Coffee Talk: An Interview with Radio Coffeehouse

E sits down with the ladies behind the clever new podcast that’s taking the Viennese coffee house tradition into the twenty-first century. 


I first came across Radio Coffeehouse through their insightful podcast on language. After just a few minutes of listening, I was hooked, and curious–who were the genius minds putting this content together? A few clicks (and listens) later, I understood. Radio Coffeehouse is run by the clever duo of Caitlin Smith and Rebecca Vogels, both of whom are based in Vienna. In their words, Radio Coffeehouse seeks to “[Keep] the Viennese coffee house tradition of mixing great coffee with interesting conversation [through] stories about interesting people, places and ideas.”

When Caitlin and Rebecca offered to do an interview with us here at The Tonic, I was thrilled. As you’ll see in their answers below, they’re just as thoughtful, informed and insightful as I’d hoped, which make them the perfect people to, ahem, brew up podcasts on a wide range of topics.

Caitlin Smith is a Canadian composer and writer living in Vienna.

Rebecca Vogels is a German writer and academic living in Vienna.

Rebecca Vogels is a German writer and academic living in Vienna.

What inspired you to start Radio Coffeehouse?

As freelancers, we both spend a lot of time working in the same cafes. While chatting/procrastinating one day, we discovered that we’re both addicted to podcasts. And since we were both looking for a new creative project, it was a short jump to making our own podcast.

What were the biggest hurdles you had to jump in starting Radio Coffeehouse? Alternately, was there any aspect of the process that was easier than expected?

Everything was hard at first! Although we had a lot of the necessary skills already–writing, audio editing– it was a steep learning curve to figure out how to tailor those skills to this specific medium.

And we’re still fighting to find enough space and money to create the pieces we really dream about. On the other hand, the collaboration between the two of us has been really lovely and easy from the start– and we’ve been lucky to find other great people to work with here in Vienna.

As I’m sure you’re aware, many European coffeehouses in their earliest conception were seen as “hotbeds of sedition and scandal” that brewed “that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE” (Dr. Matthew Green has written a great article for the Public Domain Review that touches on this). Thankfully, we’ve come a long way. In that vein, though, how have you been received so far? Have you met with any resistance you didn’t expect?

Cafes are definitely not the hotbeds of scandal that they once were in Vienna– and many of the older Kaffeehäuser have been decidedly sanitized for tourist purposes. But that doesn’t mean these public living rooms are completely without controversy– we recently reported on the “Küssen Im Prückel” (Kissing at the Cafe Prückel) protest for our Coffee Breaks feature (the first German language episode). A few months ago, a lesbian couple greeted each other at this cafe with a chaste peck on the lips before ordering their coffee, and were promptly booted out of the cafe by the management, who claimed that they were disturbing other guests. The two women involved spoke out, and the incident sparked a huge protest outside the cafe- you can hear sounds from this protest in our episode.

Otherwise, cafe owners have been very friendly about us working in their spaces. We’ve even struck up a collaboration with Coffee Pirates in Vienna’s 9th district, where we’re going to have our official launch party later this year.

What’s your listener-ship like? Are you surprised at all by who’s been listening to Radio Coffeehouse?

We’ve been really pleased with the range of people who are interested in our podcast. Because we produce in both English and German, and cover both local and international topics, we’ve been able to reach a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the largely American– and British–focused podcast scene.

Who have been your favorite people to talk to so far?

Caitlin: I found Aneta Pavlenko fascinating- she’s the Russian-American forensic linguist we talked to in Episode 2. She told us about her work for the US courts helping to determine whether non-native speakers of English could understand their Miranda rights when they were read them. Her story is part detective thriller, part nerdy linguistic theory. You can hear it here.

Rebecca: Talking to Alix Lambert about making documentaries about prison tattoos in Russia was haunting, and her stories really stuck with me (see episode 3).  We had been doing a lot of research about prison systems around the world, but the stories Alix told us about prison in Russia was like hearing about life on a different planet- a really tough, inhumane planet.

Who’s your dream guest?

We’re working on a series of episodes about prison systems- we want to talk about the lived experiences of incarcerated people in Europe and North America. So… we’d love to talk to Michelle Alexander about her book “The New Jim Crow.”

To a large degree, Radio Coffeehouse is filling a void left by dwindling public spaces–not just coffeehouses, but libraries, town hall meetings, etc. How do you think public spaces have changed over the years, and to what degree is the internet now filling their role? What are its triumphs and/or failings in this regard?

This project came about because we were both lonely working from home all day. This seems to be pretty common for people of our generation, because so many of us do the vast majority of our working, collaborating, creating, and researching online. Many of the old gathering places are not part of our daily routine anymore- the water cooler, the public library. We both grew up in small towns, where gossip was conveyed by the man bagging your groceries, or the woman at the post office. We get this gossip now through Twitter- but there’s something about the human voice missing online. It’s the verbal connection we miss. Radio Coffeehouse is a way for us to reach out and talk to interesting people about a huge range of topics from all over the world.

In spite of being somewhat isolated by the internet age, we’re spinning it to our advantage too- twenty years ago, it would have been extremely difficult for amateur radio producers to get in touch with and interview a jewelry designer in Burundi (check out our upcoming Coffee Break with Margaux Wong!) or a journalist in Kabul. But now we can get in touch with these people with the click of a button.

A sub-theme of Radio Coffeehouse seems to be language (we particularly enjoyed your first talk on the subject). In what ways do you see language as a powerful and/or limiting tool for Radio Coffeehouse?

Caitlin: That first episode came about because I was/am struggling to learn German in my adopted home of Vienna. It was comforting to discover that academics the world over have mapped the process of language learning, and that this process is a struggle for everyone, especially adult learners like myself. And since we’re producing in two languages now, working on the podcast has been an integral part of my strategy for learning German.

Rebecca: And we definitely see this dual-language identity as being an important part of the project. The world is not monolingual, and so an international podcast should not be monolingual. As we mentioned in Episode 1, so many people use multiple languages as a tool for everyday life, and we want our discussions in Radio Coffeehouse to be part of people’s everyday life.

Selecting which guests you talk to and what about gives you remarkable ability to shape a particular narrative. How does the element of social responsibility play into your choices to cover certain topics over others?

We’re both drawn to strong narratives with a social justice element. Because we’re not tied to a regular news cycle, we have the time to talk about issues that matter but are not often brought to light. We want to talk to people about their research or area of expertise to get to the theory- the “why”- behind problems or confrontations we see in contemporary society. But we also want our episodes to tell a story with a relatable narrative, to draw listeners into the real-life circumstances that prompt social theory.

Our range of topics is deliberately broad- anything that people would talk about in a Coffee House. This gives us room to follow long lines of inquiry and be intuitive in our choice of topics. For instance, in Episode 1 we talked to a lot of linguists. In doing so, we came across the research of Aneta Pavlenko, who works as a forensic linguist in the US Justice system. After interviewing her, we realized we had a whole new episode there, and so that became Episode 2. While talking to Aneta, we also became interested in some of the issues of justice and incarceration that were raised. This reminded Caitlin of a friend she had met at the MacDowell Colony, Alix Lambert, who had done a documentary about prisons in Russia. It also reminded Rebecca about an article she had seen about issues in the Austrian prison system- and so we were off to Episode 3, On Prisons.

As each of our full-length episodes feeds into the next, we give ourselves free reign to follow threads stories of everyday life around the world.

One of your more recent additions is your Coffee Break series, which offers shorter audio interviews with people from around the world. Can you talk a bit about how and why that series came to be?

Our half-hour episodes are slow-burners- we take about 2 months to produce each of these. In between, we wanted a smaller series, something lighter on its feet. Coffee Breaks are five-minute interviews with anyone, anywhere in the world. We ask them a standard series of questions about their favourite cafe, coffee house, or daytime resting place. We want to find out about the social architecture of public living rooms by asking: how and why do people use public spaces? As cities around the world become ever more crowded, we believe it’s important to carve out these quiet spaces where individuals can rest both physically and psychically. This series is a long-term, cross-cultural study in chilling the fuck out.

How do you see Radio Coffeehouse growing and changing in years to come? Are there particular goals you have in mind?

We look forward to continuing our two current series, Radio Coffeehouse and Coffee Break. And we’ve just started collaborating on a short comic opera about the Viennese obsession with death (Mortality! The Musical) which will be released as a series of podcasts.

Long term, we’re both looking to incorporate our other projects under the Radio Coffeehouse label. Rebecca is working on an academic research project and book about music, migration and the politics of public space. Her research will become part of our podcasts. Caitlin is writing an opera about the impacts of Canadian intervention in the Afghan war– a chamber-jazz podcast opera, which Radio Coffeehouse will produce in late 2016.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for your great questions!

Caitlin and Rebecca, thank you!  Hearing you ladies talk motivation, goals, and Coffeehouse culture writ large only confirmed my suspicions that you are geniuses. I know I speak for both J and myself when I say you inspire us. 

xox E

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