Since we are just starting out, we thought we’d break the mold a bit: five of our contributors have picked one of their favorite all-time listens to recommend to our very first readers. Check them out below:
Biggest Problem in the Universe
“Episode 65: Hoverboard Hoaxes and Death“
Hosted by comedians Maddox and Dick Masterson, The Biggest Problem in the Universe has one (probably unsurprising) goal: to find the single biggest problem in the universe. Each week, the hosts provide commentary on a possible contender. While I recommend starting from Episode 1 so that you can fully enjoy the show’s meta-humor (enough to require a glossary), some humor you will be able to pick up right away: Maddox, known for his extensive research on an episode’s problem, offers this on the subject of death:
“Listen to these stats…100% of people who live will experience death at some point in their lives—100 percent.”
That said, the show cuts its humor with a good amount of poignancy. In “Hoverboard Hoaxes and Death,” Maddox’s tongue-and-cheek statistics are joined by more serious moments, including an attempt to define death and a discussion of Google Calico (a moonshot life-extension project).
Dick’s problem, hoverboard hoaxes, is related to Lexus’s new Slide: he argues that the product, and any other kind of “hoverboard” released to date, is not the real kind of hoverboard we’ve all wanted for so long. (That is, since we first saw Back To the Future II.) “Hoverboard Hoaxes and Death” concludes with Maddox detailing his absurdly detailed hilarious plan to steal the crown jewels as soon as jetpacks become available. The things I like most about The Biggest Problem in the Universe are all highlighted in this episode: its charming ability to take real-world problems, and provide a comic yet meaningful take. It takes a massive amount of chemistry, like that seen here, to keep an unscripted show entertaining for a full hour; Biggest Problem does it week-in and week-out. Their inside jokes and references – and yes, the serious moments too – make it all the better.
Moth Radio Hour
“Bat Stretchers, Glass Eyes, and Laugh Breaks“
The first episode of the The Moth Radio Hour contains one of the most raw and powerful stories I have ever heard. For the unfamiliar: Moth Radio Hour is a collection of true stories told at various events for The Moth, a non-profit that is “dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.” Each episode is a grab-bag of emotions as the stories range from sweet to sorrowful, and everything in between. Above all else, they are incredibly personal.
The first Radio Hour episode has been re-aired a couple times since its debut in 2009. I had an opportunity to listen to it shortly after the death of comedian/actor Robin Williams last year. A particular story from the hour, by comedian Anthony Griffith, is among my favorite radio segments ever. His performance , “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,” details Griffith’s life as his professional opportunities blossom and his two-year-old daughter’s health deteriorates. His narration is an emotional powerhouse. Griffith exclaims,
“I’m a clown! I’m a clown whose medical bills are raising, who’s one step from being evicted, who’s one step from getting his car repo’ed. And I have to come out and make you laugh because no one wants to hear the clown in pain because that’s NOT FUNNY!”
When we see comedians like Anthony Griffith, Robin Williams, Chris Farley, and the like, we tend to forget the person underneath; in the moment, we fail to appreciate the comic’s full humanity and personal struggles. Griffith’s story was a sobering reminder. It bears (and rewards) multiple listens, despite its difficult subject. Have a box of tissues handy.
“Case #2: Britney“
The Premise? There’s a mystery to be solved, a question to be answered. The Problem? You can’t seem to Google it, no matter how hard you try. The Answer? Starlee Kine‘s Mystery Show, from Gimlet Media.
Mystery Show is about the (mock) heroic quest to solve the mysteries in our lives that intrigue us, those that we don’t typically have time to figure out. For example: “Eleven years ago, I saw an old woman at a stoplight with the license plate ‘I LUV 911’; what did that mean?” or”Who are Bob Six and Hans Jordi, and why are their names on the back of this eggs-and-toast enamel belt buckle I found on the side of the road in the early 90’s?” Yet the joy of the show isn’t actually the answers to these riddles; though, they are satisfying. Instead Mystery Show‘s best moments come en route: Kine is a born flâneur, and each episode is a ceaselessly interesting, Forest Gump-ian ramble through the lives of the people she encounters while investigating. This episode I picked for this week’s Soundcheck stems from Kine’s friend Andrea Seigel, a self-professed failed author. Seigel’s second novel To Feel Stuff sold poorly, and yet was photographed by paparazzi in the hands than none other than Britney Spears. Kine’s charge from Seigel was two-fold: 1) how?, and 2) did she like it? The episode is best described as brimming with humanity: warm, empathetic, and endearingly unfocused. Start here, but check out the rest of Mystery Show‘s brief first season over on Gimlet’s site.
“How to Divide an Imaginary Pie“
Startup: variously defined as: a burgeoning entrepreneurial venture, a new business in the form of a “company,” a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model, et cetera.
Or, as I like to think of it, business’s gawky, acne-ridden early years. On that fitting note, let me introduce you to Startup: Season One. In the show’s first season, host Alex Blumberg stories his effort to launch a podcast consortium, which you might now know as Gimlet Media. To do so, he draws on his extensive radio experience; Blumberg was formerly a producer at This American Life, which he left to co-found Planet Money. It becomes excruciatingly clear early, though, that his radio experience matched only by his business naivité.
In Episode 3, Blumberg must come to terms with this lack of business savvy. He at last comes to realize that building a business of his intended size can’t be done alone. Even when the massive task of finding a partner seems accomplished (by way of a stunningly suitable Matt Lieber, radio producer, turned management consultant, turned radio producer), Blumberg’s inept handling of equity negotiations nearly renders their partnership dead-on-arrival. In the middle of a sleepless night, an emotional Blumberg plainly lays out the stress of the situation; you can hear the strain in his voice. In another clip, we hear Blumberg and his wife chat after putting their young children to bed, followed up by Lieber’s recording of how his own earnest efforts may go unappreciated. Deft editing means allows us the chance to empathize with the tensions faced by both, in what I remember as the biggest emotional punch of the show’s first season.
As in this episode, Startup is at its best when it peels back the artifice of starting a business to reveal the genuine, human moments experienced by its founders. In these moments, we can see (up close and from multiple angles) the personal triumphs and heartbreaks of starting a business, the human elements of starting a business, that get glossed over in later tellings, subsumed by polished origin stories. Give it a listen.
Love + Radio
“Thank You, Princess“
“You’re going to want to put a dental dam over your ears, because a pencil-thin audio phallus is going to be all up in that braincase, making a big wet mess in your brain.”
So begins Love + Radio’s “Thank You, Princess.” Love + Radio, a member of the Radiotopia collective, features interviews with morally ambiguous characters. Nick van der Kolk’s production is unsettling, masterful, and unique. His interviews are shocking and insightful.
After the colorful content warning, a female voice begins to describe her utterly mundane daily routine. The illusion of normalcy lasts for exactly 28 seconds. Ceara Lynch, it turns out, is a humiliatrix. She and van der Kolk chart her journey from selling used panties online to playing a sadistic character on a femdom sexline. At the episode’s halfway mark, van der Kolk does for podcasting what the drop does for EDM: he rolls tape of Lynch and a self-proclaimed 43 year-old virgin with a micro-penis chatting on her sexline.
Love + Radio’s “Thank You, Princess” is holy shit, spit take-worthy radio. Part of that has to do with the content. In the world of Ira Glass’ “we’re going to acknowledge the existence of sex,” content warnings, a podcast about sexual humiliation stands out. You’re going to want to listen to this one twice: once to get over the shock value and once to focus on its details. The arrhythmic sound design, Lynch’s genuine observations about men and relationships, and the surprising humanity of this seemingly deviant world make “Thank You, Princess,” must-listen radio.
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