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See more AMAs > Tony Cohn

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Tony Cohn

Sidedoor

Tony Cohn is the creator and host of Sidedoor 💠 a podcast from the Smithsonian. Every two weeks, the show sneaks listeners into the back hallways and hidden worlds of the largest museum, research, and education center. Last December, The Atlantic hailed Sidedoor a top 25 podcast of 2017 complementing, “Cohn’s charm and realness, fueled by the vast resources of the Smithsonian, including access to all its experts, created some of the best narratives this year.” The podcast’s topics range from the historical (“If These Bones Could Talk” explores the mystery of a prolific Smithsonian scientist who died mysteriously) to current events (“The Hungry Hungry Hippo Baby” about a premature baby hippo who survived, in part, thanks to SI research). Tony feels passionately about museums and creative organizations leveraging non-traditional media to reach more people in more places. He’s traveled four continents on behalf of the Smithsonian to share Sidedoor’s story and encourage cultural sector professionals to utilize emerging digital platforms. Originally from Chicago, he now lives in Washington, D.C. Tony is a proud graduate of American University.

Tony will be live on Jun 13 starting at 9am ET for one and a half hours to answer as many questions as possible. Feel free to start asking Tony questions any time in the lead-up to the AMA.

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22 Questions
Kimberley Irvin asked this question 2 months ago

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while hosting Sidedoor?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Hi Kimberley! That’s a hard one. I have the best job where I get to learn from smart people all the time. Hmmmmm. I was always really terrible at biology, but while reporting the episode “The Mean, Green, Water-Cleaning Machine” I totally became obsessed with the science behind Walter Adey’s algal turf scrubber. I find that device super interesting and an amazing out-of-the-box solution for water pollution. It was also really cool to see it in action at the Baltimore Harbor. Have you heard the episode? What do you think?

Charity Garrard asked this question 2 months ago

Who is your favorite figure through history?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Hi Charity! Gosh– another hard one. From my time with Sidedoor, I’m going to go with Robert Kennicott from “If These Bones Could Talk”. I work in the Smithsonian Castle where he once hung out and got into all kinds of trouble– having sack races in the Great Hall, pestering the Secretary’s daughters, and drinking ale. I like to think if I was around, and working at the Smithsonian, while he was alive I’d be part of his crew… wrecking havoc and getting into mischief here at the Smithsonian 🙂

Tamela Attaway asked this question 2 months ago

What made you decide the Smithsonian needed a podcast?
What do you like about podcasting? What don’t you like?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Oh gosh, Tamela, I feel like I need to be sprawled on a chaise lounge while answering this question. First off, I’m a HUGE Smithsonian nerd. I think this place is super cool. We have all this amazing stuff (127 MILLION collection items to be exact) but what makes me most excited is what Smithsonian staff DO with all of our amazing resources. As I started listening to more podcasts (Freakonomics, How I Built This, and TED Radio hour are a few of my favorites!) I realized there was an opportunity to bring these incredible, behind-the-scenes moments I was experiencing every day to the podcast community! It’s the best job in the world. My favorite part about podcasting is getting to constantly talk to people who are WAY smarter than me from every content area under the sun. What don’t I like… that’s a harder question. The podcast episode you hear is the “final cut,” before which there are usually 2 or 3 that are rougher. Hearing my voice over and over again can be tricky… talk about getting inside your own head!

Lucinda asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony thanks so much for doing this AMA 🙂 Has there been an episode of the show that you have really wanted to make but haven’t yet for some reason?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Hi Lucinda! Thanks to YOU for asking a question 🙂 Hmmmm… Our last episode, “Best of the Rest,” told **some** of the stories that we’ve been itching to tell…. but there are hundreds and hundreds more. I think a lot about the important and amazing security officers who are on our museum floors and in our galleries protecting the Smithsonian’s treasures. I’m also super interested in THEIR perspective of the work in the exhibits and galleries they protect. I pass by a Rothko painting in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for a few minutes and have a reflective, impactful experience. But what does the security officer who, while monitoring that space, stares at the painting for hours and hours at a time think about it? What are some of the best visitor reactions they’ve seen? That’s an episode I think would be a lot of fun. What do you think?

Tristan Kinsley asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony! How long do you spend researching for each ep?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Hi Tristan! We have a whole power team of storytellers and producers here at Sidedoor who help research the stories we tell. Stories come in all the time from Smithsonian staffers. The Sidedoor team also loves running around our museums, research centers, and zoo looking for tidbits that we find curious and make us ask questions and want to learn more. I’d say once we have a potential story identified, we spend about two weeks researching it before starting the interview process.

Floyd Tate asked this question 2 months ago

Has podcasting made a positive/negative impact on your life? If so, how?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Hi Floyd! Podcasting has had the BEST POSSIBLE impact on my life. As host of Sidedoor, I have the greatest job in the world where I get to speak with Smithsonian experts all day long and better understand their work. I love meeting new people and experiencing new places, and podcasting allows me to do just that. I’ve learned how to ask good questions, tell fun stories, and follow that curiosity bug that lives in my ear. It’s not really an industry I ever expected to find myself in, but now that I’m knee deep, I feel like I’ve found a home.

Cassandra Young asked this question 2 months ago
Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

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Hi Cassandra! I haven’t but I REALLY want to. Some of my colleagues have been and said it’s amazing. Do you think we should do a Sidedoor episode about it? MAYBE I CAN INTERVIEW OPRAH!!! Can you imagine how cool that would be?

Vince Gilliam asked this question 2 months ago

What are your top 5 recommendations for folks visiting the Smithsonian for the first time?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Vince. Hmmm. Here the tips that come to mind:

1. Wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to want to see a lot, and don’t want those fashionable loafers to slow you down!
2. I like to do “quick hits”. There are nearly a dozen Smithsonian museums on the mall (and the zoo is just up town!), and when I have guests in D.C. I like to take them to as many sites as possible. Sometimes that means just seeing an exhibit or two in each space, but it keeps things active, dynamic, and fun!
3. I LOVE treating myself to lunch at Sweet Home Cafe at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. They have the best fried chicken in town (be warned: you may need a nap after those carbs!)
4. The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has an amazing outdoor sculpture garden just in front of the museum across Jefferson Drive. It can be a great place to take in some amazing pieces of sculpture, but also sit in the shade and take a break from your busy day at the Smithsonian!
5. Put down your phone and unplug! Something so amazing about the Smithsonian is the experience of getting to be around our physical stuff. Feast it all in with your eyes and, ok, fine, then take a selfie or two 🙂

Kate Slack asked this question 2 months ago

What role, if any, do you think that emerging VR technologies have in facilitating access to the Smithsonian? Are you working on any projects in this space currently?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Kate– you’re in my head! I think about this all the time. We have a few projects that I can’t quite talk about yet here coming down the pipeline (trust me– they’re exciting and you’re going to love them!). But, this question is kind of philosophical. There’s tons of conversation about the role virtual reality and augmented reality in museums. I love the idea of making collection items and research more accessible to folks who can’t visit our spaces, but am also a nerd about experiencing stuff physically in our museums (and we can do both of those things!). I do love a world where VR could bring the Smithsonian to every person in the world with a headset. What do you think?

Kylee Traves asked this question 2 months ago

What does your research process look like?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Kylee! We have so much fun researching Sidedoor episodes. The ideas come from all over the Institution! Sometimes Smithsonian staffers will call someone from the Sidedoor team enthusiastically pitching us an amazing story they’ve heard. The Sidedoor team also loves running around our museums, research centers, and zoo looking for tidbits that we find curious and make us ask questions and want to learn more. I love that light bulb feeling of “Oh my gosh! This would be SUCH a fun Sidedoor episode!” The podcast team meets every week to review new ideas and toss around the cool stuff we’ve heard over the last couple of days.

Stefani Gilbert asked this question 2 months ago

What is your favorite episode of the show and why?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Stefani! You’re killing me– it’s like asking me to pick my favorite child 🙂 Hmmmm. One of the episodes I found special from this past season was “Painting Michelle Obama”. I loved getting to sit down with First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait artist Amy Sherald. I was super nervous for the interview, but as soon as I sat down with Amy I felt like were immediately longtime friends. She’s such a kind, articulate, smart person and my producer Justin had to drag me out of her studio (I could have chatted with her for hours!).

Nicole Muelars asked this question 2 months ago

Tony! You are an amazing storyteller and some listeners have already asked you questions about your research process, but can you share more about how you go about writing each episode and the questions you ask in your interviews? Can’t wait for next season!

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Nicole! Thanks so much 🙂 There’s an entire team behind the amazing storytelling of Sidedoor. I work closely with producers Justin and Rachel before each interview. Oftentimes, they’re focused on the bigger picture of a story and where an interview contextually fits into an episode. I can be super focused on the person I’m speaking with and get pretty granular with my questions (luckily, our producers are good at helping me stay on track!). As much as we have a plan when we speak with a Sidedoor subject, I always through in a few “off the menu” questions that hit me on the fly. See you for season three!

Sydney Mondry asked this question 2 months ago

You’re my favorite podcast host! What advice do you have for people who want to become a host, too?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Sydney– thank you so much, that means a lot to me (did you get the $20 I sent you in the mail to write that???). Firstly, stay curious! Keep asking nosy questions and listen carefully to how people answer. My hosting style has definitely evolved over time. Sometimes I listen back to early Sidedoor episodes and think, “Gosh! I sounded like that?!” (although it’s often a speaking cadence or tone that only I may hear). I’ve found my hosting chops have gotten stronger by… continuing to host! Think about your voice and what makes your personality unique. Remember that in a podcast, you’re speaking to a single listener in their headphones, rather than performing on a stage to masses of people.

Asha Pradhan asked this question 2 months ago

Hey Tony! Thank you for answering our questions! Sidedoor has obviously become very successful in its two years. What do you think has made this podcast so successful and popular? How do you see Sidedoor continuing to evolve in the future? Thanks!

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Asha! What a great question. What do I think has made Sidedoor so successful and popular? Lots of things! Firstly, there’s no where in the world quite like the Smithsonian. The stories we have here are really special and can’t quite be found anywhere else. Secondly, I gotta say the amazing team of people behind the show. This includes our incredible production and promotion team, as well as hundreds of Smithsonian staffers who continue to tell their stories and share their access with our listeners… all while having TONS of fun. What do you think has made us successful? I’d love to know!

Bruce Press asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony! What is the process of creation for an episode? It seems like it takes a lot of coordination with Smithsonian Departments, Travel, Writing, Production… How long does it all take and how many people get involved?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Bruce! Hi! The process of creating a Sidedoor episode is a lot of fun. The production team meets weekly to toss around different story ideas. Once we have one identified, we figure out who need to speak with to tell it best. From there, we make some calls and conduct some interviews (that’s my favorite part!). Then our amazing producers string all the voices together in a rough script, which we review and refine as a team. From there, we create a rough cut of the show. We give it a listen, and then make LOTS of edits. The next draft we review as a team is usually pretty close to final with a few changes that get made (sometimes RIGHT up to the wire of release!). All in all, from the colleagues we collaborate with from each museum to the members of the Sidedoor team, I’d says there’s about 15 people involved in the creation of each episode.

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Bruce! Hi! The process of creating a Sidedoor episode is a lot of fun. The production team meets weekly to toss around different story ideas. Once we have one identified, we figure out who need to speak with to tell it best. From there, we make some calls and conduct some interviews (that’s my favorite part!). Then our amazing producers string all the voices together in a rough script, which we review and refine as a team. From there, we create a rough cut of the show. We give it a listen, and then make LOTS of edits. The next draft we review as a team is usually pretty close to final with a few changes that get made (sometimes RIGHT up to the wire of release!). All in all, from the colleagues we collaborate with from each museum to the members of the Sidedoor team, I’d says there’s about 15 people involved in the creation of each episode.

Marisa K asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony – How do you brainstorm story ideas or receive ideas from your colleagues around the Smithsonian? I’m curious how your story-finding process goes! Thanks!

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Marisa! We have so much fun researching Sidedoor episode ideas and stories. The ideas come from all over the Institution! Sometimes Smithsonian staffers will call someone from the Sidedoor team, enthusiastically pitching us an amazing story they’ve heard. The Sidedoor team also loves running around our museums, research centers, and zoo looking for tidbits that we find curious and make us ask questions and want to learn more. I love that light bulb feeling of “Oh my gosh! This would be SUCH a fun Sidedoor episode!” The podcast team meets every week to review new ideas and toss around the cool stuff we’ve heard over the last couple of days. If you have an idea, email us! [email protected]

Nikki Gilboard asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony! First time caller, long time listener! Ever since it opened, I’ve been fascinated by the sports icons featured in the African American History Museum. Would you consider doing an episode chronicling some of the athletes featured? Who is your dream athlete to interview?

Also I saw that the Oprah exhibit opened recently, when is she going to be on the pod??

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Nikki! Thanks for being such a good friend of Sidedoor 🙂 We’ve been wanting to do a sports story for ages! It’s definitely top of mind for Season 3. And, I agree! The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American and Culture would definitely have an amazing athlete story for us to tell. I’m from Chicago, so my mind goes to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls… I think interviewing him would be pretty incredible. Who’s your dream athlete to interview? Who do YOU think we should have on Sidedoor? You can always email us your ideas at [email protected]

YES! We gotta get Orpah on Sidedoor. I haven’t been to the new exhibit yet, but my colleagues tell me it’s fantastic. I think you’ve inspired me to sneak over there later today….

Sam Mularz asked this question 2 months ago

I found your Crane with a Crush episode to be your best of the season. You illustrated a larger picture of love and friendship. What act of love inspires you daily?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Sam! The Sidedoor team had a lot of fun with that episode (I also love any excuse to visit the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute!). What act of love inspires me daily? It’s gonna sound cheesy, but the love and support of my friends and family. I’m lucky to have an amazing community of people who challenge me every day to live my best life!

Jay Oh asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony! What are story (or stories) are you most excited about coming up in Sidedoor’s next season? What can us faithful Sidedoorians look forward to?

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Jay! We have SO MANY exciting stories that I’m looking forward to next season. Hmmmm. I can’t give it away fully, but we’re traveling to a far-flung Smithsonian research center in a few weeks to report some amazing stories from the field (ok… hint… jungle).

Ali Smith asked this question 2 months ago

Hi Tony! Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! I would love to know more about how you prepare for interviews with Smithsonian experts. I imiagine that it must take a lot of research and planning – looking forward to hearing more!

Tony Cohn replied 2 months ago

0

Hi Ali! Thank YOU for asking ME a question! There’s an entire team behind the amazing storytelling of Sidedoor. I work closely with producers Justin and Rachel before each interview. Oftentimes, they’re focused on the bigger picture of a story and where an interview contextually fits into an episode. I, on the other hand, can be super focused on the person I’m speaking with and get pretty granular with my questions (luckily, our producers are good at helping me stay on track!). As much as we have a plan when we speak with a Smithsonian expert, I always through in a few “off the menu” questions that hit me on the fly. See you for season three!

Taylor Jachman asked this question 2 months ago

Hey Tony! First of all, you are one of the best podcast hosts around right now. Definitely on the Michael Barbaro/Guy Raz level. Love listening. Do you ever see Sidedoor digging in on current social/political issues? It would be so interesting to learn the historical or anthropological background of issues prevalent in today’s society from the perspective of nonpartisan Smithsonian historians and curators.

Jackie Breuer asked this question 2 months ago

Tony! Amazing podcast. What have you found to be the hardest part of the podcast experience? I could imagine it would be difficult filtering through and picking out stories that will have resonance across the large audience of listeners. What are some of the key features you look for in a story as you dig into it that make it something you know will translate well for Sidedoor?

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