Podcast Spotlight: More Perfect

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.

Podcast Spotlight: Rough Translation

NPR’s Rough Translation is a show with a pretty vague premise, but its vagueness works in its favor.

According to the show’s description, “host Gregory Warner tells stories that follow familiar conversations into unfamiliar territory.” The first two episodes, “Brazil In Black And White” and “Ukraine vs. Fake News,” follow that mission statement pretty closely as they examine race relations and “fake news”—topics that have obviously been at the forefront of many American socio-political conversations—from the perspective of citizens of other countries.

But Rough Translation‘s best episodes yet aren’t so clearly on-topic. “American Surrogate” and “Anna In Somalia” instead tell seemingly-random stories that cross national boundaries, but they lose nothing from looking into more obscure issues.

“Anna In Somalia” tells the story of an imprisoned man whose sanity is saved by a doctor in an adjacent cell. The doctor keeps the man grounded by reading him Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina through the wall via a tapping code-language. It’s a great tale of empathy and the power of human contact, and it has an unexpected ending that reminds you that real-life stories are rarely entirely poetic or romantic.

“American Surrogate” is even better. It hit me like a truck.

The episode, hosted by David Greene and reported by Marianne McCune, follows the story of an American woman named Jacquie as she acts as the surrogate mother for a Chinese woman named Jessie. (To protect the women’s privacy, only first names were used.)

Throughout the Jacquie’s pregnancy, she tries to foster a friendly relationship with Jessie. But for reasons that you can listen to the episode to find out, Jessie is hesitant to oblige Jacquie, and the pair’s relationship becomes even more complicated when some problems arise late in Jacquie’s pregnancy.

It’s a heart-wrenching episode. I came close to crying at least three separate times when I first listened to it sitting at my desk. And, like “Anna In Somalia,” its ending leaves you a bit unsatisfied, but for good reason.

Both of these episodes highlight the complexities of human relationships, and though their endings leave you wanting something more fulfilling, they do so in a way that reminds you of how real life doesn’t always end up how we’d like it to. It’s a nice break from Hollywood depictions of love and friendship, if still a little jarring.

Rough Translation is a well-produced, well reported show. I’d challenge you to find someone who isn’t at least a little surprised by the subject matter of one of the episodes. The topics are unique and intriguing, and the show is just good.


Join me again next week for another podcast spotlight.

Podcast Spotlight: Outside/In

Change of plans! Since a lot of the podcasts I listen to are pretty stylistically similar (either NPR-style non-fiction or your standard conversational round-table), I’ve realized that trying to talk about what makes individual episodes unique without just summarizing the content would be pretty difficult and would probably result in a lot of repetition. 

Instead, I’ll be highlighting the podcasts themselves. Each week, I’ll write aboust a podcast I enjoy and link to a few particularly good episodes. 

Let’s get started!


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Source: http://outsideinradio.org/

Outside/In from New Hampshire Public Radio is a podcast “about the natural world and how we use it,” as host Sam Evans-Brown describes it, and it’s the best nature-centric podcast I’ve come across.

The BBC’s Costing the Earth is okay, but only because its old, European-style radio conventions aren’t as in-your face as Deutsche Welle’s Living Planet, whose shouting announcer makes you feel like you’ve just tuned into a 90’s Australian T.V. broadcast. Michigan Radio’s The Environment Report is good for bite-sized environmental news updates (and is probably worth listening to in its own right), but that makes it naturally less compelling listening than longer shows. And don’t get me started on PRI’s Living on Earth.


Whoops, I got started. Here was my experience with that show:

I listen to an episode. I’m not a big fan. I unsubscribe. I subscribe again several months later to give it another chance. I hit play.

Cheesy jazz music plays.

Steve Curwood, the host, enthusiastically announces that recovery from hurricane Harvey will take lots of time and teases some stories. The bad jazz music continues to play beneath some sound bites.

Steve says “STICK AR-AAAAAHHH-OUND.”

Steve continues dramatically summarizing Harvey’s damage. Steve introduces a reporter, welcoming her to the podcast. She responds:

“Thank you, Steve. Glad to be here.”

At this point, Steve tries to make a funny joke:

“Yeah, I guess at this point though, maybe the show should be ‘Living on the Water’ for you, huh?”

Steve did a bad job. You’re being insensitive, Steven.

Later, after Steve interviews the journalist in a weird, detached tone of voice that makes you think maybe he’s some sort of alien who doesn’t know how to talk to people like a normal human being, I stop the episode.

I try another, thinking maybe it was just a fluke. After a segment about the worth of national parks, a Mary McCann hosts a segment called “BirdNote.” She enthusiastically describes bird calls. You can hear the uncomfortably big smile on her face.

With that same spooky smile, she concludes the segment with this awful, tried, stupid, no-good, very bad pun:

“Now that’s somethin’ to crow about!”

I unsubscribe.

So, uh… Yeah… Anyway…


But Outside/In isn’t like Living on Earth. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s very, very good.

Most episodes of Outside/In focuses stories. Ironically, this is basically all that sets it apart from the rest—well, that, its more casual, NPR-style tone, its high production value, its aesthetically appealing logo design and its tasteful music and sound mixing.

The other podcasts I’ve mentioned mostly focus on issues. They try to make their listeners want to listen based on the content of the news, alone. Maybe that’s why they amp up their “radio voices” so much—so they can try to make things interesting that aren’t.

Outside/In takes environmental issues and distills them down to human stories. And that’s why I think it’s so good. In my experience, if you want someone to care about the environment, you have make them love it. Throwing scary facts about the dying planet at people won’t do anything if they don’t care about the planet they’re hurting in the first place.

Outside/In makes takes all the little things that make the Earth fascinating and nurtures them into their own little stories. It shows listeners the kinds of cool adventures there are to be had in the natural world.

My favorite episode, hands-down, is called “Lime and Tobasco.” It’s about two turtle conservationists who figured out how to collaborate with turtle poachers in Mexico in order to prevent the turtles’ extinction. It’s a super compelling listen, and, as I’ve said on Twitter, the story itself is a really cool example of conservation without colonialism.

The episode perfectly exemplifies the show’s knack for storytelling. I’ll admit, the first four minutes are a little slow, but stick with it. It’s got smooth editing, natural-sounding host and reporter narration and well-chosen sound bites. If you’ve got a spare half hour, give it a listen.

But yeah. I love this show.


Here are some more links to a few really good Outside/In episodes: 

“Healing Hands of Nature”

“The Death Machine”

“After the Flood”


Join me again next week for another podcast spotlight!

Podcast Spotlight: The Black Tapes 301 – “Sins of the Father”

I’ve already spoken about this on Twitter, but it’ll still be the subject of my first post on account of the fact that I’m under a bit of a time crunch and that this episode really irked me enough to write about it twice.

I’ll include my previously-shared thoughts below, but essentially The Black Tapes has gone from one of my favorite podcasts of all time to just another jargon-filled, amateur sci-fi show.

For the uninitiated, The Black Tapes is a Serial-style, fictional mystery podcast about a journalist investigating paranormal happenings in the Pacific Northwest. Its first two seasons were well-produced and (mostly) well-written, but the season three premiere threw all of that out of the window.

I’d be really curious to talk to the show’s creators to find out what happened, but I have my suspicions.

There was a year-long wait between seasons two and three, compared to just three months between season one and two. I’ve seen enough video games be delayed and then released at mediocre levels of quality to know that sometimes such a big creative endeavor can get away from you when you’re lost in the weeds.

As soon as it was suddenly announced this May that season three would be the last season, that it would only have six episodes and that it still wouldn’t be coming out for another three months, I worried that it would be one of these situations. And sure enough, it was, at least for season three’s first episode.

There’s a chance that the rest of the season will be better –  that the premiere’s poor quality was just shoddy because the creators were a little rusty, but that remains to be seen.

For more details on my thoughts, read/listen to the stuff below.


Here’s what I said in the tweets:

“The Black Tapes asks us in its logo ‘Do you believe?’ The show’s season three premiere has made me a non-believer, at least for now.

The Black Tapes was once a compelling mystery that kept listeners hooked with every cliffhanger and revelation, but with this new episode, it has fallen into the same pitfalls that made me stop listening to its sister show, Tanis: it’s become muddied in its mess of capital-‘n’ Nouns to the point of engendering disinterest. And it feels like the main characters are just as disinterested as I was, or at least as uninformed.

Alex’s narration is stilted and unnatural. It’s just so obvious that she’s reading. When you listen to real-life journalists like Brian Reed or Sarah Koenig, their narration comes off as if they’re just telling you about something they’re very knowledgeable about. Alex’s narration lacks much of the genuine fascination and ‘eagerness to share’ that these journalists display, and feels more like she’s reading a book out loud to a group of elementary schoolers. And this issue permeates the show’s dialogue, as well.

When you listen to Alex and Nic discuss the show’s events with one another, it’s as if nothing surprises them. There’s no like’s, no um’s, no hesitation. It sounds like someone talking to themself. It’s just so obviously a fake conversation. Seriously, go back and listen to their conversation from 26:10 to 28:08:

Nic: ‘Anything new with Strand?’

Alex: ‘Nothing really. Just one inexplicable oddity after another.’

N: ‘Including the man himself.’

A: ‘He’s definitely an inexplicable oddity.’

N: ‘I think he’s warming up a little, isn’t he?’

What?

And later:

A: ‘There were dozens of them [black tapes] in that back room, just waiting.’

N: ‘That many?’

A: ‘Well, it’s gonna take forever if we’re gonna be thorough about this.’

N: ‘Anything that relates to [PROPER NOUNS]?’

A: ‘Or [PROPER NOUNS] or [PROPER NOUNS], or any of the dozens of unrelated mysteries we’re trying to connect.’

N: ‘You think they’re unrelated?’

A: ‘I don’t know what to think.’

N: ‘Are you not sleeping?’

A: ‘I just… I need a dog. That’s what I need.’

N: ‘Yeah?’

That’s not a conversation. People don’t talk like that. Even journalists who are following the same story don’t talk like that. If someone answered ‘Are you not sleeping?’ with ‘I need a dog,’ you might catch their meaning, but you wouldn’t just say ‘Yeah.’ You’d be like, ‘Haha what? A dog? Do you mean ‘cuz that would help with your stress?’ SERIOUSLY. Just listen! Their line delivery is so damn immediate and flat. You hear this crap and you can just picture them sitting next to each other in front of a mic, looking down at a piece of paper with a script written on it.

The show has also fallen into Tanis’ tendency to punctuate every bit of dialogue with a dramatic sound effect or musical cue, which only serves to emphasize the characters’ lack of enthusiasm for what they’re saying.

I’m going to keep listening to The Black Tapes to see what happens, and I think the story has potential to pick up as the season comes to a close. But, for me, The Black Tapes no longer demands I stop typing emails or texts to give it my undivided attention. GOD, I’M LISTENING TO THE END OF THE EPISODE AGAIN, AND THE WAY ALEX REACTS TO SIMON’S CREEPY, CRYPTIC NONSENSE IS JUST SO BAD. SHE’S SO MONOTONED [sic] AND REHEARSED AND UGH.”


Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next week with a more fleshed-out take on a different pod. Talk to you then!