Here’s the main thing Max Linsky, one of the hosts of Longform Podcast, has taken away from the first 18 episodes of the journalism Q&A program he created with Aaron Lammer and Evan Ratliff: "Everyone procrastinates," Linsky tells Co.Create. "Everyone talks about how hard it is to start stories."
It’s one thing for a writer to privately confess his or her doubts to a friend, but on Longform, some of the biggest names in nonfiction open up about their worries—as well as their processes—each week, making the world of professional journalism a little less mysterious to listeners. " I think the way that stories are ultimately presented is kind of like magic, that they just happened," Lammer, 31, said. "There’s a real value in hearing over and over again every week that it’s messy and it’s hard."
Since its launch in August, the podcast has presented in-depth interviews with The New Yorker's David Grann, Rolling Stone's Janet Reitman, Esquire's Chris Jones, and others, conducted by Linsky and Lammer, creators of Longform, a clearinghouse for the best journalism found on the Web, and Ratliff, himself a journalist and co-creator of The Atavist, an app-based nonfiction publishing company. Recorded using $150 off-the-shelf USB microphones in a tiny conference room in the office The Atavist and Longform share in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, the shows, which are edited down from sprawling conversations by Lauren Kirchner, have a casual, collegial vibe. Often, there’s a big, friendly dog sleeping under the table as some of the best journalists working today share behind the scenes details of their work.
For listeners, the show may function as a kind of free journalism seminar, with many of the interview subjects offering tips for writers. (See: Brief Advice from Longformers.) How do you gain the trust of your subjects? How do you break into closed subcultures? How do you write about subjects who are no longer alive?
"I think people like process in general," said Ratliff, who cited Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast as an example of a show that’s able to go deep inside comedians’ experiences yet manages to hold the interest of listeners who may not even care about standup comedy. "I like [hearing about] how their career got to where it is," said Ratliff.
"I find the casual podcast format very compelling," added Lammer, who also cites Maron as an influence, as well as Maximum Fun’s Jesse Thorn and Slate’s weekly Culture Gabfest. "I wouldn’t have thought I’d like that, but I come back to it a fair amount."
Asked to list some dream guests, the group rattled off a who’s who of J-school heroes like New Yorker legend John McPhee, White Album author Joan Didion, Moneyball author Michael Lewis, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers author Katherine Boo. For now, the three hosts are tapping their Rolodexes for guests, but as Longform has grown in popularity, Linsky has found himself on the receiving end of some friendly solicitations by writers. "I’ve had a lot of people who could potentially be guests send me emails about how much they like the podcast. Just like, 'It’s been so much fun to listen to…' A lot of emails like that."
"People like to talk about their work," Linsky said. "It’s not like people call you every day and ask them how you think about the world. People seem to respond pretty well to that."
You need to love your subjects:
"I have a capacity to love people for who they are, for the time spent. You know, I fall in love. And I care about them. I’m also like a cynical asshole in a way, and I see stuff, but I care about how they feel."—Mike Sager
You need to practice:
"I was not by any means a natural reporter. I’ve always graded myself as about a C-reporter trying to get a B+…. Freelancing for The [Washington] Monthly, working for The Village Voice for a few years, even working at Time Magazine after that: All of these are just opportunities to sort of practice over and over and over again."—Ta-Nehisi Coates
You need to use your head:
"I actually write huge chunks of my features, I actually write them in my head for, like, hours. And I memorize them and then write them out… I actually never asked anybody else how they do it so I don’t know if that’s not normal. I write my lede in my head."—Mac McClelland
You need to be blank:
"I never bring myself into these conversations. Very, very rarely. It’s not like I have to be anybody. If I’m doing my job right, I’m blank, I’m a sponge drinking up what this person is giving to me."—Jean Marie Laskas
You need to delete it all:
"What I’ve found useful on smaller pieces is really just actually deleting everything I’ve written and go at it fresh, just re-envision it again… That’s really the best way to do it… Often I find that that’s just this great cure all: Just delete it all, go for a walk, whatever it is, and then sit down and start writing an entirely different feature about the same subject."—Jonah Weiner