The Podcast Review – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Serial Goes Missing Fri, 08 Jan 2016 16:07:21 +0000 serial-season2

You could cite the sponsorship of Audible, the rise of Midroll Media, Gimlet and PRX’s Radiotopia, galvanizing events like Podcast Movement and the Third Coast International Audio Festival, but ask anyone and they will say that it was Serial and its 100 million downloads that elevated narrative-driven podcasting from dorky obscurity back in 2014. Serial was mainstream. Serial intensified and also transcended the This American Life aesthetic. Serial was serious.

It also clarified the affect surrounding its own mode of consumption. One did not merely follow Serial or like Serial in 2014; one was “obsessed” with Serial. It’s the word that came up most often in the coverage, and served as grist for ridicule and derivative works, of which there are now many – Breakdown, Another Dead Man Walking, Limetown. If TV has taken on the metaphor of substance abuse these days (we are “addicted” to Making a Murderer, we “binge” on Scandal), narrative-driven podcasting has taken on the argot of infatuation, of compulsion, of love.

That response was prompted by the podcast itself. Early in the first episode, there is a bit of theater when Sarah Koenig reflects on how a meeting with lawyer Rabia Chaudry prompted her investigation of the murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the issue of whether or not Lee’s former boyfriend Adnan Syed had really committed it. In an aside, Koenig uses the technique of false improvisation, seeming to rethink a word in mid-sentence, although the line strikes the ear as scripted:

This conversation with Rabia […] this is what launched me on this year long – obsession is maybe too strong a word – let’s say fascination, with this case.

Let’s not. When this first aired, here on Antenna Jason Mittell made the argument that the main character of Serial wasn’t Syed at all, but Koenig herself. In retrospect I’d go further. Because the show dramatizes how engrossed its host became with the investigation she was performing, her obsession was the “protagonist” of the show. After all, that which drives Serial’s seriality is neither the chronology of the story nor that of its reconstruction, but Koenig’s internal thought process, her uncertainty when faced with multiple avenues of interpretation afforded by the same datum. Remember the Nisha Call, the pay phone at Best Buy, Syed stealing from the donations at his mosque? We listened to Koenig organize and reorganize each of these, value and devalue them, recursively, incredulously, passionately. We listened to Koenig struggling with the stubborn ambiguity of an ever-growing wall of details. That is why (as critics are starting to realize) imitating Serial’s narrative is impossible to do without recreating its narration.


So Serial’s thorniest philosophical problem was never with ethics, but instead with something closer to hermeneutics. The last lines of the twelfth episode speak to this theme:

When Rabia first told me about Adnan’s case, certainty, one way or the other seemed so attainable. We just needed to get the right documents, spend enough time, talk to the right people, find his alibi. Then I did find Asia, and she was real and she remembered and we all thought “how hard could this possibly be? We just have to keep going.” Now, more than a year later, I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders like an aggravated cop. Don’t tell me Adnan’s a nice guy, don’t tell me Jay was scared, don’t tell me who might have made some five second phone call. Just tell me the facts ma’am, because we didn’t have them fifteen years ago and we still don’t have them now.

In an ironic touch, Koenig cites detective Joe “Just the Facts” Friday of Dragnet, radio’s paragon of positivist “keeping going,” as she expresses skepticism about the certainty that such a method provides. What was at stake in Koenig’s obsession, ultimately, wasn’t her feelings towards Adnan (the allegation of romantic attachment strikes me as both unsupported and misogynistic) but her worry that certainty about him is unavailable. What if the truth isn’t out there? That is the fear to which Koenig was professionally and emotionally vulnerable, and by foregrounding that exposure rather than subordinating it, she gave the show dimension, made it special and weird.


Last month Serial returned, now with seven new staff members and a host of collaborators, including Mark Boal’s Page One film company, tackling an elusive subject: the disappearance and search for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who left his post in Afghanistan one night in June 2009 and was returned after a prisoner swap five years later.

The topic is complex, but in adopting it Koenig also marginalizes her own voice. We hear little about her own thinking, opinions, epistemological struggles. The first episode ends dramatically, with a phone ringing and Koenig explaining “That’s me, calling the Taliban.” But this is almost the only moment of personal ownership in the episode. By contrast, the first installment of Season 1 was full of that:

… This search sometimes feels undignified on my part …
… I have to know if Adnan really was in the library at 2:36 PM …
… If you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is this is the one that came to me …

koenigIn the Season 1 launch she uses the object pronoun form “me” 14 times to refer to herself. In the launch of Season 2 she only uses it four times.

She’s an outsider, learning terminology as we do and drawing on others. A recent article in Vulture characterizes Koenig as a novice in national security, describing Boal as the “embed” with contacts in government and a background as a screenwriter for films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. In its very structure, then, Season 2 turns away from the model of the heroic individual quest, of “dramatic nonfiction narrative in the form of a personal journey” as Eugenia Williamson characterizes the This American Life aesthetic, and toward a model of collaboration. No doubt many journalists will cheer this change.

The team is making use of all of its resources. “The Golden Chicken,” the second episode, draws on 12 interviewees from Bergdahl’s battalion, 25 hours of taped conversations between Boal and Bergdahl, an interview with Taliban leader Mujahid Rehman, reporting by Afghan Sami Yousafzai who made contact with a fighter named Hilal, as well as documents from Wikileaks, all to reconstruct what happened to Bowe in the first weeks of captivity. If Serial’s new season is “about the knotted relationship between systems and people,” as Slate’s Katy Waldman puts it, then it also requires a number of systems and people to explore it.

Like the first season, this one dwells on discrepancies. The Taliban say that they did a traditional attan dance to cheer up Bergdahl in an orchard during his transportation, but he remembers nothing like that. Like last time, the heart of the show lies in interview tapes peppered with humdrum audio, like the sounds of Boal microwaving his lunch, which contrast the network news snippets at the top of the program – what Koenig calls the “antiseptic upstairs realm” of the mass media narrative. Like the first season, this one often focuses on vivid details. In the third episode, we learn that Taliban fighters drink Mountain Dew, think sunglasses look cool, and say “What’s up, bro.” The first episode explains what life was like in Bergdahl’s station in Paktika province by focusing on the burn pit, where pitiable soldiers took turns stirring their own burning refuse. It’s a shit-stirring scene at a post made famous by a soldier trying to stir up shit.

In theory, there is no reason why the new season, with its dark humor, with its war and torture, with its humanized subject and investigators, should differ tonally from the previous one. Koenig clearly has sympathy for her subject in the fourth episode, listen to her describe how a captor cuts Bergdahl’s chest slowly with a razor blade 600 times. With multiple accounts of these and other events, the same awe and uncertainty we experienced the first time should plague us. “Any one piece of this story can keep a person’s mind churning,” Koenig promises in an early passage.

And yet it doesn’t. Why? Because Koenig is not vulnerable to her story this time out; she tells the story without becoming a character in it. She has yet to speak to Bergdahl directly, and her retreat to the role of anchor bears the same antiseptic whiff as the TV media reports that the program borrows for its opening. We aren’t even following Koenig’s “mental churning” closely enough to know how fraught it might be. Without the pathos of a narrator’s affective relation to her narrative, the season comes across as superior journalism but inferior meta journalism. We’ve lost the innervating anxiety that made it special.

Just think of it at the level of sonic texture. Gone are the calls to Adnan, car rides with co-producers, footsteps into fields, knocks on doors, auditory situations in which we felt physically proximal to our host moving through space over a duration of time. Instead, Koenig speaks to us from nowhere in particular, pointing our ears at places rather than taking us along with her to visit them. Her intense intimacy with the audience is not mirrored by a similar sonic proximity to the people and places that the story is about, leaving the experience oddly hollow, even lonely.

zoomPerhaps Season 2 is too far away from its focus. Obsession always implies a collapse of critical distance, but Serial’s own metaphors go the other way. Early on in the first episode, Koenig likens the Bergdahl story to a children’s book called Zoom.

It starts with these pointy red shapes. And then, next page, you realize those shapes are a rooster’s comb. Next page, you zoom out, you see the rooster is standing on a fence with two little kids watching him. Next page, zoom out again, they’re in a farmhouse. And then, zoom further, you realize that all of it — the rooster, the kids, the farmhouse — are toys being played with by another child […] Out and out it zooms, the aperture of the thing getting wider and wider until the original image is so far away it’s unseeable. That’s what the story of Bowe Bergdahl is like.

It’s what the podcast is like, too. Even as we get closer to the story, we seem further away.

This is not the only time that Koenig refers to children’s media. Earlier on in the episode, she contrasts Boal’s salty language with Bowe’s schoolboy politeness, noting that the latter’s go-to expletive is Charlie Brown’s “good grief.” During the second episode, Koenig describes the Army’s thinking once it knew Bergdahl was captured this way:

They also knew that the Taliban’s goal would be to get Bowe to a hideout in the tribal region of Western Pakistan, because Pakistan is like home base. Or, to put it in Tom and Jerry terms, Pakistan is the hole in the baseboard where Tom cannot go.

Finally, in the third episode, as Koenig narrates the nightmarish tale of one of Bergdahl’s escape attempts. As Bergdahl falls off a cliff, the scene takes on the language of the comic strip:

Bowe lands on a dry riverbed on his left side. He said the word “oof” actually came out of his mouth, just like in a cartoon, loud enough so that some dogs started barking their heads off.

Small wonder that Serial feels just as bracing this time around, but flatter. Adnan Syed was a cipher; Bowe Bergdahl is a sketch.

And so, a year later, Serial remains the best game in town, an ambitious program, dense and with the best narrative rhythm in American narrative audio. It still boldly leads the field when it comes to signaling what podcasts can do. But it has lost its touch when it comes to refashioning how podcasts can feel. Is it fascinating? Sure. But so far obsession remains too strong a word.


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“We Know More About You Than You’d Like”: Podcasts and High-Status Fandom Wed, 02 Sep 2015 13:18:19 +0000 U Talkin' U2 To Me, and the ways in which performances of fandom are complicated by the hosts' celebrity and industry connections.]]> Post by Mark Lashley, La Salle University

Fandom can either be a deeply lonely or incredibly connective enterprise, depending on what you happen to be a fan of. And expression of that fandom in a public forum has traditionally come with some element of risk. Increasingly, the fear of outing oneself as a fan of some phenomenon or other has dissipated as digital media enable an immediate dialogue between fan groups, and between fans and the objects of their interest (check out how Taylor Swift makes dreams come true!). What’s piqued my curiosity of late, though, is the way the podcast medium plays into fandom, as a venue that is tailor-made for delivery of content for incredibly segmented audiences.

Fan podcasts, or podcasts dedicated to discussing a specific cultural artifact, aren’t an especially new thing–The Whocast, made by and for Doctor Who fans, dates back to 2006. However, this single-serving podcast form seems to be having something of a moment. And oddly enough, much of this work seems to be coming from the comedy community. As a few examples, comedian Geoff Tate hosts a Cheers-themed podcast called Afternoon, Everybody! W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery launched Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period last year. Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files is nearing its fiftieth episode. And Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman have spent two years on an on-again off-again project about their mutual love of the band U2, called U Talkin’ U2 To Me?


I want to talk a little here about U Talkin’ U2 To Me? partly because it’s probably the most listenable version of the fan podcast out there, even for those who can’t stand the nominal subject. The show isn’t really about U2 (except in certain moments, when it most certainly is), but instead uses the band as a platform to spring off into one diversion after another. Aukerman and Scott have managed to curate an entire world that revolves around their pop culture obsession, but only periodically dwells in it. A given episode of U Talkin’ is just as likely to include a 20-minute riff about Turtle from Entourage as it is to debate the relative merits of Rattle and Hum. The other reason to highlight U Talkin’ is that, in its latest episode, the hosts landed their dream guests: the four members of U2 themselves, whom they had the chance to interview in New York during the band’s run of shows at Madison Square Garden.

After the hour-plus interview concludes within that U Talkin’ episode (which is likely to be the series finale, seeing as it’s reached something of a natural conclusion), Aukerman discusses fandom at some length, noting the ability for large communities to gather around a single purpose and produce meaningful discussions about the work itself, forge connections with like-minded others, and generally have a good time. This is not an uncommon sentiment about fandom, certainly, and there’s a rare candor in Aukerman’s voice when he thanks all the people that reached out to talk about the podcast (fans of U2 or not) and what that connection means for him and Scott. The theme here remains on how this community helped to make a dream come true (meeting the band!) for Aukerman and Scott. And that’s where the platitudes and idealism of fan culture may need to be tempered a bit.


What goes unspoken here is that Aukerman and Scott’s experience with the object of their fandom is anything but common. It’s also an experience that’s predicated largely on their high status and cultural capital: their pre-existing industry connections and their own level of fame. The same is true for, say, Nanjiani, whose podcast tackles a different episode of Chris Carter’s sci-fi series in each installment. Nanjiani is accomplished as an actor, as well, and his X-Files love recently landed him a supporting gig on the forthcoming reboot. In a lateral example, we could even look at WTF With Marc Maron‘s recent booking of President Obama and the awestruck post-mortem episode that followed it. These are all high-status fans, and by privilege of access and talent have a much greater shot than the average fan to make these experiences happen. In a recent book, Barrie Gunter refers to the concept of “celebrity capital,” and it’s not much of a stretch to see a certain level of commodification at play here. It’s also a two-way street–we can see the benefits of exchange for U2 the band as well as for the U Talkin’ guys. Similarly, there’s some positive advance PR to be had for the X-Files in hiring an actor like Nanjiani who is a self-described “superfan” of the series.

I point this out not to say that Aukerman, or Scott, or Nanjiani, or Bell, et al. aren’t “real fans.” Listening to their work, it’s enlightening to hear the fun they have simply engaging with things they love. But they are definitely not ordinary fans, the kind who listen to these podcasts and enjoy them at least in some part because of the vicarious access they afford. The last two episodes of U Talkin’ are exhilarating. In the penultimate episode, the hosts detail their backstage encounter with two band members (including Bono’s offhanded acknowledgement of their enterprise, “We know more about you than you’d like”). Then there is the nervous, awkward, and ultimately charming interview with the whole foursome in the last installment. If we are to step back and reconsider this experience through the eyes of a couple of regular U2 fans, would the experience would even have registered as a cultural moment? Is it not part of the appeal that U2 themselves were thrust into a universe that had already been carefully constructed by a pair of media-savvy TV and podcasting veterans? (If you’re a regular listener, you’ll understand what a coup it was to get the band engaged in some of the many podcasts-within-a-podcast that Scott and Aukerman had established, like “I Love Films”).

Perhaps a broader discussion might lead to how these podcasts exist as entertainment products on their own terms, though it’s hard to disentangle them from their objects of analysis. Moreover, there’s a question on both sides of the microphone about what we want our celebrities to be, or perhaps just what we want to see in them. Maybe the success of this form comes not from engaging with the specifics of what the people we’re fans of are fans of. Maybe the appeal is in knowing they are fans, just like us.


The Only Music Podcast: Listening to a New Music Podcast Find its Voice Fri, 24 Jul 2015 13:00:23 +0000 there-is-only-one

Post by Brian Fauteux, University of Alberta

This is the first post in our new series “The Podcast Review,” which offers critical appreciations of podcast series or episodes and other notable digital soundwork.

Podcasts about music come with a particular set of challenges. For one, it can be difficult for hosts to balance their own musical preferences against those of their listeners. Also, for more amateur productions, there is the tricky question of whether to acquire the rights to use songs in the podcast, to rely on brief clips that may fall within fair use (or its equivalent in other countries), or to just risk it and worry about consequences if they arise.

For these reasons and others, music podcasts, especially those that aren’t produced by a radio station or network like NPR or KEXP, often have a limited run. Staffan Ulmert of The Only Music Podcast explains that he and his co-host Louise Hammar had no idea why so many music podcasts barely make it to twenty episodes. He wonders if it’s because of licensing issues or if those involved in creating music podcasts start to resent each other around episode fifteen. Their new podcast, created just this year, provides an excellent perspective on how labels, artists, and listeners are discovering music today and how various facets of the music industries work.

The Only Music Podcast is produced in Gothenburg, Sweden, and is available via iTunes or from the podcast’s website, which organizes its episodes into a visually striking grid of images that are demarcated by a topic. The episode titled “Girls!“, for instance, is marked by a photo of Björk’s face surrounded by a black background. Episodes are released every two weeks and the goal of the podcast is “to avoid being too nerdy” and to ensure it appeals to listeners beyond those who “consume music and music news 24/7.” Staffan is a music producer who has released sample-based music under the moniker Mojib and is also the founder of Has it Leaked. Louise co-runs Telegram Studios, one of Sweden’s biggest indie labels; she has also managed a number of international artists.

OMP Girls

Each episode is broken down into three distinct sections: News, “what we’ve been listening to,” and a distinct topic such as remixes. Two episodes have deviated from this format due to summer holidays: One, a list of guilty pleasure songs, and the other, a list of cover songs the hosts enjoy. Featured news topics are related to the music industries, such as the release of Tidal and its lack of transparency in terms of what they pay artists, recent album leaks (Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta”), and the popularity of surprise album releases in the United States. When introducing listeners to Tula, Louise does so by explaining the creative process behind the group’s music and offers some insight into why she thinks it resonates with listeners. She is able to provide this context since Tula works with her label, Telegram. During a discussion of Jamie xx’s “Loud Places” from Episode 3, we learn about the samples used on the track and the process of mixing and remixing. Louise then takes us through the history of remixing by rocksteady, reggae, and dub artists.

The final section of each podcast installment is particularly appealing for music fans, since it deals with compelling and familiar issues in the music industry, but with a refreshing perspective that isn’t filtered through the United States or the U.K. On Episode 5, “Girls!” (April 28, 2015), the discussion of women in the music industry centers on the year 1996 when Sweden was “bombarded with U.K. rock bands” and the “laddish” culture that accompanied it. The hosts discuss how there were many women artists on the charts that year (Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Celine Dion) but argue that because the industry was heavily dominated by men, it was hard for women’s perspectives to emerge. As a point of comparison, they then discuss Robyn and her promotion of women in technology. In the next episode they mention that this is a much larger topic and one that they will discuss again on a future episode.

omp logoBeing able to hear the podcast evolve over the course of its 11 episodes is a fascinating component of The Only Music Podcast. At this year’s ICA conference, a panel on podcasting was followed by a discussion of the increasing popularity and professionalization of the podcast. A few points that were brought up included the “podcast/public radio voice” and the importance of large distribution channels. By contrast, the 11 episodes of The Only Music Podcast allow us to hear the hosts working through technical issues such as having two microphones recording at the same volume level (they have yet to receive their proper microphones). At one moment Louise admits that her iPhone battery has died and that the audio quality may now decrease. Many episodes end with Staffan asking listeners to write to the hosts if they have suggestions for improving the format. So, while the two hosts are clearly experts in their fields, I enjoy hearing the podcast develop and change over each episode. In the pilot episode Staffan admits that “It’s very difficult to create a podcast. We thought it would be very easy. It’s not…” He adds that he had a hard time listening to the first few episodes but supportive emails from listeners gave them the confidence to continue.

Staffan says that he and Louise are getting better at being themselves once they hit the record button. He imagines that they will run into some problems with licensing music if the podcast develops and its audience grows. If that’s the case, he hopes that sponsorship can help. This is a great time to tune into The Only Music Podcast, both because it deals with the ever-changing contemporary music industries, and because we can hear a podcast develop and find its voice.