In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edge Of Fame
Norm Macdonald Doesn’t Like Endings
It’s always welcome when podcasters shake up the traditional interview format of in-studio mic-gabbing. Edge Of Fame, a new collaboration between WBUR/NPR and The Washington Post, does it by framing episodes as profiles rather than straightforward interviews. At the helm is Geoff Edgers, the Post’s national arts reporter, and future episodes will center around the likes of David Letterman, Ava DuVernay, and Jimmy Kimmel. The podcast’s premiere focuses on comedy legend Norm Macdonald, whom Edgers follows from a September 2016 appearance on Jimmy Fallon to a comedy set on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Along the way, the journalist pairs interviews of the notoriously cagey Macdonald with insight into his early stand-up, his O.J. Simpson beat on SNL’s Weekend Update, and his satirical autobiography released in 2016. Edgers paints a compelling portrait of both the comedian and the ebbs and flows of his popularity, but it’s perhaps the smaller moments that make the episode such a must-listen. Macdonald loses his notes before one gig, and later frets over a minor sports moment before going onstage. Macdonald has maintained such an unknowability over the years that to catch these tiny glimpses is an intriguing piercing of his veil. [Randall Colburn]
Fairy Tales For Unwanted Children
Toronto-based podcast Fairy Tales For Unwanted Children is as calming as it is eerie. The short stories (most are under 10 minutes) are original works from host Scott Thrower that carry on the tradition of the medium’s dark history (think the Brothers Grimm) while providing a smooth delivery complete with a complementary soundtrack. The result is reminiscent of PBS’s Cover To Cover or a favorite school teacher reading a book to a class. As Thrower puts it, “Each [fairy tale] is written to be a short journey into a wondrous work that will unsettle, surprise, and entertain,” and they do. Short and not so sweet, and with almost 50 episodes recorded so far, the series can be binged in the amount of time one might spend on a standard-length podcast, with listeners taking in stories about a prince lost in a forest, a man seeking eternal life, or a boy who gets out of bed at night to realize he’s not alone. [Becca James]
Gravy, a biweekly podcast that “tells stories of the changing American South through the foods we eat,” plays like a good rock doc. It’s part oral history and part raucous recollection paired with solid production value, all blended into informational nostalgia. This week, reporter Ryan Katz explores the history of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters, famed for bringing the various sounds of the South together in the 1970s while serving killer nachos. The music venue was home to both straightforward, working-class country and the more hippie-influenced acts that were beginning to flourish at the time, including the likes of Armadillo regular Willie Nelson. By making room for these previously competing subcultures in the same space, the club secured a spot in the storied history of Austin sound and cosmic cowboy culture. Even the highly acclaimed Austin City Limits is indebted to Armadillo World Headquarters. Why? Listen to find out. [Becca James]
Longtime critical darling Hardcore History has enjoyed its enviable status as a premier podcast for over a decade. For podcast fanatics, each new release is akin to the Super Bowl (and new episodes are just about as frequent nowadays). Host Dan Carlin, a former radio broadcaster, brings both passion and showmanship as he unspools historical narratives with a flair for tension and intensity. Shunning regular release dates and manageable running times, Carlin parses esoteric source material in his marathon-length episodes, dissecting every human thought process that could possibly occur during epoch-changing events. So vast are the narratives, and so considerate is he of their nuances, that even six-hour episodes often aren’t sufficient, and he instead breaks them into multiple parts. Shorter “blitz” episodes like “Painfotainment” focus on the evolution of a concept or idea throughout history rather than a specific event—in this case, humanity’s morbid penchant to make torture and executions into public spectacles. Carlin sojourns from the extravaganzas of ancient Rome to the ritualistic autos de fé of the Middle Ages and concludes with lynchings in America. At every step, Carlin questions why these events drew such large crowds and what exactly the spectators were looking to get out of them. [Zach Brooke]
Part 1: A Change Is Gonna Come
Over the past several years, podcasting has seen an increased output of sensational narratives as a means to drive listener engagement. It’s understandable, even as it is disappointing. So when a show like The Promise comes along—one that is patient, empathetic, and humane while still providing a captivating listen—it’s worth paying attention. This new podcast from Nashville Public Radio is all about investigating the changing landscape of public housing in America through the lens of Nashville’s James Cayce housing project and its subsequent renovation. Led by host and producer Meribah Knight, the show offers a human picture of this controversial subject. Knight uses the podcast platform wisely, taking time to delve not only into the specific issues facing the Cayce houses but also the racial history of public housing in America, focusing on individual residents and their mixed feelings about life in the homes. What makes the show so vital is the universality of its inquiry: collective society’s promise is one of protection and support, especially for its weakest members, and project housing hasn’t always been the best provider of either. The Promise’s holistic exploration provides an opportunity to do better, and it starts by listening. [Ben Cannon]
The Rialto Report
The Story of ‘Midnight Blue’: Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Each episode of The Rialto Report explores a different aspect of the “golden age of porn” in the ’70s. This week, the subject at hand is Midnight Blue, a public access series that featured interviews with celebs, advertisements for local massage parlors, and segments on BDSM and kink. The rise and eventual fall of Midnight Blue is rooted in the New York of the 1970s that fans of sleaze and smut fawn over but would probably be terrified to actually live in, and it’s just as inextricably tied to the life and times of Screw publisher Al Goldstein (the Rupert Murdoch of pornography). The podcast presents the Midnight Blue story through narration, interview clips, and audio from some of the wilder ads (sex toys, 900 numbers, brothels) deftly edited together to create a compelling and funny narrative, putting the listener right in the middle of this time and place. It’s a familiar tale of counterculture versus censorship that spans three decades. Goldstein is certainly divisive and more than a little problematic; listeners will find themselves loving him and hating him at the same time. [Mike Vanderbilt]
How To Pay For An Abortion
The reunion of former Stuff Mom Never Told You co-hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin is enough to make Unladylike’s debut a notable one, but “How To Pay For An Abortion” doesn’t coast on that well-earned rapport. The rapport is definitely still there, though: Ervin and Conger spent five years digging into taboos surrounding the female experience for Stuff, developing an immensely appealing blend of wit, frankness, and in-depth research that’s alive and well on their new show. But the Unladylike format gives them a chance to do something about which they’re clearly passionate, as they interview other women about their experiences and put those experiences front and center, backed up by facts and figures. For this episode, they speak with three women who each not only had different reasons for having an abortion, but also had wildly varied experiences paying for them, and Conger and Ervin explore the many complicated financial realities of what should be a simple procedure with their usual steadiness. It’s a tough listen at times, but surprisingly entertaining at others, particularly when they speak with “fabulous abortion princess” and comedian Joyelle Nicole Johnson. She, like the show’s hosts, is a straightforward, outspoken delight. [Allison Shoemaker]
Today our sister site The Onion released all episodes of its new true crime podcast, A Very Fatal Murder. Listen as Onion Public Radio host David Pascall travels to Bluff Springs, Nebraska to investigate the unsolved murder of Hayley Price in what is sure to be a groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize–winning, and staggeringly poignant—especially in its questioning of what it means to be from middle America—series.