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Trust the Story

Sam Dingman ’04’s path since Swarthmore has had some eclectic twists and turns—but then again, don’t all good stories?

He had spent his Swarthmore days channeling his creative energy into comedy, as a member of the improv troupe Vertigo-go and producer of his own sketch comedy show on WSRN.

“When I graduated,” he recalls, “I promised myself I’d spend two years trying to be an actor in New York, and I knew I’d need a day job to keep me afloat. So I spent two years as a bellman at a luxury hotel in lower Manhattan and then a few months as a taxi driver.”

After being “nearly obliterated by a speeding Jeep Wrangler,” he decided it was time for a change. Next up was an accidental seven-year sojourn through the tech industry, with three years spent at the music streaming service LimeWire and four at Google.

As his professional life evolved, so did his creative journey. Dingman began to mine stories from his time as a bellman and taxi driver, writing his own performance pieces and experimenting with podcasting, then a new medium. Inspired by this storytelling mode, Dingman joined the team at WNYC’s On the Media and eventually moved to the premium podcast network Panoply. There, he produced Karina Longworth’s hit series on classic Hollywood, You Must Remember This, and produced and hosted own his show, Family Ghosts.

Family Ghosts tackles those secrets hiding in dark corners, that haunt and define our family legacies. Its first season brought together true tales of secret uncles, jewel thieves, and suspected arson. At once intimate and tragic, these stories are rooted in the notion that every family is somehow haunted, no matter how friendly the ghost.

The podcast has its own specter, too, though one more poignant than terrifying. Dingman recalls an acting class he took with Lee Devin, now a theater professor emeritus.

“One of the first things he said to us was, ‘All great drama begins with the family,’” he says.

That declaration would spark an ongoing interest in how the familial becomes legend, and how the truth can be more astounding than fiction.

“I was always curious about what it would be like to try and capture that same dramatic vibrance in nonfiction,” Dingman says, “where you can’t write the perfect ending or script the perfect line in the same way you might in a film or a play.”

But unlike a scripted narrative, true stories are harder to wrangle. Producing an episode of a podcast like Family Ghosts requires a delicate balance between listening and responding, of letting the story slowly unspool.

“My favorite part of the work is the exhilaration of sitting down for the first interview,” he says, “having only a gut instinct that it’s going to become something special and having to trust that I can find the path.”

This gut instinct, this trust, is driven by something Sam calls the “Hairbrush Factor.”

“Does this podcast feel like something a person has spent hours dreaming about getting to do, sitting alone in their bedroom, talking into their hairbrush like it was a microphone?” he asks. “If the answer is yes, I think there’s probably a great podcast in there.”