Starlee Kine was first featured on This American Life in 1997, when she was a college student. Founding producer Paul Tough interviewed her about her elderly neighbor, who was convinced she was a drug dealer. At the time, she was majoring in dramatic writing, which she calls “a stupid, dumb major” that “shouldn’t exist.” But radio made sense to Kine in a way nothing had before, and it’s where she’s spent the last 20 years working. This includes contributing one of the all-time-great TAL stories, “Dr. Phil,” in which, devastated by heartbreak, she calls Phil Collins and asks his opinion on a break-up song she wrote.
The piece is touching, funny, and showcases a kind of manic problem-solving personality that Kine would put to its ultimate use in Mystery Show, her Gimlet media podcast that premiered in 2015. In that show, Kine investigates mysteries around celebrity heights, culinary belt buckles, and 1970s lunchbox art, all while roping in a group of celebrities including David Reese, Britney Spears, and (most memorably) Jake Gyllenhaal. We talked to Kine about her life in media, solving mysteries, and how to get a major podcast over lunch.
You started contributing to This American Life in 1997. Could you tell me about that first piece? How did you come to think of pitching that piece to them?
I didn’t pitch it. I was in college at NYU, and there was a bookstore across the street—Shakespeare & Co. I had that neighbor, who thought I was a drug dealer. I made a video documentary about her. It was just really very bare bones.
Is that what you were doing back then? Videos?
No, I wasn’t, actually. I was a dramatic writing major, but it was a stupid, really dumb major. It really was. I don’t think it should exist as a major. It should just be combined with the film program. You like, write scripts. It was stupid. I barely did it, I didn’t like it.
I was going to class less and less, and then there was a video class I had to take. It wasn’t like the film school, it was some guy with a video camera teaching in one room, because the writing program wasn’t in any way integrated into the film program, so it was a very janky class. We had video cameras, so I decided to make a documentary about her, very much on the fly.
And my roommate, who was a filmmaker, helped me edit it. There was a theme song, reenactments with toys and stuff. And I’d have barbeques with the bookstore employees I was working with; I had a roof, I lived in the East Village. The lady who lived next door – there were two apartments, and we shared a wall –you could watch the video and then go into the hall, and she’d be standing in the doorway with a flashlight if you went out there, like an amusement park.
So one of my coworkers at the bookstore showed it to this guy Paul Tough, who was like one of the founding producers, brainstormers of This American Life. So he called me and did a story about me. And I was just instantly very drawn to—the show had only been on for a few years, so I didn’t know anything about that, or anything really. I’d never heard NPR before, in my life, until I was on it.
How was coming up with a second idea, then? Since that’s so serendipitous, did you feel like you could never come up with another idea?
No, it wasn’t even like that. It was so natural. I met Paul, and he made a lot of sense to me. I felt very—I was in awe of him, but it just felt very much, like, this feels right. I didn’t know anything about—I wasn’t aspiring to be anything like it. I didn’t even know that you could aspire to be this.
I mean that career path barely existed at that time.
I mean, it did in the sense that there were certain writers at The New Yorker who were doing that sort of thing. Lawrence Weschler was a big thing for me. He’s the one who wrote Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, about the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Everybody who goes to LA and asks, what’s a weird thing to do in LA? Every single person recommends the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
PJ [Voigt] at Reply All just tweeted, “What should I do in LA that’s not the Museum of Jurassic Technology?” So I know it’s still being recommended, but I don’t know if anyone knows why it’s being recommended. It’s because of a book called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. It’s great, and that was really inspiring to me, and Lawrence Weschler used to write for the New Yorker, and did tons of articles like that. I feel like there were tons of people doing stuff like that, but I didn’t—I wasn’t trying to be a journalist. I don’t know what I was. I was in the wrong place.
Journalism can be gendered. Men report a certain kind of story, and women report a certain kind of story. But on This American Life, everyone was reporting the same kinds of stories. That’s a unique environment.
I think This American Life is the only place I’ve ever worked where there was no gender divide at all. I never, ever thought of that, at all. When I worked there, it was mostly women producers, and Ira. There was definitely more women producers than men. It never felt at all like anybody was choosing stories because they were male or female.
It didn’t feel like that. Ira never felt particularly male to me, or not male. I’m not saying he’s not masculine. Very much to his credit, because I’ve now noticed it in other places, I’ve really come to appreciate it when I look back, because I never even thought about it there. There was absolutely never pressure to do – and I mean, I did a breakup story, and it didn’t feel like I was doing it from the girl’s point of view.
But your breakup story is one of the classics of radio storytelling.
It definitely struck a universal chord, because it was about heartbreak. It didn’t feel like girls were writing to me about it more than guys. I didn’t feel like a particularly girl story. Other than the fact that I called Phil Collins to like, ask—maybe that would be more of a girl thing to do? Maybe he responded, or said yes in the first place because of that? But as a guy, he’s also that vulnerable.
One of the things that struck me about that is how brave you had to be to that. I would be too shy, even approaching him in the proscribed space of an interview, where you approach someone as a journalist.
It didn’t feel like I was approaching him as a journalist. He didn’t know what This American Life was. Other than the fact that I was taping, and I knew that I only had this limited amount of time, it did not feel – it wasn’t a profile of him. It felt like an intimate conversation. I knew I was taping, and I didn’t want to blow it. But we set it up with each other, there was no agents or producers coordinating it. That whole exchange feels very natural. My email to him was just, “I’m feeling sad, will you talk to me?” And I know that he didn’t know what This American Life was. And I’ve come to appreciate that, too. That he didn’t do it for any kind of gain, really not at all. He didn’t know what the show was, or that it was going to be popular. He’s just a nice guy.
That’s been many years ago at this point. Have you ever heard any reaction from him?Afterwards, he said that he liked it. We email every once in a while.
Are you pen pals with Phil Collins?
I’m not pen pals with Phil Collins. We definitely emailed afterwards. One of my friends, Jesse Thorn, told me that he was interviewing Phil Collins, and he mentioned me, and Phil Collins said, “Oh yeah, Starlee’s such a nice girl. I get her emails sometimes.” I realized that I’d been sending like—you know, I’ll send mass emails sometimes about “I’m subletting my apartment!” or “Can anyone watch my dog?” and he was on my email list. So every time I did that, he was getting those emails. So he’d said to Jessie, “oh, yeah, she’s subletting her apartment,” not even trying to be funny.
Could you tell me a little about how Mystery Show came about?
I had the idea about three or four years ago. And I made a lot of the pilot three years ago.
I had the seed of an idea, and I taped my friend Laura, like really scrappily. I have a friend who works at Democracy Now! and they have these phone recorders, where you pick up the phone and it records the call. That’s what she’s recorded on.
I made the pilot because someone had told me that the BBC was looking for shows. So I put it together for that BBC deadline, and then that deadline turned out not to be anything. Most of the pilot you hear, I made in about two weeks.
That turned out not even to be a real opportunity. It evaporated.
That’s really disheartening.
Every place that I sent it to liked it, but didn’t have anything to do with it. Because podcasts hadn’t been–Serial hadn’t come out yet, and Gimlet hadn’t been invented, so no one knew what to do with it. I wanted a budget, and I wanted to be able to go places, I wanted to do that Britney Spears one. I knew what I wanted to do very early. I knew I wanted to do the meet and greet. But no place would pay you enough to have a salary and a budget.
Then Alex Blumberg and I had lunch one day, before Gimlet. He was working on raising that money and making Startup. He was only going to do Reply All and Startup that first year. I said, basically, I’m going to quit radio, I’m so sick of this. There’s nothing.
I was doing stuff, but I wasn’t doing enough. I was very discouraged from doing this pilot. It was just on my computer, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
I’m always fascinated by thing moment. Because you have to be so convinced that the thing you’re doing is worthwhile. To me, it’s so easy to be convinced by this feedback that it’s not worthwhile.
Well, I wasn’t getting bad feedback. I was getting “we don’t know what to do with this” feedback. Everyone liked it. Like, really liked it! The fact that they just didn’t know what to do with it was worse. Because it was like, well, I guess there’s no solution. If everyone had hated it or been underwhelmed, that would have been one thing. But they loved it, and there was just nothing to be done.
And then Alex and I went to lunch, and I didn’t even go to lunch to ask him to do it, because I thought he couldn’t. I was like, I understand that you’ve gotta do Reply All, it’s about the internet, makes sense, I guess that’s like a safer thing. We hadn’t even figured out the format of Mystery Show. I wasn’t even saying I had to solve them at that point. It was just that pilot.
Over the course of that lunch, I said, I’m quitting radio. It’s so hard to get work, there’s nothing I want to do, I don’t care about any of it, and I only want to do Mystery Show. And then he said he felt sad about that. And I wasn’t threatening him! We just felt, like, oh this is really sad. I was going to move to LA and try to work in TV.
We left lunch, still sad, just like, there’s nothing either of us can do. I was about to turn right to go home, and I really was about to leave. And I said, what if you just edited me and didn’t pay me? I just really need the structure of editing. And he was like, oh yeah, why don’t we do that? It was an afterthought. Then we started meeting at This American Life on weekends and editing that pilot. And then by the time Gimlet started, they did have enough, and they decided it could be a show. So, I was there from the very beginning.
I really do think if we hadn’t gone to lunch it wouldn’t have happened. Because at one point, a few years before, I’d sent the Mystery Show pilot to Alex, and he’d never said anything. So I though he didn’t like it. And then I was never going to bring it up.
But we went to lunch! And then Serial came out, and everything changed, really completely overnight.
Speaking of Serial, Sarah Koenig has been very frank that coming up with a story for season two was very hard. Have you felt that for the second season of Mystery Show?There’s just been different things to consider. I don’t want to get into it so much, because I’m trying to keep it…
Well don’t tell me the cases, but—
. . . yeah. But even like the process, I feel. Because I’m sorting it out, and I feel…
The last episode came out at the end of July. When is the second season going to come out?
I mean. This year.
Some time in the next 330 days?
Is that how many are left?
Aside from any particulars, how has it been for you, as a person, to put together the second season?
That’s what I mean, that’s what I don’t want to get into. It’ll all be incorporated in. I mean, yeah, there’s something that changes when you’re doing something and not knowing how it’s going to be received and then once it’s received. Even in the first season, after we put out the first episode, we were still making episodes while we were putting them out, and as you’re making them you’re getting feedback. You have to tune a lot of that out. You can’t predict how you’re going to feel. It does feel different once you know people are listening.
You think about the show more as a cinematic product that’s more of a TV show and less of a book or magazine, I’ve read.
I mean there’s certain magazine writers I’m inspired by. But when it comes to putting it together, I’m more influenced by TV and movies, yeah. I want it to feel cinematic, and sweeping, and use the medium. Especially scripted TV shows – the idea of seasons. I like the idea of there being seasons for Mystery Show for a reason. It’s not just you make a batch, and then you make another batch. I like the season format, and how in good TV shows, there’s not just we’re back for another year.
An episode of Mystery Show’s first season that seemed to resonate with people was the Jake Gyllenhaal episode; you were on Conan not long ago holding a tape measure to his head. Can you tell me a little about that episode? It’s a mystery from David Reese, who is great.
He’s the funniest man in America. When I was cutting that tape, I laughed every single time, and I never got tired of it. I taped some of that stuff when I was first figuring out the show, years ago. I went up to his house in Beacon one day, and like brought my dog, and was like, David, tell me about this. He makes that mystery, it wouldn’t work without him. He’s so so funny.
I don’t mean this as an insult at all, but is that stuff for real? Does David Reese really go onto celebheights.com, or was that something you made up together?
No, no, nothing is made up. It was because I had seen—David used to do these live-feed Facebook posts. That’s how he became an artisanal pencil sharpener – he was making a joke about artisanal pencil sharpening, and then did it as a business. David’s the kind of person who makes a joke, and then believes in the joke, and then it turns into a real thing, and he approaches it with total seriousness.
So, he had gone on CelebHeights and looked at Jake Gyllenhaal’s height, and I’d seen him talk about it at some event. And I know him, and we’re friends, and I was like, that’s a mystery. It’s a case. It’s all real. There’s nothing not true that you hear.
And it was great to watch you literally put a tape measure to his head on TV.
Yeah, but Conan wasn’t very precise. He didn’t hold him to it.
It’s almost like he was treating it as a comedy bit, and not a serious incidence of mystery solving.
Yeah. That’s true. He was just so fast about it. I mean, it was their idea. And Conan was the one who requested me to be on it. There was a hiatus, and they said they couldn’t remember another time he called during hiatus about booking someone, But he was like, I’m listening to this, get her on the show. Very flattering. And then with Jake, that was very last minute. The booking producer, I was like getting ready a couple of hours before the show, and the booking producer called me to say that she’s just seen Jake riding by on his bike on the set, and she had this idea that we should measure him. And she called his manager, and was like, this is so last minute, but would he want to do this? And he was like, yeah, of course. But it turned out that it wasn’t him on the bike, she was wrong, But he drove from wherever he was and did it.
Do you think of yourself as a woman in podcasting?
What’s been nice about Mystery Show is that I feel, more than ever before, that the reaction has come from men and women equally. When you’re a woman essayist, like, every woman I know has a book out. And you go to the readings, and it’s all women in the audience. It’s girls lining up to talk to you, it’s always girls that are coming. Just, without fail. Even at This American Life, even though I feel that “Breakup Story” was pretty evenly [mixed between men and women] who writes to me. But I’ve never gotten a more even mix of people who write to me. Also, when Mystery Show came out, I was hearing from guy friends I hadn’t heard in years, telling me that they loved the show. It really seemed to be something that guys responded to, I guess because guys fashion themselves as detectives. And I really like that.
At one point, Matt Lieber said, “More men listen to Reply All and more women listen to Mystery Show,” and I got really upset. I had this edge to my voice, and I was like, why are you saying that? Because I don’t think that it’s true. And I like how it’s not about being a girl doing it. I don’t feel that. But I do feel that it’s more the people who are calling the shots that are the guys now. I don’t ever feel like I’m catering to women more, or something like that. But now that I’m my own host, I’m more aware of the power structure. It’s men who are owning the things and starting the companies. It’s like, oh, that’s interesting. I want more women to be doing that.