Barry Lam is the producer of the Hi-Phi Nation, the first story-driven philosophy podcast. I spoke with Barry about his approach to philosophical story-telling, his goals, his challenges, tips for philosophers being interviewed, and upcoming stories.
Can you talk about how and why you started the podcast? How did the idea originate?
I didn’t get my first iPod until 2009, and once I got it, I started listening to This American Life and Planet Money. I was hooked on the idea that narrative storytelling and beautifully produced audio could connect people to even the most technical issues in economics and the cognitive sciences. I was waiting for a show to do that with philosophy. When none arrived after six years, I decided to do it myself.
Can you tell me a little about you – your background and interest in philosophy, how you came to work on a podcast?
I went to college at UC Irvine, where there are thousands of kids like me. (Shout out to the UC system, still the leader in American social mobility.) I got an amazing education there in philosophy and the humanities generally. I was particularly close with Jeff Barrett and Kyle Stanford and loved the philosophy of science. When I went to Princeton, my energy in philosophy of science faded somewhat and I decided to study epistemology. Since I was awarded my Ph.D. in 2007, I’ve taught at Vassar College, where I am now tenured. In the Fall of 2015, during my first sabbatical after tenure, I made a decision to suspend all of these technical academic papers that were in the works and pursue the life of a philosopher-investigator-audio producer. I had to learn everything on the fly, except the carpentry involved in building a studio. That I knew.
What do you see as the main challenges of doing public philosophy?
The challenges are not all that different from public forms of any academic discipline, like economics, planetary physics, or neuroscience, to name a few subjects that have been more successful than philosophy. It is unfortunate that some of the things that make for good philosophy also make for bad public philosophy. The skills of thinking, speaking, and writing that make for a good professional philosopher, that make you get ahead in the profession, that make you a successful agenda-setter in the professional field, do not necessarily make you good at holding the attention of large numbers of lay people long enough, and attentively enough, to get the crucial aspects of philosophy through. Some philosophers independently have these skills as a gift, as an aspect of their personality, as a quirk of their speaking or thinking style. I don’t think I have this quirk, but more importantly, I didn’t want that public face of philosophy to depend only on such quirks. That’s why I was so taken in by the power of narrative audio; it succeeded in bringing millions of people to these other fields in the social and brain science, think Invisibilia, Planet Money, or Freakonomics radio. I was sure it could be done for philosophy. Since no one was doing it, I took it on.
What are the specific challenges of doing philosophy for audio?
Everything is challenging. Securing funding is challenging. Doing investigative research into stories has been challenging. Structuring a story for maximal impact is challenging. Getting my colleagues to talk on mic has been challenging. Getting them to talk accessibly while still preserving the essence of their idea is challenging. Learning how to interview like Terry Gross, rather than as a philosopher having a philosophical conversation, has been challenging. Containing a philosophical issue into a single episode is challenging. Convincing the curators in public radio that I have something worth listening to has been challenging. Finding free music that is not copywritten is challenging. As hard as it is to do philosophy, sitting in your office writing a paper doesn’t have these same challenges.
Can you discuss your approach that integrates philosophy with narrative storytelling?
Philosophers use stories all of the time, they just use them in particular ways. Presenting a thought experiment is a story. Using an example from history or case law is a story. Philosophers use stories in the service of philosophy, either by being a vivid illustration of a thesis, or sometimes as the very thing that validates a premise in an argument. Because these are such central aspects of philosophical thinking, writing, and teaching, it isn’t a stretch to think that you can have something–an essay, a book, and in my case, a piece of audio–that is as much a story as it is philosophy. The difference for my show, I think, is that I try not to limit storytelling in these standard philosophical ways. I also wanted to use stories that present conflicts that are inherently philosophical, so that the resolution to the story cannot occur unless one thinks seriously in detail about the philosophical assumptions or background that make the conflict possible. Episode 1, the case of the Milton Hershey trust is one example. Episode 4, the case of Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College, is another. In the former case, many of our legal practices have, as a moral justification, a suspect thesis about posthumous harm. In the latter case, someone actually lost her job because people were not clear in their thinking about what proposition a claim actually expressed, and did not know the semantic issues that entered into the truth-conditions of the actual proposition expressed.
The stories, then, are not just in the service of philosophy, philosophy is very much in the service of the stories, which I think can be powerful if you’re trying to bring people to philosophy, rather than just advance a philosophical thesis. Not everyone is naturally philosophical, but I think everyone loves a good story.
What sorts of topics will you be exploring with the podcast?
As I am writing this, the final two episodes are not fully set yet, but the first eight include the ethics of honoring the wishes of the dead, moral exploitation, revisionist just war theory, the sense of and reference to “God” and its cognates, the aesthetics of pop music, the demarcation problem in science, the epistemology of statistics and the replication problem, the construction of gender through militarism, and quite possibly, the philosophy of love through stages of life, and the problem of incommensurability in mathematics and science. These are just the philosophical issues; when I get into the stories in each episode, other issues also come up, for example, in culture, law, and public policy.
There are quite a few philosophy podcasts out there already. How is yours different?
Podcasting is simply a form of distribution, like broadcasting and print. Podcasting is like digital print in that it is available on-demand, and is like broadcasting in that it is not text but audio or visually-based. The kind of audio that is distributed through podcast is as varied as the kind of audio or television that is broadcasted. There are discussion-based talk shows (Partially Examined Life); there are lecture-based shows (History of Philosophy without any Gaps and Philosophize This!); and there are interview-based shows (Philosophy Bites, Elucidations, and New Books in Philosophy). These are all great genres that can generate lots of content with minimal production time.
Hi-Phi Nation is firmly in the genre of the narrative-driven storytelling audio program. You know right away that this isn’t an interview show, sit-down discussion, or lecture. The closest comparison is a feature documentary. It’s the difference between Charlie Rose and Frontline, or Terry Gross and This American life. Each genre has its place, its audience, and its strengths and weaknesses in the shared goal of bringing philosophy to a wide audience. The level of production is so high for shows like mine that it can only be done seasonally, with a limited number of shows, especially with a production staff of one. But the result is that, if done well, the show has as much aesthetic and narrative appeal as philosophical appeal.
Have you discovered anything surprising or unexpected since launching the podcast?
The first surprise is that some people actually pay attention. There are a lot of podcast fans who are philosophers, and they have been very kind to me because I think they understand the power of the medium and what I’m trying to achieve in it. I didn’t know they were out there.
The second surprise is how much people will also just ignore you. Publicity and attracting listeners without an established network in media, and without being famous yourself, is incredible labor intensive, often embarrassing, and feels futile. It takes as much time and persistence as the actual production of an episode, and only 2 out of 100 people you contact pay any attention to you. Sometimes they say they will, and proceed to ignore you. It made me realize the power of curators of culture, and how much my personality disadvantages me for that kind of work.
What is the most powerful point (philosophical or otherwise) that you’ve discovered in your podcasting ventures?
I became convinced of certain philosophical theses that I had not thought about before, and I became convinced of them not just through reasoned philosophical argument from smart philosophers, but by observing their role in making sense of the particular stories I was investigating journalistically, especially after sitting down and talking to people for hours with a microphone, transcribing the interview, and then reflecting on how to put the story together. Maybe I’ll compile these views into a paper or presentation. Maybe I’ll reflect one day as an epistemologist on the rationality of these kinds of belief-changes.
Who is your audience?
There is my intended audience and my actual audience. My goal is to have the same audience that regularly listen to shows like 99% invisible, Invisibilia, Radiolab, The Allusionist, The Ted Radio Hour, Planet Money, and Freakonomics Radio. These are all story-driven but essentially knowledge-imparting shows. My style of production is clearly influenced by these programs. The only way you get that audience today is to already be on their networks, so I’ve had to improvise with publicity. As for my actual audience, my best guess is that thus far, they are people already involved in or who have an interest in philosophy, though I doubt they are all professional philosophers. My download statistics aren’t specific enough to tell me demographics, but for some reason, the show is very popular in Sunderland, U.K. and Portage, Indiana. The biggest number of downloads are in Chicago, New York City, Texas, as well as Durham, NC, Poughkeepsie, NY, and Los Angeles–where I have been knocking on doors in person.
Can you talk about what sort of stories are coming up on Hi-Phi Nation?
I’ve already mentioned the philosophical topics, but here are some of the stories coming up: I am going to visit parapsychology labs and talk to lab-confirmed psychics to see what their methodology is; I’m talking to women who are making decisions about whether to go into the combat arms; I’m talking to a famous Oscar-award winner; and I’m following motherhood through four stages of life to see how love evolves through time.
What do you hope your podcast will achieve?
The primary goal is to have a large and diverse audience that, through the show, come to appreciate philosophy as a subject that provides insight into a wide range of human experiences, and from there value it for themselves, their children, and their policy-makers. The second is to exhibit to philosophers that serious work can be done in philosophy that weaves narrative storytelling, and in alternative mediums like narrative audio or video. The third is to create something my colleagues have a desire to teach with. Students can listen and learn on their commutes, at the gym, or lying in their dormroom bed at night, and it can spark their desire to go in-depth in their readings. The final goal is to create a medium by which philosophers who wish to engage in the practice of philosophy through more than just a printed essay, and through more than just thinking about philosophical issues in isolation, can collaborate and produce segments, programs, or series of their own.
What happens after your series ends?
I don’t know. I would like it to continue. I have millions of ideas for shows and show formats. The first priority is to try to do a second season through more grant or fellowship funding, as building a large enough audience takes time in the current market. But as everyone in academia knows, you apply for fellowships and grants, but cannot plan your future projects around receiving them. If that fails, I can try to do this as my sole research work in the context of my full-time teaching and service load, but I doubt that would mean ten episodes per year. That would be the equivalent of producing ten published papers a year.
Should philosophers speak on podcasts such as yours? Why?
Philosophers don’t have a moral obligation to connect their work to issues and stories of interest and concern to the general public. But I do think it is a valuable and fulfilling thing to do. In the kind of program I’m producing, the philosopher is providing depth and insights that the typical person can’t provide for themselves, and in fact only a philosopher can provide this kind of insight into the central problems coming out of a story. People are in a position to understand and appreciate these insights once they listen to it in the context of the story and its conflicts. So you, the philosopher, will both sound smart and be admired for providing such insights. You will provide and be appreciated for wisdom. Hopefully that is a reason we went to graduate school.
What makes for a good podcast?
It depends on the genre of the show. A good interview podcast has to have a good interviewer and good guests, and it has to be edited well. A good discussion-based show has to have good personalities and the discussion as to go somewhere. Lecture-based shows are good when the host has something very interesting to say. A good narrative audio documentary has to have a compelling story that is structured well, compelling characters, many good voices, a driving idea, a well-chosen soundtrack that moves things along, must be meticulously researched, and cannot ever containing anything confusing. Unlike the other kinds of shows, it must also have emotion, and emotional movement.
What are your top tips for philosophers being interviewed for a podcast?
Relax and stay close the mic. Say something again if you want to, there could always be an edit. Use your skills of teaching and explaining that you’ve developed as a teacher. Lower your standards as to what you are an expert about; if you know more about something than a typical college philosophy major, you’re an expert. Try to avoid the use of the suffix “-ism.” Avoid avoidable abstractions, such as “transitive relations” and “pairwise indistinguishable.” Stop preempting yourself and responding to objections before you’ve finished a thought. In general, try to stop anticipating objections when you’re talking, and forget about “the dialectic.” Finally, think of the person listening to you as kind, curious, generous, and charitable.
Barry is an alum of UC Irvine and former program director and general manager at KUCI 88.9FM. A PhD in philosophy at Princeton University, Barry is currently Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, and is Humanities-Writ Large fellow at Duke University. The first season of the Hi-Phi Nation podcast has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Humanities-Writ Large Fellowship, the Francis Ferguson Technology Fund, and the Eleanor Nims Brink fund. Find out more about Barry Lam and his podcast on his website here.
Photos: Duke Photography | Megan Mendenhall