Announcing Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” UCLA May 5, 2017.

The following is a hold the date announcement for the next Transforming Hollywood conference. Some speakers are still being confirmed as we post this. I will add their details as they get resolved.

 Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” UCLA May 5, 2017.

Co-directors, Denise Mann, UCLA and Henry Jenkins, USC 

Overview: Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” reframes Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay about technology’s double-edged sword: mechanical reproduction fundamentally alters the original artwork’s unique auratic properties but makes it accessible to the masses. According to Ted Striphas, “…the growing prevalence of recommendation features such as those you find on Amazon.com [signals the] displacement of human judgment into algorithmic form [which] raises all sorts of questions about taste aggregation — questions with which scholars in the humanities …have only begun to grapple.” Streaming on-demand services grant consumers greater choice and democratic access to media content (letting us choose what to watch and when to watch it); however, the terms of this exchange is unfettered access to our consumer impulses via sophisticated surveillance tactics that track our online activities 24-7.

 

Ted Hope, the newly appointed head of Amazon Studios’ film division, lays out the implicit pact we’ve forged with the major tech platforms: “Amazon Studios’ flood of investment in the movie business is designed to revive a market for independent films….” However, at the same time, he observes wryly: “At Amazon, to quote Jeff Bezos, we make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the (e-commerce) platform.” Welcome to the future of art (as advertising) in the age of algorithmic culture.

 

While Netflix has received the lions’ share of press and notoriety for disrupting traditional Hollywood given its $6 billion investment in original content and its global expansion to 190 territories, the “big four” tech platforms—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA)—have infinitely more capital (and data) to spare when it comes to the risky business of growing a media and entertainment industry. Each has its own core business to fall back on: Google has search and advertising; Apple has its hardware-software business; Facebook has social and advertising; and Amazon has its ecommerce business. Media, it turns out, is the ideal lure to keep users inside of their powerful digital ecosystems as long as consumers accept datavaillance as the price of admission.

 

As Hollywood and Silicon Valley battle for supremacy, the current crisis in media stems from an unmanageable sea of online content made available by competing subscription-based (SVOD) and advertising-supported (AVOD) streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Red, Vimeo, Seeso, Crackle, CBS Everywhere, HBO Go, CW Seed, Verizon Go90, and so forth. The streaming music services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Tidal, have also joined the original content derby, with Apple’s repurposing of James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke and Tidal’s exclusive streaming of Beyonce’s Lemonade being prime examples. Compounding the surplus of data-driven content churn are the millennial-facing online news formats, such as Vice, Buzzfeed, and Mic; each is disrupting legacy news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, once revered for their veteran editors who curate the news and seasoned reporters who research all sides of complex issues. The backlash that followed the recent election cycle prompted Wired to report: “There’s a very dark mood in Silicon Valley right now…. Google and Facebook also seem to be feeling a need to grapple with the role they have played. Both have undertaken highly visible initiatives to curb fake news….” While the platforms were able to scale rapidly by giving unfettered access to all forms of third-party-generated content, in their new role as original content producers, the tech founders are starting to reflect on their social responsibility to curate culture.

This year’s conference examines the legacy of Netflix and YouTube as influencers, creator-entrepreneurs, and engineers all contribute to the seemingly endless flood of scripted series and short-form, snackable content that vies for our attention. One question looms large—will flesh and blood experts or data-driven algorithms ultimately control the production, delivery, and reception of our shared cultural knowledge going forward? Welcome to the age of algorithmic culture.

 

THE PANELS:

9:00-9:15AM: Introduction: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture.

Welcome by Transforming Hollywood by co-directors Denise Mann (UCLA) and Henry Jenkins (USC).

 

9:15-10:20 AM: Keynote Presentation by Ted Striphas, “Algorithmic Culture.”

 

10:20-10:30: Break
10:30-12:00: Panel One: Playing with Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces

moderated by Denise Mann, Professor, School of Theater, Film, Television, UCLA.

 

Description: Peak TV’s premium quality TV series may be grabbing headlines, but new, addictive forms of “snackable” content have become one of the preferred ways for brands to access millennials and Gen-Z’ers—digital natives whose facility with multitasking across mobile screens means they prefer images, short videos, and emojis over lengthy (con)textual exchanges. Charles Eckert’s essay, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” reminds us that Hollywood was always inextricably linked to consumer culture since the first cameraman pointed his camera at actors standing in front of a shop-window in the 1910s; however, it is important to recognize the massive shift underway as the new “social media logic” associated with the 21st century effaces the “mass media logic” that dominated in the 20th century.

The corporate gatekeepers of the tech economy are engineering innovative user experiences (UX) and user interface (UI) features, such as touch, liveness, and VR/AR, to keep us happily engaged on their platforms for extended periods of time. Hence, we are encouraged to click, like, share, and comment on an arsenal of new, addictive, forms of online entertainment, which include: Pokemon Go, Snapchat filters, Amazon Twitch, Facebook Live, Instagram Shop Now Buttons, and Pinterest Pins. Today’s panelists represent key stakeholders whose in-depth understanding of UX/UI design elements is facilitating new forms of algorithmic culture designed to enhance our sense of play inside 24-7 digital ecosystems.

PANELISTS:
  • Rob Kramer, Founder/CEO, Purpose Labs
  • Ted Striphas, Professor, Colorado University
12:00-12:15PM Break
12:15-1:45 PM Panel Two:  “Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation”

Moderated by Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism; School of Cinematic Arts, USC.

Description: Sensationalism is scarcely new in the history of American journalism, and the circulation wars of the early 20th century contributed to the rise of “yellow journalism,” as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitizer and the other media tycoons of the era fought for the eyeballs of an expanding American readership. Today’s “fake news” also has its roots in new struggles over circulation, though in this case, the circulation of news through social networking sites. The role of “fake news” in the past presidential campaign has been hotly contested, with the current administration accusing CNN and the New York Times as publishers of “fake news,” while others point to the role which Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms played in blurring the line between reliable and questionable media sources.

 

Fake news thrives because it is often more emotionally targeted than traditional journalism: because it is designed to shock and outrage its readers, because it often conveys what people living in filter bubbles already believe to be true about the world. Fake news is news which has been manufactured to spread like wildfire without regard to its accuracy or its consequences.

 

What do we know about fake news and the people who produce and consume it? What does it tell us about the place of journalism in the era of algorithmic culture and social media? What efforts are being made by the social media companies to take responsibility over their role in the spread of misinformation? What alternative models for journalism are emerging within the same environment to insure more trusted curatorship over news and information? How are the struggles over what constitutes “fake news” shaping our current political realities?

 

PANELISTS:
  • Mark Andrejevic, Associate Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College
  • Brooke Borel, a science writer and journalist; contributing editor to Popular Science.
  • Hannah Cranston, guest host & producer, The Young Turks; host of FoxTV’s Top30TV; host and EP of ThinktankFeed.
  • Jon Passantino, deputy news director for BuzzFeed News, Los Angeles.
  • Laura Sydell, Correspondent, Arts Desk, NPR.
  • Ramesh Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts.
1:45-2:45 Lunch
2:45-4:15 PM: Panel Three: “Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing, Cultural Curators”

moderated by Gigi Johnson, Founding Director, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

Description: Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and Google Play Music are the current leaders in the subscription-based and advertising supported music streaming derby—having locked down the majority of artists through massive licensing deals with the major music labels. The current crisis facing the streaming tech giants is the glut of choice available to consumers, who are drowning in an endless supply of things to watch, read, or listen to online. As a result, the streaming giants have enlisted “an elite class of veteran music nerds — fewer than 100 working full-time at either Apple, Google, or Spotify — who are responsible for assembling, naming, and updating nearly every commute, dinner party, or TGIF playlist on your phone,” according to Buzzfeed‘s “Inside the Playlist Factory.”

Apple Music started the trend in 2014 when it acquired Beats’ along with co-heads Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor, as their ultimate marketing weapon to challenge Spotify’s lead. Iovine insists that the tech corporations use the human music experts to guide tech engineers, and not vice versa, stating:“fans can smell the difference between a service where much of the product is dictated by algorithms or charts and one that is guided by more knowledgeable but equally passionate versions of themselves.”

This panel focuses on the growing industry of cultural curators who organize playlists “by reading endless music blogs, tracking artists before they have been discovered, and by maintaining contact with artists’ managers, producers, and label representatives.” Needless to say, the economic driver of this on-demand streaming culture is consumer data analytics targeting advertising brands. Feeling lonely after a particularly bad break up? Try listening to Adele while stuffing your emotions with a quart of Ben & Jerry’s and a diet Pepsi.

 

PANELISTS:
  • Rocío Guerrero Colomo, Head of Content Programming/Curation & Editorial, Latin Global, Head of Latin Culture, Shows & Editorial-Content Programming, Spotify
  • Alex White, Head of Next Big Sound at Pandora
4:15-4:30 Break

 

4:30-6:00: Panel Four: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV.”

moderated by Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and The Showrunner’s Roadmap.

 Description: Most credit Netflix with launching the 21st century “web TV” revolution and with it “peak TV” by introducing the phrase “binge-watching” into the lexicon and by fundamentally altering the way we watch and access television online. Everything changed, according to Thomas Schatz, when Netflix “…barged into the high-stakes original series programming derby in 2013 with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.” Never have so many buyers prompted so many creators to step up and pitch original concepts. FX conducted a study and determined that in the years 2009 to 2015, the number of scripted series went from 200 to 400+.

In 2016, Netflix produced 600 hours of scripted TV and in 2017 it said it would spend $6 billion on both scripted and acquired series. The good news is the excitement associated with this ramp up of creative opportunity; the bad news is that in the current world of overabundant online content, consumers are swimming in series they’ll never see once, let alone watch in their entirety. As in previous eras, writers, actors, and showrunners with credits under their belt are in high demand and earning large salaries to attach their names to lesser known creators. At the same time, untried writers, actors, and comedians are staking their futures on self-financed webseries productions using personal funding from part-time jobs, crowdsourcing, and by promoting themselves on social media—all in the hopes of catching the lightning in a bottle success associated with Broad City, Insecure, and High Maintenance. Streaming TV is grabbing lots of attention (and subscribers), but the question remains: “Will the current boom cycle continue indefinitely or has ‘peak TV’ peaked?

PANELISTS:
  • Jessie Kahnweiler, creator, The Skinny (Hulu)
  • Zander Lehmann, creator, Casual (Hulu)
  • Dawn Prestwich, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon)
  • Nicole Yorkin, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon)

 

6-8PM Reception

You can register here for the event.

How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Three)

You and your interview subjects have a lot to say about genre across the book. Is genre still important as a means of marketing specific programs and targeting specific audiences? Are new genre categories emerging in this era of experimentation and differentiation? What genres do you see as most characteristic of the current television environment?

Marketing executives like to classify and categorize shows in order to package and sell them.  It’s often an easy “pass” (rejection) when a series doesn’t fit into one genre.  The network execs usually say: It’s too all over the place.
But now we have some phenomenal half hour dramedies that defy classification — and that happens to excite me: Atlanta, Baskets, Better Things, Louie, Insecure, Orange Is the New Black, Casual, Derek, Master of None, Transparent, Fleabag, Better Call Saul.  Even M*A*S*H blurred the line between comedy and tragedy, but was always known as a comedy series (with accompanying laugh track).
Are they comedies or dramas?  I say: who cares.  Just watch and have your mind blown. They don’t always go for the joke. They push their characters to the edge. They make us cringe and/or recoil. But I, for one, can’t look away.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke the traditional sitcom mold, in my humble opinion; it’s created a new genre unto itself.  Ditto: Baskets.  Ditto: Atlanta which features, in random measure, dark and light, funny and serious, and magical realism. It’s winning accolades and praise and deserves them all.
I don’t watch TV to see the same old, same old.  I want to be surprised!  I don’t want to fall asleep to my TV.  I want it to wake me up.
We’re also seeing more historical series (from long ago to the more recent past) and science-fiction series that defy our expectations: The Crown, The People vs. OJ, Stranger Things, Westworld.  Game of Thrones is such a game changer because it demands viewer engagement in a multi verse, and viewers of all ages are addicted to its story lines and cast of thousands.
There’s an interactive component to these out of the box genre-bending or genre-transcending series; we don;t just watch them, we discuss them. They’re in the zeitgeist.  They’re part of the national and global conversation.  It used to be that I’d ride the subway and everyone was reading a book or newspaper; now everyone is watching TV content on their smart phones, headphones on, fragmented attention spans processing.
Multitasking has become like breathing. We can consume content faster than ever and store that data for our social interactions; maybe it’s because we’ve freed up our memory by not needing to memorize so many facts and figures anymore; it’s all stored on our iPhones and available in a matter of seconds via google.  We’re distracted, addicted, restless, and need constant stimulation or else we’re bored.
Familiar genres tend to increase boredom, but familiar genres with a fresh spin can engage us in new and exciting ways.  True Detective (season one) was a tried and true detective series (the most prevalent genre), but it was an existential detective series.  Bloodline (on Netflix) isn’t just a family ensemble drama/soap opera; it’s a new genre: family noir. Mr. Robot provides us with an unreliable narrator and revels in destabilizing its viewers; the show dares us to guess what’s going to happen next.  The Leftovers (on HBO) is also it’s own genre: the rapture drama, inviting us into a world that defies explanation.  The season two opener offers a teaser that’s astonishing and rapturous.  Damon Lindelof knows what he’s doing, even though it’s not a show for everyone.

Alongside genre there is the question of format. At places, you and your subjects suggest that the procedural will die out with the generation which grew up on the broadcast networks. Why has serial television become so central to the new media economy and ecology you are documenting here? And what do we make of the return of anthology series, such as Black Mirror, or of series with short story arcs, such as American Crime Story and American Horror Story?

I covered this one above, too.  I should have read all the questions in advance, but I enjoy the spontaneity.  Sorry!  Suffice it to say, that audience engagement is stoked by the audience’s relationship with the characters.  If it’s a limited series, that relationship needs to grip us right out of the gate (such as with the exceptionally engaging The Night of on HBO).
Longer serialized shows translate to long term relationships, involving shifting allegiances, and often a love-hate dynamic.  Sometimes we root for Frank Underwood, sometimes we root for Claire.
The same applies to unscripted documentary series.  Making a Murderer was a limited series but I kept changing my mind as to Steven Avery’s guilt.  Ditto: The Jinx.  And this also applies to scripted series like The Night Of.  Give me a complicated mystery that’s smart and airtight and I’ll follow you anywhere.
The Affair on Showtime destabilizes us with multiple perspectives of the same event, Rashomon style. Sure, it’s a narrative trick, a device, but it works beautifully and pulls you in.  UnREAL also provokes and destabilizes.  It’s pitch black comedy and satire and soap opera and reality TV all rolled into one.  Black Mirror (which I refer to in my book as “The Twilight Zone on digital crack”) is just so damn disturbing because it’s not wholly science-fiction; it’s already happening, or will possibly happen soon.  It’s both prescient and portentous.  I can’t get enough.
Yes, it’s problematic that we have to wait so long for new episodes of some of our favorite series.  Between seasons of ambitious, expensive shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and House of Cards can take more than a year.  Due to Donald Glover’s busy acting schedule (hello: Star Wars), we won’t be getting new episodes of Atlanta until 2018; it’s a disruptive show that’s being disrupted.

One of the bigger surprises in recent years has been a resurgence of radio formats and genres through podcasts. Can we see the success of Serial and its successors as a byproduct of the same sea changes in production, distribution, and consumption you discuss here primarily in terms of television?

I can certainly foresee a TV version of Serial and other podcasts.  These radio programs are now valuable IP with built in audiences, and they’re also based on the irresistible allure of a great central mystery with twists and turns.  They’re both interactive (whodunit?) and voyeuristic, like the best of so-called “unscripted” TV.  It takes us inside the world of the crime and behind the scenes of the painstaking investigation. BUT ALL WITH A SLOW BURN.
Broadcast network procedurals tend to offer crime and punishment in one closed-ended episode, fast resolution, easy justice.  These serialized podcasts engage us and keep us on the edge of our seats but don’t offer black and white resolution.  The investigation usually just leads to more questions.  Justice is elusive.  These podcasts and true crime stories are grounded in realism, and hook us in based upon the vicarious thrill of both being there and re-experiencing the crime, or even by putting us in the position as viewers/listeners and thinking: What if this happened to me?

Critics describe these breakthrough programs as possessing distinctive voices or perspectives, a shift that we can see as closely associated with the rise of the Showrunner as a kind of television auteur. Many of the folks you interview are showrunners, so what insights might we get from reading the book about the emergence of author-based television production?

Great showrunners have all the power in the TV business — whether they originally created the show or have been brought in to run the operation.  Their sensibilities, leadership skills, and vision have brought them hard-earned reputations that they can and will deliver a high quality TV show on time and within a prescribed budget.  A fresh, original idea is good.  Being able to execute that idea in an exciting, authentic, visionary, accessible way is invaluable.
And several of our more famous show runners choose to run several shows at the same time: Chuck Lorre, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti. I don’t know what drives them, but running one show is arduous and requires incredible stamina.  Delegation is key.
But these show runners have stories to tell and characters to birth. They are their own brands.  We trust them to deliver on the promise of the premise.  I asked Norman Lear how he’d managed to run multiple shows.  How did he handle all the stress?  He wisely replied: “Yes, it was incredibly stressful.  But there’s such a thing as good stress.”  Those were the days….

Several of the new players you discuss in this book are moving away from the pilot process that shaped old television production. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

 
I’ve covered the wisdom behind this above.  Ted Sarandos has condemned what he calls the idiotic, fiscally irresponsible, wasteful, inefficient pilot process.  I tend to agree with Ted (hey, you can’t argue with success).  One hour drama pilots can cost upwards of $5 million — and never air.  That’s unsustainable and nutty.
But there is value in looking before you leap.  But in today’s on-demand, binge-viewing TV landscape, the demand for fresh new content exceeds the supply.  If you’re a TV network or platform, better to be first with a new series than a day late and a dollar short.  In other words, everything is moving much too fast to calculate catching lightning in a bottle.
There is no magic formula to a hit series, no matter how much a network retools an ostensibly “broken pilot.”  Mr. Robot got on the air because the assistants at USA Network and NBCU rallied for it; at first, their bosses just didn’t get it.  But the inner-office fandom was overwhelming.  Most groundbreaking shows had and have a rough road making it on the air.  But shows from All in the Family and Breaking Bad to Black Mirror and Atlanta beat the odds and entered the zeitgeist.  The rest is history.

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Two)

Your opening section pays attention to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and others who have produced television style content for the web. In what ways have these networks become game-changers in terms of what we think television is? In what ways are broadcast and cable networks responding to the alternative models they represent?

Serialized content used to scare the broadcast networks because if you missed an episode or two, they were afraid you’d never come back.  But in an on-demand landscape, no one misses anything; the modern scourge is the spoiler.
I love the paradox of today’s TV landscape in which people try to watch everything but it’s impossible due to the number of shows. So when you start to tell someone about a great new show that they haven’t seen, they usually stop you with: “I can’t wait to see it. Don’t tell me anything!”
Sony Crackle is advertiser supported, but they circumvent the pilot process and go straight to series (and then offering all episodes all at once for the binge viewing experience.  Hulu started as a second window platform, but soon realized they could only compete if they offered original series of their own.  Netflix and Amazon both complete for exclusivity and originality, but there’s a big difference between their business models; while Netflix is a media company, Amazon in a retail company.  They’re each making their own programs now and aiming to cut out the middle man studio.
But Amazon Studios exists as a magnet to their online shopping mall experience (with free shipping for Amazon Prime members).  Netflix needs to keep its subscriber base happy so they keep paying their monthly dues.  Streaming and premium cable depend on subscriptions and are considered utilities versus broadcasters, giving the subscription networks much more freedom from censorship.
The broadcast networks and basic cable networks still need to please advertisers, necessitating Standards and Practices (a form of censorship) to avoid any content that’s too edgy or morally objectionable and could taint an advertiser’s brand. The subscription networks are only beholden to their subscribers.  And so edgier, more provocative content on streaming and premium cable has pushed the broadcast networks to improve the quality of their shows; we now see riskier shows, niche shows, and bolder choices being made across all platforms.
Mr. Robot has helped redefine USA network.  It might not appeal to your typical zombie-loving fan base of The Walking Dead, but it’s certainly darker, edgier, and smarter than most basic cable shows.  Consequently, all networks are raising the bar: This Is Us (on NBC), Animal Kingdom (on TNT), UnREAL (on Lifetime?!), American Crime (on ABC) to name a few.
And with niche content attracting viewers on streaming and premium cable, we’re also seeing greater diversity and authenticity in casts, plot lines, and in writers’ rooms.  

Many of the storytellers you interviewed spoke of the differences in producing series which are meant to be binged watched. What are some of the core insights to emerge about this new form of media consumption?

When you circumvent the pilot process, you’re removing some of the fine tuning and audience testing checks and balances in the system. And when all or most of the episodes are written in advance of even starting production, the show runners have less opportunity to course correct.  Re-shoots are costly and time consuming.  To create a show that’s intended for the full episode drop for binge viewing requires a more visionary show runner than ever before.  They have to see the whole season in advance, as opposed to finding the show throughout the season and adjusting according to audience response, chemistry among actors, and latent discoveries made.

You map a complex media ecology throughout the book. How much movement is there between the different levels of media production? For example, many of us are watching Issa Rae, who you interviewed, bring Insecure onto HBO after years of being a web television producer. Are there things we can observe there which may help us anticipate further movements of this kind in the future?

The audience is in control in the on-demand world.  But the content creators are also much more in control of their destinies if they can think like creative entrepreneurs.  Issa Rae made Awkward Black Girl at her own expense; it’s funny, authentic, and she writes, directs, and stars in it.  Issa knew she had something to say and an audience who wanted to tune in. She spent her own money to make her web series, which served as proof of concept.  It wasn’t a huge leap of faith for HBO to green light Issa’s hilarious and superb series, Insecure; she already had a substantial fan base and three seasons of Awkward Black Girl under her belt.
Yes, it’s always a risk to produce and distribute a new show, but the smart money was on Issa: her authentic voice,  grace, style, and talent.
High Maintenance followed a similar trajectory (from self-financed web series on Vimeo and i.am.other to HBO series.  In the old days, you had to start off at the bottom of the food chain as a freelancer or staff writer and work your way up the ladder.  Now, first-time creators are rapidly becoming show runners.  Look at Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and Zander Lehmann (Casual).  Unprecedented.

Throughout, you have much to say about struggles over diversity, inclusion, and representation in the contemporary television landscape. This is clearly a core issue at the moment — thus our recent Diversifying Entertainment conference. What did you hear from the industry insiders that might shed light on how they are thinking about this issue? In some ways, the question has to do with rapid expansion of minority-cast programming and its audience share over the past few seasons, but as you also note, some of the issue has to do with how under-represented minorities and women are both in front of and behind the camera. What factors are determining the speed with which these changes are taking place?

Before the recent Presidential election, I was getting optimistic on this subject.  Now… it’s anybody’s guess.
We could be entering a new era of ALT RIGHT, white-washed, unobjectionable and/or purely escapist shows.  I hope not.  I think we need a national catharsis, so I’m rooting for edgy, provocative shows that stir folks up — both audiences and content creators (aka writer/producers).  We’re not going to have a cultural revolution if everyone is sitting home watching Dancing with the Stars and Big Bang Theory.
Actually, the current political climate (it’s only Trump’s second week in office) could usher in a new creative Renaissance.  Only time will tell.  But I’m an optimist.  Shows like Atlanta and Mr. Robot give me hope.  It’s not that I believe all shows needs to address the ills of our society (racism, greed, climate change), but I want to be challenged to think about my place in the world when I watch a great TV series.
I don’t want to just be a complacent couch potato.  We don’t want our country to turn into WALL-E.  We must engage, question, and resist formulaic story tropes and stereotypes.  The first question I asked Norman Lear was “Does TV reflect our lives or do our lives reflect TV?”  His response was a little bit of both, but now more than ever there are shows that reflect myriad perspectives and lives.
And TV is a global business.  Netflix is now in every country except China and North Korea.  More and more shows are being distributed in their original language with subtitles.  This also gives me hope because when we are able to get a window on people in other parts of the world, it can engender compassion and empathy.  I like to believe that storytelling can not only inspire, entertain, and delight — but also it can change the world.

One of your section headings proclaims “niche is the new mainstream.” Is that true? How would you characterize the relationship today between niche and mainstream program? As the media market fragments, is there anything that can be characterized as mainstream programming?

I addressed this above, but Orange Is the New Black is a great example of a niche series (about women in prison) that has multiple entry points to attract a wider audience.  There’s Piper, the Caucasian blond protagonist, but then there are people of color, male guards, social worker, and wardens, and many ways to connect.  Theme is also a way for showrunners and creators to broader their niche appeal.
House of Cards is not a show about politics; it’s a show about powerTransparent is not a show solely about a transgender woman, it’s a show about identity.  Theme is universal and can take what might seem like a niche show and make it go mainstream.

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

How did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part One)

When was the last time anyone you know spoke of television as “a vast wasteland”? Certainly, television today is as vast as ever was, actually probably 100 times more so, but there more outstanding television series available to us each week can we possibly could watch.

Some are describing the current moment is the era of peak television or the age of too much great TV. A complex set of factors have contributed to wave after wave of creative experimentation, often involving idiosyncratic personalities, genre bending narrative strategies, and appeals to niche audiences. First premium cable and then streaming platforms challenged the dominance of broadcast and basic cable, pushing innovation outward even to the most conservative players. The challenge has become directing attention and ensuring access to all of the innovative new content. 

Neil Landau’s TV Outside the Box offers an essential guide to the opportunities and risks facing  the creative industry at the current moment. Longtime industry insider as well as a professor at the UCLA Cinema School, Landau seemingly had access to anyone and everyone he wanted to talk to. The book includes cogent, concise, lively and thoughtful interviews with network executives and show runners alike. Right now, the book provides the back story we need to understand what’s happening with this expansive medium and in the future, the book will be time capsule that preserves a transitional moment in television history. What I would give to have an equally vivid snapshot of television’s innovators in the 1950s or 1980s.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Landau in the fall and was immediately taken by the depth of his knowledge and passion for television as a medium. We spent the entire meal tossing off one new title after another as if playing Stump the Band. This guy knows everyone, watches everything. He understands the contours of this changing landscape like no one else I have ever met. The interview that follows will give you some simple taste of his insights into contemporary television culture.

Landau is working with UCLA’s Denise man and I plan for the next Transforming Hollywood event, coming up in early May. Watch here for further details coming soon.

You seem to have been able to interview all of the key players reshaping television at the current moment. Can you provide us some sense of the scope of different players represented in the book? What can you share of the process of getting all of these folks to speak with you?

I began my research more than 3 years ago (in 2014).  I could see how the TV business was changing the way the music industry changed, first with Napster and then, of course, iTunes.  I also saw parallel “on demand” tracks in transportation (Uber) and accommodations (AirBNB) and a little voice in me said: jump on this and track where this is going to transform the TV landscape.  Honestly, I began my research with the naive idea that I was simply covering the new platinum age of great TV series.  I started out with “beginner’s mind” and decided not to draw any conclusions until I went out into the field to gather data and multiple perspectives.  I knew I wanted to interview not only trailblazing showrunners (Jenji Kohan, Beau Willimon, Jill Soloway), but also network/studio executives (Ted Sarandos, Roy Price, Andy Kaplan) and a few icons (Norman Lear, Tom Fontana, Elliot Webb) to give the whole thing a historical perspective.
What I quickly came to realize was that this project was going to be much bigger than what I’d originally pitched to my publisher.  I could foresee a Digitial Television Revolution.  Being that TV Outside the Box (TVOTB) was my 4th book, along with my pedigree as co-director of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program and the book’s sponsorship by NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives), these interviews were relatively easy for me to secure (despite the scheduling and resheduling of several incredibly busy people).
I’d first met one of my idols, Norman Lear, at the NATPE conference in Miami in 2014, and he immediately agreed to participate.  Beau Willimon was a friend of a friend, and we became fast friends. Beau strongly encouraged me to include the legacy perspective and introduced me to Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide Life on the Streets, Borgia); Oz was HBO’s very first scripted one-hour drama series. Tom Fontana’s influence over TV content cannot be overstated. He’s the original trailblazer (along with Steven Bochco and Norman Lear).
The toughest interview for me to secure was Jenji Kohan whose a total workhorse and would rather write than talk about her process; but after a cold start (and fighting exhaustion), she warmed up to me.  Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty) was the most entertaining interview that took place in a seedy bar in Eaglerock and involved several cocktails.  Ricky Gervais (The Office, Derek) was the most surprising because he was so gracious and kind (and hilarious).  Charlie Brooker & Annabel Jones (Black Mirror) was the most fascinating and scary for me due to their prescient stories.

TV Outside the Box traces the contours of what you describe as “the revolution.” What characterizes the dramatic shifts in the nature of television, its content, its platforms, and its audiences your book seeks to document? What were some of the first signs that a revolution in television was taking place?

The on-demand nature and scope is what’s most revolutionary to me.  The audience is now in control and can dodge or completely avoid commercials.  The sheer volume of scripted TV content was and continues to exponentially rise.
When I was a kid, we had three TV networks and maybe 30-40 shows on the air, scheduled in time slots.  Now we have over 440 scripted series across too many platforms to mention here.  Are we currently in a “content bubble”?  Sure.  But I’m not sure that choice is ever a bad thing.  Is it sustainable for the studios and networks: probably not.  I see a natural form of attrition happening.
The bar keeps rising on high quality, engaging, fresh content, so the mediocre shows won’t last.  In the book I refer to this phenomenon as “digital Darwinism.”
Binge viewing is also a touchstone of the digital TV revolution.  Not only can we watch what we want, when we want, without commercial interruption, we can watch the whole season of series offered on Netflix and Amazon. I can foresee HBO, Showtime, and Hulu eventually following suit.
I also saw the decline of the TV industry’s reliance on the overnight Nielsen rating system — to the point where the overnight rating is virtually an irrelevant metric of a show’s success.  Most younger viewers don’t want TV content on televisions anymore, and they absolutely don’t watch anything in its prescribed time slot — unless it’s live sporting events.  To me, the only reason linear TV still exists is for live events.
We’re still in a TV ecosystem in which viewership is segmented by age and older viewers still tend to watch their favorite series in their time slot, for free, with commercials. But the younger generations are either agnostic (they find their favorite shows and don’t care what network it’s on) or they’re only watching highlights from shows on YouTube.
A summer TV landscape dominated by reruns is also going away.  Networks and platforms always need fresh, buzz worthy, exclusive, original content — or they’re toast.
The other enormous shift in the TV landscape has been its focus from broadest and safest shows to series that might appeal to a small, but fiercely loyal and dedicated audience; a subscription, on-demand streaming network needs lots of choice, not just a series that appeals to the widest possible audience, but multiple shows that may appeal to different slices of the audience.  One of the main theses of the book is: Niche Is the New Mainstream.

You characterize appointment television as an anachronism. I’ve argued that appointment television is giving way to engagement television, which places more emphasis on the choices that audiences make about when, where, and how they chose to watch television. Engagement has been a buzz word of the industry and crops up often across your interviews. What insights can you share about the ways television producers and executives are thinking about engagement?

Audience engagement is one of the programmers biggest challenges. With so many choices, how do you break through all the noise (the glut) and actually attract an audience?  If a show is great, it will generate buzz.  But what generates the buzz is a fresh, authentic experience, something new — and it’s going to have to be provocative and controversial (aka noisy) in order to get attention from the media (critics and social media influencers).
It used to be that the major networks could program a new series in the time slot immediately following one of their biggest hits. Now the platforms need to find different ways to engage the audience via new marketing trends and via transmedia.  Some great TV series take time and patience for the audience to connect.
Breaking Bad, for example, was only a modest performer when it premiered on AMC, but it turned into a cultural phenomenon when it premiered on Netflix.  Shorter episode orders and limited/anthology series (The Night Of, Fargo, True Detective, American Horror Story) have also made it possible for big movie starts to commit to doing a TV series.
Working in TV used to be considered a form of “slumming,” but that’s also changed.  Once David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese jumped into TV, it leveled the playing field.  Now everyone wants to work in TV — but the true icons mainly want to work on premium and high quality cable and streaming.  Showrunners now have a direct relationship with their show’s fan base.  Like our new president, they use Twitter and Facebook.  They live tweet during the episode.  What was once the office water cooler conversation the night after a show aired has transformed into the global water cooler via social media.

 

Neil Landau  teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT. His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle. Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release. In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy). From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.) Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

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.

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Five): Minority Reports

My interest in the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture also led me to the Still Processing podcast. Each week Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, both African-American, offer their perspectives on current events and especially popular culture. The contents might range from an in-depth interview with RuPaul to a frank discussion of our culture’s ongoing obsession with the black penis. But their strongest episode to date describes their first impressions of the new Smithsonian Museum and culminates with an extensive interview with one of the Museum’s curators which helps us to understand the logic by which the Institute set out to build and display this remarkable collection. Having gotten to know the hosts over more mundane matters, it was all the more moving to hear them describe the impact this new Museum had on their sense of themselves and their appreciation of their own history.

Given how often discussions of race in America center only on the black-white divide, I was excited to discover Code Switch, which has brought together a whole generation of young journalist of color currently working for National Public Radio. Code Switch brings a multiracial and often intersectional perspective to current events. For me, the highlight so far was an episode entitled “A letter from a Young Asian American to Her Parents about Black Lives Matter”, which was surprisingly frank in exploring historic divides between African-Americans and Asian Americans. A special holiday episode had reporters of various ethnicities describe traditional foods that cause them particular discomfort. Following the Orlando shootings, Code Switch explored what the events meant to GLBT, Latino, and American Muslim residents of the city. More recently, they launched a series examining Obama’s legacy. In the first episode they dug deep into the ways racialized rhetoric consistently shaped critiques of his public policies, including the ways that his critics crossed the lines traditionally protecting children from such public discourse. Yet they also talked about their own divided loyalties since many felt Obama had not gone far enough in addressing issues of civil rights and immigration reform.

In our recent book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, my co-author Sangita Shresthova provides an overview of the political lives of American Muslim youth. She tells us that these young Muslims were politicized in the wake of 9/11 whether they wanted to be or not: they are often forced to defend their cultural and religious identities. She describes a range of storytelling projects in the American Muslim community where these young activists find their voice and express their perspectives on changing times. Podcast are one of the many ways that we can begin to listen to what these young people have to say. #Good Muslim, Bad Muslim represents a particularly vivid example. Tanzila ‘Taz’ Ahmed is a LA-based activist and storyteller and her cohost Zahra Noorbakhsh is a San Francisco comedian actor and writer. These two young women share intimate aspects of their lives with their listeners as they describe their shared experience as Muslim women living in California. They explain the program’s title:

“To the Muslim community, we are “bad” Muslims – we listen to music, we don’t pray regularly, we date or get married to white men (Zahra), identify as punks and radicals (Taz), we perform and share our lives with comedy and writing. So we are bad. So so bad. To non-Muslims, we are “good” – we don’t drink, we don’t do drugs, we are not criminals, we are social justice activists and community leaders. We are successful, published, accomplished. But then of course, on the flipside, because we are brown Muslims living in a post 9/11 islamophobia funded world, we are also villanized by Western society, too. No matter how you look at it, we are bad Muslims. There’s no winning!!!! As Muslim American women, we are walking this fine line between what it means to be good and bad. “

What they share is funny and alarming in equal measures and that’s part of the point. Often they are turning the words of Islamiaphobes against themselves:they declare Fatawa against mundane aspects of the world around, showcase what they call Creeping Sharia — examples of support from unexpected corners, or share awkward conversations with the non-Muslim world and debunk common microaggressions directed against them.

Another useful podcast for gaining some insights into the American Muslim experience is See Something, Say Something. I especially enjoyed a series of episodes dealing with what it is to be an American Muslim fan, including one devoted to the recent Star Wars films entitled “Wookies are Muslim.” Other recent episodes of interest focused on memes as a means of challenging dominant representations or another centered on how Muslims decide whether or not to celebrate Christmas. All of these speak to the challenges of living as Muslims in a country that often wants to declare itself emphatically Christian – how to maintain your own identity while embracing aspects of the culture around you.

How to Be A Girl is perhaps the most intimate of the podcast identified today – – told from the perspective of a young mother with a transgender daughter. The podcast lacks the technical polish of the NPR podcasts but for that reason it often has an authenticity and sincerity that is refreshing as we engage in debates around gender and sexuality. We sometimes hear the young daughter’s rambling stories told into a tape recorder alongside her mother’s attempt to provide a fuller context of what it means to grow up transgender in the current public education system. A great episode has her grilling her friends with the questions she most often gets asked about how she knows her daughter’s gender and what she will do if she changes her mind later. Along the way, the mother becomes more and more of a public educator and activist around transgender issues, but she never stops being a dedicated and proud mother who was there to support her daughter during her first steps into an unfamiliar territory. Thanks to Jonathan Gray for bringing this particular podcast to my attention.

Making Gay History is an extraordinary resource for any of us who want to understand the changing sexual politics of this country. Historian Eric Marcus shares recordings made decades ago with some of the leaders and founders of the GLBT movement as part of his research for the book, Making Gay History. Each episode to date has been a treasure — a voice from the past — which provides a immediate sense of the struggle which has had to be fought to reach the current moment and how much work still remains to be done.

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Four): American Voices

In the wake of last year’s divisive election, there’s never been such an urgent need for Americans to be listening to each other. America is in the midst of a dynamic and dramatic demographic shift which is been building over the last several decades and extends into the horizon.  America is becoming a more diverse nation, one which will be minority – majority in a few more years. Some segments of the population have embraced these changes but others have been left out of this conversation, are less certain what the future holds for them, and were encouraged by this election cycle to react with fear and uncertainty. In this context, I feel an urgency to help build bridges between different communities. There is a classic story of Mark Twain hearing about the invention of the telegraph and being told that for the first time the people in Massachusetts would be able to speak to the people in California. His response was to ask what the people in Massachusetts had to say to the people in California. Today we might well ask what the people in Mississippi have to say to people in California. I’m very interested in the infrastructure and social capital that still holds the country together in the face of some of the sharpest ideological divides Americans have faced since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

It seems a terrible burden to place all of this on the back of podcasts, but because podcasts are such an intimate medium and support such diverse perspectives, they offer a unique opportunity for us to read each other’s mail. That is to say, podcasts allows us to listen into conversations that would otherwise be closed to us and as a consequence, hear perspectives we would not otherwise access. The podcasts I’m exploring today are ones that I use to bridge various cultural divides, to do my homework on race, gender and sexuality in America today, and otherwise broadened my access to minority perspectives.

Podcasts have been at the center of the movement over the last several decades to rediscover the dying art of storytelling. Alongside various forms of digital storytelling, they supported various communities interested in hearing stories of everyday life. Not since the mass observation movement in Britain during World War II has there been such a concerted effort to capture the details of how people live and make sense of the modern world. There is some tension here between podcast that emphasized the art and craft of storytelling and those which are trying for a more documentary style grittiness.

Those which emphasize highly professionalized and well-crafted stories – such as This American Life, The Moth and Snap Judgmentare often among the best-known examples of podcasting. Each has developed a distinctive voice and format but what they have in common is a fascination with the spoken word. On the other in the spectrum, I would play something like Story Corps, which sets up booths at various locations to collect more naturalistic accounts of everyday people’s experiences. Story Corps is at its best when the stories are organized around larger social themes and categories, such as an extended series they did several years ago about veterans returning from recent wars or their efforts to deal with the experience of transgendered people or any number of other projects which tackle questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity. We learn something about the value Story Corps places on voice and personal narrative by examining their standards mission statement: “StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

After the election results, many of us woke up the following morning with the strong sense that we didn’t fully understand America as well as we thought we did. Red America and Blue America were talking past each other, might’ve been doing so for many years. One of the best resources I’ve used to work through some of those feelings is a podcast that originates in West Virginia called Us and Them. This podcast explores the faultlines in American cultural and political life. It’s host Trey Kay models what I would describe as ethical yet critical listening. A progressive, he never the less is seeking out conservative voices with the goal not of knocking them down but of exploring why conservatives think what they do. He certainly doesn’t let anyone off the hook for misinformation or faulty logic. But he remains open to alternative vantage points and tries to provide some historical context for how they emerged. I was drawn to the podcast by his extensive reporting on the debates around the Confederate flag and its continual role in southern civic life. Us and Them has also done outstanding reporting on the textbook struggles in Texas, the so-called “war on Christmas”, addictions to opiates in rural America,gays living in small and rural towns, Islamaphobia and the experiences of recent refugees moving to middle America, and many other topics. I have been raving to anyone who will listen about Us and Them as a model for what other kinds of meaningful interventions might look like that bridge between different American realities. Often when people speak about the need to listen more fully to rural and working-class America – almost always read as white America – there is an anxiety that this will mean the displacement or marginalization once again of minority perspectives. This podcast continually shows shows us the importance of bringing multiple perspectives together as we try to unravel the complex history of the current culture wars. Along a similar vein, I might recommend Home of the Brave which comes from a westerner’s perspective and has been doing a fantastic job covering debates around environmental preservation and especially around native American politics. Thanks to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl from the National Writing Project for calling this one to my attention.  Both have done some compelling episodes interviewing everyday Trump supporters.

For me, as a native Southerner, part of this process has involved in thinking more deeply than I have in a long time about the American South, its culture, its politics, and its history. As I do so, two podcasts have emerged as essential listening. The first Gravy comes from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group that “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. Our work sets a welcome table where all may consider our history and our future in a spirit of respect and reconciliation.” In many ways, food is what South gets right: southern cooking bridges between different racial, ethnic and economic groups each of whom call call the South their home. My all-time favorite episode, “Southern Fried Baked Alaska” asks some core questions about what makes southern cooking southern and how “fine dining” has emerged as the South negotiates a more cosmopolitan identity. Gravy often examines the historic emergence of so-called “white trash” cooking, examining the history of particular dishes or ingredients, specifying the distinctions between different states and regions, or dealing with the history of institutions such as Coca-Cola. But Gravy offers us a vision of a multiracial South, exploring not only what black Southerners brought to the table from Africa or their experiences of slavery, but also factoring in the various foods brought to the South by immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

The second is the Smithsonian’s Folkways Sound Sessions, one of a number of podcasts that have emerged from the Smithsonian Institute in recent years. I know of no other cultural institution which has made such a deep commitment to the podcast. There are probably a dozen or more podcast representing the different museums and collections at the Smithsonian. I’ve sampled a number of them and they seem consistently strong and interesting – ranging from short videos for children about the animals found at the nation’s zoo to short docent talks about specific works found in the National Portrait Gallery. The Folkways Sound Sessions draw from a rich archive of folk music collected going back to the 1930s. I grew up listening to some of the Folkways recordings on vinyl records which I checked out of the Atlanta Public Library so some of the materials presented here are very old friends indeed. Each episode’s focuses on a specific artist, their work, and their contributions. I take great pleasure listening to their in-depth explorations of Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. But I’ve also discovered new artist such as Ella Jenkins, Doc Watson, and Jean Ritchie who would not been on my playlists otherwise. Only rarely does the podcast extend beyond American regional traditions and tap into the extensive holdings the Smithsonian has in world music. Here, we get podcast dedicated to Oud music or the music of the Silk Road. Just as Gravy allows us a deeper appreciation of what food says about the region, here we learn about the ways that music has expressed the struggles of the working class South.

While on the subject of the Smithsonian, I wanted to do a shout out to the podcast they created around the opening of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Historically Black. As part of the process of building up that museums collection, the Smithsonian reached out to everyday people in hopes that they might share family treasures that shed light on his the social history of black America. Beyond putting these objects on display, the museum also collected the stories behind them and share some of them through this podcast series. For me one of the most moving ones centered around a bill of sale as a former slave purchased his wife and children. Another must listen episode recounts the story of NASA’s human computers and provides valuable background for the current film, Hidden Figures. The others range geographically and chronologically including accounts of fiddle music in Missouri, a photographer capturing the Harlem Renaissance, and the Million Man March in Washington DC. My only regret is that the series was a special event rather than ongoing outreach. I loved every episode here but I’m sad that there were so few.

 

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.

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Two): Cinema

This is part two in a six part series pimping my favorite podcasts. I am happy to hear further suggestions from readers.

 

Popular Culture

It will not surprise anyone who knows me well that I listen to a large number podcasts focused around popular culture, media, and entertainment. The one ring to rule them all is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, which feels like a bunch of really smart and witty friends who get together every week to talk about their most recent discoveries and passions. My personal favorite segment is when they each share “what’s making them happy” that week. This can include anything from a small budget genre film, a pop song, a young adult novel, or an offbeat televisions series. The hosts are unapologetic about the pleasure and joy pop-culture brings them — no “guilty pleasures” here. Don’t get me wrong. These guys can pontificate with the best of them but they do not need to justify or explain away their passion for popular culture. These people know their stuff. My personal favorite is Glenn Weldon, NPR’s resident comics and SF, enthusiast, was published book length studies of Batman and the rise of nerd culture, Superman, and Roger Corman. If you want to hear the program and best, check out their special episode long discussion of Hamilton. For a more typical example, see their discussions of Jane the Virgin and My Crazy Ex-girlfriend, two of my favorite television series. Every so often they do what they call smallbatch episodes which are more focused, often interviews with people like Amy Schumer, Stranger Things‘ Duffer Brothers, The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah, or UnReal‘s Sarah Shapiro. But this also might include their field reports from San Diego comic con, their reactions of Pokémon Go, or something else that just can’t wait.

Cinema

In The Next Picture Show, Keith Phillips, Tasha Robertson, Scott Tobias, and Genevieve Koski, the former editorial team behind The Dissolve, provide a biweekly series focused around contemporary movies and the older films that help to inspire. I hesitate to call the older films classics since they rarely go back before the 1970s. Perhaps we can use the Turner networks phrase — “the New Classics.” The core of the program is in these juxtapositions between old and new. Some are predictable, inevitable, but still fascinating such as the Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lalaland, Suicide Squad and The Dirty Dozen, or the old and new versions of the Ghostbusters. Some take more reflection such as Memento and Finding Dory. Once they’ve been disdained tackle television as a trace the similarities between the film and television versions of Westworld. These critics go deep with hour-long discussions for each film covering history, technique, genre, characters and themes. The hosts are well-informed and thoughtful without being stuffy or overly technical. They won’t talk over your head but I managed to leave each episode with new insight and often an urge to dig out my DVD versions of the New Classics.

The Cinephiliacs is willing to take things in a much more ponderous direction. Its center of gravity is the realm of academic film studies. The quality of the episodes has everything to do with the quality of the guests, many of whom are old friends and colleagues of mine, such as David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Scott Bukatman, Leah Jacobs, and J Hoberman, though they might also include media makers who have a deep knowledge and passion for their medium. The host Peter Labuza annoys me at least a few times every episode, sometimes coming across as a precocious undergraduate too eager to impress. Once you get to interviews, he does his homework and talks us through interactivity jump key insights and their lifelong love affairs with the cinema. Each interview culminates with an in-depth discussion of a classic film. Here he’s not afraid to go to older and more obscure works. This is where you can enjoy serious conversations about The Tall T, Out of The Past, Daisy Kenyon, How Green Was My Valley, and Only Angels Have Wings.

Somewhere in between is The Canon. Each week the hosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson propose a new title for inclusion on their list of all-time favorite films, providing some justifications for their choices, and allowing their audience to determine the outcome. Sample titles might include The General, Blazing Saddles, or Stand By Me. In short, selections are old and new but nothing that won’t be familiar to the average person with a Netflix account. The discussions are engaging but on the surface as in an extended debate about whether we could make a film like Blazing Saddles in today’s politically correct times or another about the relative virtues of Ringo Starr or George Harrison.

If you want to learn more about film history and in particular Hollywood’s dark and sordid past, let me recommend You Must Remember This which is ever so much better, more substantive, and better informed than we have any right to expect. Keep in mind that I loath the pompous old windbags in armchairs that introduce film classics on television. They generally repeat mythologies that could be disproven by anyone with an undergraduate film studies degree and access to Google. Once my eyes start rolling three or four times per minute, I put them on mute until the movie starts. So I was skeptical when my son shared his excitement about the host Karina Longworth and her hour-long episodes about Silver Screen legends. However, I’ve only caught her in a few howling mistakes – mostly when she tried to describe films she hasn’t seen and no one else has either — for example the sound films of Buster Keaton or the non-horror films of Val Lewton. For the series at its best, check out the season-long 16 part account of the Hollywood blacklist which offers juicy tidbits of gossip one moment and a deep dive into Cold War American politics the next.

I have to confess to being a lifelong obsession with the Oscars. I get much deeper into the weeds about industry buzz than most. I am often the ringer who wins your parties prediction pool year after year.  Little Gold Men is my favorite Oscar prediction podcasts. It is created by the entertainment reporters at Vanity Fair. They use the Oscar prediction frame to focus attention on a broad range of contemporary releases, dealing with everything from the sexual assault charges that largely destroy the chances for Birth of a Nation to the films that won the hearts critics and audiences at the Toronto film Festival. While they focus on the top five or six categories like everyone else, they’re willing to spend time on documentary, animation, or technical categories and if you want to stay competitive, this is what separates the newbies from the pros. They also can provide back story on the negotiations around eligibility such as why Moonlight is competing for best adapted screenplay, why Viola Davis is up for best supporting actress for Fences, or why Arrival was disqualified for musical score.

The Talkhouse Film Podcast is in a league of its own. Each week it brings together two filmmakers, mostly from indie circuit, to engage in a serious but freeform conversation about anything they want. The host get out of the way and let the gas guests interact with each other. So you can geek out with Joe Dante and Max Landis, do some female bonding between Amber Tamblyn and and Aisha Tyler, go goofy with Paul Rubens and Kid Cudi, ponder the nature of the universe with Laurie Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, debate media violence with Abel Ferrara and Gasper Noe, or sound world-weary with Allison Anders and Wim Wenders. Here the quality of the episode rests with the guests and as my descriptions suggest, the tone varies dramatically week by week. Thanks to Jocelyn Kelvin for introducing me to this one.

Film Comment was one of my favorite magazines when I was an undergraduate: every issue yielded intense lunchtime conversations with my cineaste friends as we debated various claims made about the state of contemporary cinema or the value of particular films. I was so happy when Virginia Wright Wexman told me that they had a podcast. This one is full of love of movies, new and old, and there’s an atmosphere of passionate friends getting together to replay old debates and score new points. I am just digging into it, but it is a last minute addition to this post.

I am also now digging into the Aca-Media podcast, produced by the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. Here, the focus is decisively academic, including information about archives and new research initiatives, but along the way, you get to hear smart people sharing their insights about film studies, broadcast history, sound studies, cultural studies, comic studies, game studies, transmedia studies…  I particularly enjoyed a recent oral history interview with Constance Penley, an old friend and an important voice in feminist media studies.

A Few Of My Favorite Podcasts (Part One): Intro and Politics

This is the first of a Six Part Series.

Like many of my friends, I became fascinated several years ago with the pleasures of longform audio storytelling as represented by the successful Serial. When that series ended, I found myself searching for other examples of podcasting as an emerging media form, a search that is only intensified as I’ve ended up reviewing a range of podcast and my roles as the jury member for the Peabody Awards. This fall the series of health setbacks left me with more time on my hands, I have fallen even more deeply down that particular rabbit hole. Since I want to share with my loyal readers some of my personal favorites — some of the best examples of contemporary podcast across a range of different genres.

As I reflect on my favorites, I’m still trying to decide what makes a podcast good. People in public radio talk about the driveway moment – times when you have gotten so caught up in a particular story that you do not want to turn off the car engine and come inside. This analogy emerged because of the ways that so many of us listen to radio while driving. We tune into a particular network in search of compelling content as we move around the city and we listen until we reach our destination in most cases. We may form a relationship over time with a particular network or host but for most of us, radio is not an appointment based medium.

The podcast, on the other hand, is an engagement based media. We actively seek out specific series, often searching for them by name at the iTunes Store – which makes it imperative that the podcast offers us something fresh and distinctive, something we will not find anywhere else, something that we will want to return to on a regular basis. In some cases, we are pulled towards niche content, shows that address underserved audiences, shows of narrower but more intense interest than can be supported on broadcast radio. This focus on specialized interest reflects the relatively open market of podcasting today. There are growing number of companies such as Panoply that focus on podcasts. Podcasts are emerging from public institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution which has made a major commitment to public outreach. NPR and PRI are developing podcasts as extensions of their existing programs and as a farm league for emerging personalities. But there also a wealth of grassroots and independent producers working in the space. I’m especially interested, for example, in various fan communities as early adapters and active users of this platform to share content that thrives here but would never reach the airwaves. And we’re seeing rich examples of podcast producers that serve the needs of racial ethnic and sexual minorities including for example American Muslims.

Not only must the podcast provide me distinctive content that I will actively seek out on a recurring basis but the host has to be someone with whom I want to establish a more intimate relationship. The radio host comes to the speaker in my car. I tend to listen to podcasts through my ear buds as I ride the bus, as I walk around downtown Los Angeles, as I’m laying in bed next to my sleeping wife during my frequent bouts of insomnia. For me to want to engage them in this way, the host has to adopt a different tone of voice and a different kind of address than a broadcaster might. I don’t want deep booming voices — I want something that is more casual and conversational. I will listen to a single person tell me a story via podcast in a way that I expect multiple voices and perspectives on a typical radio broadcast.

Each of the examples I am sharing here the six cell by these two criteria – distinctive content and a compelling host that I enjoy spending time with.

How do you identify good podcasts? Well, apart from personal rec list like this one, you can sample from the featured podcast from top charts at the iTunes Store. I certainly try to be aware of the shows generating the most buzz at iTunes but many of my favorites are lower ranking shows that I would never find by that means. A fair number of the shows referenced here were brought to my attention by The Big Listen, an NPR podcast which showcases other podcasts. Each week its host Lauren Ober showcases 5-10 different programs, each organized by shared interests. Sometimes she interviews the host of top-rated programs and ask them to recommend other interesting shows in their space. She also offers her own reviews of programs she finds engaging. Her tastes are eclectic but also refined. I’ve ended up sampling two or three programs from most of her episodes and I found many of my favorite off the beaten path examples in this way. So The Big Listen is an ideal starting point if you want to explore the variety the contemporary podcasting offers.

Politics

Through the fall, a good portion of my podcast listening was bound up with the election. I sought regular updates from NPR’s Politics podcast, which during the closing weeks of the campaign was posting new episodes every night, offering contexts for today’s top stories but also going beyond the headlines. A strength of the series is its responsiveness to listener questions, which often encourages the reporters to provide a fuller explanation of how the political system operates than what we found on the evening news. A common complaint is that American journalism offers few points of entry for first-time voters. I can’t say that this podcast fully addresses that problem but it goes a long way towards offering a more transparent version of the US political system while also digging deeply enough to provide new insight for us more hard-core politicos. The podcast output has slowed down twice a week through the transition and the early days of the Trump regime. But they offer more intense updates when breaking stories demand them.

Some of the best podcast this past year provide in-depth interviews with key political figures, not only the candidates but also their campaign managers and advisors and score journalists and commentators. My favorite was Politico’s Off Message. Veteran reporter Glenn Thrush (who recently left the series) digs deep through interviews with key players from both the Republican and Democratic parties. I stress this ideological diversity because so many podcasts like blogs or online news sites start with partisan bias. But here, my favorites are often conservative figures such as Donald Trump’s current Atty. Gen. nominee Jeff Sessions, Trump advisor Roger Stone, House Speaker Paul Ryan, right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewett, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. His interviews help me to understand who these people are and what motivates the positions they advocate, even where we fundamentally disagree. Thrush’s questioning is rigorous but also cordial and open-minded. The picture that emerges could not be more different from the shouting matches many of these figures engage with on cable news networks. Thrush also explores emerging figures on the left – from current Democratic National Committee chair candidate Keith Ellison to the Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, from rapper Chuck D to New York Sen. Kristin Gillibrand. He also takes us behind-the-scenes to get to know other journalists such as Nate Silver better.

There are other great interview podcast in the political space – for example check out The Axe Files with Obama adviser David Axelrod. Axelrod has great conversations with cultural figures such as Hamilton‘s Lin – Manuel Miranda or Van Jones. But Axe tends to focus on left of center guest and thus I find fewer surprises here then on Off Message. The number of conservative and Republican guests has picked up a bit since the election season.

Another interview series I would recommend would be Candidate Confessional which features in-depth briefings with former presidential and Senate candidates about what went wrong for them on the campaign trail. Among my favorites here are exchanges with Martin O’Malley, Howard Dean, Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann, each of whom are much more frank on this podcast that I’ve seen them in other venues.

For those of you who are interested in the history of American politics I have two recommendations – Presidential and Whistle Stop. Across the past year Presidential‘s Lillian Cunningham from the Washington Post has produced a profile of each of the countries presidents down through Donald Trump. For each episode, she interviews key archivist especially the Library of Congress and draws insights from the deep bench of political reporters and history buffs at the Post. Cunningham is at her best when digging into some of the characters than most often are overlooked in our history classes. So check out her account of the disputed election that brought Rutherford B Hayes to the White House, of the complex and secretive emotional life of James Buchanan — our only bachelor president, of the tragedy that surrounded the administration of Franklin Pierce and so forth. She often ask historians what it would’ve been like to go on a blind date with these guys which can seem awkward and inane but often yields rich insights into their personalities.

Slate’s Whistlestop shares an in-depth account of a key moment from the history of presidential campaigns. Host John Dickerson often selected his stories to draw parallels to the contemporary campaign. So for example he uses Ross Perot, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He prepares us for the debates by discussing Gerald Ford’s biggest gaffe in debate history. He dipped into 19th century campaign history with for example accounts of the disintegration of the Whig party or of the charges that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child. But he’s at his best when he can fold in a few soundbites as he does effectively in his account of Mario Cuomo’s status as the front runner who refused to jump into the race, of John F. Kennedy’s attempts to address concerns about his Catholicism during the West Virginia primary, or the prolonged struggle at the Republican national convention between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Dickinson is such a compelling storyteller that you listen with baited breath to accounts of events you already know well. He offers insights into cultural context also — for example, how Betty Ford emerges a feminist First Lady. As the campaign concluded, the pace has slowed but he’s beginning to share stories of presidential administrations, again using history to provide background for current events.

Next Time: Cinema