Wind-Up Fest might be a reboot of the Williamstown Film Festival, but it’s not limited by movies. With documentary film as its backbone, Wind-Up will expand from that and into other realms of non-fiction, including storytelling, journalism, and podcasts, to offer a multimedia experience. Representing that latter category will be Nick van der Kolk, creator, host, and director of Love + Radio, winner of the Third Coast Festival Competition’s top prize and part of PRX’s Radiotopia Network.
Van der Kolk started the show in 2005 as an experiment, a creative outlet on the side from his job at public radio. It’s gone through several variations since, including a stint on Alt NPR, public radio’s early attempt to create a podcast network, and later with Chicago Public Radio. None of these worked out to van der Kolk’s satisfaction.
“I think the institutional mechanisms were not set up for podcasts and that’s changed pretty dramatically in the last couple of years,” van der Kolk said.
The show began with the format of themes and shorter pieces around those themes, but van der Kolk wanted more out of the podcast.
“I was trying to think of a way of breaking out of that kind of limitation and that the solution was to do one person,” he said. “Unfortunately that means you have to find stories and people that are complicated enough that are going to be able to hold someone’s attention for a longer period of time.”
Longer pieces gave van der Kolk a chance to move into an area that interested him as much as documentary — creative works, which he doesn’t see as necessarily separate things.
“I’m particularly interested in documentary as a creative form, that it’s not strict journalism,” said van der Kolk. “There is a manipulation that’s happening, but you’re given these pieces and you try to figure out how to make these pieces fit together into a narrative in a satisfying way. It’s a fun challenge.”
Longer audio works were van der Kolk’s personal preference, and it was also a rebellion against the accepted wisdom of the early days of podcasting that encouraged work as short as five minutes. And as he set about focusing on one subject per episode, he also rebelled in another way — he didn’t insist on his subjects being likable.
“That’s something that a lot of radio shows are really quite keen on,” van der Kolk said. “They want their main subject to be relatable or likable. I don’t know why that’s the case in radio, why we think of things that way. Certainly I think film and television evolved past that. They haven’t dealt with those sorts of questions since the 1970s.”
For Wind-Up, van der Kolk will premiere the podcast’s October episode live, which will follow a spiritual Englishman who used to be in a cult, and now lives on a mountain in New Mexico.
“It’s a very tough one to describe. It’s going to be a little more abstract than we usually do things.”
Van der Kolk has done what he calls “audio screenings” before and has found the audience really responds to the opportunity to sit in a public place with others and just listen to an audio piece together, not the usual way that people listen to radio or podcasts.
“It’s a very solitary experience,” he said. “The work that I do, I attempt to do stuff that is complex that is going to generate a lot of discussion, so I bemoan that solitary aspect of it sometimes.”
Van der Kolk has discovered a growing culture of listening groups around the world, people who gather in spaces like theaters to listen to audio shows together. Love + Radio’s biggest non-English-speaking market is in Denmark, which brought van der Kolk to Copenhagen for an audio screening, and he’s done the same in other places, as well.
But sometimes, that need to connect hits a little closer to home.
“I got a phone call recently. We have a hot line for listeners and this guy called in and was just like almost pleading to have us call him back because he wanted to discuss the episode Red Dot with somebody. He wanted to talk about it with his wife, but he knows that she would never want to listen to something like that. My heart really went out to him.”