AD recently reached out to Sam Harnett, creator of the brand new podcast Driving With Strangers in which Sam interviews strangers while participating in San Francisco ride share. Sam talked with us via email about his inspiration for the podcast, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, and what he hopes for the future of audio in the age of meme. And he sent some great audio clips along with his words. That's below. [Interview edited for brevity].
But first, maybe check out DWS Episode 1:
AD: What podcasts do you listen to?
SH: Aside from the usual podcast suspects—This American Life, Radiolab, and 99 Percent Invisible—I follow Love + Radio, the Memory Palace, and Unfictional. Whenever I am looking for a new show, I go to the Third Coast Audio International Festival website and listen to whatever they are featuring.
It's an exciting time to be in radio because great new shows are popping up all the time. That being said, finding these programs is harder than it should be. Someone needs to fix podcast distribution, and make tuning into them as easy as turning on a radio. Listeners shouldn't have to scrounge around in the corners of the Internet to find programs. I am excited to see the appearance of networks like Radiotopia, and I hope they can help emerging shows more easily reach new ears.
AD: Who were your influences in creating DWS?
SH: When I started working on Driving With Strangers, I envisioned the show as some kind of This American Life on wheels, or a stranger-meets-stranger version of StoryCorps. As I edited the first episodes, I focused on the idea of micro-stories instead of the longer narrative arc of existing non-fiction radio. Some of the segments on Driving With Strangers are only fifteen or twenty seconds long. Sometimes they are driven by traditional story-telling, but other times they are motivated by the emotion of the telling or the interaction between me and the passenger.
In Driving With Strangers, and in all my reporting now, I am thinking about how to make audio clips that have the potential to [...] move efficiently in that sharing, caring, social media kind of way. I want each passenger story to develop the theme of the episode, but also to function as its own independent piece of media. So for each episode I am separating out the micro-stories and packaging them as stand-alone, sharable content.
Right now we as radio producers are doing little to isolate the golden moments of radio and curate them for 21st century platforms, and that's a shame. Not only does this short format audio have potential all by itself, but it can help bring new listeners to the long-form content that we do so well.
AD: What gave you the idea to interview rideshare passengers?
SH: I've always wanted to have my own show, I just never had the resources to go out and gather material for it while paying rent and, you know, eating and all that. So when I heard about these new rideshare companies in San Francisco, I thought, this is perfect. I can gather audio, get paid a little, and manage it around my freelance radio work. Plus, I get to fulfill my secret fantasy of driving a taxi.
One of the first times I went out on a test ride for the show, I recorded a conversation with a passenger that convinced me of the format's viability. It was late at night, and I picked the passenger up close to downtown. He told me about how he grew up with Alice in Wonderland syndrome—a rare condition where the world occasionally goes haywire, like it does in Lewis Carroll's book.
Alice in Wonderland syndrome:
We went on to have this intense conversation about what it felt like, the triggers, and how his parents thought it was just a nightmare. When I went to drop him off, he said he had never shared that story with anyone else in such detail. It was a really powerful moment. Then, instead of getting out of the car, he asked if we could keep driving, with the meter running, so he could answer more questions. We drove for an hour up around Twin Peaks and out to the edges of San Francisco. He told me about his parents' divorce, his problems with women, and disturbing videos he'd watched as a kid online. I had never been in a situation where I could reach that level of intimacy with complete strangers in such a short amount of time. It was exhilarating.
AD: What unique features of that environment (and its people) impact the kind of stories you get?
SH: Basically what I am doing is taking a series of passengers hostage in my car for ten minutes at the point of a microphone. So, from a production stand-point, it's not a bad gig. The first time I went out, I thought, people are just going to be like, you want to what? Let me out at the nearest corner please. But just the opposite has been true.
One of my biggest concerns was that people wouldn't open up to a stranger. But that's precisely why they do open up. [But i]n just a couple of minutes, the experience can get very personal and intense. In the first few weeks, a passenger explained how he found out his father had a mistress and how the discovery destroyed his family. I picked up another passenger late at night who told me how her boyfriend tried to strangle her to death on a camping trip. Afterward, I had to pull over just to gather myself before I could keep on driving.
The clip about woman being strangled:
My other concern was timing. How could I get deep into a story when I had, at best, fifteen minutes to meet a passenger, explain the premise, make them comfortable, and then tease out their tale? In the end, this compressed nature generates a kind of intensity that's hard to recreate in a programmed interview. People don't have time to get nervous about telling their story. There's this palpable excitement from both them and me. I have no idea who is getting into the car or what they are going to say. And they have no idea they are stepping into an interview. In the first episode about odd jobs, I picked up three women who worked as dominatricies.
On a technical level, I was worried that the audio would be compromised by all the background sound—passing cars, blinkers, honking, etc. When I started editing, I discovered that all this bothersome noise actually provided a range of sound effects to punctuate the passengers' stories. I never thought I would spend so many hours editing the grumble of trucks, or that the sound of a blinker could make such a handy narrative device.
AD: You've done a lot of freelancing in public radio. What are some of the obvious or less obvious advantages of doing a podcast versus freelancing?
SH: Freelancing has been a great fit for my process. I am not burdened by the daily news cycle and have the luxury of going deep into the stories I pursue. [That] has let me experiment with various writing, voicing, and reporting styles. Now that I am making my own show, I have lots of tools at my disposal. But the exciting part is, no one is telling me what to make.
I think the biggest advantage of producing my own show is the creative independence. I don't have to fit material to an exact second or target a particular audience. That's really been liberating. The terrifying part is that there is no one signing off on the final product. Whatever gets put out there is all me.
AD: I suppose some percentage of the human race is pathological liars. Do you ever feel like someone is just bullshitting? Does it matter?
SH: If anything, I feel like the show is often deeply confessional, especially when passengers ride alone. In groups, people definitely ham it up and tell more crafted stories. Is everything they say one hundred percent true? Ultimately, that's up to the listener.
AD: I imagine that you'd see the same people on the same route every day couldn't you potentially kind of run out of people to interview after awhile?
SH: Thankfully for the show, the rideshare business is booming in San Francisco. I basically act like a cab service, so I drive all over the city and at all different times, which means I am always picking up new passengers. In the last five months, I have only had one repeat pick-up. It was a great moment actually.