In Conversation with Paul Bae

Paul Bae The Big Loop

At the end of every episode of The Big Loop, Paul Bae reels the listener back in with a promise. “We’ll be back in two weeks with our next story,” he tells us, “and it will be something entirely different. There’s no way for you to prepare for that one.”

He’s true to his word. Each story on The Big Loop is a strange, twisting journey—and then it’s over. The next episode will pull us deep into the orbit of a new character, with a new set of circumstances and struggles. Who knows who they’ll be?

Bae himself has lived many distinct lives. These days, he’s a mainstay in the audio drama world: on top of being the executive producer and writer of The Big Loop, he’s also the co-creator and co-producer of the breakthrough hit The Black Tapes. But before he began writing eye-widening, heart-wrenching audio fiction, he was a high school English teacher who once had Justin Trudeau as a substitute (oh, Canada). He’s also been a stand-up comedian, a TV host, and an evangelical youth pastor.

Bae has a knack for blending otherworldly premises with characters who are profoundly, sometimes painfully, of this world. We spoke about his evolution as a writer, his fall from faith, and his work to empower teens through podcasting.

The Big Loop is a relatively new project for you. What landed you here?

My Black Tapes partner, Terry Miles, has other projects, like TANIS and Rabbits. And he always encouraged me. He told me, “You really should take those stories you’re always writing and put them into a podcast.” At that point, I didn’t really have any interest in doing my own thing. But then when The Black Tapes season 3 was starting, we ran into a hiccup. An important staff member moved out of the country, so we had to press a hard pause. It was during that time that I thought, this is a good opportunity to revisit that idea of doing my own podcast.

Still, I wasn’t sure. I’m someone who gets bored very easily when I’m doing my own thing. You know how that is, right? When you’re writing and there’s no accountability at all in your life? So I looked at all my short story ideas, things that I’ve written treatments for, or things that I’ve tried to show to agents, and I thought, you know what? I should just make a universe where I can use all these things at once.

While I was thinking about that, I was listening to my favorite podcast series, Love + Radio from Radiotopia. The way Nick Van Der Kolk talks about stories, and the way he approaches stories, and the way he creates empathy — this should be at the front of any discussion about podcasting. Have you heard the episode about that colony of pedophiles?

Yes. I think it was called “A Red Dot”?

Yes! That was so hard to listen to. I thought that was going to be about Mars.

I think I did, too.

I don’t read the story descriptions; I just jump right in when it’s a trusted series. And five minutes into it, I was like, “What the hell is going on here? Who am I listening to?” There was a part of me that was thinking, “I don’t want to listen to this.” I trusted the producers to take me through a story I wanted to listen to, and this is the first time I’ve wanted to shut it off. But then I had to really look at myself. Why am I reacting this way? Where does my empathy stretch? I found myself hitting a wall in my empathy. I forced myself to listen to the rest of it, and I’m so glad I did.

So I started taking that episode apart in my head, thinking, “How did they achieve this?” And I thought, well, I want to do something like that now. So I re-jigged all my stories.

Do you remember any discoveries you made when you picked apart that episode?

I’ve studied a bunch of them, and I look at the times where the stories start. In “A Red Dot,” at the 5-minute mark you start to realize what’s going on. At about 8 minutes, you realize who the speaker is, and then at about 12 minutes, you start to realize his relationship to this world. Then complications start to unfold. But in “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” he presents you right away with what’s going on. And the one where the mother falls in love with her son?  I think it takes about 10 minutes before you even realize what’s going on. It takes a while. If it were at the 3-minute mark, I think I would have stopped listening. But by 10 minutes, you’re already so invested in the character that you’re pulled along.

What was your takeaway from that as a podcast writer?

When you tell a scary story, everyone’s enjoying themselves from the beginning to the end. That’s what we try to do with The Black Tapes. Love + Radio does something different. You don’t necessarily enjoy every story. But they hook you, and then it’s curiosity that drives the whole thing. At a certain point it’s not a question of whether I’m curious anymore. I’m now strung along and I don’t have a choice.

You definitely follow that method in The Big Loop, hooking people early. How do you figure out when to reveal what’s actually going on?

I experiment with how long I take to let the story unfold and when I set the hook. Episode 1, “The Studio,” is probably the longest unfurling. It takes you a long time to figure out what’s going on with this narrator in her apartment. And then you have “Goodbye Mr. Adams,” where I tried to frontload as soon as possible what’s going on. It’s a revenge story.

You mentioned before that you already had all these short stories and characters that you’d been writing. How often are you coming up with stories?

I’ve been writing since I was 19. Like a lot of people, I read Stephen King first. When you read Stephen King’s On Writing, it really makes you believe that you can do it, too. So I was writing pieces and showing to them to professors, and I got early encouragement. I actually thought I was going to be a writer at some point back then, of short fiction. But then I sent some pieces to the New Yorker and the Atlantic without an agent. And of course, nothing happened. I became a youth pastor, and then I became a teacher, and then I became a comedian. And during all that time, I just kept writing on my own. At this point I have about 75 story stems for The Big Loop. I’m not saying it’s going to be 75 episodes, because a lot of the episodes take up three stems and I combine them.

What do you mean by stems?

Stems are like the hook, the main premise. For the season finale of The Big Loop Season 1, “The Surrogate,” it started with just a machine that helps you take on the grief of other people. Then I thought the focus should be on the people that actually have to carry around the grief, and I combined it with another story I had.

These episodes come off as really intense character studies, in a way I don’t often hear in podcasts. Did that fill a need for you as a writer?

Yeah. Because with The Black Tapes, for example, that’s fun to write. I’m writing with my friend and we know these characters. We knew them as soon as we thought of them. And they’re types. We’re not in the same room when writing the dialogue, but we know it instinctively because we’ve seen these types before. Everyone’s seen an Alex Reagan and everyone’s seen a Dr. Strand. But I wanted to write something that was more observational. A character study of people in very, very strange situations. It really helps that I have the actors that I have, because I always write to the actor’s voice, or try to most of the time. For example, when Briggon Snow committed to doing an episode, he didn’t know which episode he was going to do. I started writing “Goodbye Mr. Adams” with the story stems in place, and I knew what the thing was going to be. But it wasn’t until Briggon came on that I started studying his voice and creating that character.

Tell me more about how you work with actors. How do you get the takes you need?

A lot of them are one-takes. Just one. For Season 1, some of them recorded their own without me around. And none of them were rehearsed. All the work came in the casting. For example, Tara Pratt is the actress in episode one. She’s a friend of mine, and she comes over to our house quite often. Last summer, she was over drinking wine with my wife. She was talking about something very personal and I happened to drift by the room, and I just sat in on the conversation. She talked for 20 minutes and I was mesmerized by the way she told a story and the way it was so slowly revealing. I thought, “This is a character I need to use. Her character right now is someone I need to write.”

So I went through my material, and I asked her, “Hey, do you mind if I use your voice from that night? I won’t use any of the details, but just your voice to write this.” And she goes, “No, no, go ahead.” It was kind of a sad story that she was telling. I told her, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to use your emotion.”

When you’re writing for an actor, you have to get yourself into a mood. And you have to sustain that mood for the whole writing process. At least, that’s the way I have to do it. When I sent it off to her, I knew within the first few passages that it would hit her. Apparently she read the first page and started crying in a Starbucks because she didn’t expect to relate to it so strongly.

So that’s my process. I try to imagine how the actor would do it, and what the actor is capable of in terms of delivering on a character solely through their voice.

 

Bae with his dogs: Ella, Billy, and Monty

What was the actual recording process like for that episode?

Tara did that whole thing in an hour and a half. She did two takes, and I mostly used the first take, because it was so powerful. I just had to stay out of her line of sight while holding the mic, giving her breaks to breathe. And at the end, she’s crying, and I don’t want to cry because then she’ll hear me sniffle. So I’m just listening to her. I guess that’s not a good thing for a director because I should be paying attention to the script. But I lost myself in her performance. At the end, I felt like that conductor who didn’t really do anything, but does a big show at the end with his arms, like, “We are done.” As if I had anything to do with it. It was all her. When she reached the end, I looked away, and I gave her a while to breathe. Then I looked at her and I gave her the thumbs up and handed her a box of Kleenex.

Podcasting is a pretty new career move for you. How do you feel like your past lives translate into what you do now?

I used to be quite a close-minded person. I didn’t like gray areas in my life. Which made me very disciplined, which I’m grateful for. When I converted to Christianity when I was 18, I remember this pastor telling me, “You’ve got to become a morning person so you can start your day giving glory to God and read the Bible every morning.” I took it seriously. And I was not a morning person. But I just forced myself. I was like, “Okay, just do this, get up in the morning and start.” And I became a runner because that was the only way to wake myself up: to run when the sun was rising. This was in Montreal, so often it was in the dark, two hours before the sun came up. I became a morning runner, a morning reader, and then a heavy coffee drinker because of that.

I was very black and white when it came to things. I took the Bible as literally as I could. And the way I interpreted the Bible was: gay marriage was wrong and homosexuality was a sin. So that’s what I believed until about 21, 22, when I started questioning certain parts of the Bible. When I was 21, I went to study theology at Regent College in Vancouver. They’re very serious about the theology there. And when I got to question it, they were very open about certain passages, saying, “Yeah, this can be interpreted several ways.” That blew my mind. These are people who went to school with C.S. Lewis, and they’re telling me, “No, there are many ways to interpret this. You’re barely scratching the surface with this.” And that started my fall away from faith, actually. They would probably hate hearing that if they knew that their time with me ended up in me falling away from Christianity.

So I guess I understand people who think like that, who are trying their best to interpret something in their lives and getting it wrong. I think that makes me a bit more patient in dealing with that type of person, because I know from personal experience that you can change that person. Because I remember people calling me out. I remember gay acquaintances saying, “You really think I’m going to go to hell?” And I would say, “Well, no.” So now I had to struggle with that. Did I really believe in a god that would send this person that I love to hell? Did I want to believe in that god? And it led into all those questions. So I think that created in me an ability to question myself and reshape myself. I’ve become really good at evolving. I know that whatever I say now, even, will evolve, and I’ll look back on this and hopefully not cringe too much at it.

So even this is a step along the road.

Yeah. At every point it’s a step, and I’m much more comfortable in that. I recognize that for a lot of people, myself included, certainty is very comforting. When it’s spelled out for you: “This is wrong, these people are wrong, and you’re right,” it’s incredibly comforting, in an existential sense. It makes you so much happier, right? So that’s the negative part of religion that I’m hoping people move away from. That’s the part I focus on whenever I talk to people. And I’m hoping with these stories in The Big Loop, that people can sit with them, get uncomfortable.

At what point in all this did you decide you wanted to work with kids?

I was a youth pastor. And even then, I was struggling with my faith. I was like, “This doesn’t make sense.” And then it slowly became, “Oh my God, we’re just making up stories about God.” I decided to become a teacher because I realized I didn’t want to be a pastor anymore.

Then one day, my wife at the time told me, “I’m struggling with my faith, so I need you not to question your faith so verbally.” Which is a very fair thing to ask of your partner, right? To keep it to myself because it’s affecting her joy. I get that. But what ended up happening was because I kept it to myself, I woke up one morning and I lost it. I didn’t feel any holiness around me. It’s hard to explain. I used to wake up every morning feeling God in my life, feeling his presence. When Christians say, “I felt his presence,” I totally get that. Then I woke up one morning, like, oh my God, this is an empty universe. I still remember that morning in Vancouver. It still haunts me, that feeling of waking up and there’s nothing. It was like being in a crowded room or a crowded school with people you love, and then waking up from a nap and everyone’s gone. That’s what it felt like, a universe without God.

But a strange thing happened. I became a better teacher because I didn’t see these kids as God’s creations. It’s hard to explain. I saw them as people adrift, like me. With nothing. And they’re just lucky to be here and I’m just lucky to be here and not be somewhere else where there’s no school and no food. Suddenly you get a big picture, when there’s no God. It’s not just about you. I’m trying to word this in a way that doesn’t come across as patronizing. It’s not that I had an enlightenment. It just became a thing of, “Man, we’re all kind of pathetic and alone.” And so the best I could do was my actions, to one person in front of me at a time.

So teaching helped it feel less like nothingness?

It took some years. I had to fake my way through it. I felt empty for about three years. Then when I left teaching for the first time, the emptiness started to be filled. But unfortunately, I was doing comedy, too, so I went full-bore partying. It was my time to experiment; I’d missed out on all my twenties.

What kind of comedy were you doing?

It was mostly standup. If you ever talk to standup comics, it’s fun when you’re onstage, but it’s like a drug you come off. You have a high from being on stage for 45 minutes to an hour, then you drink with your friends and you talk and you bullshit and tell road stories. Then you wait for the next show in another hour and do it all over again, and this time the crowd’s not as good, or they’re too drunk and you end up arguing with them. It’s a cycle of self-loathing. Not the healthiest place to be in. There are people like Jerry Seinfeld who have this rule: they do a show and they go straight home after. They don’t party with comics, really. And they’re the ones that tend to have long careers without drug problems.

That lifestyle must wear on you.

Yeah, it gets lonely. I like being alone, but I don’t like being lonely, if that makes any sense. Being in a hotel room in a small prairie town where people yell racist things at you while you’re onstage — there’s nothing lonelier than that.

Later on, I had a daily TV show in Vancouver. It was a comedy news program where we’d make fun of the news every day. That lasted a year. I didn’t enjoy it. I remember thinking I wanted to be famous, but once I had a daily TV show, I was like, oh God, I hate this. I hate being in front of a camera. And that’s when it really became clear to me that I don’t enjoy certain aspects of what I do. It’s the writing that’s the most fun.

I went back to teaching to try to put a pause on everything. And that’s when that emptiness totally got filled up. A couple of years into that, Terry Miles said, “Hey, want to do a podcast together?” So it took me right back out of teaching again.

Wow, that’s a lot of ups and downs.

Yeah. Ups and downs, but I see it all as one big arc up.

Do you remember when you started listening to podcasts or radio?

It was when I got my first dog, Monty. So it must’ve been 10 years ago. And by podcasts, I just mean, like, This American Life online. It was the streaming version. The early days. Because I was taking long walks with him in areas where I didn’t get any reception, I needed to pre-download it onto my phone. It was like, “podcast by necessity.” If I’d had constant connection back then, I don’t think I would’ve listened to podcasts. I just would’ve listened to news programs or NPR stuff on my laptop.

Do you remember when you first tapped into the audio drama world?

I think it was from working on The Black Tapes. Terry had approached me on a number of occasions to do a podcast with him, and I didn’t want it to be two guys on a microphone joking around. I wanted to write. He came over to my house one day in 2015. As we came up with the concept for The Black Tapes, he was throwing out all these other podcasts, because Terry was deep into podcasts and listened to everything. And I hadn’t. I think I’d only listened to 99% Invisible by that point, on top of This American Life.

So I listened to Welcome to Night Vale. And I was like, “Ooh, I like this.” I liked this immersive fictional world. I especially loved the tone of it. And then of course there was Serial. The Black Tapes came out on the heels of Serial‘s success.

There was nothing out there with fictional investigative reporters. Night Vale was fictional community radio, but there was really nothing else at the time. This was before Limetown came out, or The Message, or anything. So we didn’t really have anything to go by. Although in hindsight, everyone was sort of working on it at the same time, right? Everyone heard Serial and said, “That’s it.” It was a domino effect of everyone independently. I’m pretty sure the Limetown people hadn’t listened to The Black Tapes when they were creating Limetown. They were already creating it. There were a bunch of us creating it. And all of a sudden, it was this rush of content in the audio drama field.

I always tell people, if The Black Tapes came out now, it would just be a blip on the radar. But because we were early and there wasn’t too much filling that space, we got lucky. When I say I’m lucky to be here or lucky to be teaching, we were very lucky with The Black Tapes, too.

What do you want to hear more of as the audio drama medium continues to evolve?

I’m not really sure because people keep surprising me. I’m slow to this, and I feel like I’m always late to the game. I always come in a few seasons after people have been shouting out stuff. I used to think, “I wish there were a Monty Python-type paced comedy that I could listen to on my walks.” And I didn’t know Wooden Overcoats was already there. Then I listened to Wooden Overcoats and I was like, oh my God, this is perfect. I love exactly this. And then I remember one time I was like, “I wish there was a bounty hunter type action show. I wish someone could actually put me in the middle of the action.” And then Wolverine came out. Plus then there’s one called Joseph, by Ear Epic. They only have one episode out, but I think it has so much potential. At the 15-minute mark in their only episode, it just transported me. I’ve listened to that scene maybe five times now because it was so magical. I’d never heard an action sequence like that. So I reached out to them to just let them know, “You guys have magic going on here, whatever the hell you’re doing.” It seems like everyone’s doing things beyond my imaginative capabilities right now.

And so I’m hoping to see more…it’s hard to say. I think more dramatic stories that are incredibly compelling. Everyone wants that. I think there’s a way to do it that’s not in a Big Loop way. I think I might have stumbled by accident upon a way to do it.

You’ve spoken about representation in podcasting, and in the media more broadly. Do you think there are steps that can be made to showcase a wider range of voices in the podcast world?

I think audio drama is a bit different. It’s a space where, as far as I can tell, there’s not an overwhelming majority of the white male voice. That’s not the standard anymore. There’s a lot of people of color in audio drama. There’s a lot of queer voices. There’s a lot of really, really varied perspectives. There’s a show called The Ghost Radio Project; I listen to it on my runs. There’s something about that one that’s a great accompaniment to just running by yourself, long distances, in the middle of nowhere. I like pieces that are tone pieces, mood pieces. And when it comes to that, it doesn’t really matter. You don’t need the…I don’t want to say you don’t need the white male voice, because you never really need the white male voice. But you know what I mean? The tone is more important, and the perspective, than who’s saying it. And I love that in audio drama, a lot of people are picking up on that, saying, “Well, that means I can do it. I, who usually am never represented in other media. I can do it.”

I used to be an actor, and I’ve been a subject of typecasting. Being passed up for roles because I didn’t fit a part. And it often had to do with my ethnicity. I’m so glad that we’re at a point now where I’m working in a medium where that’s not a stumbling block anymore. Slowly I’m hoping that what’s happening in podcasting and audio drama bleeds over into more mainstream media. Black Panther was the movie that all of us needed. And then Crazy Rich Asians.

You’ve also been an advocate for podcasting as a medium for educators. You’ve made lesson plans using The Big Loop as listening material. How do you hope teachers can use podcasts?

I taught in East Van, which is considered an inner city. It’s not the roughest part of Vancouver, but it’s, like, a semi-rough part. I had rich kids and poor kids in my classrooms. And they don’t have access to anything that would give them a voice. Nothing. Like, what are you going to do, write an essay? You can’t write your way out of your predicament, unless you’re lucky and become a novelist. They didn’t have that. But so many of them love music. They love production, they love YouTube, they love working on computers, they love going online, and you can tell they want to be represented. You can tell they want a voice just by the way they go online and chat all the time. Or tweet. I think podcasts can capture that need to be heard in a positive way. Plus it gives them a skill that they can use in the future. In Vancouver and the surrounding area, we have a lot of public libraries building podcasting groups.

What do you think needs to happen in order for podcasts made by kids in, say, East Van, to reach the audience they need to reach?

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out a way to break into that market, that teenage market, because they don’t listen to podcasts. They watch YouTube. A lot of my friends’ kids are in that age group that I want to hit—like, 13 to 17—and they’re like, “Uncle Paul, I don’t want to listen to The Big Loop. What am I going to look at? You just want me to listen to it?!” And they’ll listen and be like, “Yeah, I liked it, but I’ll be honest: I’d rather watch a YouTube video.” Then I’ll give them other podcasts, and they’re like, nah. They’re texting. They’re too distracted. There are other things going on. Their lives are full of stimuli. And so I’ve realized: maybe I’m not the person. Kids need to talk to kids, because kids like hearing kids about their things.

So I think you need kids doing it. Kids out there making a podcast that speaks to kids’ issues. Actually, CBC has one right now. And when I listened to it, it’s not something I could relate to, but I could totally see kids listening to it. Because it talks about skincare, and what it’s like to pick a date for prom, and what it’s like to transition in school. It’s a lot of different stories. And I imagine it’s really compelling. The fact that it’s not compelling to me, a middle-aged man, is a good sign that it’s compelling to younger people. So I’m thinking I’d rather be a producer of that kind of effort than someone who makes it, because I’m probably too out of touch for that kind of thing.

What does a teen podcast sound like in your head?

Can you imagine a professionally produced podcast with really cool teenage voices speaking to other teens? Like, really well-produced. Imagine something like The Daily. But it’s kids. Can you imagine? Let’s see. Like, “Guys, guys, guys, I know you all saw on Snapchat today, you all follow so-and-so. Yo, listen up! Here’s what we’re hearing.” Oh my God. Or a Taylor Swift podcast. If I had more money, I would try to get a kid access to Taylor Swift’s camp. And they just follow her around and interview her five minutes a day. Imagine the advertising on that kind of a platform. That would be insane.

These are the kinds of ideas that go through my head every day. I can’t do it because I’m not a person with this kind of money, but someone out there… I’d like to see it in the space.

It seems like working locally is a great place to start.

Yeah. Like, can you imagine a kid from like a First Nations band or an inner city, and then someone like Taylor Swift just picks them and says, “Can you follow me around with this microphone?” And they get a view of her life, which will probably be weird, but they’d be able to hear all this and access it. And it gives a kid a voice, and it also gives the kid a head start somewhere in audio production. I don’t know, there’s so much potential. That’s just one tiny idea in a sea of ideas for this space.

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Rebecca Seidel is an audio producer and writer based in NYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeccaHope24.