8 episodes

The internet is conditioning our minds and influencing the global consciousness in ways that we are only beginning to understand – and writers are on the front lines. In The Active Voice, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talks to great writers about how they are reckoning with the challenges of the social media moment, how they find the space for themselves to create great literature and journalism despite the noise, and how to make a living amid the economic volatility of the 2020s.

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The Active Voice Hamish McKenzie

    • Arts

The internet is conditioning our minds and influencing the global consciousness in ways that we are only beginning to understand – and writers are on the front lines. In The Active Voice, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talks to great writers about how they are reckoning with the challenges of the social media moment, how they find the space for themselves to create great literature and journalism despite the noise, and how to make a living amid the economic volatility of the 2020s.

read.substack.com

    The Active Voice: Doomberg is willing to make some big calls

    The Active Voice: Doomberg is willing to make some big calls

    Doomberg, the top-earning finance publication on Substack, is led by a cartoon chicken that previously worked in heavy industry. Okay, so it wasn’t the chicken that worked in heavy industry—but its anonymous creators, with a background in hard sciences and energy, did. They chose the green chicken as their publication’s logo because they want it to be instantly recognizable on Twitter, which they use as their main marketing channel (it is, after all, the bird app). The plucky avian also fits with the cheeky “defensive pessimism” of Doomberg’s ethos, as captured in its tagline: “Chicken Little Gets a Terminal.” 
    Doomberg is a small team (“you could count us on one hand and have a few fingers left over”) with one man as the lead writer. I talked to that man for this episode, but he used a voice modifier to protect his identity. He’s worried about being discovered by his peers and prefers for people’s focus to be on his analysis rather than his personality.
    And what of that analysis? Well, it’s strong-minded, intelligent, and entertaining, featuring bold statements, such as predicting the onset of a “global famine of historic proportions” and classifying “nuclear waste alarmism” as a way to “rob humanity of carbon-free energy.” The aim, they say at Doomberg, is to be “provocative but not polarizing.” 
    I’ve talked to hundreds of writers over the years at Substack, but none has applied quite so much rigor to growing a media business from scratch as Doomberg. For Doomberg, the content creation is just a small (but important) piece of the process. They spend just as much time obsessing about brand, technology, and operations. For any Substack strategy nerds, this episode is a must-listen.
    Show notes
    Subscribe to Doomberg on Substack
    Find Doomberg on Twitter
    The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier
    Head coach of the University of Michigan football, Jim Harbaugh
    We Are About to Run Out of Some Stuff, June 15, 2021
    Farmers on the Brink, Mar. 26, 2022 [discussed at 26:21]
    [02:17] The mindset of Doomberg 
    [03:36] The path to Doomberg
    [05:28] Previous consulting business
    [06:50] Doomberg’s five strategy pillars for success
    [07:42] The bin of great writing never read
    [09:43] Brand sketches and objective
    [11:13] What type of writer are you?
    [13:38] The people behind Doomberg
    [15:53] The customer journey
    [17:43] The media business is dying
    [20:37] Editorial integrity 
    [23:05] Twitter is a toxic hell
    [27:00] On being provocative, not polarizing 
    [30:11] The state of leadership today 
    [33:00] Corporate elitism 
    [37:21] The future of consumption
    [38:22] Enjoying personal sovereignty
    [41:00] Starting a media business from zero
    The Active Voice is a podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky, with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray, and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.


    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit read.substack.com

    • 43 min
    The Active Voice: Chris Hedges stands with whatever side is being crushed

    The Active Voice: Chris Hedges stands with whatever side is being crushed

    Chris Hedges is surprisingly cheery for someone who has, by his own admission, “a dark view of human nature.” When we met for this conversation at Substack’s office in San Francisco, he was full of smiles and good humor—at least during the times we weren’t discussing death and destruction. He had just come from the gym, a habit that borders on a fixation for him, since he works out as a way to deal with the trauma from years of covering war in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones: the former Yugoslavia, El Salvador, and Iraq, to name a few. 
    It has been 20 years since his groundbreaking book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning came out. Its force was so powerful that it was quoted at the start of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film The Hurt Locker: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” At the time, Chris was a bureau chief for the New York Times, covering the Middle East and the Balkans, but he quit that position following criticism of a speech he gave denouncing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has been publishing in independent media ever since, first at Truthdig and later with an interview show, On Contact, on Russia Today (RT). YouTube wiped out the archives to that show when it removed RT from the platform following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “They’re embracing censorship, let’s be clear,” Chris says. 
    In this conversation, we talk about why journalists like him keep getting drawn to war despite its dangers, why he sides with the suffering (including in his side role as a Presbyterian minister), and what he thinks is wrong with today’s media.Chris recommends this post from Jonathan Cook’s newsletter.
    Show notes
    * Subscribe to The Chris Hedges Report on Substack
    * Find Chris Hedges on Twitter (as explained in the episode, not run by him)
    * War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
    * Other writers on Substack Chris recommends: Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Paul Street, Jonathan Cook
    * The Catullus poem Chris quotes
    * Eunice Wong’s website
    * [02:05] Navigating war zones (and avoiding being killed)
    * [04:43] Being taken prisoner in Basra
    * [5:55] The mental stability of a war correspondent
    * [06:51] How Chris got into war reporting
    * [08:40] “You don’t stay lucky forever”
    * [09:09] Becoming a recluse
    * [15:19] Writing a memoir 
    * [21:03] The Presbyterian minister
    * [22:33] The ordination to journalism
    * [25:47] The state of today’s journalism 
    * [31:33] Why social media sound bites are “world without context”
    * [33:27] The problem with independent media
    * [34:06] Mainstream media and WikiLeaks 
    * [36:37] What has happened to our institutions
    * [37:03] Is there hope? 
    * [40:40] Meeting his wife, Eunice Wong
    The Active Voice is a podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky, with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray, and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.


    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit read.substack.com

    • 43 min
    The Active Voice: Cheryl Strayed might be whispering your name into a candle

    The Active Voice: Cheryl Strayed might be whispering your name into a candle

    Did you know that a votive candle is one of those short, squat candles that people use for prayer or, like, to put on their outside stairs when they’re hosting a fancy party? I did not. But “votive” is the word I blurted out when Cheryl Strayed was trying to describe the type of tall candle she lit as a way to psychically summon Reese Witherspoon. A decade ago, Strayed was waiting to hear whether or not the actor was interested in taking the lead role in the movie adaptation of Wild, her best-selling 2012 memoir. So she lit the big candle (maybe it was a pillar or a taper, now that I google it) and every time she walked by it, she whispered “Reese… Reese.” It worked! Witherspoon indeed took the role, the movie was a hit, and the two became great friends. 
    Strayed is super-famous because of Wild, which is the same reason Oprah loves her, but she’s also beloved for her advice column, Dear Sugar, which she started writing at The Rumpus around the time that Wild was about to blow up. She wrote it anonymously at first, and for no pay. She just fell in love with the idea of turning an advice column into a forum for literary essays about life. She had ample material to draw on: an impoverished childhood in rural Minnesota; a much-loved mother who passed away when Strayed was 22; a downward spiral that ensued and involved a lot of sex and heroin; and a life-changing, soul-finding, shoe-destroying solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. 
    A couple weeks ago, I met Strayed in Portland, Oregon, where it was raining for the first time in several months, and we talked about how she still feels abject terror when faced with a blank page, how if she goes to the Oscars again, she’ll wear Dr. Martens, and about some mountain-themed advice George Saunders gave her about finding her own way forward as a writer. 
    “I really believe story is essential to us,” Cheryl told me, lighting a candle for all who believe in the power of writing, “and we need it individually, collectively; we need those stories to tell us who we are, to show us who we can be.”
    https://cherylstrayed.substack.com/
    Cheryl’s recommended read:
    Oldster by Sari Botton:
    [Sari] has this wonderful take on aging. And what I love about her focus is she always says, “Oldster is not for people who are getting older.” The whole idea of aging at whatever age you are—when you’re 12, you’re aging. We use that word to only mean old people, but really it’s about what does this experience of aging teach us? What do we learn from being 22 and 42 and 72 and 102? And people write about that and they answer this questionnaire. And it’s always very inspiring and interesting to read. I love that.
    Show notes
    Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar
    Find Cheryl on Twitter and her personal website
    Wild by Cheryl Strayed (paperback)
    [01:46] Her mother being portrayed by Laura Dern in Wild
    [05:56] Losing someone close to you
    [10:58] Working with Reese Witherspoon
    [16:21] Finally finding financial freedom
    [20:08] Having “How did I get here?” moments
    [21:20] Falling in love with words
    [23:00] Murder on my feet
    [24:00] Dear Sugar in The Rumpus
    [26:47] Taking over the Dear Sugar column
    [30:09] Early writing on the internet
    [31:20] The power of story
    [35:25] Social media as a gift for writers
    [40:40] Restarting Dear Sugar as a Substack 
    [45:00] Keep Walking, by Cheryl Strayed, a scene cut from Wild 
    [48:20] Advice from George Saunders 
    [52:25] Going into the cave, as a writer
    [53:35] Oldster by Sari Botton
    [54:33] Advice writers Cheryl recommends: Ask E. Jean by E. Jean Carroll, ¡Hola Papi! by John Paul Brammer, and Ask Polly by Heather Havrilesky.
    [55:04] Other Substacks Cheryl loves: Craft Talk by Jami Attenberg, Story Club by George Saunders, Your Local Epidemiologist by Katelyn Jetelina, Austin Kleon’s newsletter, and The Audacity by Roxane Gay.
    The Active Voice is a podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the inte

    • 57 min
    The Active Voice: Glenn Loury doesn’t want to be told what to think

    The Active Voice: Glenn Loury doesn’t want to be told what to think

    Among many notable things, Glenn Loury has been the first African American economics professor to get tenure at Harvard, an author and essayist, a firebrand on race issues from both the left and the right, and, in one dark chapter of his life, a cocaine addict who led a secret life on the streets.
    Now in his 70s and a professor at Brown University, Loury leads a semi-retired life, publishing video conversations with fellow academics and intellectuals for an audience of tens of thousands on his Substack, an endeavor that includes a long-running dialogue with the Columbia University linguistics professor and New York Times columnist John McWhorter. 
    In covering some fraught territory—such as “The Unified Field Theory of Non-Whiteness,” “Living by the Race Card,” and “Turning the Tide on Affirmative Action”—Loury sometimes attracts intense criticism. When University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax came on his show and made controversial remarks about Asian immigrants, he copped an earful. When he challenged recent anti-Trump comments made by Sam Harris, he upset a bunch of Harris stans (“I didn’t quite get right what he had said,” Loury says in our conversation. “My apologies, Sam, if you hear this, because I do like you”).
    But Loury has a long history of being an outsider and is unafraid to take principled positions that get him in trouble with his peers. He has an almost constitutional resistance to conformity. One thing he prides himself on, though, is having tough discussions on big topics, even with those who disagree with him. “I’m proud to be able to say that I can have cordial and productive conversations with them,” he says, “and I intend to do more of that.”
    We have video!
    Quotes from the conversation
    On productive disagreement
    I’ve tried to have people on the [Glenn Loury show] who challenge me... Had Cornel West on the show and we had a wonderful conversation. I’ve had Briahna Joy Gray on the show. I’ve had Richard Wolff, the Marxist economist, on the show. These are people that come at the issues that I’m concerned about rather differently than I do, but I’m proud to be able to say that I can have cordial and productive conversations with them and I intend to do more of that.
    On being hard to pin down
    During the 2020 election season, I had a formula, which was I’m going to vote for Biden, but you shouldn't believe me because, if I were going to vote for Trump, I would never tell you. So if you ask me who I’m going to vote for, there’s no information in my response. 
    On discussing Trump
    One of my points that I’ve been making over and over again in conversation with John McWhorter, who very forthrightly as a good New Yorker denounces Trump at every opportunity – he’s a moron, he’s an idiot, whatever – is that, hey, man, 45% of the population thinks the guy should be President. I mean, maybe we ought to think about why they think that. 
    On watching what he says
    I’m managing my brand, I must confess, by carefully selecting how it is that I react to the Trump phenomenon so as to be able to maintain plausible deniability.
    On independent thinking
    I could report to you that I hate to be bullied. Don’t tell me what to think and don’t tell me what to say. You want to call me a name? Call me a name. But if you want to change my mind, you had better make an argument and it had better be a good one.
    On Sam Harris
    Sam Harris made a comment about suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story and then I made a comment about Sam Harris. John McWhorter and I kicked that around. I took exception to what I understood Sam to say, but I didn’t quite get right what he had said. My apologies, Sam, if you hear this because I do like you.
    On how the internet is affecting culture
    Maybe I’m going to say pessimistic because we are so polarized. I mean, to the point where large numbers of people question the outcome of elections. And that goes in both directions, by

    • 53 min
    The Active Voice: Samantha Irby will make you rethink your toilet

    The Active Voice: Samantha Irby will make you rethink your toilet

    I was hoping to meet Samantha Irby in person, since podcast interviews are more fun that way and she is a fun person, but she is obstinately committed to Kalamazoo, the small Michigan city plonked equidistant from three Great Lakes. This podcast has not yet reached the point where I can justify the expense of a Courtyard Marriott in Kalamazoo for one interview. So, Zoom it was. 
    Kalamazoo looms so large in Samantha’s bio that it has become part of her brand. She doesn’t care for the literary cool clubs of New York and Los Angeles. She’s an outsider, but loved by insiders. She has a voice all her own—energetic, profane, wacked-out—that is of some place other than where all her peers seem to reside (physically and psychologically). And she is very nice, in that way that obliges everyone to remark on how nice people from the Midwest are. 
    Relatedly, she quit Twitter. Unrelatedly, she has a Substack about Judge Mathis. Actually, on second thought, I am pretty sure that is related. Relatedly, she has a new book of essays called Quietly Hostile, her fifth (“please buy it or I will die,” she implores readers). Relatedly, she writes for TV shows, including Shrill, Tuca & Bertie, and most up-to-datedly, And Just Like That… (the Sex and the City reboot). These are impressive achievements for someone who started her writing career with a MySpace blog in 2008 (“I met this dude who was like, ‘I’m really into writers’ and I wanted him to be really into me”). 
    That background, with a love for writing online developed before social media became a Thunderdome, has helped her find freedom in her art, so she can really let loose with foul language and exquisite potty humor. Samantha Irby gets to be who she wants on the internet. If only she could do it without the death threats… 
    Samantha’s recommended read
    *  Now That I Mention It by Meecham Whitson Meriweather
    Show notes
    * Subscribe to bitches gotta eat! by Samantha Irby
    * Find Samantha’s author profile and personal website
    * Quietly Hostile, published by Penguin Random House, is out in May 2023
    * Follow Samantha on Instagram
    * [01:27] On that phone call from Cynthia Nixon
    * [07:25] Writing for And Just Like That…
    * [11:38] Receiving feedback online
    * [13:44] Shutting down comments
    * [15:48] Being tagged by “some bitch”
    * [19:17] The challenge for modern writers
    * [27:27] Advice for emerging writers
    * [33:11] Becoming a writer, not giving up the day job
    * [35:32] From Myspace to Substack
    * [44:39] The newsletter as a job
    * [46:44] Getting voicemails from Warner Bros
    * [50:30] Living in Kalamazoo, Michigan
    * [56:06] Depression memes and hopefulness
    * Samantha’s profile piece on Lizzo for Time Magazine in 2019
    * miranda??? texting me?????
    The Active Voice is a new podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky, with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray, and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.


    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit read.substack.com

    • 1 hr 2 min
    The Active Voice: Jessica Reed Kraus goes where gossip reporters fear to tread

    The Active Voice: Jessica Reed Kraus goes where gossip reporters fear to tread

    No one covered the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard trial in quite the way that Jessica Reed Kraus did on Instagram and Substack, taking her readers into the courtroom, behind the scenes, and into some of the most salacious details of the actors’ personal lives. Near the start of the pandemic, the relatively unknown writer and influencer had pivoted from writing about home renovations and her four children in Orange County to something that she felt could bring people together in more civil conversations: celebrity gossip. Nearly two years on, Jessica has accumulated more than 1 million Instagram followers and more than 100,000 Substack subscribers. Now some of Hollywood’s biggest names turn to her to tell their sides of complex stories.. 
    She got there thanks to her bold and gleefully obsessive coverage of trials involving Britney Spears, Ghislaine Maxwell, and—her breakout moment—Depp-Heard. When the Depp-Heard case began in April this year, Jessica recognized its significance and felt compelled to cover it, despite having no prior professional journalism experience. Through daily Instagram Stories and then in-depth Substack posts, Jessica relayed gossip she had gathered through the proceedings, as well as phone calls, texts, DMs, and more, much of it from close-to-celebrity sources who would never talk to the mainstream media. Her scoops—unfiltered, unsanctioned, and unabashed—touched on the tawdry and the truly scandalous, almost daring the powerful subjects to respond. 
    So why has Jessica, who has been unafraid to take sides in the stories she’s covering, become one of the most trusted gossip writers among the Hollywood elite? What does her sudden success say about the rise of the influencer-reporter in the new media economy? And can the art of gossip be rediscovered on new platforms? 
    All this, and more, in this week’s episode of The Active Voice.
    https://jessicareedkraus.substack.com/
    Show notes
    * Recommended read: The Queen: What She Meant to Me in Vicky Ward Investigates:
    * House Inhabit by Jessica Reed Kraus
    * Jessica Reed Kraus on Instagram and Twitter
    * Depp Vs. Heard / Pt .1—The Phone Call
    * [01:13] Speaking to Johnny Depp on the phone
    * [08:00] Growing an audience through the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard trial
    * [09:18] On respecting the art of gossip
    * [13:00] The reaction from mainstream media
    * [18:32] On gaining the trust of sources
    * [19:35] How it all started
    * [22:01] On being branded as an “anti-vaxxer”
    * [27:06] Being banned on Instagram
    * [29:31] Making turning a passion into a career
    * [31:39] On speaking to Courtney Love while washing the dishes
    * [32:50] Preferring being behind-the-scenes
    * Newsletter Breakdown—A Welcome Guide for Newcomers
    The Active Voice is a new podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky, with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray, and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.


    This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit read.substack.com

    • 35 min

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