Rosenblatt’s Essays Fall Into a New Medium

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Roger Rosenblatt

Everyone loves a good story, but not everyone can tell one.

Roger Rosenblatt does not suffer from the latter. His essays, recorded as the podcast “Word for Word,” are a testament to that — not to mention a freefall into a new medium for the longtime memoirist.

“I didn’t know anybody who was doing essays the way I do them, and I thought this might be of some interest to people in the world of podcasts,” he said during a telephone interview on Friday. “That was the entire impetus. I recorded 21 of them so far and I think that equals the number of people interested in them so far — so I certainly hope to reach 25 or 26 people by the end of the month.”

His deadpan cracked under a good-natured laugh, his self-deprecation pushed aside. Recorded with Cynthia Daniels at Monk Music Studio in East Hampton, not one of his three- to eight-minute essays needed a second take, noted producer Kathleen Russo, co-director of the Audio Podcast Fellows program, which recently completed its first semester at Stony Brook Southampton’s Manhattan Center for Creative Writing and Film.

“I don’t even like to say I produced it because I go to the studio with him and I just listen to him read,” she said. “He’s so good. He’s so professional. He knows how to use his voice, he knows how to read his own work — and no one else can do it for him.”

Russo — who built the Audio Podcast Fellows program with co-director Tony Dec and Stony Brook Southampton Associate Provost Robert Reeves — brought in Rosenblatt as its first guest and an authority on storytelling, a cornerstone of the yearlong class.

“We really, really wanted the students to fine-tune their storytelling. If you can’t tell a good story, you’re not gonna make it in the podcast world,” Russo said. “There’s a ton of podcasts — over 500,000 — but there’s a shortage of people who work on them. Most of my friends who are producers or editors are working on three or four shows. There’s not enough of us to go around.”

By next fall, Russo anticipates enrolling 10 new fellows who will study in Manhattan and 10 who will receive instruction in Southampton, making use of the studio and recording equipment being installed adjacent to the new David Rakoff flexible performance space in Chancellors Hall.

But first, the program’s current 13 students — who range in age from 22 to nearly 80 — will use the editing skills they’ve acquired to produce a podcast of their very own next semester, which will be hosted by WSHU Public Radio, a group of member-supported stations on Long Island and Connecticut, where “Word for Word” is also available for streaming online.

“The goal is that when you leave this course, you have a podcast that’s out in the world that’s actually on a viable station,” Russo said. “The positive has been that there’s a real hunger with these students, that ‘We have to learn how to do this’ attitude.”

Initially, Rosenblatt did not share that same drive with his students. In fact, he had zero interest in recording a podcast altogether.

“It was sort of a ‘been there, done that’ in terms of being in the public,” explained the former essayist for Timemagazine and PBS NewsHour. “A lot of people are doing this because it’s fun to appear in public, but I had that when I was much younger and it’s fine, but life goes on.

“In any case, Kathie and Robert Reeves kept asking for something and then, because I respect and like them both so much, I thought, ‘If I were to do it, what would I do that would be more central to my interest and temperament?’” he continued. “One thing I did not want to do, which I know a lot of people do, is have interviews or conversations with people. I have done that, I’ve enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to go through that again. And I also know how much time it takes to set those things up, whereas my essays, I can either write them or have ones I’ve written before. It took the pressure off.”

With a storehouse that dates back decades, Rosenblatt first oriented his essays around the writing life, as seen in the first episode, “May I Kill You?” — an ode to the everyday annoyances so many writers face.

“Every writer loves that. It was an accumulation of experiences as a writer,” he said. “Usually the ones that really drive me nuts, I’ll be somewhere and somebody will drop in from the ceiling and say, ‘Would you mind reading my 6,000-page manuscript?’ And it’s ‘Oh, no, no, no — I’ve lived my whole life waiting for this.’”

With endless imaginative possibilities, Rosenblatt decided to branch out, exploring a wider range of themes through essays on the lighter side to deeply personal.

“My favorite, in a way, is my essay to my daughter. As you may know, my daughter died 10 years ago,” he said. “She was a doctor, and my wife and I lived with our grandchildren for seven and a half years, helping our son-in-law rear them. So the essay I wrote to my daughter, ‘Speech for a High School Graduate,’ has a special deep meaning because of that attachment.”

Its poignancy is especially felt after listening to “The Writer in the Family,” which Rosenblatt starts with an anecdote featuring his granddaughter, Jessica, who introduces him to her fourth grade class as, “This is my grandfather, Boppo, and he lives in the basement and does nothing.”

“And that is so true that not only have I used it in a million talks, but I’m doing a one-person show at Bay Street in the spring and that’s the title of the show: ‘Lives in the Basement, Does Nothing,’” he said with a laugh, and then paused.

“These two essays, one brings up the sorrow of the loss of my daughter,” he continued, “and the other brings up the joy of my granddaughter, who is very much like her and a wonder to watch. She’s 18 now. Hard to believe.”

Listening back to the stories as podcasts ground them in reality, he said. He likes the sound they produce and the feeling of the essays when he hears them aloud. But most of all, he likes their middle ground — between his career as an author and his 23 years in television.

“Radio is what you hear,” he said. “I’m old enough to remember — frankly, because my dad didn’t get a TV in the house until my brother and I were very old — I remember radio and the radio plays, and the radio series were great. You can imagine everything, and there was nothing standing between your imagination and what you heard. And that’s what I hope people take from these essays.”

To tune into “Word for Word with Roger Rosenblatt,” visit itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/word-for-word-with-roger-rosenblatt. For more information about the Audio Podcast Fellows program, visit stonybrook.edu/podcastfellows.

 

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