Podmasters: 'Why Oh Why' Host Andrea Silenzi Gives A Podcaster's View On Live Performances


Podmasters is a weekly column where staff writers Andrea Alfano and Laura Rosenfeld highlight the podcasts you need in your life. Every week, they tackle a new genre, recommending everything from well-known series to little-listened-to-gems that will make you laugh, cry and learn. This week, Andrea Alfano looked into live podcast events from the perspectives of both the audience and the performer.

Listening to the hosts of your favorite podcasts as they tell you stories that are incredibly intimate, inspiring, or simply intriguing episode after episode can make you feel as if you know these people in your digital life better than some of the people in your physical life. Yet you might not even be able to recognize your favorite podcasters if they walked by you on the street.

Live podcast events are already starting to change this. Last week saw two very different live podcast extravaganzas prove that people are interested in bringing the podcasters they spend so much time with digitally – and perhaps even more importantly, those they have not yet gotten to know – into their physical worlds.

The first of the events was Tape Festival, which event founder and "Tape" podcast co-host Mooj Zadie described as "a radio variety show." Held in the back room of a Brooklyn warehouse-turned-pub, Tape Festival was a relatively small gathering of a few hundred people. The show featured some big names in podcasting, most notably David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein of NPR's "Planet Money," alongside many smaller podcasts, including Radiotopia's "The Memory Palace" and "The Heart."

A couple of days later, Cast Party took live podcast events to whole new level. Headlined by podcasting powerhouse "Radiolab" of WNYC, the show was simulcast to more than 500 movie theaters across the country. Performances from NPR's popular new podcast "Invisibilia," a couple of smaller podcasts, a live band, and a dance team rounded out the lineup.

While Cast Party was a bigger event on all accounts, Tape Festival's relative smallness certainly wasn't a drawback and may have even worked to its advantage. I was lucky enough to get to attend, and I felt like I got everything I came for and more. I got to experience podcasts that I already listened to faithfully with new elements like animations and props and actual people standing right there in front of me. I got a unique taste of podcasts and even a YouTube show – Tape Festival was predominantly about public radio and podcasts, but not exclusively – I hadn't checked out before and may not have found otherwise. And best of all, the show managed to maintain that the feeling of intimacy that I love about many podcasts, but at the same time I was sharing this wonderful experience with hundreds of others around me.

Plus, I was able to catch Andrea Silenzi, creator and host of the podcast "Why Oh Why," afterward to get her take on the experience as a performer and learn more about how her show about where technology intersects with love and sex has grown.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Why do live performances?

I'm not totally convinced that it's a good idea for podcasters to do live performances, actually. I feel like some of us are incredibly entertaining on stage and love to perform in front of a live audience, but it isn't the thing that a lot of us have been working on late at night for years in the back of a radio studio. I think a lot of podcasters have been focused on making incredible podcasts and sometimes that plays out really well and sometimes it looks like trying to squish one medium onto another.

So I'm excited to see where it evolves and how podcasters will learn to do it better, but I don't think we're supergood at it right now.

How do you think that all played out at Tape Festival?

At Tape Festival I think that a lot of people could see some of the natural performers – the comedian and the YouTube performer – you could see their skills shining through, whereas I feel like the rest of us, me especially, were very uncomfortable.

I had full body shaking and I spent a lot of time just videotaping myself at home scrutinizing how my neck moved and being confused about where to put my hands. So I don't feel like I was born for the stage and I can leave my podcast and pursue my natural calling on the stage. I just want to make a good podcast, but I think it's important to help people discover your show and want to be more connected to your show, and this is another way to bring it to them. So it feels like an extension of what I'm doing, but not my natural calling.

Why do you think there isn't more overlap between podcasters and performers?

I don't think we're hiding behind our microphones, but I do think for me as a podcaster it's a control thing. I think of so much of my craft as in the editing and in the order of ideas and in the moments when I know that I'm surprising them. And I feel like once you get up on the stage you're opening yourself up to all these variables – when the audience will laugh, if you throw up everywhere – it's hard to breathe in the way that you normally breathe with hundreds of people looking at you.

Because in my show I'll stress over when I should speed up or when I should slow down, or how I stress a word. Any piece of narration of any of your favorite shows will have been something that they wrote and re-wrote and thought about and tried five different ways of recording and then listened to and then mixed.

It's like taking a film and turning it into a play, perhaps, because there is a craft to when the cues come in and how long this pause lasts, almost like you're creating a piece of music and then you're trying to make it live and the moment you open up to those variables, it has to be something that you're equipped to respond to live. And I don't really feel like I have the performer knack where if the audience applauds or laughs a little longer I'll know how to, like, wink and do a little dance and then cue the next scene. I think I'll just be really thrown off if something happens that I'm not expecting.

But I think it's exciting territory and I think that a lot of shows are going to find really great ways to do more with live. And also, from what I hear – I'm not doing this myself – but some shows like "Criminal" are supplementing their income by doing these kinds of live shows in a way that's kind of an exciting thing for the industry. I like the idea of podcasts going on tour.

How did getting a boyfriend change your approach to the topic of relationships?

When the show comes back, I am planning to shift my interest away from the traditional conversations about dating and relationships. I feel like I'm willing to let the show evolve with my interests and I think I see a lot of my shows doing that also. "Radiolab," for example, started out really focused on science and now we see them talking about sports or hip hop and "The Longest Shortest Time" started out focused on early parenthood and now it focuses on kids of all ages.

I think it's natural that a show needs to be able to respond to the changing interests of the host. So for the last few months I've been really focused on helping my grandmother recover from a stroke, and kind of caregiving and the role of family as you age, and I recently moved in with my boyfriend so I've been thinking more about how you merge your life with someone more than I've been thinking about Hinge and Tinder. And I think in order to stay a good host, I think I have to follow those changing interests and the stories that I discover.

But I think the main focus of the show is finding the things that women my age talk about amongst each other, but no one else is talking about, and that focus is going to stay the same. So discussing this premise of how you enter your life as a working lady after college is going to stay central to the show. And also just the idea of the goofy things that my friends talk about, the things that make us feel uncomfortable or weird, the things we're trying to solve in our heads that I think no one else is thinking about. I think I'm going to stay looking for those conversations, but it doesn't have to just be about online dating anymore.

On the subject of online dating, though – why do I only ever hear about OkCupid? Why does this particular dating tool seem to be so popular?

I think you're trying the one that your friends are always on because that gives you an element of safety and trust and also makes the whole process feel less lonely. If all of your friends are on OkCupid, then you're going to trust that you're going to probably meet someone that's kind of like all of your friends on that website. And trust is such an important thing with online dating. And the other thing that's superimportant is trying to expose yourself to the largest number of like-minded people possible, so thinking of it kind of as a math equation, I guess. So in that journey, you're going to end up kind of self-selecting onto those websites. is another very popular website. I think if I lived in Kansas City, Mo., Plenty Of Fish does a lot of advertising on the local alt-weekly, so I might think that a lot of my friends are on Plenty Of Fish and I would start using that website. Or actually among a certain age group, which I would say is about late-30s, early 40s, is really popular because it's a paid service, so then you're kind of automatically filtering people who are invested enough to pay $80 every month for a less user-friendly website because more people your age are on that website.

So the websites, I think, do a really good job of helping you find other people who are like you. In my circles in New York City, I'm mostly excited about the websites Tinder and Hinge because why use these mutual friend algorithms to help you find people who aren't necessarily the guy you went to college with, although that can be fun, too, but the friend of the guy you went to college with who's kind of similar in terms of how he spends his time on the weekends and how ambitious he is with his career – whatever you're looking for.

It's seems to have been really easy for women to integrate technology in their dating life. Do you think it's because online dating tools have actually made dating easier and better or just because people have just gotten so used to using technology to do everything that they thought it felt natural to bring it into their dating life, too?

I didn't feel any of these hangups when I started online dating. It just was as simple as 'here's a tool, let's see if this makes it easier' and when I discovered that it did I appreciated the tool and continued to use it. I mean, you didn't think about your decision to use Seamless the first time you ordered Chinese food. Perhaps it was less personal, but there was something about seeing all the restaurants in your neighborhood in one long list and reading other people's reviews of them that was just like 'Oh, this makes ordering take-out way easier, I'll continue to use this.'

I never felt the kind of 'Oh no, will this lead to sex with robots' fear that some people have of online dating or 'will this be a scam and I'll lose all my money.' I just never felt afraid of online dating. And why wouldn't you use every tool available to you right now?

I think what really happened is I felt like something was missing in my life. Like I really wanted a companion and best friend and someone who loved my dog as much as me. I really wanted, I don't know, someone to share more with and a really regular sex life and someone who, like, thought the same things about my friends that I thought. I just really wanted this person and I felt like I had a vague idea of who they were. And I didn't believe that it would be a cute story like 'and there he was on the subway platform and he said hello and I said hello and then it worked out great.' I did think it would be something more similar to picking the right college or job hunting or picking out the right sofa that involves a lot of work and planning and research. So I think I approached it the way I approach a lot of things in my life where I want to know that I gave finding someone like that the right effort.

The moment I realized I wanted a boyfriend I knew I wasn't going to approach that casually. So I think it's something that someone who's serious will elect to do. It's also something that someone not serious would elect to do. But I think the worst that could come of it – yeah, bad dates are painful and lasting, but I do think everyone I know who's tried online dating has learned interesting things about themselves in the process and as long as you do it safely and thoughtfully and have friends to talk to about it, I am all for people trying. It is not for everyone, of course.

You have said on the podcast a lot that you didn't start this show because you are some great dater and you should be giving everybody dating advice. When you started this show, were you looking at the podcast as another tool in this serious effort?

"Why Oh Why" started as a thing I did on the side. I've never been paid for the episodes, it's definitely not my job. So if you're going to do something that's purely a hobby, it should be something that's incredibly fun for you to talk about and think about. It almost became an excuse to hang out with different people or encourage myself to have different experiences.

So I think I picked it because it was the thing I wanted to spend a lot of time thinking about on the side. And that was probably to serve a personal need, that was, I was pretty sure I wanted to find a boyfriend or connect more with my girlfriends and this could be a way to do it. But I just don't think you start a podcast about quantum podcast physics – for me to start about quantum physics would have made no sense at all because it would have been a painful thing to think about and would have taken a lot of research.

Dating was something that was on my mind, my friends wanted to talk about it, too, my family even wanted to chime in – it just seemed like a topic that I could get everyone in my life on board discussing. I read something recently about how every female writer has to make a decision at some point about whether or not she's going to talk about her own dating life, and it almost is a thing where I feel like it's a subject that society allows me to be really trustworthy about.

I might have even fallen into a small trap with that, where it was something that I felt confident I would be believed in [while] discussing and then I slowly realized that it wasn't about dating at all. That I was using dating and sex as a way to bring people in, but then it became a larger conversation about how we discuss our feelings and how we make ourselves vulnerable and how we understand the gap between childhood and marriage or motherhood and how we understand this kind of vulnerable place women find themselves in in their 20s. It became about that, but for a while, dating was an easy way to frame stories.

"Why Oh Why" is on a temporary hiatus at the moment, but Silenzi said listeners can look forward to a relaunch – and in the meantime, this is a perfect opportunity for new listeners to catch up on what she's been up to on the podcast so far.

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