In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends 10–15 of the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at email@example.com.
The Great Restoration
Comparing it to the Statue Of Liberty’s change in color, host Roman Mars introduces Stirling Castle, an ancient, 800-plus-year-old castle that has suffered a hotly contested restoration, leaving its great hall building a bright and cheery yellow color. Listening to someone in a Scottish accent describe ancient architecture as a nightmare becomes seductive very quickly, and such is the voice of many local residents who grew up watching a drab stone castle fall apart. Yet Historic Scotland’s defense of the castle’s look is evenhanded, scholarly, and easy to side with. Their project manager’s love of Great Hall buildings and their forgotten meaning immediately makes you want to trust them. The story has two passionate sides, and 99% Invisible is always interested in the journalism of the design above subjective arguments. The final word comes from Mars’ perspective when he visits the castle and realizes how vibrantly colored the world once was. Not only was bright yellow the most historically accurate thing about the castle, but Mars reminds listeners that nearly all of the Greek and Roman marble sculptures were originally painted in bright, obnoxious colors. It’s an odd occurrence for the show, but one that gives the episode an appreciative perspective on the past that seems sorely lacking in the world.
Another Round introduces a new segment that co-host Heben Nigatu wants to call This African-American Life but can’t—for legal reasons. The first 13 minutes of the podcast feature original reporting from BuzzFeed’s criminal justice reporter Albert Samaha, who spends some time in New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, talking to people about the cycle of poverty and incarceration that plagues the city. Samaha speaks with Jessie Cage, who opened his own coffee business to try and get back on his feet. The reporting and production is certainly on par with NPR’s This American Life. The length of the segment means Nigatu and co-host Tracy Clayton don’t have quite as much time to delve into any of their staple segments, but Nigatu works in some inspirational words from Nicki Minaj—specifically, “The Pickle Juice Speech.” The host do get to spend plenty of time with Yassir Lester, one of the funniest guests Another Round has ever had, but he’s also insightful and truth-dropping in the same way their other guests tend to be. “A Dude Named Hot Sauce” has both serious and silly moments, like all of Another Round’s strongest episodes. And even as Another Round adds more and more segments, Jenna Weiss-Berman and the Pod Squad keep it tight with solid editing.
[Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]
For how universal a phenomenon death is, it’s often shied away from in conversation and as a result it is treated less as an inevitability and more as a mystery. The taboo nature that it has gained in Western society places it squarely alongside sex in terms of things too terrifying to talk honestly about at nearly any age. Luckily, on this week’s Distraction Pieces Podcast, host Scroobius Pip meets up with Anatomical Pathology Technologist Carla Valentine at London’s Barts Pathology Museum to talk in a refreshingly open manner about mortality. The pair cover an enormous range of topics, from the museum’s collection of around 5,000 preserved human body parts (some nearly 300 years old), to the intersection of sex and death, and everything in between. Valentine is a wonderfully intriguing guest. Having developed her love for mortuary science at around age 8, she has spent a lot of her life working directly with, and thinking on changing the conversation surrounding, death. The discussion of sex and death yields up several amazing nuggets, though perhaps none more than the deliciously funny revelation that Valentine runs a mortuary science-centric dating website called Dead Meet.
Douglas Mawson (Live): Justin Hamilton
For a biweekly podcast predicated on the overlooked weirdness of American history, The Dollop has a curiously large cult following in Australia. This is due largely to host Dave Anthony’s status as “guest Charlie number one” on Australian comic Wil Anderson’s TOFOP podcast. No matter the case, though, there is a particular strain of joy found whenever Anthony and co-host Gareth Reynolds take the show on tour. Part of this comes from the change in material, with the pair discussing ridiculous events from Australian history instead, and part of it is in the infectious energy of the live audience. The first of this week’s two episodes, recorded live in Melbourne with local comic Justin Hamilton—himself the host of the Can You Take This Photo Please? podcast—covers the story of Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson. Traditional Dollop logic states that the more unrelentingly terrible a tale, the more likely it is that the level of comedy will rise to meet it. Mawson’s story is one of abject horror and desperation, and as such the 90 minute program is an exercise in aching hilarity. If nothing else, there may never be another Dollop that features an in-depth discussion of molting dick skin and the dangers of eating dog livers.
Love + Radio
Bride Of The Sea: Housam Najjair
Revolutionaries, specifically those who take up arms against governments, are troubling figures to consider within a modern world, more often romanticized for their efforts while tacitly ignoring the human cost of their efforts. There no longer exists a simple binary of wrong and right and as such there is much more to consider when judging their efforts. This week’s phenomenally gripping episode of Love + Radio stands as both proof of and stirring refutation against that dilemma in a way that few pieces of nonfiction have achieved. The story, a firsthand account of the Libyan Revolution against Muammar Gaddafi, is told by Housam Najjair, an Irish-Libyan man who felt called to leave his life in Dublin and fight for his father’s country. Najjair’s storytelling is so charged with relatable emotion that even listeners unable to locate Libya on a map will find themselves brimming over with pride when the revolutionaries recapture Tripoli from Gaddafi loyalists. As in life, it is in the space after this triumph that details become more nebulous. Listening is a passive act, though—listeners cannot know the truth of the situation from such remove. But it goes a long way in conveying how easy it is to get swept up in a moment.
Pop Culture Confidential
Goodfellas To Forrest Gump—Legendary Casting By Ellen Lewis
So much of the work considered “below the line” in film and television is akin to good design: It is primarily noteworthy when it is otherwise unnoticeable. That is to say that all the elements are seamless and natural extensions of the world the project has created, and don’t distract the viewer’s attention. This is especially true of the work of the casting director, who has the task of not only finding actors who fit the visual palette of a project, but also to find those whose skills are up to the task as well. In this week’s episode of Pop Culture Confidential, host Christina Jeurling Birro talks with veteran casting director Ellen Lewis about the fascinating details and precise nature of her craft. Lewis is a gracious and open interview subject, giving Jeurling Birro decades worth of behind-the-scenes tales from working with great directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Woody Allen. One of the best segments of the interview comes when Lewis details her time casting for Goodfellas, her first full-feature working for Scorsese, which included experiences ranging from being brought to an actual New York mafia dinner to meet potential actors to another actor attempting to bribe his way into the film.
Today’s The Day
With summer winding down, Reply All goes to a place it’s never been before: the outside world. In a glorious departure from the show’s usual format, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt leave the internet behind and go on an old-fashioned New York City adventure. With microphones in hand, they visit Central Park; ride the subway to Coney Island; and, much to the seasick Vogt’s chagrin, go on a boat ride. There’s also karaoke, minor criminality, and a surprise, terrifying run-in with wildlife. It’s all presented as a dreamy sound collage that flows seamlessly from one quixotic activity to the next, capturing the whimsical feeling of the perfect summer day. Reply All is so consistently great because it presents the virtual world that everyone spends so much of their time inhabiting as a rich and exciting place. But, by trading in the glow of their laptops for the sun’s rays, Goldman and Vogt make the case that—gasp!—getting out into the real world is thrilling in ways the internet will never be. While it’s fun to play Tomb Raider, nothing beats spending a day laughing at your friend as he tries to copy Lara Croft’s moves out in the real world.
Frequent and favorite Stop Podcasting Yourself guest Alicia Tobin, along with her for-now lesser-known friend Jessica Delisle, are creative types living in Vancouver, which means they’ve had their fair share of customer service gigs. Their new podcast Retail Nightmares focuses on that shared history by inviting their friends in the close-knit northwestern Canadian podcast community to share horror stories from their times behind the register. Still in its infancy, Retail Nightmares finds a real voice this week thanks to early adopter Sarah Cordingley inviting herself on the show, and with good reason: Cordingley brings with her a truly deranged Yelp review-turned-incessant phone calls from a man called Johnny Zachariah, who decided his favorite diner in the city was a “dark and haunted temple” when he cut in line and was refused service. These kinds of situations—annoying at best at the time but funny now—provide great fodder for the sweet, giggly hosts to pile their disappointment on. Plus, with segments like Puppo Of The Week, wherein they discuss the best animal they saw recently, Retail Nightmares has something for everyone.
Rumble Strip Vermont
Love Life: Steve Fugate
Rumble Strip Vermont is a podcast predicated on affording listeners such an intimate closeness to its interview subjects that to not be affected by their stories would require active effort. This is not to suggest that the show is maudlin or pandering, in fact the show’s approach is quite the opposite. Take this week’s story, of pain encountered from great distance, and the way that one man sought to turn it into a teachable moment. While Steve Fugate was out hiking the Appalachian Trail, he received news that changed his entire life. It set him on a quest to walk across the United States sporting a sign above his head that read, simply, “Love Life.” His tale is one of resilience and hope in humanity, one of tiny interactions with potentially massive impact, and ultimately one of tragedy in the face of such happiness. The production of the episode—told by Fugate, with a spare but effective soundscape produced by Larry Massett—helps to drive home the contemplative loneliness of Fugate’s time spent walking, and leads listeners on a similar journey, which makes the end of his tale all the harder to bear. There are many lessons offered from this potent episode, like a modern day parable of loss and soldiering on.
Stuff To Blow Your Mind
V2K: The Microwave Auditory Effect
Tracing microwaves back to 1950s conspiracies and exercising whatever empathy they have when discussing current-day ones, hosts Robert Lamb and Joe McCormick talk about the very real ability of microwaves to case auditory reactions from a distance, even in people who are clinically deaf. It’s a topic straight out of The X-Files, and whether this technology is really being used as nefariously as some worry is part of what is left up for debate (the technology never seems to have gotten effective or precise), but the hosts walk listeners through all the scientific possibilities given what a microwave can do to a person’s brain. It turns out that the very accessible ability of the military to create a soft-tissue shockwave gets creepy fast. But in the end the point is made that the government is far too incompetent to have used this technology to target and persecute an individual with such “telepathy” technology when it is much simpler to just arrest them on lame charges and throw them in prison. Yet the stuff the incompetent government experiments with is no less astounding and all the better it is highlighted publicly, in case those knuckleheads get any ideas.
“She had me talk to a man who was stoned and wanted to give me a massage again.”—Sarah Cordingley reading a Yelp review about her diner, Retail Nightmares