A Safe Space

go ahead caller

One of the podcasts I listen to regularly has taken it upon itself to argue about a thing. It’s not a big thing, at least to most people, but it is a big thing to them. They’ve been pretty strident about it. Angry, in fact, that the opposing viewpoint even exists. The thing itself isn’t relevant. But what is clear from listening to them is this—if you believe something different to what they believe, there is no space for you—not on that show. You’re just wrong.

I may give myself a little break from that show.

One of the small, good things that has come out of the pandemic for me is regularly talking to a therapist. I’ve kept up the practice, even on weeks when I don’t know what we are going to talk about and the stress of not knowing what we are going to talk about has itself been the topic. I fully realize that I am speaking from privilege here—I have a good job with good health insurance and I am able to do this. But whether or not you have ever seen a therapist, you probably can appreciate the value of a safe space. I think this is why Clubhouse has taken off with some people—it can be a safe space. You can hang out and listen, if you want. If you don’t like what you are hearing, you can engage or disengage, or start your own room. Each room is its own ecosystem, unlike the oppressive, relentless “feed” of Facebook and Twitter. There is no feed in Clubhouse. It’s just a collection of spaces, and some of them are safe. The stars of Clubhouse aren’t the pontificators. They are the moderators. Think about that for a minute.

The skill of being a great moderator isn’t light years away from the skills of a good therapist. A moderator creates comfort and trust, an environment that encourages sharing, and is naturally curious without being judgmental. For millions of people, the hosts of their favorite talk radio shows and podcasts are as important for the space that they create as for the air that they fill.

Creating that space is the exportable skill that the great ones have, no matter the subject. Once upon a time I spent many insomniac hours of my life listening to…um…“enthusiasts” call in to Art Bell’s legendary overnight paranormal show, Coast To Coast AM. Bell was certainly a legend amongst conspiracy buffs and aspirational alien abductees for entertaining a mature discussion about topics that rarely get taken seriously by the media, and he courted that mystique by living and broadcasting from a glorified trailer in Pahrump, NV called KNYE (“The Kingdom of Nye,” for Nye County, Nevada—the home of Area 51.) When Bell retired, many fans thought the show would simply die, because Bell’s position in that community was irreplaceable. However, his replacement, George Noory, has held on to that gig for 17 years.

How? Because he has the same exportable skill that Bell had, that Howard Stern has, and that Larry King once had when he hosted “Open Phone America” at 3 am: he creates a safe space for listeners to call in and express themselves, without ridicule.

This is why NPR’s Car Talk persists as one of the most popular podcasts in America, and why my local NPR affiliate WBUR airs The Best of Car Talk every Saturday—even though there have been no new shows since 2012, and one of the two “Tappet Brothers” who served as the show’s hosts (Tom Magliozzi) passed away in 2014. People continue to listen to ten-year old reruns of a show about automotive problems. I say again, people continue to listen to ten-year old reruns of a show about automotive problems. They do this for two reasons—the Magliozzi brothers were goddamn American comedic legends, and I don’t say that lightly. When they retired in 2012, Doug Berman, their executive producer, compared them to Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, and maintained that people would continue to enjoy a show about car problems years after it went off the air. Doug was right.

The second reason was that Tom and Ray Magliozzi created a safe space for smart people to be…not very smart. The most educated callers would delight in replicating every squeak and rattle, revel in their automotive ineptitude, and prostrate themselves to the wisdom of Tom and Ray in ways that they probably never would at their job, or in front of family. They did so because Tom and Ray made it safe to do so. Of course they know more about cars than we do. They never lorded it over us, or made us feel stupid for imitating the “CHUNK-KA-CHUNK-KA-CHUNK” of a bad CV joint, or the screech of a slipping alternator belt.

I think Clubhouse, and the soon-to-be widespread Twitter Spaces, are catching on because they have the potential to be “safe spaces” amongst the lions and tigers and bears of social media. They aren’t there yet, because more depends on the humans of Clubhouse than the technology of Clubhouse. Yes, sometimes when you fire up Clubhouse you get rooms like “Millionaire’s Breakfast” with people like Grant Cardone yelling at you that IF YOU AREN’T MAKING $50,000 A MONTH YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE A TV (you probably shouldn’t be on Clubhouse, either, I guess…) If you are in those rooms, I’m afraid you aren’t getting breakfast—you are in someone else’s sales funnel. But there are plenty of other rooms where people are sharing experiences, wisdom, stories, and even love. And the key to the greatest of those rooms are moderators who are gifted at providing the safe space to do so.

I think podcasters have a lot to learn from paying attention to the best moderators on Clubhouse, because the voice of the listener is often so woefully absent from podcasting. The best podcasts make me feel like I am a welcome member of an exclusive club (even if that club has millions of listeners), and that while non-members “don’t get it,” I certainly do. Almost no one is gifted enough to continually argue with listeners and make them feel stupid and still make a show out of it. Have you ever seen a magician make an audience volunteer look or feel stupid for not being able to follow the card, or track the little red ball? There is a word for tricks like that: “sucker effects.” If that sounds bad, it’s because it is bad. No one succeeds long term being mean to people. Only one magician in history could get away with continually telling spectators that they were just “too slow” to follow him, and that was Tony Slydini (“You no see, because you no watch!”) You and I aren’t going to get away with it.

Instead, let’s think about ways to create safe spaces for listeners. Maybe you have an idea for a show about science—but there are already thousands of science podcasts, aren’t there? But a science podcast that welcomes listeners—creates a safe space for getting their voices and viewpoints on the show, even a place to be “wrong”? Every show would be different, because every audience is different. In Sondheim’s fantastic musical Sunday In The Park With George, the artist who laments being unable to contribute something new to art is counseled “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new.” Replace “you” with “them” and you’ve got a new show. An inexhaustible gift, really.

I’ll close here by mentioning the most legendary talk show in the history of Sports Radio: Mike and the Mad Dog. There is a great 30 for 30 film and podcast from ESPN about the unlikely pairing of this increasingly combustible duo, and why they made for such “can’t miss” afternoon radio everyday on WFAN in New York City (I lived in NYC then, and I was hooked.) But what many people fail to recall is that there were really three stars of that show: Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, Mike Francesa, and Doris from Rego Park. Doris lived with her parents until her death at age 58—she had numerous surgeries all her life to deal with complications from neurofibromatosis. She called in all the time to talk about her beloved Mets.

Mike and Chris berated each other all the time, But they never berated Doris. She coughed a lot. Sometimes, her voice was pretty weak. Mike and the Mad Dog always made sure it was heard.


A couple of admin notes. Today I am giving a virtual presentation on podcasting to the National Association of Music Merchants “Believe In Music” event. It’s been on my bucket list to speak at NAMM forever, so I am very excited for this one. I get to "share the stage" with Peter Frampton. In tribute, I am delivering my entire talk, "The Music Industry's Guide To Podcasting," through a vocoder, because I want everyone to feel how I feel.


Also, last week I mentioned that I was going to have something special for readers related to listener feedback. This needs another week and possibly two to bake so that it is something of which I am proud, so I beg for your patience on that. It will be worth it, I hope.


Have a great weekend. Be kind. As always, I appreciate your subscribes and shares, and I hope that this is a safe space, too. Just hit reply.

-Tom

Photo Credit: My wife Tamsen snapped that on the wall of the lobby of the Hudson Theater for the Jake Gyllenhall revival of Sunday In The Park With George on Broadway. It remains one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen live, no joke.

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