Tanenhaus: Just Say No to Podcasting

While I have given up the Tanenhaus Brownie Watch, did you know that Sam Tanenhaus is in the podcasting business? Every Friday, NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus releases a new installment through the New York Times website. And while you can’t access the podcast without iTunes and there doesn’t appear to be an archive of Tanenhaus’s past podcasts, you can, of course, listen to the latest installment.

I tried out the 7/22/06 podcast and, believe it or not, I actually felt a bit sad for Sammy Boy. He clearly doesn’t want to do this. He’s forcing himself to have fun. I can only imagine the initial meeting with Bill Keller.

“Sam, we need to be competitive. So we’re going to need you to do a podcast! It’s the latest thing with the kids.”

“Doesn’t my work for the Review stand on its own?”

“Oh absolutely, Sam! Keep those Leon Wieseltier hit pieces coming.”

“But why me?”

“Because you’re the Book Review editor! Who else would we approach?”

“Can’t Liesl do this instead? She’s down with this more than I am.”

“No, Sam. We need you! You’re the editor! You’re our voice. Do you need me to get the legal team on your ass?”

“Okay, fine. I’ll do it.”

Perhaps it’s a telling indicator of how he feels about being NYTBR editor. He’s getting by the best he can, but he really wants to go home and write a biography.

For those who don’t want to go to the trouble of listening to it, here’s a description:

A 1970s punk band, or perhaps, more accurately, a 1994 approximation of “alternative rock,” some local New York band that can be hired for a pittance, opens up the show, singing (I think; it’s hard to make out with all the poor man’s distortion) “I’m reading for the New York Times Book Review.” (No, I am not making this up.) Sammy Boy then introduces himself, thanking his audience for the letters, postcards and mail he’s received, only to attempt a gag in a dour tone, “Oops. My producer’s waving frantically.” He then remarks that the letters were to Dwight and, sounding as if he’s reading off of a script (written by somebody else?), he says, “But I told my mother-in-law to address those to me.”

Sammy T then introduces David Margolick, who wrote this week’s front page review. Then we get the NYTBR boosterism in evidence at the infamous BEA panel. “David, as soon as your review came in, it felt like a cover essay because of its narrative and emotional power. In fact, you begin with a rather chilling anecdote.” Now imagine these two sentences spoken in an opaque Brooklyn dialect, without any warmth or humor, without even the hint of a man letting down his guard. And you begin to see the sad scenario here. Bad enough that the podcast is devoted to propping up the Gray Lady’s dubious stature with questions and answers that feel scripted and possibly rehearsed, but Sammy Boy is so uptight (at least on air) that he’s incapable of maintaining even the illusion that he’s enjoying this.

Margolick, who is either terrifyingly articulate (in a troubling executive conference room kind of way) or reading from a script, responds to the questions in a banal flatline tone with such introductory phrases as “But I hadn’t thought about that, Sam..” and “I think the evidence is incontrovertible….” In short, Sammy Boy and the Times crew are terrified of the very human uhs and ahs that populate human conversation (have they edited these out?), the flawed tics that cause vernacular to take on that joie de vivre that causes others to give a damn about books. But why should they reveal their limitations? After all, this is the Times! The crown’s jewels! Not a single person can screw up here!

The human feel, however, does find a certain inroads with William Rhoden, who talks about his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves with some vigor and genuine interest. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Sammy Boy is away from the mike and gives most of the conversation to Rhoden. I suspect, in fact, that most of Sammy T’s segues and questions have been edited out, because Rhoden says, “You mention Joe Louis” midway through the conversation when Tanenhaus hasn’t even mentioned Louis. I listened to the Rhoden-Tanenhaus interview hoping that Tanenhaus would let down his guard, if only to bring a coherence to the conversational thread. But if Sammy T did, it’s certainly not presented on audio. And if Sammy Boy can’t reveal his faults, if he’s incapable of showing any warts or even a soup├žon of humility or ignorance, what on earth is he doing podcasting?

Then Rachel Donadio talks about the bestsellers list and sounds suspiciously like a novice voiceover student doing her best to ape a FM radio news correspondent (I know this because I took a few voiceover classes in the late ’90s and recalled my own clumsy efforts, and I wondered if Times expenses were being siphoned Donadio’s way), clearly reading her words from a script and trying to offer a spontaneous inflection. And as if to impute that the Times podcast crew is having fun, some forced off-mike laughter is left in. I suspect that the crew was likely laughing over how absurd it was that journalists are now reduced to being radio or podcasting people.

Maybe it’s the fun-loving Californian in me, but I listened to this and wondered if Sammy Boy and his staff were trying to approximate fun, rather than approach any genuine threshold of excitement. Why couldn’t they let loose? Or is this how Manhattan faux intellectuals talk? Had I been the producer, I would have demanded that all the on air talent have a good glass of wine. Or perhaps I’d pass around a bong. After all, when you’re dealing with sticks wedged up orifices, desperate times call for desperate measures.

The lack of archival podcasts and the elaborate efforts one must take to listen to the sole podcast available (i.e., one must install iTunes) reveals just how ephemeral Sammy T’s crew hopes this podcasting fad will be. They’re humoring top brass for now, thinking that nobody will notice.

I wonder if he’d be so rigid if someone hugged him before each installment. If someone simply told Sammy T that letting one’s hair down is a peachy keen thing, then maybe the NYTBR podcast might be worth something.

But if Sam Tanenhaus didn’t feel up to the task, he could have easily said no. He didn’t have to go through with something so clearly odious to his sensibilities. The man clearly despises this part of the job, which makes me wonder how much he secretly hates turning out the Review on a weekly basis.


  1. Very enjoyable summary, Ed (even though you cruelly bash two of five New York City boroughs in the process).

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