Interview: Karina Longworth on the “You Must Remember This” Podcast, Now on Panoply

Posted on September 17, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Karina Longworth is the creator/narrator of the brilliant “You Must Remember This” podcast, which covers Hollywood history. Last season was entirely devoted to a mesmerizing narrative about the Charles Manson murders. The show has now moved to Slate’s Panoply podcast network and the new season responds to listener requests. Longworth answered my questions about the show.

What led you to tell these stories via podcast rather than a book or series of articles? How does that format change the way you present the stories?

The simple and practical answer is that I started the podcast because I found myself increasingly wanting to consume information that way myself. I still read a lot of books and longform reporting, but I find that there’s too much of that stuff, and potentially interesting things either fall through the cracks altogether, or else I don’t get around to them as quickly as I would like. But I’m always “running out” of podcasts to listen to, so I figured if I made one that was unique I figured there might be people like me who would be willing to take a chance on it.

The more complicated answer is that on some level, I’ve kind of been waiting for this format to come around and become viable for nearly 20 years. When I was in art school as an undergraduate I studied experimental non-fiction film and video, and the work I was making was basically 19 year-old me’s version of this podcast, except that I was editing together montages of mostly found imagery in order to give it a visual element. Now I don’t have to have the visual element.

Hollywood pioneered the idea of press agents and personal brands, and even scandal magazines often suppressed negative stories in exchange for access. How does that affect your ability to research what was really happening?

A big part of the show is about that process, and that uncertainty. In most cases, I don’t think we can know without a shadow of a doubt what really, truly happened. It’s the conflicting stories, and the gaps between the facts we know and the ways in which the stories were or continue to be spun, that I think are really interesting. My hope is that through the process of sifting through all of this, larger truths will emerge.

What was it about the Manson stories that inspired you to delve into such an extended retelling? What do you think made him such a compelling leader? Do you consider him a reflection of his era?

I wanted to talk about a time and a place in which no one suspected Charles Manson was going to orchestra multiple murders — and even after the murders, no one thought he was involved for awhile — because he and everything he was doing simply wasn’t considered to be weird. It was also really clear to me after a little bit of reading that his story was kind of the worst case scenario version of a really familiar Hollywood tale, of the pilgrim who comes to Southern California thinking they’re going to “make it,” only to have their hopes dashed, and then have them respond, shall we say, ungracefully.

What kinds of resources do you use for your research?

Because I’m pressed for time, these days I primarily use biographical books and other mass-published Hollywood histories, but for various different episodes I’ve done more in-depth archival research at places like the Margaret Herrick Library, the Warner Brothers archive at USC, and the BFI Library in London, where I’m currently living.

Can you give us a hint of what some of the listener requests are that you’ll be reporting on this season?

There were so many compelling requests, but as I was weeding through them all, it became clear that multiple people were interested in the stories of the studio moguls, and how the studio system was run during the classical Hollywood era. Also, there were requests for the stories of many individual stars who were associated with MGM. So in the end, I chose 15 stories that would allow me to explore a number of different facets of how the studio worked, why it was so dominant for so many years, and how the system it mastered of creating and promoting stars ultimately fell apart.

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