Campus & Community
Lee, WAER’s director and general manager, was the creator, producer and host of “Pop Life,” a podcast that invites expert guests to discuss significant work, events and milestones in popular culture. Phillips, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the founding co-director of the Lender Center for Social Justice, was a frequent guest on the podcast.
Lee was leaving to become general manager of New Jersey’s statewide public television network NJ PBS, and he didn’t want “Pop Life” to die. He asked Phillips to take over as host, and Phillips happily agreed.
“I give a lot of the credit to Joe Lee, who started the show and was the host for many, many years,” Phillips says. “I feel like we are trying to honor that spirit that Joe put into the show to pop the hood on the engine of pop culture and say, ‘how is this working?’ ”
Phillips’ research focuses on controversies and conflicts arising around public memory, popular film and popular culture. He has published several books, including “A Place of Darkness: The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema”; “Controversial Cinema: The Films that Outraged America”; “Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture”; and most recently, “A Cinema of Hopelessness: The Rhetoric of Rage in 21st Century Popular Culture.”
In this Q&A, Phillips discusses his vision for the podcast, future guests and an upcoming interview with … Kendall Phillips?
Is hosting “Pop Life” or a show like it something you thought about before Joe asked?
It goes back to some years ago when I was the host of a show on WCNY-TV called “Classic Movie Night.” I did that for five years and for me, the show was part of a broader engagement around critically thinking about media and popular culture. It was my chance to put a film in historical context or raise issues or point out things about the history of film.
And while that was rewarding, the format of a show like that–which was basically like Turner Classic Movies where I intro the film and then show the film and say a little bit at the end–was limited because it was just me giving a 90-second lecture about the star system in Hollywood or Hitchcock or whatever it was.
What was appealing about this show is the opportunity to dig deeper with other people. What Joe brought to the show–and I try to keep in mind–is the genuine curiosity; the desire to ask questions of an expert or a creator but beyond just the superficial, “I liked this, did you like it?”
Is the key, then, having your listeners learn something without losing them by going too deep into a specific topic?
For me, the focus of the show is to bring people who have this very learned, intelligent, well-researched perspective, and then get them to kind of unpack that and translate that. Not to dumb it down, but to translate it into language that all of us can say, “Oh, yes, I know what that is.” And the great thing about pop culture is, we all kind of swim in these waters, so it’s an opportunity to not just talk about pop culture but to talk about other changing notions of identity, shifts in politics or new technologies.
What are your thoughts about scheduling guests and keeping the podcast fresh?
Right now, it’s a two-part process. One is following pop culture and saying, “What’s happening?” The other is trying to follow the pop culture literature and see who’s writing interesting stuff. I would say that the longer-range plan that we’ll get going in the spring is to have a team of CRS (communication and rhetorical studies) students as my production team. I’m hoping to get this group of students to help me identify the trends, the people and the topics that can make the show.
I don’t think we ever want the show to fall into just a review show, because there are way too many of those on the podcast realm. We also don’t want to fall into being overly committed to the creator interview. We had a great interview with Victor Lavelle, who’s the author of several very prominent, critically acclaimed horror novels and he’s got a show coming out on Apple TV and he’s written comic books. He’s the kind of guest that while he’s a writer, he’s a professor at Columbia and I knew going in that he would be able to talk at a deeper level. And he did! We had a great conversation about how authors of color are challenging traditional notions of horror, how those narratives are changing, how the culture is receiving them.
Who are some of your other recent–and future–guests?
Right before the holiday period, we dropped a two-parter– the first time we’ve done a two-parter–on video games. During the holidays, everyone is either looking for a video game or playing one to relax, whether it’s something sophisticated or Candy Crush. We’ve got a wonderful chat with a Syracuse University alum, David Heineman, who’s a professor at Bloomsburg University. David wrote a great book about the history of the video game industry, featuring interviews with the people who were the builders and architects of the industry.
And then I have a fabulous interview with Amanda Cote, a professor at the University of Oregon who wrote a great book, “Gaming Sexism,” talking about the struggles over who gets to be a gamer and the backlash that arose among the traditional, young, white male gamer who didn’t like Candy Crush or all of these other people showing up playing Call of Duty or Fortnight or whatever it might be.
I also sat down with Robert Thompson and Charisse L’Pree from the Newhouse School and the three of us had a conversation about the pandemic and tumultuous politics of the moment and how that’s changing the relationship to pop culture. From the impact of “Saturday Night Live” and Dave Chappelle to streaming and on-demand and if people will want to go back to live music or live theatre experiences.
We understand you have a very special guest for a future show. Can you tell us about that?
I’m going to interview Kendall Phillips! Lest you think I’m a narcissist, this is the country-western singer who was a contestant on American Idol. I suddenly had this epiphany that I should talk to her, and she was super amazingly gracious and said let’s find time.
My hope is to talk about “American Idol”–we can’t not talk about that–but for me what’s interesting is that here is a relatively young, working musician who, in fairness, is not at the level of Carrie Underwood or Blake Shelton, but she’s making music and touring and how is that life and how has it been impacted by COVID? She just released a Christmas album and it’s pay what you want. I’m fascinated by that, and I hope she’s willing to talk about these things.
WAER is now a part of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The most recent episodes and past episodes of “Pop Life” can be found on the WAER website. “Pop Life” is also part of the podcast network available through National Public Radio.