Constant Listener Weekly—February 19, 2018

Have you seen the news about The Daily?

In case you haven’t, The New York Times’ wildly popular and exceedingly well-made news podcast will soon be distributed on the radio in partnership with American Public Media. I’ve had a bit of a strange reaction to the news, in that it makes me cringe a little. I have written in the past regarding my feelings on daily news podcasts—which you can check out here. I haven’t entirely made sense of this desire I have to demarcate the world of podcasting so rigidly from the world of radio, but the two are rather different approaches to a similar shared media.

Among the chief enjoyments of the podcast format is its inherent plasticity. It is a breeding ground for new ideas, often because it isn’t often beholden to the formal rigidities of something like the broadcast clock. Having a sense of playful experimentation as a foundational quality has led The Daily to flourish precisely for the ways that it doesn’t fit the mold of traditional news media. I know that the podcast won’t change as a result, but it does change the way listeners might interact with the show.

We’ll see, who knows. Enough of this screed, hop down below for this week’s recommendations!

For their 250th episode, Re:sound looks back at the last 14 years of highlighting the best of artful audio production that isn’t often heard anywhere else.

For the last 14 years, Re:sound has been the radio equivalent of an arthouse cinema, the type of place where kindred spirits can pop in and take refuge from normalcy. Whether through beautifully ornate sound design or thoughtfully curated voices from all over the world, the program has acted the standard bearer for artful audio. Last week, the program celebrated their 250th episode by welcoming back all of the program’s producers (most of whom followed founding producer Roman Mars to a position at 99% Invisible (Correction: Roman Mars was actually the show’s second producer, following Katia Dunn in the position.) and looking back at some of the show’s best moments. It’s a great place for listeners otherwise unfamiliar with the scope of the program to jump on and explore the series’ back catalog. Most everything a person could want to know about the world of artful audio production can be found there, and that’s hardly hyperbole.

Having been on the air since 2004 means that Re:sound is a show which predates the creation of the podcast which is impressive. Given its longevity and the changing landscape of audio consumption I began to ponder what the program ought to do as it heads into the future. It was surely a gamble to create a show like it in a broadcast radio world. One can imagine switching stations in the middle of the hour and landing unexpectedly in the middle of a piece like Alessandro Bosetti’s “African Feedback” (Episode #50: “The Feedback Show”). You’d think you’d suddenly gone mad. But take a moment to seek an episode like that out, and one can’t help feeling blessed that it has been on the air for as long as it has been.

At the moment it can sometimes feel a little bit caught between floors; not entirely a product of a podcast-native world, but having a leg up on most comers  due to the immense clout of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. It has me thinking a bit more about what the show would be like if it launched today, having the great well of talent behind it coupled with their knowledge of fantastic audio production. As a show that is fond of taking risks, perhaps it could stand to go further. Being that the program has a broadcast-first mentality, episodes always clock in around an hour, meaning that pieces can sometimes appear in truncated fashion or might be bundled along with others sharing only the thinnest thematic thread just to fill time. This is not a universal experience with Re:sound, but it does sometimes occur.

There is a definite audience for audio as art, as well as for short-form, sometimes non-narrative documentary work. Perhaps as a listener I’d be most interested in Re:sound leveraging their strengths and producing a podcast-first program exploring more of the individual, auteurist aspects of audio production. With the show’s unparalleled strength of industry connections and incredible archive, now would be a great time to document the history of how we’ve arrived at this current moment in audio. In the past few months following the deaths of Jesse Cox and Joe Frank, I began to realize that there are many creators of audio art whose names are hardly on the minds of even the most podcast savvy of listeners today. If you, dear reader, find yourself to be one of them, subscribe to Re:sound and prepare to have your love of the medium greatly expanded.

Feel free to read more about the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s annual conference here as well.

Subscribe to Re:sound here.

Chicago Public Radio follows up their critically lauded podcast Making Oprah in the only way that makes sense, by profiling Barack Obama and the ways Chicago shaped him.

We all seem to think that we know the complete story of Barack Obama. It is an understandable enough conclusion to arrive at, given how much media attention has been paid to the man over the course of the last 14 years since he burst onto the national stage, not to mention his two official memoirs and a pair of films that tell his tale. But missing from all of that is this somewhat intangible, galvanic property that describes how the many different experiences of his life coalesced, making him into the most widely admired politician in an age.

WBEZ—the highly-regarded Chicago public radio station that has given podcast fans so many of their favorite programs—seems to posit that the moments worth studying in order to develop this unifying theory are the years Obama spent living and working in Chicago. This is the central philosophy of Making Obama, the follow-up to the station’s beloved limited podcast series Making Oprah (that show’s episodes appear in the Making Obama feed, if you’re interested). It is not, however, some self-congratulatory act, meant to heap layers of glorification upon the city. Instead, much is made of the city’s segregation and political turmoils as essential elements that led to Obama’s arrival and subsequent ascension to the highest office in the land.
Over the course of the series’ six episodes, host Jenn White and producer Colin McNulty paint a much more nuanced portrait of the man at the center of his own very potent myth. White’s reporting on Making Obama is first rate, painting a richly detailed landscape of the city and its people contemporaneous to Obama’s arrival. This process is absolutely central to the show and what makes it successful, laying the necessary groundwork to examine how Obama’s experiences helped catalyze his resolve, causing the disparate elements of his personality to coalesce, transforming a young community organizer into a political dynamo. The former President even sits down for a one-on-one interview with White, but his remarks are used judiciously, injecting the right amount of his characteristic warmth into what can sometimes be a very weedy discussion of Chicago’s politics.
This past week’s episode, the series’ second, focuses a majority of its time on profiling Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American Mayor. and how he inspired Obama to come to the city in the first place. It reminded me that one can never hear enough about Washington and his political life, so readers should be sure to check out the superlative episode of This American Life on Washington as well.
Subscribe to Making Obama here.

On the idiosyncratic and lovely Advice From Mom, host Rebecca Garza-Bortman and her PhD psychologist & family therapist mother help solve listener conundrums with the help of special guests and perhaps a song or two.

I have a dark secret, and it is this: I don’t care for advice-based podcasts. It’s not out of some bull-headed belief that I’m perfect, or that I can’t learn anything from them either. I get their purpose and I get the feeling that many of them are doing good things, but to me they have always felt a bit perfunctory and often rooted in an amateurish sense of mistakenly drawing on personal experience and terming it “advice.”

For that very reason I was intrigued when I heard about the concept behind the cheekily named Advice From Mom which centers on having the host’s own psychologist mother dispensing actionable advice, rather than just some agony aunt’s best common-sense guess. It has been to my great surprise that the show won me over, making it one which I find myself looking forward to every week. Hosted by Rebecca Garza-Bortman, along with her therapist mother Elizabeth Skibinski-Bortman, PhD, the show frames each episode around a single listener question, with “Momma B” as she is called, using the knowledge gained from her long career in the field (with the necessary disclaimers, of course) to help steer the seeker towards a new approach.

But all of that sort of misses the brilliance of the show. I mean, the sage advice is a big part of it, but what bowled me over is the way that Garza-Bortman brings this incredible degree of personality and panache to the program, elevating it into a truly original piece. For starters, while the show manages to take things way more seriously than most, there is an impish playfulness to the way Garza-Bortman interacts with her mother that one wouldn’t expect to find alongside such professional advice.
After Skibinski-Bortman delivers her wise take, the pair have it out in a round of what they call “Mother-Daughter Pickleball” inspired by Momma B’s favorite sport (it’s actually a sport, yes). Here Garza-Bortman plays devil’s advocate to her mother’s advice, asking questions that the average listener might, causing her to delve a bit deeper on the subject as a result. Finally, a special guest is brought in to deliver a second opinion, giving their own specialized advice to the initial question. These guests range from renowned therapist, author, and podcaster Esther Perel to actress Michaela Watkins, and basically everywhere in between, adding several extra layers of insight onto the topic at hand.

I get the sense in listening that everything about it is natural, not forced artifice. The high-wire act of creating a show that is as insightful as it is entertaining is no small feat, but this mother-daughter pair pull it off with seeming ease. Add to all of that the production is just tip-top, and each week Garza-Bortman writes and records fully-fledged songs to take the place of the same tired ad copy one hears across most podcasts. It is an experience quite unlike any other. My only advice to you is to get listening already!

Subscribe to Advice From Mom here.

I was really struck by Hidden Brain‘s exploration of the different response that sexual assault allegations against playwright Israel Horovitz garnered nearly 25 years apart. I wrote about the episode over on The A.V. Club.

Hidden Brain
Why Now?

The New York Times’ exposé on Harvey Weinstein unstoppered a torrent of accusations against men who have systematically abused positions of power for personal pleasure. Perhaps the most shocking revelation is that so many of the stories had long been an open industry secret. This week’s episode of Hidden Brain focuses on exploring why these stories sometimes go unreported—and how the changing tone of the discussion changes our reception to them—using the case of playwright Israel Horovitz as an object lesson. Horovitz had been accused of repeated sexual misconduct against women in his employ in the early ’90s, but despite the publication of those accusations in a Boston newspaper, nothing of consequence happened to him. Some 24 years later, the allegations against Horovitz have finally stuck. Host Shankar Vedantam puzzles over how the exact same stories can have such extremely different impacts, investigating phenomena from preference falsification to horizontal violence. The episode is an example of what makes Hidden Brain such an excellent podcast, blending in-depth reporting with unique storytelling, and assured intelligence with a thoughtful analysis of human behavior.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.

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