A Podmass Series Spotlight
“In October of 2014, a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager on the streets of Chicago,” states the first line of 16 Shots’ description before expounding. Now almost 15 episodes in, the podcast (a collaboration between WBEZ Chicago and the Chicago Tribune) continues in that pattern, letting statements hit the listener hard before the many supplemental facts wash over them, briefly pooling at their feet to offer a moment of reflection before the next wave.
And there are many such waves. The shooting of Laquan McDonald was captured on video and sparked outrage across the city: Chicago’s top cop was fired, the local state’s attorney was voted out, and the feds were sent in to investigate the culture at the police department. The officer at the center of the shooting, Jason Van Dyke, is currently on trial for murder.
It’s harrowing information that 16 Shots adeptly humanizes by bringing those involved to the forefront, pushing past crime statistics to offer an in-depth look at “the shooting, the fallout, and the trial” as well as the “long history of friction between African-Americans and the Chicago Police Department.” Their approach, which includes daily updates and audio clips from the trial itself, also allows the reporters to apply as much objectivity as possible to what is widely considered a cut-and-dried injustice.
Take for example Van Dyke’s early assertion in a shocking and at times surreal interview where he says, “Yeah, I think I was a great police officer.” This statement is, within the episode, immediately followed by a wave of information about his history with citizen complaints, at least two of which accused him of using a racial slur and half of which alleged he used excessive force. The listener is left to make their own decisions about what to think of it all, just as the real-life jury in Chicago is, making 16 Shots a veritable triumph for true-crime podcasting. [Becca James]
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Aliens Did It
The release of Arden calls for some merrymaking. Touted as “Serial meets Moonlighting” by its creators (which, full disclosure, include A.V. Club alum Todd VanDerWerff), the fictional true-crime podcast is actually a better take on both. First, the Maddie Hayes and David Addison (Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in the ’80s sitcom) have been upgraded to radio journalist Bea Casely and private detective Brenda Bentley, two intelligent and intense professionals working to unravel the mystery surrounding starlet Julie Capsom. Second, while she is missing, Capsom is not the “dead girl” that has plagued so much media over the years. Instead, listeners discover that she ran her car off the road a decade earlier, leaving behind a male torso in the trunk. It’s as gruesome as it is refreshing. Subverting tropes and peppering mystery with comedic high notes, Arden is adept at surrounding its audience with a narrative that is captivating and deserving of a proper celebration. [Becca James]
UFO Hunting in the Photoshop Age
Bloomberg’s tech podcast is in the midst of a season exploring the unintended consequences of technological advances. This episode’s focus on increasingly sophisticated UFO fakes might seem like small potatoes, but adroitly highlights parallels in more pressing issues: The same advanced image manipulation software that allows hoaxers to edit alien spacecraft into International Space Station livestream footage also helps North Korea credibly inflate its weapons capabilities. The monetization of social media channels likewise provides unscrupulous users with a powerful incentive to crank out fantastic content, served up to a conspiracy-minded audience that’s fueled the highest levels of reported UFO sightings in history. And though this UFO ecosystem also spawned a separate subset of debunkers, Bloomberg’s interview subject limits his channel activity to what he can do in his free time, whereas many video generators are living primarily off their viral videos. YouTube itself tacitly fosters this Wild West by placing no prohibitions on deceptive content. And the distinction between real and fake will become harder than ever to define with the anticipated spread of “deep fake” AI videos. [Zach Brooke]
I Secretly Recorded My Boyfriend
“It’s impossible for me to get a finger stuck.”
This U.K. comedy podcast stars a British couple, one of whom does not know the show exists. The format revolves around covertly captured snippets of audio from the private (read: mundane) personal life of radio broadcaster Jo Russell and her significant other. Russell plays clips for her two co-hosts, looking for sympathy, solidarity, or sometimes just an explanation. There also seems to be a bit of venting, like in this episode on double standards. We hear audio of the boyfriend chastising Russell for talking over the World Cup while denying he makes comments during her favorite programs—we’re then presented with a different clip of him doing just that. Despite the unusual (and some might say exploitive) setup, Russell insists she deeply loves this man who can’t help but befuddle her. It certainly helps that the boyfriend in question might be the second coming of Karl Pilkington. This is a man who types in “model” on Instagram looking for toy trains only to be shocked by the sexy lady pictures that pop up. This is also a man who, when asked to name an attractive woman, fumbles for a minute before offering up Tom Cruise. [Zach Brooke]
In the early morning hours following St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, 13 works of art, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The art now valued at half a billion dollars has never been recovered and the identity of the thieves remains unknown. For whatever reason, the Gardner heist has lately resurfaced as an object of popular fascination. This isn’t even the first podcast on the subject; that would be Empty Frames, which ran 13 episodes earlier this year. (Full disclosure: I included a fictionalized version of the heist in my novel Charlesgate Confidential.) Last Seen, however, has the investigative might of the Boston Globe and WBUR behind it, with the newspaper’s longtime Gardner investigator Steve Kurkjian joining hosts Kelly Horan and Jack Rodolico in an effort to reexamine the case and solve the mystery. Premiere episode “81 Minutes” is necessarily introductory, with the hosts giving background on the museum’s founder and recounting the basic facts of the robbery (the thieves dressed as police to access the building and slashed the paintings from their frames), but their interview with a security guard who has never before spoken publicly is a promising indication that Last Seen will satisfy newbies and Gardner junkies alike. [Scott Von Doviak]
A Bar Fight Walks into the Justice Center
What is the weight of a show like Serial in 2018? In the four years since Sarah Koenig began the program, so many shows and even entire networks have spent that time putting the proverbial cart before the horse, mistaking the original allure of Serial as having been the crime rather than the way it was investigated. Charting the show’s trajectory, one can’t help but note the similarities to a band that saw lightning success with its first album, only to stymie the public’s perception in attempting to avoid a sophomore slump by going in a totally different direction. On this the show’s third go-round, Koenig and producer Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year in the Cleveland criminal justice system, following every step of the process from arrest to trial to jail with nearly unlimited access. While it initially seems the show is course-correcting by focusing on crime once more, the subject matter proves much richer and potentially more rewarding. Instead of investigating how the system could have failed one person, what about the way it is failing everybody? Though this new season is in its early stages, the bones are in place for it to be the series’ most socially important. [Ben Cannon]
The Empty Bowl
Close your eyes. Listen to the scrape of the spoon against the bottom of the bowl. Take a deep breath. Welcome to the first ever meditative podcast entirely about breakfast cereal. On The Empty Bowl, hosts Justin McElroy (My Brother, My Brother, And Me) and Cerealously editor Dan Goubert guide you through a relaxing journey into the world of the cereal-obsessed. The sound of gently crashing waves and ethereal, chiming tones can be heard in the background throughout their discussion, which covers such pressing topics as upcoming fall seasonal varietals and the newly released Cold Stone Creamery cereal mashups. If you’re the kind of person who gets nostalgic for Yummy Mummy and the Fruit Brute, or you find yourself oddly excited about potential flavor combinations like Cherry Vanilla Cheerios, this is the podcast for you. And with all the stress and anxiety that comes with simply being alive these days, don’t we all deserve a blissful, 30-minute escape into the audio equivalent of a bowl of cereal? [Dan Neilan]
The History Of Standup
In One, Television and the Birth of Standup
Though we’re now supposedly living a in a post-comedy world, stand-up still seems as relevant as ever. Netflix continues to drop an untenable amount of content each week from both rising stars and heavy hitters. Every publication seems to have a weekly think piece on what it means to tell jokes in the year 2018. This is all to say that it’s a good a time as any to get some historical context on the stand-up format. Over the next six weeks, comedian, actor, and certified professor of comedy Wayne Federman will be lecturing comedy fan Andrew Steven on the history of stand-up, starting from its earliest vaudeville roots and ending with a panel discussion on the future of the art form. This first episode covers the evolution of the vaudeville monologue (often referred to as performing “in one,” as in, without accompaniment) to what we think of as traditional stand-up. Back then, pioneers like Frank Fay and Bob Hope created a space where there was minimal separation between the performer and the performance, and long before streaming platforms, the advent of television brought them into America’s living rooms. [Dan Neilan]
The Last Podcast On The Left
Side Stories: Joe Exotic 2020
This week, Ben Kissel and Henry Zebrowski are without their third co-host, Marcus Parks. As a “Side Stories” episode, the hosts cover various listener-submitted news items such as Pluto’s renewed status as a planet, potential alien life, people getting pushed in front of trains, and other, often creepy headlines. Kissel and Zebrowski, a.k.a Benry, have more than enough colloquial chutzpah to compensate for Parks’ absence; producer Travis Morningstar nonetheless adds to the commentary, in particular when it comes do the discussion of the story of Joe Exotic, a zookeeper and YouTuber who was recently wrapped up in a murder-for-hire case. Exotic, described as looking like “Vincent Price cosplaying as Dog the Bounty Hunter,” had a short-lived presidential run in 2016 before his eventual indictment and subsequent imprisonment. The ultimate pièce de résistance regarding the Joe Exotic story would have to be the revelation that Exotic is also a country musician, and it’s only fitting that the hosts close out the episode with one of his songs. [Jose Nateras]
The Real Story
How Lehman’s Collapse Changed the World
The American political media can’t really be faulted for how shortsighted each news cycle has become, can it? In a country careening out of control, hugely consequential events in the rear view mirror—like the recent 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse that triggered the 2008 global financial crisis—just aren’t always going to have the bandwidth they merit. And yet, what has and what has not been learned in the decade since has massive implications for the health of the entire global market. This week via the BBC World Service, Ritula Shah talks to a panel of economics professors, journalists, and officials. The conversation highlights how increased transpacific and international tensions, as well as new threats like cyberattacks, complicate nations’ ability to prevent the next inevitable recession from similarly metastasizing to a crisis. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly bad news, especially when it comes to the debts of China and Italy. But The Real Story speaks from a place of sober foresight, which in and of itself is at least a little reassuring. [Dan Jakes]