For this edition of Inside the Podcast Studio, we go behind the scenes of Everything is Alive with creator Ian Chillag. Everything is Alive [EIA] provides listeners with insight into the objects all around us. A little bit funny, a little bit serious and introspective, the show brings humanity and humor to all sorts of ‘inanimate’ objects. We spoke with Ian about his audio background, how interview subjects are chosen and his thought process behind the show.
On the Podcast
Radiotopia positioned Everything is Alive as a show “unlike anything” people had heard before, and the show really is unique! How did you come up with the idea?
It’s a way I’ve always joked around — pretending to be the voice of the things in the room, talking about what an awful job a chair has, being sat on all day. But also, being a producer, you’re always looking for guests that hosts can interview. So, if you’re working on a segment about bananas, you try and find the world’s foremost banana expert. But primary sources are so much better. I just thought, what a fun experiment if you could talk to the banana itself.
Can you explain your background and journey to Everything is Alive?
I worked on Fresh Air for several years, and did reporting here and there for Marketplace and other shows. Then I worked on NPR’s The Bryant Park Project for a little while, and from there I went to Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. While I was working on that, Mike Danforth and I started How To Do Everything. I still work on Wait, Wait a bit, which definitely keeps me connected to reality (such as it is) while I work on the weird world of EIA.
Walk us through your process: What are the steps that go into creating each episode?
When we cast an actor, we get on the phone and have a short conversation about basic character notes. Is your pencil, say, an optimist or a pessimist? Does it like its job? Is the sharpener scary? What’s its greatest hope? We don’t want answers to the questions at that point, we just want to get the actors thinking about the questions. Then, a couple days later, they come into the studio and we do an interview. It really is an interview: I have things I’m curious about. I don’t know what they’re going to say, and they don’t know what I’m going to ask.
What’s the thought process behind choosing an inanimate object to feature?
It’s sort of just… when you know, you know. I’m always on the lookout, and some things naturally seem like you could give them a personality and some things don’t. We need the things to have a lot of interesting, real history too. And in terms of the show, we think about variety — big things and small things, constructed things and things from the natural world, old things and new things, things that get used once and things that are used all the time.
How do you find and cast your voice actors?
Our producer Jennifer Mills is in charge of that, and she has done an incredible job finding talented people. She looks at a lot of improv actors and comedians. The key for us is that we find people who are funny, but who are comfortable not being funny as well.
Do the actors help choose what objects they voice?
We give them two or three choices, and they pick the one that most speaks to them.
Do the actors know anything in advance besides the character notes?
The only thing they know ahead of time is the two or three real, factual stories that we end up covering in the show. Other than that, it’s a real interview and we don’t have any idea what’s going to happen.
How do you balance the humor of the show with the earnest aspects?
It just happens naturally. I feel like real life is never exclusively funny or exclusively serious, so I don’t worry about making the show be one thing or the other either.
On the space
Where do you record the show?
I work and record at Radio Diaries’ space in Brooklyn. It’s a nice spot.
What type of equipment do you use?
I use whatever mics Radio Diaries has around, and my Zoom H6. Nothing fancy.
When you were developing the season, were there times you doubted your idea?
There is a time or two during the production of each episode that I think it is absolutely terrible and boring and will never work. This is because I listen so much during editing, and once you’ve heard something enough times, everything loses its impact. Also because there IS always a point in production where the episode is actually terrible and boring.
How do you overcome that and keep creating?
First, I rely on my wife, Emily, who is a great, honest listener and editor. Second, I always think about something George Saunders said. I don’t have it committed to memory verbatim, but I have the book here so I’ll quote:
“When something is failing, I try to ask it (gently!): ‘Okay, so why are you failing? What’s the problem?” And also ask: ‘Where are you failing, exactly?” This is done at the line level — just going over something again and again, sentence by sentence, trying to see where it departed from its natural energy…it’s just me watching my own reading mind, to see where the meter in my head deflects into the zone marked N for ‘negative.’”
There’s always a point where things stop feeling exciting and full of energy, and stop feeling the good way they felt at the beginning. I go to that point and try to figure out why, and how to fix it.
What podcasts inspire you?
Ear Hustle, because no matter what they’re talking about, there is joy in every episode. And I always wish I could make my show as beautiful as Criminal. I’m in the middle of The Bright Sessions right now and I’m really inspired by the intricate world Lauren Shippen has made and the pace with which she’s unveiled it.
How did you develop your hosting style?
Ha! I don’t think I have a style. I generally just think the less you hear of me, the better.
How do you envision the future of the podcasting landscape?
I have no idea. I think there’s an audience out there for new and weird things, and I’m excited to see new shows — and new genres — emerge.