Best Podcasts: February 15, 2016

Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.


The Memory Palace: “The Wheel”

After watching the movie 12 Years a Slave, it’s impossible not to think, Why had I not been told this tremendous, unsettling story before? But we know the answer—American textbooks celebrate the lives of white men almost exclusively. Offering nearly the same epic scope and feeling of forgotten history, “The Wheel” touches on similar themes confronted by 2014’s Best Picture winner, including a harrowing escape from chattel slavery. The episode’s subject, Robert Smalls, grew up a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, but his master hired him out to work in nearby Charleston. As a teenager, he took work on the docks and learned to steer ships and master the seemingly endless waterways and inlets that crisscross the harbor. With Charleston—a crucial port city in the Confederacy— as his training ground, Smalls soon found himself whispering an escape plan to his fellow slaves and family after mastering the skills of a pilot. Memory Palace crafts tight stories—20 minutes or less—and frequently chooses narratives where the line between drama and melodrama might vanish in the wrong hands. Host Nate Dimeo narrates Smalls’ getaway with solemnity and restraint. Come for the gripping story, but stay for the masterful craft.

Scene on Radio: “Losing Yourself”

In our darkest hours, regardless of how many people rally to our sides, no matter how articulate or open we are, our individual experiences cannot really be shared. But, despite this, “Losing Yourself” from Scene On Radio gets listeners as close as possible to entering someone else’s pain. The narrator finds out she is gravely ill. In real time, it becomes obvious that she truly is an audio artist as she turns to the mic time and again to process the world around her during her extensive hospital stay. Nothing is filtered and our narrator describes–in heart-wrenching detail–the experience of staring at doctors the same age as her, who could be her, as they deliver the bad news. Listeners often flock to podcasting because it offers an immediacy and intimacy that is lost in other mediums crowded with editors and publishers and advertisers who water down that original message. But here we are, warts and all, staring death in the face. This is the power of audio.


This American Life: “My Damn Mind”

After over 550 episodes of This American Life, you can almost tell when an episode is going to be a good one. In the first few minutes of “My Damn Mind,” it becomes clear we’re in for something special. We hear about Alan Pean, an African-American college student who had a psychotic break and ended up, hours later, handcuffed and shot in a hospital room in Houston, Texas. The story finds that sweet spot between close, personal narrative and serious reportage that allows a real problem to find the light of day. In this case, some of our country’s most hot button issues flow together in one tidy stream as we’re forced to consider gun control, hospital safety, mental health, and racist targeting. In conjunction with The New York Times, the show discusses research about hospitals across the country—they all have inconsistent policies about whether or not their staff should be armed and training policies for armed security–and leaves listeners to wonder why they didn’t know about the lack of institutional standard before. While Act One advocates a full embrace of knowledge and action, Act Two advocates the power of denial. Writer Michael Kinsley makes the case for ignoring a problem for as long as humanly possible as he struggles with his own diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Both men’s stories will make you question your own relationship to your mind, and what it might mean to lose it.

The Intern: “On the Chopping Block”

Host and narrator Allison Behringer is winging it—and listening to her trial-and-error living in New York, working at a new job, and creating a podcast is a total joy. Armed with her hopes of entering the radio world, she jumped at the opportunity to become an intern at a tech company where her major role was to develop and produce a podcast about moving to New York and starting this very job. It’s a podcast still finding its footing, but listeners are given a chance to watch this play out as Behringer tinkers with her show and struggles over how to put together a serialized podcast–no small feat–with a crew of one. To wit, “On the Chopping Block” jumps back in time, illustrating that this isn’t yet a show with its narrative arc entirely worked out, but that just might be the charm of it. Behringer has been thrown into the deep end of the audio pool, but she’s swimming. She’s pioneering something entirely new. Her energy and excitement, the vulnerability she confronts on tape, the fact that nothing is certain or set in stone, mirrors the podcast industry itself—and we can’t wait to see where it all goes.

Longform Podcast: “Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton  

Podcast worlds collide this week on Longform, where Max Linsky hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton from Buzzfeed’s ascendant Another Round. The interview sheds light on the creative impulses driving Another Round and offers a background story for the podcast that Nigatu and Clayton proffer as right place, right time. People have a right to humility, but we’re only partly buying it. Whatever role serendipity played in the creation of their podcast, a family-style medley of cultural, comedic, and political conversations and a guest—and bourbon—the interview makes clear that a project this successful isn’t strictly a daisy chain of fortunate events. Before landing at BuzzFeed, Clayton made a name for herself on Twitter, a platform custom-made for her talents as a writer and cultural eyewitness. Nigatu, a Columbia almost-grad and former SNL intern who was honored on Forbe’s 30-under-30, brings a performative and comedic balance in contrast to the writerly Clayton. After Linsky separates the pair for individual interviews later in the podcast, the curtain is finally pulled back in one-on-one discussions. The success of the Another Round is no accident. Maybe finding someone that elevates your game is good luck—two talented bandmates discovering themselves in the want ads—but execution and preparedness is no fluke. 


Radiolab: “Hard Knock Life”

Listening to the latest offering of Radiolab is a little like watching ice skating legend Scott Hamilton late in his career (stay with me here). At that point, Hamilton had received every award and accolade he could, and his skating betrayed nothing but a sense of joy. He skated with the swagger of a man with nothing to prove. Hell, he’d toss in a backflip occasionally just to thrill his audiences–a move that is against USFSA rules. “Hark Knock Life” takes on the mating habits of deathwatch beetles–a topic that just screams dull–and yet Robert Krulwich and Molly Webster manage to create one of the most entertaining and endearing shows we’ve heard all year. And after a decade of producing Radiolab, it’s no wonder. Here’s a show that has investigated and pondered everything from animal extinction to human morality to the far reaches of space. For certain, the show isn’t done exploring, but if occasionally producers want to do a backflip–because they can–we’re okay with it. And, to be sure, pairing a scientific explanation of the desperate longings of a beetle with a rap ballad told from the perspective of the beetle is the radio equivalent of flipping on skates. Toss in your earbuds. This is a fun one.

StoryCorps: “Eternally Eight”

StoryCorps has a simple but profound goal: to preserve and share humanity’s stories. These are accounts of new careers, failed marriages, foreign war deployment, and coming of age. The show trades on the belief that everyone has a story—all they need is the chance to tell it. On “Eternally Eight,” Sean Smith shares with listeners the worst thing he ever did: in 1989, after finding a .38 caliber his father kept in a drawer, he accidentally shot and killed his little sister. Sean and his mother, Lee, open up about the tragedy and how they still wrestle with guilt. The episode plays like a cautionary tale—and indeed it was one, with Sean’s 911 call played in schools and at camps as a safety reminder for kids—but our cautionary tale is Sean’s family’s reality, and StoryCorps underscores for listeners how powerful it can be to hear each person’s story.

Getting on with James Urbaniak: “‘The Big Comeback’ by Joseph Scrimshaw”

Many podcasts tend to fall into a predictable structure that’s similar to 22-minute sitcom. Sure, the content for narrative audio and scripted television is different, but the components of each stand in out in almost the same way. In a sitcom you have commercials, laugh tracks, and a tidy ending that undoes any major plot points so there’s room for more shenanigans next week. For podcasts, you have the affable host, an interview with a subject, a response to that discussion, and then a possible lesson. Getting on with James Urbaniak blows up the podcast model in a delicious way. With nothing more than a monologue penned by a different writer each week—some of the best writing in podcasting—Urbaniak darts back and forth between a satire of middle-aged whiteness and a celebration of the host’s deadpan soliloquies and infectious pipes. When it’s on like it is with “The Big Comeback,” Urbaniak is absolutely joyous. Here Urbaniak claims to be the son of Frank Sinatra, and, by the end, you’ll be a believer. He pulls off an amazing feat that showcases his singular abilities as an actor. “Ha, ha. You see? It’s all about the phrasing,” he says to close the podcast. Frank Sinatra would agree.


Author Description

The Timbre brings thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis to podcasts and the larger culture of podcasting.