In December 2014 we asked you what are the very best podcasts for students and scholars in American Studies and here is the list we received! Want to add a suggestion? Just let us know in the comments!
This American Life
“A documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries. A public radio show for people who don’t necessarily care for public radio.”
This American Life is a weekly public radio show and podcast that mainly consists of true stories about everyday people. That might not sound terribly riveting, and indeed it did get famously dissed by Summer Roberts on The OC as ‘that show where those hipster know-it-alls talk about how fascinating ordinary people are.’ While Summer might technically be correct, she’s also wide of the mark. This American Life tells stories about everything from a car dealership trying to hit its monthly sales target, to babysitting; infants switched at birth, to amusement parks; the first day back at school, to how involved your pets are in your family’s life. It’s also the show that spawned the most popular podcast of the year, Serial, and shares many of the same production team. Episodes are generally thematic, and divided into ‘acts’ telling different stories relating to the theme.
The show’s host, Ira Glass, has become a media legend/myth/generally beloved of the internet in his own right (see Buzzfeed’s 21 Reasons to Love Ira Glass. There are surely more than 21…). The website features a list of the most popular episodes, and some are available for playback for free. It also has a great resource section for educators, divided by subject area and level.
There have been over 500 episodes of This American Life and many of them are only available to listen to if you pay for them. However, if you have never listened to it before, and considering the time of year, there is no other place to start than with episode #452 Poultry Slam 2011. You’ll never look at turkeys the same way again. – Jennifer Daly (Trinity College, Dublin)
“From the makers of This American Life … one story told week by week…”
This is how journalist Sarah Koenig describes Serial in the opening minutes of the podcast that has exploded in popularity in recent weeks. The story in question is that of the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager, Hae Min Lee, and the conviction and subsequent life imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Adnan has always denied any involvement in Hae’s murder. Last year, friends of his approached Koenig to take a look at his story and thus a podcast was born. When Koenig says the story is told ‘week by week’ she really means it: this is a detective narrative for a new generation. She reviews the defence strategy, examines the state’s case that ultimately led to his conviction, speaks to witnesses and friends of both Adnan and Hae, and regularly talks with Adnan on the phone in prison, all while she battles her own oscillating opinions as to whether he did actually commit this crime.
At the time of writing, nine episodes have aired and the producers maintain that they still don’t know what the conclusion will be as the final episodes are still in production. Along with Koenig’s natural storytelling ability, this is Serial’s great hook. So compelling is the narrative that an entire sub-Reddit has been established to discuss the series. This is also, conversely, one of the dilemmas that Serial raises for a listener. Swept along by the artful storytelling and the clever use of cliffhangers and plot twists, it is easy to forget that this is a true story involving real people. It has been suggested that the ethics of telling a story in this format are murky at best, but on the other hand the details of the case were already in the public domain. More recently, concerns have been raised about how race is dealt with, or not dealt with, in the series and questions have been asked about the absence of Hae Min Lee’s family from the narrative. For all its possible flaws, however, Serial has become a phenomenon and is unquestionably an innovation in podcasting and journalistic storytelling. Indeed, those very flaws provide an opportunity to open up a dialogue about the American justice system, race, ethics in journalism, and narrative techniques among others. – Jennifer Daly (Trinity College, Dublin)
Love + Radio
“The show always feels out of time and space, in and of its own world”
Amongst the recent flurry of podcasts covering ‘real life’ in the United States –exemplified by the fantastic Radiotopia PRX collective– Love+ Radio stands out above the crowd. Directed by Nick van der Kolk Love + Radio weaves together in-depth interviews, audio clips, and background stereo to create a picture of American life that is at times both surreal and intimate. Each episodes provides an emotionally complicated portrait of life in America told through the lives of individuals and based around an eclectic range of subjects. The raw storytelling and sound design in Love + Radio is breathtaking.
For an American Studies audience there is a lot to take from Love + Radio. “The Silver Dollar,“ for example, deals with racism in the United States in a way that is nuanced and haunting. Through the course of the episode we follow the story of black professional musician Daryl Davis whose obsession with trying to understand racial hate in American leads him to interview and eventually develop a friendship with Roger Kelly of the Ku Klux Klan. In “Aftermath” we catch an obscure glimpse of crime in America culture when Tim Riefsteck tells us the story of his specialist ‘crime scene clean-up company’.
Love + Radio does not try to impart a lesson, or deliver a moral message, it presents you with a story, full of intriguing characters, that unfolds as you listen. The stories told are never clean cut and episodes often raise more questions than they answer.
As a recommendation I would say start with “Jack and Ellen” – a story that lingered with me long after I have finished listening to it. – Tom Bishop (University of Nottingham)
Planet Money (NPR)
“Money makes the world go around, faster and faster every day”
Economics may not be the sexiest subject matter for a podcast, but if you have ever wondered why pennies are kept in circulation in the US, or why women stopped going into computing during the 1980s, then Planet Money is your way in. It can occasionally discuss some complicated economic concepts but only in the course of a really good human interest story; the concrete real-life examples keep the discussion clear and interesting.
Although this is unashamedly a US-centric show the reporters frequently venture out into the world and see how the globalised economy looks elsewhere: past episodes have included topics such as workplace absenteeism at a pasta plant in Italy, and Swedes who set up an illegal jeans factory in Pyongyang at the invitation of the North Korean government. The reporters not only do a fantastic job of explaining what is happening, but they examine what events tell us about the wider economies of these countries, and the global picture. The result is a show that explains a tiny bit of how the world works at a time: how electrical products get cheaper over time, why it’s so difficult to raise money for Ebola compared to earthquakes, and what happens when a mall is split in half by a state border, resulting in different minimum wages on each side.
Like most NPR content, Planet Money is consistently entertaining, well-researched and always surprising. It comes out a few times a week and tends to only be 20 minutes long: perfect for a morning commute. – Rosemary Pearce (University of Nottingham)
“We have nothing to fear except ourselves. We are unholy, awful people. Fear ourselves with silence. Look down, Night Vale. Look down and forget what you’ve done.”
This podcast has become a bit of a cult classic over the course of this year, spawning bizarre in-jokes and merch-ready slogans such as “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget.” Each episode is ostensibly a community radio broadcast. But Night Vale is not an ordinary community. Located in a remote and unforgiving desert region somewhere in the US, Night Vale is a Lovecraft-esque nightmare of a place, with wholesome small-town values. Through the smooth voice of radio presenter Cecil Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin, listeners learn about terrifying scout rituals, government-scheduled earthquakes and a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your house, among other foibles. Each episode also features a song from a contributing artist, which can vary from hauntingly beautiful to very odd indeed. It is, undoubtedly, a very silly podcast, but that is not all it is: sometimes it is a quite incisive satire of American government and community structures; sometimes it comes across almost as a prose poem on love and loss. Sometimes it makes you question your very existence. – Rosemary Pearce (University of Nottingham)
“True Stories Told Live”
The Moth is a weekly podcast that explores the art of storytelling. It’s a spin off feature from The Moth‘s long-established programme of events that are aimed to promote the skills, appreciation and audience of something called StorySlamming. StorySlam open mic events take place regularly in several major cities across the United States and function to create a welcoming and creative space in which any member of the audience can approach the stage and retell real-stories of their lives, which relate to the pre-released theme, of up to five minutes in length. StorySlam can be understood as a form that mixes Slam Poetry, comedy and conversation without becoming constrained by genre. It is, in every sense, a delight to listen to and centres on one of the more underappreciated areas of the written and spoken word: the art of dialogue, self-performance and silent participation.
In short, if you can’t make it to any of the upcoming events the podcast is the next best thing, which takes the very best of the stories told at the open mic StorySlam series and at other Moth events, and features well-known names within the community like Malcolm Gladwell, Sam Shepard and Margaret Cho. – Michelle Green (University of Nottingham)
“Powerhosing Premium-Calibre Satirical Hogwash Over Planet Earth Since 2007”
The Bugle: Audio Newspaper for a Visual World, is a weekly satirical show hosted by British comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, with Andy based in London and John, recently awarded US citizenship, in New York. Primarily the duo discusses UK and US politics alongside global news events (climate change, the War on Terror, Ebola). What makes the show so successful and so funny is its tone, sitting between absurdist humour and political satire. Often the show switches between John’s polemical attacks on failing governments, for example a debate on which country is worse—UK or US—based on a recent news story (episode 280), to Andy’s out of control punning and completely made up facts. Particular highlights are Andy’s ‘pun runs’, during which he strings together dozens of puns, much to the horror of John and the show’s producer Chris: I recommend the US President ‘pun run’ of episode 213.
If you’ve enjoyed John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (HBO), you will love the satirical and surreal charms of The Bugle. – Hannah Murray (University of Nottingham)
“Bringing historical perspective to the events happening around us today”
BackStory is a weekly hour-long podcast that takes a contemporary issue, institution, or experience in American life and explores its history. The show has considered everything from immigration policy, presidential power, and the role of the police, to ideas about wilderness, leisure time, and fashion.
Presented by three American historians – Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers, and Brian Balogh – who specialize in different periods, each takes the lead in offering perspective from “their” century (the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries respectively). The show also features interviews with guests – sometimes other historians, sometimes literature scholars, film critics, or journalists, whoever might have a story to tell – and calls from listeners interested in the topic of the day. It’s a fun and eclectic mix that brings a fresh perspective both to history and the present day.
For anyone wanting to get a deeper handle on American politics, culture, and society – BackStory is a must listen. – Emily J. Charnock (University of Cambridge, Keasbey Research Fellow)
“Mining the very depths of film entertainment for all mankind…”
The premise of Film Sack, a weekly podcast from Scott Johnson and the FrogPants Studio, is deceptively simple. Four friends sit around and talk about a cult classic film currently streaming on Netflix. Each episode is devoted to a specific movie, ranging from horror classics The Thing (1982), The Omen (1976), to the best/worst of modern sci-fi including the epic commercial failure Battlefield Earth (2000) and the critically acclaimed Wrath of Khan (1982).
For those who loved Mystery Science Theatre 3000 the format of Film Sack will feel decidedly familiar. The podcast blends irreverent humour, film criticism and an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture as the host delve into the archives of movie history. What on the surface appears as an almost irreverent passing commentary on American cinema grows in complexity and breadth as films that have long been forgotten are brought into focus, links are drawn between actors and directors and the pantheon of America cult cinema expands.
The key to Film Sack’s enduring success (winning the Peoples Podcast award in 2011 and 2013) is in its tone as much as its format. The hosts somehow manage to remain enthusiastic, witty and frequently insightfully despite sitting through some truly dreadful cinematic offerings. For those who have seen Nicholas Cage’s Season of the Witch (2011) you can understand how difficult it might be to find anything worthy of prolonged discussion. Yet somehow they do, as the hosts gleefully dissect the acting range of Nicholas Cage, Ron Pearlman’s questionable hair and why everyone in a film set in 14th Century Europe has an American accent. Ending each episode by asking the hosts to sum up the weekly film in tweet of 30 characters has resulted in some of the most inventive critical summaries I have heard.
As a personal recommendation I suggest starting with number 68# The One About Flash Gordon. Listening to a discussion of a film that has the line ‘quick put your uniform on before the lizard men arrive to bury you’ and a soundtrack by Queen proves how a ridiculous movie makes for a highly entertaining podcast. – Tom Bishop (University of Nottingham)
“Exploring the meaning, faith, and ethics amidst the political, economic, cultural and technological shifts that define 21st century life”
On Being is a radio program/podcast by the wonderful journalist Krista Tippett. It’s a philosophical journey about the role of religion and spirituality in our lives that only makes you realize that we humans cannot escape existential questions, ever. But make no mistake, On Being is not a disguised as a way of spreading the gospel. Whether you’re an atheist, a Christian, or a humanist, this podcast is a surefire way to get your mental cogs spinning.
In her discussion with the great physicist Dr. Brian Greene, we learn about the non-existence of free will and why that’s really not as bad as we’d think. Or, what happens when a Muslim scholar, a chief Rabbi, a bishop, and the Dalai Lama get together with Krista? They talk about happiness, of course, and bridge cultures and religions to discuss a core element of our human soul. What are you waiting for? Maybe a talk about the American soul with Maya Angelou? – Timo Schrader (University of Nottingham)
“Bridging the intersection between Pop Culture and Science with clarity, humour and passion”
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a genius astrophysicist with a great sense of humour and a tendency for the dramatic. In his own show, he answers the most outrageous science-y questions and gets all serious about and before you know it, you’ll learn all about time travel and the expanding universe.
Besides his incredible skill of making you fall in love with space and science, he is also extremely funny, wholly charming, and just as much of a popular culture nerd as you are. If you have yet to fall in love with Neil deGrasse Tyson himself, his show depends on you loving him, you should watch his rant on the politics of space exploration. He’s like the odd uncle you have but way smarter, way less grumpy, and way more passionate. – Timo Schrader (University of Nottingham)
NASA Science Casts
If there is one thing we can learn from astronaut Matthew McConaughey, it is that space is our only chance to survive. That’s why the scientists over at the underfunded NASA are reluctantly forced off their amazing work on the future of mankind to show us earthlings how beautiful space is and how the hell they manage to get people out there and back again.
These are the guys that are reading the science fiction that we study and instead of analyzing the representation of gender in robots, they’re looking at the science behind it all and use it as an inspirational manual to reimagine the future of mankind. Did you know about the supernovas near Earth? Neither did I! – Timo Schrader (University of Nottingham)