Did you know that Richard Simmons is missing?
Neither did I.
Simmons hasn’t been seen in the public eye since missing a class at his Beverly Hills gym, Slimmons, on February 15th, 2014. Naturally, since Serial made podcasts cool again (for the first time?) there’s podcast about it: Missing Richard Simmons.
The premise is interesting. Host Dan Taberski, one of Richard’s (former?) friends and a long-time Slimmons regular, cobbles together some amateur detective work, interviews with former friends and colleagues, and archive audio of the man himself. Though the other two fall flat for me, the archive audio is really something.
I don’t think it’s really earned the comparisons to Serial but nonetheless Missing Richard Simmons is a good listen. It’s interesting and thought provoking. It’s well produced and hosted too.
Despite all that, I think this is a podcast worth skipping. I’d actually go so far as to argue that the avid podcast listener should skip it because here’s the thing: Richard is not missing.
I think a better comparison than Serial is Making Oprah by NPR and WBEZ, which chronicles the rise of the Oprah Winfrey Show through archive audio, interviews with show-runners, and a whopping once-in-a-lifetime interview with Oprah herself. It chronicles the daytime host’s rise to super-stardom and draws to a close at the end of the talk show and Oprah’s (albeit slight) step back from the spotlight. Just like Missing Richard Simmons.
My qualms with Missing Richard Simmons are almost entirely ethical. Unlike Making Oprah, Simmons is not a willing participant in this investigation into his public (or private) persona. In fact, Richard is a very unwilling participant – having turned down numerous opportunities to speak with the podcast. The fact that this podcast has been called a phenomenon and a hit instead of a massive invasion of privacy is beyond me.
Across all four episodes I listened to, the people interviewed (his friends, attendees at his gym, etc.) all wanted to satisfy their burning questions, to ease their minds, to get their closure. There’s no concern for Richard – someone who consistently professed to having very few friends at all – or his perspective and needs. After an ultra-emotional career in the spotlight, I get overwhelming sense that Simmons was just burnt out. While the podcast desperately insists that he owes an explanation to his outer circle of friends and his fans, I’m just not buying that it’s anyone’s business. This is going to sound harsh but friendship is not a job. You don’t need to give two weeks notice to quit. Frankly if that’s what Richard did, I can’t say I blame him.
The podcast nags at Richard’s privacy (going so far as to camp out front of his house and appear at his brother’s doorstep), throws out wild accusations about his housekeeper (I highly doubt she’s a witch), and entertains speculations that – if mental illness is involved – do nothing to rectify the situation.
I also couldn’t help but notice that the podcast consistently uses the past tense to talk about Richard as though he’s passed away. Maybe in some sense he has – or at least the outer shell has – the public persona has retired for a quiet life, at home, where he’s comfortable.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t reach out to our friends if we are concerned for their well-being. We absolutely should – but there’s a difference between reaching out and pestering. There’s a difference between checking up on someone and staking out their house, even if it is a Beverly Hills mansion. Everyone deserves some amount of privacy. We don’t owe anyone an explanation for claiming it.
The bottom line is that Richard is perfectly fine! The LAPD did a welfare check and he answered, bearded (try to picture that), and assured that all was well.
With all that said the podcast is hard to put down but that’s exactly why I think that I will. There’s a danger associated with new podcasts scrambling to be the next Serial, which is a failure to recognize what should be subjected to the medium. I think this one has crossed an ethical line. Questioning whether or not someone received a fair trial is not the same as uprooting someone’s life. Maybe its time to start interrogating podcasts as a journalistic medium and to really assess whether or not this kind of investigation, though entertaining, is fair to its subject.
All I know is that if I asked for a little space, I sure as hell wouldn’t want my friends showing up with a bunch of audio equipment at my door either.