Podmasters: Interview With Nate DiMeo Of The Memory Palace Podcast


Back in 2008, Nate DiMeo put out his very first offering to the podcast-listening world: "Horrible Deaths," the pilot episode of a history podcast called The Memory Palace. At under five minutes long, it may not have seemed like much. But in those four minutes and forty one seconds, DiMeo proves that a few minutes are all you need to turn historical moments into personal memories.

The Memory Palace is not a place that DiMeo takes you to his podcast--it's a place that he builds in your brain with each episode. As the title of the very first episode suggests, The Memory Palace is a bit of a haunted house, but it's the least cheesy, most beautiful haunted house you'll ever see. Tech Times spoke with Nate DiMeo to learn more about how he hones in on meaningful moments from the most obscure corners of history, why he started doing it, and what The Memory Palace means to him.

You can catch Nate DiMeo in the flesh at Tape Festival in Brooklyn, New York on July 26, or on the west coast at live events in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles later this summer. Or, you can hear him on The Memory Palace anytime. The podcast is currently in the midst of a 10-episode weekly summer season.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What is The Memory Palace and why did you choose that as the name of your podcast?

Cicero, the Greek poet, developed this technique to have his students remember long speeches. Back then, remembering long speeches was the way you learned, it was the way you entertained people--it was the Netflix of its time in some way.

To memorize a giant speech or block of text is a pretty big undertaking. So he developed this technique where he would take his students down to like the local mall, to some food stalls and some horse carts and he would have them remember different sections of the larger work that they were trying to remember while, for instance, standing in front of a fruit cart. They would stand in front of the fruit cart and think to themselves, "Four score and seven years ago..." Then they would turn to a donkey and think, "our fathers brought forth on this continent..."

And then later on when they were trying to remember this speech, instead of remembering the words and having the words lead to the next words, they would remember 'fruit cart' and then "Four score and seven years ago" would pop out. And then they would turn and remember 'donkey' and "our fathers brought forth on this continent." That idea of creating these imaginary clues that would spur your memory I find really beautiful.

As time went on, people eventually made more and more complicated systems. Eventually you didn't need to go down to the local mall to do it. You could just do the same thing within a memory of your own home. So suddenly you're walking through the door of your childhood home and you say "Four score and seven years ago" and when you turned to the coat rack you would say "our fathers brought forth on this continent."

I really liked the idea of that thing, of "the memory palace." Because when it comes down to it, I was building these small stories and hoping that they would find a place in your brain to live. In a way, I like the idea that I'm creating kind of a virtual space like a memory palace of the Greeks and others that has a kind of magical coherence. That these little anecdotes, these little memories that I'm sort of conjuring up for you will kind of take hold in your brain in a similar way.

Why did you choose to make history the focus of your podcast?

I'm not a historian, I wasn't history major. I took a few history classes here and there, but when my love of history really picked up was right about the time that my love of radio picked up, in my mid-20s. I really fell in love for the first time with art history, particularly American art history. I found my way to a lot of museums, a lot of historic home tours and a lot of weird trips to sites of revolutionary war battlefields. It was just kind of a fun thing that was added to the repertoire of 'hanging out.' My group of friends would go to see a show and go to a bar, but then on the weekends we would drive to a beach and then stop at some old, strange New England historic site.

It was in that period when I really kind of fell in love not only with history and historical things, but the kind of thread that drives a lot of the stories-the sort of newness of America. It's the idea that the moment when one first encounters new technologies and new experiences perpetually needs to be renewed because our experiences with new technologies are often so thrilling, but become mundane so quickly. I became really interested with a lot of those processes of history and of memory very aggressively during that period and those things stay with me throughout The Memory Palace today.

Do a lot of your story ideas come from those trips with friends?

Traditionally, they have. That has gotten more difficult now that I'm an older guy and a dad, but it's starting to pick up again now that my daughter has caught my history bug a little bit. A lot of the early Memory Palace episodes, especially, come from that moment when you're at one of these historic sites or you might be watching a history documentary or reading a novel or a historical book where some fact jumps out and sort of grabs you. It's that moment where you sort of turn to your friend and go 'Holy shit! Look what happened here!' That moment when you get it and you are moved and you are thrilled, whether it is in a historic home tour or it is in some paragraph in the middle of some book or it's an hour fix of a Ken Burns documentary.

But there is that moment that is the thing that you walk off and stays with you and that you go off and tell your boyfriend or your girlfriend or the guy next to you at work the next day. It's those little moments that are really moments of clarity--when the whirr and sputter of the day fade away. The moments that grab you and you find that thrill and engage with that sense of wonder. Those are the things that ultimately become Memory Palace episodes. The factoid that jumps off of page 293 of some larger work and makes you think, 'Oh my god, I can't believe that thing exists'--that's the thing that I then need to go off and research and see if there is a story there.

Is that why episodes of The Memory Palace are so short?

Yes, absolutely. It almost started as sort of an aesthetic balance. How can I get this point across as quickly as possible? How quickly can I actually move people? The artistic challenge in a way was to take this moment that had jumped out at me from some larger work or had stood out because the experience of learning or reading or watching--this thing had come within the context of something bigger. It was a whole day of walking around Boston, it was multiple hours, reading this book, but how can I essentially transmute that impact, that sense of the mood that I had? What's the way that I can very quickly, in a way that entertains and doesn't bore the listener, get them to that same moment of wonder or that same feeling of being moved?

And then the other thing was just that I really loved historical things, but what it all came down to is that I'm not a historian and I wasn't going to spend all of my time reading historical books. But I loved these anecdotes and the way that they, in aggregate, sort of gave me a sense of the world before me in the same way that hearing a little bit of news or reading a couple of Twitter fights or listening to the radio for a couple of minutes gives you a sense of the larger world. Those little bits of information paint that larger picture. I've always been fascinated by how these small bits of information really do make of the totality of our experience of the past that isn't our own. So I was interested in keeping things small because I was interested in the smallness of those things and the way that they added up to a larger picture.

What led you to podcasting?

I had been working in public radio proper for probably at that point coming up on about a decade. I did interview shows, I was en editor at Marketplace, I went off and became a contract reporter for NPR and covered pop culture and Hollywood things for them. But I did really want to create something of my own. I wanted to have something that was a calling card for me that I could look back on in the future and feel good about having accomplished. So I had an idea for an hour-long weekly public radio show that could fit into the weekend schedule alongside This American Life, right before the 17th hour of A Prairie Home Companion and a rerun of Car Talk. I wanted to do a big show. I had produced a bunch of things for public radio and I knew I had the resume to do it.

So I had this idea for a history show that I really wanted to try to do. But secretly, or at least secretly among the people who might let me produce this thing, I wanted to host it. And I know that I didn't have the resume to do that. Originally, The Memory Palace started so that I could kind of use the episodes of the podcast to demonstrate what I might be able to do on the radio and to get better on the microphone. Th hope was to have have my peers say, 'oh, that actually sounds pretty good,' so that when it came time to do this proper radio show I might actually be given a shot as the host.

But within ten episodes I discovered that actually what I liked doing was these small shorts-that I didn't have a huge drive to do the long book interview with the author of a book about the history of the cultivation of ferns or about some battle in the Korean War. I just liked making these stories. I spent a lot of my career in my teens and 20s in bands writing songs and this, at this point here in my 30s, was also kind of scratching that itch. The more I did them, the more I realized that the simplicity of the format wasn't particularly limiting. There was still a lot more that I could do. Like writing a 3-minute pop song, there's still a ton of variety that you can find within that format. Meanwhile, because at the time because of the explosion of Facebook, you could get people to actually listen to these things and let people know that they were out there and suddenly I had an audience that was pretty substantial. And it was fun, so I just kept doing it.

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