Nancy Solomon: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Nancy Solomon in for Tanzina. We're going to round out the hour talking about something that's been keeping many of us company during the pandemic, podcasts. Even though fewer people have been commuting to work over the past year, a recent study from the media research company, Edison Research, found that both monthly and weekly podcast listenership has increased over the past year.
For some of us, podcasts can be a complete escape, a chance to listen to your favorite comedians or athletes talk directly to you. For others, like me, there's nothing more gripping than a well-reported true crime audio story.
Interviewer: What are you thinking is going to happen at the trial?
Interviewee: They will prove my innocence.
Interviewer: They'll prove your innocence?
Interviewer: At the end of this, they're going to say not guilty?
Interviewee: Yes. I was thinking like, "Surely, they will see through this". As you can see, that didn't work out.
Nancy Solomon: Here to help us figure out what's worth checking out in this ever-growing landscape is Sarah Larson, a staff writer at The New Yorker who contributes to the column Podcast Department. Great to have you here, Sarah.
Sarah Larson: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Nancy Solomon: As I said, I am, of course, a fan of true crime podcasts but usually just the ones that are really well-reported and don't feel like they're exploiting the victims. What makes a good true crime podcast, in your opinion?
Sarah Larson: Definitely, sensitivity to the victims and the loved ones of the people the story is about, responsible reporting made by people with more moxie than fact-checking. A good new true crime podcast that's come out is Stolen: The Search for Jermain. Are you familiar with this?
Nancy Solomon: Yes. We have a clip to play, so let's play that and then you can tell us more about it.
Connie Walker: She loved animals, eh?
Vicky: Oh yes, animals. She always wanted to have a little farm of her own. Quite the artist. Really, a very good artist. Very good writer.
Nancy Solomon: Tell us about Stolen.
Sarah Larson: Stolen is about the disappearance of Jermain Charlo from a Missoula, Montana bar. She's from the Flathead Reservation. The series is reported by Connie Walker who's a journalist, who's a Cree woman, Canadian First Nations. She did an excellent podcast a while ago called Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo. It's a beautifully reported and fascinating story about not just the disappearance of Jermaine but of the community surrounding her. It's really well done.
Nancy Solomon: Some of the ones I've really liked are-- We heard a clip at the very top from In the Dark. I'm listening to West Cork right now and I like that one a lot and I really love Bear Brook.
Sarah Larson: Yes. Those are some of my favorites.
Nancy Solomon: What kind of problems do you see that arise in the genre of true crime?
Sarah Larson: For one thing, many of them focus on middle-class white women and distort the perspective. A lot of them are presented mostly as entertainment. There are a lot of podcasts that are beloved by many people that make true crime fun. Of course, it's complicated.
We listen to these partly because they're entertainment in some way, but it's also journalism and a riveting story. It's important to get the tone right and definitely not easy. The ones that you mentioned, In the Dark is probably the best podcast ever made in my opinion, but--
Nancy Solomon: It's right up there, for sure.
Sarah Larson: Even before it affected the Supreme Court. It's a good one.
Nancy Solomon: Impact and results are amazing for that one. Let's move away from true crime. You also have recommended Aria Code which is produced by my colleagues at WNYC's classical station WQXR. This one's about opera and we have a sample of it. Let's play that.
André: "There's no history of Egypt conquering Ethiopia back in Pharaonic times. This was a made-up story. However, it's seeped in different power dynamics of Verdi's time, in the 1880s. You've got the whole world of colonialism on the African continent. We know that that was in the background."
Nancy Solomon: Colonialism and opera. Do you need to understand opera to listen to this one?
Sarah Larson: No, not at all. For me, I love music more than pretty much anything and I'm not a musician, so anything that can help me understand the magic and the gorgeousness of music and how it happens is thrilling to me, and Aria Code to me does that really well.
It's hosted by Rhiannon Giddens and it brings in different experts in every episode to explicate a different aria, and then at the end, you hear the aria. It's really lovely. It comes together really beautifully, and I always learned something, whether I know the aria or not. That's a lot of fun.
Nancy Solomon: Music, of course, is such a obvious advantage in audio work and radio podcasting. Let's talk about Nocturne because that's one that you recommend that deals with insomnia which I would not say is a natural for radio. Let's play a quick clip of that one.
Vanessa Lowe: I think there's no animal more emblematic of the night than the owl. Of course, they're nocturnal but that's not the only reason. They're also ephemeral and mysterious, keeping their distance from us in tree branches and on posts, showing only glimpses of themselves before vanishing in a silent flap of wings.
Nancy Solomon: Is this one to listen to at night before bed or definitely not?
Sarah Larson: No, it's beautiful. Nocturne is hosted by Vanessa Lowe who produces it independently and it's beautifully designed. It's really about night. It's about stories that happen at night.
A recent one was about a practice in the Netherlands called dropping which involves leaving your kids in the woods at night and letting them find their right home. Not something I knew about but they're all fascinating and they're all very atmospheric and beautiful.
Nancy Solomon: Podcasts have been on the rise, of course, for a while now. I love that there are now podcasts critics like yourself. When did you start On TheBeat? How did that happen?
Sarah Larson: It was a few years ago before the advent of Serial and the explosion of podcasts that followed it. I just feel lucky that I was able to observe all of that as it was happening. It's just a form that I love. I love the combination of music and human intimacy and good storytelling. When done right, there's nothing like it.
Nancy Solomon: I could not agree anymore. You also recommend Cocaine and Rhinestones. Does the title say it all on that one?
Sarah Larson: [laughs] The title says a lot but the podcast says even more. It's a really unique and wonderful and funny and smart podcast about 20th-century country music, hosted by Tyler Mahan Coe who's the son of the country musician, David Allan Coe.
He has a unique perspective on the history of country music and also the music itself. He weaves together essays that he's written with clips of the music and stories. He has a very fierce way of presenting information that is a little startling and quite wonderful in my opinion.
The first season came out in 2017 and that was about a bunch of different artists. The Louvin Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb. The second season is about one person, George Jones, but it contains so many other stories within the story of George Jones. He's only released one episode so far. They're each about two hours long and there will be 18 of them. I've heard the first four episodes and they're fantastic. I'm very curious about where it will go next.
Nancy Solomon: The Slate Podcast has Slow Burn and has just released its fifth season Premiere. This latest season looks at the Iraq War. What do you think of the first episode so far?
Sarah Larson: It's wonderful. It's got a really interesting character, Ahmed Chalabi, who's unusual and fascinating. The thing I love about Slow Burn, which started a few seasons ago with the story of Watergate. Is that it takes episodes from fairly recent history within some of our lifetimes, others are less familiar with the topic at hand, but it just digs into what it was like to live through a particular experience like the Clinton Impeachment or Watergate or the Iraq War.
Let's face it, who among us feels like they really know everything they should know about the Iraq War? Certainly, not me. I'm always really appreciative of Slow Burn and the way that it approaches its subjects. This season is hosted by Noreen Malone and so far it's a knockout. There's only one episode out but I have a lot of faith that the rest will be just as good.
Nancy Solomon: Sarah Larson is a staff writer at The New Yorker who contributes to the column Podcast Department. Thanks a lot, Sarah.
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