The Promise of American Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #95)

(This is the sixth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: In Cold Blood.)

mlnf95Before The New Republic devolved under Chris Hughes into a half-worthy husk of knee-jerk platitudes just a few histrionic clickbait headlines shy of wily Slate reductionism, it was a formidable liberal magazine for many decades, courageous enough to take real stands while sustaining vital dialogue about how and when government should intercede in important affairs. The source of this philosophical thrust, as duly documented by Franklin Foer, was the greatly diffident son of a prominent newspaperman, an unlikely progenitor who entered and exited Harvard many times without ever finishing, someone who suffered from severe depression and who, for a time, didn’t know what to do with his life other than play bridge and tennis and write about obscure architecture. But Croly found it in him to spill his views about democracy’s potential, what he called the “New Nationalism,” into a 1909 book called The Promise of American Life, which served as something of a manifesto for the early 20th century Progressives and became a cult hit among political wonks at the time. It partially inspired Theodore Roosevelt, who was proudly name-checked by Croly as “a Hamiltonian with a difference,” to initiate his ill-fated 1912 Bull Moose campaign as an outsider presidential candidate. (Historians have argued over the palpable influence of Croly’s book on Roosevelt, but it’s possible that, had not Croly confirmed what Roosevelt had already been thinking about, Roosevelt may not have entered the 1912 race as ardently as he did. With a more united Republican coalition against Wilson, America may very well have carried on with a second Taft term, with an altogether different involvement in World War I. Taft’s notable rulings as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which included extending executive power and broadening the scope of police evidence, may not been carried out in the 1920s. A book is often more of a Molotov shattering upon history’s turf than we are willing to accept.)

Croly’s book touched a nerve among a small passionate group. One couple ended up reading Croly’s book aloud to each other during their honeymoon (leaving this 21st century reader, comparing Croly’s thick “irremediable”-heavy prose style against now all too common sybaritic options, to imagine other important activities that this nubile pair may have missed out on). The newly married couple was Willard Straight and Dorothy Whitney. They had money. They invited Croly to lunch. The New Republic was formed.

So we are contending with a book that not only created an enduring magazine and possibly altered the course of American history, but one that had a profound impact on the right elite at the right time. So it was a tremendous surprise to discover a book that greatly infuriated me during the two times I read it, at one time causing me to hurl it with high indignant velocity against a wall, for reasons that have more to do with this gushing early 20th century idealist failing to foresee the rise of Nazism, the despicable marriage of racism and police brutality, growing income inequality, corporate oligarchy, draconian Common Core educational standards, and dangerous demagogues like George Wallace and Donald Trump.

But it is also important to remember that Croly wrote this book before radio, television, the Internet, women’s suffrage, two world wars, the Great Depression, smartphones, outrage culture, and 9/11. And it is never a good idea to read an older book, especially one of a political nature, without considering the time that it was written. I did my best to curb my instincts to loathe Croly for what he could not anticipate, for his larger questions of how power aligns itself with the democratic will of the people are still very much worth considering. Croly is quite right to identify the strange Frankenstein monster of Alexander Hamilton’s pragmatic central government and Thomas Jefferson’s rights of man — the uniquely American philosophical conflict that has been the basis of nearly every national conflict and problem that has followed — as a “double perversion” of our nation’s potential, even if Croly seems unwilling to consider that some “perversions” are necessary for an evolving democratic republic and he is often too trusting of executive authority and the general public’s obeisance to it. That these inquiries still remain irreconcilable (and are perverted blunter still by crass politicians who bellow about how to “make America great again” as they eject those who challenge them from the room) some 107 years after the book’s publication speaks to both the necessity and the difficulty of the question.

I’ve juxtaposed Croly’s meek-looking law clerk mien against George Bellows’s famous boxing painting (unveiled two years before Croly’s book) because there really is no better way to visualize the American individual’s relationship to its lumbering, venal, and often futile government. Croly’s solution is to call for all Americans to be actively engaged in a collaborative and faithful relationship with the nation: “to accept a conception of democracy which provides for the substantial integrity of his country, not only as a nation with an exclusively democratic mission, but as a democracy with an essentially national career.” On its face, this seems like a reasonable proposition. We all wish to belong in a democracy, to maintain fidelity to our country, and to believe that the Lockean social contract in which the state provides for the commonweal is a workable and reasonable quid pro quo. But it is also the kind of orgiastic meat and potatoes mantra that led both Kennedy and Reagan to evoke mythical American exceptionalism with the infamous “shining city upon a hill” metaphor. Dulcet words may make us feel better about ourselves and our nation, but we have seen again and again how government inaction on guns and a minimum wage that does not reflect contemporary living standards demands a Black Lives Matter movement and a “fight for $15.” And when one begins to unpack just what Croly wants us to give up for this roseate and wholly unrealistic Faustian bargain, we begin to see someone who may be more of a thoughtful and naive grandstander than a vital conceptual pragmatist.

Croly is right to demand that America operate with a larger administrative organ in place, some highly efficient Hamiltonian body that mitigates against “the evil effects of a loose union.” He smartly points out that such evils as slavery resulted from the American contradictions originating in the strange alliance between our poetic Jeffersonian call for Constitutional democracy and individualistic will and the many strains of populism and nationalism that followed. In his insistence on “the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle,” Croly is suspicious of reformers, many of which he singles out in a manner strikingly similar to Norman Mailer’s “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” He calls William Jennings Bryan an “ill conceived” reformer, claims the now nearly forgotten William Travers Jerome to be “lulled into repose” by traditional Jeffersonian democracy (never mind Jerome’s successful crusades against Tammany Hall corruption, regrettably overshadowed by his prosecution of Harry K. Thaw during the Stanford White murder trial), interestingly pegs William Randolph Hearst as someone motivated by endless “proclaimation[s] of a rigorous interpretation of the principle of equal rights,” and holds up Teddy Roosevelt as “more novel and more radical” in his calls for a Square Deal than “he himself has probably proclaimed.”

But Croly’s position on reform is quite problematic, deeply unsettling, and often contradictory. He believes that citizens “should be permitted every opportunity to protest in the most vigorous and persistent manner,” yet he states that such protests “must conform to certain conditions” enforced by the state. While we are certainly far removed from the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building that galvanized the labor movement, as we saw with the appalling free speech cages during the 2004 Republican Convention, muzzling protesters not only attenuated their message but allowed the NYPD to set up traps for the activists, which ensured their arrest and detention — a prototype for the exorbitant enforcement used to diminish and belittle the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years later. Croly believes that the job of sustaining democratic promise should, oddly enough, be left to legislators and executives granted all the power required and sees state and municipal governments as largely unsuccessful:

The interest of individual liberty in relation to the organization of democracy demands simply that the individual officeholder should possess an amount of power and independence adequate to the efficient performance of his work. The work of a justice of the Supreme Court demands a power that is absolute for its own special work, and it demands technically complete independence. An executive should, as a rule, serve for a longer term, and hold a position of greater independence than a legislator, because his work of enforcing the laws and attending to the business details of government demands continuity, complete responsibility within its own sphere, and the necessity occasionally of braving adverse currents of public opinion. The term of service and the technical independence of a legislator might well be more restricted than that of an executive; but even a legislator should be granted as much power and independence as he may need for the official performance of his public duty. The American democracy has shown its enmity to individual political liberty, not because it has required its political favorites constantly to seek reëlection, but because it has since 1800 tended to refuse to its favorites during their official term as much power and independence as is needed for administrative, legislative, and judicial efficiency. It has been jealous of the power it delegated, and has tried to take away with one hand what it gave with the other.

There is no room for “Act locally, think globally” in Croly’s vision. This is especially ungenerous given the many successful progressive movements that flourished decades after Croly’s death, such as the civil rights movement beginning with local sit-ins and developing into a more cogent and less ragged strain of the destructive Jacksonian populism that Croly rightly calls out, especially in relation to the cavalier obliteration of the Second Bank of the United States and the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which required Henry Clay to clean up Jackson’s despotic absolutism with a compromise. On the Nullification point, Croly identifies Daniel Webster, a man who became treacherously committed to holding the Union together, as “the most eloquent and effective expositor of American nationalism,” who “taught American public opinion to consider the Union as the core and crown of the American political system,” even as he offers a beautifully stinging barb on Webster’s abolitionist betrayal with the 1850 speech endorsing the Fugitive Slave Act: “He was as much terrorized by the possible consequences of any candid and courageous dealing with the question as were the prosperous business men of the North; and his luminous intelligence shed no light upon a question, which evaded his Constitutional theories, terrified his will, and clouded the radiance of his patriotic visions.”

But Croly also promulgates a number of loopy schemes, including making representative legislatures at any level beholden to an executive who is armed with a near tyrannical ability to scuttle laws, even as he claims that voters removing representatives through referendum “will obtain and keep a much more complete and direct control over the making of their laws than that which they have exerted hitherto; and the possible desirability of the direct exercise of this function cannot be disputed by any loyal democrat.” Well, this loyal democrat, immediately summoning Lord Acton’s famous quote, calls bullshit on giving any two-bit boss that kind of absolute power. Because Croly’s baffling notion of “democracy” conjures up the terrifying image of a sea of hands raised in a Bellamy salute. On one hand, Croly believes that a democracy must secure and exercise individual rights, even as he rightly recognizes that, when people exercise these rights, they cultivate the “tendency to divide the community into divergent classes.” On the other hand, he believes that individuals should be kept on a restrictive leash:

[T]hey should not, so far as possible, be allowed to outlast their own utility. They must continue to be earned. It is power and opportunity enjoyed without being earned which help to damage the individual — both the individuals who benefit and the individuals who consent — and which tend to loosen the ultimate social bond. A democracy, no less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognize political, economic, and social discriminations, but it must also manage to withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance. The essential wholeness of the community depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.

There’s certainly something to be said about how many Americans fail to appreciate the rights that they have. Reminding all citizens of their duties to flex their individual rights may be a very sound idea. (Perhaps one solution to American indifference and political disillusion is the implementation of a compulsory voting policy with penalties, similar to what goes on in Australia.) But with such a middling door prize like this handed out at the democratic dance party, why on earth would any individual want to subscribe to the American promise? Aristocrats, by their very nature, wish to hold onto their power and privilege and not let go. Croly’s pact is thus equally unappealing for the struggling individual living paycheck to paycheck, the career politician, or the business tycoon.

Moreover, in addition to opposing the Sherman Antitrust Act, Croly nearly succumbs to total Taylorism in his dismissal of labor unions: “They seek by the passage of eight-hour and prevailing rate-of-wages laws to give an official sanction to the claims of the unions, and they do so without making any attempt to promote the parallel public interest in an increasing efficiency of labor. But these eight-hour and other similar laws are frequently being declared unconstitutional by the state courts, and for the supposed benefit of individual liberty.” Granted, Croly’s words came ten years before the passage of the Adamson Act, the first federal law enforcing a mandatory eight-hour day. But Croly’s failure to see the social benefits of well-rested workers better positioned to exercise their individual liberty for a democratic promise is one of his more outrageous and myopic pronouncements, even as he also avers how the conditions that create unrestricted economic opportunities also spawn individual bondage. But if Croly wants Americans to “[keep] his flag flying at any personal cost or sacrifice,” then he really needs to have more sympathy for the travails of the working stiff.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe some 21st century thinker should pick up from Croly’s many points and make an equally ambitious attempt to harmonize Hamilton and Jefferson with more recent developments. American politics has transformed into a cartoonish nightmare from which we cannot seem to escape, one that causes tax absolutist lunatics like Grover Norquist to appear remotely sane. That we are seeing a strange replay of the 1912 election with the 2016 presidential race, with Trump stepping in as an unlikely Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders possibly filling in for Eugene Debs, and that so many Americans covet an “outsider” candidate who will fix a government that they perceive as a broken system speaks to a great need for some ambitious mind to reassess our history and the manner in which we belong to our nation, while also observing the many ways in which Americans come together well outside of the political bear trap. For the American individual is no longer boxing George Bellows-style with her government. She is now engaged in a vicious MMA match unfurling inside a steel cage. Whether this ugly pugilism can be tempered with peace and tolerance is anyone’s guess, but, if we really believe in democracy, the least we can do is try to find some workaround in which people feel once again that they’re part of the process.

Next Up: William Appleman Williams’s The Contours of American History!

The Mark Twain Special (The Bat Segundo Show #552)

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This special program devoted to Mark Twain features an interview with editor Benjamin Griffin, who is part of the Mark Twain Project and discusses Twain’s legacy and his work on the three volume Autobiography published by UC Press, a conversation with historian Ben Tarnoff (The Bohemians), and a discussion with filmmaker Adam Nee and actor Kyle Gallner about Band of Robbers, the Nee Brothers’s very loose adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other Twain writings.

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Music used in this program is licensed through Creative Commons and includes the following:

Lost Radio, “Mnemonic Presence”
The Raymon Lazer Trio, “Lola”
Kevin MacLeod, “Dances and Dames”
Sakee Sed, “Mrs. Tennessee”
Adrianna Krikl, “Say Goodbye”

The Bat Segundo Show #552: The Mark Twain Special (Download MP3)

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David Bowie, Rock and Roll Chameleon Genius

He had crisp blue eyes, both of a slightly different hue after a childhood friend pierced one pupil with a fingernail during a fight, that could seduce any camera or crowd. He strutted all stages with a fierce lean mien under several forms and identities. His deep, cigarette-honed, intoxicating voice crooned during a tune before cracking unexpectedly into an otherworldly wail suggesting pain and playfulness that he kept from the public. He was a rock and roll legend and, like all good icons, he lived a sybaritic existence at times. Yet his musical accomplishments are worthy of our reverence and our accolades. For he worked more genres (glam rock, funk, folk, electronic, ambient, noise pop) in one lifetime than most artists can summon in a few years. And because his hold upon music and culture was so indomitable and without coeval, it seemed like he would live forever.

But David Bowie was mortal like the rest of us. Bowie, born David Robert Jones, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar. And the cultural landscape as we now know it, a cesspool of risk-averse careerism and lassitude and the foppish pursuit of social media likes and followers, now has a hole that is about the size of the 181 mile crater near the lunar south pole: one that will take more creative energy and several distinct unparalleled visions to fill.

One listens to Bowie’s early pre-Ziggy Stardust albums — the cautionary “Quicksand” and the playful “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory, the many explorations of insanity in The Man Who Sold the World — seeing Bowie’s formidable cognizance of the world’s many traps and contradictions (he made several attempts to adapt Orwell’s 1984) and a sui generis talent who quickly surveyed the land and decided very fast to play the game entirely on his own terms. And then there are the later tracks — the gender-bending pre-grunge “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger, “Rebel Rebel”‘s incredible guitar lick on Diamond Dogs (his most covered track), the groovy “Stay” from Station to Station (to say nothing of the delightful “TVC15” from that same album) — that showed Bowie’s incredible ability to stay ahead of even his savviest audiences. Career reinvention was very much Bowie’s career. And he understood this well before MTV latched its image-conscious talons into the music world. But this often came close to engulfing him.

Bowie’s post-glam performance as Labyrinth‘s Jared the Goblin King had a tremendous impact on YA authors and will undoubtedly be cited as a shining exemplar of his influence, but this admirable pillar seems woefully insufficient considered against the edgier and more iconoclastic personae that Bowie donned during the 1970s. He took on identities like a man who could never have a large enough wardrobe. Like Miles Davis, Bowie’s commitment to his alter egos was austerely physical and often took a very personal toll, as can been in the above 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, with a sullen, sniffing (all the coke) Bowie poking the carpet with an outsize cane. During the mid-1970s, Bowie lived on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk to sustain his Thin White Duke persona, who was a gelid and joyless man who wasn’t terribly pleasant to be around. The character was starkly Nietschean and often supported fascism, which matched Bowie’s return to Europe during the Station to Station years.

The albums stayed groundbreaking up to 1980’s Scary Monsters, which arrived with an innovative music video for “Ashes to Ashes” (seen above) that caused J.G. Ballard to remark how it was “like an extract from a surrealist movie.” But three years later, Bowie decided to cash in with a $17.5 million contract with EMI. He turned to Nile Rodgers instead of longtime producer Tony Visconti for a new album that signaled a more mainstream direction. Let’s Dance offered a respectable title single, one now relentlessly overplayed and one that cannot possibly sum up David Bowie at all, that gave the radio stations something relatively inoffensive to play (all of the lively work coming before that wasn’t “Changes” or “The Golden Years” seemed to be ignored by most DJs), but Bowie’s move towards lucre caused a severe damage to his long-standing relationship with Visconti (although the two would work together again on 2002’s Heathen).

Yet even Bowie’s shift to the mainstream couldn’t hinder the ever fertile Bowie from trying out experiments like 1997’s wonderful album Earthling (which came after Bowie toured with Trent Reznor) or Tin Machine, an underrated two album period in which Bowie took a more low-key frontman approach and shifted to a noisier sound.

But Bowie was at his best when he was driven by words and noise. Perhaps Bowie needed to sink in the quicksand of his thoughts in order to return as valiantly and as resiliently as he did. Bowie made changing your image look as easy as putting on a new pair of socks. If his life’s work can be likened to taking the complex and personally devastating and making it appear so simple, then David Bowie was an undeniable musical genius whose legacy we are only just starting to understand.

79 Great and Essential Podcasts I Listen To Regularly (And That You Should Be Listening to Too), Part Three

This is the third of a massive three part article celebrating the many podcasts I listen to. To read the first part, go here. To read the second part, go here.

podcast45Pitch: Much like Imaginary Worlds, Pitch works the music realm with just the right rigorous touch, never too wonky about its subjects while shining the investigative light in some unexpected corners, such as how to run an independent record label in an age of declining revenue and an audio association that I thought I was the only person in the world to hold: namely, the iPhone notification sound’s close propinquity to the Beach Boys’s “Sloop John B.” But Pitch works very well when it gets into such outlier subjects as a consideration of the “bow chicka wow wow” porn music sound and how a porn composer goes about creating a sonic texture, which is a far more arduous and accomplished task than one might think. (Link)

podcast46PMACast- A Pretty Much Amazing Podcast: I have no idea if this tremendously useful musical podcast, which has prominently featured rocking indie staples, is permanently defunct or merely resting, but I am including it here in the hope that the producers resuscitate this show on a regular basis, for the clear passion and the fine assiduity that the producers (and guest contributors) put into finding new tracks was a very worthwhile part of my rotation. (Link)

podcast47Psychology of Eating: I am not really a fan of confessional call-in shows, largely because the people who produce these types of affairs tend to be predatory carnival barkers in the way that they respond to a person’s long-standing grief with pat reductionist answers that don’t even begin to chip away at pain’s lifelong hold upon a troubled person. Yet there is something both revealing and bizarre in Marc David’s approach that keeps me coming back. David spends an hour listening to someone — and it always seems to be a woman — coming to terms with her relationship to food and eating and how this has drastically unsettled her life, often her self-esteem, and her image of herself. These subjects are often living very good lives that they cannot seem to see and, through these conversations, we come to understand the insidious role that body image plays on many women, that the way in which these women seem to believe that they must walk the earth without a single ounce of fat on them is a remarkable and needless burden that deserves great consideration until we can inhabit a world that is more equitable in accepting people. (Link)

podcast48Radio Diaries: It’s hard to believe that this always fresh offering of notable historical figures has been around in various forms for twenty years. For this is often a tremendously moving portal into some of the important people who have slipped through the cracks — whether it involves tracking down Claudette Colvin, a teenager who refused to give up her seat nine months before Rosa Parks but who has been needlessly overlooked by historians, or listening to the perspectives of prison guards who hold watch over juvenile offenders in North Carolina and see and intuit more than you might think. (Link)

podcast49Radio Drama Revival: If you are in any way concerned with the present and future of radio drama, Fred Greenhalgh is your man. This is probably the best curated show around for contemporary radio drama, profiling the ambitious 3D efforts of the ZBS Foundation, the raw improvisational roots of Pleasure Town, and, upon the great Stan Frebeg’s passing, a loving retrospective. In addition to featuring lengthy shows in their entirety, Greenhalgh generously includes interviews with the producers involved with the shows that illuminate many behind-the-scenes elements. And the podcast serves as a tremendously reliable counterpart to the fine Scotsmen who run the aforementioned Audio Drama Production Podcast. (Link)

podcast50Radiolab: Much like This American Life, Radiolab established much of the lingua franca behind narrative radio. And with its rapid-fire editing, its commitment to layered sound texture, its thoughtful consideration of largely science-oriented topics, and the strange chemistry between hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, Radiolab remains an always reliable and always thoughtful staple in investigating such topics as the touch-and-go evolution of Candid Camera, the Cuban punk rock scene, and the creepy manipulation of human behavior by Facebook engineers. (Link)

podcast51Relic Radio Sci-Fi (Link), Relic Radio Thrillers (Link), and Strange Tales (Old Time Radio): (Link): If you want to get up to speed on old time radio (or are interested in exploring the Robert Johnson-like roots of OTR), these three podcasts are the ones you need to listen to. In addition to featuring old stalwarts like Suspense, X Minus One, Quiet Please in active rotation, there are also slightly more obscure shows like The Creaking Door, Inner Sanctum, and The Zero Hour included in the bunch. Old time radio has a rich history extending many decades, one inexplicably overlooked as we enter a putative “golden age of podcasting.” And once you begin to pick up on the theatrical cadences and dramatic energy that these old shows had to offer, which is hardly confined to the piqued cliches that some attempting to follow in radio drama’s footsteps are regrettably mimicking, you’ll start to get a sense of what podcasting may be capable of as it continues to blossom.

podcast53Reply All: Okay, I have to confess that there’s something ineluctably techbro and tendentious about Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt that can be very off-putting, even though this duo has started to actively pursue viewpoints well outside of their “Wassup?” default setting. The pair isn’t always fair to their subjects, often jumping on listeners to condemn a particular point of view before having a chance to take it in, and can be needlessly self-congratulatory at times (the obnoxious “Yes Yes No” segments, in particular, have got to stop). So why am I recommending it? Because Reply All is still a worthwhile contribution to tech-related podcasts, especially when the stories pursue some seemingly pedantic but surprisingly rich subject such as how the man who invented pop-up ads lives with his ethical legacy or the remorseless and obdurate vigilante behind Ripoff Report. When Reply All allows its subjects to speak and tell their stories, it offers interesting insights into how technology summons human obsession, for better or worse. So I’m not ready to give up on Reply All anytime soon, even if I wish that its two hosts would stop gazing at their navels and look more outside of themselves. (Link)

podcast54Ronna & Beverly: This podcast is so good that it is often hard to believe that this show, ostensibly helmed by two fiftysomething Jewish women from Boston, is actually the work of two extremely brilliant improvisers named Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo. The two stay resolutely and hilariously in character as they interview comedy and TV celebrities for more than an hour, probing noisily into a guest’s love life, bringing up Israel, dishing up celebrity gossips, contemplating the size of Jon Hamm’s penis, offering many politically incorrect observations, and torturing their sound engineer Sam about what he does during his outside time. When guests go along for the ride, such as this terrific conversation with Stephen Toblowsky, Ronna and Beverly excels at levels matched only by The Colbert Report. (Link)

podcast55Serendipity: If the future of radio drama is ripe with possibility, then Ann Heppermann and Martin Johnson are determined to burst through its natural limits with Serendipity, a recently introduced podcast that counts five episodes so far of varying experimental range. The debut episode, “Every Heart Has a Limited Amount of Heartbeats,” established an uncannily vivacious standard of field recording, intense incantations, and aggressive collage that immediately seized my ears and refused to let go. And while subsequent episodes have offered slightly more traditional fare, there remains great poetic promise in this program to back up Heppermann’s bold call to push storytelling boundaries. (A good introduction to Serendipity‘s ethos can be found through this Radio Drama Revival episode, which includes an interviewer with Ann Heppermann.) (Link)

podcast56Serial: There’s been some debate over whether Serial‘s second season can match the first (with many gossipy ADD types abandoning Serial for the true crime Netflix sensation, Making a Murderer), or whether the current story of Bowe Bergdahl isn’t so much the work of Sarah Koenig, as it is Mark Boal putting together a movie with crass opportunism. But Koenig’s reporting is not to be gainsaid so easy. She has spoken directly with the Taliban and, while Bergdahl may not be as sympathetic a subject as Adnan Syed, Serial is still pursuing very important questions on how someone condemned for treason and cowardice should be understood through his own constantly shifting motivations, which has caused me to listen to each episode at least twice. (Link)

podcast57Seriously…: This is a recently retooled version of several BBC radio documentary feeds, which appears to be the Beeb’s effort to attract younger listeners. There’s less of the hardcore reporting behind Assignment and more documentaries about video games and the Whole Earth Catalog. But if you listen to both this feed and the Documentaries BBC World Service feed, you should be able to listen to a well-rounded series of offerings from across the pond. And you’ll need to. Because the BBC only allows you to download these programs for a month before closing the gates for good. (Link)

podcast58Song Exploder: The setup is simple: find a greatly revered song or piece of music, tear it apart, get the composer or the musicians to talk about it (often producing demos and, in one recent case, a crude voice memo recorded into a phone), and discover the often serendipitous creative process behind some of the more rocking tunes circulating the present cultural clime. The show has recently ventured into the stories behind soundtracks as well, with Harry Gregson-Williams relaying how he got signed on to score The Martian. One does wonder how long this formula will last or whether Song Exploder may now be angling itself to be less about breaking down music and more of a territory manipulated by savvy publicists. But for now, Song Exploder remains a solid sui generis podcast. (Link)

podcast59Spark: Nora Young is a highly energetic Canadian whose voice sounds unnervingly similar to someone I once dated and no longer want to have anything to do with. But these are my hangups, not Young’s. And I’d be foolish and pusillanimous to condemn an extremely worthwhile offering of Canadian culture simply because of an alarming euphony. Young’s smart and vivacious meditations on technology often tackle heavy-hitting issues such as the casual way that couples invade each other’s privacy, surge pricing, and the ever present problem of time management. And in a crowded field of tech podcasts, Young’s weekly dispatches prove to be winning thoughtful epistles. (Link)

podcast60The Sporkful: This recommendation comes with a caveat: host Dan Pashman has a a rather relentless laugh. Pashman laughs at everything: his jokes, a serious situation, an awkward situation. You get the sense that he sometimes laughs for the sake of laughing, that he would laugh unknowingly at a funeral or when doing taxes. It’s an alarming laugh. We all know some guy like Dan Pashman who laughs at all times, who makes us wonder if the laugh is sincere or some troubling automatic impulse that may require therapy. The good news is that, after ten episodes of being suspicious of Pashman’s laugh, I did finally come around to digging his show and accepting his laugh. Pashman mitigates against his tittering by not being pretentious (even though his laugh, as we have established, is highly suspect). He is a lover of all food, even if he is often very wrong about it (such as believing the hot dog to be a sandwich), and is curious and mindful enough to perform such sui generis investigations such as sandwich gender imbalance and what it is like to dine out in a wheelchair. The strange and perhaps truly laudable quality here is that, for all of these progressive considerations, Pashman is never sanctimonious about it. But he does have the laugh, which is now too deeply ingrained within Pashman to be remedied. But maybe that laugh is the way for all of us to better appreciate food. (Link)

podcast62Strangers: I first learned of Lea Thau after I stumbled upon her remarkable, must-listen, soul-baring “Love Hurts” series (1 2 3 4), in which Thau documented her efforts to find romance in stunningly honest detail: interviewing the men who rejected her, confessing her loneliness and her weaknesses, fiercely analyzing why she has stayed single and even subjecting herself to a questionable relationship expert. It was stunning and terribly brave radio that anyone in a place of loneliness and hurt might want to listen to. And this is, of course, what makes Strangers such an incredible program. The subjects, whether they be Thau or somebody else, are free to confess their most naked and humiliating feelings (such as a teacher who went years without learning how to read) and Thau’s intimacy forces us to empathize with them. Listening to Strangers, one finds great strength in confronting human frailties. And it is this quality, among many others, that makes several episodes of Strangers among some of the finest personal narratives to be found online. (Link)

podcast63Sword and Scale: On first listen, Sword and Scale might seem like a fairly sensationalist true crime show. But it’s far more than that. In exploring such intense topics as the 1978 Guyana mass suicide and the primitive human identity that we can’t shake, Sword and Scale willfully includes some of the most shocking and horrifying audio to buttress its viewpoint. But at its best, such as this investigation into media and gun violence, Sword and Scale succeeds in being an off-kilter, thoughtful podcast into our darkest qualities. The show does not shy away from anything (not even in discussing the human body’s deterioration) and, in so doing, shakes the listener out of a blinkered view to engage with difficult truths. Mike Boudet often narrates with an intensity somewhere between John Walsh and Arch Oboler, but it somehow strikes the perfect tone between theatrical drive and something oddly meaningful in the understanding. (Link)

podcast64Ten Minute Podcast: Will Sasso, Bryan Callan, and Chris D’Elia are reliably silly men for this goofy podcast, which features such dependable regular characters as washed up standup comedian David Greco, the warmly puglistic Everybody’s Dad, and Skype sessions with people who may or may not be bona-fide listeners. And it’s only ten minutes long, which means that even a flailing installment of this show doesn’t overstay its welcome too long. While the trio doesn’t show up together as frequently as they used to due to industrious show business careers, and the show is now on some kind of odd hiatus, I have a feeling that the show is merely regrouping for some newfound silly stage where it will surprise itself and its audience. (Link)

podcast65There’s Something Out There: Only five episodes of this fascinating podcast have been produced so far and one hopes that this isn’t the end. Because this is one of the best podcasts out there that attempts to wrestle with the wholly inexplicable: the incidents in life that one can’t quite explain, that often entail coming to spiritual or religious conclusions, but that all of us must contend with as human beings. With top-notch production value and something oddly journalistic in the way that the narratives are told, There’s Something Out There negotiates a smart balance between the factitious and the factual for which more podcasts, striving for authenticity, should take heed. (Link)

podcast66Thinking Allowed: When I first started listening to Thinking Allowed a few years ago, I was initially skeptical due to the apparent Anglophonic pomp and circumstance behind Laurie Taylor’s voice. But I’m glad I stuck it out with this extremely sharp and worthwhile program, which profiles sociology and ethnography in a breezy manner. (Link)

podcast67Third Coast International Audio Festival: Think of this as the nonfiction counterpart to Radio Drama Revival, whereby host Gwen Macsai and her team of dependable curators scour radio and podcasts to find the most moving and probing documentaries for these thematic programs. The show is quite happy to single out specific producers, such as formidable music documentary producer Alan Hall, whose moving portraits of Jeff Buckley and Elly Stone recently led me down rabbit holes that resulted in a rambunctious email thread with two friends over whether Stone was quite possibly the world’s most sensitive singer of all time. The regular podcast, Re: Sound, is probably responsible for me discovering more than a handful of the podcasts that are on this list. And there is no better showcase that I know of for some of the exciting voices flexing their talents in podcasting. (Link)

podcast68This American Life: Can Ira Glass be uptight, somewhat foolish, a little stiff, too reliant on the same music cues we’ve been hearing for more than a decade, and more than a bit condescending after twenty years? Absolutely. But he’s not to be discounted. Every narrative podcast in existence owes something to the way in which This American Life established many of the ground rules. And the show’s thematic approach still shows great resilience in chronicling the human, such as a recent collection of stories about people combating their fears, a wonderful investigation into what people are willing to do for love, and a rather marvelous Zoe Chase investigation into how fast food is named. Sometimes, Glass can be remarkably stilted in the execution of a thrilling story (such as this take on the Rabin assassination). But This American Life, for the most part, still delivers. (Link)

podcast69This is Actually Happening: The conceptual thrust behind Whit Missildine’s long-running program involves taking a seemingly unlikely human experience (living as a fake priest marrying people in Japan, a deadly shooting from a crazed shirtless man as a woman is driving in the middle of nowhere) and exploring every conceivable angle of what it was like to experience it without intruding upon the person’s story. Missildine layers the stories with moody music, but what I suspect he has truly set out to do is make the strangest stories more palpable so that we can broaden our notion of what existence is truly about. We have all experienced improbable adventures, but This is Actually Happening demands that we take these seriously. You leave an episode of Missildine’s program often in a strange and profound fog. That’s how good this show is at allowing another person’s intimate details to sneak up on you. It’s almost as if the listener is a kind of vicarious therapist unable to steer the details, but then that’s part of the point. (Link)

podcast70To the Best of Our Knowledge: Upon the first few listens, To the Best of Our Knowledge may seem like your typical topical compendium show: a casual rundown of notable names and fine minds offering the greatest cerebral hits for a public audience. But there is something quite subtly daring about Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson’s approach that has transformed me into a big fan. A recent hour devoted to the human voice featured several compelling segments, ranging from an African-American actor contending with casting agents telling him that he needed to be “more urban” to the way in which subtle patriarchal forces were singling out vocal fry to police the way that women are “supposed” to speak. To the Best of Our Knowledge also aired a particularly gutsy and thoughtful series on death over for several weeks, something that you really don’t hear much at all on a syndicated public radio show, that demanded its listeners to come to terms with mortality and its impact upon our lives. So Anne Strainchamps may seem to be a polite, urbane, and crowd-pleasing radio host. But as you come to listen to her, you begin to realize that she has a comforting dark streak and a wry sense of humor. Also, any show that allows punk historian Legs McNeil to get really pissed off on-air is good in my book. (Link)

podcast71The Truth: Spearheaded by the redoubtable Jonathan Mitchell, with considerable assists from such unsung improvisational wunderkinds as Louis Kornfeld and other dependable contributors from the Magnet Theater, The Truth is putting out some of the finest radio drama today. These are strange stories for our contemporary age, tapping into such moral quandaries as parental displacement, a delightfully satirical investigation into leisure, and an especially creepy story about damnation in the underworld. The Truth works as well as it does because it is committed to meaningful, somewhat soul-searching performances embedded within a calm and exacting atmosphere that is equally committed well-timed silences and faint rustlings. This gives The Truth a peculiar tension between something faintly comic and faintly fierce, feeling, at times, like a soundscape inspired from a David Lynch film. <(Link)

podcast72Unfictional: Whether it’s a woman who suffers from Cotard’s delusion or a man who unknowingly lived across the street from Whitey Bulger, Bob Carlson’s long-running forum for personal storytelling continues to deliver some truly touching tales, when it isn’t devoting one of its solid half hours to legendary radio artist Joe Frank or its annual 24 Hour Radio Race challenge, whereby producers are enlisted to write, record, and edit a story in less than a day. (Link)

podcast73The Urbanist: There is nearly nothing on the airwaves that I can find that explores city-related issues with such rigor and international reach. Think of The Urbanist as a radio counterpart to CityLab, where issues ranging from neglected delivery drivers to urbanistas are explored in rapid-fire bursts in so many locations that one wonders if The Urbanist has somehow enlisted a massive army of regular contributors ready to be activated into action upon one sinister call from host Andrew Tuck. (Link)

podcast74The Virtual Memories Show: When people ask me where they can go to find thoughtful discussions on literature after they learn that my own podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, is no longer in production, I send them to Gil Roth’s loquacious conversations with top-notch artists and thinkers. Roth has this strange ability to get someone to talk thoughtfully for a good six minutes based on one question. And when I met Roth for the first time at a Brooklyn coffeehouse, I realized that this was something he seems to be born with. For he managed to get me to ramble at length for six minutes in a way that I certainly never intended to and that I usually don’t. There’s always a moment near the end of Roth’s show where there is a sudden beat, followed by the question “So what are you reading?” phrased in an intense interrogative manner that recalls the Senate investigating the Watergate scandal, illustrating his real purpose: to keep curiosity and thoughtful wonder about books that fewer people read alive. It’s a game I’ve abandoned in radio, for life is too short to pamper the petulant infants of the literary world when there are real readers you can invite to your extravagant dinner parties, but one that I’m glad Roth is still keeping alive. (Link)

podcast75We’re Alive: This stirring zombie apocalypse drama packs as many characters into its unfolding story as The Walking Dead and has built up a massive narrative of more than 100 episodes that it is quite easy to get pleasantly gripped by. We listen to the characters as they face resource shortages and lose loved ones, but We’re Alive, through a settlement erected at an apartment complex, appears equally more committed to exploring parallels between our present world and the dystopian path not taken. (Link)

podcast76The White Whale: Anyone fond of baroque, somewhat experimental radio drama should be listening to the crazed efforts of CyNar Pictures, which features a strange tension between the making of art and the discussion of art erupts with every installment of this gargantuan potpourri of spoken word, the rambling conversations of The Yokai Trilogy (almost a DVD commentary without end), and whatever other whims erupt from these mysterious producers. who have been at work on this possibly aimless, possibly highly purposeful project for a good year. There is a ghost story of some sort beneath all this meta banter, but it’s up to the listener to determine whether the specter is something chased through the act of telling stories or talking about storytelling. (Link)

podcast77WideShut Webcast: I first learned of WideShut through an episode of Sword and Scale, when the two podcasts collaborated on a gripping story about the Hampstead Satanic cult, a truly alarming and far from resolved case of sex abuse and false allegations that should cause pause for anyone in our age of outrage. Political conspiracy is Keelan Balderson’s stock in trade and there are fascinating questions here on how media shapes our notion of evil and how we judge other people. (Link)

podcast78The World in Words: This pithy show, unrolled in twenty minute installments, investigates language, but is, like any good topical podcast, very much invested in the larger world. A recent two part investigation into fake accents in pop music, ushered in by this worthwhile effort to contend with the pop punk sneer, proved especially perspicacious, as did these insights into how ASL is tinged with a Philly dialect. For anyone obsessed with such pedantics (and I’m afraid I shall be to my last dying day), The World in Words is a casually probing and invaluable entry into the way we communicate and its impact upon all around us. (Link)

podcast79WTF with Marc Maron: Marc Maron has many gifts as an interviewer and as a comedian, but what he does so well with his highly entertaining show is the way that he gets at the root of fears and anxieties in himself and in his guests. It’s reflected in his longtime obsession with a Saturday Night Live audition with Lorne Michaels, one that he finally got closure on in November, and in the burgeoning empathy that has crept evermore into his lengthy introductions this year. Maron can be troubled and often angry, but what makes WTF such a wonderful listening experience isn’t just the way it documents the history of comedy and increasingly music (although this is often very interesting), but observing a man finally having the courage to mature late in life. Maron is deepening in ways he may not even know. And in its post-Lorne Michaels incarnation, WTF hasn’t finished growing by a long shot. (Link)

podcast80Zoe Nightingale: Zoe Nightingale is one of the funniest, most courageous, and gloriously iconoclastic interviewers around, who secured my unshakable loyalty when she somehow stumbled onto a story that drew many strikingly original connections between animal rights, homelessness, and rigid ideology and in taking her family to Burning Man, where she made valiant efforts to expose them unapologetically to pansexual possibilities. There really aren’t too many podcasters willing to go there like this. There’s something charmingly liberating about Zoe Nightingale. She’s just dangerous enough to push us out of our comfort zones, yet still committed to the celebration of life, almost an Iris Murdoch on steroids. (Link)