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There are many ways to describe The New York Times, but let’s admit that “punk” isn’t really one of them. That said, the word applies to the earliest days of “The Book Review” podcast, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month — a number that might be closer to a century in podcast years.
The first episodes of the show, starting in 2006, began with the blasted snippet of a song by the San Francisco punk band J Church, with the unusual and apt lyrics: “I read it in a New York Times book review.” The podcast, the first for The Times, was the brainchild of the current Times book critic Dwight Garner, who was then the senior editor at the Book Review. “The idea was mine, but it was very off the cuff, as in ‘this might be fun,’” he said. “Sam ran with the idea immediately.”
Sam Tanenhaus, then the editor of the Book Review, started each episode for the first year or so with a different deprecating, Letterman-esque tagline about the enterprise. (For example: “A weekly conversation about books and ideas, and the ever-widening chasm that seems to separate the two.”) Mick Sussman, then the Books producer at The Times, would record the interviews, with a single microphone passed between Sam and his guests.
Before long, the podcast appeared on WQXR, a radio station then owned by The Times. Needing the podcast to fit a firm 15 minutes each week, the station brought in the radio-seasoned Jocelyn Gonzales to produce the show. One of her first duties was to lose the intro music for something a bit more suitable. “I do remember people were upset because they liked the punk rock song,” Jocelyn said, “but it wasn’t going to fly on QXR.”
The length constraints disappeared in 2009, when The Times sold WQXR to New York Public Radio and the podcast was no longer aired on the station.
Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, has hosted the show for the past eight years. (As an editor on the Books desk, I work closely on the podcast with Pamela and the show’s current ace producer, Pedro Rosado.) Today, episodes tend to be about an hour long, most featuring two interviews with authors or critics and a rotating group of “in-house” segments — Times reporters and critics talking about publishing news, their reviews or what books they’ve been recently reading. Thursday mornings are reserved for recording sessions.
Pamela said that when she was named the editor of the Book Review in 2013 — her job has since expanded to include oversight of all books coverage at The Times — she hardly had time to think about the fact that she was also becoming a weekly podcast host. In fact, she recorded her first episode before even technically assuming her other duties.
“It’s turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the job,” she said. “It went from being something slightly terrifying to perhaps the most purely fun and intellectually rewarding part of the week.”
So much fun for both Sam and Pamela that the podcast has missed only three weeks since it began — the first three weeks of quarantine in March 2020. Under Pedro’s guidance, Pamela and the rest of us quickly ordered the necessary recording equipment to have at home, and the show returned from its brief hiatus on April 3, 2020, with the clinical psychologist Lisa Damour talking about the challenges of raising children during the pandemic.
“There’s a kind of intimacy to it,” Pamela said. “We feel like we’re just talking to our friends and colleagues, but it’s clear from the feedback we get that listeners feel they’ve gotten to know us the way we know each other. It feels like there’s an ongoing relationship.”
If listeners sense they get to know the Times staff through the show, the Times staff has had its own set of thrills meeting the authors who have visited the studio.
Eminent guests have included Toni Morrison, John Updike, Robert Caro, Christopher Hitchens, Colson Whitehead, Isabel Wilkerson, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Lorrie Moore, James McBride, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson … we could be here literally all day.
Gary Shteyngart was the first author to appear on the show, in the third episode, discussing his novel “Absurdistan.” In the years since, it’s difficult to name an author who hasn’t appeared. For several years, literary rock stars signed their names in a small room on the fifth floor of the Times building, creating a literary Wall of Fame.
Then there have been the actual rock stars. Sam remembers the buzz that accompanied his conversations with Keith Richards, Patti Smith and Andre Agassi about their books. “I took Smith and Agassi on tours of the newsroom, and people were dazzled,” he said. “Patti especially. Journalists climbed over cubicle dividers to tell her, ‘I heard you at Roseland in ’76.’”
J.D. Biersdorfer, the Book Review’s production editor, recalls having a long talk about rabbits with Amy Sedaris after Ms. Sedaris spied a picture in the office of J.D.’s pet rabbit Caramel.
Jocelyn said: “I have tape of my producers having vodka shots with Toni Morrison after the interview.”
Pamela and the rest of the crew look forward to resuming in-person interviews soon (shots optional), and to recording some special episodes of the podcast in front of live audiences, including the shows that celebrate and discuss the Book Review’s annual 10 Best Books issue. In the meantime, the show indefatigably maintains its weekly pace — and its voluminous archives, from punk to present, are always there for the listening.
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