Let’s talk about listening.
I have a sort of interesting conviction, that people who regularly listen to narrative non-fiction podcasts are more empathetic than consumers of other forms of entertainment. This belief is entirely unproven by any metric, be it quantitative or qualitative, but there’s just something deeply humane to the very act of listening. To people. To their stories. Not from some lurid angle either, but more to understand life from their vantage. These types of stories ask their audience to slow down, drink in the many details of the teller’s life, and feel along with them.
This week’s newsletter is dedicated entirely to discussing some of this past week’s best pieces of personal storytelling, whether they be artfully ruminative, painfully funny, or emotionally raw.
This past week KCRW’s The Organist featured “Two Years With Franz,” a truly wonderful, meditative piece of audio crafted from a staggering archive of tapes from the late poet Franz Wright.
In the argot of radiomaking there is a self-explanatory, if slightly outmoded term for capturing great recorded moments, known as getting “good tape.” This usually occurs when a subject relaxes enough to forget they’re being recorded and drops any pretensions that they may have affected until that point. It is like Cartier-Bresson for the ears. But ask any good producer or editor and they’re likely to tell you that an overabundance of good tape can actually be the bane of a project. If every moment captured is the decisive moment, it becomes rather challenging to try and marshal them into a nuanced segment or episode.
By that token, last week’s episode of The Organist—a magazine-style arts and culture show from KCRW and McSweeny’s—is something of a miracle. The episode, titled “Two Years With Franz,” produced by Bianca Giaever and Jay Allison, has been sculpted out of some of the most “good” tape collected in recent memory, and the result is truly special. Some years ago Giaever, a filmmaker by trade, came into possession of two years worth of daily audio diaries from deceased Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright, and in short order Wright’s words began to take over her life.
The tapes exist because Wright was battling cancer in his later years and, as a result, often found himself often physically unable to write. His wife Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright gifted him with a digital recorder so that he might dictate his poems, but the device seems to have instead provided him a means to smuggle snatches of his mortal soul into the electric future. On these tapes Wright’s presence is a special thing to bask in, sounding like a man whose brain and heart are locked in perpetual combat, their every blow echoing out with clangorous beauty. In this way he feels every bit the archetypal bohemian poet figure, the smoke-stained rasp of his voice vacillating between lyrical musings and unhinged intensity, gifted with a stunning facility with language and a desire to use it in excoriating the pedestrian world. The episode goes to great lengths to dispel this narrow reading of a complex man however, showing the great warmth and contemplative humanity of someone struggling to square their genius with mental illness, addiction issues, and abuse.
Through her listening to the nearly 550 tapes, Giaever finds herself connecting with Wright as something of a friend and mentor, using his words as a prism through which to refract the issues in her own life. One gets a sense though that Wright’s mercurial personality made him not entirely easy to be around and so the tapes represent a sort of sanctified version on the man, unable to argue back against his representation in this piece. It would seem somewhat exploitative if it weren’t for the fact that Giaever had been given the tapes by Wright’s widow, and a large portion of the piece is spent exploring his life and the couple’s enduring love. Giaever was given a magical opportunity to sit alongside Wright as he unloaded his brain onto the recorder, in a discursive, confessional manner. That she, along with Allison, have successfully turned this mountain of audio into a cohesive, resonant work speaks volumes to Giaever’s abilities. The resulting piece is arresting, the kind that a listener wants to get lost in, instilling a sense of longing for a person that they’ve only just realized existed.
Now in its fifth season, Martina Abrahams Ilunga’s storytelling show You Had Me At Black actively seeks to redress the erasure of black narrative agency and ownership in the podcast world
This past week, after nearly a year away, You Had Me At Black dropped their fifth season, coming hot out of the gate with a run of six episodes pulled from their touring kickback shows in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. The show, founded and hosted by Martina Abrahams Ilunga, invites local storytellers to come and tell unique tales of their individual black experience in front of a live audience. In a way it is like a version of The Moth, just one that is intent on giving a platform for more often marginalized voices to speak their truths, and usually with a greater degree of hilarity on the side.
The stories from the first six episodes really run the gamut of emotions from the light—like a sleep-deprived and penniless poet having to extricate themselves from the offer of free lodgings in a bug-infested home—to the incredibly heavy—where an expectant mother finds herself suddenly and heartbreakingly abandoned by everyone in her life. The latter tale, told by Chicagoan Kwynn Riley on the episode “Finding Sonshine,” is a definite highlight of the episodes, displaying a great deal of vulnerability and resilience at the same time. Riley’s trauma is bubbling just below the surface of her telling, but it doesn’t stop her from peppering in some moments of levity to keep despair at bay. Riley’s tale is mirrored in part by fellow Chicagoan Joi Weathers’ episode, “Leaving The Kingdom”, who is instead made to choose choose between following her dreams and forever disappointing her mother. Weathers’ episode is one of lightly playful humor and genuine pathos.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a pair of episodes that I found to be so wonderfully hilarious and surprising that they sealed the deal for me. These episodes deserve to find an audience, I felt, for both the comic talent on display and for their ability to weave in meaningful messages along the way. The two episodes, “Yogi Awakening” from Marlon Hall, and “Sanctified Gangster”from Meechie Hall, tell two wildly different tales—about coming to terms with one’s blackness inside the all-too-white world of professional yoga, and joining a gang as an 8th grader to avoid wearing corny purple pants to school, respectively—but both manage to play with expectation and payoff in unexpectedly great terms. I found myself laughing out loud more at these two stories than at all of the rest of the shows this past week.
I’m not sure if these six episodes reflect the entirety of this season of You Had Me At Black, or whether there are more in the can awaiting release. Either way though, it is good to see this vital show back once again. It is podcasts like this that exemplify the dream of the medium, open and accessible for everyone to tell their stories. Over the past two years the show has presented a rich tapestry of black voices and experiences, providing a critical outlet for increased representation within the podcasting space. With the current political climate as volatile as it is, particularly as we are just days away from the so-called ‘Unite The Right 2‘ march on Sunday, there’s never been a better time to support a show like this.
My most recent piece for The A.V. Club Podmass is the second time I’ve written about Imaginary Advice, a truly adventurous storytelling podcast. The show’s 50th episode is a grin-inducing piece of playful invention.
Four Or Five Weddings And One Or Two Funerals
Podcasting’s detractors often claim that the medium doesn’t successfully capitalize on the openness of its format. Too many shows are a group of buddies around microphones with only a modicum of personality between them. Ross Sutherland’s captivatingly malleable and playful podcast Imaginary Advice is one of the strongest refutations of that complaint. An accomplished writer and poet, Sutherland’s non-serialized storytelling podcast is infused with an inventive spirit. On this, the show’s superlative 50th episode, Sutherland partakes in a bit of “postal chess” with fellow writer John Osborne, taking turns at telling brief segments of a single narrative. The pair hew closely to the chess motif, with both writers actively “playing” the story against each other, attempting to shape it to meet their own predetermined outcome, one angling for a tragedy, the other a tale of love. Such a novel premise makes the episode an easy recommendation for its experimental format alone, but the resulting story helps it reach sublime heights. Sutherland and Osborne tell an alternate reality of Hugh Grant on the set of Four Weddings And A Funeral, where an ancient evil may well be afoot. It is a thrilling and unique piece of audio.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.