Inside the Podcast Studio: The Memory Palace

We’re kicking off a new series this month called Inside the Podcast Studio. While we won’t be asking producers what they’d like to hear when they arrive at the pearly gates, à la James Lipton, we will be exploring their “studios”—including bedrooms, closets, favorite coffee shops—to learn more about how and where creators make their magic. We kick off the series with Nate DiMeo from The Memory Palace.

The Memory Palace, from our Radiotopia network , is a podcast that tells short, surprising stories of the past. Nate started the show as a side project in 2008, and since then it has gone from being a way to get his own radio show, to an art project with an audience, to a full-fledged business. This month, he launched his latest season and will now produce at a biweekly cadence, to the delight of his devoted fans. We went behind the scenes with DiMeo to find out what his space really looks like and what makes his show tick.

On the show

What is The Memory Palace’s (TMP) tagline?
If you, person reading this, have a good one, let me know. I don’t. I find it difficult to elevator-pitch The Memory Palace. Not that it’s all that complicated: it’s a storytelling podcast about the past that features essays about American history, put to music. That covers it, right? But, here’s the thing: I don’t know if I would listen to that show. So, what Memory_Palace_Logo_RGBcomes out, on this imaginary elevator ride, is something like that, followed by some rushed version of “but-it’s-got-more-going-on-than-that” delivered in varying degrees of confidence, depending on the day. I know I don’t explain it well because I’ll often meet people who haven’t yet heard the show, who listen and return to me later with a report, and seem genuinely surprised that it’s good. They are surprised there’s something deeper going on with it than “things that slipped through the cracks,” or “surprising stories,” or, with all due respect to their excellent, vital work, “Stuff You Missed in History Class,”  an existing podcast in the same vein.

TMP’s odd earnestness, the idiosyncrasy of the subject-selection, the care and the craft, is a hard thing to explain on the ride up to the 7th floor. Or, at least to explain in a way that doesn’t make me seem like a jackass.

Where do you find stories for TMP?
The real answer is everywhere. I’m not a history buff; I know a lot about American history, but nearly all of my history knowledge comes directly from researching a specific topic. I’m culturally omnivorous by nature. I like knowing a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. I’m reading (and listening to) novels, reading magazines, watching good (and crap) tv, listening obsessively (and widely) to music, and screwing around on Twitter and other sites all the damn time. Some weird fact will jump out from a novel, or something I stumble across online. Something that breaks through the noise, some sparkling thing that jumps up for a moment from the churn and the rush of the information stream, and moves me in some way. Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward: some historical factoid or interesting person that I’d never heard of before, or hadn’t thought of in awhile.

Postcards from a few of DiMeo’s episode themes

Often, subjects come from merely an idea about the world. For
example: a little riff in a John Banville novel where the protagonist was in a Banvillian moment of self-delusion, grappling with how his past choices may have rippled out and harmed people. This scene got me thinking about the psychology of that deeply human struggle: that internal conversation we all engage in in one way or another, trying to sort out our past actions and understand their repercussions, and negotiate our feelings about those actions. That idea reminded me of Thomas Midgley, the inventor of leaded gasoline, and got me thinking about how he must have felt knowing that he’d poisoned people. Which led me to research the context around the issue and his work so that I got the story straight. I wanted to get as close as I could to how he felt,  so I could put myself in his shoes in a way that was responsible to the reality of the situation, respectful to the dead, and true, in an almost poetic sense.

I read, watch and listen widely. And, on a kind of ridiculous but totally real level, all I’m doing is trying to be moved. To tap into that sense of wonder that drives so many of the stories. Something went down on The Bachelor the other night that helped me understand a story I’ve currently got on the calendar for April.

The “what” is rooted in the meaning of the story. Why was it that this particular factoid or moment jumped out and grabbed me? Why did it connect? What is this story going to say about my life, or the listener’s life, today in 2016? What is the deeper meaning of this story? What is this story—beyond subject matter, facts, and context—about?

Ultimately, a Memory Palace story is a story from the past that is secretly about the present.

TMP episodes are so carefully composed and have a musicality about them. How do you approach the sound and feel of the show?
Like a song, actually. I draw a lot of inspiration from songwriting and the form of a pop song. Songs have inherent abilities that I try to tap into.  Nothing is quite able to pull off the alchemy that turns language and sentiment into emotion like a song. The pop song itself is a magical thing: there is so much variety and power in the simple combination of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-out. So much emotion can be packed into a tight package, and that’s precisely what I’m trying to do in any given episode. I’m often thinking about the ways songs sound and the feelings they’re able to achieve, thinking “this story should feel like driving on an open road, leaving some bad decisions behind.” There are times when I might try to capture a feeling evoked by a specific song; even though the story itself will ultimately wind up sounding nothing like it, the same feeling might still drive it. I think of my vocal track as an instrument, I think of the “scenes” in terms of movements.

DiMeo’s editing setup

Is there anything inherently “podcast-y” about TMP? Do you think the stories could work just as well on the radio?
No. If anything, I think the format is a little odd and non-podcast-y. Between the brevity and lack of guests, it remains a bit of an outlier as a podcast. But the beauty of podcasts is that we haven’t yet succumbed to a rigid definition of what the medium is, or closed off possibilities to what it could be.

That said, I’d love to have the show on the radio more often. People often ask me why I don’t have episode descriptions on the podcast feed. It’s because I want people to come into a story with as few expectations as possible. On the most basic level, if there’s a twist coming, I don’t want to telegraph it, I want to pull the listener along on a path where each paragraph is a new discovery. That instinct comes in part from wanting to simulate the experience of listening to the radio. With the radio, you don’t really know what you’re going to get or what song is coming up next. You flip the dial and catch something on NPR mid-stream.

Radio has the power to change your day out of nowhere, and that is sometimes lost with podcasting. Podcasting is inherently intentional: you choose what you want to listen to and when. By withholding information, I’m trying to take some of that power back.

It’s ultimately how I prefer to experience things. In a perfect world, a Memory Palace story would slip in, unexpected, in the middle of a radio program and change your day.

On his space

Where do you literally do your work? Can you walk us through that space?
The early parts of the process—researching, reading, rough drafts, playing around with structure and language—happen all over. I like to get out of the house, it makes me more productive. There are a couple of coffee shops I go to (Vita, in Silverlake, or one over near the Grove in L.A., on Beverly). I make sure not to ask for the Wi-Fi password if I’m writing because I have internet impulse control issues. I get an iced tea, usually green. There are

DiMeo's view from the West Hollywood Library
DiMeo’s view from the West Hollywood Library

also a couple of libraries where I like to write.  There’s a particular desk on the second floor of a new library in West Hollywood that has a great view of the Hollywood Hills and a giant window, so you’re kind of floating out over San Vicente Boulevard. That’s my spot if the research is done and I’m really trying to write a draft down from beginning to end.

But then there comes a point where I have to be able to talk while I write so I know how everything sounds, and I can’t do that at the library. So I hole up in our converted garage. There’s a skylight. There’s a white swivel chair that I have to remember to sit straight up in, or my neck gets all weird. There’s a pile of history books stacked up which put my laptop at eye level (again, with the neck).  And that’s that. I mix the episode there, too (after recording it, huddled under a mattress topper. Or if it’s too loud because someone’s mowing a lawn or hammering something, I take the mattress thingy into my daughter’s room which is cozy and has a rug that helps deaden the sound. Sometimes I prop my elbow up on her big, stuffed bunny named Big Bunny).

DiMeo’s recording tent (for real)

Follow The Memory Palace on Twitter @thememorypalace. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes here.