Latif Nasser is proud of his obsessive personality.
“I get excited about a lot of things and then I get excited hard. And that basically is my only professional superpower,” he said.
Nasser’s gift for excitement is on full display in his new Netflix Docuseries, “Connected.” When he recently spoke with Doug Gordon of WPR’s “BETA”, he started with a simple description of the show.
“It’s a science series about all the various ways we are connected to one another and to our world,” he explained. “And I basically go around the world and sniff out these stories of subtle, surprising science that hopefully will make viewers see the world in a whole new way.”
Nasser is a Producer and Director of Research for WNYC’s Radiolab. The storytelling chops he’s developed on radio and podcasts serve him well on this new show.
“I had fun. Like to me, I was in a candy store,” he said. “I was like, what if we went into a mine in Uruguay or whatever? I just would imagine things.”
But he conceded that keeping up with his excitement was a challenge for the large crew working with him to create the show.
“The real biggest challenge, I think, was all the producers and the logistical schedulers who are trying to do this six dimensional schedule with all these production teams and camera equipment and trying to, you know, like if we did a red eye and then another red eye right after that, like with this work?,” he joked.
He talked with a reporter in Paris about data collection and the dating app Tinder. She managed to get Tinder to send her over 800 pages of raw data they’d collected from her phone.
“What was in that stack of data that they had about her was not just her Tinder swipes and the messages she was sending to potential partners, which is creepy enough in a way. It was also all these other things. It was things she had done on other apps,” Nasser explained.
“This is what blew my mind,” he said. “All the apps on your phone, they’re talking to each other about you behind your back. And that to me, that I was like, huh; I did not realize that.”
Nasser admitted, “Right after the interview, I remember like looking down at my phone and looking at all the tiles of the apps and being like, who is saying what about me to whom here?”
The Other Latif
While searching for stories on Twitter one day, Nasser saw someone tweeting about him to the President of the United States. He thought to himself, “What does that even mean?”
“And it turned out they weren’t tweeting about me,” he discovered. “They were tweeting about this other guy who had my same name, who was a detainee at Guantanamo Bay: Detainee 244. And so I just started trying to find as much as I could about this guy.”
“What I found was that the government basically alleged that he was a top aide to Osama bin Laden. He was al-Qaida’s top explosives expert,” said Nasser. “They painted a picture of this guy as very, very, very scary. And then I talked to his lawyer who basically said, no, he was never in al-Qaida, didn’t have a relationship with Osama bin Laden. This guy was just wrong place, wrong time. And he’s been in Guantanamo for almost 20 years without charges even.”
Along the way, Nasser discovered that during the final days of the Obama Administration, Detainee 244 had been cleared of charges, but his release was never processed as the Trump Administration assumed power.
“My head was totally spinning,” Nasser admitted. “It felt very eerie that this could be happening to a guy with my name. And so I basically spent three years investigating who this guy is, whether he did what the U.S. government said he did, what the evidence for that was, what I thought actually should happen its guy.”
“It’s kind of like this guy never got a trial, and then the only trial he ever got was like in a podcast,” he confessed.
Along the way, Nasser visited the other Latif’s family in Morocco. He said the experience was overwhelming.
“His sister, when she saw me, she just looked at me. And she just gasped and then she kind of ran up to me and she said basically through an interpreter, like, look, I knew you were coming. I knew you had his name. But what I didn’t realize is you had his height. You had his build. You look like him. And you’re the age that he was when I last saw him,” Nasser remembered.
“And I just froze,” he admitted. “There have been so few moments like this in my career as a journalist where I did not know what to do.”
“And then she just grabbed my arm and broke in to English, and said, call me sister,” recalled Nasser.
“I don’t even think I look like him that much,” he admitted. “But I think in her eyes at that moment, it was just so overwhelming, and she just needed something of her brother, and I just happened to be there.”
“That story was unlike any other story, and that moment was unlike any other moment in my career,” he confessed.
“A Goof On A Goon”
In 2016, the NHL opened up their all-star game voting to fans.
“There was this sort of mischievous band of podcasters who came up with this idea that, what if we voted the worst guy in the league to the all-star game? And basically that joke took off, went viral, like this guy got more votes than the next few people combined,” explained Nasser.
That guy was John Scott: a player with a reputation as a goon — hockey lingo for a player whose role is to antagonize and be rough with the opponent. Nasser considers it one of the favorite stories he’s told on Radiolab.
“But he’s not an all-star, and he was the first one to admit it,” Nasser recalled. “But basically what ended up happening was this guy goes Cinderella-like to the All-Star Game and ends up playing the best game of his life!”
In 286 career games over eight seasons, Scott had scored five goals while serving 544 penalty minutes. Yet, out on the ice with the best players in hockey that day, he scored two goals and was the write-in winner of the game’s MVP award.
“I think we called it a goof on a goon,” Nasser remembered. “Yeah, that then sort of flipped back around to have a totally Disney ending.”
Did it mark a new phase in Scott’s career?
“Well, he pretty much retired right after that! He’s like, I’m leaving. I’m leaving on a high note! I can’t top that,” said Nasser
A while back, Nasser wrote a manifesto titled, “The World’s Biggest Scavenger Hunt: A Guide To Finding Stories.” He said that, as a radio and podcast producer, it’s his job to find stories, and it’s the part of his job he loves the most.
“OK, just imagine, there are, however many, seven billion people on planet Earth,” Nasser began. “If you imagine that even a fraction of them, ten percent, even one percent of them have interesting stories worth telling, you’re into a number here that all the news outlets in all the world could not possibly cover and those are just alive people. You also have dead people and you also have animals and plants and microbes and stars and companies and planets,” he reasoned.
“There are just a million things. And to me, it’s like this feeling that there is around us, there is an infinity of stories,” he said.
“I think that there’s so much that’s scary and wrong and horrible and sad that’s going on all around us,” Nasser conceded. “But there’s also so much beautiful and poetic; worth shouting from the rooftops and that’s my job. And I hope it will make some meaning out of this crazy world that we live in. And that’s what I want to keep doing.”