New Member Corner: “Lonely kid in a violent neighborhood”

BarryLam-Picture2016-2-360x480Name: Barry Lam

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

Joined AIR: September 2016

Get in touch:

Tell us about your professional experience and background.
I am an academic philosopher by training, and am a tenured professor at Vassar College, where I’ve been since 2006. I am also currently an associate director of the Marc Sanders Foundation, a nonprofit grant-maker for philosophy. I did college radio (KUCI) for four years 1997-2001, including on-air and management, both as program director and general manager. In 2015, I ventured out into the world with a recorder and two microphones looking for stories of ordinary and extraordinary lives that open, or answer, fundamental philosophical questions, in the hopes that the general public would want to hear about philosophy when it is told through sound and stories. I’m now putting together the first season of a podcast about this venture on a fellowship at Duke University.

What’s playing on your radio/streaming service right now?
WUNC, which is a fabulous public radio station I’ve found after my move to Durham, North Carolina. I still listen to L.A. radio online, KROQ, KCRW, KPCC, Pacifica. Podcastwise, I listen to a lot of Radiotopia.

What’s a podcast you’ve just learned about?
Heavyweight by Jonathan Goldstein.

What do you think about it?
It’s great. I love seeing great institutions create wonderful artists and craftspeople who venture out on their own and create their own wonderful things in their own ways. The idea of a lineage in the development of a genre is fascinating to me, and for me it adds to the aesthetic experience.

What’s the best piece you’ve ever heard?
I’m not going to be too creative with this one. Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chana-Joffe Walt on school segregation today. It’s a topic dear to my heart.

What drew you to radio?
Growing up a lonely kid in a violent neighborhood, I stayed in my room all day and a clock radio kept me company for hours every day, anything from Dodger games to religious call-in shows to Loveline.

What are you looking to learn about your craft?
I would really like to learn about writing for character development that is subtle but effective. Its not something that comes naturally to me and the techniques of fiction and nonfiction don’t really translate to radio.

What piece of audio do you love to share with others?
I have a piece in one of my stories where a Special Forces officer talks about his last night of war on his last deployment, sitting alone looking at the night sky in the desert outside of Baghdad.

What’s inspiring you right now?
Everybody who built this medium into what it is today inspires me. Only on their backs can some outsider just appear out of nowhere and decide to do it, and then try to convince the upper echelons of academia that there is something special about this medium even for us. One day in the very near future, we’re going to be teaching the theory, criticism, and practice of radiomaking at all of our best colleges and universities. I might even be someone who helps make that happen!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about audio?
Shea Shackelford told me to trust my instincts. I’m still surprised at how much reassurance can sometimes help more than anything else. (Shout-out to Center for Documentary Studies and “Making it Sing”!)

How does public media reflect your American experience?
In the years since high school, I’ve climbed very steadily into the middle class, and then into the halls of academia. Public media seems very much for people like me. We care and argue about social and political problems, find joy in art and artistically done journalism, read books, listen to eclectic music, and find time to learn the craft of cooking. This is all well reflected in public media.

How could it reflect your experience better?
The voices, topics, and approaches to topics are still very much skewed toward a certain demographic, and that demographic’s concerns and visions. Having spent my youth very much outside of that class and demographic, I wish that there was more attention to other sensibilities. Few kids in the hood will tune into their public radio station, and I’m not sure just doing stories about such kids is going to draw them in. I wish there was more regular programming that I would have wanted to listen to when I was 13-21. It’s no accident that my public media consumption only started when I went to graduate school.

Who have you always wanted to interview?
Ralph Nader. Over the past 16 years, it seems to me like he is being erased from American history. None of my students know who he is. I think its fascinating how someone whose actions for 40 years have changed entire institutions within business and government, and have led to expectations about product and environmental safety that we just take for granted today, can be erased because a little under 100,000 people in Florida voted for him in 2000. If you Google him, he’s been held responsible for everything from the Great Recession to every death in the Iraq war. As a philosopher, I find it really interesting how someone’s accomplishments in the actual world can be completely overridden by what people think would have happened in a possible world.