It’s summertime, and a lot of podcasts seem on vacation for the season. That’s the downside for listeners; but the upside is, you get to catch up on some superb episodes you might not have heard. Or get turned on to podcasts generally, which can make for a very satisfying listening experience.
I was able recently to take a few audio courses through Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and study with some leaders in the field: Sarah Reynolds, Phoebe Judge, Lauren Spohrer and Shea Shackleford.
While working on making our own audio documentaries and podcasts was anywhere from engaging to excruciating — the learning curve feels steep, at least without a team with whom to co-create — it was a total blast getting turned on to podcasting generally, and binge-listening to some really great series.
The theme of the picks here is “no easy take, no superficial look.” Thought-provoking, mind-expanding, paradigm-shifting, bias-overturning stuff. If you want to explore the nuanced gray zone between the poles of static black-and-white thinking, these choices should give you plenty of options for entertaining, thoughtful and enjoyable listening.
It was a treat to take a course on “How to Build a Podcast” from the creative duo behind Criminal, Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer. After the class, so impressed by their talent, I binge-listened to their entire series, two or three times in quick succession: It’s that good.
Most of the episodes have at least a strong helping of quirkiness that moves the tale along. A bank robber in Texas (“American Dream”) who picks up the trade on a lark. The illegal trade in venus flytraps (“Dropping Like Flies”). A police dog trainer (“Officer Talon”) who loves his work — and his dogs — so much that his house needs to reflect those choices.
There are more serious and darker episodes in the mix as well, and some frankly educational to the max — such as the elderly lady who speaks with host Phoebe Judge in a live show about her participation in the not-quite-assisted suicide movement. A glimpse of the show’s smart writing in their blurb about the episode entitled ‘Final Exit:’
No one disputes that it’s against the law to take another person’s life, but is it against the law to sit with someone and watch while they commit suicide? We meet an elderly woman who sneaks around the country as an “exit guide.”
It’s safe to say I love almost the entire series, with the possible exception of their infrequent overly-dark-but-non-restorative narratives. However, if I had to pick just one, and it does earn the accolade of most-listened-to single podcast episode in my life, it’s their inaugural one, “Animal Instincts” — about a suspicious murder and the remote potential for an avian assailant. It’s ridiculously interesting. Their second show, about lie-detection technology (“Pants on Fire”), pretty much sealed the deal. And a third favorite is the gut-wrenching, absurdly compelling tale of the wrongly accused child molester (“The Fifth Suspect”) who has virtually no chance of getting his life back, despite his innocence. Argh.
Serial, Season Two
I know, I know — I’m the only person in America who didn’t listen to Serial: Season One, focused on convicted murderer Adnan Syed, now up for a new trial. But Serial: Season Two, centered around Bowe Bergdahl, caught my interest instead. Bergdahl is more than a bit of a cypher, and whether your initial read on him is flake or traitor, you’re bound to add a lot of nuance to your understanding of him by the time the series is over. Not to mention, there are some hilarious asides, like learning that his Afghan captors called him “The Golden Chicken.” Rarely has a cross-cultural epithet fit so snugly.
The series really picks up steam as it moves away from the first few episodes, which draw heavily from filmmaker Mark Boal’s 25 hours of interviews with Bergdahl. The trouble with relying on Bergdahl as a central character in telling his own tale is that there’s almost “no there, there.” He’s not particularly insightful about his own motivations, and the episodes start to drag. But as the story widens away from Bergdahl and into ever-expanding concentric circles containing friends, foes and subject matter experts, it’s hard not to be impressed by host Sarah Koenig’s masterful reporting and storytelling, which coalesces into something completely remarkable. Koenig’s voice, like Phoebe Judge’s, has fans of its own.
Fellow podcast fan and Journalism and Womens Symposium colleague Jenn Lord Paluzzi turned me on to Gimlet’s Reply All, nominally about things that happen on the Internet, but more expansively about the quirks of human nature. (She and I banter on Twitter, hashtag #crimchat, every time a new episode of “Criminal” drops.)
A typical contribution is their creation of a faux national holiday, “Email Debt Forgiveness Day,” to offer amnesty to everyone who’s ever owed someone else a reply on anything significant for far too long. Pretty much any episode of is equally good listening, in large part because of the amusing-but-smart banter between the hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, and occasional contributions from Matt Farley of Motern Media, a guy who can apparently write a funny song about any topic. He’s got 14,000 original songs on Spotify to prove it. Can he do anything with my topic of female veteran homelessness? I’d love to find out. But I digress…
(A less-enchanting departure from their niche into faux “Serial” territory was a four-part series where a producer dug into a convicted murderer’s past, only to discover that — wait for it — maybe the jury was right after all. Sigh.)
Reveal is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. It’s got an all-star cast of contributors and talent, and produces a virtually non-stop queue of hard news reporting on various topics of interest, all done with the same accessible listening formula. There’s an initial host intro by Al Letson that sets the stage, great musical selections underpinning but not distracting from the pieces, and of course, in-depth reporting that brings in a number of compelling voices but doesn’t stint on telling the larger story. They’re all worth listening to, but some particular favorites:
Pumped on Trump. If you have a hard time understanding Trump’s appeal — maybe because you never watched “The Apprentice” — you’ll want to follow as reporters spend time criss-crossing the country and visiting with a spectrum of Trump supporters, figuring out an answer to the question — who are his supporters, and why does he strike a chord with them? As Reveal says, “some of the results will surprise you — they surprised us.”
Mighty Ike: A Monster Storm in the Making. Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., relies heavily on its petrochemical industry, a major driver of its economy. But it’s also positioned on an important waterway, the Houston Ship Channel, and in the path of tropical storms and hurricanes, some of which have the potential to wreak enormous chaos and devastation. This episode takes a look at computer modeling of “Mighty Ike,” the mythical but entirely probable storm that could destroy the city, along with lessons learned from environmental disasters from Hurricane Katrina, and forced migration of impoverished residents. It’s a foreboding but fascinating listen.
And a quick pick: The actual “sound” of earthquakes increasing in frequency over time in Oklahoma, potentially from fracking activity, mapped to synthesized music. It creates an eerie, beautiful and fairly unforgettable tune.
“The soul is contained in the human voice,” wrote Argentine poet Luis Borges. That quote stirs the imagination of StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay, as he tells the story in an episode of the popular “On Being” podcast with Krista Tippett. And the voices in StoryCorps’ interviews come fully alive in the usually very short, highly listenable episodes, often just 10 minutes long.
If “the first duty of love is to listen,” as theologian Paul Tillich wrote, StoryCorps episodes model that active verb magnificently. The podcast can be known as “the one that makes people cry,” jokes host Michael Garofalo. But if you listen regularly, there are opportunities for warm laughter to exhilarated fist-pumping as well — and most of all, a deep and abiding appreciation for the human spirit. I’m starting to look at every new episode as part of therapeutic self-care. Want to love your fellow human beings more? Listen to a few episodes because it’s a guaranteed prescription.
Some impressive favorites:
Keeping the Faith, about never giving up, and two men who didn’t. The story focuses on Vietnam War POW James Stockdale, a vice admiral in the U.S. Navy, and his release from captivity after seven and a half years in prison. Audio includes a tape from the original phone call of Stockdale to his wife, Sybil, announcing that he was finally coming home. If you’ve ever marveled at the grace — and backbone — military families can display under tremendous pressure, the Stockdale family provides a telling — and compelling — example.
Speaking of military families — and StoryCorps has their own military voices initiative — another wrenching and impressively humanizing “listen” is the recent episode about Gold Star families. Gold Star families have been in the news lately, thanks to the contretemps between Donald Trump and the Khan family, but for most Americans who don’t have skin in the game, via a friend or family member serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the pain of losing a loved one in combat can be, no pun intended, still a fairly “foreign” experience. StoryCorps brings that heart-wrenching reality home through four affecting stories of deep love, and as-deep loss. Hydrate before listening, don’t wear mascara, and keep a box of tissues at the ready. #SoMuchRespect.
RadioLab is an early star in the podcasting firmament, with a phenomenally interesting spinoff about the Supreme Court called “More Perfect.” (We’ll get to that later.) But a particular episode called “The Buried Bodies Case” is concentrated, riveting storytelling about a quintessentially moral dilemma. Whether your default opinion about lawyers is that you love ’em or hate ’em, you get a chance to explore both points of view in this episode which turns on, how far should lawyers go to provide a vigorous defense to the worst possible people? And where do criminals’ rights trump victims’ rights — and for what reason? The underlying story exemplifies the choices so well it’s become a case study for ethics courses in law schools now.
“More Perfect” is Radiolab’s first spinoff, a series about the Supreme Court. It’s so appealing on so many levels I almost cried when the series ended, thinking about how long I’d have to wait to hear any more episodes. It works on multiple levels, from host banter, to great audio production values, to fascinating stories that don’t bore, and include original tape, at times, from significant Supreme Court cases. The show that set the hook for me was one called “The Political Thicket,” or the case that almost broke the Supreme Court.
This sample, from their own description of the show, shows you the kind of storytelling they can deliver:
“When Chief Justice Earl Warren was asked at the end of his career, “What was the most important case of your tenure?” there were a lot of answers he could have given. After all, he had presided over some of the most important decisions in the court’s history — cases that dealt with segregation in schools, the right to an attorney, the right to remain silent, just to name a few. But his answer was a surprise: He said, “Baker v. Carr,” a 1962 redistricting case.
On this episode of More Perfect, we talk about why this case was so important; important enough, in fact, that it pushed one Supreme Court justice to a nervous breakdown, brought a boiling feud to a head, put one justice in the hospital, and changed the course of the Supreme Court — and the nation — forever.”
If “The Political Thicket” set the hook, another episode reeled me in. “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” was a jaw-dropping one about the emotionally bruising fight between the adoptive family and the biological father over a baby girl, that hinges on Indian law. It’s phenomenal storytelling, and one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to. The producers say it’s actually the episode that inspired them to launch the series, got them “hooked on the Court” and the “kind of stories (they) could tell about it.” If you feel like you’re missing everything about Perry Mason on a cellular level, but prefer your storytelling to be more real and pulled from the actual headlines, this is your show. Wow. The only side-effect of listening may be a never-ending desire to hear more sound clips of “Oyez, oyez” — the proclamation that calls SCOTUS to order.
This American Life
This podcast series, with host Ira Glass, is so well-known and so good — in some ways the gold standard for podcasting. The show’s formula is usually three acts, around a central philosophical or psychological theme. In this episode, “In Defense of Ignorance,” Act I tells the improbable but fascinating tale of what happens when someone isn’t told they have a terminal illness, and whether that ultimately works to their benefit or not. The story is about producer Lulu Wang’s Chinese grandmother, and the international espionage-like lengths her loving family goes to keep her in the dark about her diagnosis, while attempting to celebrate her life. The outcome has to be heard to be believed.
While I can’t claim to love Invisibilia unreservedly — certain episodes can feel like they take too long to get to the point — there are a few that I just found captivating. Bonus: Mr. Kitt is a short, 12-minute piece that tells the story of how one chronically homeless man, with demonstrable mental health issues and criminal tendencies, nonetheless manages to “beat the system” — find permanent housing AND renewed purpose through his art. It’s phenomenal storytelling with anything but Mr. Ordinary at its center and perhaps a bit of a love letter to the “housing first” model as well, that’s been proven to make such a dent on homelessness.
Flipping the Script is another exceptional offering, especially the segment about how some forward-thinking cops in Denmark helped turn young Muslims who were fleeing their town potentially to join ISIS, by reaching out to at-risk youth, one at a time. At a time when the U.S., the European Union and the world seem more susceptible than ever to terrorist attacks, there’s more need than ever to explore what might work. Smart and heartwarming stuff that begs our undivided attention in an increasingly divisive world.