Daniel Stern is a comedian, actor, festival founder, and one of the co-hosts of Radio Spaetkauf, Berlin’s English-language news show. Warm, informative, and buttered with a special kind of energy that makes you feel like you’re part of the gang, Radio Spaetkauf is an audio institution in this city and a reliable source of news for its inhabitants. We sat down with Daniel to talk about his relationship to performing, his life in Berlin, and the upcoming edition of his festival, PodFest.
Hi Daniel! Please introduce yourself and your podcast to our readers.
My name is Daniel Stern. My podcast is Radio Spaetkauf. That is the end of the sentence. I think.
And where would you like to get coffee?
I recently had a coffee adjacent product in my hometown of North Hampton, Massachusetts. It was a locally made juice Popsicle thing crafted from Vietnamese coffee so the top nine-tenths of the Popsicle consisted of this coffee turn ice cream turn condensed milk thing. I’d like to have that.
In terms of location, I would like to drink it somewhere adequately hot and beachy. I’ll be agnostic about which ocean because I always think that by the time you’re at the beach, your back is to whatever country you’re in any way, so what’s the difference?
You’re entirely right. In addition to a fictional land to the back of you, you’ve got a long career of performing behind you too. You’re a seasoned professional in the fields of comedy, films, and of course, podcasting. What was your earliest memory of performing?
That depends on what exactly you call performing. I was super into playing pretend as a kid and now as an adult, I look at that kind of play and I recognize that it is a form of performance. However, my first proper time on stage was in a student production of The Vampires Strike Out, which was a musical where vampires were the good guys – a pretty prescient genre for the 80s.
What character did you play?
I played the villain and I got to wear a bolo tie. I particularly remember that aspect being incredibly exciting.
In my character’s pinnacle scene, I got to do this huge maniacal laugh and despite being only seven, I recall taking this arc very seriously. I also remember that I mixed up my lines, a mistake which triggered the other kids to perform that particular scene on a noticeable loop. Like everyone else, all I remember from my childhood are my traumas.
It’s interesting that you remember the audience’s reaction – do you tend to focus on their response as opposed to your own experience when you’re performing?
Yes. I’ve come to realize that for me, the joy of performing is mostly to do with the audience. I actually pushed Radio Spaetkauf towards live recording for that very reason. I don’t like imagining our audience, I prefer to see them. I don’t know how stage actors do their job because I could never just be on a stage and pretend that the people in front of me aren’t there because when I see them laugh I want to wink. I want to be able to give a thumbs up. I want to interact with them.
That’s interesting though because I think a lot of people perform for themselves and not the audience, but for you, it seems like you perform to gauge a reaction as opposed to doing so to feel a certain way yourself. Would that be right?
Yeah. You’ve got me. I’m entirely dependent on other people’s approval to be happy. However, I’m also fascinated by that dichotomy in general.
For example, a painter finishes their art form when they finish a painting but when you do stand up, your process is entirely different. Your art form only exists in other people’s reactions and their experiences, not really in your own.
So what inspired you to branch from in-performance where you could see their experiences in real-time into podcasting?
Well, when my wife and I moved to Berlin I had no friends. I had no contacts, no permission to work – no anything. One day I was home alone and I typed in the name of a comedian that I liked on iTunes and I discovered his podcast. From then on I was entirely hooked.
Podcasts made me feel like I had friends when I literally had none. My wife, Melissa, would come home and literally ask me, “Did you see your friends today?” and I would be like “Yeah I saw this guy, and this lady, and whoever.” The podcast hosts I listened to became my real life, but sort of fake, friends.
It’s interesting that you say that because I think Radio Spaetkauf has managed to capture that same friendship-like energy. Listening to it feels like you’re overhearing a group of mates catching up. Did you intentionally mirror that same essence because it’s what first introduced you to podcasting?
Well not consciously, but that’s actually how the show started. Joel and Maisie used to meet up and read newspapers and then at some point they had the genius idea to record their conversations. From there, the cast grew and morphed into what it is today, but their friendship was the basis of the show.
While listening to conversations that sound like they stem from friends feels easy, nailing dialogue behind the scenes can be challenging. Do you script your shows?
Yeah. That’s our big secret and something that always surprises people when they come to see one of our live shows. We have scripts and most of what gets said on the podcast are on those papers. We simply couldn’t do the show without that structure and by and large, that format comes from Joel. We walk into recordings with a script and then the conversations grow from there, except for my parts actually, I don’t have a script.
You don’t have a script?
No, I don’t. I used to but you could clearly tell that I was reading from it and it didn’t feel right. It’s like I have some sort of weird innate resilience to authority – I don’t want some page telling me what to say! I’m joking. In all honesty, I was bad at it. Reciting a script in a natural fashion just isn’t where my skills lie.
However, aside from satisfying my silly innate resilience to authority, there is another reason we refrain from giving one host a script. This structure gives a voice to our audience members who might not be as clued in on German lingo or news stories as we are as hosts. Because I don’t have something to read from, I react to remarks in the stories that seem unbelievable because I’m actually reacting to them in real-time. I think this helps to ensure that we don’t skip any details. Normally there are quite a few points during the show where I’m like “What?” or “Hold on!” and they’re not for dramatic effect. They’re an exclamation of my genuine confusion.
As you mentioned, your show is known for recording shows live. Walk me through what this is like.
Recording lives brings a host of horrible problems, but those problems often provide some laughs or a least a colorful backdrop for the episode, so for me, it’s worth it.
For example, there have been times when my child has joined us on stage. Now, most of my co-hosts aren’t used to having small children climbing on them or baffling nonsensically at them while they’re receding a serious news story, so this can be pretty distracting but it can also be extremely entertaining. In fact, I would say that of all of our guests, my son has probably been the most controversial.
Looking at where you were when you first moved to Berlin, with no work permit and few friends, compared to now where you’re a well-known fixture in the city and a co-host of one of its biggest podcasts, how do you feel that being a part of Radio Spaetkauf helped you on that trajectory?
Oh, it’s given me everything.
It’s given me a sense of belonging and an authentic sense of actually being part of this city. I feel informed and entitled to have opinions on the place where I live because I know what goes on here and that’s entire because of the podcast. The show introduced me to some of my best friends and encouraged me to become more involved in stand-up and hell, inspired me to start podcasting generally. Honestly, I don’t know who I’d be right now in this city without it. It’s integral to my identity as a Berliner.
It’s funny because people often come up to me and thank me for the podcast because it helps them stay up to date on the city’s news, but the truth is, without the podcast I wouldn’t know what was going on in Berlin either. It’s a two-way street. It almost feels like I should be thanking them because if I wasn’t on Radio Spaetkauf, I would literally be listening to Radio Spaetkauf.
You’re not only one of the voices of Radio Spaetkauf, but you’re also the creative mind behind PodFest Berlin, the city’s first major podcasting festival. Could you tell us about the genesis of this project?
Yes of course. There are so many people working in podcasting in Berlin or at least in podcast adjacent industries in the city, however, up until the festival there were few occasions where podcast people would meet other podcast people. I wanted to gather all Berlin podcasting folk, both the big guys and the people who would just talk dirty to a microphone in their basement, and give them space to cross over. In October I organized the first edition and now I’m planning the second installment which will take place in July.
What are you most looking forward to in the next edition of the festival?
Well, we’ll have tons of live podcasts, which as you might have noticed is something I’m almost evangelically passionate about. One of the greatest things about the last edition of the festival was watching podcasters who have never been in front of their audience before delivering a show to them live. Seeing them walk out into a room of people who had been listening to them solitarily was so special.
We’ll also be running a podcast relaunch program called the Slingshot which will is geared towards reviving podcasts that have gone dormant or that never made it past their pilot stage. We’ve partnered up with the Alliance Institute and together we’re going to use our resources to help a handful of podcasters relaunch their shows.
What inspired you to incorporate this initiative into the festival?
Well, I think there’s this damaging stigma in podcasting nowadays that preaches the craft to be this super selective art forum, you know? There’s this common trope that ‘everyone has a podcast’ and to that disinsentivises people to start their own. There have also been huge walls put up in the industry so that people listen to a few exclusive podcasts as opposed to this wealth of independent ones.
To me, and I know this sounds corny, I honestly believe that every single voice is unique. I think that anyone who has a good idea and desires to get behind a microphone should be encouraged to do so. Everyone can have a podcast. Gatekeeping podcasting isn’t cool.
And to finish, what is your favorite sound?
I mean, not to be that trite, but my children’s voices are so remarkable to me. Saying that their voices are my favorite sound feels weird, but they’re definitely my favorite voices. There’s no doubt about that.
Actually, hold on, I’ll probably regret not finishing our conversation on the sweet note of my children’s voices, but I did hear a particularly cool sound recently. We have these books where you can press buttons and hear their bird songs because my dad was super into birds and I want to pique my son’s interest in them too. A few weeks ago I was lying in bed and I heard this COO-COO-COO and it was the noise of one of the birds from my son’s book! I recognized it immediately. Who knew the audio design in children’s books was so perfect.
interview by Alice O’Brien for Bear Radio.
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