A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Three): Television, Fandom and Popular Culture

Television and other popular culture

Maureen Ryan is quite simply the smartest person writing about television today. Her tastes are refreshingly eclectic ranging from “quality dramas” like Rectify to genre series like Killjoys without any signs of High-Low bias. She fearlessly champions the interests of television fans, which is all the more remarkable given Variety‘s history as a spokesman for the television industry. She brings a feminist politics to such topics as the representation of sexual violence on HBO dramas like Game of Thrones or the female gaze into Outlander. She has been especially vocal in advocating for more diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. And no one can take down an overrated series like she can, as she demonstrated in a long rant  about the final episodes of Westworld. So when I want to get an engaging reading on new and old shows in the era of peak television, I search out the latest episode of Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan. Here Maureen Ryan is joined by Ryan McGee for a lively discussion of contemporary television landscape. As it happens, I’ve gotten to know Maureen Ryan through our mutual involvement with the Peabody Awards Committee and I’ve never met McGee but listening to this smart series brings all the pleasure of spending time with several friends who share my passions for the medium.

Rob Cesternino has parlayed an appearance on Survivor: the Amazon into a minor podcast empire. Rob Has A Podcast is essential listening for all fans of reality television. Originally, the podcast covered only Survivor with interviews with each contestant after they were voted off the island, detailed speculation and critical commentary on each episode, and ongoing exchanges with current and former contestants. Here we get a sense of what takes place behind-the-scene: being a reality’s contestant becomes a point of entry into a larger social community. Given that I have never missed an episode of Survivor in its many years on the air, this is the place I go to really geek out about a series that is off the radar for most of the rest of the viewing public. Rob Has a Podcast has expanded its coverage to incorporate a range of other reality programs including Big Brother, Celebrity Apprentice, Amazing Race, Hunted and The Bachelor franchise, as well as a podcast that picks up on oddball current events and popular culture.

I would love to be able to recommend to you a really top-flight podcast about comics and graphic novels. There certainly is no shortage of podcasts out there featuring middle-aged fan boys talking about the guys in capes, which reproduces the experience of hanging out at your local comic shop. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any of them whose tastes come anywhere near what’s on my current pull list. My tastes in graphic storytelling are eclectic but lean toward the margins. I certainly read some Marvel and DC material every month but I like the more offbeat titles there such as Hellcat or Squirrel Girl or Ms. Marvel or She-Hulk, even Silver Surfer. More often I like comics that combine genres storytelling with a more independent flavor (think Sex Criminals or Timberjanes), Saga or Papergirls). So if any reader out there knows of a good comics podcast, I’d love a recommendation. For the moment, the best match I found has been Word Balloons, an interview program which features long – and I do mean long – interviews with top comics writers and artists. Its host John Suintres wisely allows guests to dwell on their current obsessions and offers behind-the-scenes insights into why the comic business operates the way it does. I particularly enjoyed episodes where Brian Bendis discusses his experience at the Peabody awards for Jessica Jones or Kelly Sue DeConnick discusses the feminist politics behind her amazing Bitch Planet series.

I’m still making up my mind about The Comics Canon podcasts. Here, the hosts – again two middle-aged fan boys – explore one graphic novel per week, some old and some new, to explain their impact on the evolution of the superhero genre. If you want to understand why Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, or Frank Miller matter, this is the place for you. But, With the exception of Fun Home, they don’t branch very deeply into the independent comic scene.

More recently still, I’ve stumbled onto Comics from Grownups — their selection of materials skews much more towards the works being published by Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, and other independent comics publishers. I’ve grabbed a bunch of recommendations from them already and it is doing the job of helping me find interesting titles, but oddly, I am finding what they have to say about these books less interesting than which books they select to talk about, so this has not yet found its way to the top of my list yet.

Imaginary Worlds is my favorite podcast dealing with science fiction film, television, and literature. As its title suggests, the focus here is on world building which means we may explore the construction of a Nazi 1960s America in The Man in the High Castle one week, political allegory of the Death Star the next, different theories of magic in contemporary fantasy fiction the following week. Most episodes involve interviews with writers, both academic and popular, as well as fans and creative artist. I don’t know of any podcast that gets as deep into the underlying logic of fictional worlds as this one does. Imaginary worlds has dedicated long series of episodes dedicated to various aspects of Star Wars and Harry Potter, but is also done one offs on everything from Octavia Butler, The Golem and the Jenni and The Wizard of Oz. It helps that the host Eric Molinsky in this case came with a history of having worked at Pixar and brings an insider’s take on the creative choices shaping our favorite franchises. And lately, he’s been exploring issues of race and representation in popular media, stepping aside to allow guest hosts of color to describe their relationships to, for example, Last Airbender on their own terms.


Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
features Casper ter Kulle and Vanessa Zoltan, two theologians in training from Harvard, working their way through JK Rowling’s books chapter by chapter and finding a surprising array of spiritual allegories. The two hosts are knowledgeable about the fantasy genre and its fandom and they take the books seriously in terms of exploring why they have been meaningful to so many people. On the one hand, they use the discussions of the books to explore debates about theology and moral philosophy, applying a range of different interpretive strategies just to see what will work. On the other hand, they are moving through the books in a more systematic fashion than any book club would with the result that we come away with much deeper understanding and appreciation of what Rowling accomplished with the series.

Making Oprah is a three-part series which traces the emergence of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. It touches on all the high points of Winfrey’s career for her debut on local television to her provocative dialogue with a room full of racist whites from Forsyth County, Georgia, through the debut of her highly influential book club, the mass giveaway of automobiles, and her turn toward more spiritual content. This limited series interviews many of the people who shaped Oprah’s career including an unprecedented level of access to the star herself. I’ve never considered myself an Oprah fan but I found myself consistently fascinated by the documentary series’ insights into the rise and fall talk television.

No podcast out there provides as rich and as varied a depiction of contemporary fan culture and politics as Fansplaining does. I may be biased since one of the two hosts, Flourish Klink, is my former student and my son’s professional colleague. But this is where I go to keep abreast of new forms of fan culture and emerging figures in fandom studies. I will be featuring an interview with the two host on my blog later this spring. An underlying strength has been the podcast’s ongoing coverage of the politics of racial diversity within the fan communities, with guests including a fair number of fans and acafans of color. I’m also impressed by the podcast’s ongoing coverage of research dealing with historical roots of today’s fan culture. And Fansplaning has done valiant efforts to expand the range of phantoms under consideration, dealing with fans of sports, games, and popular music alongside fans of genre fiction. Both of the hosts grew up to fandom and maintain strong identification with various corners of the fan communities. Flourish Klink now consults with the media industry as they think through new strategies for interacting with their fans. Elizabeth Minkel is a working journalist often covers fan-related topics during her day job. The result is less polished or rehearsed than some of the more professionally produced podcasts, but it comes from the heart and more importantly from the community.

I am just discovering Black Girl Nerds but so far I’ve been impressed by the scope of the topics it covers and by the originality of perspective it brings the bear on even the most familiar science fiction series. I first encountered it in a search for good discussions of Afrofuturism but my favorite episode so far have been interviews with creative artist such as Marjorie Chiu, the woman behind this years critically acclaimed Monstress series, and Riz Ahmed, the American Muslim actor gaining visibility for his appearances in The Night Of and Rogue One. In both cases, the use of critical race theory brought out aspects of these artists’ work that I’ve not seen in other conversations. Politics of diversity remains a hot button issue both within fandom and fandom studies. Most of the news has been focused on white male backlash against “politically correct” casting decisions. This focus allows the industry to go slow in embracing inclusion for fear of alienating their core market. But one doesn’t have to look far to find discussions like those on this podcast where fandom is way out of front of the creative industries in its call for greater diversity of representation within popular media.