I can’t listen to Mike Rugnetta’s podcast in the subway. I tell him this, and he’s gleeful; I’m not the first person to say so. It’s too easy to miss a transfer on one of his many trains of thought when you’re making literal transfers, and constant distraction naturally detracts from a program meant to make you question everything your ears take for granted. It feels like nodding off in the middle of an important lecture from a favorite teacher.
Reasonably Sound, Rugnetta’s first foray into podcasts, just recently capped off its first season and will be resuming mid-March with renewed creative vigor by way of Patreon-sourced direct fan support. Each episode revolves around some topic related to sound: the magic of the dance-music beat-drop; the difference between screaming and shouting; onomatopoeias in comic books. Anyone familiar with Idea Channel, Rugnetta’s YouTube series four years running, will feel right at home. He still crams more disparate concepts and facts into five minutes than most thinkpieces manage over a thousand words, all in his characteristically chipper tone. And the intent remains, as always, to encourage the audience to completely rethink the familiar.
That said, Reasonably Sound is a digression from his video work. Where Idea Channel reads more like a hyperkinetic thesis defense — Rugnetta proposes an idea, then spends the rest of the video building out an argument for it, sourced from academia, social and traditional media, other YouTubers and more, with visual aids in the form of gifs, memes and original animations — each episode of Reasonably Sound is a composition.
“I tend to think of the show more like, ‘I’m gonna sit down and write a piece of music, and it’s also gonna contain information,'” says Rugnetta. The general format: four acts, which “usually get more specific and more theoretical as you go — except when they take digressions, which are announced with music. We’re gonna stop going down the path we’re going and go somewhere else for a second.”
Each episode of ‘Reasonably Sound’ is a composition.
The 30-minute format of a podcast gives Rugnetta the leeway to drift between tangents as he pleases — a more limited luxury in his videos — but it also gives him the freedom to ditch his template entirely. There’s an episode about white noise, recorded on a beach in Cape Cod, underscored only by the waves. Another episode is “a pastiche of readings from Theodor W. Adorno, Gawker, Taylor Swift’s Tumblr, Fashionista, Noisey, NME and Pitchfork.” There’s no formal introduction; classical piano fades in and floats in the distance, Rugnetta begins reading, and thirty minutes pass. The bits that stick with you are your pearls to keep. It’s a side that most fans of Rugnetta’s streamlined, hyperfocused videos probably haven’t seen till now.
“The sort of energy that goes into Idea Channel is appropriate for Idea Channel,” he says. “One of the things I always say about it is that it’s really important that I’m super excited about what I’m talking about.” He compares it to being at a concert and seeing an opening band you’ve never heard of, who nonetheless manage to get you pumped. “I really want that to happen because a lot of the concepts are so complicated. …Whereas Reasonably Sound… it’s not about that infectious excitement and speed. It’s much more about, ‘Oh! This is interesting. Let’s try to take it apart and take our time with it, and look at all these parts from different angles.’”
Rugnetta tells me that as a child he was enchanted by a large book called The Way Things Work. Each page featured full-color illustrations of blown-up machinery, each part distinct yet shown clearly as part of a bigger whole. He also had a brief childhood obsession with up-close magic, and watched lots of PBS — in particular, The Joy of Painting. “Bob Ross had an attitude of, ‘Hey, creativity is cool,’” he reflects. “’Anybody can paint, you just make a beautiful thing! Don’t worry about it, you can do it!’”
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His videos may lean a little more towards Bill Nye, but his can-do-ism is all Bob Ross. He cites performers Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson, and fellow podcasters Nate DiMeo and Cecil Baldwin, as touchstones for Reasonably Sound — but when I listen to the show now, I’m sure to stick an ear out for happy trees.
In college, one teacher, Randy Neal, encouraged Rugnetta to hold on to his wildly varied interests instead of whittling them down to one. “[He] was my electronic music instructor, who also taught critical theory classes. He shows people how these two things are related to one another, and he made a big impact on me. Everybody has their meaningful teachers, or whatever.” After earning his degree in musical composition and computer science, Rugnetta immersed himself in the downtown theater scene, writing music and taking the role of “someone [artists] could hire to like, build robots, or build video or audio systems.” This kept him in close quarters with open minds and kept his problem-solving skills sharp; he eventually formed his own performance groups, which juxtaposed facets of the Internet with critical theory. Now, he makes videos with a small team in Long Island City, Queens, engaging with a fanbase in the hundreds of thousands.
“If you are willing to approach these things by thinking about them a little bit, you can do it. And it’ll repay itself tenfold.”
With Reasonably Sound, Rugnetta is using his hard-earned platform in the ineffable world of Internet personalities to widen the public’s narrow-minded perception of audio. Apart from sounding great, it speaks to a common misunderstanding. “You are trained and encouraged, I think, from a very young age [through art class], to seize on visual culture,” he says. “And music classes are something else — it’s separate from art.” The visual, which is more immediate, is perceived as natural; the unseeable aural, meanwhile, is disregarded as abstract, unknowable. “It’s not as graspable, it’s much more ephemeral. So you have this reinforced idea that it is something different, that it’s weird and it doesn’t matter because you can’t see it… It’s not like it’s harder — I just think on a training level, or on everybody’s general expectation-level, it’s like, ‘Oh, sound and audio stuff is for special people, who are talented.’”
He says Reasonably Sound is to show people: “Listen, you have a subjective experience in the world, and included in that is audio — this thing that that we don’t normally pay attention to, that you might think is really hard to cram into your existence. But don’t worry!” He raises his hands in an “everything is fine!” sort of way. “If you have ears, and you can hear, and you have a brain and are willing to approach these things by thinking about them a little bit, you can do it. And it’ll repay itself tenfold.”
This is the mentality with which Rugnetta has, for about four years, served as a surrogate “meaningful teacher or whatever” for much of his YouTube audience. He insists that his and his team’s work is just the start of a conversation, which is carried through by the fans — in spite of YouTube’s social ecosystem, which he says isn’t particularly great for forming communities. In this sense, his grassroots audience was grown on some rocky ground; but the media giant is slowly taking note of the need for better soil.
Now, with podcasts, he has an even bigger challenge. Whereas everyone watches YouTube, podcast fans listen to their favorite programs on their favorite apps, of which there are several. But like-minded crowds — with ears, brains, and decent pairs of headphones — will inevitably get together. It makes sense: the classroom brings people together, but the library is where they stay together, whispering at a crowded table.