Tape Head: Latif Nasser on imposters and future wives
What inspired the best creators in the podcasting world to be the best? Latif Nasser is one of the hosts of the WNYC podcast, Radiolab. In the first installment of our new interview series, he picks out the pieces that made him.
I studied theater as an undergraduate, and what I really wanted to do was become a playwright. Then I graduated in 2008 when there was a financial crisis, so instead, I went to graduate school to study the history of science. I was really just intending to kill a few years there before I could go back to playwriting, but I fell in love with the field.
It was around that time I heard my first ever podcast, which was Radiolab. I was like, "oh, these people, they're my kindred spirits." They're telling these stories in ways that are even better than what you could read in a scholarly journal because they feel much more human, and emotional, and funny, and poignant. So I basically cold emailed and called the executive producer of Radiolab, and I pitched her a whole bunch of ideas on the phone. She rejected all of them, but she liked them enough to say, “Keep pitching me ideas."
Eventually, I got a story on the show, and then another one, and then another one. And then, to cut a long story short, I got a job at Radiolab, and I worked my way up through the show until I became the co-host.
Most people who work in this field almost fetishise radio and audio. It's what they grew up listening to. It's what they care about. It’s what they dream in. It’s everything. For me, I never came to it as an audio guy. I don't really care particularly about this medium. I was drawn to Radiolab as a show, and its sensibility, and its sense of humor, and its sense of poetry and profundity, and all these things that chimed with me.
Everything Is Alive - ‘Louis, Can of Cola’
A Fresh Air-style interview with a can of generic Cola.
To take a premise like this as emotionally seriously as Everything Is Alive, does is quite profound. There's a way that they could have done that that would have been very gimmicky and easy to write off, but this show really deeply imagines the can of generic Cola, or the pillow, or the chainsaw, or whatever it is, in a way that decenters you as a human being.
That's a drug that I crave. I crave someone telling me how tiny and insignificant I am. And the show does it in the weirdest and most satisfying way, where it awakens everything around you. You're like, okay, what is this mic's experience of the day? What is, like, my mouse pad’s? It just makes you look around at the world in a way that feels like…I mean, it's the title: everything is alive.
The Experiment - ‘Here for the Right Reasons? Lessons From 90 Day Fiancé’
Using the TLC reality show '90 Day Fiancé' to probe the American immigration system.
I like The Atlantic; I think they do really great coverage of a lot of different things. I like WNYC, obviously. And I love this team. So I knew all the ingredients of this show, and then they put them together and somehow it came out way weirder than I, or I think anyone, ever expected.
They did one episode about the reality show '90 Day Fiancé'. It takes what sounds like a sort of trashy reality show, and then it turns out it's actually a deep dive into immigration because the reason that they are these 90 day fiancés is there's this weird quirk of immigration law where people have to be here for 90 days before they get married to get the visa. So it’s about this trashy reality show, but it's actually about so much more.
It's inspiring to think that you can cover the things that everybody else is covering, but cover them in a much weirder way. That's part of what makes me want to make stuff, you know?
WireTap - 'My Imposter’
Podcast host Jonathan Goldstein finds that he has a Twitter imposter and confronts him over the phone.
It’s the early days of Twitter, and Jonathan Goldstein has a Twitter account. But as this minor radio celebrity in Montreal, he gets this Twitter imposter. And everyone thinks his Twitter imposter is funnier than him, and that he's the Twitter imposter. And he's like, why is this person impersonating me? And how are they better than me?
He figures out who the imposter is, and then he calls the imposter. So you hear that phone call live, and it is gripping tape. It's a real-time fencing match where neither knows what the other is going to say. To me, that's the stuff that makes you lean forward. You get butterflies in your stomach. You're like, oh my God, what is going to happen?
I never knew with that show the line of what was real and what was fake, what was actual recorded conversations with his friends and what was staged. They're either very, very good actors, or it's real. And I have no idea.
Guardians of the River is a swashbuckling expedition through the Okavango Delta River through the eyes of Angolan biologist Kerllen Costa.
I loved how this show created a universe, the Okavango Delta. All of a sudden, through the eyes of this Angolan biologist on a kind of swashbuckling adventure tale, you get to see this river, the people who live on it, the creatures who live there. Every part of it feels so alive.
And the fact that they center this charismatic Angolan biologist who is of this world, but also not of this world…it was this perfect main voice to usher you through, who can point out things and be like, look at this creature, look at the dynamics of this ecosystem, while at the same time being totally surprised by stuff all the time.
There are times when you get podcasts where it's like, okay, I'm setting up this world, I'm showing you, but then they don't have the thrust. This did have a narrative thrust, which was this expedition. I thought it was very powerful, and clearly a lot of work, attention, and care went into it.
Radiolab - ‘Goat on a Cow’
Producer Laura Starecheski finds a box of old letters on the side of the road, which begins a shaggy dog detective story.
I'm such a sucker for a great premise, and 'Goat on a Cow' is a good premise. It’s a little shaggy dog story about two friends who are driving along the highway, and then they see this box of letters just floating down the highway. So they pull over the car, and then they grab all these letters, and then it's basically them trying to figure out, like, what the hell are these letters?
The story was propulsive, you just wanted to keep listening, and for me – who never really cared about audio before then – I was like, oh, huh, like this medium can grab me in a way that a great movie can, or a great play can, or a great book can. It's not just the ambient, “I guess I'm in the car, I’ll just turn on a random thing.” This is purposeful, and artful, and fun, and mischievous. And it can do all these different things. And maybe it's because I have a very short attention span, but I just want to be grabbed in a way that I'm like, no matter what happens next, it's going to be interesting.
• As told to Galen Beebe