This week we lost one of the greats.
I don’t want to bring you down with all the talk of death, but it has to be noted before we begin that Joe Frank died on Monday. If you’re not familiar with his work, Frank was a monologist whose work blended the stylings of hardboiled crime fiction with the metaphysical, a blend of erudition and brain-melting psychedelia, in the most unique and intriguing fashion. Coupled with his distinctive, gravelly voice, there was no one else doing work quite like his. His works, particularly the “Work In Progress” series, served as an inspiration to so many in the audio and podcasting community. Now would be a perfect time to revisit some of his works, though most of them are behind a paywall on his website. You can access some pieces on his YouTube page, such as this piece “Memories” as well as over on his SoundCloud. Rest in peace Joe, and may your work continue to inspire the generations of producers to come.
In a bit of a happy accident, I caught two podcasts in the same day whose discussion of the way black women have been depicted in the media became something of an unintentional conversation, helping to provide a much deeper experience.
Chances are that you may have missed the release last week of the Taraji P. Henson-starring action film Proud Mary, in no small part due to how its studio handled the promotion of the film. In the run-up to the film’s open, many saw it as a excellent opportunity to discuss how the surging momentum that black women are experiencing in popular culture can help to shift the paradigm of their portrayal. Critical response has unfortunately signaled that the film is a bit of a mess, in spite of Henson’s charisma, but its release has at least provided further fuel for the conversation. That very subject forms the central discussion on this week’s episode of Still Processing, the lively and insightful podcast from The New York Times culture writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris.
Returning for their first episode of the new year, the pair use Proud Mary as a jumping-off point to delve into the fraught history of black women’s depictions in film and television before pivoting into the discussion around the response to the “Oprah 2020” moment. It is a very necessary discussion, highlighting the slow rate of progress in Hollywood and its larger ability to influence the way that black women are perceived as a result. Top-lining an action film, as in the case of Proud Mary, is an outlier in a world where more often roles for women of color are confined to portraying caretakers and the like. To that point, Wortham brings up a rather depressing bit of trivia regarding Ocatvia Spencer, who will likely earn her third Academy Award nomination for playing a subordinate character to white protagonists in a project set during the 1950s or ’60s (The Help, Hidden Figures, and The Shape Of Water)
While I was listening, I couldn’t help be feel a sort of kismet, in that I’d just that same day checked out Creative Tension, a new podcast from the Rev. Elliott Robinson that is focused on looking back at the way we’ve forgotten the lives and struggles of disenfranchised peoples in America’s past. Robinson’s program has just begun a series exploring stereotypical depictions of African Americans during the Jim Crow era, and his recent episode on the proliferation of the mammy archetype dovetails perfectly into that of Still Processing’s. It is through these engaging discussions that listeners get a more complete picture of the way that media and entertainment have narrowly defined our perceptions of what black women are capable of, to their detriment.
The experience speaks to the wonder of the podcast format. With so many disparate conversations happening, sometimes through chance they connect, deepening their own individual impact. In fact, after finishing Still Processing, I bounced back to Creative Tension’s feed and played their latest episode discussing Oprah invoking the story of Recy Taylor in her Golden Globes speech as a means to shed light on the pervasive culture of sexual assault that faced black women for close to four hundred years. For this episode Rev. Robinson makes effective use of the Duke University Library’s Behind The Veil collection of oral history interviews that document black life in the Jim Crow South, letting the women tell their own stories. It is important to consider that the current moment of silence-breaking that there are so many more who were never given the agency to speak out about their own mistreatment.
Podcasts pose a wonderful paradigm shift for personal education. Shows can be both entertaining and elucidating while focusing on topics not often handled by the mainstream media. The medium is intrinsically able to provide listeners with one of the best ways to connect with history as well, given that they adopt a much more intimate, personal conveyance that ingratiates the listener. I have found that by subscribing to a healthy variety of programs beyond the regular gamut of entertainment and comedy I have become a more well rounded person just by taking the time to stop and listen.
Rumble Strip gives listeners a golden opportunity to revisit legendary audio producer Scott Carrier’s first ever audio documentary, “Hitchhiker.” It is a marvelous reminder of the field’s deep history that deserves exploring.
As you may have guessed, I’m totally obsessed with podcasts, but my love didn’t start with the format. I grew up intently listening to public radio because I loved how it told stories that no one else was telling and in a manner that was sublimely artistic and humane. I’ve written bemoaningly recently about the way the current podcast boom has inundated us with so much new content that we don’t take the time to go back and revisit seminal works which have laid the groundwork for this current generation of producers.
Thankfully, there are producers like Erica Heilman of the continually amazing Rumble Strip podcast, whose fondness for the work of Scott Carrier has been a great inspiration for her own documentary work. On this week’s episode of the programHeilman cedes the platform to Carrier, revisiting his first-ever radio piece and the story of its creation. It shows how things have changed with the advent of an open platform like podcasting, but even more it acts as a showcase of the uncanny talents of Carrier. The piece is made up of hours and hours of interview tape that Carrier recorded in 1983 while hitchhiking from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C., and it feels like nothing short of a gritty masterpiece.
Carrier is one of this generation’s great producers of audio. Over the past 35 years his work has been both immediate and deeply personal, most notably for his contributions to This American Lifein its late ‘90s heyday. This piece has all of the elements of what makes his work so enduring, from his hallmark sound, a sort of of world-weariness mixed with sagaciousness, to his willful transience, always putting himself right inside of the story no matter the risks associated. In the piece Carrier captures an unfiltered, unhinged sense of America on its fringes, wending his way across the country through series of often unbelievable random encounters. It feels a definite product of the time in which it was created, with a sort of hazy patina of sepia coloring all of the images it conjures. With that said, it is so expertly crafted that it sounds head and shoulders above so many podcasts today. A really honest, open portrait of Carrier’s desperation as told through the similar desperation of everyone else he encounters along the way.
For more of Scott Carrier’s work, subscribe to his podcast Home Of The Brave here.
For The A.V. Club I wrote about an excellent episode of Reckonings exploring the intensely paranoid culture at Fox News under Roger Ailes, as told by his former protege who was able to escape with his conscience intact.
Reckonings is a podcast that just feels right for this particular moment in time, when people don’t often admit to being wrong and it’s an ever more rare thing for such moments to be consequential and public. Host Stephanie Lepp manages to capture all of this in an often jaw-dropping way, interviewing individuals who’ve switched their points of view on major issues. Consider this past week’s episode, where Lepp talks with Joe Lindsley, one-time protégé of former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. Lindsley wasn’t just any Fox News employee but rather something of a surrogate son whom Ailes groomed to take over the entire company, which makes Lindsley’s change of heart all the more massive. In his conversation with Lepp, Lindsley details a particularly disturbing and pervasive culture of paranoia surrounding the Ailes family and Fox News during the Obama era, speaking in terms that feel more akin to fighting an underground resistance than running a news organization. Given the current president’s proclivity for watching that very network—as well as having been advised by Ailes prior to the latter’s death in 2017—it’s chilling to consider just how effective their morally bankrupt tactics have been.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.