The Bests of 2015

Happy New Year!

This was a big year for podcasts, and for my own listening. I added a lot of shows to my docket, and, more importantly, I continued to develop/determine my podcast preferences. So without further ado, here are my favorites.

 

BEST NEW SHOWS (in alphabetical order)

1. Anxious Machine

I have consistently referred to Anxious Machine as my favorite show  of the moment since I learned of it last summer. Hosted by Rob McGinley Myers, it tells stories about how humans relate to technology—considering everything from email to hearing aids to camping out.

2. First Day Back

This is probably the show I’ve recommended most this year. The first season consists of nine episodes that follow the host, Tally Abecassis, as she goes back to work as a documentary filmmaker after six years as a stay-at-home mom. It’s great for anyone in a creative field, and, I imagine, for any parent. In short, it’s a great listen for anyone trying to figure out how to balance “work” and “life”.

3. Invisibilia

NPR’s newest science show, in which Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore invisible, human-making themes (fear, thoughts, categories) through means both scientific and exploratory.

4. Scene on Radio

Created and hosted by John Biewen out of Duke University, this documentary show leaves the studio and explores whatever it finds. The first seven episodes considered sports in American culture (but in a way this non-sports fan could get into).

5. Mystery Show

A funny show in which Starlee Kine solves seemingly-unsolvable, and seemingly-too-personal-to-be-interesting-but-still-interesting, mysteries.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

1. ARRVLS

A non-narrated storytelling podcast hosted by Jonathan Hirsch. about “transformation, migration, and change.” One could argue this is what every story is about, but these stories are good, so let’s not quibble.

2. Home of the Brave

In which Scott Carrier lulls us into calm with his soft voice and interesting storytelling. HotB went on a four-episode “Tour of Burned Churches” and later followed the refugee trail backwards from Lesbos, Greece.

4. Out on the Wire

I have mixed feelings about this show. I stopped listening after episode 3.5 and then dipped back in for part of episode 7 before leaving it again. However, I read the eponymous book (a long-form graphic narrative by host Jessica Abel about podcasts that sparked the making of this one) and loved it. And I think this podcast is doing something interesting, new, and important in its audience-inclusion. It’s about how to make a story—in any genre or media—and works with listeners from its Google-driven community.

5. UnFictional

A  non-narrated storytelling show from KCRW hosted by Bob Carlson. Each episodes features a story or group of true stories on the same theme, à la The Moth or Re:Sound or Risk (but less risky). If you like those shows, you’ll like this.

 

BEST EPISODES

1. “695BGK”Criminal

The story of an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police and survived.

2. “A Red Dot”Love + Radio

A registered sex offender talks with the L+R hosts about why the sex offender registry is a problem, and they push back.

3. “Cops See It Differently”, Parts 1 and 2This American Life

Stories about cops and civilians, from cops and civilians.

4. “Didn’t Want to be Conscious”Anxious Machine

One woman’s history with intoxication.

5. “Fearless”, Invisibilia

What is fear? Do we need it?

6. “Last Chance to Evacuate Earth”Here Be Monsters

The story behind the Heaven’s Gate cult, as told by two who joined it.

7. “Shipped to Timbuktu”Reply All

A mistaken identity online leads Reply All to a woman whose Girl Scout troop helped her survive a concentration camp in China during World War II.

8. “The Accidental Gay Parents”, Parts 1 and 2The Longest Shortest Time

Trystan and John, a gay couple in their 20s, make a quick decision to adopt John’s sister’s kids, and then have to convince the legal system to make it official.

9. “The Problem We All Live With”, Parts 1 and 2This American Life

How segregation holds us back, and why we aren’t integrating.

10. “Three Miles”, This American Life

How life differs for kids attending high schools a mere three miles apart.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

1. “Abdi and the Golden Ticket”, This American Life

2. “Birthstory”, Radiolab

3. “Britney”Mystery Show

4. “Fresh Out”ARRVLS

5. “Najibullah in America”Home of the Brave

6. “The Facts (About Transgender Kids)”How to Be a Girl

 

End Notes

My Best Episodes list is pretty This American Life-heavy. This isn’t always true, but I think they did a great job this year when it comes to telling stories that matter. It helps that education is in my wheelhouse, but it seems they’re focusing more energy on the hard-hitting, history-of-our-country episodes—and these are the ones that truly matter.

As so many spew hate at Muslims and refugees, some podcasts have used the medium to let these populations speak for themselves. Home of the Brave did a series that followed the refugee trail back from Lesbos, Greece, and listened to the stories of those he met along the way. Scene on Radio did an episode on hijabis, and the decision Muslim American women make to wear or not wear the headscarf.

In this way, podcasts are like articles in a magazine with a wide circulation. Like a magazine, they arrive in your mailbox (app). You’re not quite sure what you’re going to get, but you like the author, so you start reading. Sometimes they’re lighthearted, but they can also speak to current events, comment on what’s happening right now, and, even more importantly, give a voice to those we don’t otherwise hear. They take an Issue and make it a story, giving us the chance to listen to and empathize with those we might not otherwise meet.

First Day Back

I found out about First Day Back from How to Be a Girl (which I discussed on an earlier post, and which just started posting episodes again. Yay!).  Both podcasts are part of a collective called The Heard. The two podcasts are similar—both documentary-style narratives by and about a mother and her child(ren). First Day Back focuses more on the mother, Tally Abecassis, a documentary filmmaker who is returning to work after a six year maternity leave. Much of the show features Abecassis speaking into the microphone about her feelings—totally my style—but she also brings her tape recorder to work meetings and occasionally interviews her kids. These interviews are my favorite parts of the show, both because kids say the darndest things and because they often contradict Abecassis’s ideas of how a mother should be. Abecassis uses her own life to explore the question of what it means to have a career and kids, especially for a woman. For all of her concerns, her kids are remarkably unphased by her shift away from full-time parenting.

I am not (yet) a parent, but I am a woman who anticipates having a family and a career that will likely be in a creative field, and I enjoy hearing a person tell her story of balancing a life and feeling, at times, like her work is useless. It’s comforting to hear someone whose work I think matters worry that maybe it doesn’t.

Style: Narrative, Serial

If You Like: First Day Back, Strangers, The Longest Shortest Time, Love + Radio

Favorite Episode: Episode 7, “Good News, Bad News”

Cast Party

Last Monday I went to Cast Party, the one-night “podcast festival” broadcast to movie theaters across the US and Canada. It featured Radiolab, Reply All, Invisibilia, The Truth, and Lauren Lapkus. I have listened to 4/5 of those shows (all but Lauren Lapkus’s) and actively listen to 3/5 (excluding The Truth), and it was exciting to see these people whose voices I hear every week in person. However, the show left me wanting more.

Reply All basically performed an episode, with PJ  Vogt and Alex Blumberg sitting at a table, talking from a script, and playing pre-recorded audio from an interview with the episode’s subject. The episode was okay, but it certainly wasn’t their best, and it didn’t feel particularly tailored to a live audience. There were some nice, authentic moments, however, like when Alex lost his place in the script, and PJ’s sincere embarrassment at hearing a clip of him responding to someone who complimented the show.

Lulu Miller, of Invisibilia, also used pre-recorded sound—including clips of the show’s other host, Elise Speigel, which she had a fake but also believable conversation with—but she stood alone at a microphone and spoke her lines from memory. Her segment was more tailored to the audience, with a “challenge” from Elise to perform the story, which was about a man running a 4 minute mile, in under 4 minutes. Her segment was my favorite, and I was disappointed that it was, or at least seemed to be, the shortest.

The Truth did a roast of the US with Canada officiating and China, Russia, Cuba, Mexico, France, and Great Britain doing the roasting, and a guest appearance from God. It wasn’t my type of comedy, as The Truth often isn’t, but it went over okay with the audience. It was certainly indicative of what they thought the audience would tolerate when it comes to insulting our own country.

Lauren Lapkus, who I wasn’t familiar with before that night, was hilarious. Her podcast, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, has a guest host every week who interviews Lauren for a fake show. This one was had John Early as the host of a gossip TV show and Lauren playing a 19 year old movie star. The whole thing was great, but I particularly enjoyed the fact that they couldn’t keep it together for more than 15 seconds at a time.

I was very disappointed with Radiolab. They repeated an episode they’ve already done, and while they were great performers and I was glad to finally see them live, I, and probably most everyone else in the audience, had heard the episode before. I would gladly listen to them all day long, but I couldn’t help but tune out, given both the repetition and my annoyance.

The musical guest was the horn quartet The Westerlies. It’s hard to make four horns sound good by themselves, and I applaud them for doing it, but I thought they were a strange choice. The dance troupe, Cocoon Central Dance Team, was also strange but definitely enjoyable. There were some videos between segments that were nothing to write home about. Seth Lind emceed (and produced) the event, and while he came off as nervous and once forgot his script backstage, that worked great for an audience full of public radio nerds.

All in all, while I have no regrets about going to Cast Party and would go to the next one, it definitely lacked the flair I was anticipating.

You Did What?!

You Did What?! is a podcast in the making. It is—or, rather, will be—a roundtable-style podcast about sex and dating. The show’s creator, Eric Fleming, is a self-proclaimed “super gay” artist and life coach based in Brooklyn. Through this show, he wants to “shift conversations about sex away from fear and shame into conversations that are fun, approachable, open” and “[create] safe spaces for people to explore and express with complete freedom.” I am generally not a huge fan of conversation-based shows, but this one sounds really interesting and important in terms of building media spaces that include a diverse range of voices.

You can listen to sample audio here and then support this project by donating to their Go Fund Me. The podcast is backed by the non-profit arts organization Fractured Atlas, so in addition to your donations being tax deductible, you know these makers have already worked hard to get the project off the ground. There are only 4 days left in the campaign, so act fast to make this show happen!

If You Like: The Heart, Strangers, First Day Back, conversation-based shows

From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!

Michael Mandiberg’s exhibition, From Aaaaa! to ZZZap! opened on Thursday, June 18th, at Denny Gallery in New York. The exhibition is in a small storefront gallery on a packed block on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two of the gallery’s walls are covered in a floor-to-ceiling grid of painted book spines, which are meant to look like the spines of many of the hundreds of thousands of volumes that would contain Wikipedia, were Mandiberg to print the entire website. Seven white shelves, dotted across the walls, hold the beginnings of the printed archive, the volumes’ spines perfectly aligned with their painted counterparts. The third wall of the gallery is all window, and the fourth is blank save for a projection of the order form for Lulu.com, the digital publisher that prints the books on display. A Dell desktop computer sits on a small, white pedestal in the corner between the window and the projection, running code. This is the “performance” aspect of the exhibition: the computer is uploading Print Wikipedia, a digitally scraped and laid-out version of Wikipedia, to Lulu.com.

There is a smaller room in the back of the gallery, which contains the 36 volume contributors index. Mandiberg himself is in included somewhere in these volumes, having contributed nearly 2,000 edits to the site.

The exhibition’s literature seems most concerned with size, calling the project “a visualization of the largest accumulation of human knowledge” that shows “the futility of the scale of big data”. However, rather than an overwhelming abundance of information that the entirety of Print Wikipedia would provide, we get only a hint of this multitude. The blank wall waters down the effect of the gridded spines, detracting from the display of immensity. Though the white walls suggest the aesthetics of both Wikipedia and galleries—clean, pure, minimalist—they almost beg to be filled. It is in the details that the project’s scope is most apparent. Most of the bookshelves hold only a few books, but the one that is filled holds 20 volumes, 19 of them labeled BAT-BAT. Batman. Bathing suit. Batting average. Each of these 700 page texts covers only 1/19th of the Wikipedia articles starting with these three letters. Even more detailed are the page numbers. Each book’s numbering starts where the last’s left off, and these numbers quickly jump from thousands to tens of thousands, boasting the vast quantity of information contained within.

The painted spines also emphasize Wikipedia’s immensity, with two walls of books not even making it through the first six letters of the alphabet. Extrapolating from there, I can assume that the whole library would cover eight walls. If each book has 700 pages, and there are 20 books on a shelf and something like ten shelves to a column, and let’s say six columns on a wall…that’s a lot of information. But it’s far from inconceivable. It’s true that the website is “[impossible] to render” as one could not reprint fast enough to keep up with the constant edits, but the scale is smaller than I imagined. Perhaps it’s because the exhibit only shows two walls worth of texts. I could imagine a gallery in which I am overwhelmed by a constant proliferation of objects, which would more accurately replicate Wikipedia. But then again, perhaps the goal isn’t to imitate the website, but to capture it, as a taxidermist freezes a creature in order to study it. This exhibit is to Wikipedia as a natural history museum diorama is to the wilderness—a living entity suspended in time.

The exhibition was open 24 hours a day for the show’s first weekend “in recognition that the computer itself works continuously.” The interplay between digital and analog is at the heart of the project, most strikingly in the space itself. The analog invites touch, while the digital refuses it. Though the computer has a mouse and keyboard nearby (a Mac keyboard strangely paired with a PC monitor), its placement close to the floor and the inscrutable code cycling across the screen don’t invite interaction. The projected order form asks the user to continue or cancel, but we, the viewers—and supposed customers—don’t have the means to do so. The books, on the other hand, are open to us. There is a white chair in the middle of the room, inviting viewers to rest a moment and examine the texts more closely. Though there is only a fraction of the number that could potentially exist, there is far too much information in even these few volumes for a person to take in.

Even here, in the analog, the digital is present. The books are laid out by a computer and then digitally printed through an online publishing company. Each shelf has on it the words “Handle with Care,” a seemingly earnest gesture that strikes me as ironic, given that we do not handle Wikipedia at all, and if we did, it would certainly not be with care. We make Wikipedia entries about ourselves, enter fake information, fail to cite, and abuse the resource with impunity. Mandiberg has taken an endlessly mutable, seemingly indestructible entity and transformed it into a delicate objet, underscoring how easy the physical world is to damage. Given his interest in appropriation and the limits of ownership, I could say instead that he has taken an everyday object and elevated it into a work of art—the evolution of readymades in the digital age. But I find the limits between digital and analog, which the exhibit and its literature seem to brush over, the more interesting question.

The volumes don’t include footnotes, which is a curious omission. I have contacted the artist to find out if this was a conscious decision or merely a result of the program scraping the site, but I haven’t received an answer. [Update: Mandiberg says it was a coding and length decision, implying that there would be too many volumes if the footnotes were included. It seems to me that if the point is to show the immensity of Wikipedia, then one would want to have as many volumes as possible, but I guess not.] In addition to the missing footnotes, there is also the absence of links. Unlike a printed text, a Wikipedia article doesn’t end when the page ends; you can always click away. In this physical incarnation, there are solid boundaries, where online, the walls are all just curtains that are easily pushed aside. This makes me think of Wikipedia games, like Five Clicks to Jesus, and the endless rabbit hole I often find myself in of clicking from article to article, learning new information about the world, and, if I stop clicking for a moment of introspection, discovering something about myself. The printed volumes offer no analogous experience (pun intended).

Through community-created resources like Wikipedia, ownership is becoming less clearly defined. But as computers infiltrate our lives, what is separate from the digital is becoming less clearly defined as well. Print Wikipedia is an exercise in archiving that takes a historical approach: put the thing on paper. The tools with which Mandiberg creates the archive are the same as those that created the source text, but the archive—or the translation—captures only a fraction of the original. Print Wikipedia is another metaphor for the same idea: we will always fail to capture the immensity of the universe. The digital universe is merely a new universe to fail with.

Criminal

Criminal is another podcast I binge listened to, on a Greyhound from Chicago to Minneapolis. The show, which is a member of Radiotopia and hosted by Phoebe Judge, explores real-life crimes in bite-sized episodes—25 minutes at most. The crimes range from plant-stealing to murder, though on the whole they are not so gruesome. As I’ve mentioned before, brief episodes can be hard for me, both because they’re too short for my commute, and because as soon as I get emotionally attached, they’re over. For this reason, I prefer to go a few weeks without listening to Criminal and then listen to several episodes in a row. Each episode explores a single crime or a single person, often interviewing the perpetrator or victim. Though the show’s subject is crime, its approach feels a little santized—like crime TV. For easy listening, that’s not such a bad thing, but hearing from those involved is always my favorite part as the dialogue is most authentic. My main issue with Criminal is the narrator voice. I’m not only referring to Judge’s voice, though that’s part of it. (Criticizing a host’s voice feels like a cheap shot, but I’m not a fan of voices that sound overly radioified—sanitized, non-conversational, The “NPR voice”—and Criminal is definitely guilty of that (pun intended).) The structure itself is less adventurous than some other other podcasts, which is, I think, what keeps it a back burner podcast for me. But I’m a sucker for crime shows, and the stories are interesting, so I always come back.

If you have a favorite podcast I haven’t mentioned yet or host/produce a podcast of your own, leave a comment below. I’m always looking for new shows to listen to, and as an added bonus I rate and review every podcast I write about here on iTunes.

Style: Narrative

If You Like: Serial, 99% Invisible, This American Life, Reply All

Favorite Episode: Episode 20, “Gil from London”

Strangers

 Strangers is another  show with a very present host. In this case, “present” means that in the early episodes host Lea Thau is often recording in her bedroom closet in the middle of the night. I tend to prefer shows with co-hosts, as it gives me the experience of being a fly on the wall of a natural conversation. Lone speakers often sound like that they are reading off a script or affecting a performative voice, but Thau manages to eschew both issues. Though she does give the impression of speaking to an absent audience—a state in which it is nearly impossible to sound natural—her voice is that of a friend sharing an intimate tale rather than a narrator holding the plot together or a raconteur performing the past. This makes sense, as Strangers is all about intimacy. The show alternates between interview and storytelling formats, with strangers telling personal narratives of everything from the day their baby arrived to caring for a suddenly disabled spouse. The style is a mix of storytelling and interview, with some strangers monologuing into a mic and some dialoguing with Thau, whose own life is not free from examination. She has a four-episode series called “Love Hurts” in which she interviews past flames and investigates her relationship with relationships. This kind of tell-all self-reporting can feel mundane, but Thau’s approach walks the line between analyzed and off-the-cuff, presenting a narrative that feels two parts accurate, one part unsure, and entirely honest.

Style: Narrative, Interview

StationKCRW/Radiotopia/Story Central

If You Like: Invisibilia, The Moth, Snap Judgment, The Heart, Love + Radio

Favorite Episode: “Two Men and a Baby”