Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Reveal airs a story from Michigan Radio this week that closely follows a Flint, Michigan, family who drank lead-laced city water pumped from the Flint River. Whether you’ve been following the national story or not, “Do Not Drink: the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan,” fills in the sordid details for you. The situation has been nothing short of a public health crisis with governmental corruption and lies at the center of it. However, while the scandal affected an entire community, by focusing on a family experiencing the crisis, listeners are able to better grasp the depth of the problem, which include severe–and irreversible–damage to the family’s children. The show deep-dives to the root cause—cost-cutting that lead to a failure to add chemical additives that would have prevented lead from leaking from the pipes—but also, and more importantly, the human cost. Podcasting might be associated with anyone-can-grab-a-microphone populism, but Reveal regularly showcases why narrative audio at its best features real reporting. The programming decisions at Reveal prove its producers aren’t afraid to think big.
In August of last year, after losing custody of her daughter, a woman shot a caseworker named Lara Sobel. As an employee of DCF, Sobel helped determine whether the families she worked with were fit to care for their children. In her line of work, poverty, addiction, and the inability to provide adequate childcare intersect far too often. Erica Heilman honors Sobel by interviewing a few of her DCF colleagues—unnamed for privacy concerns—in an attempt to understand the gut-wrenching work they do. Heilman goes after heavy material here, and there is no shortage of it–particularly the parts about children left alone in houses to eat and fend for themselves. The show wisely focuses on the impossible tasks asked of caseworkers—how they’re encouraging a family while also deciding whether or not to take their children away. And while the work focuses only on the caseworkers, leaving the voices of those families out, Heilman is upfront about this and promises to bring those perspectives to us in coming episodes. It’s episodes like these–ones that bring us new and unexpected stories–that remind us how surprising and powerful podcasting can be.
For The Allusionist, tracing the history of personal ads marries all the things that make Helen Zaltzman’s podcast so enjoyable. It savors word play and improvisation with guests, and few topics are more fertile for wordsmithing than lonely hearts listings. Going back 300 years, “WLTM Part I” tracks the origin of classified matchmaking, a trend that started in the 17th century and is paradoxically old school and contemporary. What we’re looking for in a partner may have changed—for the most part, we’ve given up on asking someone to care for the pigs while we’re at work—but figuratively, it’s all the same: love, sex, compatibility, and money. What makes this episode of The Allusionist special is its host, who riffs with Francesca Beauman, the guest expert on classifieds. Love of language, like love of a fine pair of shapely ankles, is an increasingly outdated passion. But Zaltzman reignites our ardor with intelligence, humor, and a great deal of fun.
If you’ve ever shown your grandmother how to turn on her computer for the umpteenth time, you know how technology and the vast potential of the Internet can elude the elderly. Which is what makes it so nefarious when corporations try to exploit these weaknesses through phone scams that promise immense riches to anyone naive enough to buy in. In “Anatomy of a Scam,” Planet Money explores the dark world of online scammers who peddle consulting services for setting up online shops to people who don’t even have anything to sell. The centerpiece of the episode is a call with “Doris,” an elderly woman without a business plan, but who is seduced by the possibility of a seven-figure income from a ten-hour work week. We listen as producers dissect the call into steps (such as: find out what kind of assets the person has; or, exploit their fear). It works, too—”Doris” and other people like her were swindled out of thousands of dollars in cash while the corporation got very, very rich. There’s always another shadow economy, and we can always count on Planet Money to shine a light on it.
Modern Love, the podcast named for the New York Times column, debuted in January, and it’s quickly proven its bona fides. This past week’s episode confronts giving up a child for adoption—specifically an open adoption, an arrangement where the child, birth parents, and adopted parents remain in communication in some capacity. Understanding its emotional multitudes is damn near impossible without an insider’s wisdom because there aren’t many people who can relate to willingly giving up a child—or adopting a child and wanting to keep his mother around. So Modern Love leans on the candor of Amy Seek’s “Not So Simple Math” to understand the painful ramifications of such an arrangement. It’s an essay that plunges headfirst into the experience—how she vacillates between wanting her son and then wanting her career instead—and you’ll most likely squirm a few times before you finish the episode. After actress Sarah Paulson reads the essay, Seek joins the podcast to discuss where she is with the son she gave up for adoption over a decade ago. While it can be a cheat to simply read someone’s essay into a microphone, Modern Love brings the form to life with spectacular voice acting and pitch perfect production.
Let’s just say it: Another Round is one of the most important podcasts to emerge from the crowded field in years. It’s easy to point out how the show balances serious social commentary on issues like race and gender with lighthearted frivolity, but much harder to explain just how unusual this is. Take this week’s episode, for instance: hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu talk with Anil Dash, the CEO of ThinkUp, about being an Indian man in America. Their’s is a conversation of familiarity–a sense of shared experiences and mutual touchstones–that makes for good, easy company, but these three aren’t shooting the breeze about superficial topics. When Dash describes how frequently he is detained at the airport–to the point that he has practiced a professional posture to discourage profiling–and takes stock of the dearth of Indians in medical dramas, it’s for sure a painful indictment of racism in America. Except no one on Another Round ever steps up on a soapbox. This is just a conversation between friends–old ones and new ones–and you just happen to be listening in, and maybe accidentally becoming a better human being.
Paris of the Plains is a podcast about the people of Kansas City, Missouri. But like a slew of other excellent regional podcasts (like Vermont’s Rumble Strip Vermont, Colorado’s Wish We Were Here, and California’s HOME: Stories from L.A.), Paris of the Plains shows that you don’t need to be from an area to appreciate its stories. “Charlie Mylie (Walking the Border)” taps into the universal love of a great premise by featuring the story of Mylie, a journalist, who sets out to walk the border of the city over a period of weeks. He’s fresh off a breakup, a little lost, and in need of a spiritual journey. That he can travel far while never being more than 30 minutes from home makes his border walk the perfect fit. His experience is a bit meandering–we’re not sure what he set out to find or if he indeed finds it–but the gritty recorder-in-the field sensibility of the episode offers an immediacy that excuses any sag in the narrative. It’s nice when a podcast steps out of the studio, breathes in the fresh air, and goes for a walk.
Brian Koppelman, the writer of films like Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen, as well as the new Showtime series, Billions, is on a quest of self actualization. Through his podcast, he talks to artists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers about the key decisions and pivotal moments that defined their career. Implicit in the premise is a sense that there are secrets to success–not tricks and manipulations, but life lessons that can be internalized and unlock the potential living within each of us. Take his conversation with legendary ad exec Donny Deutsch. While Deutsch is most famous for his top New York ad firm, Deutsch Inc., Koppelman is more interested in how the executive jumped from selling ads to writing his sitcom, Donny! When Deutsch mentions offhand that he might consider running for mayor of New York, Koppelman is all over this, insisting that Deutsch could–and should–run for office. To Koppelman, there is no hurdle too tall, no skill too complicated. With the right attitude, we can do anything.