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BEHIND THE SCENES with Andrew Leland, host of the Organist


To start, a brief exercise. We say "the Organist ", you say (in five words)...?

The Believer magazine's new podcast! Arts and culture without borders. Joe Frank produces Studio 360.

For the unfamiliar, please provide a brief history of the Believer magazine.

In 2003, McSweeney's, which up to that point published a literary quarterly, a daily humor website, as well as a diverse list of books, launched a new monthly magazine. The Believer would be a home for long, eccentric, often untimely pieces, publishing the work of established writers alongside first-timers in an elegant, unglossy package worth keeping on a shelf long after the issue's newsstand date. Each issue would feature long, in-depth, yet funny and casual interviews with a deeply motley crew: moral philosophers and 70s rock icons, conceptual artists and amateur ninjas, playwrights and vampire hunters. Ten years on, we've more than doubled our circulation, gathered a few shelves of awards, and stopped publishing monthly reviews of children -- but otherwise the scope and aim of the magazine remain the same.

What was the catalyst for the Believer 's foray/plunge into audio?

Much of the Believer 's staff share as deep a passion for radio as they do for books, and every month there are pieces in the magazine we wish we could adapt or expand for radio, and stories we hear that while not right for the magazine, would be perfect in an audio context. It took the interest and support of KCRW to help us finally make the plunge.

Housekeeping: Why the Organist for a name? How often will episodes be produced? Influences?

We're monthly -- ten episodes a year. The name came about through the multiple associations we have with the word: the podcast is an organ of the print magazine -- it's a periodical, a mouthpiece, a branch of the Believer organization. Organs are also instruments of the senses: the Organist is a sonic periodical, evoking the human voice, the ears, as well with a few other important organs -- the brain, the heart. (The pancreas?) And of course the Organist is interested in music, in the sounds that come from compressed air rushing through pipes and valves.

Our influences are many. We listen to and love a lot of the usual suspects This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, Love + Radio, Bookworm, Joe Frank, Wiretap, The Best Show on WFMU, The Moth, WTF, Too Much Information, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Studio 360, Other People, The Pod F. Tomcast, Superego, Slate's Culture Gabfest. We're also fans of some of the further afield podcasts and found audio, like C.F.'s Bin Series, Bad at Sports, Random Tape, Glenn Gould's radio documentaries, Art on Air, and the wide array of sonic artifacts at Kenny Goldsmith's Ubuweb.

Describe the experience of pulling this first episode together. Who's the team? What were some challenges and biggest surprises along the way?

Ross Simonini (a fellow editor of the Believer ) and I did most of the heavy lifting of developing and producing the first episode, with essential input and support from the rest of the staff of the Believer and McSweeney's. One of the first stories we accepted was Jenna Weiss-Berman's piece on sound design in the film Nobody Walks , and as we worked with her on the piece, she began consulting and helping out on other parts of the podcast. Her great ideas, sharp ears, and hard-core radio-nerd knowledge of things like tape synchs and radio listservs convinced us she should be on the masthead as an associate producer.

The biggest challenges (and surprises) along the way will probably be old news to the average radio-savvy denizen of the Third Coast library: we had to teach ourselves all the audio-production basics, learning as we go. Room tone! Mic placement! The "grabber" tool! And of course these technical challenges all came heaped atop that hoary, immutable challenge of bridging the divide between the dream-show we imagined and what we actually produced.

Do you feel a certain pressure to meet the standards of the Believer 's print offerings, and readers' expectations?

Absolutely. Another big challenge/surprise we faced in putting the show together had to do with figuring out how these readerly expectations would translate to a sonic context. When we first started out, we were hell-bent on sounding nothing like any of the above-mentioned, dearly beloved podcasts and radio shows. The problem with this approach is, in order to sound nothing like those shows, most of which have been hammering away for years at the question of how to most compellingly tell a story on the radio, you end up sounding abstract, opaque, and insane. Instead of a podcast, you end up with a floating, weird-smelling orb. So we had to remind ourselves that the Believer , for all its eccentricities, is still a relatively straightforward periodical: the words appear in the right order, the articles have headlines and subheads, there's a table of contents. So we took the pulsating stank-globe we'd created and ironed it out into a podcast where you have some idea of what it is you're hearing, and why you should care. And (hopefully) where the stories have the same impact, intelligence, and appeal that those in the print magazine do.

How do the various segments combine to convey the Organist 's "voice"?

The Organist takes an omnivorous interest in arts and culture, beginning with books and films and records and expanding outward to politics, religion, science, and so on. And that interest takes a variety of forms, not merely essays or reviews. So we can jump from a straightforward interview with a celebrated author (Saunders) to an absurdist, fictional etymology of the word "podcast" (Offerman), from radically constrained music criticism (Stosuy) to an oral history of a woman's defection from the Jehovah's Witness (Scorah).

Besides the hilarious open, we're especially fond (no surprise) of the feature about the sound design in the film about the sound designer. What's your favorite segment in this episode? (if it doesn't feel like bad parenting to pick a favorite.)

The first thing we recorded was Nick Offerman's open, and it remains my favorite. The text was written by the excellent short-story writer Kevin Moffett. I've listened to it fifty-seven times now, and it still folds the creases of my brow into novel configurations.

What/who would your fantasy Organist episode include? (Besides George Saunders, the Parks and Rec guy, Matmos, Greil Marcus, and the sound of a grapefruit being squeezed.)?

It's true that we're doing everything we can to make the actual Organist resemble the chimerical Organist of our dreams. I'd like to figure out a way to include drama and more fictional elements in a way that doesn't undermine the seriousness of the reported pieces, and that doesn't sound wooden and hokey. Radio drama, we've found, is deceptively difficult to pull off -- it's so easy for everything fictional on the radio to turn to instant cheese in your ears. But I want it.

Are you accepting submissions? If so, how should interested parties contact you, and what's the main guideline folks should keep in mind?

We would love to be buried in submissions. Right now the submissions are coming in more of a fine mist -- make it rain, Third Coast readers! The best/only way is to email organist@believermag.com. (Though we do have a hotline we haven't yet figured out what to do with: I'm hoping we get some good rambling voicemails, at any rate. Call today: (573) 238-8453.

The main submission guidelines are: the piece shouldn't have appeared anywhere else (unless that anywhere else is your blog, I guess, or your mom's backyard). More importantly: it should spark our curiosity, make us think, and, when we hear it, make us chortle with desperate glee.

P.S. What's with that cat/keyboard illustration? (Besides obvious wonderfulness. Reminds us a little of cat tongue chocolates

Oh, you mean the katzenklavier? It's the coolest Organ I could think of. Invented by Athanasius Kircher, 17th-c. polymath, whose omnivorous, weirdo curiosity and imagination is a guiding inspiration for the podcast.