As with the talk radio shows that preceded them, successful podcasts come in two general types: those that draw listeners due to a robust guest list, and those that draw listeners due to the charisma of and chemistry created by the host(s). You tune into the first one because it has Taylor Swift on this week, and you just love Taylor and everything about her. You tune into the second one because you think the host is funny or insightful, and you understand that the format calls for guest interviews but just wish it would get back to the action of the show itself. Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast is the first sort of podcast, and I wish he didn’t have such a good guest list.
Maron is the Larry King of the podcast world. I don’t really mean that as a compliment, although it does attest to a certain accomplishment of volume and recognition of relative status. The comparison arises out of the apparent fact that neither do much preparation prior to interviewing their subjects. Standing alone, it’s at least an academically interesting approach, but, as with many such approaches, it can fall apart under practical application, especially when coupled with proclivity for interrupting the subject. For Maron, the interview organization almost always takes the form of a chronological, biographical framework, and the result often essentially is a guest haltingly reciting his or her Wikipedia page. As a means of introducing a subject to an unfamiliar audience, I suppose one could do worse. The point of podcasts in general, I’d thought, and podcasts like Maron’s, I’d assumed, though, was to do more than that, to go deeper than that. Maybe not. Maybe the point of podcasts is to sell underwear and postage stamps. The point: if you aren’t going to do much prep, let the thing breathe. It’s ok if you don’t quite know what you’re talking about, but it might be better to acknowledge that and let the person who does do the talking.
Don Was has to be one of the coolest guys around. The Detroit native is an instrumentalist, bandleader, movie director, and Grammy-winning producer whose list of credits nearly is as long as it is prestigious. He also serves as the president of Blue Note Records. Was should make an excellent interview subject. Maron’s handling of him revealed little in the way of beneath-the-surface insights, however; the host seemed more intent on having his guest drop as many famous names as possible than delving into interesting stories.
One very small nugget that managed to leak out from the smothering, Chris-Farley-Show-without-the-laughs treatment, though, was an early musical memory Was recalled with some detail, “a really important thing that happened to me when I was about fourteen.” While waiting in the car for his mother, he heard a Joe Henderson song called “Mode For Joe” and described Henderson’s saxophone solo as “howling with anguish through the horn. He was speaking to me. I was stunned to hear this.” (Maron cuts in, confusing “anguish” with “anger,” and things move on from there.)
Because Was seems like the kind of guy who has musical recommendations up on which you actually ought to follow, this week’s Jam is “Mode For Joe,” a Memorial Day weekend offering to the fallen memory of the potential of an engaging Don Was podcast interview: