Best Podcasts: March 14, 2016

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

BEST IN SHOW

The Intern: “What’s Your Worth?”

Allison Behringer is looking for a raise. The intern-turned-bona  fide employee at betaworks, a startup studio in New York City, has spent the last several months producing The Intern, a podcast about working in the tech industry. What began as an experiment has grown into a success story, with the show reaching 80,000 downloads and finding critical success (heyo, like this!). Consequently, Behringer thinks it’s time she and her boss sit down together to renegotiate her salary. While plenty of podcasts lay claim to the personal memoir genre, only a handful of shows pull it off convincingly, giving listeners the sense that they’re hearing the full truth, warts and all. Add The Intern to that list. On “What’s Your Worth?”, Behringer doggedly researches what she should be earning, talking to colleagues, industry experts, and her wise old grandfather. She also takes a crash course in negotiating, learning what traps female employees tend to fall into and how to best get to yes. Her investigation sets the stage for a tense showdown with her boss where Behringer puts it all on the line. As you listen, don’t be surprised if your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty. For what it’s worth, we’d give Behringer a raise.

How To Be a Girl: “School (Part I)”

Host, producer, and mother Marlo Mack returns from a nearly year-long hiatus with “School (Part I),” an episode in which her daughter transitions from private school to public school. While her daughter flourished in her private school, the grueling two-hour daily commute became too burdensome on the family and Mack resolved to try out the public school just blocks away. Such a change might be a no-brainer for some parents, but for Mack it was a fraught one because, as regular listeners know, Mack’s young daughter is transgender. Not every school is friendly to her child, and Mack is constantly in the position of having to decide what environment is safe, which people need to know, and which are safe to trust. “School (Part I)” finds Mack huddling close to her family while not sounding off the sirens to her daughter, even as the dangers come hurling by them like wayward meteors. It’s a display of calm and proaction that comes with parenthood. For any child, innocence walks the razor’s edge, but for a transgender kid, it’s a gossamer marvel, so fragile it could come undone with the gossip of children.

RUNNERS UP

Surprisingly Awesome: “Frequent Flyer Miles”

Not only has Surprisingly Awesome—which stumbled out of the gate when it debuted last year—found buddy-cop-movie chemistry between guest host John Hodgman as the agitator and Adam Davidson as the economics professor, it’s also dropped the somewhat gimmicky introduction it once used to generate interest in a topic. In its place is effortless fun and a story about buying pallets of pudding. “Frequent Flyer Miles” tracks the origin of miles programs, weaves in psychology on how it preys on our desires to stockpile and strategize, and then asks if we’re fighting a losing battle against the airlines. The highlight segment of “Frequent Flyer Miles” details a promotion run by Healthy Choice in 1999 in which a man named David Phillips participated and shelled out $3,000 for pudding and then raked in over a million frequent flyer miles. For the people who hoard miles, Phillips brought home the holy grail of prizes. Gaming the airlines is synonymous with collecting for people who run in that circle. Lucky for us, Hodgman hangs out in the Delta Diamond Medallion lounge and translates for us sadsack flyers. Davidson and Hodgman have a shared obsession with miles and aim to understand if the game they play with the airline is futile. “Frequent Flyer Miles” finds the crew over at Gimlet finally living up to its lofty titles. Surprising? Yes. Awesome? Definitely.

Radiolab: “Debatable”

Traditionally, the idea of college debate teams conjures up for many the image of white Ivy League males—with names like Chester and Kip—clad in matching varsity sweaters squaring off on economic and policy questions. And while this stereotype doesn’t paint an accurate portrait, it does capture one enduring truth: this is a world populated with white faces. Ryan Wash, a black, queer, first-generation college student from Missouri was an unlikely person to find success in academic debate, but he did just that by focusing his arguments on the shortcomings of the sport. Specifically, its inherent racism. Rather than conforming to the classic, research-based style of debate known for its speedy delivery, he used his allotted time to argue that the very nature of academic debate favors white, wealthy students. The approach worked, too, and Wash and his partner, Elijah Smith, arrived at the 2013 National Debate Tournament poised to compete. It’s a fascinating tale, and certainly a departure for Radiolab, a show that once focused on asking the big questions about science and philosophy. Like Wash, the show is turning this classic approach on its head, and instead of asking—and answering—questions, it’s telling us stories and letting listeners decide what it all means.

Someone Knows Something: “Mr. Ring”

In 1972, a five-year-old boy named Adrien McNaughton wandered away from a small lake outside Arnprior, Ontario, where he and his family had spent the late afternoon fishing. He was never seen or heard from again. The serialized, true-crime series Someone Knows Something by the CBC presents a tantalizing mystery and then aims to unearth new theories—and if it’s within the realm of possibility, conclusions—in the investigation. It’s an agonizing, jigsaw puzzle of a case because very little of substance has been found since Adrien was reported missing. To open the cold case for radio listeners, a hometown documentarian named David Ridgen returns to Arnprior to spark new leads with fresh eyes and a local connection. It’s the perfect setting to take you back in time: a tiny village in a secluded part of Canada where the locals speak in a dialect that blends Irish, Scottish, English, and North American accents. The first episode got a bit bogged down interviewing family before establishing the details of the case, but “Mr. Ring”—the second in the series—finds its stride and hooks listeners into the baffling mystery of a half-century-old missing persons case. As the series continues to ramp up speed, it will be fascinating to hear how far Ridgen advances with his inquiries before he hits a brick wall or asks someone a question the person doesn’t want to answer.

HONORABLE MENTION

There Goes the Neighborhood: “Mouth to Ear”

WNYC has a new show about gentrification, and it’s off to a promising start. There Goes the Neighborhood is a miniseries focused on the issue and effects of gentrification in Brooklyn. Co-produced with The Nation, the show begins by telling us about Monica Bailey, a longtime resident of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood who was displaced from her home of 30 years when a housing developer bought up the property and forced its tenants out. This is a familiar story for the residents of Brooklyn, where buyers are swallowing up once-affordable buildings at a breakneck pace, pushing them deeper into the borough—or out of it entirely. Gentrification is a complicated issue that implicates a number of players, and it may not be possible to fully explore its roots in the eight-episode run this series has planned. But by focusing on real individuals who are impacted by their changing blocks and the people with a financial stake in this change, the podcasts drops listeners onto those sidewalks to see gentrification in motion.

Alice Isn’t Dead: “Omelet”

If you give Alice Isn’t Dead your undivided attention while driving long distances, its vision coalesces with your own: Must. Keep. Moving. It’s an ode to someone who hasn’t known home in a while. Part Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, part Stephen King’s The GunslingerAlice places an estranged lover in a big rig as she flees a monster and pursues her wife across a twisted, American heartland. A 10-part fictionalized podcast series that launched this past week with “Omelet,” Alice arrives from one of the co-creators of Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink. It exists in a world alongside but completely independent of Fink’s prior work. For fans of Night Vale, you already tore through “Omelet” the second it hit your podcatcher. For everyone else, Alice might be the perfect time to jump onboard a new fictional series without the anxiety of staring down a massive back catalog.

Read our full review.

Switched on Pop: “Say Hey”

This week’s episode of Switched on Pop does what the show does best: it finds one of its hosts, Charlie Harding, along with guest Alex Kapelman, totally geeking out on pop music. The topic du jour is the ubiquitous heys you hear in contemporary pop songs. It’s a subject Kapelman grew obsessed with over the past several months and called on SOP to research for him—namely why do so many singers toss hey into their lyrics, from Carly Rae Jepsen to the Lumineers, to the Beibs? The reason why this show works is not because its listeners necessarily care that much about the answer, but because it’s a pleasure to hear true music aficionados deep dive in earnest a subject as esoteric as this. SOP has commanded the respect of the podcast community since it debuted in late 2014, not just because of its top shelf production, but because it’s hard to resist hosts who really love what they’re doing.

 

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Author Description

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

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