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The Gondolier

Thursday, June 15, 2017 - 12:16 PM

We travel to Venice, Italy with reporters Kristen Clark and David Conrad, where they meet gondolier Alex Hai. On the winding canals in the most hidden parts of Venice, we learn about the nearly millenia old tradition of the Venetian Gondolier, and how Alex was forced into a 20 year battle against this job that he loved, and, in some ways, himself. 

Reported by David Conrad and Kristen Clark. Produced by Annie McEwen and Molly Webster.

Special thanks to Alexis Ungerer, Summer, Alex Hai, Kevin Gotkin, Silvia Del Fabbro, Sandro Mariot, Aldo Rosso and Marta Vannucci, The Longest Shortest Time (Hillary Frank, Peter Clowney and Abigail Keel), Tim Howard, Nick Adams/GLAAD, Valentina Powers, Florence Ursino, Ann Marie Somma, Alex Overington, Jeremy Bloom and the people of Little Italy. 

 

Contributors:

Kristen Clark and David Conrad

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Comments [48]

Isaac from Los Angeles

Radiolab has been my favorite podcast for years because of the way it explores the intersection between science and humanity. When I want mushy human-interest stories without experts, I listen the This American Life. And I carry a huge bag of grains of salt.

While it certainly continues a trend away from scientific mysteries, I'm pretty baffled by this episode. I'm completely in favor of tackling trans issues, but this approach doesn't make any sense to me. It's completely subjective, and there is absolutely no push-back against the personal narratives presented, in particular, by Alex.

I don't think you can have this discussion about trans people without looking at what gender is from a scientific perspective. To me, the great sadness of trans people is that they are forced into gender limbo for no particular reason. Alex, for example, blatantly bought into the gender stereotype that only boys would destroy barbie dolls. It sounded to me like Alex's parents wanted a boy, and they made that abundantly clear to him. Is it any wonder that he internalized that? His gender biases were extreme, and that makes perfect sense given his formative years. Of COURSE gender matters to Alex - how did that possibly surprise Kristen?

I would love a scientific look at gender, and the implications of the fact that it's not based on biology, but on social norms, traumas, and world views. Could we eventually reach a point where Alex is a girl who likes what she likes and wants what she wants, rather than having a society (or parents) that tells her she's a freak or that she doesn't fit in her body?

When did Radiolab become so credulous and satisfied with personal narratives?

Jun. 26 2017 04:05 PM
Ben from VA

I don't get why people are so up in arms about these types of stories. In RL's about page:

"Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience."

Now, while I might agree that this show is more like a non-American 'This American Life' episode, I don't think it is inappropriate for the show's mission.

Jun. 26 2017 12:32 PM
Don Edward from Seattle

Hello Alex
I have added an item to my bucket list: A gondola ride from Alex. Your sharing and Radio Lab's stellar reporting has created one of the finest educational moments of the year. And, this has certainly been a momentous year to say it nicely.

Jun. 25 2017 05:19 PM
Erin from Denver, CO

Had to turn it off after the 10,000th "like".

Jun. 25 2017 12:43 PM
((((( radar ))))) from Here Be Dragons

Thank you so much for this wonderful new episode.

I loved how layer over layer of this story got peeled off til the listener ends somewhere completely different then expected.
That was brilliant to listen to. But I imagine it as quite a challenge for the journalist team. Props to you both that you went with it.

And big props and best wishes in the direction of some gondola in Venice. The way you foresaw what is coming for you in form of this interview and preparing for it, good job! I really think this episode benefits largely from how you decided to tell your story. Although this was probably not an editorial choice but just necessity. And I really hope it turns out for you that you did tell it. Best of luck also in the new territories you decided to venture in.

Jun. 24 2017 08:29 AM
Smock from San Francisco

For a show mostly about science, I don't understand why it's devolved into feelings-based reporting. It's simply fact that Alex will always genetically be female - none of us get exactly what we want in life. It's not mean or uncaring to state that science is science. You don't get to make up an alternate universe where reality obeys your wishes. I think this is my last Radiolab listen - you're just too far away from what I loved about the show.

Jun. 24 2017 04:06 AM
John from US

Kristen Clark,

Quit using the word "like" so much.

Jun. 23 2017 09:28 PM
Daniel Luera Sierra from Tucson, AZ

I identified the science behind this segment. It was certainly sociological. According to Wikipedia, sociology is: "the study of social behavior or society, including its origins, development, organization, networks, and institutions. It is a social science that uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis." The journalists and Alex explored the social behavior of the gondolier. I loved it!

Jun. 22 2017 09:44 PM
Aaron from Minneapolis, MN

I found this to be an intriguing and interesting story, which I enjoyed hearing (though I agree with other commenters that it isn't a science story, like RadioLab used to focus on).

I do think you should have mentioned in your story that in 2010, Giorgia Boscolo became the first female gondoliera (passing the exam that Alex failed that year, for the 4th time).

Jun. 22 2017 09:03 PM
VM Varga from On the phone in Belgium

A fine episode to be sure but once again it sounds like its from another show altogether. Where is the Science content? Where are the science stories? In the last 18 months RL has pivoted so far afield of what made me fall in love with it in the first place and don't know what to say. Politics, gender issues, police shootings and legal mumbo-jumbo. Anyone out there could you please recommend a science podcast, cause RL just isn't one anymore.

Jun. 22 2017 03:09 PM
Marta from Lisboa, Portugal

I cried listening to this, and I've never had any gender issues. You put it so beautifully, guys, really, congratulations. Amazing work, wonderful story, as always.

Jun. 22 2017 02:48 PM
Adam R from London

Thank you for another terrific story.

Like some others I've come here looking for the name of the Italian song played under the credits!

Jun. 22 2017 04:41 AM
Erin from Vancouver, Washington

There was a brief clip of an opera I can't stop thinking about. I came to see if the audio was credited so I could look it up. Would love to know more about the background music.

I didn't notice anything unusual about the speaking patterns of anyone other than to enjoy the accents. People who fixate on that only ruin good content for themselves.

Jun. 22 2017 03:36 AM

Another excellent episode. Thank you.

It is interesting how the public discourse likes to circle around the issue of transsexuality these days. The issue is not new (unlike what this show said at one point), and has been discussed ever since I remember - and probably much longer. The case of Renee Richards was our dinner table discussion in the 1970s.

Jun. 21 2017 07:46 PM
Katie Kirk from New York, NY

I have been a Radiolab listener for quite some time, and am leaving my first comment to say how much I enjoyed this episode. It was such an open and honest story. I commend the journalists for allowing room for all of the complexities and contradictions that define a person's identity and, whether we like it or not, dictate where he/she belongs in this world. There are no good answers here, but I'm so happy that Alex has been able to take back control of his narrative.

Thank you for your insightful and thought-provoking work here.

Jun. 21 2017 03:47 PM
Rowan

Came for a story about someone really persisting to succeed in an unlikely career.

Got: Trans life is hard.

Boy oh boy was this a disappointment.

Jun. 21 2017 01:44 PM
jorge espinha from Lisboa

Hi Radiolab

Always a fan! I just don't get this episode. What are you trying to do? So the first female gondolier was a man!
Isn't this suppose to be a science show? Where's the science?
I also agree with some o the criticism about the repeated "like". Get an adult to voice an adult show, please.
What did I take from this story? Well , once again it confirms that most transgenders want to be treated as how they see themselves, he or she and not zhe as some lunatics claim. Good for Alex! Have you also notice how the activists kept using Alex for their own agendas?

Jun. 21 2017 12:07 PM
Jerri Linn from San Anselmo,CA

That was an amazing story! I truly believe that one of the big reasons that the story was so wonderful was because of you. Firstly for finding Alex who is so determined and courageous to be himself, and secondly for inspiring is trust in you for being such thoughtful journalists. THANK YOU!

Jun. 20 2017 05:55 PM
Timothy Clarke

Hi Radio Lab, Hi Robert,
Wonderful story as always. Who is singing at the end of the program?
Robert, I am still making Puppets and Monsters, you may remember me as I built the Alien parts for a segment you did on the Connie Chung show many years ago.
Thanks,
Tim Clarke

Jun. 20 2017 05:41 PM
tirza from Amsterdam

Hi Kristen and David,
Thank you for your work, I figure it must have been hard initialy. I remember coming to Venice in 1998 and speaking to Alex once. I had just finished building my own gondola and returned to Venice to learn how to row it. When I was passed on Alex' number I was curious to speak to him but the interest was clearly not mutual. Alex was frankly bold. I have always been puzzled about his attitude as I thought it would be nice to share the same interests. Now I realise it may have been because I am a woman and he may have thought I wanted to bond. I know the fuzz about being (or looking like : )a female gondoliere. Fact is I am lucky enough to live in Amsterdam and this allows me not to be conscious about my gender when doing the things I want to do.
I am glad that you have won Alex confidence and he that he spoke to you about his life so far. It was a very intersting item and I wish Alex all the best.
Tirza

Jun. 20 2017 04:44 PM
mj from wisc.

Disappointed that the show turned into a story about a transgender. Also, Kristen Clark has got to stop saying 'like.' Someone who is in journalism and speaks often, this is a bad habit. It reflects someone who is in high school.

Jun. 20 2017 03:58 PM
Kaiya from SLC Utah

I appreciated this episode. I am trans myself and I don't often hear these types of stories that explore the contradictory feelings I get of wanting gender not to matter and needing gender to matter so much. I think that came across well.
To those who thing this episode wasn't "science" enough, please remember that science is a way that curious people describe a complex world. It might not have mentioned chemicals or clinical trials, but some of science is case studies and I think this fit right.

Jun. 20 2017 03:29 PM
Jeff from Minneapolis, MN

This was an interesting but it wasn't Radiolab. There was zero science involved, which is fine if you're doing a "This American Life" clone...but it doesn't belong on the same show with some of the great episodes you've done recently ("Alpha gal" & "Nukes"). Just branch off these human interest stories from the Radiolab brand, which is becoming more and more diluted and blending in with the thousands of human interest podcasts.

Jun. 20 2017 09:35 AM
Wendy

I LOVED this episode. I loved Alex's story, I loved getting to know him, I loved the gradual opening of his relationships with the journalists.

And for all the people who don't like 'like', try recording a conversation with someone else, that you're trying to interview and make interesting at the same time, and see what verbal tics you have. It's way harder than you think.

Jun. 19 2017 04:38 PM
Jeff Stetekluh from Virginia, USA

I believe one musical piece used in the story is Stornelli from Italie Eternelle. Why no music credits from Radio Lab?

Jun. 19 2017 02:53 PM
Masha Gutkin from San Francisco

Made me sad that Alex chooses to look upon women as inferior - eg. "A woman couldn't do this job." Sure hoped for better from someone who has been through such a struggle. Thought that Radiolab really let him slide on that one. Would you have if he had been cisgender male? Pretty retrograde for gender to still be about "what team you're on". Sigh.

Jun. 19 2017 02:46 PM
Jim from Omaha

What happened to cause radiolab to go downhill so bad?

Jun. 19 2017 11:26 AM
Mike from Durham, NC

I think this is Radio Lab's "jump the shark" episode. An utter lack of science makes it an episode for another show.

Jun. 19 2017 09:03 AM
Dame:Annette Montague-Thomas from TRURO CORNWALL

Well done everyone, this was a brilliant interview.
I know Alex well and met him with some friends in 2015. Over these past couple of years I have never questioned who he was or why, as what I saw was the most loving young man who was so considerate towards people; and in particular people in need of support. His friends truly adore him, of which I am honoured to be one.

Jun. 18 2017 11:18 AM
Justin Ellis from Dahlonega, GA

Amazing story!

These are important stories for the world to come to understand the transgender world. It also helps when there are such complex, inspiring and strong characters such as Alex Hai that command our attention and respect.

In a desire to share this story with others I am dying to see the photographs that Alex's girlfriend took of him. It appears that most photos of Alex online are still from those old female gondolier stories. I'd like to represent Alex to others in the way that she most relates to. Any help appreciated.

Well done! Thanks for all you do. Please go on tour again one day. One of the most memorable performances I've ever seen. I think of it often.

Jun. 18 2017 10:14 AM
Chris from New Kensington PA

Alex,

Thank you for sharing your story with us. At the beginning of the story I questioned why you would act as you did but I assumed something would change or there would be no interview. As things progress, I found myself frustrated that you were simply trying to do what you enjoyed and people wanted to make a story of what they thought was happening without truly understanding. Maybe the first person who wanted to interview you (I forget her name) would have understood and not reported as she did but I certainly would not accept an interview with an ultimatum like that. I wonder if letting the other Gondoliers know the reporter's intentions before the story went out would have helped at all, not that it matters any longer?

At the point where you talked about woman drivers, I felt like I understand a bit better what you mean about how you experience life. It sounds to me like you are saying you think like a man, feel like a man and have mannerisms like a man, you just happen to have (had) a woman's body. Versus me, I appreciate and enjoy some things that may be considered feminine but still retain a man's feelings, thoughts and mannerisms. Do I understand correctly? Again, thank you for sharing your story. Also, I enjoyed the pictures on your girlfriend's site.

To those commenting on filler words: Maybe it has to do with the typical listener of Radiolab (I assume) being a critical thinker, but realistically, what exactly do you hope to accomplish by calling it out? I understand it bothers you, but why not just turn the podcast off and call it a day? Why is posting about it important? I was surprised to find there were not (yet) any, "This is not science!" posts. Certainly there is still time for those, that'll teach Radiolab a thing or two.

Jun. 17 2017 07:55 PM
CathyAnn from Sacramento, CA

My wife, Lita and I enjoyed an evening gondola ride with Alex in 2007. It was filled with champagne, song and the sounds of the canals! Our magical night continued when Alex joined us for a late dinner at a place of his choice - small and around winding corners. Alex said it was the "best steak you will ever have" and it was!
When our daughter shared the podcast with us, we listened thrilled to hear of Alex's journey. Until we meet again.....

Jun. 17 2017 07:21 PM
Alex Hai from Venice

For Audrey : Thank you for your sensibility to understand
For Sam : thank you check out www.veniceshots.com
For Hajnalka: thank you agreed 100%

Jun. 17 2017 05:26 PM
Audrey N Muzingo from Mobile, AL

The wisest journalist in this story was Alex himself, for knowing the depth that would be required, the extended time, the closer proximity, the need to size up these interviewers, the rightful annoyance at their not having done much research on the story told thus far, the gonospheres to express that annoyance, and the patience to give them a chance anyway. After all he'd already been through and how hard it must have been to trust yet more people to tell his story, it's a wonder this piece exists.

Jun. 17 2017 03:47 AM
David Tanner from Los Angeles

Hey Radiolab,

Would you mind posting the music cues? I liked the music a lot and I'd like to confirm my hunches as to what the pieces were.

Great episode, thanks for everything.

Jun. 17 2017 01:31 AM
Sam from North Carolina, US

Thank you Alex and Radiolab for this great story! I found it a fascinating personal examination of how well-meaning groups can work at odds with one another despite - or because of - their best intentions, and the complex relationship with identity we have as individuals and communities. I'm still looking forward to the first woman gondolier. :)

Does the photographer mentioned have a website? Based on your descriptions, I'd love to see her work.

Jun. 16 2017 11:33 PM
Erin from Not Venice

This was a very interesting podcast. I love the development of Alex's relationship with the reporters and can understand his trepidation the beginning once hearing the entire story. What an intriguing story with a twist I did not anticipate depicting struggles one must be sensitive to. I especially enjoyed the sound effects and music. It seriously made me feel like I was back in Venice again. Thank you!!!

Jun. 16 2017 11:07 PM
Heidi Chambers

This episode was amazing. Surprising, interesting, and just all around awesome! Thanks for this!! I cannot stop telling everyone I know about it.

Jun. 16 2017 08:42 PM
Hajnalka from Richmond, VA

I feel sad for folks who miss out on some really great content because of verbal patterns that irritate them.
There is the frequent criticism of a placeholder 'like,' or the equally offensive 'I mean ...'
I won't even mention vocal fry.

This is how folks speak now. It is not going to change. Language is evolving rapidly, as are podcasts.

If you have to stop listening because of these verbal patterns, you are shutting yourself off to new ideas.
I thought Kristen's narrative was engaging, and thank her for her reporting.

Jun. 16 2017 08:29 PM
Nettles from Seattle, WA

Thanks for this podcast. I'm happy Alex was true to himself. I smiled so hard when he took T for the first time!

PS: I didn't notice the "overuse" use of the word "like." Keep on rockin, Kristen.

Jun. 16 2017 08:20 PM
Romeu from Paris

'Like, Like, Like, Like' This ruined an otherwise yet interesting episode. It is annoying enough when you're facing the person but on the RADIO you should be extra careful on how you deliver your message, even more when you are the actual journalist!!!!

Jun. 16 2017 03:47 PM
Kevin from Washington D.C.

What a powerful and well done episode. My criticism is that Kristen's extreme use of the word like as a filler word nearly rendered the episode unlistenable. Every other aspect of her work was professional, insightful, informative and entertaining. Î

Jun. 16 2017 03:26 PM
Julie A Zahn from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin

Very well done story. I really enjoyed it, but I have to agree with James in Chicago about the overuse of the word "like". It was very frustrating to hear and if the story hadn't been so interesting, I would have turned it off for that reason. Please keep up the good work!

Jun. 16 2017 02:49 PM
Daniel from 18327

Wonderful as always.
What's the exit music in this one??

Jun. 16 2017 02:20 PM
Peter Weyzen from Felton, CA

OMG, thanks so much for this story. I always await a new RadioLab delivery, and this one doesn't fail me.

In this month of pride, I find this story so appealing and enlightening.

Thanks!

Jun. 16 2017 01:47 PM
Cheyenne Pitts from Kansas City

I think this story was absolutely wonderful and the reporters did an excellent job like always! Out of all the podcasts I listen to, Radio Lab is definitely one of my favorites! Nice work!

Jun. 16 2017 12:48 PM
James Yrkoski from Chicago

I could get through only about 12 minutes of this one, unfortunately. Too bad, too, because I really wanted to hear it. I always turn off a podcast when the person speaking is not able to say a sentence in English without the word "like." In this case, it was the female reporter. Maybe it's only me, but I just can't handle "like" in every sentence, sometimes two or three.

Jun. 16 2017 11:51 AM
Alex Hai from Venice Italy

Hello Radiolabs
Thank you for all your hard work , everyone of you from fact checker , host to producer to journalists
Thank you for your patience and support
Radio labs rocks
Thank you

Jun. 16 2017 07:50 AM

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