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Modern Love brings intimacy to an audience

Producer Amory Sivertson says the podcast explores "what it means to be a human being"

<em>Modern Love</em> brings intimacy to an audience

A woman who’s in the best relationship of her life, only to discover she’s been taken for a ride by a Craigslist conman. A husband’s “birth plan” that goes disregarded when his wife goes into labour prematurely. A young man who ignores his ringing cellphone in favour of hooking up with a stranger, only to wake up to an inbox full of voicemails informing him that his father has slipped into a coma.

All these are pieces from the archives of The New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, a fixture in the paper’s Sunday edition since October 2004. These were also the three pieces presented by its audible counterpart Modern Love: The Podcast at this year’s Hot Docs Podcast Festival.

The festival, held at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, featured live performances from a number of podcasts, including other fan favourites like Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids and The Nod, along with Q&As and panel discussions with the people behind them. While Modern Love’s title may imply a focus on romantic love, the personal essays that appear both in the column and on the podcast are actually more loosely organized around the theme of “being a person.”

“I think Modern Love is really a way to further your education about what it means to be a human being,” said podcast producer Amory Sivertson in an interview with The Varsity. “No matter who we are or where we come from, or what our circumstances are, we all have a deep relationship of some sort … These stories are universal.”

Sivertson was joined on the Hot Docs stage by executive producer Iris Adler, sound designer John Perotti, and the column’s editor, Daniel Jones, to talk about the podcast’s production. As much as the stories themselves speak to the love and loss we all face in ordinary life, the voices that bring them to life are not quite average: the podcast has featured prolific talents such as Colin Farrell, Judd Apatow, and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Toronto panel was interspersed with performances and boasted a two-thirds Canadian cast: Murdoch Mysteries’ Hélène Joy, Kim’s Convenience’s Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Girls star Andrew Rannells, reading his own essay for the column.

The simplicity of the podcast’s concept —’actor reads essay’ — belies the amount of work that goes into each episode. The difficulty of transmuting written pieces into engaging audio was a topic that came up repeatedly during the discussion: from the selection of essays to finding actors that suit them to nailing the sound design. Production is a painstaking process.

And yet Modern Love: The Podcast never feels clichéd, trite, or melodramatic; it is clever, poignant, and intimate. Sometimes it makes you laugh; sometimes it makes you feel like someone has taken a jackhammer to your heart. All of which is to say, it is very good.

If you don’t trust me, trust its popularity: in its first month alone, the podcast saw over 1.4 million downloads. “I’m afraid the podcast is better than the column,” joked Jones at the event.

He’s not wrong to be a bit concerned. As lovely as the column is, “Modern Love”’s audio incarnation is truly spellbinding. Much of this can be chalked up to the sound design.

The challenge, Perotti explained, is using sound to create a mood which best captures the story. Sometimes music is a tool to bring more energy to a scene when monologue alone falls short; sometimes it’s used to “tamp down” the drama when it borders on being too much.

That kind of attention to detail — which has entailed researching exactly how Andrew Rannells’ Nokia cell ringtone sounded, recording background noise from a specific location, digging through sound banks to find just the right sound— seeps into every aspect of the podcast’s production, to the point that the writers of the original pieces are also contacted and interviewed for each episode to get their take on the stories and to find out how their lives have changed since they took place.

“Hearing something out loud is so different from reading something on a page,” said Sivertson. “I see this as really breathing a different kind of life into these pieces by giving an actual voice to them.”

As the column continues to receive a bottomless pit of submissions – over 8,000 a year for 52 slots, according to Jones – there is no shortage of eligible stories for them to tell. Some of the newer additions to the column focus on issues that were formerly taboo, for example, relationships in the transgender community, which has opened up these topics to the podcast as well.

“We want to have a diverse range of voices, and tell a diverse range of stories,” said Sivertson. “I feel like sometimes the only thing that we can agree on is that there’s nothing more powerful than loving and being loved.”

— With files from Reut Cohen

Daniel Dale talks truth in the Trumpian age on Canadaland

And what it's like to be blocked by the President on Twitter

Daniel Dale talks truth in the Trumpian age on <em>Canadaland</em>

Daniel Dale is blocked on Twitter by the world’s most powerful man: the wealthy real estate developer-turned reality TV star-turned President of the United States, Donald Trump. Dale is a soft-spoken but astute journalist covering a politician with a diametrically opposed personality. As the Toronto Star’s only reporter in Washington, he has the responsibility of being the sole deliverer of DC news to Canada’s largest daily — his task is weighty, but it’s one that he says is “awesome as a reporter, because you get to pick and choose what story to jump on.”

The Thornhill native made the trip back to the city for a taping of Jesse Brown’s hit media criticism podcast Canadaland, recorded live as part of the Hot Docs Podcast Festival. Before taping, Dale took some time to sit down for an interview with The Varsity.

Tackling Trump via Twitter

As soon as he wakes up in Washington DC — even before he puts his glasses on — Dale checks Twitter. “I wake up at seven something, and he’s usually tweeted by seven, and it’s like, ‘Has he already made a new claim? Am I already behind waking up at like 7:15 in the morning?’” he says. “Which is ridiculous.”

Twitter as a medium has, in a way, become a hallmark of Dale’s journalism and earned him a bit of a cult following, mostly due to his long-running, occasionally droll fact-checking of Trump. Pointing out inaccuracies ranging from incorrect tax rates to utter lies — like the time Trump lied about getting a congratulatory call from the leaders of the Boy Scouts — Dale’s feed is one I would recommend following.

And now it’s gotten him in hot water: blocked by the President of the United States. “I think it’s hilarious,” Dale says. “My editors and people I know were kind of outraged by it — and, in principle, I think it is troubling that a powerful politician would try and deny information to a journalist in even the most minor way.” Dale calls the block a “hilarious inconvenience,” though also revealing: “It tells us something about this man, this president, that even someone pointing out his inaccuracies on Twitter is enough that he doesn’t want to look at it.”

Twitter has become what many believe to be an invaluable tool in the journalist’s toolkit. But, as Dale warns, “Twitter is awful in an awful number of ways.” He says it can be bad for a journalist’s mental health, and that “it can wear you down if you spend too much time in your mentions.”

From Ford to… this?                                                           

Dale covered City Hall in the Rob Ford years — no easy task, and one that he barely escaped unscathed. Once, the former mayor chased and cornered him in a park near the mayor’s house with a raised fist. The wake of this incident would lead Dale to serve the mayor a libel notice.

The reporter says that there are “a lot of similarities” between Trump and Ford, including “the way that they have harnessed anti-elite sentiment” despite both characters’ elite status, and being “loudly, angrily anti-media in ways that their respective institutions hadn’t previously seen.”

He points out an interesting nuance in the difference between the Ford and Trump populisms: in some ways, Ford “sought to include members of diverse communities and minorities, whereas Trump is solely focused on white people.”

Dale is quick to note, though, that the “frequency and the needlessness of the dishonesty” from Trump has surpassed the level of outrageousness from Ford.

Given that he’s covered two brash, anti-media politicians, I asked Dale whether he thinks that the relationship between journalists and politicians should be mutually antagonistic. Not quite, he says. “It’s sort of one step calmer than that. It necessarily has to be a skeptical relationship: you’re not there to be their friends, but that doesn’t mean you’re there to be their enemies, either.”

It’s hard to escape covering Trump in today’s America. Dale was down in DC for the end of the Obama years, “covering America more broadly.” He thinks that if Hillary Clinton had won, his job “would be super different.”

“My job is almost exclusively covering Trump,” Dale says. “He’s all anyone wants to read about right now.”

On Canadaland

Dale’s appearance on Canadaland was characteristic of the deconstructive, conversational, and occasionally quirky show that fans know and love. The Hot Docs theatre was packed as the bass-fuelled intro played and Dale joined Brown on the stage.

I won’t ruin the podcast for those of you who are listeners, but suffice it to say that Brown and Dale covered similar material to what Dale and I discussed, from fact-checking to fun with the Ford family. The show also included a few curveballs from Brown, who dug up some bylines and free-speech activism work from Dale’s days at the Guelph Mercury — may it rest in peace — and at York University.

Canadaland, in the midst of a fundraising push, had a new venture being showcased at the live show: a beer called Canadaland Sour. Audience members who Tweeted #canadalandsour were promised a free beer after the show on the sidewalk outside the cinema.

“This is legal, I’m told,” Brown said, half-joking.

Unfortunately, the line outside the cinema was more than the coolers were equipped for and I didn’t get my Canadaland Sour — but that didn’t sour the experience in the slightest.