Public radio always seemed to me like the activity of the wine-and-cheese class. Pop it on while you grill pizzas and again on your drive through Newport. This American Life, Radiolab, Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!, and their friends—twee as hell programming that put me straight to sleep.
I had never been a public radio listener until I was living in New Jersey a few years ago and my days consisted mostly of working and going for long walks. I needed something besides music to underscore my hours. Like everyone else, the internet makes it hard for me to focus. I have hundreds and thousands of tabs open at any given time. The format of a radio talk show was always challenging because of my scatterbrained nature—writing an email to a friend while listening to seventh-graders discuss public schooling in Chicago made for interesting (bad) correspondence.
But then I started listening to handful of low-budget, independent podcasts and lower-profile new public radio programs. These programs, mostly found on SoundCloud, are defined by lack of inhibition and a disdain for guided deliverance, not to mention freedom from FCC regulations, which are as antiquated as being fined for "indecent programming or profane language." Adding in brilliant and unsettling sound design, audio storytelling has taken on a new life—one much more interesting than its mainstream counterpart.
Everything Is Stories Radio
A hitchiker. A match fixer. A shaman. A man with buried treasure. All people you can meet from your laptop and get to know intimately in under an hour through Everything Is Stories Radio. The program is organized independently by three people who have little background in podcasting—Mike Martinez, Tyler Wray, and Garrett Crowe—as well as a number of photographers who take intimate portraits of their story subjects.
Wray, 35, and Martinez, 34, have taken on the project out of New York with Crowe, who is based in Oxford, Mississippi. The mission statement of the radio program, which is just as easily dubbed a podcast (terms that have become somewhat interchangeable), is to tell stories of those whose will has been tested, who have faced lives of crime, who have done drugs, been lawless, and have escaped, succeeded, and failed. The current of the program is an unsettled heartbeat, electrified by tales of the unfamiliar and soundtracked by idols of the underground music scene like William Cody Watson and Cough Cool's Dan Svizeny.
As Watson, one of the contributing musicians to Everything Is Stories, told me over email, "Things aren't always pretty, they're not always manageable, but at the same time, there's value in the dark, and even disturbing side of life." EIS aims to capture that darkness and does so flawlessly.
There have been 42 episodes of Love+Radio—one which has been ceremoniously scrubbed from the internet for reasons that Nick van der Kolk can't tell me—and one, the fantastic "The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt," which won a gold award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, the first ever podcast to do so.
"At the time, there was a lot of talk about how [podcasting] was going to change everything, it was really going to democratize radio. It was really really great," van der Kolk explained to me on the phone this week. "This high-falutin' language never really gelled, though, because most podcasts were not really good. The only people who listened were people who were super nerdy and a lot of the podcasts were about podcasting."
"Some of the best stories we've done, quite honestly, were pitched to This American Life and rejected because they couldn't find people likable enough," van der Kolk said. "The thing that I really wanted to go after were people who were really complicated and I think that's something that isn't necessarily showcased that much in the radio world."
Love+Radio's most challenging and compelling story is that of Jack and Ellen. Without giving too much away, the story follows the narrative of a Subway sandwich artist named Ellen who turns to the internet to make money off of a particular vice. Listener discretion is advised.
The Broad Experience
The Broad Experience was recommended to me by a female playwright who was doing research on contextual female issues: How do women operate in a world that has begun to remotely and slowly open up to us? As women rightfully demand a space in the workplace while being probed with the question of if we can really have it all, The Broad Experience provides a great wealth of women's successes, failures, and advice on how to navigate the workplace and its constraints.
Each episode, under the operation of its host and curator Ashley Milne-Tyte, features interviews with experts in management (with the occasional man's input) and stories told by women about their unique work environments and roadblocks. Though The Broad Experience is intended to be a resource for women on the job, it wouldn't do much harm for men to listen as well. Episodes on navigating motherhood, sexual harassment, and demanding equal pay are well-sourced and revealing about what women go through every time they clock in.
Audio Smut is the kind of show you'd do best listening to in bed, a half-hour before sleep. Its episodes usually run between twenty and thirty minutes, and every element to the production is painstakingly thought-out erotic audio. The radio show producers themselves acknowledge that public radio is often too coy and juvenile regarding sex programming, and their show is a place where anything goes and nobody is shy.
The best episodes are narrative. They are part erotica mixed with ethereal sounds that are meant to elicit pounding heartbeats and encourage foreplay. As the founders themselves put it best, "every 2 weeks we deliver honest and emotionally engaging stories that read like a diary and sound like a dream." The occasional informational episode, such as the unbelievably eye-opening "My Natural Pocket," which describes how to use your vagina as a transporter for weed, aims to remove shy feelings about sex and our bodies. The sound design in particular is great on this show, blending breathless storytelling with accompanying groans and bangs.
It would be hard to accurately describe what GUNWASH does if you'd never listened to an episode, but let me give it my best shot. GUNWASH began (and has since incredibly amassed over 100 episodes) as a weekly dancehall program on the Heritage Radio Network, hosted by friends of and experts on dancehall, most notably Aaron Ginsberg (full disclosure: he's a friend of mine). The show then morphed into this hard-to-top, frequently difficult-to-listen-to audio soundscape that had friends on, music played, beer drank, and jokes told. Fine, seems simple enough.
But it's actually a lot deeper than that. Listening to GUNWASH, if you can wade through all the weirdness and the blowhorns that go off without warning, as well as the frequent gunshot sounds and bizarre quirks of Ginsberg as host and his friends as sidekicks, GUNWASH actually features a ton of really interesting stories on people in New York who work in art, music, fashion, and otherwise. If GUNWASH could cut away half the bullshit, it'd be the singlemost important audio archive of an underground local scene and the kooks who run it that we have.
My favorite episode of the show is when Ginsberg has on a friend who recounts the story of going back to Haiti to bury a family member. It's a captivating story that he tells in a deeply somber tone, but it's bookended with Ginsberg's cartoonish dialogue and dancehall and alarms and gunshots. I asked Ginsberg as a personal favor to upload the show for this story, and he's taken weeks to actually do it. Still nothing.
Though On Being is easily the biggest podcast and radio program on this list (having received a Peabody Award and the recognition of Barack Obama for the show's wonderful host, Krista Tippett), it deserves a place on this list as the most thoroughly produced investigation into the human spirit. On Being's explorations of what it means to be human and how we quantify that question with religion, deeper spiritual probes, and connection others are always deeply enriched by interviews with a spectrum of subjects from Rosanne Cash to artists like Ann Hamilton prove that though we all live differently, we all aim for the same depth of soul.
On Being's collections on a subject, such as the one below on Ramadan culled from different episodes, are always enlightening discoveries of what it means to be human. The thoroughness of Tippett's interviews and research are more engaging and captivating than an episode of This American Life because they do more than skim the surface. They probe how Americans—and citizens of other countries—attempt to live as we move into a time fraught with uncertainty.
Here Be Monsters
Much like Audio Smut, Here Be Monsters' greatest strength is in its ability to create a total package for the listener. I think part of the reason I always found it challenging to truly delve into audio storytelling of any regard was that the stories never bloomed in my imagination—I was always adding my own soundtrack or visualizing the scenes required too much brainspace. But Here Be Monsters, whose theme is loosely based on people confronting their fears and living to tell the tale, captures the mood of fear and the unknown so well.
The podcast covers a range of topics, some scientific and some historic, but my all-time favorite episode is on a story that I'd never imagine myself listening to: that of a slug death-orgy in Washington. I think what Here Be Monsters does so well is what all podcasts and public radio programs aim to do: turn a story that may not initially grab you on the page and make it compelling to the ears instead.
Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything
Benjamen Walker's prior podcast was the cult favorite Too Much Information, and whose last episode appeared on WFMU in April of this year. Luckily, Walker didn't leave many hanging for that long and breathed new air into his format with Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything. Here, Walker does largely what he did with TMI by exploring people's personal stories with an injected interest in The Way We Live Now. He attempts to use technology and research to wade through deeply intimate narratives, creating a composite image of both important-to-document individual stories, as well as how we and Walker can interpret and rationalize them.
[Image courtesy of Everything Is Stories Radio]