Ira Glass, host and creator of This American Life, describes Jonathan Groubert as “one of the best radio interviewers I have ever heard.” The State We’re In, Groubert’s much-revered radio program, is characterized by his unique style. Formerly on Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the show is back on the air at WBEZ in Chicago as a podcast; in each episode, Groubert explores the human condition through the eyes of a colorful guest.
A native New Yorker, Groubert moved to the Netherlands two decades ago, where he launched his internationally syndicated show. A lover of Indian food, heavy metal, show tunes, and the cosmos, this polylingual storyteller was forced to stop broadcasting The State We’re In at Radio Netherlands because of budget cuts. He answered a few questions about his popular show’s current incarnation at WBEZ, its origins, and what the future holds.
How does a Brooklynite wind up in the Netherlands?
Back in 1990, I was in Manhattan to take the teaching exam when I saw a tall, teutonic shiksa goddess sitting on a stoop. To make a long story short, she was Dutch, we got together and I eventually ended up in Utrecht. We broke up fairly quickly once we got to Holland, but I was already freelancing at Radio Netherlands, so I stuck around.
Do you see EuroQuest as the progenitor for what you’re doing thematically on “The State We’re In”?
EuroQuest was only the progenitor in the sense that it was a European made show that had some penetration in the American public radio market. TSWI was created on the back of EQ’s limited success. Thematically, TSWI couldn’t be more different. EQ was a show filled with relatively short packages about places all over Europe. TSWI is a long-form interview show that tells transformational personal stories from people all over the world.
Define “talkumentary” for me.
It means a long-form interview, like you would hear on Fresh Air, combined with the production techniques of, say, This American Life i.e. highly edited, use of supporting music, searching for a transformational moment and a narrative voiceover to move the story along.
Tell me about the role shows like, This American Life, Radiolab, and On the Media played in your take on storytelling?
Well, TAL was instrumental in terms of learning how the arc of a story works. Notice that in the best TAL stories there is introduction of the main characters, exposition that creates a listener expectation, then a twist that defies that expectation, a denouement, and an epilogue. RadioLab works in the same way with a level of production that is off the chart! On the Media is inspiring for incredibly thorough and articulate journalism, not to mention a light touch. It’s an example to us all.
When the show was cancelled last year, did you think it was over, or did it feel like more of a stumbling block?
I always thought it could go on if it found the right home. I just didn’t know where to start. Then I applied for a job at WBEZ and got a phone call from Torey Malatia who had other ideas about my future. God bless Torey. When he left WBEZ, the new head, Alison Scholly picked up where he left off. There’s a guy over at WBEZ name of Joe DeCault who coordinates the podcasts. He’s immensely helpful.
How does it feel be back on the air?
It feels awesome! The response has been well beyond what I anticipated at such an early stage. We’re already on the front of iTunes’s “New and Noteworthy” section. We’re the number 3 show in Personal Journals. That happened after just 1 episode. So yeah, it’s fantastic.
If you had to pick, what would your favorite episode of “The State We’re In” be?
Well, I think we all agree it’s “Two Enemies, One Heart”, the story about an Iraqi and Iranian soldier who find each other again after decades. One of a kind show.
Quick: Mastodon or Julie Andrews?
Rush and Nathan Lane.
Follow The State We’re In @tswipodcast
The show’s archive is available at Radio Nehtherlands Worlwide