An Interview with ‘Kottke Ride Home’ Host Jackson Bird
Last week, I told you about the launch of kottke.org’s new podcast, Kottke Ride Home. The podcast is a 15-minute show with smart news and info hosted by Jackson Bird. I recently “sat down” with Jackson to ask him some questions. In this (very) lightly edited interview, he talks about how the podcast comes together every weekday, provides some insider knowledge on TED Talks, suggests about how we might relate to Harry Potter given JK Rowling’s repeated airing of her anti-trans views, and shares some media suggestions like YouTube videos, podcasts, and movies.
Let’s start with something easy. What are you up to these days, apart from hosting the podcast?
Apart from the podcast, I make videos for my YouTube channel, which I’ve been doing in various capacities since 2007. These days my videos are mostly on LGBTQ+ topics, but sometimes I throw random things on a waffle iron to see what happens. I also co-host a podcast about masculinity with my friend Bo Méndez called Everything’s Bigger. Before the pandemic, I was a pub quiz host. Since bars aren’t opening for indoor activities anytime soon here in New York City, I’m glad to have the Kottke Ride Home to fill my thirst for random knowledge.
How do you go about deciding which stuff to feature on the podcast? What are you looking for? Do you have a system? Is it a gut feeling? How do you know something’s right? (This is something I struggle to explain when I get this question, so I’d love to hear your perspective.)
I have a huge RSS feed list and bookmark anything I see that could possibly be interesting for the podcast, but as far as narrowing it down for what makes the cut each day, that’s a bit tougher. I like to have a nice balance of different genres (i.e. not too much science or too much history in any one day) and try to keep most of it fairly topical, even if I dive into older, archival finds here and there. When we were first developing the show, Brian suggested that each day listeners should learn something new, hear something that makes them smile, and learn something they might share at a dinner party (remember dinner parties?). I still try to stick to that for the most part. I’m aware that some listeners might be more into pop culture and others into scientific discoveries and still others looking for weird cultural finds, design, uplifting stories, and more so I try to make sure there’s something that would keep people listening everyday even if they aren’t interested in every single story. Sometimes it also comes down to length. We try to keep Ride Home shows to 15 minutes, which means each segment is ideally 400-500 words. If I got really into a story and accidentally wrote 1000 words, then the other segments have to be a bit shorter and lighter that day so another long story might get pushed to the next day. I don’t get it perfect everyday. It really is an intricate dance and truly a lot of gut feelings.
Over the past decade, TED has grown into a huge cultural juggernaut. What was it like on the inside, being a TED Resident and doing a TED Talk?
It was really surreal. I still sometimes can’t believe that I was not only picked to be a TED Resident, but also that I actually worked out of TED’s global headquarters in Manhattan everyday for over three months. My fellow residents were all working on amazing projects like an app to locate land mines, a VR time capsule of Coney Island, and a documentary destigmatizing mental illness in communities of color, but just being inside the beating heart of TED was inspiring all on its own. There was always something happening and residents were invited to be a part of most of it — like the day Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Donald Trump’s The Art of Deal, came to speak in TED’s in-house theater just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Or the day I turned around from my desk and realized the woman who had been working in the conference room behind me for two hours was Monica Lewinsky.
Giving a TED Talk was massively intimidating. Having a TED Talk under your belt is a huge thing so I didn’t want to mess it up and blow the opportunity. I also knew that much of TED’s leadership would be watching from the audience. Part of what makes it so nerve-wracking is that it’s both a live performance and something filmed and shared in perpetuity. I’ve grown up doing both live performances and plenty of on-camera work, but rarely both at the same time — and certainly not for something that would have such a huge impact on my career. If you mess up in a live performance, you try to cover it somehow and keep going. It might not be your best night, but that’s okay because you feed off the audience and no one will ever see it again. If you mess up for a camera, you stop and start over. Because TED uses something like a dozen cameras all over the theater aimed at both you and the audience, we were instructed to use that latter method if we messed up, to stop and start over. With just one shot though, I still wanted to give my best performance for the audience so I just worked as hard as I could to not mess up. I must have practiced my talk close to a thousand times in the month leading up to actually giving it. That was a challenge in and of itself because it meant finishing the talk soon enough to get a month of practice in.
The process of writing, however, was really invigorating. We had a number of sessions with a speaking coach to help us craft our talks and hone our delivery. As someone who has been an independent creator for so long, it was really great to get so much feedback and spend so long making sure every single word had a purpose. TED Talks for residents are only six minutes, so every second has to count. As nervous as I was, I don’t think I could’ve done any better on the night, but I still never watch it back. I can’t stomach it. But it has been really nice to have one quick talk to point to as an example of my work and as a resource for people looking to learn more about transgender topics. If you watch on TED.com, there’s an extensive list of footnotes and further reading that I curated along with the video. TED staff thinks I may have broken a record for most extra resources added at the time.
You wrote a memoir that was published last September. Was writing a book something you’d always wanted to do?
Yeah, I always wanted to be a writer. I was “writing” stories on the family typewriter before I could spell any words. Growing up the only two things I cared about was writing and acting. I more or less quit acting when I went to college and between college papers and then copywriting for a nonprofit, I kind of lost any drive for creative writing for a while. The book kind of happened by accident. I set out to write a zine, something usually in the 3-10 page range, and ended up writing 75 pages. From there, I started thinking maybe I could expand the project into a memoir. I went back and forth for years on if I actually wanted to publish a memoir, but at the end of 2018 the opportunity presented itself and less than a year later I had published a book. It was a whirlwind and has been an awesome experience, but I can’t wait to write more books on a more normal timeline and which aren’t about me. I’ve got a picture book I’m working on, two young adult novels I’m trying to make headway on, and ideas for several other novels and works of creative nonfiction I’d love to one day write. And if Marvel ever let me write a Captain America novel, I’d be over the moon.
My kids and I are big Harry Potter fans. I read the entire series aloud to them, they’ve read all the books more times than I can keep track of, and they know an absurd amount of Potter trivia. The books have spurred & facilitated all kinds of conversations about the value of friendship, the acceptance of differences, and even the dangers of fascism. Their mom and I have told them about the statements that J.K. Rowling has made about trans people and how they differ from our views and seemingly from the inclusive messages in her own work. But I struggle about what guidance to offer them in how they should continue to relate to this entire world that she created that they love. You wrote about this separation of Potter & Rowling in the NY Times back in December before some of her most recent comments. Where are you on this these days?
I used to be the Communications Director for the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit that uses the power of story to mobilize fans towards social action. With over a hundred chapters all over the world, the HPA uses parallels from Harry Potter (and other books, comics, movies, etc.) as an entry point for teaching leadership skills and educating on particular issues and then taps into the inherent enthusiasm and organizing power of fans to effect real change in local communities and around the world. I didn’t write the book on how the Harry Potter series is saturated with inclusive and fairly progressive values, but I did write a peer-reviewed paper on it. So I’m extraordinarily familiar with how people have found solace and inspiration from the books as well as the amazing things fans have created around the books (from fanfiction and fan art to small businesses and an entire genre of music). Which is why I’m both completely nonplussed how the author of a series about unconditional love could have missed the message of her own books entirely and why I personally don’t care anymore. For me, the true magic of the series has always been what we’ve made of it ourselves, and what we’ve made from it. I know not everyone has deep and meaningful fandom experiences like I do to cling onto, especially young kids reading it for the time, but I do think we can separate the author from the art a little bit here. Authors being on social media and clinging ever steadfast to their opinions does make that a bit more challenging than in the past and, admittedly, I don’t think I’ll be able to stomach reading the books anytime soon without hearing her Twitter voice in my head, but I think there are ways to enjoy the books and acknowledge how her views may differ from your own. It’s a chance to interrogate our own biases and have a discussion about important topics. That said, for anyone for whom this was the last straw (because it was certainly not JK Rowling’s first offense), I completely understand. While Harry Potter will always hold a huge place in my heart and in the cultural consciousness of my generation, there are so many other amazing works out there by authors who live out their values and by trans people themselves.
And for anyone who has been a bit confused about the controversy surrounding JK Rowling, I highly recommend this extensively-researched video from YouTuber creators Jamie and Shaaba, a trans man and his fiancée. They’re doctoral researchers in England in the fields of transgender well-being and psychology so they know what they’re talking about. I also recommend this episode of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which discusses how fans can continue to be fans (or not) and gives several trans people (admittedly including myself) a chance to share how they’re feeling.
Ok, speed round. Are you a city person or country person? Or suburbs, I guess?
Country. I’ve reluctantly been in New York City for ten years and dreaming of moving to the country for at least five of them. I grew up in Texas so I’m used to more nature and wide open spaces than the urban jungle can in any way provide.
Optimist or pessimist?
What’s your favorite podcast (other than the one you host)?
So tough to choose just one podcast! I think I’ll go with One From The Vaults, hosted by Morgan M. Page. It’s a history podcast that focuses on one trans or gender nonconforming person from history each episode. Our history has been largely ignored so it’s really cool to learn about unknown or little mentioned individuals in great detail. As an honorable mention, WNYC’s Dear Hank and John always brings a smile to my face. Brothers (and authors/YouTube creators) Hank and John give dubious advice and update listeners on all the news related to Mars and third-tier English football team AFC Wimbledon.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Favorite book, movie, or TV show?
I don’t know if I could ever choose a favorite book, but my favorite movie is hands down Back to the Future and my favorite TV show is a tie between Parks and Recreation and Downton Abbey.
Who was your favorite teacher?
Dr. Eric Selbin who taught my first year seminar at Southwestern University.
And finally, what question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never ask?
What’s your most-watched YouTube video?. (Answer.)
Thanks Jackson, not only for taking the time but also for indulging my parenting question. You can listen to Jackson every weekday on Kottke Ride Home. And look for an episode of the podcast in the next few weeks where Jackson will subject me to similar but probably better questions.