeners. There’s less of the hardcore reporting behind Assignment and more documentaries about video games and the Whole Earth Catalog. But if you listen to both this feed and the Documentaries BBC World Service feed, you should be able to listen to a well-rounded series of offerings from across the pond. And you’ll need to. Because the BBC only allows you to download these programs for a month before closing the gates for good. (Link)
Song Exploder: The setup is simple: find a greatly revered song or piece of music, tear it apart, get the composer or the musicians to talk about it (often producing demos and, in one recent case, a crude voice memo recorded into a phone), and discover the often serendipitous creative process behind some of the more rocking tunes circulating the present cultural clime. The show has recently ventured into the stories behind soundtracks as well, with Harry Gregson-Williams relaying how he got signed on to score The Martian. One does wonder how long this formula will last or whether Song Exploder may now be angling itself to be less about breaking down music and more of a territory manipulated by savvy publicists. But for now, Song Exploder remains a solid sui generis podcast. (Link)
Spark: Nora Young is a highly energetic Canadian whose voice sounds unnervingly similar to someone I once dated and no longer want to have anything to do with. But these are my hangups, not Young’s. And I’d be foolish and pusillanimous to condemn an extremely worthwhile offering of Canadian culture simply because of an alarming euphony. Young’s smart and vivacious meditations on technology often tackle heavy-hitting issues such as the casual way that couples invade each other’s privacy, surge pricing, and the ever present problem of time management. And in a crowded field of tech podcasts, Young’s weekly dispatches prove to be winning thoughtful epistles. (Link)
The Sporkful: This recommendation comes with a caveat: host Dan Pashman has a a rather relentless laugh. Pashman laughs at everything: his jokes, a serious situation, an awkward situation. You get the sense that he sometimes laughs for the sake of laughing, that he would laugh unknowingly at a funeral or when doing taxes. It’s an alarming laugh. We all know some guy like Dan Pashman who laughs at all times, who makes us wonder if the laugh is sincere or some troubling automatic impulse that may require therapy. The good news is that, after ten episodes of being suspicious of Pashman’s laugh, I did finally come around to digging his show and accepting his laugh. Pashman mitigates against his tittering by not being pretentious (even though his laugh, as we have established, is highly suspect). He is a lover of all food, even if he is often very wrong about it (such as believing the hot dog to be a sandwich), and is curious and mindful enough to perform such sui generis investigations such as sandwich gender imbalance and what it is like to dine out in a wheelchair. The strange and perhaps truly laudable quality here is that, for all of these progressive considerations, Pashman is never sanctimonious about it. But he does have the laugh, which is now too deeply ingrained within Pashman to be remedied. But maybe that laugh is the way for all of us to better appreciate food. (Link)
Strangers: I first learned of Lea Thau after I stumbled upon her remarkable, must-listen, soul-baring “Love Hurts” series (1234), in which Thau documented her efforts to find romance in stunningly honest detail: interviewing the men who rejected her, confessing her loneliness and her weaknesses, fiercely analyzing why she has stayed single and even subjecting herself to a questionable relationship expert. It was stunning and terribly brave radio that anyone in a place of loneliness and hurt might want to listen to. And this is, of course, what makes Strangers such an incredible program. The subjects, whether they be Thau or somebody else, are free to confess their most naked and humiliating feelings (such as a teacher who went years without learning how to read) and Thau’s intimacy forces us to empathize with them. Listening to Strangers, one finds great strength in confronting human frailties. And it is this quality, among many others, that makes several episodes of Strangers among some of the finest personal narratives to be found online. (Link)
Sword and Scale: On first listen, Sword and Scale might seem like a fairly sensationalist true crime show. But it’s far more than that. In exploring such intense topics as the 1978 Guyana mass suicide and the primitive human identity that we can’t shake, Sword and Scale willfully includes some of the most shocking and horrifying audio to buttress its viewpoint. But at its best, such as this investigation into media and gun violence, Sword and Scale succeeds in being an off-kilter, thoughtful podcast into our darkest qualities. The show does not shy away from anything (not even in discussing the human body’s deterioration) and, in so doing, shakes the listener out of a blinkered view to engage with difficult truths. Mike Boudet often narrates with an intensity somewhere between John Walsh and Arch Oboler, but it somehow strikes the perfect tone between theatrical drive and something oddly meaningful in the understanding. (Link)
Ten Minute Podcast: Will Sasso, Bryan Callan, and Chris D’Elia are reliably silly men for this goofy podcast, which features such dependable regular characters as washed up standup comedian David Greco, the warmly puglistic Everybody’s Dad, and Skype sessions with people who may or may not be bona-fide listeners. And it’s only ten minutes long, which means that even a flailing installment of this show doesn’t overstay its welcome too long. While the trio doesn’t show up together as frequently as they used to due to industrious show business careers, and the show is now on some kind of odd hiatus, I have a feeling that the show is merely regrouping for some newfound silly stage where it will surprise itself and its audience. (Link)
There’s Something Out There: Only five episodes of this fascinating podcast have been produced so far and one hopes that this isn’t the end. Because this is one of the best podcasts out there that attempts to wrestle with the wholly inexplicable: the incidents in life that one can’t quite explain, that often entail coming to spiritual or religious conclusions, but that all of us must contend with as human beings. With top-notch production value and something oddly journalistic in the way that the narratives are told, There’s Something Out There negotiates a smart balance between the factitious and the factual for which more podcasts, striving for authenticity, should take heed. (Link)
Thinking Allowed: When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed a few years ago, I was initially skeptical due to the apparent Anglophonic pomp and circumstance behind Laurie Taylor’s voice. But I’m glad I stuck it out with this extremely sharp and worthwhile program, which profiles sociology and ethnography in a breezy manner. (Link)
Third Coast International Audio Festival: Think of this as the nonfiction counterpart to Radio Drama Revival, whereby host Gwen Macsai and her team of dependable curators scour radio and podcasts to find the most moving and probing documentaries for these thematic programs. The show is quite happy to single out specific producers, such as formidable music documentary producer Alan Hall, whose moving portraits of Jeff Buckley and Elly Stone recently led me down rabbit holes that resulted in a rambunctious email thread with two friends over whether Stone was quite possibly the world’s most sensitive singer of all time. The regular podcast, Re: Sound, is probably responsible for me discovering more than a handful of the podcasts that are on this list. And there is no better showcase that I know of for some of the exciting voices flexing their talents in podcasting. (Link)
This is Actually Happening: The conceptual thrust behind Whit Missildine’s long-running program involves taking a seemingly unlikely human experience (living as a fake priest marrying people in Japan, a deadly shooting from a crazed shirtless man as a woman is driving in the middle of nowhere) and exploring every conceivable angle of what it was like to experience it without intruding upon the person’s story. Missildine layers the stories with moody music, but what I suspect he has truly set out to do is make the strangest stories more palpable so that we can broaden our notion of what existence is truly about. We have all experienced improbable adventures, but This is Actually Happening demands that we take these seriously. You leave an episode of Missildine’s program often in a strange and profound fog. That’s how good this show is at allowing another person’s intimate details to sneak up on you. It’s almost as if the listener is a kind of vicarious therapist unable to steer the details, but then that’s part of the point. (Link)
To the Best of Our Knowledge: Upon the first few listens, To the Best of Our Knowledge may seem like your typical topical compendium show: a casual rundown of notable names and fine minds offering the greatest cerebral hits for a public audience. But there is something quite subtly daring about Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson’s approach that has transformed me into a big fan. A recent hour devoted to the human voice featured several compelling segments, ranging from an African-American actor contending with casting agents telling him that he needed to be “more urban” to the way in which subtle patriarchal forces were singling out vocal fry to police the way that women are “supposed” to speak. To the Best of Our Knowledge also aired a particularly gutsy and thoughtful series on death over for several weeks, something that you really don’t hear much at all on a syndicated public radio show, that demanded its listeners to come to terms with mortality and its impact upon our lives. So Anne Strainchamps may seem to be a polite, urbane, and crowd-pleasing radio host. But as you come to listen to her, you begin to realize that she has a comforting dark streak and a wry sense of humor. Also, any show that allows punk historian Legs McNeil to get really pissed off on-air is good in my book. (Link)
The Truth: Spearheaded by the redoubtable Jonathan Mitchell, with considerable assists from such unsung improvisational wunderkinds as Louis Kornfeld and other dependable contributors from the Magnet Theater, The Truth is putting out some of the finest radio drama today. These are strange stories for our contemporary age, tapping into such moral quandaries as parental displacement, a delightfully satirical investigation into leisure, and an especially creepy story about damnation in the underworld. The Truth works as well as it does because it is committed to meaningful, somewhat soul-searching performances embedded within a calm and exacting atmosphere that is equally committed well-timed silences and faint rustlings. This gives The Truth a peculiar tension between something faintly comic and faintly fierce, feeling, at times, like a soundscape inspired from a David Lynch film. <(Link)
The Urbanist: There is nearly nothing on the airwaves that I can find that explores city-related issues with such rigor and international reach. Think of The Urbanist as a radio counterpart to CityLab, where issues ranging from neglected delivery drivers to urbanistas are explored in rapid-fire bursts in so many locations that one wonders if The Urbanist has somehow enlisted a massive army of regular contributors ready to be activated into action upon one sinister call from host Andrew Tuck. (Link)
The Virtual Memories Show: When people ask me where they can go to find thoughtful discussions on literature after they learn that my own podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, is no longer in production, I send them to Gil Roth’s loquacious conversations with top-notch artists and thinkers. Roth has this strange ability to get someone to talk thoughtfully for a good six minutes based on one question. And when I met Roth for the first time at a Brooklyn coffeehouse, I realized that this was something he seems to be born with. For he managed to get me to ramble at length for six minutes in a way that I certainly never intended to and that I usually don’t. There’s always a moment near the end of Roth’s show where there is a sudden beat, followed by the question “So what are you reading?” phrased in an intense interrogative manner that recalls the Senate investigating the Watergate scandal, illustrating his real purpose: to keep curiosity and thoughtful wonder about books that fewer people read alive. It’s a game I’ve abandoned in radio, for life is too short to pamper the petulant infants of the literary world when there are real readers you can invite to your extravagant dinner parties, but one that I’m glad Roth is still keeping alive. (Link)
We’re Alive: This stirring zombie apocalypse drama packs as many characters into its unfolding story as The Walking Dead and has built up a massive narrative of more than 100 episodes that it is quite easy to get pleasantly gripped by. We listen to the characters as they face resource shortages and lose loved ones, but We’re Alive, through a settlement erected at an apartment complex, appears equally more committed to exploring parallels between our present world and the dystopian path not taken. (Link)
The White Whale: Anyone fond of baroque, somewhat experimental radio drama should be listening to the crazed efforts of CyNar Pictures, which features a strange tension between the making of art and the discussion of art erupts with every installment of this gargantuan potpourri of spoken word, the rambling conversations of The Yokai Trilogy (almost a DVD commentary without end), and whatever other whims erupt from these mysterious producers. who have been at work on this possibly aimless, possibly highly purposeful project for a good year. There is a ghost story of some sort beneath all this meta banter, but it’s up to the listener to determine whether the specter is something chased through the act of telling stories or talking about storytelling. (Link)
WideShut Webcast: I first learned of WideShut through an episode of Sword and Scale, when the two podcasts collaborated on a gripping story about the Hampstead Satanic cult, a truly alarming and far from resolved case of sex abuse and false allegations that should cause pause for anyone in our age of outrage. Political conspiracy is Keelan Balderson’s stock in trade and there are fascinating questions here on how media shapes our notion of evil and how we judge other people. (Link)
The World in Words: This pithy show, unrolled in twenty minute installments, investigates language, but is, like any good topical podcast, very much invested in the larger world. A recent two part investigation into fake accents in pop music, ushered in by this worthwhile effort to contend with the pop punk sneer, proved especially perspicacious, as did these insights into how ASL is tinged with a Philly dialect. For anyone obsessed with such pedantics (and I’m afraid I shall be to my last dying day), The World in Words is a casually probing and invaluable entry into the way we communicate and its impact upon all around us. (Link)
WTF with Marc Maron: Marc Maron has many gifts as an interviewer and as a comedian, but what he does so well with his highly entertaining show is the way that he gets at the root of fears and anxieties in himself and in his guests. It’s reflected in his longtime obsession with a Saturday Night Live audition with Lorne Michaels, one that he finally got closure on in November, and in the burgeoning empathy that has crept evermore into his lengthy introductions this year. Maron can be troubled and often angry, but what makes WTF such a wonderful listening experience isn’t just the way it documents the history of comedy and increasingly music (although this is often very interesting), but observing a man finally having the courage to mature late in life. Maron is deepening in ways he may not even know. And in its post-Lorne Michaels incarnation, WTF hasn’t finished growing by a long shot. (Link)
Daisey’s tale, which was an excerpt from his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, had helped to shape many people’s feelings about Apple. Apple had relied upon its supplier, Foxonn, to manufacture its line of iPhones and iPads. And while an independent investigation from The New York Times earlier this year also revealed unsafe working conditions at Foxconn, there remain significant doubts over whether much of what Daisey has stated on stage and on air is true.
“As best as we can tell,” said host Ira Glass on the new episode of This American Life, “Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first-hand.” Glass went on to say that he had taken Daisey at his word and that he saw no reason to doubt Daisey. “I can now say in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give us contact information for his interpreter, we should’ve killed the story rather than run it. We never should’ve broadcast this story without talking to that woman.”
Rob Schmitz, a Marketplace correspondent in Shanghai, was able to track down “Cathy” — Daisey’s interpreter for the piece, whose real name is Li Guifen but who also goes by the name Cathy Lee — by putting the terms “Cathy,” “translator,” and “Shenzhen” into Google. He called the first phone number that came up. Cathy Lee did not know that Daisey had used her in his show. She thought that Daisey was merely an American writer.
Hers is a list of Daisey’s lies uncovered on the program:
Daisey claimed that the Foxconn guards at the gates had guns. Schmitz said that, in all of his years of reporting, he had never seen guards with guns. “The only people allowed to have guns in China are the military and the police, not factory guards.” This was corroborated by Cathy Lee, who told This American Life that she had never seen a gun in person.
Daisey claimed that he met with workers “at coffeehouses and different Starbucks in Guangzhou.” Schmitz pointed out that it was unlikely that factory workers who made fifteen to twenty dollars a day would sip coffee at Starbucks. Because Starbucks is pricier in China than in the United States.
Daisey claimed that he talked to hundreds of workers. Cathy Lee said that it was 50 workers on the outside.
Daisey claimed that he posed as a businessman to get inside Foxconn’s factories. In fact, Daisey’s appointments were all set up in advance.
Daisey claimed that he visited ten factories Cathy Lee told This American Life it was only three.
While Apple’s own audits have revealed some underage workers (a total of 91 workers among hundreds of thousands in 2010), Cathy Lee revealed that Daisey had not met any underage workers during his trip. “Maybe we met a girl who looked like she was thirteen years old, like that one. She looks really young,” said Cathy Lee. “I think if she said she was thirteen or twelve, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. And I would remember for sure. But there is no such thing.” In the ten years that Cathy Lee has visited factories in Shenzhen, she’s hardly seen any underage workers.
Daisey claimed to meet twenty-five to thirty workers from an unauthorized union in an all-day meeting. The meeting did happen. But it was two to three workers, and the meeting was only for a few hours, over lunch at a restaurant.
Cathy Lee has doubts about the government-issued blacklist of people who the companies weren’t allowed to hire. While she remembers the blacklist, she says that it didn’t have an official government stamp, which any government-issued document would have.
Daisey claimed that he encountered people who had been poisoned by n-hexane, with their hands shaking uncontrollably. But Cathy Lee told Rob Schmitz that she and Daisey hadn’t met anybody poisoned by hexane. The story came from news in 2010, but the hexane poisoning occurred in a Wintek family in Suzhou, nearly a thousand miles away from Shenzhen.
Daisey describes an old man who got his hand twisted in a metal press and who has never seen an iPad turned on. In Daisey’s monologue, the old man says, “It’s a kind of magic,” when the iPad’s screen is turned on. Cathy Lee said that this never happened. “It’s just like a movie scenery,” she said on the program. She did say she remembered the guy, but that he never worked at Foxconn.
The taxi ride on the exit ramp that ended in thin air 85 feet from the ground? Cathy Lee said that it did not happen.
Cathy Lee said that she and Daisey never saw any factory dorm rooms.
Daisey claimed that it would not work if he talked with Foxcon workers at the gate. But Cathy Lee has been taking workers to the factory gates for years.
In the fact-checking process, Daisey repeatedly lied to Glass and Schmitz. He initially told Glass that he met with 25 to 30 illegal union workers. When pressed by Glass and Schmitz, he knocked the number down to ten. Cathy Lee said it was really between two and five.
“Why would Cathy say that you did not meet any underage workers?” asked Schmitz on the program.
“I don’t know,” replied Daisey. “I do know that when doing interviews a lot of people were speaking in English. They enjoyed using English with me and I don’t know if she was paying attention at that particular point.”
When pressed further by Schmitz, Daisey claimed to have “a clear recollection of meeting somebody who was thirteen years old” and with another worker who was twelve years old.
“But none of them said they were twelve, right?” countered Glass. “The others didn’t actually give their ages and you’re just kind of guessing.”
When confronted about the invented hexane workers on the program, Daisey could not actually confess that he lied.
“I wouldn’t express it that way,” said Daisey.
“How would you express it?” asked Schmitz.
“I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone had been talking about,” replied Daisey.
“So you didn’t meet any worker who’d been poisoned by hexane?” asked Glass.
“That’s correct,” replied Daisey.
* * *
Daisey told The New York Times in 2006 that he “once fabricated a story because it ‘connected’ with the audience.” That same year, Daisey performed a one-man show called Truth: The Heart is a Million Little Pieces Above All Things, which used James Frey and JT Leroy as inspiration. As Variety wrote at the time, “Daisey comes to a judgment that is strict but sympathetic; he suggests that if people are often the least reliable narrators of their own lives, they are also sometimes the most engaging.”
When I contacted theater companies on Friday afternoon, it was evident that they were more taken with the “engaging” nature of Daisey’s show rather than its veracity. DJ from New York’s The Public Theater informed me that the three remaining performances of Daisey’s show scheduled on Saturday and Sunday were still on. There were no plans to cancel.
But what of theatergoers who might have believed that Daisey’s story is real and who booked tickets in advance of these allegations?
“We don’t offer refunds,” said DJ.
Burlington’s Flynn Center will not be canceling Daisey’s March 31st show. The spokesperson and I have been playing telephone tag. [SEE 3/19/12 UPDATE BELOW FOR ADDITIONAL FLYNN CENTER DETAILS.]
When I contacted Emily Weiner at the D-Crit Conference, where Daisey is scheduled to speak on May 2nd, I was apparently the first person to inform Ms. Weiner of the news. There was nobody available to issue an official statement.
I was also the first to inform a very friendly woman at the Emmett Robinson Theater of Daisey’s fabrications. I left a message with Jesse Bagley, the chief contact person at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where Daisey is scheduled to perform from May 31st to June 6th.
The best response I was able to get was from Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager and designated spokesperson for the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Daisey is scheduled to perform at the Washington, DC theater from June 17th to August 5th. After getting Miller on the phone, I was told that there would be no refunds or cancellations. When I pressed Miller further on what circumstances might cause the theater to issue refunds or cancel, I was simply told that the show was “constantly changing.”
Woolly Mammoth even expressed pride in Daisey’s work. In an official statement sent to me via email, Miller called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs “a daring work of theatre that opened people’s eyes to some of the real working conditions in Chinese factories where high-tech products are manufactured–conditions which have been documented by subsequent journalistic accounts in The New York Times and other sources. It’s a core value of Woolly to present works that spark conversation around topics of socio-political importance, and we’re pleased to have played a part in bringing these issues to national attention. We look forward to welcoming Mike back for an encore performance of the show this summer.”
3/17/2012 1:00 PM UPDATE: The Public Theater has released this statement (PDF) in response to Mike Daisey:
In the theater, our job is to create fictions that reveal truth — that’s what a storyteller does, that’s what a dramatist does. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs reveals, as Mike’s other monologues have, human truths in story form.
In this work, Mike uses a story to frame and lead debate about an important issue in a deeply compelling way. He has illuminated how our actions affect people half-a-world away and, in doing so, has spurred action to address a troubling situation. This is a powerful work of art and exactly the kind of storytelling that The Public Theater has supported, and will continue to support in the future.
Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.
3/17/2012 7:30 PM UPDATE:Out of Focus‘s Aaron Dobbs was at this afternoon’s 2:00 PM performance of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and reported the following on Twitter:
The Associated Press’s Mark Kennedy also confirms that Daisey has added a new section at the beginning in which he addresses questions raised by critics. According to Kennedy’s report, Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis said that Daisey “eliminated anything he doesn’t feel he can stand behind.” Eustis called the prologue “the best possible frame we could give the audience for the controversy.”
Good afternoon. I wanted to take a second before we do the show. Because I wanted to let you know that This American Life is airing an episode this weekend that calls into question the veracity of some of the personal experiences that you’re going to hear about in this monologue. And I want you to understand that what’s being called into question is the personal experiences. The facts of what the situation is in China in manufacturing are undisputed. And they’re reinforced by The New York Times, CNN, NPR, all these organizations have gone and done the hard journalism that’s necessary. When you leave here, if you feel interested, I’d really urge you to go out and read about those things. But I wanted to let you know that I stand behind this work. And the work you’re going to see today has had changes made to it. So that we can stand behind it completely. And, uh, includes this controversy in it, so that you can have a full picture and you can do what you want with it. Because I believe that as an audience that’s your role — is to determine how you feel about the art you take in. You will make those determinations for yourselves. When the lights go down here, I will go backstage. When I come back out, the lights will come up on the stage and I will be telling you a story. And that’s the oldest form of theater, you know. When the light comes on to the stage, I assume that role where I am speaking. We use these tools that the Greeks invented so long ago to try and communicate. The whole attempt is to try to shine a light through something and get at the truth. The truth is vitally important. I believe that very deeply. And I, uh, have come here today to set this up. Because I think context is utterly important. And so some of you are like, “Ah yeah.” Some of you are like, “I have no idea what any of this is about.” (audience laughter) But thankfully because we live in such a wired and connected world, I would ask that you not look up the controversy on the Internet while the show is actually going. (audience laughter) Small…just a small request. There’ll be time enough after it’s over. (audience laughter) Um….I’d like to thank you all so much for coming. And I do hope you have a great show. Thanks. (audience applause)
3/18/12 11:00 PM UPDATE: CNET’s Greg Sandoval collected audience reactions from Daisey’s remaining shows at the Public Theater. In his first filed story on March 18th, Sandoval describes professor Alan Zimmerman complaining last night to the theater about Daisey’s lack of credibility. “He misled the audience about what occurred,” said Zimmerman. “I’m disappointed.” In Sandoval’s second story (only just filed), he reports that Daisey’s last performance at the Public Theater received a standing ovation. “It was a great performance,” said one audience member. “He really makes you think.”
3/19/12 12:00 PM UPDATE: This morning, I spoke by telephone with John Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center, who was very gracious with his time. He informed me, as previously reported, that the Flynn Center is going ahead with the March 31st performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Killacky was sufficiently satisfied with the added prologue and the minor changes in the script, and had been in touch with Daisey’s agent and publicist over the weekend.
“The fascinating part of it,” said Killacky, “is that both Ira Glass and reporters from Marketplace are saying the facts are correct. And what’s wrong with it is that it’s not first person.”
Killacky felt that the show would still remain compelling for audiences, telling me that one of theater’s essential roles is “to promote dialogue.” To this end, Killacky tells me that he may work in a post-show dialogue with Daisey on stage. He also said that, unlike the other theaters I talked with, he planned to issue refunds for anybody who felt taken in by Daisey’s material.
I asked Killacky if he had reviewed the informational sheet that Daisey is handing out to the audience after the show. He said that he hadn’t. I then asked if he had considered offering a secondary sheet of This American Life‘s findings, so that the audience would have enough information to make up their minds. There were no plans as of Monday morning.
“I think what’s important here is that people experience the work itself,” elaborated Killacky. “Did Mike make mistakes? Yes. He admitted and then he apologized, I thought. I’m not sure that invalidates him as an artist. In fact, it doesn’t invalidate him as an artist.”
3/19/12 12:30 PM UPDATE: Gawker’s Adrian Chen was also taken in by Mike Daisey last year — after he began doing some fact-checking on Agony. He relates that he met with Daisey, “as intense in person as he is onstage, though more piercing than the loony American Abroad persona he’s cultivated for The Agony and the Ecstasy,” and he confesses to being duped by his charisma:
Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.
3/19/12 6:30 PM UPDATE: Alli Houseworth, former marketing and communications director at Wooly Mammoth, has an interesting post up at New Beans, in which she has called on audiences to boycott the show: “He insisted that ‘This is a work of non-fiction’ be printed in playbills. This was to be a work of activist theatre. Staff at Woolly handed out sheets of paper to every audience member that left our theatres, per Mike’s insistence, that urged them to take action on this matter. (I and other staffers would get nasty emails from him the next day if even one audience member slipped by without collecting this call to action.)”
Ben Tanzer: “But how does one get a piece on the show? Or even meet Ira Glass who I understand rests in a cryogenically sealed chamber between shows? I imagine one could lurk outside the studio or Ira’s home, though again please note that I am not a stalker, and that the charges to that effect filed by NPR’s legal office here in Chicago did not stick. One could also submit their work, which I have done, but how well does one’s actual work reflect their wit, timing, and ability to move the public to tears, joy, and maybe even arousal in the space of one sentence? Not well my friend, not my work anyway.” (via Pete Anderson)