23 podcasts recommendations
in no particular order
I probably listened to no podcast I listen to more than The Daily. Part of that was because of its prolific output of, as the name suggests, daily (at least weekday) podcasts. I was constantly amazed at the New York Times’ ability to take a current story from the headlines and unwind, explain and add context to the story through interviews, sound bites and discussions with their own reporters.
After a coal miner made host Michael Barbaro cry, the still-new podcast got a fair amount of blowback from those who said it should focus more on being factual, not emotional. But I think the fact that you can hear real people and real humanity behind it — not just an impersonal journalists “voice of God” — is the news program’s strength.
Podcast guru Nick Quah wrote that “the rise of the daily news podcast“ including The Daily and NPR’s Up First represents the most innovation and ambition in podcasting in some time. “I’m excited to see how the genre continues to heat up,” he wrote in his Hot Pod newsletter.
The World According to Sound
If you need a break from the headlines, the World According to Sound is just sound clips without narration or narrative. It lets you use your own imagination and powers of observation. Tune in, listen up and zone out.
30 for 30
Even though I’m not much of a sports fan I loved the ESPN audio documentaries, a spin-off of their TV series. They topics are technically about sports, but they’re really about the people behind the headlines, like the trials of Dan and Dave. One podcast, for instance, traces the contentious origins of night games at Wrigley Field, and why the Cubs were a holdout against that for so long. I also recommend the bonus episode interviewing the producers, which talks more about the Cubs ownership took the wrong approach in their fight with the neighborhood. This season of 30 for 30 has been excellent and you can hear more of their archive here.
Missing Richard Simmons
There’s so many themes to unpack: Celebrity culture worship, reality TV, public vs private persona, the power of narratives, the meaning of friendship. You could dissect the ethics and questions in a media studies class for a long time. One clear takeaway: It’s a good story. (So much so that it can feel exploitive. What’s the line between personal and personal storytelling? This reminds me of early Dave Eggers.) Missing Richard Simmons continues a micro trend of film and TV-trained storytellers (host Dan Taberski is a former Daily Show producer) pushing the storytelling boundaries of the podcast format. Gimlet Media is doing this too with Surprisingly Awesome, Homecoming and Crimetown). Chewing on big themes and discussing them is one of my favorite things about podcasts, and Missing Richard Simmons allowed podcast geeks to be part of a larger conversation that was happening around this series.
Radiolab and WNYC’s spin-off More Perfect dives deep into an institution that impacts daily life more than we realize — the Supreme Court. The Imperfect Plaintiff episode, for instance, shows how cases are “manufactured” or basically manipulated to get issues in front of the court. These tactics was started by civil rights activists… and are now being adopted by neocon activists to strike down affirmative action. It’s amazing when you take a broader view and see the strings being pulled, for better or worse.
Ways of hearing
Spotify knows what you want to hear almost before you know yourself, which reinforces feedback loops that solidify your tastes. But when you walk into a record store or a bookstore, you step into a world of chaos and random possibilities. The six-episode series Ways of Hearing is about how the nature of listening has changed as recording techniques have shifted from analog to digital. Creator Damon Krukowski (who has written for Pitchfork, among others) was inspired by the BBC TV version of “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger’s investigation into the unsettled relationship between “what we see and what we know.”
Radiotopia and PRX’s new show is produced by and about inmates in prison. The podcast is a partnership between Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, who are incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, and Nigel Poor, a visual artist who works with inmates. It’s sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and always illuminating. Easily one of my favorite podcasts of the year.
“I wanted to have the most woke teenager on the block, but Elijah was determined to stay asleep.” That’s writer Neal Pollack playfully suggesting his 13-year-old son should seek more diversity in his favorite comic book heroes, which includes Deadpool, The Punisher and Moon Knight. “So white guys seeking revenge through violence, that’s what you like?” Pollack says. “I’m a little disturbed by your proclivities because there’s a white nationalist tint. You’re like an alt-right member of the comic book community.” “Dad, what are you talking about?” his son replies. “Are you accusing me of being racist and sexist now?” This is one episode of Audible’s Extra Credit, in which Pollack supplements his son’s Texas public school education with field trips, expert interviews and other hands-on lessons you don’t get in a textbook.
Surprise surprise, more true crime! In this Los Angeles Times-produced series, 59-year-old Debra falls in love with a man named John Meehan, who claims he’s a doctor. He is seemingly perfect… until he’s not. It’s very binge-able and made me write about the return of old-time radio.
In 2017, no podcast was more insightful and interesting to me than Song Exploder. I used episodes to illustrate examples of how artists make art, such as Maggie Rogers’ Alaska and Lin-Manuel Miranda on how he “Frankensteined together” a benefit track for Puerto Rico. Also, Metallica was on Song Exploder so I CRANKED THIS UP SO LOUD and momentarily considered growing my hair long again. Then there’s the new Aimee Mann song. This post could just be a bunch of links to Song Exploder, really. Bonus: Song Exploder, exploded on Ways of Hearing.
ProPublica’s The Breakthrough
The Breakthrough interviews investigative journalists about their process breaking big stories. It hooks you from the beginning with the mystery and question about how the journalists managed to uncover what they did, such as uncovering a Russian Olympic doping and a shady psychiatric hospital.
This interview with GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson made me want to renew my subscription to his magazine, or really any magazine that I’ve let lapse over the years. This quote grabbed me: “…a magazine is a mix of constancy and surprise.”
The Criminal podcast visits a body farm in Texas and this may be the craaaaaaaaaaziest thing I’ve ever heard. It also kinda makes me want to donate my body to science and also kinda doesn’t.
I’ve listened at least 10, maybe 15 times to parts of this episode of Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty. Around the 20 minute mark, music producer Nana Kwabena talks about how he makes his beats (which includes YouTube playlists on mute and watering his plants with ice cubes) and it’s honestly the perfect encapsulation of the creative process. Around the 30 minute mark, he gets worked up about why he does what he does and the meaning of art (“I am not someone who is art for art’s sake… What is your art doing if it’s just cool for a moment and it’s not real in my life?”) Thanks to Nana I started watching Michael McDonald and Warren G. I’m obsessed with this segment and I used it in my creativity class. It’s worth your time.
The full Mogul series serves as a lesson in hip-hop history told through the personal story of music entrepreneur Chris Lighty. It begins with his rise from the Bronx to become manager of hugely successful hip-hop artists like Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes, and it ends with his suicide at age 44. One of the best parts of this show was its charismatic host Reggie Osse, who sadly recently passed away from cancer. RIP Reggie.
Statistically speaking, I have about 41 years to live. I’ll spend about 12.8 of those years sleeping. I’ll spend about 6.4 of those years working. I was inspired to number my days by John B. Mclemore, the protagonist of S Town, aka Shit Town. This is what John did when he wanted to know how much time he had left to leave an impact. Of all the intricate themes of Shit Town — poverty, Southern culture, mental illness, love and loss — time is the one that undergirds the whole thing.
All Songs Considered
This fall, I couldn’t stop listening to Weezer’s Feels Like Summer from their new album, which feels like fall. Also, this is a good interview with Rivers Cuomo on All Songs Considered on his songwriting process for this album. Have I mentioned recently that I once interviewed Weezer?
Reply All’s two episodes on the Russian hacking of an Uber account is equal parts fascinating and freaky. It also made me take steps to clean up my digital paper trail and sign-up for a password manager. What can you learn about someone from hacking their phone and viewing their life for a few weeks? Probably that we should all be like Alex Goldman and laugh maniacally while alone in our cars.
Zeynep Tufekci is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Her interview with Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith is somewhat mindblowing. One takeaway: Suppression is no longer about censorship. It’s about creating noise and distraction so a message doesn’t get heard.
The New Yorker Radio Hour
The new iOS11 update made it easier to binge listen to the same podcast, and I developed a new appreciation for the interview skills of David Remnick. I particularly enjoyed this interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, released just before she announced she has cancer.
My friend Rick and I were taking an Uber. We shared the ride with a guy named Peter, and we ended up talking about Lollapalooza and forgotten ’90s rock bands like Sugar Ray and Collective Soul. He seemed like a guy our age who we had a lot in common with. The topic turned to the new Uber Eats and Amazon Fresh, and who would need a kind of service for delivering late night chicken McNuggets. Peter mentioned casually that he liked using the Amazon service because he’s totally blind, and it helps him save money at the grocery store so he doesn’t have to ask the price of every item. Oh. That’s not a perspective I considered. This reminded me of the .future podcast, which talks about curb cuts and the history of inclusive design.
Undone is a podcast in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, which unearths and re-examines the past in a new, critical light. Both make you question what you think you know about history. Gladwell’s tagline is “because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” Undone’s tagline is “a show about how big stories we thought were over were actually the beginning of something else.” Undone is unfortunately… done. It wasn’t renewed for a second season, but you can find its past episodes in the archives.
We Are Marquette + Marquette in Milwaukee
Shameless plug for myself, but this year I got into actually making podcasts, not just listening to them. It was an exhilarating experience, and I look forward to learning and producing more in 2018. You can subscribe to the We Are Marquette and the Marquette in Milwaukee podcasts on SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts.