Love & Radio: ‘The Living Room’

QueueTips — No. 7

So, 2016’s closing up shop, which means the barrage of year-end listicles is almost done. You’ve almost made it.

To me, the end of the year is something to enjoy and cherish. It affords us the opportunity and time to reset, regroup, and reflect on what’s happened in the recent past so we can plan for the future. But looking at things in terms of calendar years can also make us forget things faster. Once the year’s done, we’re on to the next one and all the things it will bring with it.

With that in mind, I want to revisit a bit of audio from a different year. I’d like to take you back to March 2015, when Love & Radio published “The Living Room,” which is in my estimation the finest podcast episode I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly one of a very few that I think about often (along with Invisibilia’s “Entanglement,” The Heart’s “Ghost: Bobby,” and The Dollop’s “Boston Corbett” live episode with Patton Oswalt). “The Living Room” is such a memorable bit of audio that I vividly recall being in a grocery store parking lot, in the middle of a snowfall, spending the last 10 minutes of the episode in my idling car until it was over. I couldn’t leave before it was done.

The story is told by Diane Weipert, who, through big windows, can clearly see into her neighbors’ apartment. The two people who live in that apartment are a young couple, and for years Weipert watches their lives together. She sees everything. She considers closing her blinds, but she doesn’t and instead keeps looking. It’s a story beautifully told, and if it weren’t for a bit of interchange between an unnamed interviewer and the narrator, I’d wonder if it was scripted audio drama. The ending, told from Weipert’s wallflower’s (or in this case windowflower) perspective, is emotional and devastating, especially because the audience is intruding. You want to say something to the neighbor, too, just as the narrator does. But you can’t. Weipert hands us binoculars and we look.

The creepiness is fairly admissible in this case, though, because it’s not malicious. We’re hearing normal, human curiosity in action, and because of the strength of the story, somehow we see what Weipert is describing. We’re looking through that bedroom window with her, feeling as she does: a bit dirty for peeping, but ultimately just interested in how other people move and live when “no one’s watching.” Plus, once we’ve pressed play on the episode, there’s really no turning back. The narrator can’t close the curtains; neither can we.

Like many Love & Radio episodes, “The Living Room” is one-sided. We don’t ever hear from the young couple next door, even when Weipert sees their lives take an unexpected turn. This, I think, is where this episode is not only a visceral bit of storytelling but a conversation-starter about the form of audio stories in general. There’s real force and weight in having one narrator, one timeline, one straight-ahead story (I’d argue it’s potentially podcasting’s most powerful form), but it creates an imbalance. Is it OK to tell a real-life story, even one without any true journalistic stakes, with only one microphone? Is it doing a disservice to only tell one side of the truth? (Coincidentally, this is why the Modern Love column and podcast at The New York Times has always made me cringe slightly. We hear from the spurned…what about the spurners?)

Another tactic of the podcast industry — even its more journalistic arm — is a frequent use of anonymity to protect its storytellers and interviewees. “The Living Room” doesn’t directly use anonymity to protect the person you’re hearing tell the story, but it doesn’t reach out to the subject of the story — the spied-on couple — either. I’m not sure that letting your interview subjects change their names or hide their voices devalues the story at all, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having. If the producers of “The Living Room” had gone across the street and asked the subject of the story for permission to use this story (even without identifying them), and she’d declined…is losing the story worth that bit of courtesy? Is there any obligation to extend that hand of kindness to the subject?

To its immense credit, “The Living Room” toes this line exceptionally well. Weipert says straight-up she may be getting “it all wrong,” a reassuring admission that she’s only guessing at the truth. Most storytelling shows — even the best ones — rarely acknowledge that possibility, but perhaps implicit in the producer-listener relationship is the idea that what you’re hearing is coming from intriguing but ultimately unreliable narrators, and maybe that’s fine. It certainly helps turn “The Living Room” into a lasting episode and my favorite not just of 2016 but of all of them.

QueueBits:

Ok, fine, I’ll give you the rundown of my favorite shows from the year and a few choice episodes, because in the Year Of Our Internet 2016, the list is essential:

Shows (with apologies to Serial and many other shows to which I haven’t yet listened):

  1. Reply All
  2. Code Switch
  3. Revisionist History
  4. The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified
  5. Still Processing
  6. Home Of The Brave
  7. Keepin’ It 1600
  8. Love Me
  9. The Heart
  10. 2 Dope Queens

Episodes:

  1. Debatable — RadioLab
  2. The Reckoning — Still Processing
  3. The “Yes Yes No” segment of Reply All
  4. Shadowed Qualities — StartUp
  5. The Problem with the Solution — Invisibilia

Lastly, you should go see La La Land immediately. Seriously. Leave work or home, take everyone you know, offer to buy them tickets as a holiday gift, and go see La La Land. It’s remarkable. When you’re done, and when your post-movie fog has cleared, listen to Song Exploder’s episode about how that Emma Stone solo scene came to be.

La la laaaaaaaaa,

-Grant