Originally aired Winter 2019
Spacebridge tells a largely-forgotten saga of the late Cold War, when despair about the prospects of a nuclear conflict gripped the world. Both Soviets and Americans grasped at emerging communication technology via satellite and early Internet “spacebridges” that brought together citizen diplomats ranging from New Agers to tech-enthusiasts to astronauts. The urge to “just connect” helped tilt the world from top-down broadcasting to the more horizontal, Internet-levelled society where we all now live…for better and/or for worse.
Co-hosted by Julia Barton and Charles Maynes, Spacebridge is a production of Showcase from PRX’s Radiotopia with additional funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Our Russian content partner is the history site Arzamas.Academy.
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Julia Barton (Co-host) first visited the USSR in 1985 as a high school student studying Russian. She’s been back to that part of the world many times as a reporter and journalism trainer. In her other life, she is executive editor of Pushkin Industries, an audio production house founded by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg.
Charles Maynes (Co-host) is a journalist based in Moscow. A frequent contributor to PRI/BBC’s The World, his audio feature work has also been featured on This American Life, 99% Invisible, Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, and BBC Radio 4 among other programs and podcasts. He is the recipient of a Third Coast International Audio Festival Award (2011) and the Prix Marulic Gold prize for documentary (2017). He is originally from Washington, DC.
Julia Alsop (Producer) is a reporter, producer and sound designer living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She’s helped produce and develop shows such as Red Bull’s Nightclubbing, TED’s Work/Life, Radiotopia’s The Heart and NPR’s LatinoUSA.
Sam Greenspan (Editor) is the creator and host of Bellwether, a forthcoming podcast of speculative journalism. An award-winning radio reporter, producer, and editor, Sam has worked on the staff of USA Today’s The City, 99% Invisible, NPR’s TED Radio Hour, and others. He still refers to “podcasts” as “radio.” Sam lives in Los Angeles.
DJ Cashmere (Production Assistant) is a print and audio journalist and storyteller based in New York City. He covers mostly education, urban policy, and culture. His work has been featured in The Village Voice, Education Week, Ms. Magazine, and The Millions, among others.
Samira Tazari (Production Assistant) spent a semester abroad in St. Petersburg studying Russian - which she occasionally gets to practice being based in Southern Brooklyn. She is a sound designer, oral historian and podcast producer. Presently, she works as an audio producer at Slate Studios, creating branded podcasts.
At a low point in the Cold War, three men walk into a bureaucrat’s office at Gosteleradio, the state broadcaster of the Soviet Union. Two are Americans: an astronaut, and a researcher of psychic phenomena. The third is a Russian utopian with a notebook full of phone numbers he’s not supposed to know. The three want approval for something that’s never been tried before: a two-way, simultaneous satellite link between the enemy empires of the US and USSR.
The first two-way satellite links between the US and USSR are strange, disorganized, and sometimes a little magical. Battling language and technological barriers, Soviet and American musicians, computing pioneers, scientists, and even kids find a way to stage a series of exchanges across the skies — at first awkward, but growing more meaningful as Cold War paranoia ratchets ever higher.
The Soviet Union faces a series of funerals for elderly heads of state; meanwhile the nation falls in love with a “citizen diplomat” from a America, a young girl. Popular daytime TV host Phil Donahue agrees to co-host a spacebridge with Vladimir Pozner, a multi-lingual Soviet known for expounding his government’s views on US TV. Soviet and American audiences argue about everything from geopolitics to sex in the resulting “citizen summits,” which rivet participants but also put many careers on the line.
Big TV-satellite “spacebridges” become popular in the USSR, but remain a logistical nightmare — and for American producers, especially — a labor of love that few can afford. Meanwhile, a new breed of citizen diplomat enters the scene, determined to do an end-run around the USSR’s ancient telephone system. They find ways to connect people via a new-fangled contraption, the modem. The consequences of those connections linger today.