Romy Nehme Q&A

July 22, 2019
On the art of making a fascinating podcast

“Any project that’s already fully baked before you start is doomed to suck.”

You frame your podcast The Third Person as an examination of the invisible constructs that define our experiences, and how we challenge our assumptions. How did you arrive there?

How much time do you have? It comes from a larger interest I have around our society’s reticence to change. My hypothesis is that it’s in part because of the fact that we assume that the way things are is natural instead of by design, someone’s design. I’ve been experimenting with a set of methods to defamiliarize ourselves with the status quo to reveal its arbitrariness and often the antiquated context that it comes from as a way to increase our belief in our ability to change things (in other words our agency), to design a better way.

You have done podcasts on virtuosos in modern dance to gamers to urban planners. How do you find your subjects?

I’m a bit of a weirdo in that I think that nothing is useless, and that belief dictates how I spend my time (essentially pinging across a broad range of interests that I explore through experiences, reading, and the people I follow). It’s a constellation of interests that really is only held together  by whether I’m curious to know more. I felt vindicated when I heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about how the term “passion” sets a really high bar for creative pursuits, like “Gosh, I don’t know that I’m passionate enough about this to explore it creatively.” We don’t have an endless reservoir of passion that we can tap at all times, but what we do have is a bottomless amount of curiosity. I follow my nose wherever it takes me and trust that those explorations will find their way back into conversations, brainstorms, inspiration for projects, you name it. And interestingly enough, even though I don’t want to be overly utilitarian about it, I have found that most junior strategists’ a-ha moment comes when they realize that the delineation between “my interests after work” and “my competency at my day job” are one and the same. They inform and feed each other. So: Andrea Miller is my favorite choreographer (I’m obsessed with dance), Nick Fortugno is a member of the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab, a collective I started collaborating with last year during my sabbatical, I ran into Andrea Pavoni’s white paper on stress and the city and Fred Kent in a video about placemaking while researching more community-centered alternatives to architecture and urban planning. All these people do the same kind of work in completely different domains, which is the principle I use to reach out to sujects around a certain theme. The conceit is to ask a collection of amazing people to talk about something that’s technically outside of their field (in this case, encountering strangers in dense urban spaces) through the lens of what they do so well.

Where did you come up with your format to spend the first part of your episodes deconstructing topics and the second half looking at things from a new perspective?

I abhor our one-dimensional notion of progress. It’s based on a technocratic navel gazing dismissiveness of what came before. We’re now starting to reckon with the fact that simply creating future looking solutions without really understanding the systemic infrastructure that these innovations rest on is a recipe for a whole slew of unintended consequences that could have been avoided if we’d only bothered to learn about who and what got us here in the first place. In that sense, a theory of change that I’m currently playing around with is that the dissonance between an undesirable present (which is usually the result of an outdated legacy past) and a future that we want is a necessary impetus for change. It’s like sitting on a thorn that’s begging for us to shift our disposition towards and issue.

How important is it to you to foster connection with people? That seems to be something people are yearning for these days. 

There’s a great intimacy to audio, and done right, conversations can not only impart information, but also the metadata of the relationship between the host and the guest. I live to get to know  strangers but I sometimes still get silly when I meet people that I have a ton of admiration for. So one goal I have for “The Third Person” is just to be able to get comfortable with anyone I talk to no matter how much I may idolize them. And you’re absolutely right: a lot of people are trying to reimagine what we want to make of our public life. I’ve come to realize that that’s really the subject of this first series about designing bodies and space. I’m exploring this topic through three dynamics, each of which will be its own series: colliding with strangers (there’s that dance metaphor, which is everywhere once you start diving into urban studies); the expansion of self and how we relate to one another; and how we channel spirits and the secular divine.

The question of agency seems to be a crucial one in your podcast. Why is this an urgent question for all of us?

We already face the risk of letting a few giant companies and industries dictate our future. At the same time, we say that the future is wide open and that no one knows what will come of it. Only one of these things can be true and we have the claim the second. I highly recommend this article which exposes one of our biases, namely that we tend to overestimate technological change and underestimate our ability to evolve as a human species. We can only have agency in what kind of future we will have if we think we have the power to influence it, which I think is tied to our power to first imagine and envision a future we want. That’s the kind of agency I’m interested in, participation in our democracy, and in shaping our world to come.

What don’t people know about the process of making a podcast? 

Every project is full of inspiration and self-doubt, and each episode undergoes so many revisions that the end product is sometimes completely different than what you started with. For example, I knew I wanted to explore the themes of tensions between the public and the private, the sane and the insane, and chaos and order.  At one point I thought the first series was going to be about institutionalized sanity. Any project that’s already fully baked before you even start it is doomed to suck. In the same way that writing clarifies your thinking (how many times have you thought you had a cogent perspective about something until you opened your mouth and started talking about it?). And don’t get me started on the learning curve of editing and recording. I edit my interviews (tedious but fun being in a total flow state) but work with a partner from the school of sound engineering on sound design and producing the episode. As for my voice and phrasing, I’m still working on it becoming more organic but I can already see a big difference between episodes one and four, which is heartening.

You mentioned that you’re already begun interviewing for the second season. Are you following a different theme for that one or adjusting the formula at all?

I have ambitions of this project becoming an entire multi-form thing. I’m envisioning each series having an accompanying zine and essay, an interactive (spatial) way of exploring all the themes I’ve touched on, and for the episodes to come to life in different events and workshops. But for now I just want to produce the three related series that I mentioned earlier and have a dozen or more fascinating conversations with people, ranging from academics to mimes to who knows what.

Which podcasts have influenced you and how?

Krista Tippett recommended “A Ministry of Ideas” a while ago and I really took to the format. It’s part of the trend of “fun podcasts for nerds” (in fact, they host this conference that I want to go to this year). Their opening  is quite simple: “Welcome to Ministry of Ideas, a podcast about the ideas that shape our world.” But the host of the show, Zachary Davis, is part of the Divinity School at  Harvard so the perspective behind every episode is quite unique. For example, the one about meritocracy (which I literally transcribed because I liked it so much and wanted to better understand its structure) is previewed with this language on their website: “Totally faith in meritocracy leads to the dangerous belief that all social winners  and losers are wholly deserving. Instead, we need an economy of grace.” How many times have you heard it put that way? The language is completely alien because it comes from a different discipline, one that many of us have completely dismissed (without understanding its many facets). I also try to learn from people who have the ability to surprise with their piercing yet gentle questions and the invisible hand with which they guide a conversation. Great conversations start with an ability to hear the other and then to play them back to themselves in a way that surprises them. That’s my goal and there’s no one better at that than Krista Tippett in my opinion. I’ll leave you with a great little essay she wrote about what listen has the power to engender.