Thinking critically about podcasts is sometimes a maddening affair.
You know as well as I that, despite being an audio-first experience, podcasts are not music. They’re also not film, or television, or books. They’re kind of their own thing, a wondrous melange of all of those other forms. Yet thus far every approach to covering podcasts has sought to shoehorn them into one of those other models of evaluation. The lack of an extant model makes for a challenging scenario. There is no Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael in the podcast world for critics to emulate and aspire towards. This is down to the relative youth of the medium and the contraction of media outlets for such writing. Perhaps more significantly though it is impacted by the ease with which one can review films and albums since they are usually self-contained and exist within a densely woven tapestry of historical antecedents. Radio and podcasting, it would seem, haven’t been a part of the broader shared cultural lexicon in any meaningful way since the advent of television.
This Tuesday opened in strikingly somber fashion, with the announcement that the Trump administration will be rescinding the provisions of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA for short. The DACA program, a sort of stopgap measure enacted by the Obama administration following the many Congressional defeats of the proposed DREAM Act, covers nearly 800,000 individuals who are the children of undocumented immigrants. This is an act of unprovoked, unmitigated hatred, full stop. To see it any other way is to fundamentally misunderstand the aim of the program, to not grasp the complexity to childhood immigration, or to be willfully afflicted with cultural myopia.
While the move affects immigrants from many countries, it will be hardest felt by individuals of Latin American origin, particularly those from Mexico. This is in line with the campaign rhetoric frequently spouted by then-candidate Trump, whose animus towards the country and its people is seemingly now becoming official White House policy. In an increasingly divided nation, such broad-brushstrokes attacks only serve to legitimize the fallacy that immigrants are the real threat to America.
Podcasts have an image issue.
Beyond the fact that our culture has for the most part moved away from the form’s original namesake—the iPod—there’s just a number of curious aspects to the medium that have got me thinking. It feels as though the taxonomy has become blurry, in need of a clean-up.
This week, the release of the new show 36 Questions, featuring Tony nominee Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton, has got us thinking about podcasts, musicals, and the intersection of the two. As the trend towards audio fiction has taken off over the past few years, it would seem that the groundwork has been laid for the podcast musical to come into its own as well. We’re looking today at a few examples of the form and analyzing what is working and what still has room for growth.
This past Saturday marked the formal celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, officially known as Canada 150, a campaign that has been marked by no little amount of controversy. It shouldn’t be necessary to disabuse American readers and listeners of the popular fallacy that Canada is simply an unfailingly pleasant intellectual haven to the North led by sentient meme Justin Trudeau. Such beliefs can largely be chalked up to the egocentrism of the American news media.
Canada—like nearly every nation—cannot be defined by a single set of experiences. Its is a messy history instead, composed of a patchwork of vibrant communities, indigenous and colonial and immigrant alike, none more authentically Canadian than another. There is just as much political wrangling, moral and ethical issues, boorishness and brilliance, and arts and culture as is to be found everywhere else in the world. None of this is to denigrate Canada, rather to offer readers a reminder that the nation exists on the plane of reality, where complexity abounds.
Just like the country which has birthed them, Canadian podcasts are an enthusiastically varied bunch. One of the strongest through-lines among the nation’s noteworthy shows is an attempt to showcase the diverse chorus of voices which make up the country, acknowledging that there is no universal “we” without giving its people the ability to relate their own authentic experiences. If the Canada 150 campaign was derided as a celebration of colonialism, then Canada’s podcasts appear set on changing the conversation.
Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu (Photo: Buzzfeed)
Since bursting onto the scene in 2015 as one of Buzzfeed‘s first forays into podcasting, Another Round has been an immensely popular and justly celebrated show. Hosted by writers turned real-life friends Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, the program abounds with their infectious hilarity and grounded insight, managing to balance important conversations about race, gender, and mental health, with pop culture, dad jokes, and plenty of bourbon.
The pair have welcomed a veritable smorgasbord of high-profile guests onto the show, from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Queen Latifah, as well as introducing to a wider audience writers like Bim Adewunmi and Durga Chew-Bose. Of all their guests though, perhaps none stands out more than when then-candidate Hillary Clinton sought out the chance to appear on Another Round, giving her most honest and humanizing interview of the entire campaign. Equally notable was the manner in which Nigatu and Clayton pressed the Secretary, showing more interviewing mettle than basically any other journalist on the campaign trail. This was most evident when the pair pointedly asked her whether she and her husband had fucked things up for black people in America. It was a galvanic moment for the show.
We at Constant Listener were lucky enough to get a chance to catch up with the undisputed queens of podcasting ahead of their live show in live Chicago show—produced in partnership with WBEZ for its Podcast Passport Series—for a wide ranging chat about everything from misconceptions about their process, to the role that podcasts play in marginalized communities, and there’s even a sprinkling of Tom Hanks in there for good measure. It was an absolute delight, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.
Matt Young, Arnie Niekamp, and Adal Rifai (Photo: Danielle Scruggs)
There are relatively few weekly podcasts that beg to be listened to in sequential order, especially after producing some 120 episodes, but Hello From The Magic Tavern is firmly in that exclusive club. Now in its third year running, Earwolf’s entirely improvised meta-contextual fantasy comedy earns a spot in that club not just for its high concept but the even more interesting central rule at the heart of it: that everything spoken on the show immediately becomes part of the its canon. In doing so, each successive episode continues to build the world of the show, often bearing fruit in surprising and hilarious ways down the line.
If you aren’t already familiar with Magic Tavern, here’s the basics: Chicago comedian and podcaster Arnie Niekamp one day falls through a transdimensional portal behind a Burger King, ending up in a Narnia-like realm of adventure called Foon. While trapped in the rift Niekamp sets up an interview show at the show’s titular tavern, The Vermillion Minotaur, chatting with all manner of magical creatures every week. Niekamp is joined each week by regular co-hosts Chunt, a pun-obsessed shapeshifter usually in the form of a badger (played by Adal Rifai) and Usidore, a shambolic and blustery old wizard (played by Matt Young).
Over the course of their run, the gang have been visited by a host of estimable guest stars including Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! host Peter Sagal, wrestler Colt Cabana, actress Felicia Day, authors Cory Doctorow and Patrick Rothfuss, as well as many more.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Arnie, Adal, and Matt to discuss their favorite episodes of the show and it was a blast. Whether you’re longtime listener or you’re just now thinking about getting started on the show, there is a lot to enjoy within.
I’m someone whose very existence has been shaped by audio. Where some are content to read and others watch, I’ve spent my life listening. Since you’re here, I have to imagine that you feel the same.
The idea for the site is a simple one—that the medium of podcasting has a need for artistic criticism in the same vein that music, film, and television already enjoy. It is by close examination that the public grows in their ability to better understand the craft. As my multi-hyphenate friend Devon Taylor has said on the subject, a good critic instructs the viewer how to better see, and it is the aim of this site to help give listeners a better vocabulary and understanding of how to listen more fully.
There are a few ways that we’ll be approaching this aim. Once or twice a week I will be writing longer pieces, analyzing trends, particularly excellent episodes of shows, interviews with creators, and much more. In addition I’ll be linking to the writing of others on the subject that I find to be exemplary, and creating discussion around that as well.
Podcasting encompasses just about every facet of our modern life, and I definitely try to listen to as broad a swath of the programs available as possible, so expect this site to be just as varied in its content.
Finally, if you have a show that you feel would be a good fit, don’t be shy. Send me an email or a Twitter DM and let me know about it!