In this episode of The Memory Palace, Guglielmo Marconi, the Father of Radio, dreams of a super-radio that would allow him to hear every sound ever made. Melancholy ensues.
Nate DiMeo is the creator of the Memory Palace, a podcast and public radio segment. He's been around public radio for, like, ever, having done work for NPR, Marketplace, WBUR, and the station in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. DiMeo has written for Parks and Recreation and is currently a writer for a forthcoming ABC miniseries about the space program. He was a finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor.
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BEHIND THE SCENES with Nate DiMeo
Can you give us a brief genesis of the Memory Palace podcast?
I came into radio wanting to be an artist and wound up being a journalist. That’s worked out well for the most part. But at some point, I stopped trying to make beautiful things. I started The Memory Palace as a way to fix that.
I’m fascinated by anecdotes. I can go on and on about how they structure our consciousness and how you can broaden that out to talk about the way that the news and history structure our lives. But I can’t do that without sounding like a pretentious jackass.
So: I love anecdotes. Love history anecdotes. Think they’re awesome.
And I can obsess about why one gets remembered and another doesn’t. Why, for instance, one radio story cuts through and moves you and another doesn’t.
There are times when you listen to the radio and hear a story about say, a checkpoint in Gaza, or a congressman holding up a piece of legislation, or a teacher saddled by medical bills, and they just glide by. Then there are other times when you get it. When you understand that those people at that checkpoint are real people. That that congressman is feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. That teacher is actually saddled by medical bills. Those people are real people. And you’re moved. And you’re suddenly aware of the wonder of the world.
I wanted to create something that set out to do that every time. Which, as a purely practical matter — working through the language, the story structure, the read, the music, the mix — is a fun challenge. As something sort of ridiculous and lofty, the experience has been personally valuable.
So, it’s a series in which I try to make these idiosyncratic history facts and anecdotes that have moved me, move you.
What do you mean when you call the episodes “water-coolery stories of the past”?
It’s marketing. I want people to hear these stories. I particularly want people at radio stations who decide what stories people hear to hear the stories. And, if I’m not precious about it, that’s really all they are: they’re little anecdotes that, hopefully, stick with you.
Of course, I can get pretty precious about it.
What I’d prefer to say, I suppose, is that I try, in each of these stories, to change the listener’s day. Because that’s fundamentally the thing I love about radio: you’re tooling around in your car or you’re walking the dog and then you hear something onATC or TAL or wherever, you hear a song on the radio, and your day changes. It’s lovely. And as simple as that.
To approximate that on the website, I try to keep the visual presentation pretty opaque: you might know from a title or an image that I’m talking roughly about Ferris wheels or Ben Franklin or pigeons, but you click pretty blindly, or this oddly-titled file shows up in your iTunes inbox and you’re taken somewhere you couldn’t have expected. And your day changes. Maybe you talk to someone at the water-cooler about it.
Where do you find these stories? And how do you separate fact from fiction?
I’m pretty culturally voracious. I’ve always liked knowing a little about a lot. So I watch a lot of movies, read a lot, listen to the radio, screw around on the Internet a lot, take-museum-tours-and-be-that-dude-who-asks-all-the-questions a lot. And all I’m looking for, on some weird, fundamental level, is to be moved by some fact or anecdote (some reminder of the wonder or beauty or terror of the world). Over the years, I’ve kind of become a collector of stories and moments.
Nearly all of the episodes so far have been stories that grabbed me in the past and have stuck with me. One will pop in my head and I’ll go “hey, there’s an episode,” and do some research to figure out if I remember it right or if I got the details straight to begin with.
I’m often disappointed. There’s some exaggerated fact or convoluted timeline that made some story more epic or more heartbreaking or more hysterical than the truth. The task, then, becomes finding the wonder in the actual story and finding a way — the right language, the right music — to transmit that same sense of wonder to the listener.
I’m not a trained historian (I’m too easily bored to do the real work of history), but I feel very comfortable with my ability to create stories that are true enough, or that at least express a truth that is supported by facts that I feel comfortable believing and asking you to believe. It’s not all that different than journalism, really.
When you think about the future of the series, how do you expect (or hope) it will grow and evolve?
I’d really like to get it on the air in more places (it’s aired as a special series on KUTin Austin; it airs occasionally on a show on WABE in Atlanta; it’s part of Remix Radio—PRX’s satellite radio station). I’m planning to make a version of past and future stories that local stations can drop into their broadcasts of All Things Considered and Morning Edition. It goes back to that desire to change people’s days: I really love the idea that, in the middle of the news, you would hear an odd, beautiful little story (which I think they can be, when I get it right) and get your heart broken by Franklin Pierce.
Then, with some stations signed on, maybe find that elusive sponsor or foundation support. Build an audience, and hopefully get to apply some of what I’ve learned doing the tiny, short-stories version of the project and my approach to history and my storytelling sensibility to a full-fledged show with produced pieces and interviews and the whole deal.
In the meantime, I want the podcast to get better and I want to get the pieces out more regularly. I’d like them to come out frequently enough, and build enough of an audience that has bought in to the podcast’s schtick, that I feel I have a little more leeway in the types of segments I can do. I’d be able to go out on some limbs and have some segment really fail and not feel like I’m risking losing the new listener or alienating the old one. I’m very interested in mixing in personal history stories with capital ‘H’ history. Finding ways to mine the same sense of wonder (sorry to overuse the phrase) from the truly mundane as one can find more easily in the lives of presidents or soldiers or inventors or whomever.
Also, there should be a 3-D IMAX version and an action-figure line. Totally.
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