Of course the ever-popular New York Times’ Modern Love was a natural fit for a podcast in this podcast-obsessed world —but the minds behind the weekly storytelling column knew they had to do it justice. The “Modern Love” podcast debuted in December, after two years of negotiations, coordination and planning in the hands senior podcast producer Lisa Tobin (Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar”) and the rest of the team at Boston’s NPR news station, WBUR and their podcast incubator, iLab. The result was a carefully paired celebrity-reading of a story from the Times’ years-deep archives, followed by a discussion with host Meghna Chakrabarti (“Here & Now”), “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones and the essayist.
We chat with producer Jessica Alpert, who joined the podcast in September, about the first season, satiating those lifelong fans and who the hell is going to read the famous 36 questions essay.
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Jones says Modern Love — the column — gets about 7,000 submissions every year, and only 52 get printed. Over the course of the column’s 11-year-lifespan, you have quite the archive of stories to pick from. The task of choosing which of those hundreds of columns to translate to spoken word then lies with Alpert, who says both thematic and dialogue factors go into formatting for broadcast.
“When you product something for radio, it has to be well written and interesting and appealing, but it needs to have element that we can make come alive through sound,” she says. “Some of the [columns] we’ve looked at but then put aside are beautifully written, but they don’t have enough action."
The podcast, which posts every Thursday, also doesn’t follow the editorial schedule of its Times counterpart, and it benefits from the leisure of cherrypicking its topics from the archives to satisfy an wide-reaching audience.
“We don’t want just divorce stories, or online dating stories, or ones just written by women,” Alert notes. “We want to produce a diverse range of stories.”
If the voice fits
Alpert then scours her (internal and external) voice bank to find the perfect match — each column is read and dramatized by a celebrity. So far, “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander, Broadway actress Lauren Molina and "American Horror Story"'s Sarah Paulson have read for the ‘cast —Judd Apatow, January Jones and Emmy Rossum are set to narrate later this season — but the celebs need more than just a pretty voice to snag this role.
"When I’m thinking of someone who can read a column, not only am I thinking about their physical voice and what they’ve done professionally, but I want to know if they’ll connect with the story on a deeper level,” explains Alpert. “When I’m making the ask to publicists or managers I’m doing a lot of research beforehand to make sure it’s good fit.”
Good example: Boston-bred “Nashville” star Connie Britton will read one of the column’s most popular stories, “My First Lesson in Motherhood.” A big ugly cry-inducing story written by a new mother who adopts a child from China who experiences unexpected health complications. Alpert suggested the pairing, knowing Britton adopted baby boy from Ethiopia years earlier. She submitted three essays to Britton’s team, and knew the actress would “connect with [the international adoption story] on so many levels.” “It’s going to be very powerful,” she adds.
But what about my favorite column?
If you’re a longtime reader of Modern Love, it’s likely you have a favorite essay — or two, or three, or 50. But even if you’re not, and you’re a computer-using American with an Internet connection, it’s likely at least one has been passed your way. In particular: The epically viral “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” a January 2015 essay written by a woman that experiments with psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron’s study based on 36 questions (and a prolonged period of silence and eye-gazing) and the inevitable adoration that supposedly follows.
But who will read it? “We want to make sure it’s the absolutely right person,” says Alpert. “It’s a huge task for us to figure out who can read for it, because so many people love that essay.”
So the answer is up in the air. But what about most popular (based on reader stats) Modern Love column of all time: “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage”?
“We want to get the right comedic voice,” she says.
But what about in your wildest dreams? “I have a story that I would love Robert De Niro to read; it’s like made for him,” Alpert muses. “And we’d love Meryl Streep. That would be unbelievable. But we’re working on it.”