Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Samantha Broun didn’t choose the story she was given: on September 21, 1994, her mother was attacked, sexually assaulted, and kidnapped from her home in Nyack, New York. While the gory, intimate details of the tale are enough for a compelling narrative, Broun, along with the help of producer Jay Allison, did much more than tell an intensely personal story about what happens when someone you love is hurt. She took it all on—the system that allowed convicted murderer Reginald McFadden to walk free from a life sentence, how politicians were ruined and others rose to prominence because of it, and the enduring impact it has on prisoners serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania. The title of the piece itself, “A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice, and My Mother,” tells us everything we need to know—this is a piece that will be looking at the whole picture. Produced over a period of years, Broun interviews everyone she can find who is connected to what happened, from those who voted to commute McFadden’s sentence, to elected officials who profited politically from the crime, to McFadden’s own sister. This is a story that producers don’t often make—and not just because they lack the material, but because they lack the ambition. Because some cautionary voice inside their heads tells them to keep it focused and neat and careful. Broun’s piece is sprawling and emotional and charged with conflict and contradiction. Its questions invite more questions that ripple out into ever-larger existential ones. There are no easy answers; there are perhaps no answers at all. Fixed at the center of the piece is Broun, who is unflinching in her desire for closure, and who recognizes her answers won’t be found inside long prison stays or behind iron bars, but within the darkness of grace and forgiveness.
Find a controversial and difficult subject and we’ll show you an exemplary episode of This American Life. Whether it has to do with race, politics, sexuality, or, as in “Anatomy of Doubt,” the credibility of alleged rape victims, the show is willing to explore topics you don’t bring up in polite company. Produced in collaboration with ProPublica and The Marshall Project, this episode recounts what happened after 18-year-old foster system veteran Marie reported that she was raped by a stranger in her home. Though initially the police were sympathetic to her, over time doubts began to creep in. And because the investigation was contingent upon Marie’s veracity, it wasn’t long before those doubts torpedoed the chances of finding her attacker. In less capable hands, this would be a show about how the system once again let down the true victims. But TAL delves into the way we analyze others’ behavior. People instinctively profile each other all the time—we decide how others should act or think in similar circumstances. Often these instinctive gut checks help us make character assessments or decide whether to trust someone. Except, when it comes to victims of rape, the rules just don’t apply. Victims of rape don’t always act how we think they should act. In such situations, even well-meaning authorities can make the wrong call. Listen carefully enough to “Anatomy of Doubt” and you can imagine yourself in the shoes of just about everyone involved.
What Lea Thau does with her four-part series—following a woman named Elizabeth who donates a kidney to someone she met online—highlights the rewards of floor-to-ceiling coverage. For nearly all of us, the details of organ transplants makes for fine enough drama. Yet Thau follows the story past its logical conclusion and, in the final installment, goes so far as to interview people who posted on the Strangers’ Facebook page and criticized Elizabeth for the manner in which she donated. Instead of standing pat, Thau finds a story much richer and more complex than a celebration of altruism. By bringing in everyone with a stake in the narrative—including listeners who could easily be written off as trolls—she gets well ahead of any potential weaknesses in her main character. Where some producers might apologize away the haters, or even ignore them altogether, Thau gives them a spotlight and their own episode. It’s an altogether unusual approach, to push past the story and incorporate the response to the story, and one that few mediums could support the way podcasting does. And there are few producers to pull it off like Thau, who proves that her tireless emotional investigation leads to unexpected results. While she’s known for turning the microphone on herself, this memoir style feels especially rewarding as we see Thau searching not just for good tape but for answers. In one instance, Thau speaks to a woman from Nebraska who wrote that she’d take Elizabeth’s kidney, but she wouldn’t have a beer with her. Just as you think the woman has no right to such an opinion, you realize that judging trolls isn’t that different from judging altruists. And ultimately, Thau isn’t interested in judging anyone; she seeks to understand.
Read word for word from Kelly Thomas’ Modern Love essay, “A Faithful Leap” plants a specific image in your head: Thelma and Louise driving a car into a desert gorge. Reciting written material verbatim asks much of a listener. Namely, why am I hearing this as a podcast when it was meant to be read? In much the same way that certain novels make for great movies, some essays flourish in a dramatic reading, and “A Faithful Leap” builds to a fever pitch with an understated meditation on breaking away from home, family, and tradition. Even if Thomas and her mother’s cross country narrative bears slim resemblance to the one from Thelma and Louise, the podcast mines 1991’s iconic heroines for dramatic effect. On a cross-country trip from Texas to Michigan—in a Taurus rather than a Thunderbird convertible—Thomas and her mother make for unlikely outlaws. Just when you think you might have insight into the direction of the story, it takes such an unexpected turn that you’ll have to rewind the podcast to confirm you heard what you think you heard.
This week’s Us & Them finds Ann, a woman who is transitioning from life as a man, trying to find her “femme voice.” Her natural tone is deep and husky and betrays the fact that she once went through puberty as a male. To feel fully female, Ann wants a voice that matches her feminine physique. So much attention is given to trans men and women “passing,” in terms of their physical appearance, but this is a detail we rarely hear about: the difficulty of adjusting one’s voice to fit their gender. And while this can—and probably will—be held up as an example of the unique and challenging experience of being a trans person in America, it’s perhaps better heard as a simple story of trying to find acceptance. This journey may be especially fraught for trans men and women, but there is no one way to be a trans person, nor is there a singular trans experience. For Ann, acceptance means finding her femme voice, and this means recording hours of tape as she practices and even hiring a voice coach to stretch her vocal cords.
“To a Distant Continent” transports listeners to the English Channel, where Lynne Cox narrates her many swims between France and England, most of them begun in the dead of night. Producer Vanessa Lowe recreates the open-water journey with a spare sound design and a hyper focus on Cox’s descriptions of sea creatures and all the things that stir in the dark as you paddle across a major shipping lane. Cox includes wonderful details from her adventures: pushing away from the cliffs of Dover toward France, catching oatmeal cookies from a kayaker before they sink into the water, outrunning massive transport ships, and the iridescent glow of flying fish. The sum of all Cox’s experiences build to a cinematic campaign. Lowe wants nothing less than to throw you in deep water. Tackle “To a Distant Continent” while you’re alone on the road or up late at night with nothing but a pair of headphones to comfort you.
It’s hard to make a phone app sexy, and it’s even harder to make a podcast about a phone app sexy. But this week’s Note to Self does just that as it investigates PlsPlsMe, an app developed for couples to talk about what they like and don’t like in the bedroom. The Heart’s Kaitlin Prest pitches in with the episode, interviewing GraceAnn Bennett, a former Mormon, whose 19-year marriage crumbled, in part because she and her husband struggled to communicate about sex. In the wake of their divorce, she quit her job in advertising and embarked on helping other couples avoid the problems that plagued her marriage. The episode succeeds because it finds the humanity behind the app—both the story that inspired its creation as well as a real couple that benefitted from it. And while “Wait, You’re Into [Insert Kink] Too?!” certainly touts the pros of PlsPlsMe, it’s also quick to point out that an app can only go so far. Eventually a couple needs to put their phones away and talk—or pee on each other if that happens to be their thing.
For a podcast about the possibilities of space and exploration, It’s Your Universe likes to leave you feeling small. In “Jupiter: A Grand Planet; A Failed Star,” host Jeffrey Kluger asks you to put yourself on the giant planet’s surface, even if the ground is too unstable and you’d plunge straight into its superheated core. The podcast achieves exactly what it sets out to do: whisking you away to distant bodies and leaving you in awe of our universe. Jupiter makes for a grand podcast subject, too. It’s the largest planet in our solar system, and it has a raging storm larger than Earth. Listening to IYU is far from a passive experience. Be prepared to be exhilarated and, at times, frightened. The podcast takes the grandeur of a planetarium and puts it in and between your ears.
For all the answers to a contested convention, the future of the Republican party, and what-to-do about Trump, turn to this standout episode of The Axe Files. Although ideologically opposed, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod fall into comfortable dialogue—as in these-two-should-have-their-own-podcast terrain—about the primaries. Graham wears none of the hysteria of the Tea Party and remains optimistic about the future of the GOP, even if he all but concedes the 2016 election to Clinton. Graham doesn’t wilt or agitate either, despite the circumstances. What makes it remarkable is the amount of Pavlovian responses you’ll have to Axelrod’s questions—waiting for things to get contentious—only to hear Graham laugh and politely give unexpected answers. Whether you swing right or left, this episode of The Axe Files will leave you yearning for the halcyon days of political discourse.