“If you put mics in front of people, they’re willing to open up in ways that in normal life would be impossible,” Max Linsky explained. A co-founder of Longform, originally designed with New Yorkers in mind, enabling users to save more lengthy articles and read them when they weren’t getting cell service on subways, he’s watched the site evolve into a haven for readers looking for curated nonfiction articles. What started as a side project in 2010 now welcomes millions of visitors each month.
After a few years, Linsky and his team at Longform began a podcast where they interviewed journalists, and he quickly “fell in love” with that medium. And in 2016, Pineapple Street Studios, the podcast production company he launched with public radio veteran Jenna Weiss-Berman was born, and now has grown to house over 40 employees.
During the pandemic, his idea to dedicate a podcast to speaking to the older generation took shape, partly due to his desire to speak to his father, who turned 80 and had heart surgery around Christmas, about feeling isolated during that time. In May, he launched “70 Over 70,” “a show about how we make the most of the time we have left,” which has both ordinary people and notable names such as Dan Rather, Alice Waters and Dionne Warwick, reflect on their lives thus far as well as their futures, including their takes on death.
“I can’t think of better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon than talking to Norman Lear about how he continues to stay present,” said Linsky, who serves as the podcast’s humbled host.
Linsky, who’s up at 5:30 each morning with his two small children, explained that he followed in the family business, since he comes from journalistic roots. In fact, his parents met because they both worked together at The Real Paper, an alt-weekly in Boston, the city where he was born. He moved to the Upper West Side at 13, and now calls Brooklyn, where the Longform office is located, home.
What was the original mission behind Longform how has it grown?
The original mission was pretty simple. At the time, it was before iPads, and the iPhone was only a couple of years old, and there had been these apps that were created that allowed you to save the text of a webpage and read it on your phone when you didn’t have cell service. For people living in New York who were on the subway — remember this is the time where your phone didn’t work on the subway ... My friend, Aaron Lammer, who I met in college, was really into how technology was changing the way people were reading. And as a journalist, I’d always loved the long articles in the back of Sports Illustrated. That was always the thing I gravitated toward. And so, we built the site to give people a really easy way to save articles for their phone so they could read it on the subway. One name that we almost went with and decided not to was “Subway Reads.” So that was a big part of the idea.
Tell us how your “70 Over 70” podcast came about through your dad and the pandemic.
It’s actually a show that I’ve wanted to do for years. Part of the reason that we started Pineapple was I just wanted to host one more show and have Jenna edit it. And I never got around to it, in part because we were building the business and there were a thousand things to do every day ... I’d done some interviews for Longform with people over 70 and the conversations had been really striking to me. But I think, in a way, I wasn’t quite ready to do the show until now.
And it was the experience of sort of watching my parents, but my dad, in particular, during the pandemic, that, I think, pushed me to really try and figure some stuff out. And I think he had an experience that was similar to all of us, but particularly people over 70, which was he was home and sort of isolated for the first time in his life ... And he and I have always been really close; we’ve always been able to talk about difficult things. He actually teaches leadership and a big part of what he teaches is how to have difficult conversations, and so that’s kind of baked into my family’s DNA. But I was struggling to talk to him about how hard this time was. And I think part of what was hard about it for him was that he felt like he was losing time. Like some time was being taken from him when time is feeling really precious ... And so part of the idea was to use the mics to help me have this conversation with him that I wasn’t quite sure how to have.
Your mom does the artwork for the podcast. How have your parents supported your career?
I think they supported it in large part by not pointing out that I’m following in the family business. They were generous enough to give me the space I needed to think I arrived at the idea of this career on my own. My mother was a journalist for decades. My father also worked at The Boston Globe and The Real Paper in Boston. That’s where they met, at The Real Paper, which was an alt-weekly. They’re incredibly supportive, but really the thing that they did for me was let me find my own way to this work and feel like that path was genuine. I think it was important that I went and started doing journalism in Florida where I didn’t know anyone.
How do you select your interview subjects?
Well, there’s two parts of the show. And we wanted to make sure that people were hearing from people over 70 that they had some familiarity with, so they could understand with some context this time in their lives. And also, we didn’t want it to be only well-known people, so every show starts with a shorter segment for someone who’s not a household name. And I’ve got this incredible group of colleagues that I’m working with on the show who have been doing interview after interview with people all over the world, looking for great and meaningful insights for the top of the show. And to be honest, we get as much reaction to those opening segments as we do to anything else. I think they really have meant a lot to people.
And then in terms of the folks that I’m having these longer conversations with, the main thing that I’m looking for is someone who’s game. My only goal in these conversations is to get people thinking out loud — to be in a conversation in which they are really being heard and therefore, really willing to figure out what they really think and how they really feel ... I think some of the interviews, people have actually been a lot more game than I was. I did this interview with André De Shields, who’s a Broadway actor, and in the first couple of minutes of it, he was just kind of like, “Max, c’mon, let’s go, I’m here. Ask me your questions.”
I listened to your interview with Dionne Warwick. I didn’t even know she was collaborating with Chance the Rapper and The Weeknd. That was so interesting.
The thing that was so amazing about her, to me, was I think of her as someone who’s had these really distinct acts, these different eras of her life. And for her, it’s all on one continuous theme. She’s always just been Dionne. I find that to be a really inspiring idea.
What are some surprising answers you’ve gotten?
I’ve asked almost everyone that I’ve interviewed for “70 Over 70” some version of “Are you scared of dying?” And what’s been surprising about the answers is that not only is that question almost never met with fear, the people I’m talking to seem to genuinely be at peace with the knowledge that their lives are going to end. But more often than not, that question is met joyously. And people have different ways of expressing that joy. But for me, someone who I think is very much still terrified that this could ever end, to hear that joy in people’s voices ... You know, Norman Lear said, “What do I have to be afraid of? No one’s ever come back and told me anything bad about it.”
To listen to Max’s podcasts, visit pineapple.fm