“It’s like a Serial for relationships.” Behind the scenes of the “Love Letters” podcast.
The Boston Globe’s “Love Letters” column has been doling out advice to lovelorn letter-writers for nearly a decade. Behind this advice is columnist Meredith Goldstein, who has addressed everything from discovering your partner’s Viagra to dating someone who embodies the antithesis of your political beliefs. The column’s uproarious comments section can often boast over 1,000 comments per letter.
One of the first columns to go online, “Love Letters” is also one of the first to go audio. Season One of the “Love Letters” podcast went live this past March, with Season Two set to launch in January 2019. Storybench sat down with Goldstein to discuss the challenges of being a print writer in a digital era and what her plans are for the podcast.
How did this podcast come to be?
The podcast came the way the book did, which was that somebody was like, ‘Why isn’t there a podcast?’ When it was brought up to me, I was resistant partly because, I was like, ‘I don’t want to just sit there and talk about a letter for an hour. I don’t want to listen to that, I don’t want to record that.’ So what I said to them was, ‘I will do this if it is journalism narrative storytelling in some way.’ And I jokingly said, but I was secretly not joking, ‘I want to be the Serial of breakups,’ which, of course, is like a self-congratulatory weird thing to say.
But I did think about how, when we talk about when we meet someone new, we want this narrative beginning, middle, and end, right? I wanted to tell those stories because we don’t often get to hear all of them in the letters. I also wanted the whole season to answer one question, because I love narrowly focused things even when they’re ridiculous. The first season is basically how to find the cure to a breakup, and you can’t, but I was shocked to say that through eight episodes we actually got answers.
How is interviewing someone for print different from audio?
One thing is that you can be in a hurry and you want someone to give you an answer, and sometimes when you let them spiral for longer than they should need to, you get a better answer. Often it was in the last 20 minutes, when we were just bullshitting, that somebody would be like, ‘Oh, and another thing.
There’s the moment in the music episode where this woman, she sings this karaoke song and it changes her life. And then she sings part of it, and I didn’t expect to be moved in the moment. When you hear someone in that way, in that power of sound, print and writing can be just as meaningful, but it’s like suddenly you’re in 3D. In some ways it’s even more intimate, I think, than seeing it. You bring a lot of baggage to people, and what they look like, and what faces they’re making. But when you hear a voice crack, you’re so singularly focused on what that might mean, I didn’t expect it to be as powerful.
The Globe is very cautiously rolling out digital products. What do you feel like you’re trying to accomplish in doing this?
It’s hard to know sometimes when you have a new initiative, is it a new business initiative or is it a new editorial initiative? In an ideal world, those two things co-exist, and they often should meet goals on both sides. But if you asked me what the goal of the “Love Letters” podcast is, for instance, I would say, ‘To extend the brand, to tell a different story.’
Other people might say it’s to sell the book, right? It’s like different entry points for people to find the content. One thing I didn’t understand was that there were so many people who listen to the podcast who will never go to the Globe site, yet so many recent letters start with, “I found you through the podcast.” It’s not even like the podcast has so many numbers that it would say that. But you’re figuring if there’s 25,000 people listening to an episode, that’s 25,000 people that, some of them know the column, a lot of them don’t. So for me I was like, ‘Oh, it’s almost as if this is better marketing for the column than any advertising could buy us.’
Do you feel like the readers from the online column are happy with the podcast?
I don’t know, I should do a survey. I think yes. Not the print people, which is a shame because they would love it, but they’re old and they’re like, ‘No.’ But I think a lot of the digital people, and I’ve found during the book tour, younger women. And by that I mean, let’s say younger than 32. Many of them are like, “Podcasts!” They’re commuting, they don’t want to read. There are a lot of new moms in my life, or people with young children, or people who are on maternity leave, they are doing laundry, preparing a lunch, doing a thing. Maura, our former lawyer, she’s a huge podcast person. She was like, ‘I do it when I’m doing all of the other things.’
Do the topics for each episode come from the sources or you?
A little of both. It’s a good question right now because the next question we’re gonna answer—Scott (need last name and title) calls it the prequel—is ‘How do you meet someone?’ Before you get dumped, you have to meet someone. That is such a common question in “Love Letters,” this dating fatigue. It’s another question that gets a lot of trite advice, even from me like, ‘Go to a sports club,’ and they’re like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ So I have so many ideas for this. Scott keeps saying, ‘Easy there,’ because some of these ideas are gonna come from the stories themselves.
I know I want to do one about geography. New York people always say to me, ‘It’d be so much easier if I was dating in Boston.” In Boston, people are like, ‘It’d be so much easier if I were dating in New York.’ It’s hard to date everywhere and there is an illusion that there is a place where it would be easier for you, I would just want the Boston-New York parts to be an early intro part, and then to talk to someone in a place like Alaska. If you’re a straight woman, it’s actually one of the few places where you were greatly outnumbered by straight men. Is it easier? Why is it not easier? I have like ten ideas like that.
Where do those people come from?
The letters, I mean last time we had a real deadline. It was a lot of reaching out or quick-calling people we knew to say, ‘Do you know anyone?’ This time, we can be a lot broader about it. There were two Globe employees that were on the first one. I don’t know that we’ll do that this time. We’ll have more time to really go outside, and we want it to be national, even though it’s a Globe thing.”
When you’re working under a deadline and struggling to find people to speak, how do you work to find a diverse voice, whether it’s race, or gender, or orientation?
I think that we’re really conscious of it. What I didn’t want to do is be like, ‘This is the ‘black person’ episode,” or “This is the ‘trans’ episode.’ Even last night, a woman said, ‘I hope when you do this next season you do one that’s about queer dating.’ And that’s not how I want to do it. I would rather say, ‘Some of these experiences are specific to a community. Meeting someone and the struggle with it is a universal thing.’ It’s fucking tiring for everybody, so I’d rather that.
How has your vision for the podcast changed since you started it?
Well clearly, I did some fucking homework, right, even in the past few weeks, about how I knew nothing. So now I know how other people are monetizing this. It was like this thing Linda [Henry] wanted me to do and I did not want to fail her. Now I’m like, ‘Oh no. It actually made the column a larger brand, a more national brand.’ On a personal level, and separate from the Globe, it was a new skill, and that’s exciting at 41 to be like, ‘I learned a new thing.’ You don’t often get to do that, in a different kind of storytelling.
When do you like to be reading scripts versus talking off the cuff?
You can’t really script the interview, because you might know the first question. But you’re responding to them, and you’re talking about it. Then once the episode is scripted, it’s sort of those chunks of narrative that we’re taping or scripting, and then then it switches to that interview we did, and then you’re hearing me more causally, or maybe more naturally. That’s a goal with Season Two, to make sure that I can get to that place where it’s a little bit more natural in the scripted talk.
What was your favorite story you’ve found or episode you’ve worked on?
The idea of having a recurring character other than myself, and that character being my sister worked really well. If you could imagine the ID part of my brain just going to say shit with no repercussions, that’s her. So, I would say something and she would be crazy. The most frequent comment I got from people were like, ‘Your sister is amazing.’ I mean Brian McGrory, the editor of the Globe, was like, ‘Oh my God, can we just do one with just your sister?’ That is great that I was able to showcase part of my personal life in a way that maybe make people understand and read, from the column, where I get certain ideas from.
Assuming I know nothing about your podcast, why should I listen to it?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is like a Serial for relationships. We have so many relationship questions and we attempt to answer them—just one, one that affects everyone—in a narrative arc. It is an exploration of a love question through storytelling. I don’t think we spend enough effort and money in telling people’s relationships stories, because it seems frivolous and yet it’s not. That’s one of the problems with “Love Letters”… People say, ‘I’m not your demographic,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, you are. Think about all the time and energy you spend on your loved ones.’”
I also feel like it’s the same as the romance novels, right? They’re making the same money that the mystery novels are, and yet one is considered ridiculous, and one is considered not ridiculous. It is no less plausible than Jason Bourne fighting a car in another car, yet one thing is ‘cool action’ and one thing is ridiculously belittled. I do think it’s all rooted in the belittling of woman.
So why is that important?
I think [Love Letters] normalizes feelings that are normal. You know, like when you were going through a breakup, you think it’s just you. I think anytime you have like a shared community of, ‘Oh, this happens to others,’ it feels good. I think about that a lot with my friends who have kids. Somebody will have a miscarriage, and they’re wrecked, and then every woman in the room will be like, ‘Oh, I had two miscarriages.’ Well, how come we don’t know about that? I feel like sharing vulnerabilities… helps people that are dealing with their own. I do think it’s a public health service. Even if you identify as someone who is not a sexual person and someone who’s not dating, you still interact in the world.