Monday, October 19, 2009

Great Conversationalists: Reflections on Being a Dial-a-Stranger

The afternoon of September 24 was hectic. I called in to participate in a radio show in Seattle, then zoomed downtown for meetings, after which I headed home to cook for a dinner party. I had everything timed to the minute, and was just getting into the chopping zone when my partner yelled that I had a call. I ran in and picked up the phone, fully intending to quickly dispatch whoever was on the line and get back to my tight cooking schedule.

What followed, instead, was a 20 minute phone call that changed my day and has had a powerful impression on me since. The call was from Mercedes Martinez and Zachary Kent, the people behind an internet radio show called Dial-A-Stranger.

Dial-A-Stranger is what it sounds like. People sign up to be called by submitting a phone number to be added to a database. Other people submit questions they'd like to have answered by strangers. Mercedes and Zachary pick people randomly out of the database, call them, and ask a contributed question. They edit the conversations into radio shows, which are then made available as a podcast (you can listen to episode featuring me, #89: Museum Secrets, here).

But it's more complicated than that. I've known about Dial-A-Stranger for awhile, but I haven't written about it before because as a listener I don't find the show that compelling. The conversations are often long--20 minutes or more--and Mercedes and Zachary only get to the question at the end of a meandering conversation with the guest. As a listener, I get frustrated that the show isn't more tightly edited, and I wonder who really cares to hear the conversations Mercedes and Zachary have with perfect strangers.

Now that I have been a Dial-A-Stranger, my perspective on this has changed. I still get fidgety listening to the podcast, but now I see it as an artifact of a supremely conducted participatory project rather the sole product of the process. Dial-A-Stranger was one of the best participant experiences I've ever had. It improved my immediate mood and made me feel special in a lasting way. Mercedes and Zachary did all the work with no apparent effort, carrying the conversation in a friendly, positive, interested and interesting way. And they made me appreciate them as superb facilitators as a particular kind of participatory experience: conversation with strangers.

What made Mercedes and Zach such great conversationalists?

They really cared about me. I've written before about how, when designing questions for use with visitors, staff should make sure they genuinely care to hear the answer. Mercedes and Zachary don't even ask their own questions, and yet they demonstrated unbelievable interest in me and my experiences during our conversation. I even made some gaffes--for example, confusing the University of Texas natural history museum with the Utah natural history museum (the "UT" slipped me up)--but they took it in stride, continuing the conversation without embarrassing me. They made me feel comfortable enough to make some dumb jokes and brag a bit--things I'd probably be reticent to do with strangers in most situations.

They started with a good question. Mercedes and Zachary have a formula to the beginning of their calls. They call in the evening, announce themselves, and then ask, "how was your day?" This is a great question because it is comfortable and open-ended. Everyone has answer to this question, and in the context of a show like Dial-A-Stranger, few people give a one-word answer like "fine." They want to explain themselves, to assert some aspect of their identity (consciously or unconsciously) that then drives the conversation. When I answered their question with a response about work, we spent the rest of the call talking museums, but I suspect if I had talked about moving the woodpile, we would have just as easily continued on that vein.

They listened, responded, and shared. Mercedes and Zach aren't just interrogators; they also shared their own reflections and stories throughout our conversation. We never would have talked about taxidermy (and the basement I shared with dead animals at the Boston Museum of Science) if they hadn't started talking about their local natural history museum. They never steered the conversation in a direction that was jarring or expressed a disinterest in what I was saying; instead, they kept building on a shared experience, validating and querying and scheming, which made me feel like we were in cahoots together rather than having a typical interviewer/interviewee relationship. By the time they got to the actual question at the end of the conversation, I was ready to share personal stories with them and did so enthusiastically.

Of course, all of this greatness is still coupled by the problematic feeling that the product of the conversation--the podcast--is not (for me) a great audience experience. But now I wonder if I was too literal in seeing the only product as the stranger's stories. I've learned to listen in a more nuanced way and to appreciate the skill with which Mercedes and Zachary draw out their guests, who are after all perfect strangers. And there are other products as well: the database, the conversations, the questions and the people behind them. The podcast is take it or leave it, and there are probably people out there who love hearing the relationships Mercedes and Zach build with strangers in a short time over a phone line. I know I hear them differently now that I engaged in one, sort of like how you see art differently if you make it.

When I asked Zachary why they don't edit the shows more tightly to focus on the questions and answers, he explained that they sometimes do edited shows, or shows borne from conversations at live events, or shows that focus on voicemails received on their line. I listened to a couple of voicemail shows and found them more quirky but less satisfying in terms of their depth, and I can see why from Mercedes and Zachary's perspective it might be most valuable to engage in longer conversations with people. He commented that, "When we started this it was an experiment to see what would happen so we thought up a lot of ways that Dial A Stranger might work and we've been trying them. As the show grows and changes we grow and change how we do it and make different kinds of shows along the way."

And so I wonder--in which direction can and should Dial-A-Stranger grow? Should Mercedes and Zachary train others as hosts, to support more conversations and provide more people with transformative experiences as participants? Should they experiment audially with ways to produce an audience-facing podcast that better conveys that transformation? What would you do with this kind of project?

And even if you don't have an answer to that question, I encourage you to sign up with Mercedes and Zachary, be a stranger, and let us know what you think.

2 comments, add yours!:

Kelly C. Porter said...

I listened to the show, and have listened to their podcasts before (mostly when recommended by somebody else's discerning ears via social media-- that certainly says something about my skepticism as a listener).

I was (on a selfish level) really happy that you mentioned working with us at the UW as your favorite exhibit collaboration, but also really stunned at the depth and level of trust apparent in the conversation. Right now I'm working on a web-based citizen oral history project for my thesis that suffers some of the same questions: how do you teach people to be 1.) good interviewers in the way that the Dial-a-Stranger hosts are and 2.) get really compelling results. At times the potential monster I've created in this respect really keeps me up at night. Is it even a good idea to arm a fleet of stranger interviewers and bid them forward with only a model and some bare instructions? What will I get, and will it be worth the time of others?

In this, I think you've picked up on something really important: that sometimes what yields the best product doesn't always yield the best experience. So which way do you skew? In essence it's similar to the participatory design vs design for participation conundrum. Are these aims really that mutually exclusive?

Personally I'd love to hear Dial-a-Stranger 'curate' the content a little. Pull out related bits of different conversations and create a whole new commentary on a 3rd matter. If that is compelling enough listeners might be prompted to listen to the original interviews in length, as well-- this is one of my plans, anyhow, to deal with my deluge of conversations constructively.

Nina Simon said...

Kelly, I'm learning so much from your blog comments. Thanks for contributing to Museum 2.0 in such a meaningful way.

And yes, I felt almost reckless with my trust in Zach and Mercedes, to the point that I said some things about budgets that I shouldn't have (and that they graciously edited out).

I had a strange feeling throughout the interview, a kind of giddiness at being made a momentary "star" in my own living room, coupled with forgetfulness that it would be broadcast in some fashion. I'm not sure how typical a response that was, and whether some people might have regretted what they had said later.

I think the Dial-a-Stranger product _could_ be more compelling if more tightly curated. On Transom, Ira Glass talked? a lot about how they tighten the This American Life content - I recommend reading his manifesto.

But I'm also ok with the Dial-a-Stranger strategy, if editing would hinder their ability (timewise) to reach out to strangers as they did to me.