Photo by Kevin Scanlon for The DPD
Local fans of the APM's The Dinner Party Download have two burning questions this week. The first is "How can I get tickets for the live show at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul this Saturday night, May 9, when hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam will be live with hip-hop MC Lizzo, comedian Michael Ian Black, writer Marlon James, musician Angel Olsen, and the hometown cocktail heroes from the Bittercube team?" And the second is "How do those DPD guys always seem to be just hanging out with Steve Martin, Pharell Williams, Wayne Coyne, Amy Schumer, and the like, in such a mellow, chatty, chilly chill chill, chillaxed, even, dare I say, chillow sort of way?"
The answer to the first question is at the bottom of this story, but the answer to the second comes directly from Gagliano and Newnam themselves. I spoke to the pair—Gagliano was in Los Angeles and Newnam was in New York—on a conference call about how it all happens:
“It all started as a 15-minute podcast,” says Gagliano, who had met Newnam when they both worked on the public radio program Marketplace. “The idea was that you were going to learn everything you needed to know at a dinner party on the way to the dinner party, so it was fast. Fast fast. Which at the time was the antithesis of what podcasts were.”
“So when we expanded to an hour,” Newnam adds, “we kept the same basic ratio of guests to time, so now, there are nine segments each week.”
To book and record the nine guests and segments a week, Gagliano and Newnam work with producer Jackson Musker. They kick off every week with a Monday conference call, during which they sketch out the show, which needs to be delivered in its final, edited version to American Public Media by Thursday evening. (APM is the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio; they also produce Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion.) Having representatives on both coasts allows the show to conquer the cultural production of the nation, so to speak. Since Gagliano is in Los Angeles, he books and interviews the Hollywood and other left coast types, and since Newnam is in New York he takes on the interviews with news and publishing sorts, and because they each work in their respective time zones the Dinner Party Download day starts around 9 a.m. Eastern and ends somewhere around sunset Los Angeles time.
“We’re operating 18 hours a day, which allows just about any guest to find a time that works,” Newnam explains. “If you’re a celeb with a movie to promote you’re not going to build your schedule around us, we know that, but we make it easy for them to work us in.” The interviews they record might be as long as an hour, and all three edit interviews and segments. As the week rolls on and interviews come into focus, the three map out which will go in each of the nine slots. Then on Thursday, they each report to their home-office recording studio, and record all the chilly chill chill chatty bits.
Photo courtesy KPCC
“Reality and media are two totally different beasts,” Gagliano explains. “Everyone knows that—but it is still surprisingly difficult to get the feeling we want to have, that it’s just casual—that we found some cool people and let’s hang out and talk!—to make it sound that way on the radio. One of the reasons we laugh so much on the show, and we honestly do have fun, but we more verbally express it than we would in life because we’re on the radio. There’s a lot of thought that goes in to making things seem as casual as they do.”
Casual, and unique too.
“Once we’re in the room with Cokie Roberts or Amy Schumer, we don’t want to sound like other things” Newnam says, “If you listen to a six-minute interview with a guest, typically we have much more than six minutes, and we’ve selected the more casual, relaxed parts of the interview. Every once in a while you get those sorts of prepared answers, where it sounds like someone is literally reading off a press kit. We always lose all of that. And sometimes with someone like Wayne Coyne, you get four awesome answers and you could use all of them—but we only have room for one. I interviewed the director of a Kurt Cobain film for 50 minutes, then cut it down to 7.”
But all that scrambling and editing is in pursuit of a particular aesthetic, an aesthetic pioneered by, of all people, those chuckling motor lovers Tom and Ray Magliozzi.
“For me the number one show in the history of public radio is still Car Talk,” Gagliano says. “Why isn’t there more of that? Casual, relatable. So we spent a lot, we spend a lot, of thought and time and energy getting to that sound that’s casual and relatable.” And that’s the secret behind The Dinner Party Download!
Or is it?
“Shirtless!” Newnam exclaims. “Tell everyone we do this shirtless, that’s the secret.”
“Shirtless,” Gagliano agrees. “No one here has worn a shirt in years.”
Will they be shirtless this Saturday when they do a rare live-audience taping at the Fitzgerald Theater? The only way to find out is by going. I am!
The Dinner Party Download, Live: Saturday, May 9; Doors at 7 p.m.; show is at 8 p.m.