Saying the podcast landscape is dominated by interviews is like saying a backyard’s landscape is dominated by blades of grass. But podcasts have, perhaps forever, loosened the necktie from around the throat of the interview format, blurring the line between questioning and conversing until guards are lowered and candid information flows off the cuff and on the record.
And Love + Radio isn’t just candid; it’s incriminating.
Love + Radio seeks to consider extremes. Its very existence is an inevitable extreme, the critical mass that results from replacing formality with authenticity. Swearing and screaming. Crimes and punishments. Illnesses mental, physical, and spiritual. Every tale is cautionary. You worry, at times, about the interviewer’s well-being. It’s The Moth with a venomous stinger. This American Near-Death Experience. NSFW NPR.
Nick van der Kolk launched Love + Radio in late 2005, producing alongside Brendan Baker. After proving its indie podcast bona fides with the top prize at the Third Coast Festival Competition in 2011 and an honorable mention at the fest in 2013, it got picked up by Radiotopia in 2014 and has attracted praise from mainstream public radio draws like Ira Glass, placing it in a sort of if-only-we-could-do-that admiration lens. Consider them the Pixies to Glass’s Nirvana.
In fact, many listeners first met Love + Radio when Radiolab presented a particularly poignant episode of van der Kolk’s show. “The Living Room” certainly has more crossover appeal than most installments, as its depravity is of a gentler sort: a woman named Diane has a direct view from her window into the apartment of a young, idyllic couple, but her observation of their life becomes a portal into the man’s deathbed as he slowly succumbs to a terminal illness with his partner by his side. The story is so gorgeously crafted, its casually amoral backbone—a months-long commitment to voyeurism—momentarily disappears through narrative sleight-of-hand and the listener’s accompanying emotional investment. But the thought of Radiolab’s hapless audience continuing down L + R’s dark spiral seems alluded to by the wording of their endorsement, at once a recommendation and a warning: “Please listen to as much of Love + Radio as you can.”
For all its acclaim and recognition, Love + Radio remains oddly distant and elusive. Updates can be torturously delayed. The episode descriptions on the show’s site err on the side of brevity in comical defiance of the complexities that follow. For example, “Paul Wood—Leadership Specialist” is a bit of an understatement when describing Mr. Wood’s haunting efforts to survive one of New Zealand’s deadliest prisons in “Paremoremo;” the staggering trajectory “‘Ellen’—Successful Artist” embarks upon in “Jack and Ellen” to reach that supposed success is horrifying; and let’s not even get into the psychological and existential horror found within “Points Unknown” as detailed by, um, “David—Unicyclist.”
Even the podcast’s name is broad to the point of mystery. But when considered alongside the high intensity sustained throughout its episodes, the plus sign implies the kind of anxious, obsessive love that prompts someone to carve a permanent note into wood or tattoo into flesh. “Love + Radio. 4-Ever.”
Long-time (or is it long-suffering?) listeners talk like dazed bystanders, sharing tales that have become second-hand tragic comedies, urban legends, modern-day campfire stories. Paradoxes, punchlines, the ironies of life. A retired pimp credits God with his success in the industry. A dominatrix (rather, “humiliatrix”) breaks character when her client discusses his abusive childhood. A producer films balloon fetish porn, but leaves his set when the balloons are about to pop because he’s phobic of the same noise that arouses his audience. All the while, listeners chase that old, forbidden feeling: are we even supposed to be hearing this?
Yet an even more persistent question remains. What is the larger intent that combines all the high-pressure scenarios confronted by this show? What’s the point of plunging to these depths? Is it gratuitous? Is it mean spirited?
It’s disruptive. And thought disruption can be instrumental in breaking up the safe monotony our brain desires, producing things like creative thought, expanded perspectives, continuing education, and, yes, empathy.
There’s shock value here, there’s no denying, with all the base sensations that accompany shock. But empathy runs through each story, no matter how disquieting. When Jay Thunderbolt, strip-club manager, waves a hand gun “about two inches” from van der Kolk’s face, it’s gut wrenching, but that moment ends without consequence. What lingers is the knowledge that he claims to have killed twenty-six people—in Special Forces. Identifying Jay as a veteran reframes every bizarre interaction with this man; he’s a character, but he’s in an all-too-crowded subsect of marginalized and traumatized Americans.
Empathy runs through each story, no matter how disquieting.
Perhaps the show’s ear extends to a fault at times. When Frank, a registered sex offender, goes off his rehearsed statements of sex-registrant advocacy and begins losing himself to rage, misguided comparisons to the Holocaust, and prophecies of violent uprisings, “A Red Dot” becomes a puzzle box of sympathies; how to feel about this troubled, vindictive man—and the show that gave him an outlet, a microphone, and just enough slack to hang himself verbally?
But complexities are often presented either without commentary or with conflicting viewpoints, leaving the resolution up to you. It’s a gesture of respect: we trust you with this. It’s also an act of cruelty: it’s your problem now.
Ultimately, Love + Radio is a high-stakes, life-or-death gamble on curiosity. What recommends it is what makes it challenging at times to recommend. It’s the stubborn insistence on seeing and storing everything we can to the extreme, moving the bookends on what our minds can store as far in both directions as possible, just to squeeze another short story in there.
It might make more sense to consider the sprawl of topics and perspectives not as a collection of short stories, but as one big novel, dropping you into various streams of consciousness that turn into white water rapids, like Joyce. Finding humanitarian optimism in painful places, like Steinbeck. Determined to find one unifying commonality in chaos, like…well, any of us.
Because the one thing that unifies all of Love + Radio’s subjects, whether they escaped, witnessed, or caused death: they all lived to tell the tale. FL
Love + Radio’s three most notorious episodes, The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt, The Living Room, and A Red Dot display the show’s power, but there are also real, hopeful, and slightly-twisted versions of the titular love to be found along the way.
Investigative reporter Jason has a storied life, but every story features him as his own antagonist. Still, with stubborn support from colleagues and the grace of his wife, his ultimate story is redemption, as demonstrated by a surprisingly sweet moment where he pauses a tale of his bygone coke dependency to put his son back to bed.
Daryl has two passions: music, and convincing Klansmen to renounce their membership through bold, civil, one-on-one conversations with them. As an African-American, this means he’s faced consternation from both bigots and allies in response to his efforts, but his matter-of-fact reasoning is both simple and stunning: “If you’re not a racist, it doesn’t do any good for me to meet with you.”
A journalist navigates an online sex chat so explicit that it’s basically a thirty-minute trigger warning. But after aggressive run-ins with pick-up artists and fetishists, she encounters a shyly self-aware man with a fantasy both humorous and harmless: he just wants to seduce with a fake British accent. What follows is probably the most endearing recorded sex chat in history, complete with hilariously bad attempts at English slang, giggling fits, and a bittersweet ending.