As the host of Start Making Sense, the weekly podcast of The Nation magazine, Jon Wiener ’66 promises “political talk without the boring parts,” and the show delivers, featuring interviews with a mix of Nation contributors and other leading journalists and experts. (Recent guests include author Naomi Klein, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, and Princeton historian Sean Wilentz.) Wiener also hosts a live radio program on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles that has a dual existence as the Trump Watch Podcast. “The slogan of the show is ‘talk about what Trump is actually doing, not just what he’s tweeting,’” Wiener says. “That’s a nice idea — we don’t always succeed.” Wiener, a historian and author, spoke with PAW about his path to podcasting.
From print to radio to podcasts
“I had friends who did WPRB, but I was not one of them. I was always interested in the written word, and one of my ambitions in life was to write for The Nation magazine, which I started doing in 1984. The Nation magazine started a radio program in ’90s, basically to promote the magazine, interviewing the writers in that week’s issue, and it was produced in Los Angeles at KPFK, the Pacifica radio station. And because I was a writer for The Nation, I was sometimes a guest the show, ‘Radio Nation,’ which was then distributed to 100 different community and public radio stations all over the United States. And I was good at being a guest so eventually I was promoted to guest host, and the KPFK management gave me a weekly interview show on my own. So it was the printed word that led me into radio, around 2000.
Three more podcasts to check out this month
1. On Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, Princeton professors KEVIN KRUSE and JULIAN ZELIZER discuss political dysfunction since 1974 and their book, Fault Lines.
2. CRAIG MAZIN ’92 and John August of the Scriptnotes podcast take a deep-dive look at The Princess Bride, a 1987 film that bridges quippy comedy and sincere emotion.
3. CLAIRE FALLON ’10, co-host Emma Gray, and weekly guests discuss the latest from The Bachelor on Here to Make Friends, a podcast from HuffPost.
“When podcasting came along, it occurred to some of us that The Nation should have a podcast, too, and that we knew how to do it. And they loved the idea. So we’ve been on every week since then.”
On Start Making Sense
“The idea is we have a lot of smart, talented people, many of whom are actually quite good at talking as well as writing, who have found out interesting and important things or are opinionated in interesting ways. So it’s sort of an obvious match. It’s not tied in quite so closely to the contents of that week’s magazine — we get guests from all over the place.”
“Trump dominates [the news] so much that it turns out we always have to have Trump [segments] on the show. And people complain of course — ‘I’m sick of Trump, I don’t want to hear about Trump, enough with Trump already.’ One week we tried doing a show called ‘An Hour Without Trump,’ 60 minutes of guaranteed Trump-free political talk. It was our worst-rated show of the year. So we learned our lesson, and now we always have something about Trump.”
The shifting definition of history
“If I’m lucky, I get to do something about American history, since I have a Ph.D. in American history and spent 30 years teaching 20th-century American history at UC-Irvine. We try to do African-American history, Chicano history, women’s history…
“What’s history now? Bill Clinton is history. In another year or two, Obama is going to be history. And that is immediately relevant: If you’re going to talk about Medicare for all, it really helps to know how the Clinton health care plan was defeated by the insurance industry. That’s something historians have to tell you about these days, because it was a really long time ago.”
Life before podcast feeds
“For 30 years, I had a 1-hour commute each way to work at UC-Irvine, so I spent a lot of time listening to the radio in the car. And I can remember wanting to listen to This American Life and Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and I had this very complicated, advanced set-up where I had a timer that would turn on my radio and my tape recorder simultaneously when the shows were on the air. I would save the tapes for my commute to school and play them in my tape player in the car. And you don’t have to do any of that anymore, it’s all right there. It’s a wonderful thing.”
A host’s real job
“My principle has always been that my goal is to make my guests look good. This show is not about me, it’s about them. And I think unless you’re Stephen Colbert or something like that, that’s a good principle to follow.”
Interview conducted and condensed by Brett Tomlinson
Alumni, if you have a podcast that you’d like to share with PAW readers, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.