The Spirit of Podcasts 2020

by Michael Channing

The Spirit of Podcasts 2020

The Cool Quarantine

Henry Rollins has been a part-time DJ for KCRW in Santa Monica for years, piecing together playlists of his favorite songs and keeping musical fanatics informed of new records and reissues. It’s a two-hour gig he does every single week even while on the road. Well, last year, the road was not an option, so he put together two special four-hour podcasts of favorites, B-sides, and rarities. He called it The Cool Quarantine and imagined people putting it on during those long hours stuck at home.

I’ve only checked in on his usual weekly podcast/radio show a few times, but this particular limited-series version drew me in with the promise of Rollins telling stories in between songs. His tales are enjoyable. He was in the room when Minor Threat recorded their first demos. He plays a Bad Brains song that he himself recorded on a tape recorder. And sometimes, Henry Rollins will go to the house where he used to live in D.C., unbeknownst to the current tenants, and sit on the porch in the middle of the night and listen to music through headphones like in the old days.

But beyond the stories, these two podcasts (that’s all the ultra-long ones he did) sort of changed my life. Rollins is into all sorts of music, from the expected punk and metal to country, pop, jazz, avant garde, classic rock, hip hop, Indian trance music. Having him present half a day’s worth like we were on my own front porch made me realize I might be stuck in a listening rut. I have my favorites, the same fifty or so artists and bands I listen to on the regular, but I don’t venture out very far beyond my safety zone. So last year I made a pledge to listen to at least one new band or artist every week. I’ve found some great new-to-me music to enrich my life: the band clipping., Le Butcherettes, The Birthday Party, Cable Ties. The song “Let’s Kill These Motherfuckers” was my most played song on Spotify last year. Yeah, I could spend the rest of my life listening to Rush (okay I actually will do that), but as I get older, my normal go-to music feels a little played-out. So I sampled some rap music, sought out more songs by women, by foreign acts. Some of what I heard I just did not like. Rollins really pushes The Fall, but I could only take a pinch at a time, the same with most death metal or rap groups. But clipping. is amazing. So I watch You from Afar know how to kick out the jams. Wye Oak can bring me to tears. Not all of the bands I listed here I got from Rollins, but he taught me how to listen for new sounds, how to trust the recommendations of others. I’m richer for it, and the soundtrack of my life sounds much better.

The Plot Thickens

This is a podcast from Turner Classic Movies, hosted by a regular on their channel, Ben Mankiewicz. The concept is to explore the life of a single filmmaker over the entirety of each season. For the first season, Ben chose to interview and chronicle the career of Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich has made some great films in his life (I’ve only seen Paper Moon and What’s Up Doc?, but they are truly fantastic.) He led an interesting life full of triumph and deep sadness. Mankiewicz does a wonderful job with his very first podcast in weaving together his own opinion, historical facts, and the personal account of his subject. Bogdanovich worked with schlockmeister Roger Corman, let Orson Welles live in his house, and had his fair share of romances with Hollywood starlets. You can’t help but hang on his every word.

As a bonus, we hear the interviews Bogdanovich did with Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, who in turn mention their influences. The podcast becomes a layer cake of appreciation. And yes, it’s a string of white men praising white men, and the women in Bogdanovich’s life often get short-shrifted. The podcast is all for Bogdanovich, but it does acknowledge his failings, though with a predisposition to forgive. In the end, the podcast is a celebration of the artistic endeavour, rather than a reckoning of the creator’s faults.

Secretly Incredibly Fascinating

When fired its core staff, hacking off its video team entirely, their podcast remained an acme of creativity and was the only thing that kept me paying attention to the site at all. Then that, too, got the axe. Alex Schmidt, the host of the pod, was set adrift on the cold, uncaring waters of the internet.

Then he came blazing back like a penguin with a Flying V guitar. This podcast is a direct extension of what he was doing at Cracked. It even carries the same tagline, “A podcast about how being alive is more interesting than people think.” Every week, he picks a topic you might think of as humdrum, like ketchup, socks, or the color blue, and expounds on how it’s actually secretly incredibly fascinating. He half lectures, half chats with comedic guests on different fun and fascinating trivia related to the topic. Did you know one single person is in charge of how most of the ketchup in the world tastes? Did you know that most socks come from one city in China? You probably suspected that one, but did you know that Sock City is sister to Tie City and Coat City?

What makes Alex’s podcast work, his secret if you will, is that the comedians on his show are suddenly faced with topics they never pondered before. You can practically hear them salivate as they riff into these fresh meals with a fervor. Last year was difficult for me, but there were many times I found myself laughing out loud on my dreary commute as I listened to this podcast, shocked at the sound of my own delight. It was a light in the dark, and I am grateful.

Lolita Podcast

I’ve never read Lolita. I’ve seen the Kubrick film, and it was okay. I’ve heard the basic theme and was turned off. I’ve read that it is a beautiful, lyric masterpiece, which made me question the reviewer’s sanity, because it’s a book about a child abuser. A child rapist. A murderous, insane child rapist who fantasizes about raping the child of the child he rapes throughout the whole book. This is a classic? Well, according to some, it’s a moving story of true love.

Excuse me, but… the fuck?

That head-scratching dichotomy is the core of this podcast, written and narrated by Jamie Loftus. How can a piece of literature that is most definitely about a middle-aged man abducting and rapeing a 12-year-old girl so often misinterpreted as a story of love? Why do we, a culture, hear the word Lolita and imagine a young, sexy girl who openly invites the attention of older men? Is Lolita a sex kitten? No. Lolita isn’t even the character’s name! Her abuser calls her that in an effort to bury her real identity.

Okay, it’s a complicated book, one that has earned its place in academia. It deals with a difficult subject, one of the first books to ever discuss child sexual abuse. This podcast reveals the plot but also explains that the narrative is written from the perspective of a man on trial for murder. He uses flowery, poetic language to sway the jury in his favor and to paint his horrible actions as acceptable, harmless. The whole story is his one-sided testimony. To take it at face value is to one-hundred-percent misread it. And many people have. Through deep research and interviews, Loftus expertly navigates the icky waters that surround this novel. She knows it front to back, knows the interpretations and misinterpretations, has seen all the (mostly failed) adaptations, and can speak from the perspective of someone who has been abused.

This has been my first-listen every Monday for the past two Months. Even without the benefit of having read the book, I am impressed with Nabokov’s attempt to present the monster’s point-of-view but in a way that hints at the facts beneath his fabrications. He may have hidden the truth too deeply, as many have fallen prey to those syrupy lies. Or do we just want to read a story about a 12-year-old willing to have sex with--

No. Stop. It’s a gross idea. But it’s one the podcast explores with a fine-toothed comb, presenting example after of example of Hollywood, advertising, music, and plays that seem to knowingly set aside the subtext of criminal exploitation and just focus on the sex. Maybe I’ll read the book one day, but damn if I’ll ever watch the other movie they made of it. What other movie? you ask. Check out the podcast, and be afraid.

1 Way to Make an Emoji

I’m going to keep this one short. It’s another from Alex Schmidt. In addition to being a podcast host, comedian, and Jeopardy! champion, Alex created the bison emoji that’s on your phone right now. This four-episode podcast is about how he did it. He discusses fascinating bison facts and why they deserve to be emojified. He outlines the method for submitting designs to the emojinati and why emoji in general are useful. And he explains the very personal reason why he did it in the first place. It’s that reason that catapulted this podcast to my top favorite. As I drove away from the Wendy’s in tears, having nearly finished the final episode--and confusing the server who handed me my bag--I knew immediately I was going to do another one of these lists. I just needed four more podcasts so I could write specifically about this one and pass the joy and beauty of it on to someone else. If you ignore all the other suggestions here, do yourself a massive favor and put this one in your head and in your heart. Trust me.

Enthusiasm Spreads

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

January 22, 2021