Tony Cohn would be a perfect dinner guest. The 24-year-old Deerfield, Ill., native hosts the Smithsonian podcast “Sidedoor,” which explores the stories behind the venerable institution. With his Ari Shapiro-like voice and his genuine enthusiasm for his job, Cohn, for the past two seasons, has been learning a little about a lot of fascinating things.
Ask him about a 1970s lesbian feminist commune (called, naturally, The Furies Collective). Or the women- and slave-led history of brewing in the United States. Or, his personal favorite, the unsolved death of a young Smithsonian curator in the 1860s.
We just asked him about “Sidedoor,” the art of podcasting and his recent foray into the pageant world.
How did this podcast come to be?
You know, it was kind of serendipitous. I was on the Metro one morning listening to “Freakonomics,” which is another podcast, and I had this moment where I was thinking about why I loved listening to it. And what I loved about that show was good storytelling, good storytellers and some kind of “aha!” moment that made me see the world in a new way or taught me something I didn’t know. And those were sensations I was having all the time here at Smithsonian. We just weren’t talking about it.
Do you have a favorite subject you’ve covered so far?
The Smithsonian is so vast, which is part of why I love working here. Because one day I’ll be talking to Ai Weiwei over at the Hirshhorn [Museum] and the next I’ll be chatting with our brewing historian over at American History [Museum] or a scientist down at the [Smithsonian] Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay. Our first episode of the second season, which is called “If These Bones Could Talk,” [looks at] one of the original Smithsonian curators named Robert Kennicott who died on an expedition to Alaska in the 1860s and no one really knew how he died. Then some of our forensic scientists dug him up and were able to crack that cold case after more than 100 years. So, I really enjoyed tracking that whole narrative.
What made you think that a podcast would be the best way to tell these stories?
People tend to think of the Smithsonian as a physical destination, and we totally are. We have the best museums in the world, I would argue. But we’re so much more than that. We have research centers all across the country and around the world. Behind the scenes we’re doing active research on specimens and preserving artwork. And those are the stories we get to tell on “Sidedoor.” Hence the name “Sidedoor” — we’re kind of sneaking people behind the scenes into this incredible world where you’re going to see something you didn’t expect.
It’s an interesting storytelling format because no one can see what you’re doing. How do you work around that challenge?
I love it, especially for our art collections because you often can’t show certain pieces of artwork because of rights regulations, but that’s not a problem with “Sidedoor” because there’s no visual component. A lot of our work is inside people. The Smithsonian has over 6,000 employees who are working across art, science, history and culture and “Sidedoor” is an incredible avenue for them to tell the story of their research and why it’s active and relevant and really cool and unexpected.
I actually got an email yesterday from a Smithsonian employee about earthworms as a story we should do, which was great.
Does that happen often?
Yeah, you know, there’s a lot of internal enthusiasm for this show. Smithsonian employees really love “Sidedoor” and definitely make it a point to tell me about stuff they’re working on, which is really fun.
Unrelated to the podcast, I saw you [were] a finalist for the Mr. Nice Jewish Boys Pageant. That’s cool!
Yes! So, there’s a group in D.C. called Nice Jewish Boys, which is a group of gay young Jews who all hang out and do retreats and Shabbat dinner and things like that. It’s been a great community for me. And being a part of a pageant is not something that I ever thought about doing, but when I heard that all the money was going to charity — GLOE and the DC Center — then I kind of threw in my hat. It’s not anything I thought I would do, but I [was] excited to do it.
[Ed. note: Tony won the Aug. 13 pageant, which raised nearly $2,000 for charity.]
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