Best Podcasts: September 28-October 4

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

BEST IN SHOW

Between the Liner Notes: “I Want My MTV”

Two months ago, Between the Liner Notes made the transition from interview-style podcast to documentary, and if “I Want My MTV” is the result of that move, it was unquestionably worth the change of direction. The episode is 52-minutes long and unputdownable. There’s something magical about finding this month’s BLTN and wanting to disappear into your headphones for an hour of audio on the birth of MTV. In retrospect, music television was a homerun, a no-brainer to hook teenage coach surfers desperate for music on their cable box. Yet, at the time, MTV was considered a long shot. Everything the network did before launch was a gamble, too. From the gigantic M logo, to trying to woo an uninitiated public towards video, to a desperate appeal to Mick Jagger for a much-needed celebrity endorsement, nothing about MTV was certain, despite its later dominance of the 1980s. “I Want My MTV” is a brilliant way to discover early-era MTV. It’s also an open and shut case for radio documentary.

The Moment with Brian Koppelman: “Salman Rushdie”

Celebrated writer Salman Rushdie was on The Moment this week and, oh, what a delight it was. Host Brian Koppelman is skilled at digging into a guest’s backstory and Salman—who was born in Bombay and later forced into hiding when the Ayatollah of Iran issued a death fatwa against himhas a hell of a story. While some of the discussion focuses on these details, including the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, the two really delve into Rushdie’s psyche and why he believes fiction matters in the world. Rarely do you hear Koppelman so giddy about a guest and his excitement about talking to Rushdie bleeds through in the urgency with which he asks his questions and insistency in pursuing points, though it never tips into fanboy territory. Koppelman probably doesn’t get enough credit for how well read he is and how much he thinks about literature, but his command is on display in talking to a master like Salman Rushdie. The Moment consistently features some of the most thoughtful and edifying discussions in all of podcasting, and this episode is a glowing example.


RUNNERS UP

Anxious Machine: “Pay Attention All the Time”

Amy Shearn writes for a living, but she guests on Anxious Machine to talk childrearing. As it turns out, being a novelist, a freelancer, and a mother is a brilliant launching point into a discussion about technology. Shearn and AM host Rob McGinley Myers dive straight into the minutiae of raising children and how it’s changed over the last century. When Shearn first had kids, there was no such thing as a smart phone. Once the iPhone was introduced, Shearn found that she could respond to freelance gigs much, much faster. Instantly, she had a way to make use of her time while watching her children. The episode succeeds because Shearn makes a connection between work, motherhood, and technology, and then she pulls all the threads together for us to tell a fascinating story. “Pay Attention All the Time” lives up to everything AM promises—this is an episode about disruptive technology that further layers in issues of gender and career. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Us & Them: “A Confederate Reckoning”

A few months ago, Us & Them host Trey Kay investigated the Confederate flag and the song “Dixie” to try to better understand the thorny sentiments surrounding Southern history. Far from settling the matter, the episode revealed just how divided people were about these emblems. This week, the show revisits the topic with two producers, one African American, one Indian American, who fly from Kenya—where they are working as foreign correspondents—back to America to explore the ongoing civil war. The premise is straightforward: find out what these Confederate symbols mean to people in Louisiana. But, of course, there is no simple answer to that inquiry. In many ways the results are predictable—some people feel these symbols are racist; others believe they honor Southern heritage. What’s fascinating, though, is watching these two correspondents go about their investigation and try not to get pulled into the fray. These are ugly matters and, no matter how professional one goes about poking around in them, it’s bound to get a little tense. “A Confederate Reckoning” is a wonderful exploration of Southern culture, but it’s an even more fascinating glimpse of how difficult it is for a journalist to stay objective when the subject is so personal.

Another Round: “Stay in Your Lane”

With Another Round, we come for the fun, and stay for the cultural schooling the show offers on a weekly basis. Hosted by the brilliant and charming Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, these two women take on issues of race with unapologetic frankness and truckloads of humor. On “Stay In Your Lane,” they talk to  Dr. Adrienne Keene of the blog, Native Appropriations, about how misunderstood and misrepresented native culture is in the U.S. No matter how aware you might think you are about race issues, there’s always more to be learned by listening to people whose understanding is earned through experience. Minority voices are rarely given enough airtime, but this is especially true of natives, whose identity is mocked through tasteless Halloween costumes and tone-deaf Disney caricatures. And Keene is not a casual observer, but a scholar of the subject. While there’s a lot to learn from these women, far from a dose of bad medicine, this episode is fascinating, funny, and completely entertaining. 


HONORABLE MENTION

Detective: “The Cold Case”

If you’ve got a true crime addiction, subscribe to Detective for a treatise on street-level police work. Narrated by Lieutenant Joe Kenda, “The Cold Case” asks the retired Colorado Springs homicide detective to revisit unsolved murders. When it comes to cold cases, Kenda gets grumpy. He recalls details—victims, crime scene descriptions, suspects, and evidence—with a precision that borders on obsessive, yet that’s what casework requires. It’s an all-consuming hunt for slippery facts. Even though Kenda is a man made for this kind of exactness, you can’t help but think he’s lost a few years on his life stewing over suspects and open cases. There’s a telling moment in this week’s episode when Kenda talks about confronting a junior detective who didn’t think a murder case was worth his time. “If you ever say that to me again, you’re going to be writing tickets at the airport from midnight till eight, with Tuesdays and Thursday off.” This is Detective in a nutshell, home of tough talk, criminals, sleaze, and the good guys who fight to make it all better.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Michaela Watkins”

Host Marc Maron almost cries twice in this episode, and it’s not as if the interview is about him. Well, it’s always about him, isn’t it? But that’s why we love it so much. Michaela Watkins guests and talks about her career arc—a common thread for a Maron podcast—but things get intense when she dishes on her experience at Saturday Night Live. Once upon a time Maron had an audition at SNL, and if you’re a regular listener to the podcast, you can imagine how hard Watkins’ story is hitting him in real time. She made it on the show in November of 2008, but Lorne Michaels never renewed her contract after the first year. There’s a lot of catharsis to go around between host and guest. Watkins is wonderful company, too. It’s worth downloading this podcast just for her impression of Andie MacDowell in a hostage situation (it makes sense if you listen).

Planet Money: “When Cuban Migrants Flooded Miami, What Did It Do To The Local Economy?”

What happens when thousands of refugees suddenly flood into new countries? With the ongoing civil war in Syria and the mass diaspora into Western Europe, this is a question on people’s minds. For many, it’s an emotional subject, but Planet Money is not a show that trades in emotional currency. It’s interested in the economics of a question. On “When The Boats Arrive,” the podcast considers what happened in 1980 when scores of Cuban refugees docked in Miami and what we can learn from this moment in history. As it turns out, the news is good for economies. New populations need jobs and needs things—and these demands work in tandem, bolstering the economy and increasing output. It’s perhaps an impersonal view of the issue, but the show isn’t pretending it’s not, and it lets us get to the bottom of what all this means for the Syrian refugee crisis.

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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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