The benevolent podcast gods blessed me with a new episode from one of my old favorites just as I was wondering what I’d write about this week: it’s More Perfect, from Radiolab.
More Perfect is a Radiolab spin-off series (Radiolab‘s first) that explores the stories behind America’s most landmark Supreme Court cases. The show is a personal favorite of mine because it carries the same fast-paced, complex editing techniques Radiolab is famous for and focuses-in the show’s subject matter to turn it into into something consistently interesting and engaging.
The latest episode, titled “American Pendulum I,” follows the story of Fred Korematsu, who sued the United States in the wake of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese citizens in America.
I love the way this episode kicks off. It begins with Korematsu’s daughter telling the story of learning about Korematsu v. United States in class, having no idea that her father had been through that.
She tells of how her classmate (and fellow Japanese-American) gave a book report about the case—surprising her as much as anyone else in the class—and of how she rushed home afterwards to ask her father about it. It’s such an interesting story, and it simultaneously functions as both a hook for the episode and as a perfect introduction to any listeners unfamiliar with the case.
Overall, the episode does a great job bringing a personal angle to a little-told story most have only heard mention of.
But it’s not just the storytelling that makes More Perfect—and Radiolab‘s main series, as well—special. The show has a unique, risky editing style that almost always works in its favor.
The show will often have multiple voices interrupting one another and finishing each other’s thoughts. If you just listen to a sentence that features this technique, it makes sense as a continuous thought, but—honestly—if you pay attention to the changes in voice, it can get sort of exhausting.
Even so, it helps the show to pack much more information into a shorter time period than other audio productions, and it certainly helps keep your attention. I can’t even imagine the amount of time the reporters and editors spend going over every interview, finding gaps in the quotes that they think are worth being filled, filling those gaps with other quotes that phrase it better than they could, and then actually piecing all that together… It’s just astounding.
Worth noting: More Perfect has also thrown in some fun, goofy storytelling tactics, taking Radiolab‘s tradition of experimentation to comedy. At one point in “American Pendulum I,” a character from the American Civil Liberties Union is introduced, and beneath the following reporter track, a weird, whisper-y, robotic voice sings “A-C-L-U, A-C-L-U.” I honestly don’t know if it was supposed to be funny, but its goofiness at least kept me engaged.
Another episode, “Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer,” includes an increasingly ridiculous song/chant of the episode’s title (a mnemonic device to remember the names of America’s Supreme Court justices at the time) that plays at the end of the episode. It’s so unexpected from such a well-respected program like Radiolab, and it really just cements the casual-yet-educational format of American public radio (and, by extension, that of many podcasts) as my favorite form of content delivery.
It’s so not-pandering, not-condescending and not-pretentious. It meets listeners where they are, and it shows that podcast creators know they don’t have to sensationalize news and information to make it interesting. They can just talk to us about it like they would a friend, and that’s enough.
One last episode to check out: “More Perfect presents: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.” This one’s actually an old Radiolab episode presented by Radiolab Presents: More Perfect [the show’s full title], so that’s a little confusing and maybe redundant. But hey, either way it’s a good pod. Check it out!
Join me next week for anther podcast spotlight.