Servant of Pod The Best Podcasts of 2020 Episode 28
Tue, 1/12 8:47AM • 35:04
podcast, year, laughter, people, episode, listen, hosted, series, pandemic, called, big, crime, long, story, true, rebecca, podcasting, sarah, shows, number
Sarah Larson, Leroy Johnson, Amy Brittain, Vann Newkirk II, Michael Brown, Imee Hernandez, Jillian Juman, Chana Joffe-Walt, Penny Rawlings, Shoshana Walter, Sarah Ventre, Children's Choir, Nick Quah, Jamie Loftus, Rebecca Lavoie, Patrick Radden Keene, Hanif Abdurraqib
Nick Quah 00:01
It's been the longest year imaginable, and like almost everyone else on this planet, I'm looking forward to 2021. But before we get there, we should do some looking back. After all, it's that time when critics are made to take stock of the year in culture and publish their lists of the Best TV shows, movies, books, and so on. I have a longer list of the best podcasts of 2020 coming out this week on Vulture, so watch out for that. It's been a strange year for podcasts. There's been a lot of consolidation and a lot of change due to the pandemic. But despite all that, there's also been lots and lots of new shows, some of which were actually great. In this episode, we're gonna talk about some of those shows and dive into the ones we really love. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the best podcasts of 2020.
Nick Quah 01:06
Recently, I called up two people who follow podcasts pretty closely. Sarah Larson, a critic for The New Yorker who writes a lot about podcasts, and New Hampshire Public Radio's Rebecca Lavoie, who is also the host of Crime Writers On..., a podcast that reviews true crime media--including, of course, podcasts. Here's our conversation about the best shows from this year.
Nick Quah 01:28
Okay, let's just kick off by talking a little bit about how the year in podcasting went. One thing I noticed personally, is that I don't think any one kind of breakout hit happened, with the exception, maybe, of the show that ended up being my number one pick. I'm curious--let's talk with Sarah here--what has the year in podcasting looked like for you? What did you find yourself paying more attention to? What did you notice being any particular trends? Anything that stood out to you.
Sarah Larson 01:52
Okay, well, I say this more as a person than as a podcast critic, but I feel like the year has kind of been divided into thirds, or at least pre- and post-COVID. You know, for me, in the writing I was doing for The New Yorker, I was actually, at the beginning of the year, traveling around following primary stuff. So I was listening to a ton of, you know, I listened to Stranglehold, I listened to all these political podcasts and primary podcasts.
Nick Quah 02:19
Shout out to New Hampshire Public Radio, one of the best shows that [Crosstalk]
Sarah Larson 02:22
Exactly! That was a great show. And then suddenly I started listening to a ton of COVID podcasts and things that all the normal podcasts that sort of adapted to deal with COVID, which was, you know, kind of everything had to do that. So I think there were other trends in terms of regular shows that popped up, but between politics and COVID, those things were pretty dominant.
Nick Quah 02:47
Those were definitely the big poles of the year in general, so I guess it makes sense that a lot of shows clustered. Rebecca, was that your experience as well, that the majority of the things that you saw pop that were COVID- or political-related?
Rebecca Lavoie 03:00
I would actually add a third pole to that tent that you're building over there and say that there has been a huge wave of TV/podcast co-production projects. That's something that has really, really exploded this year. I think about all the stuff that Pineapple Street has been doing with HBO programming, I think about a podcast like Morally Indefensible, which was sort of a meta look at the Geoffrey McDonald case that went with a TV series called, uh... I don't know what it was called, but I didn't watch it. The LA Times released It Was Simple, about the Betty Broderick murders, and that went with Dirty John season two. So there does seem to sort of be this surge--in thinking, anyway--that you can take one subject and reach a mass market by putting it on two platforms, or using one of the platforms to try to push the other--usually podcast is sort of like the ad for the TV program.
Sarah Larson 03:57
Rebecca Lavoie 03:57
So that's another big trend that I saw this year.
Sarah Larson 03:59
Nick Quah 04:00
Sarah Larson 04:01
That's a great point, yeah.
Nick Quah 04:01
Yeah, and I think it does tie it into the whole pandemic thing. Like, one, of the major conversations I've heard, when everything was sort of locking down, was a lot of TV productions couldn't be made, so a lot of actors were looking for other ways to stay in the culture, I guess, which kind of led to, I think, just more conversations and mingling between the TV set and podcast side.
Rebecca Lavoie 04:20
If I could just point out one other thing that I noticed this year by its absence, where the hell is the giant Gimlet show that we're so used to getting every year? Usually there's like one big production that that company rolls out, that gets, you know, maybe it happened and I just missed it, but it does seem, along the lines of what Nick was saying, with there being no huge breakout show, Gimlet with kind of seems to have--I don't want to say faded away--but they're certainly not producing the big HBO-style hit podcast this year.
Sarah Larson 04:49
Their hit podcast this year was "The Case of The Missing Hit."
Rebecca Lavoie 04:53
Nick Quah 04:53
Rebecca Lavoie 04:54
A single episode of Reply All, right? That single episode of Reply All is their loss leader for that company this year. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 05:02
Well, technically speaking, Resistance, which just came out, kind of fits that bill. It's a little late into the year, and it's I think only about four episodes in as we're recording this. It hasn't quite had that kind of press push, frenzy kind of thing that usually accompanies one of these big things that you're talking about, when it comes to a new Gimlet show. I think you're absolutely right. And part of this, I feel, is in general, things didn't really break through because I really do think everything came down to COVID and the elections this year.
Sarah Larson 05:32
Nick Quah 05:32
It's very hard to launch anything that's non-COVID-related and have it really meaningfully breakthrough. Rebecca, one of the reasons that I think I really want to talk to you for these round tables is you have this handle on the true crime podcast space that I simply do not have. [Laughter] What would you say are the major true crime podcast trends this year?
Rebecca Lavoie 05:53
Well, I would say one of them is--for me, at least--very bad, which is that these mass-produced, Wonder Bread productification of true crime podcasts that keep coming out, in these huge long waves. I mean, if I honestly have to listen to one more Wondery production--which I do, because, by the way, my podcast reviews podcasts, so I kind of have to--but they are all the same. They're all the same. And they sound so manufactured and so produced.
Sarah Larson 06:26
Rebecca Lavoie 06:26
The people who host them clearly have no connection to the field tape, or the interviews, or any of the...
Sarah Larson 06:33
You mean like Bunga Bunga?
Rebecca Lavoie 06:34
Yeah, yeah. It's literally just like, go into a studio, read this script, we've gathered all this tape, we've put it together, we put a sexy blues song at the start of it, and gave it a piece of podcast art with a hand in it, and there's your Wondery podcast. [Laughter] And that sort of seems... It's kind of happening, a little bit, across networks, but Wondery is sort of the leader in that, and it's just increasingly more difficult to find something in this genre that like, I love. That sort of deeply reported public radio-style stuff, it's hard to discover right now. And then when it comes to the crime stuff... I mean, one of my theories is maybe they're running out of murders, because a lot of... [Laughter]
Nick Quah 07:13
You never run out of murders, come on. [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 07:15
Well... A lot of them have been about con men instead of being about killings, or about, you know, you think of a show like The Missing Crypto Queen, or... There sort of seems to be this shift to people who pulled one over on someone else, rather than somebody who, I don't know, killed somebody.
Sarah Larson 07:33
Rebecca Lavoie 07:34
So that's a big trend that I've seen, too. But also another huge topic that's come up, that we also talk about a lot on my show, are podcasts about sexual assault and sexual abuse, which there's been a big surge of in the last year or so, and some of them have been some of the best podcasts of the year.
Sarah Larson 07:48
Rebecca Lavoie 07:49
Well, I don't... I'm like, "Should I spoil one of ones I..."
Nick Quah 07:51
Oh, no, no!
Sarah Larson 07:51
Oh, no! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 07:53
Let's save that for the top three. [Laughter] One last question for Sarah before we head into the top three stuff...
Sarah Larson 07:58
Nick Quah 07:59
Were there any types of podcasts that you found yourself listening to that surprised you under this past year?
Sarah Larson 08:07
You know, the things that really jumped out to me in this particular year were things that made me feel better, and especially things that were funny. And if things were genuinely funny, it was like a gift. It was like, if I laughed really hard, and not just the "Oh, this is clever," but in the like, "Hahaha!" I really felt like, thank you for making me do that, because I wasn't expecting it here alone in my kitchen in month X of the pandemic. [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 08:39
You know what's really also very soothing, Sarah, are podcasts where you have smart friends talking about something they are deeply passionate about that you care about at all. [Laughter] That's one of my favorite genres of podcasts. Like, I love A Date With Dateline--they're obsessed with Dateline, which I never watch. [Laughter] Awesome. You know, there's a show Steven Ray Morris, who produces My Favorite Murder, makes a show about Jurassic Park called See Jurassic Right, which again, I don't care about at all. Really fun to listen to. And, of course, Adam Ragusea's unfinished podcast about Sting, which was his follow up to his great podcast about Billy Joel, where he and his friend Meg just sort of rip apart songs and artists. I don't care about any of this stuff, but I love immersing myself in their passions.
Sarah Larson 08:39
Can I say one more thing about...?
Nick Quah 08:47
Go for it, yeah!
Sarah Larson 08:59
...what I... So, the things I did not want to listen to this year were podcasts about Trump, which I've enjoyed in the past, there have been a lot of great podcasts about all the terrible things that Trump and his businesses have done. I didn't necessarily... I just couldn't take it anymore. You know, so there was that. And I didn't want to listen to true crime, either. When the pandemic hit I just had less of an appetite than usual, and it might have even just been true crime burn out, a little bit.
Nick Quah 09:55
Rebecca, did you have any genres that you didn't find yourself wanting to listen to this year?
Rebecca Lavoie 10:01
Sadly, I have to kind of put true crime on that list, too, even though it's my job to enjoy it. [Laughter] But also, there just hasn't been a standout great podcast in that genre this year, other than a couple of comedy podcasts. And other than the follow-up episodes of In The Dark season two, which is like, a 3-year-old podcast that's still pumping out excellent content about the same story. There's just very little that I loved in that genre this year, and if I start listening to something and it's not great, I just think that the bar... You know, the bar is very low for a lot of listeners of true crime. It is extremely high for me, and I didn't hear anything this year that really crossed that bar.
Nick Quah 10:48
Okay, okay. You probably want to get to our actual picks. We'll do that after the break.
Nick Quah 11:05
Okay, so we've set the stage for what 2020 was like. Let's get to it. Our top three picks for best podcasts of the year. Sarah, what is your number three?
Sarah Larson 11:15
Number three is Unfinished: Short Creek. So, Unfinished: Short Creek is reported and hosted by Ash Sanders and Sarah Ventre. It's a really in-depth series, I think they were there for four and a half years. They reported it for a long time about this. People inside and outside of a group of fundamentalist polygamist Mormons, who live in a community on the Utah-Arizona border, and it really beautifully introduces you to the history of the group, and what the appeal of living in this community was like. It was almost, in its early decades, kind of like an Amish-type situation, with everyone helping each other out. And there's a lot of great sound work. There's singing, kind of eerie songs by children's choirs singing about the leaders of the group, and it's unnerving, but it's also beautiful. And you can see what the community felt like and what the appeal might have been.
Leroy Johnson 12:21
I've devoted my work to the building up and establishment of the Kingdom of God. This is not my work. It's the work of God.
Sarah Ventre 12:30
Leroy Johnson was in charge of the community from the 1950s to the 80s. Being a prophet meant his followers believed he spoke for God on Earth. But everyone we talked to described him as a warm, caring leader--a man of the people.
Children's Choir 12:45
[Singing] "Uncle Roy has taught us / How to live each day"
Sarah Ventre 12:50
This is a community pageant in Short Creek in the 90s. Almost everyone called Leroy Johnson "Uncle Roy."
Children's Choir 12:57
[Singing] "These are the things that / Uncle Roy has taught us"
Sarah Larson 13:03
They just were very sensitive to listening to the people in the community and the people who left it, and what the details of all that were. And it doesn't feel sensational. I mean, it's a very, to us, incredibly dramatic, or melodramatic, story, and it could be done luridly by any number of podcasters or reporters, and it doesn't feel like that at all. And, you know, the pacing is really nice, and the sound is really immersive and lovely, and... Yeah, they just did it as well as it could be done, I think.
Nick Quah 13:38
Rebecca, what's your number three?
Rebecca Lavoie 13:40
My number three is Nice White Parents from Serial Productions that--now owned, of course, by the New York Times.
Chana Joffe-Walt 13:47
There are about a dozen grownups sitting on small plastic chairs around a classroom table--the PTA Executive Board. Principal Juman is here, too. Imee’s leading, and the principal jumps in. She says she wants a minute to share how much the new fundraising committee had raised so far. Imee looks confused. Principal Juman goes on to say the new fundraising committee has had a lot of success.
Jillian Juman 14:10
The total they have raised, according to Rob, about $18,000.
Imee Hernandez 14:13
Jillian Juman 14:15
And then we just had a donation from a family a couple weeks ago, who wanted to be anonymous, that they’re going to give either 5 to 10 grand in December. So this is big money.
Chana Joffe-Walt 14:27
People seem unclear what to do with their faces. This is good news, right? But also: wait, what’s the Fundraising Committee?
Rebecca Lavoie 14:37
This is a series about the segregation of schools in the modern era and about the well-meaning liberal white people who continue to support segregation even as they're saying that they don't support segregation. And one of the things I really loved about this podcast and Chana Joffe-Walt's reporting is, first of all, she knows everything there is to know about reporting on schools. She obviously did this reporting for many, many years. But one of the things that I love about it, that almost no one is doing really well right now, is the way it covers whiteness, and the way that it really, really looks at white people through a lens, almost like we have sort of wrongly been looking at people of color through a lens for many, many years. Like, it really examines what whiteness means, it really calls to task the power of being white, and it's the kind of podcast that, if you're white, and listen to it, and you don't feel bad about being white after you hear it, there is something wrong with you. So I really, really loved this series. And if anyone out there hasn't listened to it--which I doubt, because it was very popular--I would recommend it.
Sarah Larson 15:42
There were three great podcasts this year about school segregation, basically--Nice White Parents and then also the second season of The Promise, which was an excellent series about a similar situation in Nashville, in one neighborhood in Nashville. And then The new Fiasco.
Nick Quah 16:01
Leon Neyfakh, right?
Sarah Larson 16:01
Yeah, which was mostly about historic stuff, but also in Boston. But I thought that that series was terrific. And they're all such important facets of the same problem. And I hope that people listened to them and took something out of it.
Nick Quah 16:20
So my number three pick is... a little weird? It's this show that came out all the way back in January. Pretty small show, it's independent, it's called My Year in Mensa. It's hosted by, and written by, this comedian--I believe she's also worked in other forms of the entertainment industry--Jamie Loftus. And it is basically an adaptation of a couple of columns she wrote over the years about her kind of jokey attempt, like a jokey journey, of applying for membership into Mensa, the high intell... the high IQ, quote-unquote, society, and her adventures moving through that space and being very skeptical about it.
Jamie Loftus 17:00
Now, I want to be clear that I am not doing this podcast series to strictly dunk on the Mensans. I will be dunking on them occasionally. But I'm more doing this to analyze how these sorts of groups came to be in the first place, and sort of what they have evolved into, because it definitely did start as a dumb joke, on my part. But people unfortunately contain multitudes--awful--and so what I'm gonna do is take you through the story via my experiences, and then go back in time to trace the history of these organizations, and ultimately figure out what the ****ing point of any of it was in the first place.
Nick Quah 17:42
And I love this show largely for two reasons. One is, from an aesthetics perspective, it's basically a one-woman show--she does the whole thing, she narrates the whole thing. It's a long monologue punctuated by some sound effects and kind of really humorous kind of oral texts, essentially. And it's four episodes! It moves like the wind. [Laughter] I you know, you cannot tell me, prior to going into this show, that somebody can do a four episode--four, or five, or six, however long the show is--a show in which one person is the primary voice, with minimal sound backing, and that it would be compelling in any way. And she totally does it.
Sarah Larson 18:21
That is awesome.
Nick Quah 18:21
It's a fantastic show. I will go to bat for this show anytime. Alright, Sarah, number two.
Sarah Larson 18:29
My number two is Reveal: American Rehab, which is... Reveal, the series, the long, ongoing investigative series is hosted by Al Letson, but the main reporters on this series were Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, and Ike Sriskandarajah. And the concept of the series is, it starts out with this woman, Penny Rawlings, whose brother is essentially trapped in this rehab program. It's like a residential thing called Cenikor, and people basically end up working there for free, or very little money, as a part of like, "work therapy," is the concept. And it's it's kind of bonkers, but beyond that, it's really abusive. And it's not really about people's sobriety so much as about making money for various somewhat nefarious interests.
Penny Rawlings 19:26
They told us that it was eight months. He would be there eight months, which is a lie.
Shoshana Walter 19:32
Cenikor's program was actually two years long.
Penny Rawlings 19:36
Well, then I found out he was not allowed to talk to us. We were not allowed to have any contact with him.
Shoshana Walter 19:43
Not until Tim had been there at least three months--no phone calls, no visits. And there was one more issue, a big one: Penny says a Cenikor staff member had told her that on-the-job training was part of the program.
Sarah Larson 19:59
But then just the way that it takes you through the history of the forming of the program, which actually reminded me a lot of Scientology--like, even the founder, the old tapes of the founder sounded a lot like L. Ron Hubbard to me, kind of in the energy, and the zeal, and the wackiness, and then how many people kind of went along with it. Also, the music happened to be great. There happened to be a lot of jazz musicians who were involved in this heroin rehab scene in the 50s, and they just had these great recordings of some of their music. So there are really colorful people involved, and the reporting was so, so well done, and sensitively, and divided up nicely, and vigorously, and they must have been reporting it for years.
Nick Quah 20:47
Rebecca, what's your number two?
Rebecca Lavoie 20:49
Well, I'll confess in advance that my number two and number one are actually both tied for number one, and they're very different from each other. And that's why I couldn't rank them. So I'm going to put, as my first number one, Canary, from the Washington Post. This is an outstanding podcast about this--it's very hard to describe, because it's hard to describe without spoiling it, and I really don't want to for anyone who hasn't listened to it--but the first episode is about a sexual assault that takes place, it's a street crime, a woman named Lauren, she's a hairstylist in Washington, DC, and she has a very difficult time in Washington, DC's court system around the justice around her crime. She kind of takes justice into her own hands--she hangs up signs around the neighborhood when the guy who attacked her doesn't get the sentence that she feels he should have gotten. But then at the end of the first episode--you know, there's a lot of journalism in this podcast, which I absolutely love. The Washington Post's Amy Brittain reported it, and the transparency of the journalism is she talks about publishing this article about Lauren, and then what happened afterwards. And what happened afterwards is actually what the podcast is about. It is shocking. It is stunning. It is beautifully made.
Amy Brittain 22:05
One day back in June of 2017, a young woman walked up and down a bustling street in Washington, D.C. She was carrying with her a stack of paper fliers that she passed out in bars, in restaurants, and in cafes. But these fliers, they were unusual. They weren't advertisements or lost and found posters. Instead they had screenshots of something called a case docket. It’s like a timeline of the major events of a criminal court case and it has the names of judges and lawyers and defendants. This docket showed that a man pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse. There were several photos of him, and at the top of the fliers, in bright red capital letters, it said: "This man has assaulted six women in D.C."
Rebecca Lavoie 22:58
One of the things that I often say on my show that, you know, not everybody loves the language, but it's it's true. A podcast that's especially difficult, like this one, carrying these heavy topics with it, it has to be well-made, it has to be entertaining--otherwise you will not want to listen to the next episode. And Canary really fulfills that. The way the story is structured, I just--I binged the whole thing in one day, and I loved it, and I didn't want it to end, despite the fact that it's about an incredibly difficult topic. I just thought it was a gorgeous podcast.
Nick Quah 23:31
I just want to confess here that I binged the whole thing after I filed my top ten list. [Laughter] And I agree with you, it's really, really hard to talk about this show without giving the game away. So should we just like quietly sashay to the next thing on our lists? [Laughter] Awkwardly step away from this pick? [Laughter] Okay, my number two pick, which is a very--I guess it's a very cliche pick for me, because this franchise was my number one in my top 10 list last year. It's Lost Notes: 1980. It's a show by KCRW, so it's KPCC's sister station—shout out. This season is completely hosted, written and hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib, who's this fantastic poet, essayist, cultural critic--incredibly interesting, just thinker about music and art, and this collection of stories... So Lost Notes in general, it's basically a collection, anthology, of stories about the music business and various people--artists and lives that sort of pass through it. And in this third season, it just clusters around all stories coming from the year 1980. So you have stories about John Lennon, and there's a really remarkable episode that links his... thematically links his death to the death of a punk icon named Darby Crash. And Hanif, as a poet, makes for a wonderful, amazing narrator.
Hanif Abdurraqib 24:56
Lesotho ran out of food, drink, and hotel space. People parked cars at the border and sat atop them, hoping to catch some sounds echoing out from the stadium. During the weekend, there were people who slept unbothered on the sidewalks, or who crammed themselves into the doorways of stores. There were emergency supplies sent in from nearby South African towns. The weekend itself was a celebration. A small fantasy of liberation peeled off from the decades of oppression. Oppression that, even during the concert itself, still hovered.
Nick Quah 25:29
And another thing that's really interesting about the show is how the actual story portions themselves are truncated--oftentimes, the story is told in about 12 to 15 minutes, maybe, and it's because of, you know, conditions of the pandemic, he was supposed to go out and do interviews, and my understanding was that it was supposed to be a more conventionally structured show. But the necessities of having to essentially flip it from a sort of documentary show into a series of essays--with, occasionally, long form interviews attached to the end, to substantiate the raw material of the episodes--the effect is amazing. And it really makes me think that there should be more essay-style shows. And 12-minute narrative episodes? Nothing wrong with that, would love more of that, especially when every word counts, which is a notion that poets prize in particular, I think. So that's my number two pick. I'll also not sure if either of you have heard it, but I will... This is my ride-or-die. This is my ride-or-die show. [Laughter] Rebecca, why don't we start with you for your second number one? Or "number 1B"? [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 26:35
Alright. My second number one is a podcast that you've all heard of. It is in a genre I typically hate, which is "a white guy explores something totally inconsequential for a long series"--long series.
Sarah Larson 26:50
I think I know what it is! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 26:51
Ooh! This is a topic of conversation. Yes, yes. [Laughter] We know where this is... Go ahead. [Laughter]
Rebecca Lavoie 26:55
Sarah Larson 26:55
Although I have two questions.
Rebecca Lavoie 26:56
Of course, my tie for number one podcast is Wind of Change from Crooked Media and Pineapple Street Studios. I want to say first, because I have the chance to and I have the microphone, Pineapple Street, and Pineapple Street Studios, is making the best podcasts being made right now, period. Producer Henry Molofsky is the best producer in podcasting, period. I do not, don't @ me. Listen, I work at New Hampshire Public Radio with the second- and third-best. [Laughter] But he's the best. Wind of Change... [Laughter] It's of course about Patrick Radden Keefe; he heard a rumor that the song "Wind of Change" by the Scorpions was actually written as a piece of propaganda by the CIA, and he goes on a long, winding journey to figure out if that's true.
Patrick Radden Keene 27:42
And the thousands of fans around me, Ukranians of all ages--older people who remembered the song when it came out and younger people who learned it from their parents--they all raised their cell phones in the air and we all seemed to sway together.
Patrick Radden Keene 27:59
You hear that? That yelp of blind enthusiasm? That was me. I mean, everybody in the place was singing. People were smiling. People had tears in their eyes. This song felt so different from all the others. And there were moments where Klaus would stop singing himself and just hold his mic stand out to the crowd.
Rebecca Lavoie 28:16
The reason I love this show is because it uses sound perfectly. This story could not have been told in any other medium besides podcasting. He also takes us on side trips that don't matter. We go to a convention at one point that doesn't matter, but it's a subculture that I've never heard of that was totally delightful. And it's also an exploration of political propaganda, which is incredibly timely, and listening to Wind of Change and looking at my Facebook feed at the same time felt like things were syncing up a little bit. [Laughter] So I just love this podcast. I didn't want to love this podcast. Again, it's a genre that I typically am like, "Oh, another one?" But I couldn't help it. I was charmed by it. I loved it. And that is Wind of Change.
Sarah Larson 29:05
I totally loved Wind of Change, too. I just like the fact that you can go in having heard that song, and maybe not caring about it, and you come out feel... I mean, I was so moved by, you know, maybe the second episode, when he's in that crowd listening to "Wind of Change," he's at a concert, just getting all moved. [Laughter] But thinking about what it might have meant to the people hearing it, and the idea of maybe, if the CIA did, I mean, that's such a thrilling idea, even if it's wrong. It's a great, fun...
Rebecca Lavoie 29:38
Sarah Larson 29:39
There is just something lighthearted about the pursuit of that question, but it's also really serious. I mean, that's just a great combination.
Nick Quah 29:47
Sarah, what's your number one?
Sarah Larson 29:48
Nick Quah 29:50
That is also my number one. I kind of figured that we'd have the same one. [Laughter]
Sarah Larson 29:55
Floodlines is a masterpiece. It's just... When you hear a podcast that is truly great, and it's part of your job to be a podcast critic, there's just an extra personal thrill of, you know, there's something that's incredibly well-reported, beautifully put together, emotionally compelling. And also, the tape in this podcast. I mean, I love what Vann Newkirk said on your show, Nick, about when you said, "Why do this as a podcast?" And he said, I think he said, "New Orleans is a city of storytellers," or stories, or something like that, right? It's a city of good talkers, for one thing, and the characters in the series are just so compelling. And so, so interesting and funny, often, but the sound design is obviously gorgeous. I mean, that first episode when the storm is coming, is art, you know? I mean, I just had to listen to it a bunch of times for pleasure, because I was just so blown away by it. And also, as a host, Vann Newkirk is, you know, it's beautifully written, it takes exactly the right tone of knowing that, assuming the audience's intelligence, but not being stiff. He talks like a normal person and a fun, relatable person, but he's also serious. I feel like it assumes the best of the listener, and also has fun with the listener when appropriate. And then that interview with Michael Brown was also just a masterpiece, at the end, I thought. The way he really pushes him, but he also shows compassion, and I think it's quite damning but it's also, you know, it accepts him for the flawed human that he is, working in a flawed system.
Michael Brown 31:54
I struggle with—and I know you, you’re not gonna answer the question—but it’s like, What do people want me to apologize for?
Vann Newkirk II 32:04
The paradox of Michael Brown seems to be this: All of his efforts to defend himself, to not be made a scapegoat… they seem to make it impossible for him to perform empathy. To understand why an apology from him might mean something.
Michael Brown 32:20
And maybe that’s a blind spot of mine. Very well could be. Either a blind spot or an unwillingness.
Nick Quah 32:30
I think you kind of hit a nail here when you said that, you can even listen to... So let me just put it this way: there are a lot of really great shows, really good podcasts, really good television shows, really great novels, that are about... that are beautifully, excellently composed masterpieces about hard things that I will never revisit, because it's so hard to sit through that again. And that is completely not what you get with the Floodlines experience, largely because each moment--and I feel like each episode--is still dealing with something that has a lot to chew on, and it does so in a way that doesn't carry that heaviness, doesn't carry that burden. It takes the burden as a given and takes the trauma as a given.
Sarah Larson 33:10
Nick Quah 33:10
And it mostly sort of like, "Alright, let's work our way through this."
Sarah Larson 33:13
Nick Quah 33:13
In a way that feels artistically accessable. Yeah, I mean, there's also a lot of really small choices that fuel, you know, it's the sum of small things that make a really big greater thing. The fact that he sounds exactly the same as a narrator as when he's an interviewer, that's not common.
Rebecca Lavoie 33:30
Nick Quah 33:30
And that says a lot about the performance style, you know? And I'm like, "Yeah," you know, "I'm getting... I'm accessing this person's brain," as much as I am accessing his perspective on this investigation and examination that he's doing. It's a fantastic show, and I hope The Atlantic does more like this, and I hope he does more more work in this medium. It's fantastic. Sarah, Rebecca, thank you so much for taking time talk to me. I hope the rest of the year goes well for you guys, and we'll be talking soon.
Rebecca Lavoie 33:57
Thanks a lot, Nick.
Sarah Larson 33:58
Nick Quah 34:18
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.