Best Podcasts September 14-20

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

BEST IN SHOW

Awful Grace: “Splash”

Jumping from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida has become a romantic way to commit suicide. People seek it out. They drive for sometimes hundreds of miles to take that last step off into the abyss. Except, of course, the truth is much grimmer. Hanns Jones was one of those jumpers. He was heartbroken over lost love, a ruined career. He drove to the bridge and flung himself off of it, as dozens of people had done before. The difference was that he survived the fall. This exceptional episode of Awful Grace explores suicide from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from a number of perspectives—rescue workers, hotline operators, a man who chronicles the yearly deaths. But at the center of the episode is Jones, who understands what it’s like to stare down at that water and then be dragged from it. And he knows that a lot can change in the distance between those two points.

Home of the Brave: “A Tour Of Burned Churches, Part One: KnoxvillePart Two: MaconPart Three: Greeleyville, SC, and Part Four: Warrenville, SC

Podcast producer Scott Carrier does something so few others dare to: he goes out into the world to explore his subjects. Over the past month, he drove from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah, to the South where black churches had burned in the days and weeks following the Charleston church massacre. There he spoke to locals—churchgoers, neighbors, passersby—about their feelings on race relations and what they knew about the churches. The results are a wonderful four-part series that explores the way of life in these parts. The thing about Carrier’s unique brand of reporting is that he never strong-arms us into conclusions. It’s possible he set out on his trip with an agenda, but this never bleeds through. Instead he’s intent upon listening, hearing what it means to live in these places and understanding how race and religion are wound up together to form culture. This forces us as listeners to settle back, to check our opinions at the door, and to recognize that facts and truths don’t always wear the same clothes. Home of the Brave is a show that rewards cognitive dissonance and embraces ambiguity as the human condition.

99% Invisible: “Milk Carton Kids”

For a few years in the 1980s, dairies printed information about missing children on the side of their milk cartons. If you’re old enough to remember these cartons, you may recall the general sense of unease they sowed—how at any minute a child could be plucked from his yard or snatched from a neighborhood playground. This is just how it started, too, when 12-year-old Johnny Gosch never returned from his morning paper route. At the time, law enforcement officials waited three full days before they considered a child missing. His mother lobbied for “The Johnny Gosch Bill,” which closed the gap between a child’s disappearance and police response. Johnny’s was also the first face to appear on the side of a milk carton. 99% Invisible is constantly reinventing its scope, finding new ways to delve into design, a premise it remains true to, but which we barely notice when the material is so fascinating. “Milk Carton Kids” uses this simple premise—a child’s face on the side of a milk carton—to explore a shift in the way our nation regarded its missing children. 


RUNNERS UP

Earshot: “Forgetting”

When dementia tightens its grip on those we love, who they were is lost to us. But they are still here, they still need us. Writer Beth Spencer tells us of visiting her mother in a nursing home and spending time playing games and sharing stories. That her mother doesn’t always remember the rules and sometimes doesn’t even remember who she is is almost immaterial. This is a new relationship, and Spencer describes how she and her sister are able to feel for their mom “this pure mother love in a way that’s quite new—or so old, perhaps, from some prehistoric fluid time that we’ve forgotten, a time before symbols and words.” The nine minutes of this beautiful episode play like a love song to mothers and daughters, but also like a goodbye letter to someone who is here, here, here, but already gone, even before they’ve disappeared in the rearview mirror.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sir Patrick Stewart”

Patrick Stewart’s presence on WTF is so calming, you’ll want to listen to it before you go to bed every night. It might also provide comfort for those that appreciate a dose of therapy from their podcasts. The highlight of this week’s episode is the discussion of Stewart’s volatile upbringing. Since his father, a World War II vet, was abusive and suffered from PTSD, Stewart found sanctuary from his rage as an actor. Known originally in the United States for his role as Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek, Stewart has also worked extensively on the stage, frequently in Shakespearean roles. When he and Maron open up about their issues with shame and anger, it’s cathartic. No strangers to therapy, they excavate Stewart’s past and come as close as anyone can to self-actualization on a podcast–Maron’s speciality. Do yourself a favor and put this one on when you’re bummed out and looking to get right with the world.

UnFictional: “The Couple in 303”

“The Couple in 303” is a story about the final act of Whitey Bulger. If you don’t know who Bulger is, he was the crime boss of South Boston during the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Both the man and the era of his rule were memorialized in The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s mob film that pulled liberally from Bulger’s life. After decades of murder, extortion, racketeering, and shaking down bookmakers and loan sharks, Bulger fled Boston in December 1994 after receiving a tip that police were closing in on him. He then disappeared. “The Couple in 303” picks up in a Santa Monica apartment building where Bulger settled down with his girlfriend during more than twenty years on the run. The episode uses a collage of interviews from neighbors to piece together what life was like living next to an infamous murderer. Based on what you take from the interviews, Bulger is either chilly or a pleasant neighbor who loved his girlfriend. It’s a fascinating and beautifully constructed podcast that confronts what it means to be a neighbor. How nosey should we be if we think the guy living next door to us has the steely blue eyes of a killer? Or are we all just all better off not knowing? The podcast wisely chooses to cast a wide net around the apartment building, canvassing everyone to build its narrative. It’s a great tale of what it means to live in a community and what happens when it becomes compromised.


HONORABLE MENTION

On the Media: “Facts, Schmacts”

On the Media has a knack for finding the important stories from the weekly news cycle and breaking down when and where facts are misconstrued. This week it doubles down on truth-seeking. Chasing down lies from a presidential debate might be shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s still important work, especially when you consider the insane ratings CNN and Fox have garnered for these bloated theatrics. In a separate segment, co-host Bob Garfield confronts an Exxon Mobil spokesman about the company abandoning research in climate change in favor of funding denial and misdirection. On the Media is one of the few shows that puts politicians, corporations, and ideas in the hot seat. The show isn’t just trying to skewer them–it’s playing the role of the United States’ most understaffed profession: the fact checker.

Lore: “Unboxed”

Objects can hold special meaning. We anthropomorphize them, ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects. But, at the end of the day, these things are just that—things. They cannot interact with the world. Except in the case of Robert the Doll. Folklore has it that the toy belonged to a 19th century boy, Robert Jean, who named the toy after himself. While the toy was initially a favorite of the boy’s, over time he grew afraid of it. Eventually he and his family came to believe the doll was possessed by evil spirits, a claim that gained credibility in the decades that followed. Does this sound familiar? It should, because Robert was the inspiration for Chucky, the doll in the horror film, Child’s Play. As always, Lore brings to light a forgotten tale, one that makes the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up as we wonder, Could it really be true?

What’s the Point?: “Moneyball for Movies (w/ Andy Greenwald)”

What’s the Point? is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast that obsesses over big ideas and the big data behind it. Just when you think numbers can’t possibly take over another industry, “Moneyball for Movies” finds Josh Lynn, a movie prognosticator, whose company Piedmont Media Research has an algorithm to determine how interested the public will be in a movie prior to its release. It’s so good, he claims, that it will predict success before the film ever hits production. Want to make a movie with Johnny Depp about cowboys? He can tell you where the film’s headed before you call anyone’s agent. There’s another side to that debate, though. Playing the role of the aesthete, Andy Greenwald guests on the podcast in an attempt to poke holes in the cold idea of making movies based on polls. What’s the Point? has proved to be a nimble show right out of the gate. It can tackle myriad subjects using the enormous umbrella of data. Who would have thought databases could play for such great entertainment?

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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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