The New Yorker Is Secretly a Magazine About Massachusetts
Boston has given a lot to the New Yorker, including a number of its best writers: the surgeon and author Atul Gawande, Harvard historian Jill Lepore, and staff writer Paige Williams, a former Boston executive editor, just to name a few. Now the New Yorker is coming back this way: the New Yorker Radio Hour, in collaboration with WNYC, will begin airing on WGBH 89.7 FM this weekend. The weekly broadcast—which can be heard Saturday at 10 a.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m., also available as a podcast—is helmed by New Yorker editor David Remnick, and features a mix of interviews, storytelling, and longform narrative. A new piece by Lepore, for instance, will be told in three parts over the first three episodes.)
We caught up with Remnick by phone to talk about the radio show, the future of the magazine, the Mets, and the Celtics star he’d nominate for our “Best Bostonians” list.
I hear a Boston public radio station is putting the New Yorker Radio Hour on the air. Since this qualifies as a Boston-New York rivalry, the City of Boston charter requires me to at least feign outrage. How dare you, sir.
Let’s think of it as a New York-Boston partnership.
Well, don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually excited, because this podcast brings further credence to my long-held conspiracy theory, which is that the New Yorker is not actually a magazine about New York, but is in fact a magazine about Massachusetts, in disguise.
[Laughter. Perhaps a little too loud.]
You will confirm the theory?
Well, the first big reporting piece on this show, as you probably know, is hosted by somebody a lot closer to you geographically than me, which is Jill Lepore.
Yes, and that story [about one of Lepore’s childhood friends] is set in suburban Boston. I rest my case.
You guys have already won the World Series twice lately, so enough already.
Our apologies about the Mets.
I don’t feel that you’re being sincere at all. I really think we got paid back for the Buckner moment. The Mets had like a half-dozen Buckner moments. It was unbelievable.
Are you a Mets fan?
No, I’m the other thing. Which I know is worse.
We’ll move on. You’ve been doing a range of New Yorker podcasts for a while now—I’m thinking of New Yorker Out Loud specifically. How is this different?
They’re very different. You know, podcasts are more narrowcast. For example, the Marc Maron podcast is about one thing and it’s concentrated on one voice or one story at a time. And we did that, and we do it now with Political Scene, and Fiction, and Poetry. But there’s no question that by working with WNYC, and the public radio system in general, that we can attempt something more ambitious, and reach many more people—because of the combination of terrestrial radio and the podcast. And also, the truth is, podcasts that we do by ourselves, I think they’re great. But the people in this office are first and foremost editors and artists and writers—and not radio experts. We’re doing the radio part, I hope, as increasingly enlightened amateurs. But doing this show with WNYC, we have people who spent their lives in radio, and are as good at radio as I hope our editors and writers are at putting out the New Yorker. And the show itself is meant to be much more…various. A typical show will have a big reported piece, then have an interview, it’ll have a humor element, and so on. So it’s not narrowcast.
Were there any obvious touchstones for you as you started to think about how to put together an hour of radio? The obvious ones that come to mind being Serial in the case of Lepore’s three-parter, and maybe This American Life for the grab-bag-ness.
I think if you’re a novelist and you’ve never read a lot of novels, you’re a fool. You want to see what’s around, you want that to inform your imagination. To go into radio and not be aware of Radiolab or This American Life or Serial or all kinds of talk shows, or Terry Gross, who’s a master interviewer—you’d be foolish not to be aware of that and to learn from it.
But you’re not taking upspeak lessons or schooling the staff in “NPR Speak.”
No, absolutely not. No vocal fry.
The Jill Lepore story specifically: Did you go hunting for a story that could be told in this format? Or was it something that didn’t feel right for the magazine?
The NYC people had been around for some months, and they spent their time talking to writers about obsessions they might have, things they always wanted to do, things that might work for eradio. And not surprisingly there were any number of people here who had ideas. And sometimes it was related to a story they were doing for print or the web, and sometimes not at all. So the Jill Lepore thing is not something that she did for the magazine. It’s something that she did solely for the radio.
Is that how you’re thinking of this evolving? There’ll continue to be exclusive, radio-only New Yorker stories?
No, not only. I just got finished taping, together with Jennifer Gonnerman, a radio story based on some reporting she had done in Harlem a story about a guy who’s daughter was killed in a crossfire between two housing projects, basically across the street from each other, in Harlem. They’d had this terrible rivalry for many years, and this guy’s daughter, who was a nationally recognized high school basketball player, was killed, as a teenager—ending a life that could have seen her on an NCAA team winning a national championship. So this guy has dedicated his life to, by hook or by crook, raising awareness of putting an end to the violence at these two housing projects. So that’s something that Gonnerman wrote about, but it takes a very different form in radio—because of the capacities of radio.
You’ve had success turning what was once considered one of the most aggressively old-fashioned magazines into successfully diversified digital media company—
Let me say this. I get the cartoon of the New Yorker, no pun intended, of the Eustace Tilley being a kind of figure of high minded-ness or old fashioned-ness. But the fact is, what’s the hippest form around now? What do we hear about more endlessly? Longform—a term that is very young. But the New Yorker has been doing that for a very long time. And a lot of the people who are most influential in the form are New Yorker writers. I don’t want to get into a Ben Bradlee thing, the defensive crouch—
[Laughs.] I withdraw the allegation that the New Yorker was ever thought of as an old-fashioned magazine. My point was going to be that the magazine is now doing a ton of new media things: a pretty vibrant web site, you’re doing radio shows and live events and making videos and e-books. You’ve probably got a Harold Ross hologram back there for all I know—
We have a television show that’s starting at the end of the year, beginning of next year, with Amazon. Although that’s being done by [documentary filmmaker] Alex Gibney, with our consultation. It’s very different from the radio, which is being done in a kind of 50-50 collaboration.
Congratulations. That’s fantastic.
The upsides of it are obvious—we’re taking advantage of new media to deepen the possibilities of our journalism, or storytelling, or reporting. The thing you have to watch out for is spreading yourself too thin, and not taking your eye off the ball.
And that is in fact my question: What pieces of this enterprise are still the most interesting to you, and what pieces occupy the biggest chunks of your time?
That’s a really hard question. I…boy. [Long pause] You know, at the moment, I’m really involved with the radio, because it’s starting, and I think you need to learn how to do certain things, and you’re slower at it than you might have been at editing a particular piece or even report a particular piece. I don’t know that I do anything else other than the New Yorker. That’s my existence: My family and my New Yorker. And that’s it. And I feel unbelievably lucky, but I don’t have hobbies, I don’t go hiking, if I get a vacation it’s to go report a story which I find incredibly liberating and fun. I’m deranged in that sense.
As are we all. OK, putting you on the spot: We’ve been polling historians and sportswriters and politicians and readers to compile a list of the Best Bostonians of all time. Off the top of your head: Who would you add to the list?
Bill Russell. I’m old enough that when I was little, that’s how I learned to love basketball was by watching the Celtics crush the Knicks into powder. I got to see Bill Russell play at the Madison Square Garden once—I was probably 10—and it was so long ago that I remember there was cigar smoke rising above the court and gathering around the scoreboard. I went with my dad, and that was not something that we could afford to do—but we went to see the Knicks against the Celtics. I think Bill Russell may even have been player-coach by that time.