A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Six): Everyday Wonders

Everyday Wonders

I decided to call this installment Everyday Wonders because each of the podcasts I’m discussing here take as their core subject matter the practices of everyday life. They managed to turn subject matter that we take for granted into stories that are fascinating and engaging. In part this has to do with the skills of their hosts as storytellers and investigators. These podcasts also popularize some of the core insights of cultural studies: the culture is ordinary, that humans do not involve themselves in activities that are meaningless, and that looking beneath the surface of everyday life may help us to understand hidden assumptions and values that shape who we are and how we see the world.

I’m a huge fan of the Kitchen Sisters who were early entrants into this podcast game and they have continued to explore new subject matter in imaginative ways. I would flag two series produced by the Kitchen Sisters. The first is called Hidden Kitchens and is a global exploration of the place of cooking, food, and the kitchen. Sometimes the series takes an historical approach as with an episode devoted to the impact of the internment camps on Japanese-American cooking or a study of the bake sales held to support the Montgomery bus boycott. Other times the series explores the history of familiar objects such as Tupperware, Rice-a-Roni, or the George Foreman grill. Other episodes may deal with specific groups of people and their relationship to food — for example, the chili Queens of San Antonio.

The second Kitchen Sisters series, Fugitive Waves deals with the history of recorded sound and often brings to our attention long-lost treasures recorded on vinyl or audio tape. I first discovered the series via an episode called “Bone Music” which dealt with the underground circulation of western pop music in Cold War Soviet Union. Pirated music was recorded on on old x-rays, with the result that underground music became known as bone music. One of the first episodes in the series dealt with the ways Thomas Alva Edison promoted himself and his phonograph. Another shared some informal recordings that Tennessee Williams made goofing around one Midsummer afternoon. One of my very favorites explores the storytellers and musicians who were hired to amuse the workers at cigar factories in Havana and Miami. This series is consistently imaginative and self-aware about its own audio strategies.

I discovered the “Bone Music” episode thanks to a crossover with 99% Invisible, another long-running podcast series. 99% Invisible deals with the history of design, in particular the design of things that we take for granted in our immediate surroundings. Episodes deal with the architecture of McMansion, the history of the NBC chime, how food gets photographed for advertising, the evolution of the Monopoly game, and the conventions surrounding the design of superhero costumes. Some episodes may explore specific historical locations like the Stonewall bar, the site of some of the earliest gay-rights uprisings or the kind of fusion architecture that shapes Chinatowns in major American cities, understood here as reflecting the complex politics of racial assimilation and exoticism that has marked the history of Asian Americans.

Nate DiMeo, host of The Memory Palace, may be the best storyteller in the contemporary podcast medium. One can imagine a history of revolutions in radio storytelling that takes us from Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion to Ira Glass on This American Life to Nate DiMeo on The Memory Palace. In each case, a distinctive personality establishes a style of delivery, a rhythm, a narrative structure, and a particular voice that sets them apart from what was there before and provides a model for the next generation that will follow. The Memory Palace, as the title suggests, is fascinated with the nature of history and popular memory. Its stories are at once personal and shared. There is an overarching sense of nostalgia and yet a willingness to debunk the past at the same time. Often we are revisiting the past to discover outlaw figures who might belong in another time and place, such as the protagonist of “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted,” the story of a cross-dressing woman in the 19 century. So much can be gleaned about the tenor of the Memory Palace by reading the titles of some of their best episodes. “Notes on an imaginary plaque to be added to the statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest upon hearing that the Memphis city Council has voted to move it and exhumed the remains of Gen. Forest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forest.” “50 words written after learning that the Arctic bowhead whale can live up to 200 years.” “Six scenes in the life of William J Saitus, wonderful boy.” “A brief eulogy for consumer electronics projects.” Don’t these sound like stories you’d like to know more about?

Sleepover starts out like a reality television series brought to podcast, something like an audio version of Big Brother. Three people from radically different backgrounds, each struggling with some personal challenge, are invited to spend the night together at a sleepover in a hotel room, during which they are encouraged to provide each other with life advice and emotional support. The strength of the series lies in its casting – the characters are always three-dimensional and we are given a chance to get to know them over an episode dedicated to each. Although personal revelations occur throughout, the series never feels voyeuristic or exploitative, in part because of the host Sook-Yin Lee’s remarkable ability to bridge across differences. I leave each episode with a sense of hopefulness about our ability to overcome some of the polarization in contemporary culture. I’m especially touched by the producers willingness to treat children’s experiences alongside adult’s, and the willingness of the adult participants to treat the young ones as their equals as they work through issues together and as children offer insights well beyond their years.

Mystery Show and Heavyweight suggest the emergence of yet another potential genre in the podcast world – mystery shows where detectives deal with everyday dilemmas. Heavyweight is interested in the emotional dynamics and the psychological consequences of digging up chapters of our lives that might’ve been closed years ago. The pilot episode bring together Buzz and Sheldon, two quarrelsome brothers in their 80s who haven’t spoken to each other in decades; the host Jonathan Goldstein goes along for the ride, sometimes rattling their cages, sometimes throwing a lifeline but ultimately interested in seeing whether they can overcome a lifetime of differences. Another episode deals with Gregor who has loaned his old friend Moby a cd of American folk music and whose built up resentment over the years that the techno composer never returned his record. Sometimes Goldstein revisits his own past as in an episode where he reconnects with his first girlfriend. “Julia” explores the issue of childhood bullying and what both bullies and victims remember and forget through the ears.

Mystery Show is more interested in the detecting process as a young woman, Starlee Kine, tries to solve some very complex questions having to do with popular culture, such as figuring out what happened to a video store that seemingly disappeared overnight a decade before, tracking down the owner of a distinctive belt buckle found in the streets, or figuring out what’s going on in a particular cryptic picture on the side of the Welcome Back Kotter lunchbox. Kine is dogged in her shoe leather work and imaginative in her use of social media to solve each challenging question. The episodes are as interested in the wrong turns and red herrings as they are with the final solution, though both are of interest because of the insights they shed on the world we live in. Kine reminds me of Veronica Mars if she was given a chance to host an NPR show. Both Heavyweight and Mystery Show are a lot of fun, not the least of all because of the vividness of the characters depicted, as compared to the suspects on a television procedural.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of contemporary podcasting — having said nothing, for example, about the revival of radio drama there, a topic to which I hope to return before much longer.

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