Nick van der Kolk on the Benefits of Feeling Conflicted

The host of Love + Radio explains how not seeing things in black and white makes the best show.

Nick van der Kolk doesn’t like things tied up in a neat bow. The host of Love + Radio, a podcast he has been producing intermittently since 2005 and regularly since 2014, is all about secret lives, moral ambiguity, murky characters, and twists in the tale.

Some of his show’s most notorious episodes have included Jack and Ellen (about a woman who poses as a teenage boy online in order to blackmail pedophiles), The Living Room (about a woman who witnesses a story of love and death through the window of a neighboring apartment building), and A Red Dot (about a man who is championing the rights of America’s most reviled group—those on sex-offender registers). In The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt, an episode about a guy who runs a strip club out of his apartment, van der Kolk has a gun pulled on him while recording. It was the first podcast episode to ever win the top prize at the Third Coast International Audio Festival Competition.

The son of two therapists, van der Kolk grew up obsessed with storytelling on radio, especially This American Life, BBC dramas, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When it came to starting his own show, he gravitated toward people and issues that he found morally complex because he didn’t hear anyone on radio covering those stories. He talked to us about why he prefers to work in this tricky area and how he goes about doing it.

Spotify for Podcasters: The stories and themes you take on in Love + Radio can be controversial and complicated. Are you always sure listeners will go along with you on that journey?

Nick van der Kolk: I want you to wrestle with yourself while you’re listening to the show. I’m big on the listener being morally culpable in what’s going on. This kind of work requires a really bizarre mix of deep empathy and sociopathy.

What about the people you’re profiling in these stories? How do you gain their trust?

We come to them with very little agenda and no axe to grind. I think generally people sense that, even if they've taken on bad press in the past. I think the vibe we give off is one where we just want to understand and not just tell their story on their behalf. When we explain that’s where we’re coming from, people appreciate that.

You appear to have no problem asking the tough questions.

Yeah, but I don't view them as tough. I just view them as taking on the elephant in the room, I guess. Maybe that's my upbringing, being the son of two therapists. Whenever there’s an elephant in the room I’m like, "Hold on, let's talk about that now."

What do you need from a subject to make it viable material for a Love + Radio episode?

There’s a Russian documentary maker named Viktor Kossakovsky who [has compiled] "Ten Rules For Documentary Filmmaking," one of which is something like, "Don't film when you love. Don't film when you hate. Film when you're not sure how you feel." That’s certainly something I go for. It’s generally a sign that a story has serious legs if I read about it and I generally don't know how I feel about it. I think confusion’s very underrated, you know? It’s a very underrated state of being.

How much time do you need with a person to make it work?

We always bank on at least two large interviews, with one follow-up. The first one tends to be a very disorganized, far-ranging conversation. It's almost like a fishing expedition. The second interview tends to be more directed. At that point, we're like, "Okay, we really need A, B, and C." Then we edit those two interviews and in the editing process, we're like, "Oh shit, we didn't ask them about X," or, "In the course of explaining how we got from A to C, he went into an enormous amount of detail of B, which is actually super-boring. So, let's just get them to summarize that section." Because it's not narrated, I can't pop in as the host and say, "And then five years later, this happened…"

Do you think this kind of storytelling works better in podcasting than in TV or film?

The lack of visual element in radio and podcasts is so freeing in so many ways, because the moment you put someone on the screen, even if they haven't opened their mouth yet, just because we're such visual creatures, we instantly come to all these conclusions about who they are. It's a weird paradox, because Love + Radio could not exist if not for the world of the internet. I'd be doing some version of it on some community radio station or whatever, but for it to have legs and find an audience, it needed the internet. Yet, so much of what we do is completely the opposite of the internet age.

So, what would you say to podcasters who want to do work in a similar vein to Love + Radio?

Before making a podcast, make a community radio show. I'm dead serious. It might seem counterintuitive to think this way, but we were kind of out in the deep woods for nine years before we got any attention, and that was really helpful for us. You don't keep doing something for nine years with next to no feedback unless you're entertaining yourself and being playful with it and trying out new things. I used to talk to people and their first question was often, "How do I work on building an audience?" I’d ask, "Well, what's your show about? What does your show sound like?" And they were like, "Well, I hadn't really thought about all that yet." I tell them to spend time experimenting and making stuff. You need to create sandboxes that you can be playful in. It's very hard to be playful in a sandbox when you've got 1,000 people staring at you.

—Barry Divola