Giving thanks to Writer's Almanac fans
This Thanksgiving, we would like to express our gratitude to the fans of The Writer’s Almanac who inspired us to keep producing new episodes after radio broadcasts of it were discontinued this time last year. In particular, we would like to thank Alexy Khrabov, who created a grassroots campaign including a “TWA Support Group” on Facebook, as well as George Drick and Derek McCarthy, who adapted old TWA episodes into new ones and posted them on YouTube and Facebook.
We conducted an interview with these three lovely people this past summer, and we are very pleased to share an abridged edition with you now.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Alexy: I am a computer scientist who switched from being a software engineer at Amazon and a chief scientist at San Francisco startups to running communities and conferences around technology. Most of the year I work for free, creating and running meetups, such as sfscala.org and bay.area.ai, at dozens of San Francisco companies like Twitter, Google and Amazon, and a couple times a year I create and run an amazing conference like rethinktrust.org and scale.bythebay.io.
My father was a book lover and passed that love onto me. I have way more books than I should. I keep buying them both on paper and on Kindle. I helped maintain the oldest interactive poetry site on the Internet, burime.com, in continuous operation since 1995 and now containing about 60,000 Russian verses produced by the community in a perpetual game of bout rime (you have to supply the rhymes before getting some to rhyme with).
George: Although I had gotten my B.A. in English from Yale in 1966, my Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard in 1970, and had taught English at Iolani School in Honolulu for two years from ’71-’73, I had not been a classroom teacher for 18 years when I got a teaching/curriculum-development job at the University of Hawaii Laboratory School in 1991. For the next 18 years, until I retired at age 66 in 2009, I was in Camelot.
I was lucky enough to teach 11th grade, so for 18 years I got to enjoy students reading aloud The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, Gather Together in My Name, The Catcher in the Rye, and Shoeless Joe.
It wasn’t until I was 48 years old that I really found my career, but I can’t imagine finding a more satisfying one. I won’t even go into the incredible short stories that my students wrote (eight a year) or the number of awards they won in the statewide Hawaii Education Association Writing Contest for public school students.
Derek: I still like to think of myself as a misfit English major, a refugee from the physical sciences & math, going to college at Cornell University as a Physics major, losing faith, and frantically switching to the English department three weeks into my junior year (while still working under a NASA grant on Voyager 2 at Neptune/Triton data analysis). So my approach to language is different — more mathematical than most.
Then a near-death experience at Cornell, and through it all, stories in books were always my salvation. Tolkien, Twain, and Melville as a kid, and George Eliot, Elizabeth Graver, and Mary Shelley as an adult, with a healthy sprinkling of Stephen King, Douglas Adams, and Edith Wharton thrown in for good measure.
I like to walk, run, and bicycle; and I spend most of my days working on computer projects and reading. I used to spend tremendous amounts of time in cafés; but now I’m more of a homebody.
When did you first start listening to The Writer’s Almanac, and why?
Alexy: It probably was 15-20 years ago when I lived in New Jersey and commuted from Cranbury to New Brunswick, where I worked at Rutgers. Garrison is as close to intelligentsia ideals as there is outside of Russia — his intellectual aura and romantic poetry and philosophy demeanor pulls the strings of a Russian heart. I’ve listened to GK for so long that he long became a part of my life. From TWA I went to see Garrison in concert, and listened to A Prairie Home’s Companion, and got the books.
For a newly naturalized American who produced five more, GK’s vision of all that is good and true in America resonates deeply. We love the same ideal of America. Indeed, it is a universal ideal — what Gorbachev called “universal human values”. When I went to see GK live in Vermont, my son Edward, then 2 years old and not properly talking yet, got on a chair in the back during GK’s monologue and started vocalizing a speech of his own. At a meet and greet, upon learning Edward’s name, GK said, “a very serious name” — I’ve learned only recently it’s his middle name too!
George: I’m not sure how/when I became aware of The Writer’s Almanac, but I got onto the email mailing list early in the 2000s. Other members of the Lab School English department also subscribed. I don’t claim that all six of us read it every day, but we knew each other’s interests, and would often mention not- to-be-missed items around our lunch table.
Sometime in 2007, I realized that I would be retiring in 2009 at age 66. That’s when I started saving copies of The Writer’s Almanac into one of my email files. The future is uncertain, but I knew that re-reading The Writer’s Almanac might become an important part of my routine.
Derek: I first started listening to TWA back in the '90s in Arizona, on KJZZ out of Phoenix. The daily literary birthdays and doses of historical context gave me something to look forward to and helped get me through the day — inoculations of the sublime against the plague of everyday mundane life.
TWA reminded me how much I used to read, and I began to read more again. I would pass by the Changing Hands Bookstore on the way to Kelly's Café on University Ave in Tempe, AZ. In front of the bookstore, they had a small bin of free books — books that the store didn't want to buy from sellers, and that the sellers were happy to give away — and I found many lovely titles in that bin, which I would read at Kelly's (or Coffee Plantation, Java Road, Higher Ground, or Charlie's after Kelly's closed).
When I moved to Colorado, then back to Arizona, and then back to Massachusetts, I would often go out of my way to tune in to whatever NPR station had The Writer's Almanac at the right time. It was a steady constant in an ever-changing world.
What motivated you to take the action you did once The Writer’s Almanac went off the air?
Alexy: Listening to TWA at 9am was my daily routine in the Bay Area…I was going on vacation to Mexico, and I spend the whole week at St. Regis building the resistance — creating the Medium and Twitter and Facebook pages and pouring resources into outreach. Fortunately, we built the core group very quickly and got thousands of like-minded fans together. George and Derek started their own guerrilla podcast remixes. Even the Star Tribune reached out for reporting on the fans.
This is our space. We created it to connect like-minded people…And this is a resolve that drives any successful social movement. We are not going to give up and die. We’ll uphold our beliefs and ideals, and defend our simple right to enjoy daily history, poetry, and GK’s voice. And we did.
George: I was very, very upset at what happened with Minnesota Public Radio and Garrison…. In my best Big Lebowski voice, I said to myself, “This aggression will not stand, man!” So I went into my files and began to post decade-old copies of TWA on my Facebook page.
I then recalled that there was a The Writer’s Almanac Support Group, so I copied my daily Facebook page posts there too. When I started to get “likes” I felt good, and when I saw Derek’s audio posts, I felt even better.
Derek: When I found out that TWA was going off the air, I was especially upset that the allegations against GK weren't further discussed or elaborated upon, but that the show had just been unceremoniously dropped and the archives taken offline. It seemed like there was a rush to judgement in that post-Harvey-Weinstein world. So, I began looking around and found a substantial (unauthorized?) archive of old TWA recordings and I began to have an idea of what I could do to let the show continue in some form.
Eventually I found the Writer's Almanac Support Group on Facebook (or they found me), and my subscriber list on YouTube increased; it was *great* to have some positive feedback! Folks seemed to really appreciate the "new" shows (though the accompanying video slideshows got some mixed reviews).
How did the three of you find each other, and how did you delegate work?
Alexy: I’ve created @thewritersalmanac page and a community group, and George started posting there. I also researched other fan groups, finding the other TWA fan community, and invited them to ours. Derek followed.
Derek: [Re: the daily reposted/remade audio of TWA] In the beginning, I was entirely on my own (with the help of the audio archive). I thought that maybe January 1st, 2018 would be a good date to reboot TWA, using remixed old shows.
At the end of December 2017, I recorded a week's worth of TWA episodes from 2014 and 2017 and began isolating the elements that I’d need to remix shows to have the current day & date — namely, the days of the week — with some free audio-editing software, Audacity.
This task was more difficult because the beginning of TWA had music (“Ge Mig En Dag” on piano) underneath GK's voice, so it was difficult to get a good enough match, particularly as GK's timing wasn't quite the same on every show; plus people's voices sound different at different times. And so the remixed shows that first week of January 2018 are a little rougher than the rest. I was making it up as I went.
Updating the year to "2018" was especially difficult — I was working with TWA recordings from 2015, so I did my best to turn "twenty fifteen" into "twenty eighteen" (and it didn't sound great).
I have no formal background in this kind of stuff. I've recorded (and processed) services on CD for my local UU church for nine years, and so I have a little experience with digital recordings and music processing. But not voice. That first month of making the "new" Writer's Almanac recordings was an education.
But it wasn't just the audio. I wanted to post these "new" TWA shows (properly credited as having been adapted from old TWA shows) on Facebook, but Facebook doesn't easily allow audio posts; it only allows *video* posts. So I needed to create some kind of a video to go along with the audio.
So I figured out how to make a simple slideshow video on iMovie, and my videos gradually transitioned from very simple (January 1st's has only 1 slide!) to more complex (May 31st has more than 170). I added the "new" TWA audio to the slideshow and posted it to YouTube. The images I tried to choose from literature, from people that GK mentioned, a few of my personal favorites, and a few landscape shots that I liked.
I don't remember when exactly I joined the Writer's Almanac Support Group on Facebook, but I appreciated their enthusiasm for the "new" shows. And I had a nice conversation with George Drick about the origin of one of the images (Shadows of Past by Lyubomir Bukov) used in some of the later slideshows accompanying the "new" shows.
What was the hardest part of the work you did to keep TWA alive? What was the most rewarding part?
Alexy: The hardest part was the unexpected amount of ugly hate revealed by ugly mobs — in comments and in the media. The most rewarding part was the power that came with the resolve to firmly oppose them, to bring together the fans, and their undaunted support.
George: I’m delighted that you think that we helped keep TWA alive. I just enjoyed reading old TWA copies from my Lab School days.
Aside from the encouragement I got in The Writer’s Almanac Support Group, the most rewarding thing was discovering Garrison’s Facebook page. Being accepted as a friend of Garrison’s on Facebook was a real high. I thoroughly enjoy reading his posts and feel that I know him even better now than I did when he was the host of A Prairie Home Companion or as the author of The Book of Guys, Homegrown Democrat, and The Keillor Reader. Whatever happens going forward, I hope that Garrison continues to post on Facebook and share his life with us.
Derek: The hardest part of producing the "new" shows, both audio & video, was that another show was due every day. I enjoyed the work, especially at the beginning, but began to lose enthusiasm towards the end. I'm glad it ended before I started to resent it.
I miss it a little now — it was a good five-month effort! 151 "new" shows!
I see it as part of my therapy to become less of a misanthrope. LOL.