Constant Listener Weekly—February 25, 2018

Inspired by the milestones that shows like The Read and Bodega Boys passed this week, I have some thoughts on the importance of podcast listener diversification.

The other day Kate Parkinson-Morgan, a producer on Gimlet Media’s The Nodtweeted out the following:

For a bit of context, The Nod is a show all about exploring the myriad experiences that make up black life in North America. Since race is not homogenous, every episode features a variety of different voices recounting their particular narrative as experienced through the lens of blackness. It made my list of the best podcasts of 2017, and has been off to a good start for 2018. Though they’re a part of Gimlet Media’s stable of shows, the feeling from the tweet is that they don’t enjoy the general level of market penetration that others do as a result of white audiences choosing to not listen.

As someone who perhaps thinks way too much about podcasts, Parkinson-Morgan’s tweet really struck me. I’ve long thought about the overwhelming whiteness of the podcasting space when there’s absolutely no need for it to be that way. Since the medium is so radically open, it quite literally exists for everyone, both in terms of consumer as well as creator. Listeners theoretically have the ability to engage with as many different points of view as shows they’re willing to subscribe to. That proposition falls down a lot though, based on the conscious or unconscious gatekeeping which occurs within outlets that write about podcasts. Even so, Parkinson-Morgan’s tweet alleges that there is much deeper issue at play. Podcast discovery relies not only on visibility, but the willingness for consumers to diversify their tastes, and that may not be happening.

Take for instance, the Loud Speakers Network podcast The Read.This past Saturday the show celebrated its 5th birthday, and in order to celebrate they hosted a live show that sold out The Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Read is a remarkably popular and influential podcast hosted Kid Fury and Crissle West, who offer hilarious takedowns of what’s happening each week in the world, on reality television, and within mainstream black culture. The show’s popularity rests mainly on the strength of its hosts’ rapport, by turns biting, extremely funny, and above all, totally unfiltered. That is one of podcasting’s most attractive components. There are no gatekeepers, therefore a show’s creators don’t have to tailor their content or curb their opinions to meet a certain mass-market rubric. Their influence can be actively traced through the countless black and brown podcasts that have sprung up in its wake, both in terms of their shared format elements but even more in a sense of unapologetic ownership of unique voices and perspectives. All of that is to say that despite their outsize influence and ability to sell out a 1,500 seat venue, the show most likely remains an unknown quantity to a great number of perhaps even fervent podcast listeners. That is troubling.

This has a lot to do with something I’d call perceived audience bias. If one feels that they are outside of a particular demographic that the show is targeting, then they simply won’t venture into its world. Frankly, this is a loss for both listener and podcast alike. For listeners particularly because podcasts are these passive channels for exploration of cultures and lives that aren’t necessarily our own. Why would one willfully close themselves off from experiences that can help to grow their worldview and provide different points of view on issues of the day?

In addition to The Read, this past week also marked the 100th episode of Bodega Boys, another best of 2017 for me, and another show that fits into the same category. Hosted by Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, the show is by far the funniest show that I’ve come across in years. Desus and Mero hail from The Bronx and bring a host of unique experiences and specificity to their comedy. I felt an instant connection to their world because of their representation of it, and their comic voice was so markedly different than the untold thousands of other, whiter comedy podcasts. Writing about the show for The A.V. Club I’ve called the show a work of genius. But in truth, I might never have come across the show if it hadn’t been for my listening to other shows like Another Round and Tax Season (Free Tax, btw) that helped introduce me to Desus and Mero. Like I say, one can only really benefit from checking out shows that are outside of one’s regular listening habits.

If it is a matter of discovery though, Danielle Sykes (a.k.a. Berry) of Podcasts In Color has got eager listeners covered with her encyclopedic directory of shows from POC creators, as well as her recently launched companion podcast. She’s a great follow on Twitter, where she helps listeners and podcast creators alike in the promotion and discussion of the medium. While I was preparing this week’s email I happened to hear a wonderful interview with Sykes on this week’s episode of Latinos Who LunchIt covers many of the things that I have been talking about here, with greater depth. Also, be sure to check out our earlier piece on Latinx podcasting for more shows like LWL.

In the end, I feel like white podcast listeners can really stand to open their horizons and find shows that, as Parkinson-Morgan says, aren’t made expressly for and about them. There is a strong through-line of progressivism in the attitudes espoused by podcast creators and their consumers but as we know, unless it is intersectional it isn’t truly progressive. Start today by clicking some of the links below.

Subscribe to The Nod here.

Subscribe to The Read here.

Subscribe to Bodega Boys here.

Subscribe to Podcasts In Color here.

Join author Steven Hyden, along with an amazing guest list of musicians, for an 8-part examination of Bruce Springsteen’s 20th century output on Celebration Rock.

When I was growing up there was one kid in my school who was mad about Bruce Springsteen at a time when such an obsession felt kinda square and it colored the way I’ve thought about The Boss ever since. Whenever his tours came through Chicago this fella would always finagle his way into seeing him live and I couldn’t shake the idea that it was a lame experience. Perhaps this is because we’re taught to be distrusting of our elders, and their music often felt as uncool as stale matzoh, the antithesis of my burgeoning taste for more angular, arty music. Anything from the past—no matter how recent it was—had this stigma of being played out.

In my adulthood I’ve only slightly come around on the man. It’s not to say that I dislike him in any way, but just like Dylan, I’ve barely ventured into his back catalog outside of one or two tentpole albums and have very little desire to go further. All of that may be changing however, now that I’ve been listening to Steven Hyden’s Celebration Rock podcast. The show is currently in the middle of an 8-part series dubbed “20th Century Boss,” wherein Hyden and a host of prominent musician guests dissect every studio album released by Springsteen from 1973–1995, and frankly I am finding it a riveting journey.

Hyden, a writer with UPROXX (previously of Grantland (R.I.P.) and The A.V. Club), has a masterful grasp of Springsteen’s catalog and biography, but it is his inclusion of well-regarded musicians as guests that really makes lift the show into another echelon. Across the four episodes currently available Hyden talks with Patrick Stickles of Titus AndronicusThe Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, Jeff Rosenstock, and Julien Baker. Each brings a different level of critical acumen to the show, with Rosenstock and Fallon being more boisterous, where Stickles and Baker approach things from a place of erudition. It is a novel experience because musicians are so rarely engaged in interviews about work other than their own, so across the board they aren’t acting guarded or answering Hyden’s questions in a perfunctory fashion.

As well, regardless of how listeners feel going in, one is sure to come away with a greater sense of respect for Springsteen’s ouvre as a whole. This mini-series is a uniquely engaging deep-dive on one of rock and roll’s most lauded artists, and it has so much going for it. There are some issues to be sure, like nearly all of the interviews having been taped over the phone, but the content is good enough to make one feel forgiving. History, lyrical analysis, comic moments, and an overall infectious degree of excitement about Springsteen’s music. Coupled with the unfiltered access to some of today’s best musicians (Phoebe Bridgers and John Darnielle are slated for upcoming episodes), and it’s practically enough to make me want to go give The Boss another shot. Coming from me, that’s high praise indeed.

Subscribe to Celebration Rock here.

Eschewing the traditional celebrity interview podcast format, Edge Of Fame sees The Washington Post national arts reporter Geoff Edgers dropping into the life of a different celebrity each week to get the details on the fringes.

What other podcast can say that, in just their first two episodes, they’ve had appearances from Oprah, Jimmy Fallon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, David Oyelowo, and Coolio? Barring some highly improbable coincidence, the only show that could make such a specific claim is Edge Of Fame, a newly launched celebrity profile program from The Washington Post, in partnership with WBUR BostonAnd those appearances are just the fringe players, with the first two episodes focused respectively on following Ava DuVernay and “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Hosted by the Post’s national arts reporter Geoff Edgers, Edge Of Fame is an extension of Edgers’ own idiosyncratic journalistic style, one predicated on bringing a certain gonzo flair to every story—like this one where he embarked on a 15 hour road trip with Fabio. As a reporter, Edgers seems to bristle at the sit-down, press junket sterility of other celebrity interviews, itching instead to capture a more authentic portrait of their lives and what makes them tick. That approach is central to what makes Edge Of Famesuch an engaging listen. Catching celebrities in their more natural surrounds produces a greater deal of candor, and provides for sometimes surprising tape. This in situ format particularly pays dividends on the series’ debut episode, which finds Edgers tagging along with DuVernay everywhere around the Disney Studios lot, eventually traipsing into a scoring session for her forthcoming A Wrinkle In Time adaptation. Listening to the pair chat in hushed tones as the orchestra builds behind them makes for a great moment.

The experience is also at times a messier one as a result, full of hand-held, run and gun kind of recordings but it is one that captures the organic spontaneity of the subject’s lives. Take, for example, this week’s portrait of “Weird Al.” At one point Edgers attempts to call Yankovic’s wife Suzanne three consecutive times, and is twice waved off due to her desire for a cup of coffee. It is a nice little comic set piece, but one that also serves to further paint in the world being documented. By leaving that audio in, the audience gains a better understanding of the sometimes curious experiences one encounters in reporting, while also getting a more complete picture of the individuals involved.

A big part of what helps make the show a success comes down to Edgers’ ingrained reporter’s instinct. There is a desire to go deeper in telling the whole of a story, and his choice in chasing every angle is what brings in people like Oprah and Coolio. As Chicago journalist Edward H. Eulenberg famously told cub reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” It is that kind of thinking, coupled with Edgers’ participatory interview stylings and natural storytelling ability really helps to set the podcast apart from every other show of its kind.

I do have a few reservations however, or rather things that I’d hope the show can shake out as it goes forward. From the very first moment, I sensed that Edge Of Fame was a bit of a different animal altogether in ways that both make sense but slightly hinder its overall impact at times. You see, the guests Edgers has lined up for the show’s run are really impressive, but there’s a sort of deja vu to many of the interviews. This is because most of the episodes act as a type of companion piece to a feature that Edgers has already written for the Post, constructed from the audio gathered as a result of the reporting process. It’s an admittedly keen gambit, being able to extend Edgers’ already impressive journalistic ability without sacrificing his written output, all while managing to put the interview tape to good use at the same time. As an avid observer however, this somewhat casts the show in a derivative light, preventing it from feeling like a truly native podcast creation.

It’s a minor criticism, especially when one considers the lengths to which Edgers is willing to go to flesh out a story, and one that will likely go away as the show continues to develop its approach. I know that I’ll be listening intently either way.

Subscribe to Edge Of Fame here.

Just when we needed it most, Never Seen It came along with a delightfully silly podcast, where comedians and writers rewrite popular films that they’ve never seen. I wrote about the show for The A.V. Club this week.

Never Seen It
Josh Gondelman Has Never Seen Avatar

This podcast is like a big dumb dog, so full of shaggy and endearing stupidity that you can’t help but fall for it. Never Seen It has such an effortless playfulness that all you can do is shake your head in jovial wonderment. Each week on the show, host Kyle Ayers invites a guest to write a script treatment for a film that they’ve never seen, to be performed on the episode. The results are totally bonkers, producing hilariously sweded audio reimagining from the barest whiff of understanding. In this episode, Last Week Tonight writer Josh Gondelman drops by to rewrite James Cameron’s Avatar, expertly aping Cameron’s nuance-free tone to great comedic effect. In addition to Gondelman, Ayers is aided by the excellent manic energy of comedian Blair Socci. The trio’s conversation is propulsive and engaging, helped along by a series of movie-related games, each more winningly clumsy than the next. Things peak with the absurd “What Movie Is Kyle’s Dad Describing, Based Solely Off Describing The Trailer And Not Ever Having Heard Of The Movie.”

This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.


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