The New Yorker Radio Hour
Profiles, storytelling and insightful conversations, hosted by David Remnick.
Last Episode : November 24, 2023 5:00am
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As a child, Bradley Cooper would mime conducting an orchestra, and he asked for a baton from Santa. Decades later, as a filmmaker, he fulfilled his childhood dreams in the acclaimed new film “Maestro.” Cooper co-wrote and directed the movie, and co-stars as Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the greatest American conductor ever. In a pivotal scene, Cooper conducts the famous London Symphony Orchestra with a full chorus, in real time, through a performance of Mahler, which Cooper calls the “scariest thing I’ve ever done.” But the movie focusses less on Bernstein’s well-documented musical triumphs than on his extremely complicated personal life and marriage—as a proudly nonmonogamous bisexual—to the actress Felicia Montealegre, who is played in the film by Carey Mulligan. “I had no desire to make a biopic,” Cooper tells David Remnick, especially of a man whose life is so well documented. Despite his proven track record as a box-office draw and critical success, Cooper found himself on the receiving end of noes from major studios when he shopped “Maestro” around. “It makes sense what they [said],” Cooper concedes: “ ‘It’s a huge budget. It’s a subject matter that no one will be interested in. We just can’t justify it.’ ” With rave reviews and a holiday release setting his film up for a likely awards-season run, Cooper should feel vindicated. “This movie… I made absolutely fearlessly,” Cooper says. “And I knew I had to because that’s a huge element in Bernstein’s music. It is fearless.”
The American public’s increasing fascination with artificial intelligence—its rapid advancement and ability to reshape the future—has put the computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton in an awkward position. He is known as the godfather of A.I. because of his groundbreaking work in neural networks, a branch of computer science that most researchers had given up on, while Hinton’s advances eventually led to a revolution. But he is now fearful of what it could unleash. “There’s a whole bunch of risks that concern me and other people. . . . I’m a kind of latecomer to worrying about the risks, ” Hinton tells The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman. “Because very recently I came to the conclusion that these digital intelligences might already be as good as us. They’re able to communicate knowledge between one another much better than we can.” Knowing the technology the way he does, he feels it’s not currently possible to limit the intentions and goals of an A.I. that inevitably becomes smarter than humans. Hinton remains a researcher and no longer has a financial stake in the success of A.I., so he is perhaps franker about the downsides of the A.I. revolution that Sam Altman and other tech moguls. He agrees that it’s “not unreasonable” for a layperson to wish that A.I. would simply go away, “but it’s not going to happen. … It’s just so useful, so much opportunity to do good.” What should we do? Rothman asks him. “I don’t know. Smart young people,” Hinton hopes, “should be thinking about, is it possible to prevent [A.I.] from ever wanting to take over.” Rothman’s Profile of Geoffrey Hinton appears in a special issue of The New Yorker about artificial intelligence. Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI (which created ChatGPT), spoke with David Remnick on this episode of The New Yorker Radio Hour.
Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt is a noted historian of antisemitism, and serves the State Department as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. Violence and threats against Jews have been surging for years. “We’ve been seeing [antisemitism] coming from all ends of the political spectrum, and in between,” Lipstadt tells David Remnick. “We see it coming from Christians, we see it coming from Muslims, we see it coming from atheists. We see it coming from Jews.” In the aftermath of Israel’s military strikes on Gaza, particularly on college campuses, she is very concerned about widespread sentiments that deny Israel a right to exist. While she doesn’t believe students or faculty should be penalized for expressing solidarity with Palestinians or Israelis, she believes that the language used by some influential people “has served as a green light to the haters,” she says. “It sort of takes the lid off.” And ethnic prejudice, she notes, rarely limits itself. “Once you start dealing in the stereotypes of that one group, you’re going to start dealing with the stereotypes in another group.”
For the follow-up to her acclaimed and controversial début feature film, “Promising Young Woman,” the writer and director Emerald Fennell (also well known as an actor on “The Crown”) has made a dark satire of not just aristocracy but our collective preoccupation with it. “Saltburn” follows a college student who joins a wealthy classmate at his family’s mysterious old country estate, which the director shot as “a sex object.” Fennell is very familiar with this world—albeit from a distance. Her father was a jeweller who sold work to Elton John and Madonna, and Fennell went to the same boarding school as Kate Middleton. “As a female filmmaker, more than any other kind, you’re expected to be a memoirist. People are more comfortable with that,” she tells The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman. Her previous film, “Promising Young Woman,” about a woman’s attempt to hold a rapist accountable, had an extremely dark ending that infuriated many viewers, but that Fennell found to be more honest. “I don’t think of myself as a liar at all. I hope I’m very honest—but that’s what a liar would say.”
In a relatively short period of time, Amazon has exerted an enormous amount of influence over a broad spectrum of American life. From the groceries we buy to the movies and television shows we watch, Amazon has been setting the prices and driving potential competition out of business. Its prices may seem low, but “Amazon has actually quietly been hiking prices for consumers in ways that are not always clearly visible,” the Federal Trade Commission chair, Lina Khan, tells David Remnick, but “can result in consumers paying billions of dollars more than they would if there was actually competition in the market.” Khan, who is thirty-four, published an influential paper about applying antitrust law to Amazon before she was even out of law school; now she is putting those ideas into practice in a suit against the company. “Amazon’s own documents reveal that it recognizes that these merchants live in constant fear of Amazon’s punishments and punitive tactics,” Khan said. “Ultimately, our antitrust laws are about preserving open markets but also making sure people have the economic liberty to not be susceptible to the dictates of a single company.” (The company’s response says that the F.T.C.’s argument is “wrong on the facts and the law.”)
As Israel marks one month since the deadliest terrorist attack in its history, David Remnick sits down with Brooke Gladstone, the host of the podcast “On the Media,” to talk about reporting on the conflict. He spent a week in Israel as people were reeling from the horrors of October 7th and as the Israeli government was launching an unprecedented campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Remnick details the process behind “The Cities of Killing,” his ten-thousand-word piece for The New Yorker’s magazine. “I’m an American, I’m a Jew, I’m a reporter, and I try to call on those identities, recognize whatever powers I have, but also weaknesses, to tell the story as best I can,” Remnick tells Gladstone. “And, as I say in the beginning of the piece, knowing that it wasn’t just rhetoric, it was confessional almost. Knowing that I would, at least for many readers, fail.”
As the Black Lives Matter movement brought sustained national attention to police shootings of unarmed Black people, there have been many efforts made around the country to reform policing. The movement also became associated with police abolition and the controversial call for defunding. Kai Wright, the host of WNYC’s “Notes from America,” convenes a panel to look at the effects of the movement on policing, talking to the policy analyst Samuel Sinyangwe, of Mapping Police Violence; the attorney Anya Bidwell, of the Institute for Justice; and Michael White, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Assessing the results of reform efforts remains difficult, because obstacles exist even to the collecting of data. “We have a system of eighteen thousand different law-enforcement agencies, each with their own set of policies and practices, their own department culture,” Sinyangwe says, and yet certain patterns are repeated year after year: Black people, he says, “are about three times more likely to be killed than white people” by the police. The group explores the widespread adoption of body cameras, and the push to change legal landscape around qualified immunity, which make it difficult to prosecute police officers even in egregious cases of the use of force. Bidwell argues that, “as long as we have a system of checks and balances that operates properly,” it is possible to reduce crime, while keeping the public and officers safe. “If everybody does what they’re supposed to do, then we can actually have a win-win-win situation.” And although there have been reductions in arrests for low-level, non-violent offenses, many systemic, deeply troubling trends in police departments have continued unabated, including a relatively stable number of a thousand and fifty to twelve hundred people killed by police annually.
Sybrina Fulton was thrust into the national spotlight just over a decade ago for the worst possible reason: her son, Trayvon Martin – an unarmed teenage boy returning from the store – was shot. Her son’s body was tested for drugs and alcohol, but not the self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense and was acquitted. “Trayvon Martin could have been anybody’s son at seventeen,” Fulton tells David Remnick. He was an affectionate "mama’s boy” who wound up inspiring a landmark civil rights movement: Black Lives Matter. BLM became a cultural touchstone and a political lightning rod, but all its efforts can’t make Fulton whole again. “I think I’m going to be recovering from his death the rest of my life,” she says. “It’s so unnatural to bury a child,” she says. Fulton became an activist and founded Circle of Mothers, which hosts a gathering for mothers who have lost children or other family members to gun violence. Plus, the poet Nicole Sealey, whose “erasure” of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report turns a damning account of police killing – that of Michael Brown – into a work of lyric poetry, imagining a different future buried in the present.
In a new miniseries from “On the Media,” “We Don’t Talk About Leonard,” the ProPublica reporters Andrea Bernstein, Andy Kroll, and Ilya Marritz investigate the background of the man who has played a critical role in the conservative takeover of America’s courts via the Federalist Society: Leonard Leo. It traces Leo’s path from humble roots in middle-class New Jersey (he was nicknamed Moneybags Kid) to a mansion in Maine where, last year, he hosted a fabulous party on the eve of the Supreme Court decision to tank Roe.
After returning from a week of reporting in Israel, David Remnick has two important conversations about the conflict between Israelis and Arabs both in and outside of Gaza. First, he speaks with Yonit Levi, a veteran news anchor on Israeli television, about how her country is both reeling from the October 7th terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas, and grappling with how to strike at Hamas as the country prepares for an invasion that would be catastrophic for Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh maintains that peace is possible, if the influence of Hamas and the Israeli far right can be curtailed. David Remnick’s Letter from Israel appears in The New Yorker, along with extensive coverage of the conflict.
Much of the peril and persecution of the McCarthy era is well-trodden territory in historical dramas, but the burden that the Red Scare placed on the L.G.B.T. community is another story. The historian and writer Thomas Mallon published a novel called “Fellow Travelers,” drawing from real-life events, about a gay couple living under the shadow of the McCarthy witch hunts; it has now been adapted into a Showtime miniseries. “The government was really on a tear when it came to dismissing gays from the State Department—but really all over in the early fifties,” Mallon tells David Remnick. “So really any gay romance had to be tremendously clandestine.” Gay Americans targeted by McCarthy and his acolytes were forced to assert not only their patriotism but their humanity, too. “The book is full of people trying to reconcile things which society and the government are telling them are irreconcilable,” Mallon says. “But the people themselves don’t see any moral or logical reason why.” Mallon talks about the political climate in nineteen-fifties Washington and about the pioneering L.G.B.T. activist who picketed the White House years before Stonewall.Share your thoughts on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast.
The director Spike Lee looked back at the length and breadth of his career so far during a sit-down with David Remnick at the New Yorker Festival. Although Lee’s storied filmography may be familiar to movie buffs, few are likely to know as much about his humble beginnings as the scion of a celebrated, but often unemployed, musician—the late Bill Lee. The young Spike Lee bore some resentment toward his father, an upright-bass player who eschewed countless gigs because he refused to play an electric bass guitar. “[I]t wasn’t until later that I saw that, yo, this is his life. He was not going to play music that he didn’t want to play.” As an artist in his own right, Lee has taken a similar approach to filmmaking. He has tackled a myriad of genres and difficult subject matter, without sacrificing his unique voice and social consciousness to satisfy Hollywood. “Some things you just can’t compromise,” he told Remnick. Now in his fourth decade as a filmmaker, Lee hopes to one day make a long-gestating bio-pic about Joe Louis and have his career last as long as that of one of his idols. “Kurosawa was eighty-six!” the sixty-six-year-old Lee said, of the Japanese filmmaker’s retirement age. “I have to at least get to Kurosawa.” Plus, the sports writer Louisa Thomas talks with the New Yorker Radio Hour’s Adam Howard about the stars to watch in the N.B.A.’s new season. Share your thoughts on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast.