Best Podcasts: February 8, 2016

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


Death, Sex & Money: “Lucinda Williams Says Whatever the Hell She Wants”

With the right guest, Anna Sale has the capacity to tear your heart out. Her conversation with country singer Lucinda Williams is one of those occasions. The songwriter lets loose some agonizing details about losing her father, poet Miller Williams, and growing old, yet the effortless rapport Williams and Sale fashion from the first second of the interview allows space for laughter. And laugh they do—uncontrollably at times—realizing there’s nothing left to do when you’re working with real devastation. And there’s crying to be done, particularly when Williams recalls a crushing admission her father made to her before his death. The rawness and openness of William’s interview makes it a must-listen, yet there is still more—anecdotes about Hank Williams and Flannery O’Connor deepen the episode in a memorable way. As a host, Anna Sale’s sincere questioning begs a guest to own up to things he or she might be afraid to even put in a diary behind lock and key. When a guest like Williams honestly responds to the direction of the interview, it shapes into something extraordinary—a standout episode of Death, Sex & Money.

Only Human: “One Doctor’s Mission: Safe Abortions in the South”

What motivates a doctor who was raised a fundamentalist Christian in a community where abortion was considered a sin to become a practicing obstetrician gynecologist who specializes in performing abortions? For Willie Parker, the path was an unexpected one. For the first 12 years of his career, he refused to even learn the particulars of the procedure. Then he heard a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. about the Good Samaritan, and he realized he had a larger calling—to be there for women at what can be their most desperate, and sometimes darkest, moments. Parker was raised in poverty conditions and understands well how few options some women have. As he explained, a lack of access to abortions rarely stops women from seeking other, often more dangerous, alternatives, including home remedies. Now, Parker travels throughout the South, sometimes performing as many as a dozen abortions a day in an effort to be that safer option. It’s rare to hear about someone changing their attitude on anything so dramatically, let alone a practice that touches on such complex issues. He’s lost friends over his decision and knows that his practice might put him in harm’s way, and yet his resolve is remarkable. His is the perspective of someone at peace with his choices.


Serial: “5 O’Clock Shadow”

This week’s episode of Serial answers the biggest question—and possibly the only remaining one—unaddressed by the series so far about Bowe Bergdahl: What motivated the soldier to abandon his post? Surprisingly, Koenig waited until episode six to explain his desertion, even though the series dangled his conflicting attitude about the leadership at his base since the season debut without closing the loop until now. And understanding Bergdahl’s predicament makes for great drama. Serial has always been brilliant with using episodes as anthropological and archeological studies of cultures and physical terrain we might not understand—think lawyers, Jay, and cell phone records from season one. “5 O’Clock Shadow” is all about the culture of the Army and its hurry-up-and-wait, catch-22 hierarchy. It also introduces an equally important attribute of Bergdahl that might not have been apparent until now (especially since many of his fellow soldiers vilified him for disappearing)—he was an exemplary enlisted man. Leave it to Serial to have something left up its sleeve.

Reveal: “Pumped on Trump”

A number of excellent podcasts (see: This American Life, Seriously…, and Home of the Brave) have dedicated themselves to finding out more about the elusive American creature known as the Donald Trump Supporter. But no one has more thoroughly answered the question than Reveal did in “Pumped on Trump.” Public radio and podcast fans tend to skew liberal and the Venn diagram of Trump supporters and Reveal listeners may have very little overlap, but the podcast does not take this as carte blanche to trash or belittle Trump voters. Instead, it takes an earnest approach to understanding who populates this demographic and what they care about. What emerges from the investigation is a portrait of America that is fed up—fed up with “losing,” fed up with political correctness, and fed up with being broke. It’s difficult to tell if this is a diagnosis of the country or a projection of one’s own personal frustrations, but isn’t this what political support is always about? For many voters, Trump says what they are thinking, and he makes them feel rich inside. “Pumped on Trump” is so convincing, no matter who you support, you might find yourself understanding Trump’s followers better than you ever thought possible.  

Here’s the Thing: “Still Plenty of Fight in Mickey Rourke”

Of the many fascinations surrounding Here’s the Thing, Baldwin’s presence comes to the forefront, especially when he’s speaking to a no-nonsense Hollywood-but-not-really-Hollywood actor like Mickey Rourke. Rourke laces damn near all of his replies with world-weariness and a disgust of moviemaking, and few people on the planet—let alone in podcasting—have the authority to comment firsthand on the business quite like Baldwin. In many ways Rourke and Baldwin are kindred spirits: two supremely talented actors who fell into addiction in their early primes and never signed on to all the right projects, yet when they did, their performances were iconic. Growing up with a sadistic stepfather in south Florida, Rourke took up boxing and eventually, after one too many concussions, acting. With that upbringing and a megawatt charisma, Rourke had a collision course with the tabloids. Everything you’ve heard about Rourke—the fighting with directors, the drinking, the drugs, the womanizing—won’t be glossed over here. The best episodes of Here’s the Thing find a subject capable of establishing a stage presence next to their host. While not an easy task, Rourke can’t help but find the spotlight.


Serendipity: “Strangers in a Small Cafe”

Every once in a while a podcast comes along that surprises you. So much of what we listen to sprang from the influence of This American Life that it’s easy to forget a podcast doesn’t have to be documentary in style. Not only is Serendipity fiction—a major departure from the lion’s share of podcasts—but it also experiments with sound in a fresh and innovative way. To hear an episode like “Strangers in Small Cafe,” created by Sharon Mashihi and The Heart’s Kaitlin Prest, is to remove the governor from podcasting. “Strangers in Small Cafe” smashes together some dirty little vignettes—and some clean ones, too—to create an artistic whole. Forget that a few moments might leave you wondering how the collage of scenes tie together. Consume Serendipity the way you might read a poem or hear the lyrics to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks—sometimes you just can’t unravel all the details of great work.

Generation Anthropocene: “Vanishing Remains”  

Generation Anthropocene is a podcast from Stanford University that tracks stories of planetary change. This can sometimes be on-the-nose investigations of climate change, or it can be like this week’s episode, “Vanishing Remains,” where it dives into a way of life that is disappearing. Here student reporter Reade Levinson makes the trip to Mongolia to learn about an ancient practice known as sky burial, a ritual in which the bodies of the dead are left in remote areas to be eaten by vultures. It is considered a way of giving back to Earth—to feed the animals and reabsorb back into the planet. However, Levinson soon learns that urbanization has threatened this practice and perhaps may have even rendered it obsolete. Despite her best efforts, she is unable to witness the ritual. She only hears about it. Though sky burials may seem morose to those accustomed to western burial and cremation practices, it is actually part of a natural cycle in which vultures “take out the trash” following humans’ migration patterns. Now, not only is this practice disappearing in Mongolia, but modernized factory farming and the use of toxic pharmaceuticals in cattle are threatening the lives of vultures who ingest dead animals that have been treated with these drugs. Listeners are left to consider what happens to the planet when humans disrupt the natural ebbs and flows of life and death.

The Intersection: “Drugs”

By examining individual intersections throughout the Bay Area, The Intersection, a new podcast from KALW, is attempting to patchwork together a sense of a city in the midst of change. The first several episodes are devoted to Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street, an intersection of the Tenderloin neighborhood, which, among other things, is notorious for its illegal drug trade. “Drugs” examines that issue by talking to everyone affected by the illicit market, from neighbors to addicts to the dealers themselves. The drug dealers are easy to portray as villains and the neighbors and school children who must be navigate the sidewalks as victims. But the situation at Golden Gate and Leavenworth is more complicated than that. As community members band together as “100 Block Safety” to push back against the trade, they soon learn that not everyone sees the problem the same way. They ultimately decide to focus on washing down the sidewalks, discouraging people from sleeping on the pavement, and removing used needles and feces every morning. It’s a fascinating examination of a dilemma many communities face, one that gentrification brings into the light, the problems of which may have previously been ignored.


Author Description

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