Issue 224,  published September 3, 2019

What happens in the absence of recognition?

“I’ve achieved a peculiar sort of success,” said Nate DiMeo, creator of The Memory Palace, when we spoke over the phone last week on the occasion of the podcast being featured as the subject of a Radiolab episode that dropped last week.

By “peculiar,” DiMeo was referring to what he perceives as the podcast’s cult status, understanding it to be the kind of cultural artifact that may be respected and perhaps beloved by other producers and die-hard podcast fans, but probably won’t end up on the front cover of Variety or the leading anecdote of some mainstream write-up on “the podcasting boom” or whatever.

To contextualize said cult status, DiMeo evoked the Velvet Underground — famously, the band that other bands listened to and, uh, borrowed from — which is a positioning that lies somewhere between modesty and the opposite of modesty, but is nonetheless more accurate than not, I suppose.

“The analogy is far from perfect but, artistically, historically, there’s a little bit of a Velvet Underground thing that I hear about now and then about the show,” said DiMeo. “As someone who’s always been steeped in underground music and art and stuff, that’s recognition I can feel good about. That said, I can’t say I wouldn’t like to see where I’d fit in if there were the Premiere Magazine or the Lincoln Center Podcasting Forum or whatever. It’s hard to know where you fit in when you don’t quite fit in. And, I don’t know, it’s hard to know how good or not to feel about that.”

Peculiar success is still success, though, and from the outside, one could surmise that The Memory Palace has it made. The podcast is affiliated with the celebrated Radiotopia collective, which is equally beloved as a creative enterprise and a symbol of independent ownership. And though DiMeo notes that the podcast doesn’t do the same kind of numbers as certain other Radiotopia shows, given the show’s many idiosyncrasies (it’s bite-sized, paced like a poem, and pretty hard to pitch), he tells me that it’s directly opened up a ton of other opportunities, including a residency at The Met, a television writing gig, live performances abroad, book publishing in Brazil, and a feature film-in-progress based on a Memory Palace episode.

And yet, speaking to DiMeo last week, I’m struck by the extent to which he still doesn’t feel like The Memory Palace has had its day.

“I think there’s a distinct type of success that I only can really get my head around with shows I know well done by people I know with varying degrees of well, like 99, Criminal, or Reply All or whatever. Where audience, in a sense, begets audience. Where the bigness of the show itself, helps sustain and expand bigness,” he said. “But: the Memory Palace can’t be one of those shows, I don’t think. It’s kind of a moot point. Too idiosyncratic, too narrow, too me.”

Which raises the question: what does proper recognition look like for a community as nascent and idiosyncratic as podcasting? And to what extent are they important?

For DiMeo, at least some of the answer seems to be tied with the notion of The Canon. “Part of my fascination with history is rooted in something approaching a life-long fascination in the processes of canonization: what makes the great movies the great movies? Who gets a say in the history of Rock and Roll?” he said. “But we’ve got this new artform and new industry that doesn’t have the same sorts of infrastructure for canonization.”

Part of that infrastructure underdevelopment, DiMeo argues, has to do with the medium’s relative youth. After all, the currency of many of the rituals we broadly consider to be culturally important — like the Oscars or Thanksgiving — is partly driven by its longevity, despite the many ways in which the actual things themselves are nonsensical.

But DiMeo also believes it has to do with an aspect distinct to the present moment: the post-monoculture environment. These are times of #content overabundance, so much so that it’s much less likely that we will collectively coalesce around major set pieces of culture — e.g. Game of Thrones, or maybe the endless provocations of the current American president — and much more likely that we build our cultural lives off on a composite of niches. “Podcasting grew up in the post-monoculture world and it grew too big too fast to have it make any sense to even, I don’t know, try to create the… NYRB or Pitchfork of podcasts,” he said.

The end result, DiMeo argues, is an ecosystem without true internal sources of validation, which in turn leads to what I suppose you could call it a crisis of achievement. “Absent someone telling me where I stand, recognition is a particularly hard thing to wrap your head around,” he said.

For what it’s worth, I have my scruples with ideas of The Canon and how critical infrastructures were historically been constructed. Which isn’t to say that I’m glad for a world in which the role ofThe Critic, insofar as they are the custodians of any Canon, is significantly diminished. It’s just that I’m partial to the argument that traditional notions of The Canon and Criticism tend to be grounded in a power dynamic that isn’t particularly informed by a sense of accessibility or equity. This argument has been developed plenty elsewhere, but there remains some stickiness around that reality that Canons tend to be historical products of elite frameworks that have often excluded popular and underrepresented tastes. So there’s a way in which I find myself skeptical about DiMeo’s preoccupation here, and there’s an extent to which I find a good bit of comfort in a post-monoculture, post-Canon world.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but resonate with pieces of DiMeo’s longing: there should be post-Canon mechanism of proper recognition and validation that feels genuine and substantial for the podcast maker. (On the flipside, this is partly the reason why much of my personal cultural intake has swung so vigorously towards sports: there is a primal, probably very male, part of me that is still drawn towards conversation about “greatness,” and boy do I love the definitiveness of zero-sum outcomes. RINGS, BABY.)

There is also, I suspect, material consequence to podcasting’s under-canonized condition. In a system that offers little recognition to creators in terms of where they stand, there exists a greater incentive to look outwards for third-party validation: Hollywood adaptation deals, cover stories on Variety, coveted mentions in The New York Times or the New Yorker — and, perhaps most importantly, through the hard financial language of investment rounds and acquisitions. Consider: at this point in time, are there more straightforward ways to validate one’s podcast machinations than, say, selling your podcast company to a media conglomerate?

I don’t know. And if the answer is no, it’s a situation that doesn’t sit well with DiMeo. “I grew up in the no-sell-out, corporate rock sucks, Dischord/K/Simple Machines/Kranky/Drag City/Load Records DIY 90s,” he said. “And you know what? Corporations do suck. Non-creator owners telling creators how their show should be made sucks. People chasing hits by making shows that sound like hit shows kinda sucks. We’re this close to hearing about layoffs on thriving shows because their ownership group needs to squeeze more profit out of underperforming units to hit Q3 expectations. Before Vaulter goes under. Own your thing.”

You can listen to the Radiolab episode on The Memory Palace here.