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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
99% Invisible has a way of injecting the story of an invention with a vast mythology, and this episode waits as long as it can before explaining what Devil’s Rope is. Beginning by painting a beautiful portrait of North America pre-colonization and the drive west toward the Rockies, the podcast further depicts beautiful, swaying land sparsely populated and full of flat plains or desert. But by the time Lincoln began giving away land, frontier America and the idea of manifest destiny had gripped imaginations, quickly giving way to the colonists’ desire to claim more. This made fences necessary for marking territory, as well as keeping cattle—usually contained by forests—from constantly wandering off. It was this creepy colonialism and the desire to keep livestock together in a wide open plain that bought the Europeans their conquering plan. By boxing the land in squares with barbed wire fences, which were based on thorny underbrush that took years to grow, flat land could be urbanized. By telling this story, 99% Invisible pulls the clever trick of making the invention of a wire the tale of how an entire continent buckled to desires of humanity.
Jenny Slate, Elizabeth Hill
Each week on Crybabies, comedian Sarah Thyre and writer Susan Orlean invite a different guest to talk about what makes them cry, often resulting in a flood of actual tears from guests and listeners alike. While every episode has been delightfully emotional and revealing, this one with Jenny Slate is the best one yet. Perhaps it’s Slate’s completely genuine demeanor that follows her no matter what ridiculous character she plays, but her description of why the dinosaur scene in Tree Of Life or the My Fair Lady song “On The Street Where You Live” make her cry pulls at listeners’ heartstrings in a way that no other guests’ cry cues have so far. But it’s not all about the tears, even though there are plenty. Slate, Thyre, and Orlean chat like they are old friends and are able to crack each other up when talking about their husbands, parents, and therapists, making you wish you were there to chime in with a quippy remark of your own.
Henry & Heidi
When Henry Rollins appeared as a guest judge on the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, he was critiquing the queens’ performance of a rock remix of RuPaul’s song “Ladyboy.” What’s lesser known is that this wasn’t the first time rock ’n’ roll brought Rollins and RuPaul together. Twenty years ago, Rollins entered the studio with Rollins Band and RuPaul to record a cover of Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” for a one-hit wonder compilation record. In this week’s episode, Rollins recounts the story of how this unlikely pairing came to be, the creative inspiration he took sharing a sweaty vocal booth with RuPaul, and the record label infighting that resulted in the track never being officially released (save for some low-quality cellphone video of Rollins playing the track at a Halloween DJ gig). He also addresses his contentious past with The Village Voice, which unfairly accused him of homophobia in the aftermath of the “Funkytown” debacle. While Rollins’ past with RuPaul could be thought of as a quirky piece of pop culture history, the full story shows that their collaboration was a true creative partnership. Here’s hoping that one day we’ll be able to hear more than just Rollins’ story.
Wayne’s Pool Tricks
This is a new podcast that is pleasant in its structureless format. Erin McGathy and Wayne Federman, who became fast friends on McGathy’s other podcast, This Feels Terrible, are different in age and many ideologies, which is perfect, because their genuine interest opposing perspectives makes for a lovely hour of podcasting. Their St. Patrick’s Day special has McGathy sharing Irish traditions with Federman, who tries traditional Irish coffee and a bevy of Irish cheeses on air for the first time. “Obviously delicious is a subjective term,” Federman says after his first sip of the coffee, and it’s a quote that perfectly describes the relationship between these two as one of both challenge and acceptance. The episode continues with Federman revealing his special pool skills and a deep analysis of pale-skinned McGathy’s spray tan, but it abruptly ends because of the duo’s commitment to keep the show to a digestible 55 minutes, even though the content and production easily warrants an extension.
Judge John Hodgman
Impersona Non Grata
Hulk parody accounts are a dime-a-dozen on Twitter. There’s Drunk Hulk. There’s Jaded Punk Hulk. And now there’s Dana Durrell Hulk, perhaps the most niche of all Hulk accounts. The case is brought by Dana, the subject of ridicule, against his friend Brendan, who created the account; Dana considers the account less a joke or homage than a case of online impersonation and wants Brendan to take it down. While there’s a fair bit of entertainment value in hearing Brendan try and mostly fail to give testimony in Hulk speak, an appearance by Jon Ronson as the case’s expert witness elevates the proceedings. Ronson shares his the story of his obsession with a Twitter account someone created impersonating him and his quest to uncover the people who created it. Delightful as always, Ronson’s story ends up a damning piece of testimony for Brendan’s argument. John Hodgman’s ruling on the case, which is delivered entirely in Hulk speak, is itself a thing of beauty, touching on the issues of friendship at the core of the disagreement and, more interestingly, how memes like Hulk Twitter accounts are fed by misconceptions about how culture is created.
Men In Blazers
There is a lot happening on this week’s episode, but perhaps the most striking thing is the revelatory feeling one gets when listening, that Roger Bennett may be the most interesting non-character persona on any podcast presently recording. When co-host Michael Davies asks Bennett about the happiest moments of his life, Bennett lists getting ABBA’s Arrival on cassette, seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and spending time milking a cow on a kibbutz in Israel at the age of 17. What makes Bennett so fascinating is that he, like Whitman, contains multitudes. Emotionally and intellectually complex, and resolutely unafraid to bare those emotions, Bennett may be the only former break-dancer who is also a lover of the miserablist poetry of Philip Larkin. It makes for a listening experience oftentimes at odds with itself, focused on recapping the week’s action in the English Premier League, when the true draw is found in the banter between Bennett and Davies. On the soccer side the pair wonder if Wayne Rooney is secretly brilliant, questioning whether his less-than-flattering public image is actually a sneaky deception. Robert Carlock, producer of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, calls from inside a gypsum mine to talk comedy, television production in the age of Netflix, and his beloved Arsenal football club.
On House Of Cards
You Have Just Been Served
Netflix’s data-dump policy for TV series might be great for obsessive viewing, but it’s put a real kink in our ability to discuss and digest individual episodes. With everyone consuming the story at different speeds, it’s next to impossible to find someone with whom you can discuss the most recent developments (as you understand them) who is also not in possession of additional information. Unless you’re both crazy people who swallowed the season whole, in which case you can really only discuss the resolution. Podcasts like On House Of Cards that dissect Frank and Claire Underwood’s narrative arc episode by episode may serve as an acceptable substitute to actual conversation. Even if you did gorge on the 13-hour run-time in one shot, this is one is still worth your time, as host Brooke Gladstone’s guests are a rotating cast of veteran Beltway journalists and foreign policy experts who are able to confirm all your suspicions about how ridiculous this season is while sharing in your reluctant obsession with Beau Willimon’s overblown and twisted vision of The West Wing. Former correspondent for The New York Times, Leslie H. Gelb’s disdain for his own enjoyment of the show, in the third and most recent episode, is worth the listen itself.
The fascinating tale of dedication and daring on display in this episode of Radio Diaries is a thing to behold. It details the rarely heard exploits of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), a group of female pilots who were tasked with delivering planes from manufacturers to Air Force bases during World War II when most male pilots were in combat situations. The real thrill comes in hearing firsthand stories told by surviving WASP pilots, of getting to fly some of the most cutting-edge planes in times when they could only otherwise dream of it. The women were not only forced to wear men’s flight suits; they also had to suffer the ignominy and potential harm of towing targets for anti-aircraft gunners in training. This meant they and their aircrafts were actively shot at with live ammunition. The small details are the most telling, as when one surviving WASP mentions that she loved to fly, as it gave her a chance to be alone, a rare commodity at the time. This episode is a stirring tribute to those brave pilots, whose genuine affection for the planes they flew is tangible, as is the longing for the powerful experiences they had.
Why Is Mason Reese Crying?
“Child stars: Where are they now?” The question has been asked by so many websites and magazines that it’s easy not to care anymore. But when author and radio producer Jonathan Goldstein tracks down Mason Reese, who was once a precocious, “ugly-cute” child actor in 1970s TV ads and on talk shows, the story that emerges is poignant and anything but cliché. The entire episode is devoted to Goldstein’s story, which begins with an eloquent reflection on the experience of reliving the pop culture ephemera of his childhood via YouTube videos. Goldstein discovers that Reese has uploaded his own vintage clips from his commercials and TV appearances, including one in which the 7-year-old Reese has a meltdown on The Mike Douglas Show as musical guest Harry Chapin performs the song “Cat’s In The Cradle.” The questions raised by this clip prompt Goldstein to find Reese and visit him in his tiny New York apartment, but the answers are not so simple. What results is a portrait of a sensitive man who peaked early but whose personal nostalgia is for the happy family life that coincided with his biggest successes.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Center For Investigative Reporting’s new podcast has so far only released six episodes, but its in-depth stories have already caught the ear of major news outlets and, in some cases, the U.S. Senate. Last year, only a few weeks after the CIR broke the Department Of Veterans Affairs opioid-abuse scandal, Congress conducted hearings during a partial government shutdown to publicly acknowledge the need for reform. Similarly, a recent report on sex abuse and secrecy within the Jehovah’s Witnesses have renewed calls for stricter, more open policies separating issues regarding public safety from doctrines of faith. This week, Will Evans and Christina Jewett report on a heinous, albeit common, U.S. healthcare industry practice: doctors accepting non-FDA approved counterfeit equipment from medical device companies in exchange for dubious, often extravagant, “consultant” fees. One man, Roger Williams, managed to rake in $18 million a year for his company knocking off spinal screws and selling them at a discount to doctors for use in unknowing patients. Worse, the FDA dragged its heels to do anything about it, even after the companies own representatives provided tips. It’s blood-boiling stuff; no wonder Reveal shifted this week to shorter, weekly episodes. Outside the clutter of trending social media stories, though, they’re probably the most important stories you’ve never heard.
Sex With Strangers
Professional Phone Sex
Sex With Strangers has a way of roping in the listener with humor—for all its psychological implications, sexual kinks are funny—then enlightening them with in-depth exploration of whatever topic’s being discussed. Expectedly, things tend to get heavy by the end. But no episode is as heavy as the most recent, where host Chris Sowa interviews several phone-sex operators. The episode starts off amusing, with the interviewees detailing the more boring aspects of their jobs that any nine-to-fiver can relate to. Once the workers get to the dark fantasies of some of their callers, however, Sowa poses an interesting and unsettling argument: Are these depraved scenarios, many of which involve pedophilia and murder, preventing the callers from acting them out in real life, or are they actually encouraging harm to others? There’s no easy answer, of course, but the debate itself is important, if extremely hard to listen to at times.
Stuff You Should Know
How Anesthesia Works
Not only is this another great science-based episode of Stuff You Should Know, it’s also a mysterious one. Though everything from gas to oil to Michael Jackson-level injections are discussed, it turns out science has yet to figure out how the hell anesthesia exactly works. After goofing on the difficult spelling and the “not so bad” death rate involved, hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant explain that we have this mysterious understanding of consciousness but a very clear medical grip on how to manipulate it well. Clark and Bryant take a walk down anesthesia lane, tracking civilization’s progress as they graduated from clubbing people to getting them drunk to chloroform and nitrous oxide. Yet the risks remain high and the consequences of failure intense, with the pioneer of dental anesthesia failing so miserably that he became despondent, psychotic, and died in jail. Dipping as much into brain and nerve science as possible without things getting hard to focus on (you’ll stay awake), Clark and Bryant offer some practical and amusing theories as to why we may never perfect this process. The human mind simply remains so complex that we still don’t know how to ask it to sit quietly for a few minutes while we go operate on another part of the body.
With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus
Me 2 I’m Talkin’ U2 To U Too With Andy Daly
So far this show has been a little hit or miss, but this episode proves just what a comedy gold mine it can be. It serves Andy Daly to be himself (even though he has a host of characters under his belt), letting Lauren Lapkus play off his straight man. Daly starts things off by bemoaning the creation of Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s U2 podcast U Talkin’ U2 To Me, which taped its first episode on the same day that Daly had the very same idea for a podcast. Moments like this, when he is telling real stories from his life, are the most entertaining, punctuated by constant, desperate pleas of, “This is true, I swear!” Lapkus comes in at top form, first as an employee of Amoeba Records. Sure, things don’t stay on the U2 track, but who would want them to when they can cover The White Album and Charles Manson in depth? Not to mention, there’s an appearance by the always-entertaining Traci Reardon who answers listener questions in her weekly “Help Me Rhonda” segment.
“In that first year they produced 10,000 pounds of barbed wire.”—Katie Mingle on how quickly the wire spread across the west after a single demonstration with cattle, 99% Invisible
“Because I’m sick.”—Leslie H. Gelb, on his reasons for loving House Of Cards, On House Of Cards
“…the world seizes on all those who are singular, unique, those who are what they are, and the world celebrates them the best way it knows how, by nailing them a crucifix, by sticking them in front of a camera to hawk fried dough and canned meat spread.”—Jonathan Goldstein on child celebrity, Reply All
“You need to go sirens-blazing and door-kicking and stop this like fucking yesterday…” Anonymous former sales representative for Spinal Solutions LLC on medical technology companies paying doctors to accept non-FDA approved counterfeit hardware, Reveal