podcasts

on podcasts, the sightless, the invisible and the urgent

This is a bit different.

As many people know, I’m obsessed with podcasts. We don’t have a TV and I barely watch film but podcasts are up there with theatre for me. I am currently subscribed to thirty-two and each day of the week has a subtitle in my head announcing which podcast it belongs to: Monday is ThisAmericanLifeDay, Tuesday is SavageDay, Wednesday is DeathSexAndMoneyDay and so on. What I enjoyed most about following Serial over the last few months was that finally there were people as obsessed as I was about just putting headphones on and going for a walk.

Podcasting is such an intimate way to tell a story. It reaches into your room, your car, your life and you can immerse yourself as little or as much as you like. When we started Audio Stage we talked about this because Jana listens to podcasts as background sound. She likes being able to drift in and out as she multitasks and so prefers long-form, unedited conversations, whilst I listen for total immersion and love the tightly produced podcasts that have really worked on how to make audio the complete experience.

I am fascinated by how simply a piece of audio can sum up a world: in episode 522 of This American Life, Tarred and Feathered an interviewee in the small town of Blairsville, Georgia, says cheerfully to the reporter, Stephanie Foo, “You know, you’re the first China Lady I’ve ever met!” “China lady?” Stephanie asks. “China Lady!” he reiterates proudly. Those four seconds of tape tells us so much about life in Blairsville.

Whenever someone mentions podcasts, people descend to give their recommendations. These days I try to avoid doing it unless asked because it can be very over-whelming. But today I’m breaking that rule. Here are 279 of my favourite minutes of podcasting: my favourite episodes of my favourite series. I believe these really show what an incredibly powerful medium radio can be.

Storycorps

Storycorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind. Since its inception in 2003, they have recorded more than 50, 000 interviews. They give everyday people the opportunity to interview someone from their own lives. The entire series is stunning but their work within the LGBTQI community (including a gorgeous series of interviews with people who were at the Stonewall Riots) feels particularly precious and urgent. Because these are very short, I’m giving two recommendations as I think they show how stories can change us.

1. Rita and Jay Fischer – 2 minutes 29 seconds

The first time I heard this story I was driving to pick up a friend. In less than three minutes it had me in tears. When I reached the friend’s house, by way of explaining my state, I played him the episode. We sat there and cried together.

In this episode 90-year-old Rita speaks with her son about his coming out in the 80s. It is a tiny, perfect, beautiful piece of humanity. Simple, hilarious and gorgeous. The kind of radio that makes you sit and cry, not once but twice in your car on the way to the gym. Also, amazing New York accents.

“When you talked about not knowing about me being gay… I mean, I consider you a lot of things but dumb isn’t one of them. And I had left so many clues!”

“I don’t know what clues you’re talking about!”

“I had somebody over three times a week for five years!”

“In my house?”

“In your house! I had a fuck buddy!”

“That’s what you call ‘em? Fuck buddies!”

2. Alex Landau and Patsy Hathaway – 3 minutes 34 seconds

This is another mother and son. Here they talk about when Alex, a young African-American man, was attacked by police in Denver.

In an incredibly short amount of time, it gives a human voice to something so big and ugly that it can be difficult to comprehend.

“I thought that love would conquer all and that skin colour really didn’t matter. I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you.”

The Fischers.

The Fischers.

Radiolab

Radiolab was my first love as a podcast. From first listen my mind was blown. These guys truly changed the baseline for this medium. The podcasts you hear today with their incredible audio production owe a lot to this crew. But to lead with this makes it sound as if Radiolab is simply a cool work of technical brilliance. It is not. They have used their skills to make something that is incredibly warm and vibrant. Their audio world feels lived in and tactile. It is made more immediate because of its production. They milk the medium for all it is worth for the purpose of telling bloody good true stories.

Color – 1 hour and 6 minutes

I picked ‘Color’ (although it pains me to spell it without a ‘u’) because I am showing off on their behalf. Jad and Robert devote an hour of radio to something that is entirely visual and to make it work they get immensely creative.

The ground they cover in this episode and the ways in which they illustrate it is quite astounding. To explain how different animals perceive colour, they get a full choir to sing the different versions of the rainbow as seen by a dog, human, sparrow, butterfly and mantis shrimp. You hear the vision as incredible chords. I’m sure you didn’t know that what you needed in your life was to hear a choir sing the vision of a mantis shrimp but you do. It is a truly stunning piece of radio.

The last segment of this hour, entitled ‘Why the sky isn’t blue’ is also incredible. This takes us through how language and art have affected our perception of colour and the world around us. EPIC.

The mantis shrimp. As seen by the human eye and an anonymous camera. Gosh I hate not having image credits.

The mantis shrimp. As seen by the human eye and an anonymous camera. Gosh I hate not having image credits.

99 Percent Invisible

This is a podcast about design. Specifically it is about the design elements that go unnoticed in our world: the design of sound for smartphones, that make our interactions with them feel tangible or the design of a deaf university, with curved corners to avoid collisions and the best colour walls to read sign against. It is a beautiful little thing.

I feel strange giving this particular episode as a recommendation because it is totally not what the podcast usually does and what it usually does is excellent. BUT I also feel fucking great about this recommendation because it is one of the most beautiful half hours of radio I’ve ever listened to.

Wild ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking At People Looking At Animals In America – 32 minutes 52 seconds

This is another one where I remember the first time I heard it. I was driving along a highway, beaming, laughing and tearing up in turn.

The episode is a live recording of a collaboration between author Jon Mooallem and the band Black Prairie. It is the story of a world in flux, a world in which we must attempt to navigate our ever-changing, immensely problematic relationship with nature.

And it is a story so good that it made this podcast break its one cardinal rule: they deal with the built world and not the natural one. You can hear the host, Roman Mars groping to justify the choice to include it and he manages it – it isn’t a book about nature, it is a book about how we fit it into our modern lives – but in reality, he just fell in love. As did I.

I listened to this again tonight with my father whilst we did the dishes. I watched him quietly beam as I had in the car and I tried to keep my happy sobs surreptitious. It fills my heart.

One small warning: As it is a live recording, the mix isn’t perfect. I’d advise listening on good speakers. But, that said, my first listen was playing it out of my phone as I drove at 100 kilometers per hour and it touched me just fine.

Jon Mooallem and Black Prairie performing Wild Ones Live'. Photo by Nalinee Darmrong

Jon Mooallem and Black Prairie performing Wild Ones Live’. Photo by Nalinee Darmrong

Death, Sex and Money

This is a pretty new podcast from WNYC. Less than a year old, the premise is very simple: Anna Sale interviews people about the taboo topics of death, sex and money. Anna Sale just happens to be one of the best and most intimate interviewers I’ve ever listened to and you can really hear that in this episode I’m recommending.

Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival – 54 minutes 55 seconds

Ellen Burstyn, renowned actor and all-round amazing lady, who must have done countless interviews in her life, seems genuinely surprised by the questions. In fact, after the interview is over she calls Anna back on a separate day because she decided that one of the questions deserved a better answer than what she gave.

This particular interview actually inspired my anonymous interviews series. Anna asked, “when did you first know you were beautiful” and I suddenly went “fuck. That’s the kind of thing I don’t get to ask when my premise is exclusively theatre.”

But why this interview makes it onto my ‘vital listening’ list is the window is opens onto a very troubling time. Ellen speaks of leaving her abusive husband before domestic violence was treated as a crime. It is incredibly important to remember our history, where we have come from and why equality is worth fighting for:

“When I called the police, they said, we don’t mix in household problems. And I said, he’s threatened to kill me. And he said, no, we don’t respond. And I said, well what is it you do? And he said, we apprehend criminals when a crime has been committed. And I said, you mean, I should call if he actually kills me. And he said, that’s right.”

Ellen Burstyn in 'Alice doesn't live here anymore', 1970

Ellen Burstyn in ‘Alice doesn’t live here anymore’, 1970

This American Life

What to pick for This American Life? 2015 will be their 20th year on the air and they are master storytellers. This show is the matriarch of podcasting, a true institution. Watching everyone go ape for Serial made me want to whisper into the Internet void “you know this is basically This American Life. You know you have twenty years of amazing true stories to catch up on, right?”

For those of you feeling the pangs of withdrawal from Serial, try Dr Gilmer and Mr Hyde, another true and puzzling crime presented by Sarah Koenig. She spent months investigating this case and handles the story with her typical curiosity, empathy and awareness for the complexity of human life.

But this is my recommendation.

Harper High School: Part one and part two – 57 minutes,12 seconds and 1 hour 2 minutes and 10 seconds

“We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone twenty-nine current and recent students were shot. Twenty-nine. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances.”

This two parter won them a Peasbody award for journalistic excellence. It was not their first and I doubt it will be their last but there is an urgency and a beauty to this piece that catches my breath. Gun violence is such a massive issue and yet here TAL go for the tiny human elements in the story, something that radio illustrates incredibly well.

After the first episode aired, Ira Glass responded to claims made in social media that they had sought out and found the nation’s most violent school. No, he said, they just found a school, one that had seen a lot of shootings. In the second episode they speak to principals from other high schools around the country. I was sobbing by the end:

“Liz Dozier: Hi, I’m Liz Dozier, the Principle of Finger High School on the far South Side of Chicago. We’ve lost nine students to violence in the last little over three years.

Shontae Higginbottom: I am Shontae Higgenbottom. And I’m the new principal here at King College Prep High School here in Chicago. And this year, I’ve had two students who were shot during our Christmas break. And then we had the last case with Hadiya Pendleton. And she died.

John Lynch: My name is John Lynch. I’m the Principle of Castlemont High School in Oakland, California. So I’ve been at Castlemont High School for the past two and a half years. And in the time that I’ve been here, six students have been shot. And two of those students who were shot were actually killed.

Bertie Simmons: I am Bertie Simmons. And I am the Principal of Furr High School. And it’s located on the Far East Side of Houston, Texas. In the last two years, I could name five students that were shot and killed.

Rahel Wondwossen: My name is Rahel Wondwossen. And I am the Principle of Cohen College Prep High School. We are located in Central City, New Orleans. At Cohen College Prep High School last year, we had two students who were shot. Both, thankfully, survived. And in the city of New Orleans, we had more than 10 students who were shot and killed.

Laquanda Jackson: My name is LaQuanda Jackson. I’m the Principle of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School in Philadelphia. This year, we have lost one student to gun violence. Last year, we lost two students to gun violence. And the year before, there were six.

Alberto Carvalho: My name is Alberto Carvalho. I am the Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools right here in Florida. Over the past four and a half years, I have buried or attended viewings for 44 children who have died violent deaths right here in our community.”

Security guard at Harper High School, image by Bill Healy

Security guard at Harper High School, image by Bill Healy

These are my recommendations. Two hundred and seventy-nine minutes and twelve seconds of stunning radio. I think it justifies my addiction but more than that, I think it demonstrates the strengths of this medium, the intimacy and intricacy with which it can examine what it means to be human and the importance of stories.

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12 thoughts on “on podcasts, the sightless, the invisible and the urgent

  1. I am currently six months behind (actually just over 6. Yesterday I heard the July 4 episode of FOFOP.) My podcasts I run through a playlist so they play out in chronological order. The six month delay is (a) because I get busy, and when I get busy I don’t have time to listen to the hours and hours of content I download every week, and (b) when nasty things happen in the world I can struggle to deal with them in real life and (perhaps wrongly) feel that distance can help me handle difficult moments in world events and not fall into the mind traps of immediate speculation. Anyway, I heartily agree with your post, and add to your discussion how amazed I am at how often the most mundane chats and podcasts end up the most revelatory – it can be like delicious, auditory therapy.

  2. 99% often leaves me slack jawed with its revelations about architecture, space, and experience. The amount of times I’ve had a sharp intake of breath from a revelatory podcast moment are beyond count. Great list. I’ll throw in Planet Money, for its insight into the micro effects – read, human – of macroeconomics.

  3. Jasmine says:

    Thanks Fleur!
    I remember the first time I heard the TAL Harper High episodes while doing the u parade at The Garden a couple of years ago. Such powerful story telling. Another favourite of mine is The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar (also TAL).

    I also managed to do a Serial marathon after I saw your post about it after the finale.

    Looking forward took listening to more of your recommendations! 😊
    Jaz x

  4. A work colleague once described my interaction with the TV guide as akin to the horse racing fanatics’ interaction with the form guide. I was on the hunt for the good documentaries and dramas, balancing the weight of shows with each other across the four available stations. Then pay TV turned up and a lot of the good docos disappeared behind a pay wall.

    Then I discovered Radio National. Here in Australia, that’s our public broadcasting station full of great topic radio. They do podcasts, but I had nothing portable on which to download them. Instead, in my kitchen there is a dedicated old radio from the 1980s permanently tuned to RN. It sits on my fridge.

    I’ve just bought my way into the 21st century with a fancy mobile phone. I can now podcast … from anywhere in the world! Thank you for the inspiration to branch out.

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