The Memory Palace
If public radio could open its doors–and why not, after all?–to passionate, unusual work like Nate’s, one would love it a lot more.
As I write this, I realize there is a warning inherent in this Transom feature on Podcasts of Love. Many of us are having to turn away from public radio, not only to make a living, but to do the creative, mission-inspired work that drew us to public radio in the first place. Something to think about.
A Favorite Episode of Nate DiMeo’s: Nee Weinberg
I recently asked my, um, my Facebook group, to suggest which episode I should post for this thing. I guessed that opinion would coalesce around a few of the crowd pleasing-est. I was wrong. The suggestions were all over the place (even citing a couple that I can’t really even listen to anymore). It was nice. People like what they like. So, here’s one I like. One of the toughest things about doing a biography piece like this one is that people’s lives, even interesting lives, aren’t stories just because they naturally have a beginning and an end and some exciting incidents in between. Ethan Weinberg lived a hell of a life but it still took me a hair shy of forever to find the story. Felt like an accomplishment when it was done. Then there are a couple of writing things I like in there. A couple of music things that I doubt anyone would ever notice, but I enjoy. Not too many things that make me cringe. So: here you go. This one’ll do. Sounds like The Memory Palace.
What it is.
When I posted my first episode of The Memory Palace, the description on iTunes read like this:
“From award winning public radio producer, Nate DiMeo, comes The Memory Palace. Short, surprising stories of the past, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, always super-great. For history buffs, fans of public radio shows like This American Life, RadioLab, and whatnot, and for all admirers of things that are super-great.”
Two years later, it says pretty much the same thing (except I noticed that Radiolab doesn’t have a gratuitous second capital, however, note: my last name does). Though the awards that make “award-winning” technically true are further in the past, the description is still essentially accurate. The Memory Palace is a pretty simple thing: short history stories put to music. They’ve gotten a little longer since then but most still float around the 6-minute range. They’re much more often heartbreaking than hysterical (though “bittersweet” is a decent blanket descriptor). But it’s still the same, small show.
Its audience has gotten pretty big, as podcasts go. Pieces from the series have aired on public radio shows like Here and Now, KUOW Presents, BackStory, (of the gratuitous second capital), REMIX (of the gratuitous four capitals), KCRW’s Unfictional, KUT’s O’ Dark 30, and others, largely thanks to PRX. In March it was a “guest podcast” on Slate.com. The folks at boingboing.net seem to post about nearly every new episode when it comes out (which may drive the most traffic and new subscribers of any of them). And it’s opened the door for other, weird things that I’ll get into in a bit.
Each episode seems to take forever. I will often become queasy when an ending isn’t working as well as I think it should. I will sometimes lose sleep trying to find a piece of music that fits the description “the sound of a life-time of drudgery with moments of false hope that builds to defiant—edging toward transcendent—resolve.” But when the pieces are done I usually feel kind of elated for a good 11 to 27 hours. And then a gnawing dread sets in as I start thinking about the next one.
It has earned me hundreds of dollars.
“How did he achieve such incredible success?” you ask.
A few years ago (no: several, now) I was working at Marketplace as an editor/producer and wanted out. Not that Marketplace wasn’t/isn’t great, it was/is, but I wanted to make something of my own. I was a good editor but I wanted to be a reporter. I was a good producer but wanted to produce my own show. So I left.
On my way out the door, I pitched a concept for a weekly, hour-long history show to the powers that were at American Public Media. Part of this was pragmatic: there’re shows about nearly every big humanities category—art, books, religion/philosophy, auto-repair, music—but, at the time, no one was doing a history show. It felt like an opportunity missed. My theory then (which I still buy, I think) was that people who love history enough to try to start a history show were…wait for it…historians. And historians are specialists. They like depth. They fear reductivism. They love details. And they often produce great radio. But if you tune into a program and hear that it’s all going to be about the Korean War and you don’t think you care about the Korean War, you will turn it off and turn on your audiobook of Freedom (you are a public radio listener after all).
I am not a historian. I cannot even claim to be a history buff. But, jeeze, do I love a good story. And history is, at its core, just a bunch of stories. I figured if you remembered that, if you placed an emphasis on narrative, and drama, and amazing facts, and wonder, and kept things varied and kept things moving and kept things short, you could build a general-interest history show that the person tooling around on a Saturday could enjoy as much as any of the other weekend, public radio crowd-pleasers. Or their reruns.
So, yeah. That didn’t happen.
Various changes at APM (personnel, policies, programming, something else that begins with “p”) derailed the pilot before it could get produced. I went off and started freelancing for NPR and expected to return to the idea when I had a little more on-air experience and had hopefully put myself in a position to host this imaginary thing. But, a couple of years later the landscape had changed. I knew I couldn’t just pitch a concept and hope to pilot something. Which was lame. But, podcasting was taking off. Which was awesome.
I started The Memory Palace at the very end of 2008. The original idea was to do a set of stories to use as a calling card for a pilot. Something that’d established the shtick of a longer show. Something that’d help me define my storytelling and interviewing voice and could help define it to others. Someplace I could road test segment types. The beauty of podcasting, of course, is it’s shockingly easy to do. You do your piece. You put it out there. I figured that I could get some radio nerds to listen to it. Figured maybe I could build a small audience and, after several months, have a body of work that would actually demonstrate a concept I’d otherwise be just describing in a pitch.
But a couple of things happened: first—and stop me if you heard about this already—no one had any money any more (I think something, like, happened with credit or houses or something). Second, people started listening to the podcast. When I was just a few months and nine episodes in, I sent a link to one of the episodes to the digital culture/nerd site boingboing.net and they posted it. From that, someone at the Freakonomics blog at the Times website wrote something nice. And suddenly I had a few thousand subscribers. And people were really responding to it. I got fan mail. Like, real fan mail. From people who really cared about these little stories I was recording in my closet with my normal field-recording kit while using my wedding suit for a baffle.
As more people started listening and some of them took the time to reach out with an email or write about it on their blog or, later, Twitter feed, the way I thought about the podcast changed. Basically, if there wasn’t going to be some Memory Palace hour-long series any time soon, then maybe I could find a venue on the radio for the short stories that I was already producing. That hasn’t really happened.
Why that hasn’t really happened. Theories, presented in easy-to-digest list form.
1. It is really tough to be entrepreneurial in public radio.
My first instinct was to make a module. I knew it’d be impossible (without real money and some real help) to turn out a daily, Star Date or The Writer’s Almanac-style module, but I really loved the idea of inserting The Memory Palace into the context of a newscast. At their best (he says, at the risk of sounding like a self-congratulatory jackass), the pieces are lovely. At their worst, there’s still a “Hey! That’s pretty cool” water-coolery thing about them. I like the idea of having something disarming or wonderful (in the literal, “full of wonder” sense) pop up after a newscast story about Washington gridlock or a flood or a bank heist or whatnot. But, importantly, I feel, and was hearing back from a lot of people who agreed, that The Memory Palace was public-radio-ready. It does not reinvent the wheel. It is populist. It kind of hits a sweet spot where it sounds new and fresh and kind of youthful or whatever, while still being perfectly palatable to the stodgiest, tote-bag-totingest public radio listener. So why not a weekly module? Get some stations to air it, charge them some real-world-miniscule yearly fee (say a thousand bucks). String together enough stations and I could actually make something approaching a living.
That bubble got burst quickly. First, stations don’t actually have any money. They are not crying wolf during pledge drives. One of the very first things that get cut when things get cut is any sort of budget for freelance acquisitions. If they have a budget, they are (appropriately, I think), loathe to spend it on non-local content. They are already shelling out to NPR and APM etc. for things that drive listenership and donations. They weren’t going to find money for my little enterprise. Second, most program/news directors are equally loathe to carve up their schedule or break into a NPR newscast or program for anything other than local content. (I am less sympathetic to this: often, because they don’t have money, they don’t produce that local content. In other words, they’re saving a place at a table that they’re actually not going to use. As to their reluctance to break into NPR content: try it. See if people revolt. I think people want to hear good things. Give them a chance to hear them.)
2. PRX is great. With a couple of caveats. Caveats that drive me bananas.
Anyone who does any sort of audio storytelling should put her stuff on PRX. John Barth et (a wonderful) al., are doing a great service by creating a venue and relatively smooth and fair system for getting independent productions heard by decision makers at stations. I owe many, many of my podcasts’ listeners to people who have heard it on stations who have purchased it through PRX.
I am a radio person. I love listening to podcasts but I would far rather turn on the radio and listen to TAL than download it. I love my iPod but I would far rather have that same great song pop up on the radio than on shuffle. So, to me, having these pieces air is deeply satisfying. Knowing that they’re inserting themselves into someone’s day while he’s driving or sitting at work still delights me. I love the ritual of appointment listening, but I’ll take the magic of happening upon something that moves you, every time. Love the radio. Love PRX for helping The Memory Palace get on the radio.
Since PRX is such a good system–it’s simple, it’s efficient, it’s kind of fun, its rankings and front-paging are generally egalitarian—it’s become the method of choice for stations to get content from independent producers. But those stations are a self-selecting group, right? If you’re the kind of program director who is interested in bringing in independent content and finding fresh voices, you’ll sign up with PRX. Problem is, PRX’s market makes it nearly impossible to charge anything approaching a fare value for a piece. I’ve talked to stations that buy from PRX. They’ve all stressed that if you want your pieces to be purchased widely you’ve got to keep the price as close to free as possible.
An example: following that theory, four stations have purchased one of my pieces. It is only five minutes long. Selling it for the base PRX rate, it costs 26 points. That’s $2.60. The piece has been listened to, between the podcast feed, the radio airplay, and a recent feed via Slate.com, by likely well over a hundred thousand people. It has earned me $10.40. (Coincidentally, since I wrote that sentence, I went across the street and bought a beet salad and a diet coke. Which cost $10.48).
A second piece was purchased by 5 stations at $2.20 (which would’ve covered lunch). But, importantly, it was also purchased by a non-PRX station for $75.00. So, would I have been able to get six stations to air it if there were no PRX? Probably not. Could I have gotten a couple to buy it for something like $75.00 if they weren’t PRX subscribers? I think I probably could’ve. But not if I put it up on PRX for $75.00. That’s not how the market there works. I’ve heard as much from Program Director types at PRX stations.
And therein lies the rub: PRX is a great way to get you heard. It’s a great, reliable way to get things purchased, but can it support an actually independent independent-producer and give her the tools to be entrepreneurial and self-supporting? That’s not what it’s set up to do. It might help that producer get heard and get a job. In theory, it might yield enough stations that maybe that producer can get a grant to keep going. But, these are bad days to get a grant. That’s not PRX’s fault. They are fighting the good fight. But that’s the way it goes.
Realizing that, I started thinking this:
3. Be prepared to give it away. And I do consider the near-funding of one not-particularly-decadent lunch “giving it away.”
My third idea to professionalize the podcast (fourth? I’ve lost track), is that if I can give it away, get a lunch paid for now and then by PRX or dinner from a station or a show, just keep pushing it, keep trying to get it heard, at some point maybe something else that can make it pay might come. Maybe there’d be enough carriage to get some foundation support. Maybe there’d be a book deal. Maybe there’d be advertising. Maybe someone would love it so much that they’d want to pay my mortgage.
This remains the idea. Because it may be the only idea. If you’re out there making “creative” podcasts—podcasts about stories or ideas or sound-art or Latvian comedy or something—you’re going to have a hard time finding a real financial partner. The only show that I can think of that has found one is the terrific 99% Invisible. Design companies want to fund cool things about design. I have yet to find a history company on Yelp. I have also considered changing The Memory Palace to something called Hedge-Fund Managers Do Incredible Things for the Community.
Free may be the only way to make money. I just haven’t entirely figured out how to do it yet.
That Said: How My Podcast has Opened Weird Doors and, in A Round-About-Way, Made Me Money. A List. In Bullet Points. That Look Like Arrows. Because I Just Found the Short-Cut Key For Arrows.
⇒ My podcast has two agents.
I find this amusing. But through a strange, only-in-Hollywood (where I live, and may be the single best place to live if you want strange career things to pop up out of the blue. “Only-in-Missoula,” and “only-in-Hartford” opportunities, for instance, are generally less exciting), there is a nice guy in nicer suits at one of the big Hollywood agencies who “tries” to make episodes of the podcast into movies. This hasn’t happened yet and I can’t say I expect it to, but, that’s something, right? It’s fun to say anyway.
More substantively, I have a book agent (at a different fancy Hollywood/New York agency). At one point I got an email from an editor at a publisher wanting to know if I’d ever thought about doing a book of short history stories. That interest helped get me an agent, even though, ultimately, that book did not get bought. (The nutshell reason is that, though publishers really liked the podcast and loved the fact of the podcast with its listeners and promotional potential, ultimately, there weren’t enough listeners to get a book published in “the current environment.”)
Here is a brief re-enactment of one exchange with an editor who wanted to publish the book but was thwarted by the accounting department.
Editor: Loved the proposal!
Me: Thanks. That’s great.
Editor: Yeah, so it went all the way up the ladder until the numbers people shoved it off the last rung. We were real close.
Me: Well, that sucks, but what do you think I could do either this time or next time to push it over the top?
Editor: Be famous.
More on this in a second, but meanwhile, having a book agent has been great. It hasn’t changed the harsh reality about the publishing industry. But I am a writer (of a sort), and it’s nice to know that as I write things, there’s someone there who can help them get read. And she has. Also, she was there when…
⇒ A Book Fell in My Lap.
Because I live in Hollywood, I know lots of TV and Movie types. One of these is a Memory Palace fan. He’s also the co-creator of a television show called Parks and Recreation. When folks at the show decided to write a history/guide-book of the fictional town where it’s set, they hired the Memory Palace guy. You should pre-order it right now on Amazon. It is funny. Did you do that? No? Go do it and come back. All set? Thanks!
⇒ There’ve been a bunch of other odd opportunities.
Despite the near complete lack of financial gain, I continue to do the podcast for two reasons. 1) I love it. I love The Memory Palace. It is occasionally a punishing, challenging pursuit. But such is love. Or something. But, yeah. I love doing it. 2) Despite how fits-and-starts the production ends up being and how long of a gap there sometimes is between episodes, when I put one out, something seems to happen. It might just be nice feedback and a nice connection made, but sometimes it’s a substantive thing: I have this comic book/graphic novel project pitch out to a couple of publishers because this comic writer I met randomly happened to be a fan of the podcast and that was enough to allow me to throw around his good name and get my foot in the door. Some lovely, legit filmmakers pursued making a short film of one of the episodes, a producer at the BBC approached me about piloting for a Radio 4 special. I’ve spoken at a couple of cool events I wouldn’t have ever even been invited to attend otherwise. All of these things are great, and just walked into the door because I keep it open.
Here are some things I would like to happen with the podcast.
• I’d still like to produce an hour. The Memory Palace will always be these small stories (I love the format. I’m good at it. It’s like writing a pop song: there’s infinite variation to be wrung from that simple formula), but I’d love to produce a compendium in the spirit of the podcast that brought a cabinet of wonders approach to an hour—mixing in interviews and found sound and other story-telling modes about history and the past. In an ideal world, I’d love to find a partner to help me make one of those Snap Judgement, State of the Re:Union, style nationally distributed short seasons.
• I’d like to produce them much more regularly. Lately, the reviews of the podcast on iTunes all seem to boil down to this: “I love it. I hate that it’s so infrequent.” To which I say, “you and me both, sister, you and me both.” Which my wife overhears and then I’m embarrassed. But they don’t come out often enough. When you’re not getting paid to do something, it gets tough to justify carving time out when other paid work comes in. I am always, always wishing I were producing pieces more often. It plagues me.
• I’d like to be more famous. I can be super-precious about The Memory Palace, but not so precious that I can’t acknowledge that that editor was right. Would I be better off if my nice little book of lovingly crafted history anecdotes could be published without me needing to have a certain score on Google Analytics or have appeared in US Weekly carrying a 50-pack of Charmin under my arm while exiting Costco in its “Stars are Just Like Us” photo spread? Sure. Am I glad I have sense of humor enough to find it amusing that the book that editor was able to push up the ladder the month he wasn’t able to push mine was, literally, A Shore Thing, “by” Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi? I am. Would the world be better off? Perhaps.
But there is something to what he said. I’d like to be more famous. I’d like to get The Memory Palace in front of everyone who might possibly enjoy it. I don’t think that’s everyone, by any stretch, but it’s many more than have found it so far. Maybe it’d be enough to get a book published. Maybe it’d be enough to get a radio show on the air. Maybe it’d be enough to be able to do a live show—to read Memory Palace stories in front of an audience backed by musicians. Maybe it’ll be enough to open up some door I haven’t thought of yet.
The goal, ultimately, is to professionalize it. To be able to focus on making these stories that I truly love making. To get paid to try and make beautiful things. And to find ways to have the people who might find those things beautiful, find them.
Random thing that I’ve learned along the way that I feel like pointing out.
• Audio Never Goes Viral.
There’s something much more intentional about choosing to listen to something than choosing to click on a video or article. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.
Perhaps the best advice I can give anyone who wants to make a podcast:
Make the podcast.
That’s it. It’s very easy to do. You have no idea what might happen if you do. For instance…
The other day, some guy in Texas gave me $100.00.
I checked my email and there it was. A paypal donation from some man I’d never met. $100 will not pay my mortgage. It will not convince a publisher to put out a book or a Program Director to throw some resources behind a show. But it meant the world to me.
Podcasting, and radio in general, is a lonely pursuit. There’s no live audience applauding. A tiny percentage of your non-live audience ever reaches out to tell you how they feel. It’s just you in a closet with your field-recording kit and your wedding suit as a baffle. But then some guy gives you a hundred bucks, or you get some email or read some review and you realize that not only are people listening, that some of them are connecting with it in the same way that I connect with an album or a book or a song. And it’s enough.
It’s incredible, really. I feel kind of elated for a good 11 to 27 hours. And then a gnawing dread sets in as I start thinking about the next one. But, thanks to that $100, at least I can buy lunch.
About Nate DiMeo
Nate DiMeo has been in public radio for a decade and change. He’s worked at WBUR in Boston, WRNI in (his hometown of) Providence, at Marketplace in L.A., and has freelanced a bunch for All Things Considered and Morning Edition. He also produces The Memory Palace, though not nearly as often as he should. He lives down the hill from the Hollywood Sign.