“It was this close,” he says.
We’re sitting in the lobby bar of the Quirk Hotel in his hometown, Richmond, Virginia, and he puts down his beer, shifts forward in his chair, raises his arm and points his finger about 20 centimetres from my face.
Didn’t he fear for his life?
“I was freaked out, not so much because of the gun, but because I wanted him to think I was cool,” he says. “I mean, the dude had definitely been in some scrapes, but on some level I could tell it was kabuki theatre on his part. For some reason it felt very apparent to me that nothing was going to happen.”
Devotees of Love + Radio know that this is van der Kolk’s territory. He prefers to dwell in the grey areas, searching for stories about secret lives, morally complex characters and narratives with twists in the tale. And he has no time for moralising or endings tied up in a bow.
Some of his show’s most notorious episodes have included Jack And Ellen (about a woman who poses as a teenage boy online in order to blackmail pedophiles), The Living Room (about a woman who witnesses a story of love and death through the window of a neighbouring apartment building) and A Red Dot (about a man who is championing the rights of America’s most reviled group – those on sex offender registers). An episode called A Girl Of Ivory, about a love triangle, has such a wild twist in the middle that I almost got whiplash when I first heard it.
“I want you to wrestle with yourself while you’re listening to the show,” says van der Kolk. “I’m big on the listener being morally culpable in what’s going on. This kind of work requires a really bizarre mix of deep empathy and sociopathy.”
I’m big on the listener being morally culpable in what’s going on.
The 38-year-old son of two therapists, who grew up obsessed with This American Life, BBC radio dramas and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, van der Kolk has no trouble going to murky places and digging around to see what’s hiding there. He started Love + Radio back in 2005 because he wasn’t hearing the complicated stories he wanted on the radio. He released episodes sporadically and flew largely under the radar until he won an artist fellowship and Love + Radio was picked up by the Radiotopia network in 2014, which meant he could devote himself to the show full-time.
He digs deep, trying to get three interviews with his subjects – the first he calls “a fishing expedition” to see what’s there; the second is more directed; the third comes after he starts editing and discovers what connecting material he might need, as he avoids any narration.
But how does he gain the trust of the people in his stories, especially if they live outside the norms of society or hold views that many would consider strange or unethical?
“We come to them with very little agenda and no axe to grind,” he says. “I think generally people sense that, even if they’ve taken on bad press in the past. The vibe we give off is one where we want to understand and let them tell their story rather than tell their story on their behalf. When we explain that’s where we’re coming from, people appreciate that.”
As for subject matter, he lives by one of the maxims of documentary film-maker Viktor Kossakovsky, who wrote The Ten Rules of Film Making – Don’t film something you just hate. Don’t film something you just love. Film when you aren’t sure if you hate it or love it. Doubts are crucial for making art.
“I think confusion is a very underrated state of being,” says van der Kolk. “The lack of visual element in radio and podcasts is so freeing in so many ways, because the moment you put someone on the screen, even if they haven’t opened their mouth yet, we instantly come to all these conclusions about who they are because we’re visual creatures.
“It’s also a weird paradox that Love + Radio could not exist if not for the world of the internet. I’d be doing some version of it on some community radio station or whatever, but for it to have legs and find an audience, it needed the internet. Yet, so much of what we do is completely the opposite of the internet age. We’re like the anti-Twitter. Social media is all about the immediate reaction and getting pissed off about something. We insist that people slow the fuck down and not jump to conclusions.”
Writer and author Barry Divola – who specialises in music, popular culture, food and travel – lives in Sydney, but his heart lives in New York.