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BEHIND THE SCENES with Benjamen Walker


*[Editors Note from Roman Mars: I've been a fan and friend of Benjamen's for a few years (fan first, friend second -- if you're curious), so when I was asked to find a half-hour program to follow my show Invisible Ink on KALW, I gave him a call. I thought he could package a half-hour version of his WZBC program Your Radio Nightlight . Never to take the easy road, Benjamen decided to create a whole new program from scratch: Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything.]

*Why did you start producing Theory of Everything ?

*When you called, I was trying to revive my show Your Radio Nightlight . I had been on hiatus for five months, and the plan was to take a break so that I could move things to the next level. I wanted to start making shows that I could send to other stations. But I did one show and I had all of the same problems -- you see, I was making radio that really only worked if the listener paid close attention to the entire hour. (Ha -- what was I thinking!) At the time I was also doing a lot of pieces for various national programs, but this work was really unsatisfying -- I really like being in control of everything. For me, radio is a medium of personal artistic expression. The half-hour format saved my life, in that it was (1) manageable and (2) easier on the listener.

*How did you establish the format?

*There is no format for TOE -- every episode so far has a different structure. Of course, I use traditional elements -- interviews, monologues, documentaries -- but these elements can be stitched together in an infinite number of ways. I am by no means anti-format, I just know that if I had to plug stuff into the same framework every week, I would go out of my mind. Playing with the format is a lot of fun, it keeps the listeners on their toes and things fresh. If you think about it, radio is a medium that is made for this sort of experimentation -- War of the Worlds is probably the best example. It is the way Orson Welles's plays with the format of "radio news reporting" that made the piece such a smashing success.

*Given that the show is different from week to week, I know it's hard to generalize, but how does a show without a format come together? We're featuring the cell phones show, maybe you can use that one as an example.

*I hope I am not the only radio producer who produces "on the fly." I guess I am lucky in that I don't get too stressed out when things go badly because I have had enough experiences where things work out better "on the fly." For example, when I decided to do the cell phone show, I knew that I wanted to talk about the philosopher Michel Foucault and his notion of the panopticon (this is from his book Discipline and Punish ). The simple thesis is that the cell phone is perhaps the greatest example of how modern man is responsible for his own surveillance and monitoring, not like some scary 1984 state. Anyway, the guy I wanted to talk about this was too shy for radio, and then when I found a professor of surveillance studies -- he turned out to be AWOL in the Andes Mountains for the month -- so in the end I had to improvise a bit with my cat. The piece went well with the interview of the CEO of the pet phone company so it all came together. I do wish, though, that it all wouldn't be so last-minute.

*Benjamen Walker, as host, is much more present in* TOE as opposed to your previous program, Your Radio Nightlight* . What was behind that decision?**

*My friend and mentor, Mary Mcgrath, (the executive producer of the new PRI program Open Source ) was always yelling at me to be more present in my work. I guess I always thought that if you acted like a host you would end up stuck with a format, but now I realize that you can have it both ways -- you can introduce and do back tags for topics and stories and people, and still play around with things. And it's a lot of fun, too.

*You flow freely between fact and fiction on the program. What is your take on how fiction and documentary fit together on public radio?

*The documentary style has become a legitimate tool to tell a story, it's really not that complicated -- but on the radio, we hear "acts and tracks" and we automatically think "nonfiction." I think my main issue is that I don't want to ever have to say up front that what you are about to hear is not true. I can understand why program directors would disagree with me. In one of my shows I do an interview with a woman who tells the story about the CIA's involvement with abstract expressionism (all true) and then I do a fake acts and tracks story about how the CIA is involved with reality television -- and more people have e-mailed me to say that this is the story they thought was real! I don't want to sound mean, but there are more than enough clues in the piece to say that this is by no means "real" -- but these are strange times.

*I think that if NPR had more than one network (say an NPR2, like BBC Radio 4), this sort of thing would not be such an issue. But let's face it, these are heady times and NPR has a reputation for being the place to find the most accurate information. I totally understand why there is no place for someone who wants to make stuff up on the network. So, I guess the answer is that what I do doesn't really fit on NPR, but there is still an audience for it -- my God, look how popular The Daily Show is.

*You were a very early adopter of podcasting. How has podcasting affected the show? Does the podcasting audience differ from your public radio audience?

*Oh man, even though it's a lot of hype, the podcasting thing really is important. I mean let's face it, there is nothing revolutionary about downloading MP3s from the Internet. But for public radio, we have mostly been stuck in the real audio format -- and podcasting has finally made everyone run out and put MP3s on their site, which is a good thing. I think we radio producers need to realize that MP3s on the website are not a secondary way of listening -- they are still "broadcasts."

The Internet seems to be built on the principles of openness, discovery, and curiosity. I wish I could say the same thing about the public airwaves. It is extremely frustrating to be producing content for both worlds, but I believe podcasting will help. I now have over 7,000 listeners subscribed to my podcast feed. This means that if I want to make something that I know won't fly on the radio dial, I can make it for my Web site and people will still be able to hear it. It's really emboldening. For example: I did a show recently that scared one particular station (toe_07 the torture show) and they didn't air it. But over 5,000 people have downloaded it, so it wasn't a total loss. I do believe the majority of the shows I will make won't have this problem, but thanks to podcasting, I will never have to compromise on those rare occasions when I do want to make something that is "sensitive."