Constant Listener Weekly — Taking a hard look at Crooked Media’s new documentary podcast The Wilderness, and several other new shows

It’s been a minute.

Summer days have a way of getting away from a person, especially when it is a World Cup year. But I’ve been out here listening, and have a lot of podcast thoughts that I’d like share with you. No pretense, let’s just get into it.

Crooked Media’s The Wilderness is a documentary-style podcast attempting to suss out how the Democratic Party lost its way, in an attempt to motivate American listeners ahead of the November midterm elections.

For everyone who would rather bury the memories of Election Night 2016 in a hastily dug, unmarked grave, Crooked Media’s brand new documentary podcast The Wilderness is an exquisite bit of torture. The program—a fifteen-part examination of how the Democratic Party ended up in tumult and how they can conceivably course-correct—is akin to the Ludovico Techniquefrom A Clockwork Orange, forcing listeners to relive the worst moments of the past decade as a sort of aversion therapy. Or, at least it begins that way. Host Jon Favreau, the former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama, walks listeners through an abridged history of the party as a means of explicating how it has found itself in its current state of free fall. The series’ first three episodes—of the six released at time of writing—serve as an occasionally engaging bit of pop history about the party, equal parts victory lap and correcting of the record. These chapters cover, in somewhat broad brushstrokes, everything from the party’s founding up to its drubbing in the 2016 elections, with an eye on how it can reclaim its past glory.

The series is a co-production between Crooked Media and Two-Up Productions, a podcast house known more for its fictional output with shows like Limetown and 36 Questions. This marriage of styles allows for both studios to build upon each other’s strengths. Two-Up bring a nice degree of polish to Crooked Media’s densely political audio. These elements are most notable in the series’ sound design. A subtle, brightly propulsive score helps give a needed lift to the show’s largely Favreau-narrated episodes, while archival tape is used to a nice effect, imbuing segments on America’s past with a greater sense of gravity and humanity. This is a show quite unlike anything that either that have produced separately, being the first serialized show for Crooked and Two-Up’s first non-fiction program. Purely from an artistic standpoint, it is good to see the two branching out and diversifying their respective skills and output. While the resulting show displays a nice degree of production prowess, the series has some bigger issues at play.

As a relatively young person obsessed with podcasts and whose beliefs fall well to the left of center, this show should have been catnip for me. What struck me about it most was an issue of the show’s message, in that it can be a bit hard to divine what the show’s creators intended aim its aim to be. It is hardly to suggest the program is terribly opaque though; it is patently obvious that its intent is to examine ways that Democrats can capitalize on the upcoming midterm elections in order to retake at least one of the chambers of Congress. What is unclear is just who the show believes its audience to be.  For all of the early episodes’ simplified walkthrough of the DNC’s past, the series’ later entries take a hard turn into discussing electorate arithmetic, and high-level election strategy. These episodes begin to feel like an experiment in new media on-boarding for Democratic campaign workers, with Favreau as the comically louche party rep, occasionally peppering his lectures with profanity in order to prove he’s not just another milquetoast functionary.

Perhaps even more curious, in this era of increased political awareness, dissatisfaction, and action, the show is blinkered in its fidelity toward the Democratic Party. Even as most of the Crooked Media audience likely already lean left, The Wilderness feels remarkably partisan in its focus. The 2016 election was something of a reckoning, and its aftermath has seen many lifelong Democratic voters begin to question whether the party’s centrist status quo is a viable route to achieving the kind of progress they desire. Rather than meet that such complexity head on, The Wilderness seems content to adopt a heuristic approach, discussing the routes the party can take to ensure victory while rarely getting into the weeds on individual candidates or policy positions. In this the show appears an exercise in giving succor to listeners already firmly ensconced within the world of the DNC, particularly those currently involved in organizing for the coming midterms. This isn’t a show about changing hearts and minds as much as it is one about reinforcing the supposed correctness of the Democratic Party.

Every time that an episode ended I was left feeling like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, discovering that his cool new decoder ring was just a means to further sell him things.

There’s a telling moment in the series’ sixth episode where political commentator Van Jones explains why he has lately been interviewing so many young men who have turned to Nazism. Jones says, “If a young white guy joins a Nazi organization, the first question I have to ask myself is, ‘Did I ever ask him to join my organization?’” In this moment my issues with the tone of The Wilderness crystalized. The show isn’t asking is audience to come along, more that it is telling them what they, or more the larger party must do. As a result it almost never feels inclusive, a quality that is held up as the hallmark of the very party at its core. Too often the show’s tone is its downfall. It comes off as overly didactic, and given to talking about broad swaths of the country’s populace in the same way that one might discuss the countries on a Risk board. Equally alienating is Favreau’s continual use of the word “we” in addressing his audience. It makes assumptions of listeners’ positions from the outset, suggesting at times a multi-level marketing sales pitch, attempting to inculcate in listeners a sense of ownership and pride. While it might be a classic stump speech tactic, in the more nuanced arena of the podcast it feels officious.

Another big question that the show is unable to escape is that of its subjectivity, despite its documentary approach. With Favreau at the helm there are times when it veers into the realm of some Obama-era trophy polishing, recapitulating moments of that administration’s triumphs as a possible blueprint for future success. It dilutes the approach of the podcast, turning what might have been a critical appraisal of the Democratic Party into a sermon aimed squarely at the choir. But, then, one remembers that this is a Crooked Media production.

As a podcast critic, I have found myself somewhat allergic to the sort of political discussion programs that make up most of Crooked Media’s stable. In part this is because it’s hard to critique the listening experience of podcasts like them, beyond evaluating the personalities they have on offer or their structure and pacing. It also might be down to a certain air of smugness that so often goes along with such content, where the smartest guys in the room have successfully repackaged punditry as entertainment. This is in part a catalyst for my unfavorable reaction. The medium is the message, as we have long been taught, and in this case that medium is the network itself. That the Crooked Media team are wildly adored speaks more toward their talents as entertainers and ambition for fame more than it does their abilities as political truth tellers. While The Wilderness is a very different beast structurally than the rest of the studio’s shows, it is unmistakably a product of its environment all the same.

There was a moment last month on another Crooked Media podcast which, for me, feels emblematic of the mindset that produced The Wilderness. It came on the July 13th episode of Lovett Or Leave It, the panel show hosted by former Obama administration speechwriter Jon Lovett (and one of the hosts on the network’s flagship, Pod Save America). One of the guests that week—Professor Melina Abdullah of Cal State LA—was asked a slightly wry question about the Peter Strzok testimony. However, rather than play along, Abdullah chose to outline for Lovett the ways that the Democratic Party has overlooked minority communities in America and how Democrats fixation on party politics reinforced that. After a time Lovett asked Abdullah, “Would you disagree with this statement? ‘The single most important thing we can to do right now, to stop some of the most aggressively racist and destructive policies to working people that we have seen in our lifetimes, is to elect democratic members of congress?’”

Abdullah’s reply—that she in fact did disagree with the statement and the implications of a false ‘good and evil’ dichotomy within the party system—left Lovett dumbfounded. Her categorical rejection, grounded in personal experiences as a woman of color in America, called out a culture of liberal racism, along with the overwhelming feeling of both parties being more in thrall to corporate interests than their constituencies. Multiple times Lovett pushed back, seemingly incredulous of Abdullah’s distrust in the big D. At the heart of this incredulity is the assumption that people who are against the current administration would simply fall in lockstep with the party, and perhaps that is what is most galling about the tone of The Wilderness. That this podcast, aiming for something more ideal, is instead focused on the immediate, namely bolstering the prospect of Democrats regaining a foothold in Washington. It’s a calculated gesture, and one that feels disingenuous in the space. Will it result in a net positive for the country? That much seems a foregone conclusion to Favreau, as long as victory for the Party is assured come November. Thus far—nearly halfway into its run—The Wilderness sounds less like a dialog on the future direction of Democratic Party and more like marching orders to ensure action at the ballot box.

Subscribe to The Wilderness here.

Rumble Strip continually provides some of the most candid, emotional, and honest audio documentaries. The show’s latest episode, “Thomas Talks About Coming Out. Twice.” really spoke to me, sending me down a bit of a rabbit hole with regards to podcasts and disability.

There is a term, coined by the late disability rights advocate Stella Young, that is pejoratively applied to the production of stories featuring disabled people overcoming obstacles for the emotional benefit of those not living with disability. That term is “inspiration porn.” It is remarkably trenchant, cutting to the quick of the collective objectification of the disabled. But there is an unintended irony attendant with the term, specifically as it relates to the use of the word porn. It is one of the only times that disabled individuals are ever mentioned within a remotely sexual context, even as it is used in a mocking sense here. Too often the typical public refuse to acknowledge the romantic and sexual agency of those who appear different than they.

On this week’s episode of Rumble Strip, the unassumingly brilliant podcast from producer Erica Heilman, listeners get a chance to hear just what that feels like first-hand. The episode, “Thomas Talks About Coming Out. Twice.” features Heilman in conversation with Thomas Caswell, a young man with autism, who describes his life as a disabled gay man. It is a refreshingly candid discussion on the ways that society hems in the lives of those with disabilities through unconscious expectation. Heilman’s prodigious talent for interviewing, at once frank, sensitive, and unobtrusive, is on full display, guiding her conversation with Caswell into wonderful territory. Just as it takes two to tango, it is Caswell’s openness with Heilman that gives the piece its soul. One feels an instant connection with his emotional plight, a recognition of the essential humanity that is lacquered over by labels and preset expectations.

As I was listening, I couldn’t help but be feel it was a sort of cousin to the late Australian producer Jesse Cox’s Third Coast award-winning piece, “The Real Tom Banks”. I hesitate to describe that piece in too great a detail, just to say that both are exemplary explorations of the realities facing disabled persons in search of romantic connection.

It is important to keep in mind however the necessity that disabled people be able to control the telling of their own stories as well. Last year I became familiar with disability consultant and podcaster Andrew Gurza through an appearance on the unique Canadian podcast Sickboy, where a trio of friends interview individuals with chronic illness and disabilities. Gurza, who has cerebral palsy and a delightful sense of humor, hosts a program called Disability After Dark, which is the first podcast to deal exclusively with sex and disability. Having launched in 2016, the groundbreaking program is closing in on its 100th episode at time of writing, providing a vast archive of topics, experiences, stories from those in the disabled community. As I’ve written about previously, listening to podcasts that don’t conform to one’s current view of the world are excellent passive channels for exploration of cultures and lives that aren’t necessarily their own. It’s remarkable that there are few better ways to open one’s eyes than by opening their ears.

Subscribe to Rumble Strip here.

Listen to Jesse Cox’s “The Real Tom Banks” here.

Subscribe to Disability After Dark here.

Last month on The A.V. Club we ran a feature about the best podcasts of 2018 so far. I wrote about Punch Up The Jam, a program that takes comedy podcasting in new and gloriously fun directions. In a troubled world, the show’s inventive joy is a tonic.

Punch Up The Jam

Depending on who you ask, comedy in podcasting is either one of the medium’s greatest strengths or one its worst flaws. For a format with a low barrier to entry, producing a show can be as simple as sitting around a microphone and talking. For gifted comedians, this can often be enough, attracting an audience on the strength of their jazzy, extemporaneous riffing. But for some listeners, it’s simply a sign of laziness, souring the very notion of the genre. This year, however, has seen the debut of a show that takes podcast comedy to a new level, one of investment, polish, and obvious effort. That show is Punch Up The Jam, from Demi Adejuyigbe and Miel Bredouw. It’s a wonderfully inventive spin on what’s become a rote podcasting archetype: the lengthy denigration of bad media for maximum comic effect. Unlike shows focused on movies, books, or bands, Punch Up The Jam is focused on lampooning songs that haven’t held up.

While their show devotes a large portion of each episode to a comedic line-by-line examination of those tunes, there is a distinctly different feeling to it for a few reasons. Most notable is the tone of Adejuyigbe and Bredouw’s commentary, which is free of any malicious attempt to besmirch the works or shame their creators. The pair is gifted with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for amelioration. If a particular song doesn’t really work, no worries, because the two are always ready to help make it better. These punch-ups are the show’s real prestige: at the end of every episode, either Adejuyigbe or Bredouw will have reworked the song into a more successful version. The results are eminently rewarding with their hilariously rewritten lyrics, full production, and impressive vocal performances. It’s one thing to simply skewer the works of another, but to put your own work back out in response to it is a gutsy move indeed, and Punch Up The Jam always delivers. May all comedy podcasts aspire to be this bold.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.

Meanwhile, last week on The A.V. Club I wrote aboutTaste Buds, a brand new food and dining podcast whose debut episode really captured my attention for its willingness to go in unexpected directions.

Taste Buds
Critic vs. Restaurateur

It’s been something of a wild summer for esteemed independent podcast house CANADALAND, with its just-launched food and dining program Taste Buds arriving in the wake of the surprise cancellation of superlative arts and culture program The Imposter. While there are few programs that can fill such a unique void, Taste Buds is undoubtedly a product of the same forward-thinking braintrust. For a show seeking to break new ground in its approach to the culinary podcasting space, one could hardly imagine a better way to start than with this premiere episode. Host Corey Mintz meets up with acclaimed Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg at her celebrated restaurant The Black Hoof to act as moderator between Agg and restaurant critic Chris Nuttall-Smith (the latter of whom was an early contributor to our sister site, The Takeout). The pair have a loaded history, as Agg believes an earlier negative review of her restaurant Raw Bar from Nuttall-Smith led to its untimely closure. Over courses of horse tartare and sweetbread sausage, the pair’s early frisson of antipathy gives way to wonderfully candid and nuanced discussions on the dialectic relationship between critics and their subjects, the falsely inflated role of food in a restaurant’s success, and the scourge of institutional sexism in the culinary world.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.


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