This week, three shows whose titles all begin with the letter E from continental Europe, Ireland, and Jacksonville, Florida. We look at The Europeans, The Eighth, and Errthang,
Just a content note up front, one of the podcasts that I’ve chosen to cover this week, The Eighth, focuses entirely on the subject of abortion. If this is something that you aren’t comfortable reading about, you may wish to skip that section.
In a time of intense uncertainty The Europeans podcast seeks to provide listeners with interesting insights on the activity across the continent. It is a delightful show that manages to be equally informative and diverting.
Allow me to explore an idea here: Donald Trump is to the news cycle as rosewater is to flavoring food. This is to say that for consumers, anything more than than the tiniest amount becomes sickening. There’s almost no way of scrubbing the taste from one’s mouth, and it is likely to instill a sense of wariness towards approaching anything resembling it for a long time afterward.
At present, it feels like most Americans are suffering from news fatigue as a result of being inundated with his cloying presence. This has made the act of looking beyond our shores—already not a national strong suit—an increasingly difficult act. Further exacerbating this is the sense that our volatile domino is only causing additional populist instability across the globe. The problem is that now is absolutely a time when we should be paying attention to the world. This domestic horror shouldn’t force us to become more insular, and yet it appears to be working. The President’s “America First” rhetoric is inadvertently succeeding, as we’ve become a nation increasingly glued to the daily soap opera playing out at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Thankfully for podcast listeners the medium presents a number of great opportunities to unblinker and explore the world in all its prismatic richness. Especially of note is the newish podcast, The Europeans, which seeks to highlight lesser-known, but no less interesting stories of life on the continent in a weekly magazine format. What makes the show such a lovely entrant into the category is the decidedly playful quality it brings to its reporting. Hosted by two expat Brits—Paris-based AFP reporter Katy Lee, and opera singing Amsterdammer Dominic Kraemer—the show manages to be as informative as it is diverting. This is down to the hosts’ easy rapport and the air of jocularity that it creates, bringing listeners further into the news and enticing them into continued listening of the podcast.
The most important aspect of the show is that it’s far from being a simple recitation of news items. Instead Lee and Kraemer invite individuals with intimate knowledge of the stories they’re reporting onto the show for interviews. These range widely, from the high profile, like Vogue international editor Suzy Menkes on the impact of Hubert de Givenchy or a discussion on national culinary identity with Michelin-starred chef Christian Puglisi, to the smaller but equally impactful ones from individuals providing an intimate, on-the-ground portrayal of events. As the hosts aren’t beholden to any sort of buttoned-up editorial style, there is a great deal more zest to their interactions with guests. It is this non-standard journalistic approach which creates continually engaging conversations, going in sometimes more revealing directions than a straightforward approach might yield.
It’s podcasts like The Europeans that really make the case for the medium. Taken as a whole, it feels like a sort of new wave pirate radio. Something to be actively sought out—by an audience willing to engage with news outside of the traditional, more sensational cycle—and able to create on its own terms. This means with a few dashes of comedy, a hearty scoop of progressivism, and all of the nous that its two well-educated and cultured hosts bring to the table. In telling stories of the continent it provides a sense of comfort and security to the way it explores life in the patchwork Union, representing it less as a house of cards and instead painting it in a more nuanced, at times hopeful light. What’s more, the hosts try their hardest to never bring up Donald Trump (or Brexit for that matter), which makes listening to the show that much more refreshing.
Ahead of Ireland’s landmark May 25th referendum on repealing the country’s constitutional amendment banning abortion, HeadStuff Podcast Network’s latest, The Eighth explores stories from all sides of the debate.
In 2006, when director Tony Kaye released Lake Of Fire, his unflinching and surprisingly impartial documentary about abortion, Roe v. Wade had been settled law in the United States for over thirty years. Yet the film’s creation was born of a need to examine the way that attitudes towards abortion had become increasingly schismatic in the time since the ruling. This reached its apex in the mid- to late-’90s when there was something of a rash of violent acts perpetrated against abortion providers. Kaye’s film arrived at an inadvertently prescient time, as opponents to safe, legal abortion ceased using violent tactics focusing instead on using legislation to target the practice.
Meanwhile, women in Ireland have had to live under the moralistic and patriarchal rule of the Eighth Amendment to the constitution, which provides equal protection of the right to life for both mother and fetus, making the practice of abortion totally illegal since 1983. This has meant that those women seeking to safely terminate a pregnancy—no matter how dire the circumstances surrounding conception—have been either forced to travel to England or to order medication to induce miscarriage from the internet. In recent years, particularly following the death of Dr. Savita Halappanavar, there has been a growing sentiment that the Eighth Amendment is an outdated piece of legislation, and on the 25th of this month, the country will vote in a referendum to repeal it.
With this vote looming, producer Ciara O’Connor has decided that the time is right for a Lake Of Fire-style exploration of her nation’s feelings surrounding this historic moment, launching The Eighth, a limited series from the HeadStuff Podcast Network that looks carefully at all sides of the debate. The show feels like an absolutely necessary and timely exploration, and O’Connor does her level best to present the program objectively, even as she is staunchly pro-choice, and therefore pro-repeal. This means that all of the interviews are free from the sort of back and forth arguments that traditionally characterize these impassioned discussions. As a result, one is able to see the humanity on either side of a terribly thorny topic. As the series has progressed, O’Connor has widened her net as well, looking into the ways that the amendment has ended up affecting all maternal care provided in Ireland.
It is a bold decision altogether to undertake this project, and one that creates very necessary audio. Too often non-fiction documentary podcasts are seen as entertainment, in search of the most compelling yarns while not using the freedom of the platform to advance social discourse in a meaningful way. The kind of program that O’Connor has created is much different, taking the time to collect stories and interviews that aren’t being told elsewhere, for the benefit of both audience and creator alike. The issue at the center of The Eighth is undoubtedly one charged with intense emotion no matter which side one comes down on. To be presented with such lengthy and thoughtful investigations, accompanied by the innate intimacy that podcasting provides, feels like the ideal means to help engender a sense of compassionate understanding.
Radiotopia’s Showcase feed strikes gold again with a revival of Al Letson and Willie Evans Jr.’s Errthang. This week’s standout episode, “How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America” is a ruminative work that deserves to be heard.
At this point, it feels like anyone claiming to be a fan of podcasting that isn’t subscribed to Showcase From Radiotopia is doing something wrong. The feed, focused on providing listeners with a number of shorter run shows that change every few months, feels akin to visiting a bookstore where the works recommended are always of superlative quality. From Ways Of Hearing, hosted by Damon Krukowski of the band Galaxie 500, to last year’s twisty audio drama The Polybius Conspiracy, the shows have continually played with format and the boundaries of storytelling.
It’s a downright miracle that Showcase’s the latest series is a revival of Al Letson’s 2015 program Errthang, which gave this polymathic radiomaker a place to stretch out the format in new and interesting directions. For those who know Letson only from his role as host on Reveal, Errthang will be a splash in the face, as Letson revels in his more playful and poetic sides. Joined by sidekick, DJ (not at DJ), and all-around comic punching bag, Willie Evans Jr. The pair’s interactions are a true delight and always surprising, like the way the series opens with the pair reintroducing themselves by rapping over a medley of classic tracks from LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, and Outkast.
This past week’s episode was another striking left turn, and one that the show executed with aplomb. Letson begins with a reading from the Book of Ye, all about giving due to those who we admire, as a lead in to discuss the work of writer Kiese Laymon. Letson has chosen a to create a sort of enhanced reading of Laymon’s intensely personal and poetic essay, “How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America.” What really makes the episode sing is Letson’s choice to have it performed by a group of young men that he mentored some years ago at Jacksonville, Florida’s Sanctuary on 8th Street. The essay deals with the pressures of institutional racism, mental health, and Laymon’s dreams of transcending the life he finds himself mired in. The disaffected tone of the reading telegraphs the sense of dejection and simmering anger at the way American society has continually failed Laymon and countless other young black men. The piece follows a meandering, ruminative path as Laymon recalls all of the times that he has had a gun pulled on him, noting his age at each step with the ages of unarmed black men and women who have been wrongfully killed, like Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin.
This episode is one that digs into the listener from Laymon’s very first line, ensnaring one’s attention and curiosity through every step of this journey. It is one of self-examination, but its subtext is a much deeper one, castigating the behaviors of a society that believes itself to be just, fair, and post-racial. The reading is fleshed out with snippets of audio that seem to drift in and out, giving the entire production the feeling of a memory, being actively recalled, only adding to the overall experience. The product is an episode that rivals any I’ve heard so far this year.