What up podcast people? Welcome to the newest addition to Where’s The Bubbler, Where’s the Pod. I’ve been meaning to do a lot more podcast related articles, starter guides, and recommendations for a while now (the last one, which was also the first one, was at the beginning of the year) and have started working on a few ‘where to start’ type guides but haven’t followed through. But that ends now and something new is beginning. Where’s the Pod is a bi-weekly (for now) feature/discussion of the four to six most intriguing/best podcasts that I’ve listened to in the last two weeks. The A.V. club and The Atlantic do a similar thing, but they focus more on the breadth of podcasts and try and introduce people to podcasts they haven’t heard before. I’m going to try and do that, but to a lesser degree. I have a list of about 35 pods that I try to keep up with that is always changing slightly. For most of these podcasts I feel comfortable making the blanket recommendation that each entry in their feed is quality and they are one of the best examples of that type of podcast. But podcasts, like TV shows, have exceptional episodes that push (a little bit) not just that show, but the medium to new and exciting places. That is what I am interested in trying to catalogue here, what are the episodes where the hosts, or the writers, or the interviewer, or the storyteller is really putting something great on tape (except I suppose they don’t use tape anymore, whatever they put it on a Zune). Not every episode recommendation will fall into that genre pushing category, but there will be something about them, which I’ll try to capture, that makes this episode specifically worth listening to. The reason for focusing on episodes is an attempt to highlight the episodic nature of the medium and how it fluctuates in the same way TV shows or comic books do, and that podcasts should be discussed in a more granular manner rather than just saying ‘This American Life is good.’ It also captures the way I listen to podcasts, where when I find a new one I try to go through as much of the back catalogue as possible. I want to get to know the people who are going to be in my ears for an hour or two each week, but also I want to know how this show ebbs and flows from week to week. Not every episode is gold, but some of them are and I’m going to try and find those episodes and put them here because I love podcasts, I want people to listen to more podcasts, and I want to talk about the ones I love with other people. And in that spirit, here we go…
#104 The Case of the Phantom Caller
Reply All’s catchphrase is that it’s a podcast about the internet, but Alex and P.J. (the hosts) never forget that behind every story about youtubers, bitcoin and phishing scams is a person who is confused and/or terrified by the inscrutability of the internet despite its necessity. Their approach to using the internet (often twitter or reddit) as a jumping off point to look at one granular aspect or detail of human behavior isn’t entirely novel. What is unique about Reply All is how consistently they are able to remind us that the world is and remains a deeply weird and strange place that has and will continue to defy explanation. Alex and PJ revel in and almost seem to specialize in that type of story, but they are also content to let things be unexplained when its appropriate. The case of the phantom caller is a great example of this type of story as Alex looks into the weird calls that are being placed to random 1-800 numbers. There is somewhat of a resolution to this story but its not complete and the strangeness they uncover remains.
The Longform Podcast
#307: Jeff Maysh
Most episodes of the Longform Podcast are admittedly not for everyone. If you’re not a writer, interested in the craft of writing or don’t have a particular interest in the person being interviewed in a specific episode, then a given episode might be a tough listen. But Longform’s interview (Max Linsky handled this one) with Jeff Maysh is something both more broadly appealing and abstruse. If you don’t know anything about Jeff Maysh (I didn’t when I listen to this) he wrote a longform piece about the McDonald’s Monopoly scandal which was recently optioned by a Hollywood studio for one million dollars. This interview was recorded shortly after the piece was sold, but instead of an interview with a journalist soon after one of their most successful days, it’s one writer trying to coax another to admit that he has succeeded and that he can finally say that he made it. The back in forth is weird, and a little stilted at times as Max tries (but struggles) to understand Jeff’s reluctance to be more excited or more enthusiastic (more something) at what’s happened. It’s a fascinating reflection on personal success, being accepted into your chosen profession, and the myth surrounding longform writers.
Do you ever miss anything when your listening to one of your favorite songs or albums, do you actually know what all the words mean or why it’s composed the way it is? If you’ve ever wondered about any of that and you’re a fan of Kendrick Lamar then Cole Cuchna has you covered. Dissect is a longform musical podcast that reminds you (in case you forgot or doubted it) that hip hop and rap are art of the highest order. In the age of Spotify playlists and buying song off iTunes for 99 cents the respect for the album as a whole complete item that deserves careful consideration has been lost a little. Cuchna isn’t having any of that as he spends no less than thirty minutes (sometimes more than an hour) for every song on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. I absolutely recommend that everyone listen to all twenty-two episodes in the first season, but if you listen to just one episode (in this case a pair) I recommend the two about The Blacker The Berry. The level of reflection, history of black activists, and inclusion of third party sources is great, but you also get this sense of the time and dedication that Cuchna has poured into understanding this seminal album.
This American Life
#654 The Feather Heist
The Quality of This American Life (TAL) is variable and maybe your milage with Ira Glass is low (he’s actually not on this one). But sometimes they hit on a story that just stirs a little something inside you. The Feather Heist is supposed to be about a caper in a small English town but slowly reveals itself to be something more. Hidden in the story about a man who stole precious bird skins and used them to make salmon fly ties, is a reflection on justice, the dodgy nature of history, and what responsibility humans have to preserve the natural world. It’s not one of the more highly produced episodes, it’s just a couple long conversations, or one with a resolution. But it’s happy at the end to let you sit with the only ending it can offer (because stories are unsatisfying sometimes) and whatever mixture of confused feeling that may have been activated. It’s not one of their more important episodes or one that will be remembered (probably), but is an example of what happens when we follow our curiosity and take the time to hear each others’ stories.