Podcast Network Guide: The Heard

ARRVLS

I have only lived in Seattle ten years but the Ryan who is a Seattleite differs greatly from the Ryan who was (and is) an Ohioan. The city has changed me and it didn’t even take a full decade. The landscape, the people, the culture, the prevailing ideologies have had a strong hand in crafting the child who left Ohio into the (nominal) adult I am today.

ARRVLS tells the stories of these transformations, about people who have arrived somewhere new or unexpected and undergone a change as a consequence of their new surroundings. For me it is difficult to recognize how I am being changed as it is happening, but it’s instructive to take stock when the new is routine and the stage of transformation is complete.

Host Jonathan Hirsch has found wonderful stories from people in these moments of introspection. In the show’s short run we’ve heard from people who have come near death, been close to hell, and found new life. Hirsch hits a wonderful balance between the optimism found in change and the real tragedies that often bring us to those places; it’s uplifting but still grounded.

Recommended Episode: Two Doves

Anxious Machine

In my review of StartUp I mentioned this site used to be dedicated to technology.

When I was in grad school I needed a writing outlet that wasn’t oriented toward academia and my long-standing interest in the tech sector (and my geographic location in one of its hubs) made technology an obvious topic. It began as a fun project — a distraction from graduate school, a way to geek about something I enjoyed, and another way to not think about the impending birth of my first child. However, after eighteen months of sporadic writing I heard an interview with technology critic Evgeny Morozov that made me question why I was going through the trouble. I realized I had been writing about glittering technological advancements in smart phones, social networking, e-commerce and the like without ever considering their cost. Not just on the wide, social level that fuels many histrionic think pieces, but on the real and personal scale those same think-pieces often neglect.

Rob McGinley Myers examines that personal impact in his podcast Anxious Machine. Through Anxious Machine Myers talks to people about the way they relate to technology and how it has changed their lives. And, unlike my blog, McGinley Myers doesn’t limit Anxious Machine to modern technologies. The most recent episode as of this writing is about the technology of alcohol and how humans began to use it to escape conscious thought. Other episodes cover smart phone usage, advances in medicine, and the Internet’s impact on long-distance communication and what that means for soldiers who live a world away from their families.

Anxious Machine is at its best when it brings the interview subjects to these ideas and allows them space to talk through their feelings on their own terms. In the episode Sometimes You Wish Not to Have a Phone a nursing student from Tanzania laments the way her smartphone constantly intrudes on her life but also recognizes it’s a lifeline to her friends and family she left back home. There’s no simple solution for her, just as there is no simple solution for many of us who may feel similarly bound to our smartphones out of necessity and compulsion.

In Anxious Machine, McGinley Myers has brought a reflective awareness to the way I think about smartphones and other technologies I daily take for granted. And as humanity moves toward greater advancements, it’s a perspective we will sorely need.

Recommended Episode: Episode 7: Not a Phone Person

First Day Back

Ideally I would have written this post Monday night, when my brain was pumping out piping-hot ideas instead of my Tuesday lunch break, when all I’ve got are leftovers. Good enough, but lacking a certain freshness. I had a perfect plan, too: leave work, go to the gym, have a picnic with my wife and daughter, play with puzzles, watch some TV, put the kiddo to bed, spend some time catching up with my wife about her day and next thing you know Bob’s your uncle and I’m sitting down typing.

Probably if you’re a parent you’re laughing because you know it never happens. No plan can buffet the storm conjured by a three-foot dynamo of chirping chaos. Monday night I found a little girl who’d spent all her energy playing and recovering from a busy weekend, who barely budged from a late-afternoon nap. No picnic, no play time, late bedtime, extra cleaning, and wait, hey, whoa, why am I in bed already?

I’m not complaining. My family is my life. But there’s no ignoring the tension between the pursuit of creative fulfillment and duty to my family. That tension is at the core of documentary filmmaker Tally Abecassis’ First Day Back as she returns to filmmaking after a (very) extended maternity leave.

I’m always thrilled when hosts take advantage of podcasting’s flexibility and live in the moment instead of the studio. Abecassis takes the listener into her world. We hear from her husband, her children, her brother, her close friends, her colleagues, and other artists. Tally interviews her brother about their mother in one of my favorite moments. How did Tally’s stay-at-home mom influence her daughter, she asks? What did her attempts to generate income mean to her mother? It forced me to look at my mom’s endeavors, something I have, shamefully, never given a second thought. It’s an insightful look back as even Abecassis moves forward. The conversation with her brother and others are externalizations of an internal dialogue and benefits from the variety of perspective. There’s no map for arts-based freelancers to get back in the game but friends and colleagues are helpful guides, even if they don’t know names of the roads and the terrain is ever changing. Murky though it is, Abecassis is finding a way.

More than the tension of artistic expression and familial responsibility, FDB is also an examination of motherhood-as-identity, non-monetary motivations to work, gender roles, and so much more. While these issues are well-covered by seemingly every media outlet (and yet, not covered well enough) Abecassis grounds FDB in the nitty-gritty of actually doing the work of practicing her craft and breaching the system that allows her do it. FDB is not a navel-gazing think piece but a seat-of-your pants how-to manual. Watching Abecassis work through her insecurities, fears, and hesitation while she’s figuring out how to do it it out turns First Day Back into a vital voice of an everlasting dialogue.

Like Serial and Startup, First Day Back benefits from the thrill of the unknown. Abecassis’ expedition back to the land of the institutionally employed has barely begun and the end, if there is one, isn’t even a blink on the horizon. Probably it won’t all go to plan, but where’s the fun in plans?

Recommended Episode: Episode 1: Getting Back Out There

How to Be a Girl

How to Be a GIrl’s greatest asset is honesty.

If I hosted this podcast I know I would take an air of insouciance and pretend as if there was nothing difficult about my son realizing she was a girl when she was three. “Of course, it’s fine,” I would say to my friends, “Why wouldn’t it be?” as if my modern attitude toward gender would be enough to overcome the many fears parents have carried for their children since humans have had children to worry about in addition to this particular existential consideration.

But host Marlo Mack doesn’t pretend. She loves her daughter unconditionally and sometimes, she admits, she misses her son. It’s not an admission from grief but an expression of wonder. The ongoing transition hasn’t been fraught with peril but neither has it always been easy for mother Mack or her daughter. How to Be a Girl unfolds as a lovingly crafted exploration of gender, identity, love, and their intersection, all of which Mack addresses with ease and grace. The entire show runs less than an hour, and I’m looking forward to seeing more this summer.

Neighbors

It’s an old adage of our new information age that we’re all too busy looking at our screens to see the faces in front of us. Surrounded by people, yet we can’t hear each other’s voices for all the noise emanating from our glowing rectangles.

Though I’m not losing sleep over this phenomenon, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a rift growing between me and the people in my neighborhood and surrounding communities. Jakob Lewis and Neighbors make me want to go and do something to close the gap. Lewis talks to friends and neighbors to hear their stories and from the tales emerges illustrations of community, stories that inform individuals and mold them into communities. Stories of shared grief, cooperation, and coming together; stories of seminal moments in our lives that are singular but somehow relatable.

Neighbors tells these stories in the traditional podcast-format, but my favorite episodes are the recordings from his neighborhood story nights with only the raconteur and their audience, like an episode of The Moth in his back yard. These stories from actual neighbors pulled me into that community and made me more aware of my own.Neighbors acts as a kind of cure against our modern ailment, drawing the listener in to inoculate against isolation.

Nocturne

From my late teens to early twenties I worked at a combination pizza-place-coffee-shop in rural Ohio. Both the coffee and the pie were pretty damn good too, thankyouverymuch. Besides the good food and coffee, it was also the hangout for friends and local musicians so it made the thirty-minute drive to and from work worthwhile for me, though the gas expense was far from negligible on minimum wage.

And, because of the late shift, later conversation, and long(ish) commute I spent a lot of time in my most-formative years alone in my truck, in the middle-of-nowhere Ohio with nothing to do but listen to music and think about everything. My mind wandered alongside the sinuous road — it was like I could see myself travelling alone, wrapped in the night, going home but not in any particular hurry. Night driving sparked an alchemical reaction that turned the dross of my daytime thoughts into gold. It was a strange relationship I had with the night then, and I’ve never quite been on the same footing since.

Vanessa Lowe’s Nocturne isn’t about the normal trappings of night: fear, the unknown, or even fear of the unknown. Rather, it’s a celebration of those strange relations we form with the time between dusk and dawn. So far in the show’s short run we’ve heard stories from a visual artist, a bread baker, a science writer, and a truck driver, each with their own stories and each with their own lesson learned from their encounters.

Fear and unease are, in a way, intrinsic these stories but Lowe doesn’t let anxiety get all the attention. Lowe uses Nocturne as a way to come at the idea of night, the primal time where our senses fail, from different angles, prodding this way and that but not shining a light directly. In fact, it’s a bit like hiking a familiar trail at night without a flashlight — it’s familiar terrain, but there’s a sense of discovery all the same. Consider we spend something around 33% of our days in darkness (or near darkness) I was somewhat taken aback when I finished all the episodes and realized I had never given much thought to something that takes up so much of my time.

Podcasts flourish when they find veins hidden in plain sight and have skilled, adventurous hosts who know how to extract what’s beautiful. Though Lowe has uncovered several gems in only five episodes I’m certain there’s more treasure waiting for her (and us) further down and further in.

Recommended Episode: Ep. 3 — What the Baker Saw

More reviews at Ryan’s Podcast Reviews

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