Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Wish We Were Here chronicles life in Colorado Springs, a city nestled just east of the Rocky Mountains. On April 25, 1995, four men scaled Pike’s Peak using the Cog, a tourist rail system that takes you to the top of the 14,114-foot mountain just outside the city. For what started out as a quaint day-trip of skiing, ominous signs of trouble surfaced after ascending the windswept peak. “Avalanche on America’s Mountain” builds its drama using the testimony of the men and women who survived the ordeal. It’s a taut narrative, with pacing that allows for moments of incredible beauty, without ever losing its sense of dread. There are just under ten characters vying for airtime in this episode, and few audio documentaries pull off this kind of ensemble cast, because crafting a story while giving depth to this many people requires hours of tape and structuring. The principle characters let their love of the rugged snowfields and gray crags—and the exhilaration of skiing down a breathtaking fourteener—backdrop a story that breaks your heart exactly twice. Many stories might have cut off the narrative after the final tragedy, but Wish We Were Here sticks around an extra beat to find its true ending.
In the wake of a mass murder, the public is quick to play the game of villains and victims. It’s perhaps a natural human tendency, to assign blame or offer empathy, after a senseless tragedy—but one party evades easy classification: the family of the killer. In 1999, senior students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris famously went on a shooting spree inside Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves. Seventeen years later, Klebold’s mother, Sue, has written a memoir entitled A Mother’s Reckoning, and sat down with NPR’s Terry Gross to talk about what it’s like to be the mother of a teenage killer. If rubbernecking or morbid curiosity initially draws you into the interview, you certainly aren’t alone, but Sue will affect you in any case. She spent the better part of two decades trying to understand where she went wrong and what else she could have done, and no amount of blame could be laid on her that she hasn’t already laid upon herself. It’s a deeply moving conversation in which Gross pushes hard on Sue, but, in so doing, draws out the truest takeaway of all: love is a twisted, gnarled beast, and it doesn’t always win.
Also: check out “Hastings” from Criminal, which, in uncanny timing, relays the experience of two students when a classmate brought a gun to school.
“Remembering Anarcha…” stands out as the best episode produced by Shankar Vedantam and company in their six-month run of Hidden Brain. In it, guest Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble unearths the history of African-American slaves, as told through mothers put under the knife by a controversial but decorated gynecologist named J. Marion Sims. By performing surgeries on black patients without anesthesia—using them as test subjects—Sims represented not the equal-rights activist he has been miscast as, but rather a symbol of white patriarchy that saw dark-skinned bodies as something other than human. As an outro, it finishes with a poem by Bettina Judd that recounts her terrifying experience as a patient worrying about how doctors will respond to her blackness rather than her agonizing abdominal pain. For a series that started off heavy on social sciences and a formulaic approach to podcasting, HB evolved by blending in character studies and differing its structure to soften its pedantic edge.
One way to gauge how much you really love a podcast is by how quickly you want to hear a new episode after it drops. When it comes to The Allusionist, we’re always clamoring to hit the play button on our podcatchers to see what Helen Zaltzman has in store for us. And the reason for this has a lot to do with how often she surprises us. How many podcasts could take a—let’s be honest—somewhat mundane subject like linguistics and spin it into true entertainment the way this show has? On “U.S. Election Lexicon,” Zaltzman teaches listeners about the etymology of words such as congress and radical. This could be a dreadfully dull podcast if she didn’t present the information in a most creative and playful package: through faux political calls on behalf of the fictional Lexicrat Party. It’s charming and silly and also somehow educational, all tucked into a lean 10 minutes. Don’t let Zaltzman’s breezy demeanor fool you—this isn’t easy.
In the interest of full disclosure: in response to an online call for assistance, one of our editors, Devon Taylor, connected producer Helen Zaltzman with her stepmother for research help with this story. The Timbre was in no way involved with the production of the episode.
Taking his recording studio through Judd Apatow’s front door and into his house, Brian Koppelman interviews the comedian and movie maker about rites of passage in comedy and his sort-of-newish book, Sick in the Head. The friendly home invasion lends an urgency to the podcast—Apatow sounds like he’s in the middle of some big project, but then again, when isn’t he? Koppelman stays devoted to questions about career and process as always, and his enthusiasm inspires Apatow to fall into a nice rhythm with him. And Apatow is a perfect guest for The Moment because he’s seemingly as unaffected by success as Koppelman. To kick off the episode, Apatow retells a story from Sick about his teenage self chasing down Steve Martin at his house in 1980, and here is Koppelman tracking down an interview of his own with Apatow. Koppelman’s strength lies in persistence—whether you know it or not, he’s going to have an honest moment with you.
In two episodes released a day apart, showrunner Sarah Koenig looks deep into Bowe Bergdahl’s past—and mind—to better understand what made him abandon his post in Afghanistan in 2009. And it is now, seven episodes into the second season of Serial, that we learn Bergdahl may have suffered from something called schizotypal personality disorder. Talk about burying the lede. Taken as a two-parter, these episodes feature some of the best reporting of the season, including psychiatric evaluations and interviews with friends of Bergdahl’s, who help to paint a portrait of him as a troubled, yet well-intentioned young man obsessed with Ayn Rand and intent on proving himself in the military. One of this season’s biggest disappointments has been recognizing in Bergdahl a sympathetic character, one listeners can connect with in the same way they did Adnan Syed from the first season. These two episodes go a long way in closing the empathy gap. But they also highlight a serious problem with season two: its structure. Would listeners have heard the first several episodes differently if they thought that Bergdahl was mentally compromised? And if Bergdahl has a personality disorder, it affects the central conflict of the season—which is difficult to pin down, but hovers around the question of the soldier’s veracity. Despite this storyline mostly falling short of the expectations the first season set for the show, we find episodes like these two to hold up and admire, as they exemplify what we came to know as the true tenets of Serial.
“Trim the Fat” finds host Peter Bresnan, a standup comic, writing a joke on spec for a comedy festival—one about body issues—that just won’t land. There’s an undeniable allure to podcasts that take you elsewhere, outside of the recording studio and into lesser known haunts. Tell Me I’m Funny sets up shop on stage, a place standup comics call home. Yet for most of us home has never been this nerve-wracking, especially after listening to host Bresnan bomb repeatedly while telling a joke about the size of his ass. Bresnan scratches at the thread of the bit, trying to get a grasp on it, and he refuses to let go. Eventually he gets to the essence of it just before the festival, the one that invites performers to integrate their bodies into jokes, and we’re marked by a sense of his evolution—he’s seen a joke through to its logical conclusion. Listening to Tell Me I’m Funny is to appreciate the suffering and small joys of working in comedy clubs before you’ve hit it big. His podcast works as a confessional counterpoint to the make-me-laugh demands of standup. There’s a real tension to hearing him bomb, and we’re rooting for him to beat the joke, to get it right. Bresnan works hard to body shame himself on stage, but “Trim the Fat” succeeds because he’s baring his ambitions and shortcomings as a comedian. The stakes increase exponentially from here if he wants to make it in comedy, and so too in podcasting. Both mediums ask him to top himself again and again.
Rolling Stone Music Now entered the audio game in a manner unlike so many publications that came to podcasting before it. Instead of just interviewing its own writers and editors, or summarizing what its already prominent platform has to say, Rolling Stone Music Now emphasizes the unique contribution it has to offer listeners—namely, access. Each week opens with small talk about new music and pop culture, and then rolls into a hard-to-get interviews with major music players, ones that other platforms would be hard-pressed to secure. The show has only been at it for a month, but is already finding its rhythm—and it’s one that turns up the volume on the variety format. Moments to listen for this week include the modern-day measurement for artists going platinum, Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance broken down, and an interview with Cameron Crowe on his late friend Glenn Frey. For super-fans of either The Eagles or Almost Famous, this stellar conversation continues both phenomena, if only just inches farther. It manages to stay light despite being somewhat of a eulogy, but also dive deep into Frey’s life as only someone like Crowe, who’s been chronicling and drawing inspiration from the man’s life for three decades-plus, could. For RS Music Now, it’s all happening.