Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Scott Carrier adapted this episode from a long form piece with the same name he wrote for Harper’s (available behind the paywall). In it, Carrier is on the move in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 trying to witness what the U.S. war against the Taliban will actually look like, not what the newspapers will say it is. He finds that people are receptive to his plainspoken questions. “What do you think about America bombing your country? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing?” Carrier pushes deeper into the country, finding a guide and then traveling with him to witness the aftermath of a U.S. bombing. The episode finds its heart with Carrier at the center. He is appalled by what the U.S. is doing and also terrified of what the local culture imposes on the kind people he meets. It’s harrowing to hear him describe the aftermath of the bombing. While his long form piece captures this devastation, the episode presents podcasting as a viable reporting alternative. It offers the sounds and feelings of being on the ground without losing the poignancy and urgency of a solid reporting. Carrier is making a new case for podcasting, and so far we’re buying it.
This week The Truth honors the legendary radio producer Joe Frank by featuring two of his acclaimed radio pieces that aired between 1986 to 1992. And, boy, are they dark. The first one, an excerpt from “Rent-a-Family,” revolves around a divorced couple’s phone calls as the woman slips deep into a well of despair and delusion. It’s absolutely one of the most disturbing pieces of radio we’ve heard in a while and highlights just how good radio can be when it embraces the “movies for your ears” philosophy of The Truth. The second segment, “Fragments of Mixed Voices” is disorienting and upsetting in its own right as you struggle to find the narrative thread. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s far from it. This is art that’s very much in control of what it’s doing. It wants to knock you off kilter. This is the bleeding edge of podcasting.
Describing why Strangers is so powerful is a bit like trying to explain why a joke is funny. The premises are so simple. On the surface, they might even sound a bit maudlin. Take this week: Lea Thau returns to interview a woman, Jenni Rowell, who was previously featured on an episode, “Life, Interrupted.” When last we heard from Jenni, she was finishing up treatment for cancer and was struggling to rebuild her life. Now, a year later, Jenni’s cancer is back and her odds are bleaker. The show doesn’t try to dress this up as an unusual tragedy. This isn’t about clever packaging or a unique angle. This is about looking directly at a difficult subject matter and seeing it for precisely what it is. Strangers appeals to our basic human emotions and pushes its listeners to engage with their heads and their hearts. It asks us to reflect and be moved. In his famous 1993 ESPY speech, legendary coach Jim Valvano, who was days away from meeting his end at the hands of cancer, called on the audience to laugh, think, and cry every day. “That,” he said, “is a full day.” I suspect Lea Thau would agree.
Another week, another exceptional episode of Reply All. This is starting to get ridiculous. When this show first aired, it felt like it could just be tucked neatly in the entertaining category of podcasts. Fun, breezy, perhaps a little forgettable. However, the Little Show about the Internet is becoming the Big Show about People. This week, Radiolab producer Lynn Levy takes the reins and we hear about a 1997 classified ad from in a tiny publication called Backwoods Home Magazine. On a lark and to fill space, a man named Joe Silveira invited people to join him on a time traveling expedition. He was not prepared for the flood of responses, which continues to this day. The show homes in on one in particular from a woman who wants to return to the day her husband died and alter her role in his death. Here is where the show takes a left turn and just keeps going. The episode is no longer about the classified ad, but is instead about this woman’s regret. This may seem inconsequential, but from a structuring standpoint, it’s actually quite marvelous. We start somewhere small and quirky and, rather than bounce around inside that box, we find our way to another level. We arrive somewhere weighty and important. Few podcasts have the guts to follow a question to its satisfactory conclusion, but Reply All does this consistently.
In Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, she writes, “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness–and the healthiest way of being ill–is one of the most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” In other words, we’re not “fighting” cancer, we’re not “battling an enemy.” We need to learn how to discuss diseases without the support of metaphor. In the first of a two-part series, On the Media confronts the way we talk about cancer. Capital-C Cancer has become a mutual enemy with stricken children serving as feel-good spokespeople on daytime television and social media campaigns. This is not a matter of semantics either; it’s hurting the way we handle prevention and treatment. The catch-all approach to cancer ignores the differences in its iterations and attracts disproportionate levels of funding. By framing it as a foreign invader in our bodies, this makes it virtually impossible to discuss lifestyle changes that may help to stave off the disease. Sontag writes, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Cancer does not visit upon us from a foreign planet. It is part of who we are as mortal creatures and must be approached with nuance and honesty.
Much has been said about the low barriers to entry for podcasters. “All you need is a recording device,” the argument goes. While this is more than a little insulting to professional producers, the point is that you don’t need expensive equipment and a whole crew to capture your subjects. In fact, sometimes being just a regular guy with a recorder is exactly how you get great recordings. This is the case for Eddie McCoy, who, after a devastating car wreck in the 1970s, was no longer able to run his janitorial business. After briefly floundering, he found his new calling as a historian, recording dozens of interviews in the tobacco town of Oxford, North Carolina. From sharecropping to the Civil Rights movement, McCoy records it all, preserving an oral history that might otherwise be lost.
On the third installment of The Guardian‘s new show about climate change, the editorial team discuss how they can move forward with a divestment campaign without confronting the company’s own fossil fuel investments. In short, they can’t, so they bring the problem to the board. What follows is a sticky conversation that walks the tight-rope between big business and journalism. The journalists don’t want to tell the board how to spend their money, and the board doesn’t want to tell the journalists what to write about, but they can’t coexist as they are. It’s a fascinating conflict, but it’s made just slightly less so because the show hasn’t yet found its footing in developing well-rounded characters that listeners can latch onto. Often it takes a little work to wade through the dense material, though it’s always worth the effort. This is a good show–and certainly an important one–but right now it’s bogged down in the same problem as the issue of climate change: how can we get people to pay attention to something so complex? Neither this podcast nor climate change is beyond the reach of our feeble minds, but we need a story we can get our arms around.
For years, Jonathan Goldstein’s father has been telling him about the salt water taps they used to have in the homes of Coney Island. Cold water, hot water, and salt water, fresh from the ocean. Jonathan’s not buying it, so he sends Starlee Kine to investigate. She calls up Buzz Goldstein, who has been a frequent guest on the show, and for good reason. He’s a colorful character, good-natured and funny, with a thick New York Jewish accent. However, he’s a lightweight compared to his brother, Sheldon, who, in the course of less than two minutes, confirms the existence of the taps, explains snake reproduction, and lets Starlee know that he has lost interest in the conversation and hangs up. After a visit to the Brighton Beach Association where they also remember the taps, Starlee declares this mystery solved . Buzz: 1, Jonathan: 0. What’s the takeaway from all of us this? Our memories matter. It’s nice to have them confirmed. And Jonathan Goldstein’s family is hilarious.
A team at MIT attached small electronic tracking devices to random pieces of garbage to track where it all goes. Planet Money follows the trash and then it follows the money. What happens to the items we discard? “Trash!” is actually about recycling. Much of what you throw away ends up in a landfill, but the items that have value get shipped all around the world. Plastic is turned into toothbrushes in China. Shredded documents are turned into paper towels and toilet paper in Mexico. What’s disconcerting to learn is that the market for things like recycled plastic can dip so low that it becomes trash. Unless recycling is mandated by the state, like it is in California, even the items we think we’re saving will just find their way into landfills. Planet Money has always avoided being overtly political, but we think there’s an important takeaway here: You can’t trust what will happen to everything you stick in a blue bin.
If the editors of The Timbre were to describe the latest episode of The Allusionist, we would call it ganatonian. (Ganatonian [adj]: simultaneously informative and humorous). Just kidding. We made that word up. But we’re in good company. Hidden inside every dictionary in the world are made up words just like this. Known as mountweazels (an invented word that came to mean invented words), these entries serve as copyright traps for would-be plagiarists. For most of us, it’s disheartening to hear we can’t trust our dictionaries, but for Zaltzman, it’s something akin to finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real and her exaggerated horror is delightful. As always, it’s this unique spin on the dry subject of linguistics that makes The Allusionist a regular treat and one of our favorite podcasts.