Public radio hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam of American Public Media’s “Dinner Party Download” have made names for themselves by cheekily telling listeners how to “win” their weekend events.
On a recent Friday night, the two hosted their own.
For their first live show they turned KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena into a quasi-soiree, complete with history-themed, violet-colored cocktails and celebrity guests, including Aubrey Plaza and LeVar Burton.
The event was a milestone for the radio program that started as a scrappy podcast and was expanded about a year ago to an hour-long show that has grown to 130 stations nationwide. It airs in Los Angeles at 7 p.m. Fridays on KPCC-FM (89.3).
With its mix of pop culture, food and alcohol, “Dinner Party Download” is a departure from the typical public radio lineup. Though the hosts gravitate toward the more frivolous side of the news, their attitude is in line with the values of public radio’s devotees who are interested in drinks, movies, books and music.
“It feels a little fresher maybe, but we speak the same language as many of the people who listen to public radio,” Newnam said. “The stuff we’re talking about appeals to a big cross-section.”
Gagliano and Newnam aren’t the only hosts tapping into public radio audiences’ thirst for pop culture — “Bullseye With Jesse Thorn” is a recent L.A.-based podcast-turned-radio show distributed by NPR that features interviews with arts and entertainment personalities along with cultural commentary, and the new NPR show “Ask Me Another” combines puzzles and trivia with music and a live-audience setting.
“Dinner Party,” which Gagliano and Newnam started in 2008, could be considered the icebreaker that helped public radio loosen up.
In fact, each episode starts with a segment they call “Icebreaker,” often a corny joke from a well-known person. “Small Talk” features overlooked news stories from the week that listeners may have missed while paying attention to the biggest headlines. “Cocktails” is a weekly history lesson with, as they say on the show, “a booze chaser” — a drink created for the segment by a guest bartender.
“Guest of Honor” gives Gagliano and Newnam a chance to have a little fun with actors and other celebrities. Recently, “American Hustle’s” Jeremy Renner talked about bowling; Oscar Isaac of “Inside Llewyn Davis” talked about working with T Bone Burnett and cats.
For the live show, comedian and “Parks and Recreation” actress Plaza talked about awkward interactions with fans. And Burton brought out the VISOR prop he wore as Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” before taking questions from audience members about etiquette — something he said he actually knows little about.
“For me, etiquette is a lot about common sense, which seems to be in short supply these days, so maybe I am an expert,” Burton said in a later interview.
Gagliano and Newnam were both producers for APM’s business show “Marketplace” when they came up with the podcast concept. Around the office and at dinner parties, they were the guys people would ask for recommendations on what was cool to listen to and where to eat and drink.
So when they decided to create a culture program, the conversation, according to Gagliano, went something like this: “How do we make a show where we just talk about all the stuff you talk about at a dinner party? Why don’t we just make it a dinner party?”
They started producing the podcast at Frank Stanton Studios in downtown Los Angeles, taking over the booth after the rest of the “Marketplace” newsroom left for the day.
Their professional radio chops gave the show a more polished feel than the typical podcast. Their quest for a snappy program had them whittling 30-minute celebrity interviews down to four-minute segments, which proved a challenge when they had film director Spike Lee on the show. “It was one of the most brutal things I’ve ever had to do to my own work,” Gagliano said.
Though the show has a hipster-friendly vibe, with appearances from indie rockers, comic book references and sex jokes from Margaret Atwood, the show also gets attention from those “who’ve given up on staying in the know about what’s cool or are maybe alienated by skinny jeans and tattooed baristas,” Newnam said. “We get lots of mail throughout the country from people who are like, ‘Thank you so much for turning me on to that.’”
Gagliano and Newnam have even reached the point where people recognize them in public, a rare form of validation in the world of radio. Once, a fan’s 3-year-old son pointed to the hosts and shouted “This is your icebreaker!”
They’ve also received shout-outs from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Web magazine Goop, and they’ve taken calls from publications asking for insight about how to behave at actual dinner parties. That, to the hosts, speaks to the appeal of the show. “People still have questions about how to start conversations and find things to talk about,” Newnam said, “so that’s kind of become our strange calling.”
As the show has grown in popularity and length — in October it added Boston’s WGBH-FM to its 130 stations and it typically ranks in the top-15 “society and culture” downloads in iTunes each week — the creators have added new features. “Soundtrack” has a musician provide a personal playlist. The segments are sly ways of getting guests to talk about things they would normally be reluctant to talk about or not have a chance to address in rote promotional interviews.
“All of a sudden you have Lisa Kudrow talking about being a mom,” Newnam said. “It’s a fun way to get a new dimension on our guest.”
A recurring theme of the “Dinner Party” is the two questions they ask each of their main guests: “What question are you tired of being asked in interviews?” and “Tell us something we don’t know; it could be about you or just an interesting fact about the world.”
“It’s always funny when the celebrities realize halfway through that they’re talking about that thing they don’t like talking about,” Gagliano said. For instance, it inspired Rashida Jones to talk about her father, Quincy Jones.
When this reporter threw the hosts’ signature “tell us something we don’t know” question at them, Gagliano hearkened back to the early 1990s, when his rock band the Smoking Pets played Lollapalooza in Pittsburgh. They were the first band to play and their set lasted 15 minutes for a crowd of 15 people. “We sold one cassette,” he said. And a little-known fact about Newnam? He has a tattoo of the word “tattoo.”