The Podcast Update
November 30 2014
For the very first time since it debuted on This American Life back in October, the pulpy true-crime podcast Serial took a break this week. The show has been listened to by millions from Durban to Dallas, and the break in programming gave Serial’s audience a glimpse into the not-too-distant future in which Friday meetings will no longer be filled with chatter about Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed. In anticipation of the final episodes, we thought we might suggest some lesser known programs for your listening pleasure.
Hosted by the remarkably well-named Roman Mars, the podcast explores the “99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Each episode clocks in at just under 20 minutes, and in it’s brief time manages to capture some lovely particular about the details of everyday life. Subjects range from Blackouts to Pinball Machines to a small swath of land in the middle of a lake known as Busta Rhymes Island. Like many of the subjects 99PI covers, the true perfection of the show is in it’s inconspicuousness. It may not make you laugh or cry every week, but you’ll find that it has a habit of sneaking it’s way into conversations and popping in to remind you to linger a little bit longer and appreciate the world around you.
Love + Radio
There is a particular kind of thrill to listening to an episode of Love + Radio in public. It’s sort of a deviant younger sibling to the stoic This American Life. Love + Radio, (yes, a plus sign, as Baz Luhrmann, would insist) centers around stories and interviews of the sort not quite fit for the Saturday morning NPR crowd and treats them with the respect and production value that would be expected of an esteemed radio program. The stories are not sensationalized or celebrated, but presented in their most interesting and pure form. Which often means devious acts described in a purr of whiskey and cigarettes.
As the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of Slate’s Political Gabfest (another great podcast), David Plotz is already an impressive figure. His latest project has him picking up where Studs Terkel left off with his hefty 1974 tome Working, interviewing a wide variety of Americans about just what they are doing all day. So far he has interviewed a waiter, a repairman, a porn actress and a hospice nurse among many others. His very first episode was an interview with Stephen Colbert, hammering into the details of the working day that are often dismissed as boring or dreary. Plotz’s insistence on discussing even the dull bits seems to be the key to his success in painting an interesting portrait of just about any worker he speaks with.
Despite the particularity of it’s subject, screenwriting, Scriptnotes is a very entertaining show. Perhaps it is a testament to the skill of the writers hosting the show, who manage to create such an engaging program from what is essentially shop-talk. For outsiders, the conversations and critiques offer both an insight into the creation of film and television, and advice helpful to many situations in work and life. The recurring three page challenge invites pages of scripts from writers around the world to be sent in and critiqued on air, is an oddly informative segment for both writers and non. Fundamentally, Scriptnotes is a well told story about telling stories well.
On Point with Tom Ashbrook
I’ve come across most podcasts I listen to intentionally, either through the recommendation of a friend or an algorithm. My discovery of On Point came at the serendipitous turn of a radio dial on a Sunday afternoon. Hosted by the journalist Tom Ashbrook, On Point retains the character and intelligence of an old school newspaperman. The conversation is sharp and current, covering topics that range from politics to science and economics to sports, featuring guests with a similar breadth of careers and interests. On Point is billed as a news-analysis program, but I have yet to find another news analysis program that will interpose the reading of a poem between two news segments.
Song Exploder is a deep dive. Each episode focuses on one song by one artist. The show was created and is hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, who astutely allows the artists he features the room to flow into tangents, and riff on the minutiae of their processes. It is exactly the kind of conversation that audiophiles dream of having with their favorite artists.
The Dinner Party Download
Meant to resemble a traditional dinner party, the structure of The Dinner Party Download is a series of deliciously fun morsels of entertainment. It’s best enjoyed while drinking a glass of wine. Each week, the hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam chat with a person of note, get dinner party soundtrack advice from a musician, answer etiquette questions with the likes of Henry Rollins and of course, chat about food. A personal favorite is the weekly segment in which a lesser known story from history is recounted and interpreted as a cocktail recipe. The hosts promise each week that the show will equip you to “win” your weekend dinner party, but The Dinner Party Download is fun enough to forget the competition entirely.
It is said that you should try to never be the smartest person in a given room, and as long as you have a few episodes of Little Atoms saved to your phone, you can pretty much guarantee you won’t be. Hosted by the charming Neil Denny, Little Atoms is a bit like a child allowed to listen in on an adult party. Instead of pausing to explain each and every subject and reference, you are respectfully expected to just keep up or find something else to do. It’s incredibly refreshing in a current media culture that is expected to explain issues to the lowest common denominator at all times.
Backstory with the American History Guys
Recorded at the University of Virginia, Backstory is hosted by an trio of professors, each with their own impressive list of accolades and accomplishments. Their combined knowledge spans three centuries of American history, and their banter provides levity to a subject easily dulled by poor presentation. Each episode spends about an hour diving into the history of a subject or concept inspired by current events, which coincidently is also the amount of time it takes to thoroughly clean a bathroom (an activity much improved by the invention of podcasts).
It may seem like it should go without saying that if you enjoy Serial you should really be listening to This American Life. Ira and crew produce a show so consistently excellent it’s almost easy to forget just how good it is.