Jonathan Goldstein On the Punch Music Adds to Heavyweight

Jonathan Goldstein
Jonathan Goldstein Photo by Ahmed Klink, courtesy of Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
Jonathan Goldstein has created his own unique job, one which demands a unique job title. He could simply go with podcast host, producer or writer, but there’s more to what he’s doing on Heavyweight, his popular podcast (returning for its sixth season September 30), than those designations might allow.

As he sees it, “emotional rodeo clown” best sums up his duties.

Ahead of the upcoming season, Goldstein discussed some new wrinkles devoted listeners can expect and the importance of music to his show and his life away from it, including a few songs of particular brilliance from his personal playlist. The songs he selected tie directly to his interest in people, which is the heart of Heavyweight.

“A lot of the things that I do, a lot of the questions that I have, there really wouldn’t otherwise be a context for that level of prying into people’s lives and having those conversations. I feel thankful that there exists this forum where I can kind of wear the mantle of being the expert in an area that doesn’t really exist. It’s not like a job that really existed prior,” he said. “I’m not a therapist. I kind of call myself an interlocutor. It’s that-slash-interloper-slash-buttinski. Recently, I’ve started to call myself an emotional rodeo clown because I just kind of throw myself into these situations to create some kind of buffer or be a distraction for people that need to have someone they can point at and laugh at in order to bond.”

That’s the blueprint for Heavyweight. The show helps listeners resolve some lingering issue from the past with Goldstein facilitating the resolution. It’s smart, funny and moving and been described as “the perfect podcast for right now” because, as described by Pacific San Diego, it’s “about people talking and listening to one another and working together to come to a solution,” elements of communication and understanding that are seemingly vanishing from American discourse.

While the quandaries faced by each episode’s subjects are personal, Goldstein’s genuine interest in people and the show’s stellar writing connect listeners in meaningful, human ways.

“I don’t feel like I have any special expertise really. Sometimes these situations just need somebody, somebody to kind of bring people together. And you can be awkward and it can be uncomfortable and sometimes it needs to be uncomfortable and that’s okay. It gives me license to pursue my interests and to ask a lot of questions that would be otherwise socially unacceptable, I guess,” he said.

click to enlarge Heavyweight begins its sixth season September 30 - SPOTIFY ART
Heavyweight begins its sixth season September 30
Spotify art
Sample episodes from seasons past include everything from helping adult sisters “Becky and Jo” locate a favorite childhood babysitter to finding the man, 25 years after the fact, who cared for one listener’s uncle who died of AIDS. This season’s eight episodes allow for more in-depth investigation and action, Goldstein said.

“The thing that we’re doing that’s a little different this time out is we’re doing two-parters, which we’ve never done before, and we’re actually doing two two-parters. So that was a little bit of a form breaker,” he said and offered a sneak peak.

“One of the two-parters came about in kind of the way that you want stories ideally to manifest but they don’t often because you’re sort of working under deadline and you don’t have the kind of freedom to wander around, you know, hitchhike from town to town with your steno pad looking for stories,” he said. “But one of the two-parters just emerged out of a small story that my mother-in-law told me. It started off as just a small curiosity that she had.”

Goldstein teased the episodes, hinting how the first time she ever left the small Minnesota town she grew up in “she went to Europe for the first time when she was 19 and she met this woman. This is like going back 50 years ago.”

They became friendly but Goldstein said they’d lost touch. During the pandemic, his mother-in-law began to wonder about her old friend.

“She looked up this woman and she found that she had died, but it led to this deeper mystery because the obituary seemed to contradict everything she thought she knew about this woman from that trip, that this woman had told her about herself. She was under the impression that this woman was quite wealthy and according to the obituary she had grown up at an orphanage in Kentucky and had spent her whole life there.

“So, I start looking into it and the thing that I uncovered was completely unexpected. It was enough to kind of give us our first two-parter,” he said, adding that “it just kept on growing and growing in the way that the best stories do, where you just keep hopping down rabbit holes and the stakes grow.”

The missions of each episode are intriguing and are greatly enhanced by the show’s outstanding writing. While Goldstein is quick to credit his collaborative creative partners on the show, his writing set the tone for Heavyweight. Whether on past shows like the long-running Canadian radio program WireTap or as a veteran contributor to This American Life, he’s leaned on his lifetime interest to draw listeners close to his subjects.

“I think as a kid I wasn’t a very good student but I think the first time I felt the teacher took notice, it was a poetry contest in the school in the sixth grade that I won. That really sustained me, I think. It really kind of made me feel like maybe there was something I was good at because I wasn’t good at sports. I wasn’t a good student. I wasn’t very good at much of anything but that sort of gave me a real boost.

“And for years, for many, many years I would submit my writing — like, I had rejections from The New Yorker but I mean I had rejections from the smallest little zines that you had never even had heard of, you know, like these little stapled, mimeographed little magazines. I could just not get any traction, so any little triumph, even the memory of having won a poetry contest when I was 11 years old, was sustaining.”

We asked if he remembered the poem and he easily recited the lines, “’Isn’t it true that a mouse from the zoo ate a man for lunch and saved some for brunch? But the man is so tall and the mouse is so small now it is said, the man is dead.’ I was dealing with mortality even way back then,” he noted.

“I think if you decide you’re going to do it, you look for excuses to do it,” he said. “In retrospect it just seems like where did the confidence come from because no one was buying what I was selling. It wasn’t really until This American Life probably that I actually had a job doing the thing that I loved to do, which was write and learn radio, which I grew to really love. But, until then I was just sustaining myself through years and years of telemarketing and substitute teaching and magic shows at kids’ parties, just anything to just get by and support the thing that I loved to do, which was write. But without much of a hope of making a living out of it.”

Heavyweight has become podcast gold for Gimlet Media and Spotify. It’s gotten rave reviews from The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. It’s won audio broadcasting awards and was nominated last year for an International Documentary Association honor. While writing and presentation is key, music also has a critical role, Goldstein said. He mentioned the work Christine Fellows, John K. Samson and Bobby Lord do music- and sound-wise for the podcast.

“You can only do so much with the writing,” he said of music's importance to each episode. “But then to finally release a person’s heart to actually feel some of the things you’re trying to put forward and to hit it right is a wonderful feeling. Because, if you hit it wrong, there’s so many ways to hit it wrong. Like if it’s too much you can make people feel manipulated, like you can see the wires. And then sometimes it’s just not quite enough. So, we spend a lot of time and it is very editorial, but it’s editorial in a way that kind of transcends words.”

During the break between seasons, the podcast aired several “check-in” specials. One titled “Do You Like Music?” featured some hilarious observations about music between Goldstein and fellow producers Kalila Holt and Stevie Lane. The trio built a playlist from songs they discussed. We asked Goldstein about music from his own playlist.

“As you’re asking I’m just looking through my ‘liked’ songs and a few days ago my wife was just saying she can’t get a handle on what kind of music I like exactly and then I went through it and it really kind of doesn’t make any sense in terms of there being a thesis to it or something,” he admitted. “I guess I just like catchy tunes. I like pop music. It goes from like ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ to ‘Fuck You,’ CeeLo Green, ‘Borderline,’ by Madonna, ‘Eye in the Sky’ by the Alan Parsons Project. Maybe I have bad taste in music? It’s not often that people admit that about themselves.”

We tell him we love all those songs and he settles on one that might be particularly brilliant from the collection. Goldstein is married to fellow writer/producer Emily Condon, a former managing editor for This American Life and Serial. They have a four year-old son, Augie, who is presently influencing his father’s music tastes.

“Oh, I’ve got on here, you know the Minipops? It’s like children who do covers of pop songs? I’ve got the Minipops doing that Daft Punk song, ‘Get Lucky.’ There’s something I find that pulls at the heartstrings about children singing songs. I like it better than the actual version by Daft Punk.

“Sadly, I think it’s probably been on my playlist before Augie, but I will say one of the nice things about having a kid is you get to re-experience certain songs through their ears,” he continued. “When it catches, it’s wonderful and sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes they just don’t want to know from it. Like my wife was telling me they were in the car and Rush came on and it just really upset him. He didn’t want to hear it.

“It’s sort of like that joy when you hear a really good sample or a mashup and it allows you to hear an old song that you’ve become almost inure to its charms,” he said of sharing a song both father and son enjoy. “Like to hear it with fresh ears again through your kid’s ears, to imagine what it’s like to hear that song for the first time. Imagine hearing ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ for the first time. You could sort of try through osmosis when you’re listening with a four year-old.”

Heavyweight’s sixth season begins Thursday, September 30 and can be found on Spotify and other podcast streaming platforms.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.