Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Borrowing from prior work at Lost and Found Sound, Fugitive Waves revisits the tenderly recorded tape of Marine Michael Baronowski in this week’s poignant episode about life on the frontline of the Vietnam War. Created by The Kitchen Sisters along with Jay Allison in 1999, Lost and Found Sound rummages for archival sound the way blues obsessives search for old 78s at a garage sale. “The Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski” is a precious find. At 19, Baronowski was whisked away to Vietnam and it’s impossible—and gut wrenching—not to think he had an incredible future in radio after he finished his service. His reel-to-reel recordings in Vietnam are sweet and introspective and playful, and he looks at the countryside like an awestruck traveller, not some brash, young soldier searching for spoils. The Kitchen Sisters bring the tape to us with an extremely soft touch, letting Baronowski and his close friend from the war, Tim Duffie, do most of the talking. For having such an honest and subtle beauty, “The Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski” makes a powerful case against the nightmarish abyss that is war.
In 1987 the Del Fuegos toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Never heard of the Del Fuegos? No matter. You don’t even need to be a fan of Tom Petty to love this week’s episode of Freakonomics. In a huge departure from their normal economics fare, Freakonomics conjures the nostalgia of growing up rock ’n roll in the Del Fuegos, as seen through the eyes of guest Warren Zanes, who recalls the narrative that led him to Tom Petty’s doorstep. If you’re a regular listener, you know that host Stephen Dubner used to play in a band and had his own brush with greatness; he knew Zanes from back in his denim-and-leather heyday. Zanes is on the podcast to talk about his new Petty biography, but the strongest material here is the Almost Famous-like memories of musical highs and lows that seeped their way into Zanes’ pores. This is an episode about a man whose entire life has been shaped by the elusive dreams of stardom.
Every episode of BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts is a sampling of some of the most beautiful and lyrical audio narrative from around the globe. It’s often experimental, frequently non-linear, and always lush. On “Inheritance,” we hear several takes on the idea of what we inherit from past generations–or at least this is how it is billed. The conceit with Short Cuts is that the title or theme is a wide lasso the show swings around a handful of rich, evocative stories to bring them together. Rarely will the collection create a cohesive narrative, but that isn’t why you listen to a show like this. It is for listeners who want to get lost in the tape, revel in the rich soundscapes, and find the intersection between a podcast and a poem. On this installment, you’ll hear a man describe the sounds within a mother’s womb (“the timpani of her heart”), a woman explain how sometimes the only answer to the unspeakable grief of not wanting to live is the touch of another human being, and how our galloping hearts have only a finite set of beats. This is podcasting at its most beautiful.
“A Mountain of Misconduct” takes the listener to Lakeview NeuroRehabilitaion Center in the mountains of New Hampshire, a facility that provides care for people with severe disabilities. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Jack Rodolico does due diligence for journalistic balance—he spent a year reporting the story—and based on this week’s Reveal, the people of Lakeview were up to no good. Not only were the patients sometimes at each other’s throats, but the staff participated and initiated abuse as well. Loosely defined insurance codes were exploited and naysayers were silenced. But the dark tape makes a wonderful turn when we meet Linda Blumkin, whose daughter was treated at Lakeview. When she found the staff was acting inappropriately with her daughter, Blumkin took action. Through secretly recorded conversations with authorities who refused to take her seriously, listeners get the chance to firsthand experience the crazy-making frustration that comes with entrusting your loved one to the care of an indifferent bureaucracy. The result is a ride through the ears of a prima vigilante uncovering disturbing information about a world that’s supposed to be filled with compassion.
Jonathan Mann has written a song a day for over six years now, and while the work must run together into a string of hard-to-remember tunes, one day’s work in particular stands out above all. In 2010, Mann penned a song about the iPhone 4 and its infamous antenna. His work somehow caught the attention of none other than Steve Jobs. The morning after Mann released the song, he received an email from Apple’s Steve Dowling asking for permission to use Mann’s track for its press conference that day. Welcome to Macintosh describes its podcast as a tiny show about America’s biggest corporation, but “The Shimmy” showcases why it wants you to love it in ways that are anything but small. At the core of this week’s episode is the argument that we can create something so pitch perfect that it connects to listeners in precisely the way they need it. And for one day, Jonathan Mann made Steve Jobs dance.
This past week Marketplace released the first episode of its new podcast, Codebreaker. The entire first season is available online as it attempts to rewrite the rules of podcasting in the image of Netflix’s full series releases. In other words, binge-listening has arrived. But it comes with a twist: you have to listen to the first episode and crack the code before you can move on to the next one. And, because we’re your friends, we’ll save you some time and tell you the answer is not “BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE.” The first installment focuses on email and asks its listeners to consider whether email is inherently evil. The answers run the gamut, from email bringing together two lovers separated by an ocean, to a doctor who has lost upwards of a million dollars responding to bureaucratic emails. It’s a strong debut for a podcast about technology–an increasingly crowded space. And it’s already inspired a couple of listeners to crack the first season open, suggesting there may be room for this kind of genre innovation.
Perhaps because Marc Maron has talked about his failed audition for Saturday Night Live more than any other topic (aside from his cats), and perhaps because confronting Lorne Michaels was something Maron has wanted to do since said audition, and perhaps because we heard about the interview a month in advance of its release, we were pretty jazzed for this episode of WTF. And we’ll cut right to it: Maron versus Michaels did not live up to the hype. But, we’re not sure anything could have. Maron’s daddy issues met by Michaels’s self-possessed willingness to indulge Maron’s insecurities utterly diffused any tension and excitement for which we listeners hoped. Every time Michaels sounded prepped to go deep, Maron shut down the opportunity. What Maron saw as a botch-job audition was what Michaels crowned as simply the wrong time for Maron’s voice, and Maron didn’t quite seem to get that Michaels wasn’t just being nice. But there were some moments of brilliance for SNL addicts, such as details about Michaels’s relentless production schedule and exactitudes about what makes SNL the unique beast that it is. Despite this interview not being one of Maron’s best, the conversation is worth a listen, specifically the second hour, and especially now, while it’s having its moment.