Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History is a podcast that goes back in time to look at moments and movements we either missed or misunderstood.
Pick up any article on podcasts and you'll almost always read that they've "exploded in popularity." As cliche as it sounds in 2020, I can't say it's wrong.
It was only in 2014 that Season 1 of Serial came onto the scene and turned audio storytelling on its head with its captivating tale of crime, justice and the legal system. And in six short years, podcasting has led to a revolution of the audio medium itself — spurring a new wave of talent, creativity and even cost-effective technology that brings stories from across the oceans directly to your ears.
According to PodcastHosting.org, there are over a 1,000,000 podcasts. (That's not counting the voice notes my mom sends me.)
There's a podcast for every niche imaginable. But here are my top-5 picks — shows, episodes, hosts and stories that have influenced how I think of the craft and in many ways have shaped my own style and work.
I'll accompany each recommendation with my thoughts on what sounds good and what sounds...meh. And I'll also suggest which episode I think you should listen to first.
Produced by the makers of Serial and This American Life, S-Town follows the journey of a reporter, Brian Reed, who investigates an email tip of an alleged murder. The person who's tipped off Reed's team is John B. McLemore. And when Reed visits the alleged scene of murder in McLemore's hometown of Woodstock, Alabama, the murder is not the focus of his story anymore.
The focus is John B. McLemore.
For eccentric, beautiful, intriguing and painful reasons, the story of S-Town turns into a profile of John B. McLemore, his friends, family and that of Woodstock, Alabama.
The story of S-Town started with an email tip from John B. McLemore (pictured) in which the alerts a team of reporters about an alleged murder in Woodstock, Alabama. But the story quickly becomes about him. Photo credit: Esquire
S-Town is a deeply personal story that's built on the back of an amazing character — John B. McLemore. He's colourful, talkative, funny and builds a deep chemistry with Reed. This makes the storyline for much of the show very easy to follow — not something you take for granted when you don't have visual cues to remember characters and plotlines.
Brian Reed sounds wonderful. Some of the episodes are heavy and deal with matters involving death. Reed's voice is soothing and his telling of the story offers a sort of surrogate that helps us process our own feelings as we grapple with the emotional roller-coaster in the show.
Brian Reed, host of S-Town, accepts The Peabody for separate story he produced for This American Life
This is more to do with ethics of journalism. Since the release of the podcast, some have questioned Brian Reed's portrayal of John B. McLemore, his family and the community at large in the town of Woodstock in Alabama. One could also argue that the show was a sort of voyeurism that used a man's troubled emotional state. But my take is this: listen to the show yourself and decide which side of the debate you're on.
Drop-in episode: It's a serialized show, so you ought to start with Chapter 1. And while you're at it, make sure to give undivided attention to the first 1:45 minutes of the episode. It's hypnotic. It's beautiful. It's magic.
4. The Take by Al Jazeera
While a relatively new kid on the block, the kind of stories they're covering and the geographic spread of their reporting is proof enough that they're already doing many things right. AJ's The Take started in late-2019. But what you hear today is a revamped version with a new set of producers and a new host after the show went into a hiatus.
The Take builds on original reporting done by Al Jazeera journalists and documentary filmmakers, who are spread far and wide — following the broadcaster's founding mandate of amplifying the voice of the Global South.
The format is simple — in each episode, host Malika Bilal interviews an Al Jazeera journalist who takes us through a story that's either making global headlines (or *not* making headlines), or takes a global topic and sees how it's resonating within a certain country or city they're reporting from.
Think COVID-19, and there are episodes on how it's playing out in Indonesia and Iran. And it's not always about stories and incidents making it to the top-of-the-hour news bulletins. Having a wide pool of reporters and documentary filmmakers digging into stories from different parts of the world also allows them to bring their niche interest and enterprise reporting to the audio format. (The episode 'Pakistan's most infamous Twitter troll' is an example).
With recording studios closed due to COVID-19, ever wondered where and how podcast hosts are recording their scripts? Host of The Take, Malika Bilal, is sweating out the details on recording from...ermm...a closet.
Show host Malika Bilal built a solid reputation in the online community as one of the co-anchors of The Stream on Al Jazeera. In The Stream, she always looked at home interviewing experts, activists and community members. She brings that same inquisitiveness, fresh voice and energy to the audio medium — a space where it's easy for audiences to tune off without videos, pictures and graphs.
The Take gives us the story behind the story. It's also an opportunity for news reporters to let their guard down a bit and present a side they rarely get to show on television. For instance, when Al Jazeera's West Africa correspondent Nicolas Haque talks about life under COVID-19 in Senegal, the episode includes a moment when Haque's family member interrupts his Zoom call with Bilal. In live TV, this would be a disruption. On The Take, this was a light moment that showed what life really is like in the middle of a pandemic.
The Take's format is not new. The Daily from the New York Times already owns this space — of a host interviewing in-house reporters on the biggest stories of the day. But The Take's strength lies in the geographic spread of its reporters — and the possibilities of diverse stories, topics and characters that this presents. It may never have the download numbers and cult following of The Daily, but The Daily may also never get to the stories that The Take's reporters get to first.
Drop-in episode: Science vs Sweden in the battle against coronavirus
3. Revisionist History
If I were to think of one show that pushed me from becoming a passive listener of audio stories into a maker of one, I think Revisionist History would be it. In every episode, Malcolm Gladwell dives into a one object, movement or moment in history to look at how the world at large interpreted it — and how, on most occasions, everyone was wrong. He links our past with the present, and sometimes draws parallels between unlikely things: tacos and music, anyone?
Most of the topics come to life because of Gladwell's own enthusiasm for investigating them with a skeptic's eye. And there's variety too. From the hidden impacts of the Brown vs Board of Education verdict to what we can learn about frail memory from Elvis Presley's life, to how McDonald's messed up its original recipe of french fries (yes, french fries!) — each episode is like walking into a rabbit hole, handheld and guided by Gladwell's smarts, inquisitiveness and yep - his deep, husky voice.
With books like Blink and The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell enjoys a following that tends cut across age groups and geography. He's now going hard within the audio space. In 2018, Gladwell co-founded Pushkin Industries, an audio content company. Photo credit: Slate's YouTube
I have on good authority that Malcolm Gladwell writes his own episodes. Which isn't all that common in podcasting. Often, there's a team of writers who script the show and a big-ticket host is brought to read it and, as an effect, bring their fans and followers to the platform. But not with Gladwell. He pitches his own stories, writes his episodes, and refines it with a team of trusted editors and producers. And this makes him, the host, the biggest strength of the podcast.
The show can get super-nerdy and goes into obscure journals and academic papers. But the show does an awesome job of grounding that academic research on easy-to-follow stories and impressionable characters.
In many episodes, Gladwell takes the liberty to assume that everyone's just as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the celebrities he refers to on his show. If his team factored in that their listeners tune in from beyond North America, they'd perhaps consider spending a little more time fleshing out the characters and spend at least half a minute explaining why they matter. The episode 'The Bomber Mafia' in Season 5, for instance, barrels through the life of the U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay with little background information … as if the whole world grew up listening to his stories at their dinner tables.
Some of the links and parallels drawn in the episode — to connect two things or ideas — sound like a bit of a stretch. In the episode "In A Metal Mood", Gladwell tries to explore the topic of cultural appropriation through the lens of Taco Bell and musician Pat Boone. Hmmm … not sure how I felt about that episode. But you be the judge.
Drop-in episode: McDonald's Broke My Heart.
And a close second is Basement Tapes. If the first 1:45 minutes of S-Town are magic, the last 2:00 minutes of Basement Tapes is the most endearing thing I've heard heard on audio. It's heartbreaking, and it's beautiful.
Turns out a closet isn't the only fix for recording at home. Gladwell's DIY studio looks like a tent with a plush rug (on the floor and hanging ones too?) — all great signs for good acoustics.
2. The Documentary by the BBC
This is a show that I could randomly jump into on any given day, and be rest assured that I'll be gripped for a good 35-40 minutes. The Documentary series from BBC has this model that ensures that it will never run out of episodes — it takes the works of its reporters from across bureaus spread around the world, and turns them into narrative style audio stories. If you read an interesting, original piece of journalism on the BBC website, chances are they've packaged it into podcast form for The Documentary.
It also gives BBC reporters a chance to get involved in the story, and even present a vulnerable side of themselves. (The episode 'Your Life in a Cup of Coffee' that explores the mysticism around Turkish coffee cup reading is an example.)
The Documentary by the BBC is in my top-3 because it'll always live as long as reporters at the BBC dig up stories that otherwise escape our radars. And … as long as nobody decides to defund The BBC. :-)
By covering hidden stories buried across the world, and especially in the Middle East and Africa, listening to BBC's The Documentary gives us a window to the outside world and makes us a little more knowledgeable than if we only focused on stories from the Global North.
The stories are "told" by the journalists who have reported for other BBC platforms. So each episode presents a fresh voice, a different style and the assurance that they're told in the voice of a person who's the closest to the story and its characters.
This is an extension of what sounds good. But because each episode is hosted and packaged by a different reporter covering a different part of the world, there's no real consistency or theme in how the show sounds. This isn't a problem per se — but if you're tuning into different episodes expecting to hear the same treatment, you won't find it.
Drop-in episode: The Grandma Benches of Zimbabwe
Notice how the same story, The 'grandma benches' of Zimbabwe, is packaged both as a BBC web story as well as an audio story.
1. This American Life
This is a show that I may go a few weeks without listening to — but when I feel I've hit a listening wall, I can always turn to it and never be disappointed. This American Life was podcast-grade, stellar audio-storytelling even before podcasting became a thing. Its first episode aired on radio in 1995. And today, it pumps out in-depth, character-driven stories and has developed a cult following.
This American Life's format is unmistakable. Every episode has one theme it's divided into three acts. It's sometimes radio drama, at other times investigative reporting – the latter of which also comes through collaboration with reporters. And these collaborations are good. I mean ... prize-winning good.
This year, This American Life won the very first Pulitzer Prize ever given for excellence in audio journalism. It won the Pulitzer for the "The Out Crowd" — an episode that looked at the Trump administration's controversial 'Remain in Mexico' policy for Mexicans seeking asylum in the U.S. Part of that episode included an investigative piece published in the Los Angeles Times.
Ask any audio aficionado, and there's an episode somewhere or a character profiled in the show who's made them laugh, cry, fall in love with, or … simply changed the way they think about storytelling. The show host and his team of reporters have almost an unfair talent for taking the most mundane observation and turning into a philosophical reflection. And heck - they just find some of the best guests to interview.
The trailer for TAL's Pulitzer-winning episode, The Out Crowd.
Their cold opens. The short, often quirky snippets at the beginning of each episode that introduce the theme are on their own some marvellous stories. It sets the tone of each episode. And what's more — you always hear it in the voice of the host.
...which brings me to another thing that sounds good: Ira Glass. This American Life's host-at-large is maybe the most recognizable voice on radio and an institution of audio storytelling unto himself. His style feels personal, sincere and conversational — a far cry from performative radio that could turn some people off.
As the title of the show suggests, the stories center around all things United States of America. So while the stories are fresh and the tales captivating, you're pretty much immersed in the vagaries of a limited geography. My tip is to mix up your podcast portfolio — add in the likes of The Take and The Documentary, but always....always return to This American Life.
This is small — they play a lot of repeat episodes. Not much of a bother since their stories from even a decade ago are incredible. But if you're looking for fresh and topical content on each visit, you might be disappointed some times.
This American Life's host, Ira Glass, visited Vancouver in 2018 for a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Here he is addressing some dreamy-eyed journalism students at the University of British Columbia, made possible by the GOAT Peter Klein. Photo credit: Global Reporting Centre.
Weird flex, felt cute: Ira Glass signed my Zoom audio recorder when he was in Vancouver.
Other honourable podcast mentions: Heavyweight hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, Finding Cleo, hosted by former CBC-er Connie Walker, Where is Lisa? by Laura Palmer and Modern Love from the New York Times.
Oh, and if you've read this far — check out Teamistry, a podcast that I help produce at my current job. It looks at some of the biggest accomplishments in our history and modern times, and sheds light on something few people talk about — the teams and partnerships that made that accomplishment possible.
And, eh, my boss Steve Pratt may or may not give me a bonus for this plug. :-)