BETA Member Drive: Lisa D’Apolito, Matt Taibbi, Shadrach Kabango

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Comedian Gilda Radner
Gilda Radner in “Love, Gilda,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In this member drive edition of the show, we revisit interviews with filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito, journalist Matt Taibbi, and award-winning emcee Shad Kabango.

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  • Gilda Radner Shares Her Own Legacy In 'Love, Gilda'

    It is impossible to measure the legacy of comedian Gilda Radner. She was the founding member of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast (dubbed the “Not Ready for Primetime Players”) and created some of the show’s most iconic characters.

    Executive Producer Lorne Michaels says Radner was the first cast member (along with Chevy Chase) that audiences really connected with.

    She’s also an inspiration for modern day comedians including “SNL” cast members Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong and Bill Hader.

    Furthermore, her courageous and pioneering fight against ovarian cancer has transformed how we cope, educate and support families impacted by cancer with the launch of Gilda’s Club, a nationwide community of support centers.

    “I just thought she had a really, really important legacy. Not only as an iconic female comedian, but also as somebody who really inspires people who are going through cancer,” filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito told WPR’s “BETA.”

    D’Apolito was creating fundraising videos for Gilda’s Club when she was inspired to put together the documentary about Radner’s life and career for CNN Films entitled “Love, Gilda” released in 2018.

    The documentary’s title references Radner’s warm signatures in letters to friends, families and fans, but also embraces the spirit of who she was.

    “Love is the whole message of Gilda,” D’Apolito said. “Gilda was not just somebody who wanted to be loved, she was somebody who really loved.”

    It isn’t only Radner’s love that permeates the film. It’s her voice. D’Apolito was given rare access to Radner’s personal archives of videotapes, audio tapes, photos, writings and journals. Radner’s best friend, Judy Levy, worked with D’Apolito to convince Radner’s brother in Detroit to share these private keepsakes.

    The result is a remarkably moving documentary voiced by Radner herself.

    “So once I heard her audio tapes, I was like ‘Oh my God, if Gilda could tell her story in her voice that would be amazing,’” D’Apolito said. “With a lot of audio work and a team of an amazing dialogue restorer, I think it worked in the end.”

    One of the more poignant approaches D’Apolito employs in the film is handing this rarified material to the likes of Poehler, Hader, Rudolph, Strong and other comedians like Melissa McCarthy and having them read and react to it.

    Radner was born to an affluent family in Detroit who began parenthood later in life. Her father was much older than her, but showered her in unconditional love.

    “It was a family that humor was very, very important … so she was always entertaining her father,” D’Apolito says.

    Radner’s father died when she was 14 and his death affected her greatly. Radner felt she was at a pivotal age, as a girl grows into womanhood, to lose her parent and experienced a kind of arrested development. This childlike innocence surfaces in many of the characters she would go on to create for “SNL.”

    D’Apolito believes this loss also drove Radner to seek out this same kind of unconditional love throughout life.

    “She was always looking for that love. Whether it was the love of an audience or the love of a person, but that was really Gilda’s quest, was to always find that sort of love,” she said.

    After a failed marriage to musician and “SNL” band frontman, G.E. Smith, Radner met the love of her life, actor and comedian Gene Wilder, on the set of the 1982 film, “Hanky Panky.”

    “Gilda adored him,” D’Apolito, who spent some time with Wilder before his death in 2016, said. “She wrote love stories to him. She talked about him all the time. She just adored him.”

    On Monday, Oct. 20, 1986, Radner received a call from her internist, diagnosing her with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Her diagnosis was dire. She only had a few months to live, but Radner would live for two and half more years.

    “She was sad until she went to this place called the Wellness Community, which is the founding basis of Gilda’s Club and she met other people with cancer. She was able to talk to people who were going through the same things that she was going through,” D’Apolitio said.

    Radner was determined to bring awareness and exposure to cancer with celebrity and her humor. In 1988, she collaborated with her longtime friend and “SNL” writing partner, Alan Zweibel, for an appearance on his show, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”

    “I love the fact that Gilda was able to go back on television, was able to talk about cancer and had that moment,” D’Apolito said.

    Radner died in May of 1989 at the age of 42.

    D’Apolito’s film features incredible footage, shot by Wilder, of Radner’s time in the Wellness Community and her brave fight against cancer. After she died, Wilder would go on to found Gilda’s Club in her honor. There are now 18 centers across the country.

    “There’s hundreds of thousands of people through the years that have been helped by these programs, so I think she has a pretty interesting legacy,” D’Aopolito said.

  • Journalist Matt Taibbi Explains How Following The News Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

    Journalist Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s also the winner of the 2008 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary. His latest project is a serial online book called “Hate, Inc.” How, And Why The Press Makes Us Hate One Another.” He recently talked to WPR’s “BETA” about it.

    These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity.

    What is the major theme of “Hate, Inc.?”

    “The main theme that runs through the book is that we in the commercial media now are financially incentivized to wind people up and make them angry with each other. Whereas in the old days of media, back in the days when we had three networks and just a couple of newspaper chains, we had exactly the opposite dynamic in media. The idea was to make the audiences less wound up and actually more placid because we were trying to reach the widest possible audience,” Taibbi said. “Now what we do is we have a divided demographic where, you know, MSNBC goes after liberals, Fox goes after conservatives, and the easiest financial route to success is just making those groups angry with each other.”

    How has the media industrial complex turned the news into sports?

    “One of the things is that sports is a format that definitely works commercially, that the networks are familiar with. They know how to sell it, they know how to market it. And we’ve stolen a lot of things from how we cover sports and transplanted it on to presidential campaigning. You’ll see that a lot, especially on election nights, if you watch election coverage on the cable networks. You’ll see that the setup on the sets is almost exactly like a Sunday countdown show for the NFL. You’ll have one analyst from one team, one analyst from another team. And then there are people who make predictions about which team is going to win. And everything becomes about the horse race,” he said.

    “We borrow a lot of the language and the stylistic aspects of sports coverage for things like debates, which are just chock-full of boxing metaphors from start to finish. And I think a lot of that is just a formula because it’s easier to train audiences to understand politics as something that they have to root for, as opposed to trying to train them to think in a nuanced way about a very, very difficult subject.”

    How is following the news like smoking?

    “This kind of content that we’re doing nowadays, is basically about monetizing anger. If you click on basically any news story through social media, it’s geared up to make you upset about something. And (President) Donald Trump is the perfect example of a political story that people just can’t have any neutral feelings about. They either love the guy and hate his enemies or they hate him. And so any story about basically anything involving Trump is going to get people furious. Then they’re going to read that, they’re going to go to social media, they’re going to argue with people about that, and they’re going to stay in this emotionally-amplified, heightened state of sort of anxiety all day long,” Taibbi said.

    “That has an addictive effect, this has been talked about by people who’ve studied the way that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter work. People become addicted to the dopamine rush of anger that they get from reading a news story. And we just sort of sociopathically crank this stuff out there and dump it on audiences without thinking about what it does to their mental health. But I think most people would agree that if they stopped following the news for any length of time, and you notice this when you go on vacation, that you’re just happier.

    “This product that we’re selling — we’re selling you your own rage, basically bottled and amplified — it’s emotionally destructive in the same way that cigarettes are physiologically destructive. And we don’t think about it as much.”

    Does Taibbi think that writing so candidly about this connection may be hazardous to his health and his career?

    “Actually, I found that writing about all this has been really therapeutic for me because I had all this bottled up for years because I’ve been struggling against it in the business. And my hope was in writing this and showing people how the business looks from the inside and what the thought process of a person who creates media content is, that people will be able to protect themselves from some of this a little bit, that maybe they would not get so upset about things that are designed to get them upset. So it’s helped me calm down a little bit. And I hope the book also helps people not take things so seriously,” he said.

    What is the connection between the film version of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel, “American Psycho,” and the way we consume the news?

    “There’s a scene where (the serial killer Patrick Bateman) and his friends are in an upscale restaurant in SoHo and they’re talking about the news that day. And they’re explaining to each other how much they care about homelessness. One of them talks about Sri Lanka and how all of the Sikhs are massacring Muslims. Of course, he gets it wrong. That’s part of the joke. But the idea is that the news in ‘American Psycho’ was just another consumer product that was part of his outward expression of normalcy whereas in fact, in the inside, he was crazy. But we do this a lot in America. We talk about the news as if knowing about it is doing something about it. And we think that by educating ourselves about how things are terrible in certain parts of the world or certain problems that are going on, that alleviates the guilt that we feel about not changing the world in the right way, whereas, in fact, in many cases, it’s like something that we wear.”

    In “Hate, Inc.,” Taibbi writes: “I work in this business and don’t know whom to trust.” So how does he do his job?

    “It’s very difficult. In the last couple of years, that whole segmented demographic problem has gotten I think so intense that I don’t know if even the most quote-unquote reputable newspapers are always accurately representing things or if they’re leaving things out because they’re afraid to lose their core audiences,” Taibbi said. “So I actually spend a lot of time now when I want to know about a news story, I just put on my journalist hat and start calling sources to ask them rather than read the news, which is kind of a sad thing. And I think that’s where we’re headed in the future is that people are going to increasingly turn to alternative sources because they’re going to not trust the traditional sources as much anymore.”

  • 'Hip-Hop Evolution' Features Rap Music's Architects And Legends

    As host of the Peabody Award-winning Netflix documentary series, “Hip-Hop Evolution,” Shad Kabango has had conversations with the architects, innovators, luminaries and legends of hip-hop.

    An award-winning emcee himself, he confesses to WPR’s “BETA” that he’s a bit star-struck when sitting down to interview his hip-hop idols.

    “But, the cool thing is, I don’t feel like I have to hide my inner fanboy, because they’re human beings too and they’re also amazed and surprised and delighted to do such special things,” he said.

    The Birth Of Hip-Hop

    That human element is front and center as Shad explores the evolution of the uniquely American genre and traces its timeline all the way back to August 1973. A teenage Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell threw a party for his sister in their apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx, which is considered hip-hop’s “Big Bang” moment.

    He was playing the sections of records that they called ‘breaks;’ a breakdown of drums and bass, some funky kind of percussion,” Shad said.

    The innovation came from Herc having two copies of the records he played. He’d pick the needle up and place it back at the beginning of the “break” on one record as the other continued to play, creating a repeating loop of music Herc called the “merry-go-round.”

    The records were funk, soul and reggae, providing an alternative to the dominance of disco. As Shad explained, “You could call James Brown really a godfather of hip-hop, because his break beats are so fundamental, foundational to the music.”

    Herc is part of an accepted trinity of early DJs credited with the birth of hip-hop, which also includes Afrika Bambaataa, who’s credited with “bringing this sort of ethos of hip-hop being about unity, knowledge and empowerment,” Shad said.

    Then there’s Grandmaster Flash, who Shad describes as “The real technical innovator, because what he did, was he made that whole looping thing with the break beats super smooth.”

    In the documentary, Grandmaster Flash said, “Most DJs concentrated their efforts on the tone arm. It’d be totally sloppy, off beat. I knew there has to be a better way, and after trying many different things, I placed my fingers on the vinyl. I let it go … stopped it. Let it go … stop it. I said to myself, ‘I have absolute control of the record.’”

    Rapper’s Delight

    In the early days of hip-hop, it was all about the DJ. The person with the microphone — the emcee — was just there to hype up the crowd. That soon evolved into couplets and short rhymes, expanding in to crews of multiple emcees with increasingly elaborate routines. But hip-hop was still considered spontaneous and ephemeral — to be experienced in the moment.

    “Hip-hop at that time was a spontaneous thing,” Shad said. “A lot of the people at the forefront at that time in the Bronx and in Harlem; they didn’t really imagine this being something you could capture on record.”

    That all changed in 1979 when producer Sylvia Robinson gathered three kids from New Jersey in a studio to rhyme over the groove from Chic’s “Good Times.” The result was “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, and it exposed the world outside New York City to hip-hop, selling millions of copies.

    But the members of The Sugarhill Gang stole many of the song’s lyrics from well-known New York emcees, who’s parties they had attended. Shad reveals that Grandmaster Caz, who’s considered one of the greatest emcees ever, wrote more than a third of the song.

    “I mean, you can even hear the name ‘Casanova’ spelled out,” Shad said. “I mean, that’s Caz.”

    So, what did New York emcees think of the track?

    “They hated it,” said Shad. “They really, really hated it.”

    In the documentary, Caz himself sounds off about “Rapper’s Delight.”

    “I mean, what are they doing to our art form, you know what I mean?” Caz said. “It’s like, this is the first introduction that people get to what we do? To what we been doing for like seven years?”

    The Message

    The hip-hop of the 1970s was party music. However, that perception began to shift in 1982 with the release of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.”

    “‘The Message’ spoke to what was going on in the community in a really frank and poetic way,” Shad said.

    With legendary Melle Mel lyrics like, “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” and “Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head,” hip-hop expanded its pallette.

    “When we think about hip-hop now, we think about it as, you know, like Chuck D said, the CNN of the street. We think about it as music with a message. It absolutely opened up possibilities for hip-hop music,” Shad explained.

    The Golden Age Of Hip-Hop

    As the 1980s progressed, hip-hop entered what many refer to as the “Golden Age” of the genre, producing new sounds and superstars at a staggering pace. Run DMC, who are described in the documentary as “The Beatles of Hip-Hop,” were among those leading the charge.

    “They were the first real hip-hop stars. Firstly, because of the big records that they had, but also because of their style,” Shad said. “They dressed the way people dressed in the streets. They really carried that whole aesthetic.”

    Beyond Run DMC, groups like Eric B. & Rakim, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy, brought new sounds and aesthetics to hip-hop that dramatically expanded the possibilities of the genre.

    Public Enemy burst onto the scene in 1988 with their sophomore album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back,” featuring a ferocious production style, powerfully political lyrics delivered by Chuck D and his big, booming voice and a militaristic stage presence that added up to a group Shad refers to as “a game changer.”

    Hip-Hop Leaves NYC

    Meanwhile, Los Angeles was forming its own identity with the explicit, hardcore “Gangsta Rap” of groups like N.W.A.

    That was absolutely the product of the realities in Los Angeles of gang life there, and police brutality there,” Shad said. “And it spoke to that stuff with a frankness and with a sonic heft that people hadn’t heard before.”

    In Miami, the music adopted a bass-heavy dance club feel with groups like 2 Live Crew.

    Artists in the south like The Geto Boys featured a southern drawl and elements of soul and gospel that hadn’t been heard before.

    In Oakland, Digital Underground were acolytes of the slick 70’s funk of Parliament Funkadelic, and Paris displayed a social consciousness rooted in the city’s Black Panther tradition.

    The Women Of Hip-Hop

    Artists like Salt-N-Peppa, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were noticeably absent from the first season of “Hip-Hop Evolution,” and the series has received criticism for not featuring the contributions of women.

    Shad agrees.

    “Not that we didn’t try, but we weren’t able to land some interviews with some of the major women that were there. That was huge failure of the first season,” Shad said. “Women have been around since the beginning of hip-hop in the earliest crews and that should have been represented in season one, and it’s represented a bit more in season two.”

    The two seasons of “Hip-Hop Evolution” are now streaming on Netflix.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Lisa D'Apolito Guest
  • Shad Kabango Guest
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Brad Kolberg Technical Director

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