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UCI alumnus' podcast series blends philosophy, investigative journalism and storytelling

The brainchild of Barry Lam '01, "Hi-Phi Nation" aims to weave philosophy, sound, and stories for the public.

“Why do we allow the dead to have so much power over our lives?” asks Barry Lam in the first episode of his new podcast, “Hi-Phi Nation,” a ten-part audio series weaving storytelling, investigative journalism, and contemporary philosophy to address meaningful contemporary issues. The first episode, “Wishes of the Dead,” begins with background on Milton Hershey, whose charitable trust tied his for-profit businesses to a nonprofit trade school for white, male orphans without disabilities. It brings up a complicated issue—why do we allow so many resources to be tied, in perpetuity, to what dead people want, rather than what living people want? Lam, an alumnus of the University of California, Irvine, who double-majored in philosophy and English, tackles this complex issue and many others in his series.

In his episode on “The Name of God” (released February 14, 2017), Lam starts the conversation with a story that made headlines in February of last year—the Wheaton College professor who was suspended and eventually lost her job after wearing a hijab to show solidarity with Syrian refugees. Bringing together theologians, religious scholars and former Wheaton College professors, Lam is able to recount an important story while revealing the question at the heart of the debate: is there a difference between words that name things and words that describe things, particularly the words religions use to refer to God? The conflict at Wheaton College turned on whether it was true to say that the God of Christianity was the same as the God of Islam. In a style reminiscent of “Serial,” the Peabody-winning nonfiction podcast co-created and co-produced by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, Lam takes his listeners through the event by interviewing people intimately familiar with it, and then bringing in subject-matter experts who can contextualize and clarify the debate for a public audience, often offering his own philosophical views as well.

The first season of Hi-Phi Nation began on January 24 and will continue with a new episode each week for ten weeks. Current episodes that are available include: the wishes of the dead, soldiers’ views on the morality of war, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic views of God, and the history and aesthetics of mash-ups. Future episodes will focus on whether the study of ESP is science, the role of war in determining norms of masculinity, the philosophy of love, and truth.

Below, we ask Lam about the impetus for Hi-Phi Nation and what he hopes to accomplish.

How did you come up with Hi-Phi Nation, and what did you hope to convey with the title?

The title is a play on hi-fi as in hi-fidelity, and “phi” as in the Greek letter, which is an abbreviation for philosophy. Hi-Phi helps to convey that it is philosophy done through sound (and story). The word “nation” expresses a vision I had that the show would spread across the country with the goal of getting people to look to philosophy for its insight into conflicts they hear from stories in the news, history, law, fiction, and nonfiction.

You aim to cover a wide-range of topics—how are you choosing them and is there a common theme throughout them?

In the first season, I wanted to exhibit the range that philosophical thinking has to offer to the public, and so I wanted to make sure that the stories, philosophical areas, and styles were wide-ranging. Honoring the wishes of the dead, the morality of war, the semantics of religious language, the aesthetics of pop music, the nature of love, these cover a whole lot! Usually what I do is start with a philosophical topic I think is interesting to me, and then I seek out stories from current events, history, the law, or policy-making where I think the central conflict turns on this philosophical issue, and then I find philosophers who have some insight to offer about that issue. I want to show that philosophy has a lot to offer to storytelling, and storytelling has a lot to offer philosophy.

What are you hoping to accomplish with Hi-Phi Nation?

The primary goal is to have a large and diverse audience that, through the show, come to appreciate philosophy as a subject that provides insight into a wide range of human experiences, and from there value it for themselves, their children, and their policy-makers. The second is to exhibit to philosophers that serious work can be done in philosophy that weaves narrative storytelling, and in mediums other than print. The third is to create something my colleagues have a desire to teach with. Students can listen and learn on their commutes, at the gym, or lying in their dorm room bed at night, and it can spark their desire to go in-depth in their readings. The final goal is to create a platform by which philosophers who wish to engage in the practice of philosophy through more than just a printed essay, and through more than just thinking about philosophical issues in isolation, can collaborate and produce segments, programs, or series of their own.

While you were a student at UCI, you had your own radio show on KUCI. How did that inform the work you’re doing with Hi-Phi Nation?

Not only did I have my own show, I was Program Director, Training Director, and General Manager! KUCI played an enormous role in my college life, and it plays a large role today in how comfortable I am around the machinery of radio production, even though I still consider myself terrible for live radio.

What are your plans once this season is over?

I want to continue producing 10-episodes a year at least for the next few years. It is going to be difficult going back to a full-time teaching load, but the hope is that I can get more funding at least for the second season, and then hopefully the show will have a large enough audience where underwriting can sustain it for the near term. I am serious about making this a new kind of collaborative medium to bring philosophy to the public. 

Barry Lam is an associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College and a fellow at Duke University. To listen to Hi-Phi Nation, subscribe on iTunes or visit: https://www.hiphination.org