My favorite episodes of Radiolab are produced by Annie McEwen.
What to say about Annie? If I were to join a cult I would want her as my leader. I wish she would quit Radiolab because it’s a little too square for her. Sometimes I feel a little fake just standing next to her. She seems to be living in a dream, more than the rest of us. She thinks farts are hilarious, and it doesn’t embarrass her to talk about them. One time I sang Ukranian carols with her in a Subaru Outback, and I think I was truly happy. For all of these reasons, she is an artist, working in the medium we so crudely call podcasts.
Here are some of my favorite stories that Annie has made:
Here I Am And Here Be Danger
One of Annie’s first radio stories, about heartbreak and foghorns.
I don’t want to say anything about this other than that I believe it’s a masterpiece.
When the Sun Don’t Shine
Check out the opening montage of people seeing the total eclipse, compiled by Annie.
Asking for Another Friend
Very important opening interview between Annie and a man named Rupert.
BIANCA GIAEVER: I accidentally had a strong drink. This is gonna be a drunk interview.
ANNIE MCEWEN: Ok.
BG: Did you get drunk when you were a teen?
AM: For a summer I tried hard to get drunk all the time. Then I lost my best friend. Because I was drunk. Then I joined drama club.
BG: Why did you lose your best friend?
AM: I threw up on a carpet and used a sock to clean it up. I made a terrible fool of myself.
BG: Did you have a boyfriend?
AM: The last year of high school. Sex was exciting and weird. That relationship lasted way too long.
BG: Did you believe in God when you were a kid?
AM: I believed enough to ask for a horse. I promised to read the entire Bible if I got a horse. Then I got a horse.
BG: Do you have a horse now?
AM: He died.
BG: You are very attached to your childhood.
AM: That’s true. Letting go of things is hard. I remember grade five, having an existential moment where Christmas didn’t make me as happy as it used to. I was inconsolable. The magic was slipping away.
BG: What’s the magic?
AM: Magic is when you’re a kid with no friends, but that’s ok because you have a horse in your pocket.
BG: Who or what do you revere?
AM: Margie Gillis, who told me to lift my face to the light. I muttered this to myself when I took the elevator up to Radiolab the first time.
BG: Who is Margie Gillis?
AM: A dancer. She has hair as long as her body, and it’s part of her costume and movement. She whips it around. It’s part of costume and movement. She said she’s not going to cut her hair because the fairies told her not to.
AM: They’re tiny humans, about the size of your thumb.
BG: Do they have wings?
AM: No, but they have access to wings. They ride on robins.
BG: Do you still believe in fairies?
AM: A little bit. Living in Newfoundland helped reignite that spark. There are people there who definitely believe in fairies and I met them.
The other day Andrew and I were camping on an island. We were going to put our tent in a walking path. It was a very faint path, on an island at night time.
If this was Newfoundland, the fairies would get mad, because this was clearly a fairy path.
BG: Fairies are malicious?
AM: Yeah. They’re bad. They’re more like tricksters. If I were them I’d be that way to humans too. But there are certain things you can do to please the fairies, like carry bread in your pocket. Or carry a bible.
There’s a lot of… if walking in woods, lost, turn sweater inside out. That will help you. Fairies getting you lost.
BG: What was it like coming from Newfoundland to New York City?
AM: I didn’t sleep for several years. I felt like I was on fire. In a good way. I had never seen so many people in my whole life. All my nerves were aflame. I felt inadequate and excited.
BG: What’s the best question you can ever ask someone in an interview?
AM: Make fun of someone. That’s the best thing you can do.
BG: What’s something super cool you’ve done in ProTools?
AM: I remember I needed the sound of wind. I wanted something spooky. I noticed Robert’s nose (Robert Krulwich, former host of Radiolab) had a whistle in his nose breathing when he wasn’t talking. I took that nose whistle, turned it up, and made it all washy and spooky as the wind in the scene.
BG: That’s cool. What else?
AM: For the Mississippi flag story I wanted something patriotic to go behind a pledge this guy is saying. I found Whitney Houston’s Superbowl performance, and took a tiny note she sang. I doubled it, reversed the first one, so Whitney reverse rises into her note and out again like a hill. Then added some strings that I could get from my MIDI keyboard.
BG: Do you pine for Canada?
AM: I do. I miss the serenity. I miss the healthcare. America is braver, bolder, thrilling, reckless. I feel so honored to be here. My dad thinks Canada is half asleep.
BG: What jobs did you have before radio?
AM: I dated a lot of different jobs. I was totally heartbroken. I hated it all. I thought about being a writer, an English literature professor, an international development worker, a foreign aid worker, a music therapist, a teacher at a Montessori school. I was about to do a PhD in English, then I took a clown class, and then turned to radio.
BG: And you got a degree in Folklore? (Editor’s note: St. John’s University is one of two programs in the world that offer a degree in Folklore.) That’s where you met radio wizard Chris Brookes.
BG: Describe Chris Brookes.
AM: He’s a gentle genius with radio. Doing things no one else in Canada is doing. Making docs in the golden age of the 70s. Send you to place. He’s a proud Newfoundlander, and put Newfoundland on the audio map.
He was my first teacher ever. The most amazing thing is that he will play you his stuff, and ask what you think. You’re a kid who’s never made anything in your life, but he really cares what you think. He’s very humble and open.
BG: I’m afraid of mice, and I’m living alone in a house with a lot of mice. Do you have any advice for me?
AM: Imagine they’re wearing waistcoats. They’re rushing home. They really are late. Maybe they’re forming a union, and it’s very exciting. This guy has a speech to make. It’s a very strong speech.
I feel like I saw a mouse wearing a waistcoat once. Did I imagine it? He had a briefcase. He wants to learn as much as he possibly can.
At night they’re wearing little caps and nightgowns. They have little toothbrushes they take out. They have pet dragonflies they take on walks. Use them as falcons.
BG: Do the dragonflies sleep near them?
AM: Yeah. And their wings make these buzzy noises in their sleep. There are tiny vibrations in the wings as they breathe. A snore buzz. And the mouse can’t sleep, he turns over and is all annoyed. It’s adorable, this whole world!
BG: Do dragonflies breathe?
AM: They do in holes along their body. They don’t have lungs. I was just learning about this the other day. They pull in oxygen through spherical holes in the abdomen.
There’s this idea that insects were really big 300 million years ago. Because there was 35% oxygen in the atmosphere. Whereas now there’s only 21%. So the insects were huge, the dragonflies were the size of an eagle.
BG: Why did the oxygen levels go down?
AM: There was a huge explosion of growth in the carboniferous era. When pangea was a super continent. And all these huge cyprus trees exploded out, and ferns and plants. But there wasn’t bacteria yet the way there is now, so they weren’t decomposing. And the oxygen wasn’t turning into carbon dioxide when the trees were decomposing, so they were pumping so much oxygen into the atmosphere. The sky was sepia toned because of all the oxygen in the air. Birds didn’t exist yet, just these giant insects flying around. And I was thinking about what sound they would make, and that made me think about what sound they would make… and that made me think of a mouse having one as a pet and buzzing a little bit.
I’m really excited about fish farting. Sweden thought Russia was spying on them because of a sound on an underground recording, but it was a herring fart. People think herrings communicate by farting, because at night when they’re all gathering they fart very softly together. I’m going to talk to a scientist next month but he’s sailing right now. He was like—bad timing, I’m sailing.
If there’s thousands of fish in a school, and they want to scare a predator away, they can all fart at the same time. [Laughter.] I have to confirm this but apparently the Swedish navy has a list of farting animals in the ocean. These recordings were kept from civilian scientists for ten years, then they were finally like come on down into this war room office in the basement.
BG: Do fish have ears?
AM: They don’t look like our ears but I think they do.
BG: What’s the last thing you want in your mouth before you die?
AM: A raspberry fresh off the bush.
Or… a frog that’s alive. You would feel this living thing as you’re dying. Why not? Everything would be weird. I might feel bad about the frog. It would have to be consensual. I promise I’m not gonna bite you, it’s warm in here, come on in.