The first book by the co-founders and hosts of “Citizen Radio” is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes deadly serious clarion call in support of independent media and independent thinking. You can support independent media at the same time as ordering #NEWSFAIL, by clicking here and making the minimum donation to Truthout.
When they started podcasting in 2008, Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein “were living out of our car,” says Kilstein. “Allison hadn’t been published yet as a writer, and I wasn’t getting stand-up gigs because of my politics – and I probably wasn’t funny as well, but the political thing makes me sound like Lenny Bruce.”
The earliest episodes of their podcast “Citizen Radio” were recorded via cell phones and a dial-in online soundboard, without anything resembling studio equipment. Fast-forward to the present day, and in addition to having acquired just a smidgen of professionalism, the show has won the admiration of everyone from Janeane Garofalo to Noam Chomsky, from Talib Kweli to the late Robin Williams, as well as an army of dedicated listeners – known as Maniacs – many of whom are responsible for keeping the show afloat financially. (Like Truthout, but unlike the majority of even progressive media outlets, “Citizen Radio” doesn’t take any advertising.)
The show’s independence is matched by its hosts’ tendency to be round pegs in square holes. Kilkenny has walked away from stints at In These Times and The Nation. “I’m so good at quitting places,” she deadpans. Meanwhile, Kilstein’s tendency to talk frankly about topics ranging from drone strikes to sexism within the subcultures of which he is part has earned him “not to be invited back” status everywhere from Conan O’Brien’s show to comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Now they’re published authors, with a book from an actual publisher, subtitled Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will. It’s almost like being respectable. Almost.
In conversation, Kilkenny and Kilstein finish each other’s sentences and riff off each other in a way that’s hard to capture in print but will be familiar to “Citizen Radio” listeners: pin-balling between sarcastic and sincere, surreal and emotionally raw, madcap and vehement. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length – it has also been scrubbed several times for profanity, but some stubborn f-bombs refused to budge.
Joe Macaré: The two of you already do several different things: You have the podcast, Jamie does stand-up comedy and improv, Allison does journalism – why did you decide to write a book?
Jamie Kilstein: I wanted to write a book to get back at everyone in my hometown who said I wasn’t smart . . .
Allison Kilkenny: We should open up by saying we did this because of spite.
Kilstein: Spite and revenge, is why we wrote the book.
. . . And why this book in particular?
Kilstein: In comedy, you’re always encouraged to dumb things down. Every manager and agent I’ve ever had has said “We love that you’re political – can you just not talk about politics?” After my set on the Conan O’Brien show about drone strikes, my agent and manager were backstage and actually said to me “I didn’t think it would be so political!” even though that’s all I talk about. I’m like “Do you even know me?” and they’re like “I don’t know – give me 10 percent!” – and then they left.
We talk in the book about a meeting we had with MTV bigwigs who said “Now, we agree with you, we hate war and all this stuff, but what about all these idiots in the Midwest?” Allison and I have always thought, “You know what? We have a lot of fans in the Midwest, and in the Deep South, and all over the place, and they’re not idiots. The reason you think they’re idiots is you talk to them like idiots.”
What we wanted to do was write a book in the same style that we do the show, which is talk about the heavy issues but be funny about it, make it really accessible, and gear it toward outcasts instead of rich elites.
Kilkenny: We wanted it to be a critique of the establishment media, but we also wanted it to be a tribute to and a call for more independent media. The book follows the arc of Jamie and I meeting, but also the wake of the US invading Iraq, and the rise of independent media – specifically, in our case, podcasting – and why that’s so important.
Kilstein: We wanted to have it be like a handbook for little lefties who always have to argue with their conservative families: “Here’s a chapter on how the media has failed women. Here’s a chapter on how the media has failed LGBT people, especially trans people. Here’s what you thought you knew about wars – if you’re mad about Iraq, here’s why you should also be mad about what’s happening in Palestine.”
“There’s so many things pulling liberals to the right – this is our small effort to pull them a little bit back toward the left.”
Kilkenny: It’s also for the people who maybe already think they’re good liberals, who watch “The Daily Show,” but it’s a challenge for them. There’s so many things pulling liberals to the right – this is our small effort to pull them a little bit back toward the left.
Since you mention it, an early chapter in #NEWSFAIL is partly about “The Daily Show.” You come at it very honestly from the position of former fans and viewers, but you talk about the limitations of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and The Rally to Restore Sanity. Can you talk about why?
Kilstein: Well, first of all I’d like to say a very heartfelt farewell to all the readers who have stopped reading the interview after this question: Thank you for making it this far, it was an honor, I hope you still buy the book – there’s other stuff in it!
Kilkenny: I know this will be instantly forgotten by anybody who is looking to hate us, but we tried to explain in the chapter that this critique is coming from a place of love, because there was a time when “The Daily Show” legitimately played an important role.
Kilstein: It was doing more investigative work than “Meet The Press”! I think the larger critique is the fact that the news had lied and pandered so much, that people legitimately had to turn to a satirical comedy news show in order to find out what the fuck was happening. So really, we should be the most mad at mainstream media.
But when you hear “The Daily Show” talked about, it’s like “This is as far left as you can go.” When right-wingers talk about young kids, it’s like “The Daily Show” is our Noam Chomsky, right? The problem is when a lot of kids watch “The Daily Show” thinking that’s as left as they can go, what happens when Jon Stewart compares Occupy Wall Street with the Tea Party, who are walking around with racist signs and guns? What happens when The Rally to Restore Sanity literally makes fun of people who are protesting, while bringing fucking Kid Rock to sing an anthem about apathy?
Kilkenny: That’s really why we felt we had to make the critique, because “The Daily Show” limits the parameters of legitimate debate.
Kilstein: The Rally to Restore Sanity was in response to Glenn Beck’s terrible “I’m gonna do that thing Martin Luther King did except on a different step and make it racist” rally. I was really excited! We’re finally figuring out a way to get thousands and thousands and thousands of young, excited left-wing kids who have never been to a rally before –
Kilkenny: – And then you’re actually conditioning them to believe that passion is lame.
Kilstein: You have them show up, you have this opportunity and you tell them to do nothing? At least Glenn Beck had the courage to take a shitty stand . . .
Kilkenny: In my mind that’s when it moved from fairly banal to evil territory.
Kilstein: I mean Jesus, Jon Stewart will yuck it up with war criminals – and Stephen Colbert, who I think is one of the funniest people on the planet, the one time I’ve seen him break character, was to tell Julian Assange that he’s putting troops in danger, which isn’t true!
Kilkenny: That’s when “we’re not a political show” becomes absurd, because that’s an actively political stance.
Kilstein: One of the big things Allison and I try to get across on “Citizen Radio” is that you should just have fucking beliefs, not teams. If George Bush is going to start an illegal war, I’m mad. If Barack Obama is going to start an illegal war, I’m mad. If Sean Hannity interviews Mike Huckabee, I’m mad. If Jon Stewart interviews Mike Huckabee, I’m mad. If Julian Assange does good work with WikiLeaks, I like WikiLeaks. If Julian Assange is a rapist, I’m going to criticize Julian Assange for being a rapist – that doesn’t mean I don’t like WikiLeaks. You don’t have to take these dumb, arbitrary Twitter-war sides – things can be more complicated. We found that when we started our show, which we thought no one would listen to, the reason people were attracted to it is because we were always holding people accountable, even if those people were on “our side” like Jon Stewart or Barack Obama.
I want to pick up on what you said about the difference between something like “The Daily Show” and “Citizen Radio,” which is you don’t have advertising. The extent to which advertising plays a distorting role in media keeps coming up in the book. Why is that important?
Kilkenny: We’ve spoken to the hosts of major news shows; we’ve asked them about advertising on networks like MSNBC, and the answer they always give is it’s not like the CEO of Lockheed Martin is sitting in on their staff meetings and saying “Everything must be pro-war!”
Kilstein: – Smoking a cigar –
“If you have corporate advertisers, it does limit the parameters of debate.”
Kilkenny: But advertising is part of corporate media culture. It’s just one piece of the pro-business, pro-corporate agenda. I don’t think hosts have that voice in their head saying “How does Lockheed Martin look at this story? Should I be saying there should be more cruise missiles sent to Syria?” But if you have corporate advertisers, it does limit the parameters of debate.
Kilstein: It’s always gonna play some role, especially the higher up you get, right? Do I think Chris Hayes is thinking about it if he’s covering a story about BP? No. Do I think the boss of his boss is? Yeah. Not only that, but as a viewer, Jesus Christ, how can you watch “Meet the Press” and hear them talk about war and have defenders of Big Oil come on, and then you watch the commercials and it’s for a health insurance company, a weapons manufacturing company and Bank of America. If advertising actually works, then even if you are adversarial during your show, doesn’t it cancel it out when the next commercial is “BP, cleaning up the coast, one dirty seagull at a time”? Someone once wanted AT&T to sponsor us, right at the exact same time that the domestic wiretapping scandal was happening, which AT&T was involved in. If we did a commercial it would be “AT&T” –
Kilkenny: “If you’re gonna be spied on, be spied on by the best!”
Kilstein: We would never suddenly defend these corporations if they sponsored us, but to know that we can say whatever we want is definitely freeing, whether it’s just the fact that if we want to be weird and funny we can be weird and funny, or aggressively critical towards left-wing media or rape culture in stand-up. It makes our show better, and we don’t have to interrupt the show to promote some company that we don’t give a shit about. We would make so much goddamn money if we did these Amazon sponsorships. Sometimes, when we were low on money, it was really, really hard. But it’s cool to be like: “Everyone listening to this show, you are our sponsors. We have you instead of our commercials; we’re in this together; this is actually independent media.”
Kilkenny: Even if you can’t pay to support the show – which is a lot of our listeners, they just can’t afford $5 a month – there are different ways to support independent media and we try to encourage that as well. We want them to build community. We want them to tell other people about the show.
Kilstein: The show’s always been free; it’s always going to stay free as long as we’re still fucking standing. The other funny thing is, when Glenn Beck called us out, he sent his listeners after us, and a bunch of them were like “We’re gonna come after your advertisers!” and I’m like, “Good luck assholes! No one wants to advertise with us.”
Kilkenny: They thought our tattoo artist was a sponsor so he got three angry emails. He thought it was hilarious.
There’s a sense sometimes that even in progressive media, there are some issues that are talked about a lot, and some issues that are talked about only a little, or not at all. In #NEWSFAIL, you definitely seem to be aware of that and of when you’re taking readers to a place where maybe they’re less comfortable – which brings me to the chapter on veganism . . .
Kilstein: I would like to once again say farewell, this time to the readers who made it past “The Daily Show” question . . .
Kilkenny: What I was really self-conscious about – and I hope we got across in the book – is that there are a lot of obnoxious factors of vegan culture that can be very alienating for people, and that don’t address real problems like food deserts. “Just go vegan! It’s totally easy for everybody!” It’s not, and I really wanted to address that.
Kilstein: When people think of vegans, they think of PETA; they think of fat-shaming campaigns, sexist campaigns, alienating the poor, alienating people who live in places where they can’t even buy produce.
Kilkenny: Or PETA’s ridiculous water campaign in Detroit. (In which the organization offered to pay the water bills of 10 families if they went vegan for a month.)
“All of those obnoxious vegans aside, it lines up with the majority of left-wing values.”
Kilstein: Just awful stuff. With that said, the reason we really wanted to write about it is, all of those obnoxious vegans aside, it lines up with the majority of left-wing values. We wanted to be gentle and self-deprecating, so we talk about how hard it was for me to go vegan, because I would sneak out and eat pizza like I was hiding a coke habit from Allison. When I became vegan I was very poor, I was living out of my car; I wasn’t very healthy; I was eating bean burritos and tofu at Chinese restaurants. But the people who’ve gotten the most mad at me on Twitter – for not even being preachy, for just retweeting some campaign about “Don’t eat meat on Monday, it helps climate change” – have not been right-wing hunters. The people who’ve been most mad at me are liberals, and a lot of it seems like projection.
Kilkenny: Or an imaginary fight they’re having with a hypothetical vegan. “Oh, you care more about animals than people.” I never said that, you’re just desperately looking for an out from this conversation.
Kilstein: “But what if you were on a desert island – ” I’m not. I’m not. I’m never gonna be on a desert island. The bottom line is, when you look at why I’m vegan, it’s climate change, it is the terrible labor practices of factory farms. It was the UN, not PETA or a Mercy For Animals zine, that talked about how factory farming is a bigger contributor to climate change than every mode of transportation put together. At the very least if you are a liberal and not vegan, you should be saying to your friends “Yeah, I know I should be” – and then go and eat your bacon burger or whatever. But we don’t want to talk about it because it’s a sacrifice.
Kilkenny: This is a tangible thing you can do in your everyday life. We do talk about food deserts and poverty and why maybe veganism isn’t accessible to everyone, and we’re not trying to shame them – but often times the people we’re dealing with are very privileged people who could be vegan –
Kilstein: Who are like “I’m going to be naughty and post pictures of bacon!” At the very least the conversation should be had. Factory farms are a really big problem. You bring it up and people say “Yeah well, vegetables, there are bad labor practices too!”
Kilkenny: But let’s say that you’re actually concerned about labor practices. I agree with you! I believe that the people who pick my vegetables should make living wages as well. But I don’t believe what you’re actually upset about right now is labor practices. That’s not really what this conversation is about.
Kilstein: No, you’re saying that because you want to go “Aha! Eat a burger! You’re wrong! I don’t want to feel bad!” You’re projecting. When instead you should go “Oh, man – I should try to do that more.”
Kilkenny: It’s your pull-in-case-of-emergency excuse.
The psychological part of that, the defensiveness, is something that you cover in the book – and I’ve heard you talk about this on the show – with the anecdote about Jamie being a vegetarian, finding out Allison was vegan, then having an immediate defensive reaction.
Kilstein: Yeah! When I first met Allison I was like “I’m a vegetarian” and she goes “I’m vegan” and I go “Ugh, gross, fuck you” and then I was like “I’m agnostic” and she was like “I’m an atheist” and I’m like “You’re gonna go to hell!”
I was a very bad person back then. My first reaction when she said “I’m a vegan,” it wasn’t even to ask her why. The first thing in my head was “I don’t like salads; I’m going to project and yell at you so I don’t have to feel guilty” – and I actually said to her, “Don’t tell me why you’re a vegan.” It’s like, holy shit man, could I be more apparent or see-through with my agenda? I was just scared. And that really does happen a lot.
Kilkenny: I almost feel like it happens more with liberals because we assume we’re already the good guys. I see it happen a lot with liberals with trans issues – they get very defensive when they get called out for using the wrong pronoun. They’re like “but I’m already as inclusive as I can possibly be!”
Having listened to the show for a while, one thing that you’ve done is be willing to talk about your own views developing and changing, which happens in the book as well – which is a weirdly uncommon thing.
“Comics and journalists hate to show vulnerability of any kind, because it challenges their authority, and authority is everything in both those careers.”
Kilkenny: Comics and journalists hate to show vulnerability of any kind, because it challenges their authority, and authority is everything in both those careers. If you’re no longer the pre-eminent expert on something, you’re useless. So to say on a radio show “We didn’t know a lot about transgender issues; we’re going to have on a transgender activist to do sort of Trans Issues 101, so we can educate ourselves” – and to make corrections and apologies on the show, because we are learning stuff and we are growing – it’s odd, because you’re right, it’s so rare that people step back and say “I was really wrong about that, and it’s okay, and I’m sorry.”
Kilstein: I don’t get proud much, but I’m really proud of our show and the book for that. We never did it on purpose, but it’s just fucking refreshing to not be talked down to and to be like “Hey, we’re all in this together; we’re all learning together!” When was the last time you turned on a news show and saw Panelist 1 ask Panelist 2 “Hey, I never thought about that way, can you tell me more?” These pundits act like they came out of the womb saying, “We have to divide Iraq into three separate sections!”
Kilkenny: And maybe that’s because in establishment media you only have a very limited window to make your point, but that’s a limitation in the establishment media in general. On our show we can talk at length about issues. I think people enjoy hearing that it’s okay to be human, to make mistakes, to grow. Especially because we have a lot of young listeners, who hear at a young age: “It’s okay if you mess up, just don’t be an asshole – apologize and try to learn from it.”
Kilstein: We were all dumb; we were all teenagers. I trust someone who admits their mistakes. So many times when you’re called out on messing up, people’s first reaction is to double down.
Kilkenny: Especially on Twitter, because it’s a public fight and people get hostile really quickly.
Except Richard Dawkins. He handles Twitter really well.
Kilstein: That dude is such a good evolutionary biologist . . . then he was at home and was like “Well I could study biology, or I could go on Twitter and talk about how I don’t understand how ladies work!”
Kilkenny: I just don’t know why the top atheist people keep talking. Sam Harris just said some more terrible stuff too.
Kilstein: And their fans won’t stop defending them! But to be fair, if you don’t defend Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, you go to Atheist Hell.