Announcing Culturally Relevant, a new culture podcast

When I first started podcasting 12 years ago, it came out of a desire to preserve interesting conversations that I had with other people and to put them out into the world. On a fundamental level, I believed that when people can have access to meaningful dialogue about topics they’re passionate about, it makes them feel less alone.

In addition to creating an intangible camaraderie, podcasts also open people up to new perspectives and interesting arguments. If I started podcasting from the position of wanting to find people who affirmed my opinions, I’ve tried to get to the point where I seek out those that challenge my own. Only in the crucible of a blistering, incisive argument can your own point of view be truly tested and validated, I’ve come to conclude. And podcasts are an amazing vector for all of these interactions.

In the intervening years, I’ve been fortunate to meet dozens of fascinating and talented individuals, including filmmakers and writers and authors and artists from all walks of life. But despite all the podcasts I’ve created, there still hasn’t really been a vehicle for the full breadth of these conversations. That’s what I’m hoping Culturally Relevant will be.

Every weekly episode will feature an in-depth conversation about an interesting topic, whether we are discussing a creator’s own work or reviewing something else. I hope it’ll be a mix of the casual and the formal, deliberate and off-the-cuff. I have absolutely no idea if it’ll work but I’m hoping you’ll join me for the journey.

And now our watch is ended

[Sign up to get these updates from my via email. Thanks for reading.]

This week, Joanna Robinson and I released what will likely be the very last episode of “A Cast of Kings,” the Game of Thrones recap podcast we’ve been publishing since April 2012. You can listen to it above. It got emotional.

When I first started podcasting, I was living my post-college years in Boston with my parents, financially supporting them with the money I made from an academic research job. This left me with a lot of spare time, so I started recording podcasts because I enjoyed talking about pop culture and building online communities around films and television. It was how I first encountered the work of Joanna Robinson, who at the time worked for a website called Pajiba.

Joanna’s work was insightful and trenchant, and I soon invited her to guest on the Slashfilmcast. I was impressed by her wit, humor, and perspective. We started collaborating together on a podcast about the FX original series Justified.

One day, she pitched me on the idea of a Game of Thrones podcast where she would take on the role of a book reader and help explain the show to me, a non-reading heathen. The idea for “A Cast of Kings” was born.

I don’t think we quite understood that we were tapping into three phenomena that would dramatically grow in importance in the years that followed: podcasting, explainer culture, and Game of Thrones. “A Cast of Kings” combined them all into one neat package. At the time, The Ringer wasn’t even glimmer in Bill Simmons’ eye, Vox Media had barely just started, and Game of Thrones was still being compared unfavorably to Boardwalk Empire in the ratings.

There are times when your can feel the tectonic plates in your life shift underneath your feet, when something grows beyond what you could’ve possibly imagined. As “A Cast of Kings” continued, it reconfigured my notions of what was possible with a podcast.


I don’t remember the first time that I realized “A Cast of Kings” was bigger than any other show I’d ever done. It was more of a steady accumulation of little moments: an unknown friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend mentioning the show at a social outing, getting featured on numerous “Best of” podcast lists, appearing on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss the show, hosting a panel at Con of Thrones to chat with some of the great actors from the show. I learned that people who I respected and admired — people whose work I read online, who I regularly watched on television or whose podcasts I enjoyed — listened to “A Cast of Kings.”

These moments filled me with many emotions but the overriding feeling was one of gratitude. It is an extremely rare and beautiful thing to be able to create something that is meaningful to so many people. When something that significant comes along in your life, the best you can do is try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

I went through many life changes during my time hosting “A Cast of Kings.” I uprooted the only life I ever knew and moved to Seattle on, hoping it would change things for the better (it did). I got my first ever taste of life in the corporate world, which has enabled me to experience many incredible opportunities. I got married to a lovely woman who I met because she was a “Cast of Kings” listener.

Through it all, the podcast soldiered on. And there was Joanna, whose profile rose along with the popularity of the show. She went from a writer whose work was read by thousands to someone who was read by millions — one of this country’s most trusted experts on one of the most popular cultural properties ever.

It’s rare to find a person whose personality clicks with yours. It’s even rarer to be able to capture that magic, package it up, and put it out into the world in a way that other people can appreciate it too. But, that’s how I felt about my time working with Joanna.

I looked forward to our podcasts because I would always leave with something new — some bit of knowledge or insight that I never would’ve come up with myself. Her diligence, particularly in the first few seasons when I depended on her to illuminate the show and protect me from spoilers, was admirable. It’s that work ethic that has propelled her into becoming an online star in her own right. I was fortunate to be along for the ride.

And that’s where we are today. At the end of a long and crazy journey that has irrevocably altered both of our lives.


One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s a miracle any good podcast survives. People’s lives change. People change. Few things stay constant.

Consider your own life: are you still talking to the same people you were 5-10 years ago? Is the state of your day-to-day existence the same? Throw into the mix strong personalities that are the ingredients of any good podcast and you have a recipe for an enterprise that is genetically engineered for a brief lifespan.

Joanna and I both have strong opinions, not just about pop culture but about ways of doing things. We sparred verbally on occasion, both on and off the show. But in the end, I think we understood how blessed we were to be involved in something that was helping to shape how so many people watched and enjoyed this beloved pop cultural artifact. For a brief moment in our lives we shared a partnership and an audience that became more than the sum of its parts. That’s part of what helped get us to the finish line. It’s also ultimately what Game of Thrones tried to do: to transcend its medium and become something more memorable and meaningful than we could’ve possibly predicted.


Note: If you are a fan of my audio work, I’ll be launching a new podcast this month called Culturally Relevant, which will feature many of the conversations I have with interesting people around the internet. Subscribe now to make sure you get the first episode when it goes live.

An intense time

[Sign up to get these updates via email]

You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two:

Podcasts I’ve been listening to recently (March 2019)

[Sign up to get these updates via email]

Podcasts have become so sophisticated that they have started to take on the characteristics of their entertainment predecessors. Their production values are often sky high. Many are divided into “seasons,” with lengthy arcs that take time to build and land. And also, as with TV, there are way too many to consume than a single person could possibly do in a lifetime.

As a result, there are some podcasts that I’ve wanted to get around to, but have avoided due to the “commitment” required. Now, a few lengthy road trips later, I am slightly more caught up on all the media I’m behind on.

Here are a few podcasts I’ve been listening to that I’d highly recommend:

The Drop Out – Examining the life and times of Elizabeth Holmes and her catastrophic failure of a company, Theranos, has become a big business. This podcast is one of the latest entrants. While I still think the book Bad Blood is the definitive retelling of the Holmes scandal, this podcast makes for fascinating listening, allowing you to hear fairly extensive interviews with many of the main players. With seven 40-45 minute episodes, they have enough time to dive in depth into some of the key aspects of the story. Overall, this is probably what I’d recommend for people who don’t have time to read the book but want to learn what went wrong at Theranos.

Surviving Y2K – I wasn’t a fan of “Missing Richard Seasons,” which I found to be a bit too creepy and invasive for my tastes, but I quite liked the second season of the Headlong podcast, which dives into the Y2K phenomenon. The show revisits the mania around the Y2K bug, and how people from different walks of life reacted to it. In addition, the host, Dan Taberski, uses the show as an opportunity to reveal how he tried to use Y2K to restart his own life. It’s a bold thing whenever a podcast host bleeds for his art. In this case, it also made for a worthwhile listen.

Slow Burn: Season 2 – “Slow Burn” is a testament to the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. This politics-focused narrative podcast, whose second season covers the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, is fascinating and gripping.  Listening to it, I am struck by many things: The quaint concerns of both parties at the time (The Republicans were worried about the deficit and about the morals of our President; with time, let’s just say those concerns have been revealed to be not truly embedded in the DNA of the GOP). The cruelty of many of the players involved, who may not have understood that they were destroying a young woman’s life, but were certainly willing to take that risk. Mostly though, I realize how we’re still dealing with many of the same issues today as back then, not to mention many of the same actual individuals. If anything, politics and political coverage have been revealed to be even more venal than we could’ve imagined back then. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Good One – Not a narrative show, but this podcast by Jesse David Fox makes for insightful listening about the nature of comedy. It’s basically Song Exploder, but for jokes. Where else can you find an analysis of the Totino’s pizza sketch on SNL and the “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” episode of Documentary Now?

I hope you have a chance to check these out. I’d ask for your recommendations, but I have too many other podcasts on deck already to possibly finish them all… (e.g. In The Dark, Caliphate, Serial Season 3, etc.). That said, if you have any must-listens, send them my way!


Some more links from the week:

Big Bezos Energy

[Sign up to receive these posts via email]

Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

500

As of this week, I’ve hosted and produced 500 episodes of the Slashfilmcast. You can listen to our 500th episode here. In this episode, my co-hosts and I reflect on how the show began, how the industry has changed, and what our favorite moments and films from the past decade have been.

The podcast has had a profound effect on my life and it seems to have had a strong impact on the lives of others as well. I’ve made so many friends and had so many wonderful conversations and experiences this past decade. It was nice to take a step back and just reflect on how unusual and interesting this entire journey has been.

I had a wonderful time making this episode and hope you enjoy listening to it.

Aaron Mahnke’s advice for starting a podcast

Lots of great advice in this Twitter thread by Aaron Mahnke about how to start and maintain a popular podcast. I was particularly encouraged by this piece:

STICK WITH IT. Don’t give up after six episodes. Growing a podcast from zero to success isn’t an overnight thing. It takes patience and courage. You need to hold on and work hard. There are a TON of other podcasts out there, and it’s going to take a lot of time and hard work to float toward to top. Refine, improve, and get better. You don’t have to be 100% perfect in the very first episode.

Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast is one of the few that’s even spawned an Amazon Prime Original series. (Note: Amazon is my employer)

See also: Brian Koppelman’s advice about not giving up.

Write Along – a new podcast about the creative process

I’m pleased to announce that I’m launching a new podcast called “Write Along.” It’s about writing and the creative process featuring screenwriter, author, and former film critic C. Robert Cargill. Our first episode is up now. Check it out on iTunesGoogle Play, or via RSS.

Cargill is a writer whose work I’ve followed for many years. I’ve witnessed his ascent from a film critic at Ain’t It Cool News to a screenwriter working on films that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. In recent days, I’ve seen Cargill share advice tweets about the writing process that have resonated with thousands of aspiring creatives on the internet.


I recognized that Cargill’s advice came from a place of generosity. He’d risen in the industry and wanted to reach down and help the next generation up along with him. So in an effort to signal boost, I pitched Cargill on a simple idea: A weekly podcast, no more than 20 minutes long, that covers a single piece of writing advice. It would be another way to preserve Cargill’s counsel, while potentially adding several layers of interactivity on top (both my dialogue with him, and the audience’s dialogue with us).

On a personal level, I’m excited about this podcast for two reasons: 1) I’m thrilled to be working with Cargill, whose voice I’ve always found to be compelling (even if I often disagree with him), and 2) I think there’s a lot of discipline involved in turning out a podcast that’s only 10-20 mins long each week, and I’d like to practice that discipline. I like to go long with my content. I meander. I don’t edit tightly. Can this weekly podcast that’s shorter than a sitcom episode provide enough enjoyment and utility to justify its existence?

Let’s find out together.


A few other notes and observations from the week:

  • If you’re an aspiring podcaster these days, I think it can be tough to figure out exactly which site to use for hosting and creating your podcast. There are just so many options out there (e.g. Podbean, Libsyn, Anchor, etc.). I honestly struggled for a little bit before settling on a hosted WordPress.com website, coupled with a Libsyn account for hosting files (the latter is primarily for the statistics and metrics it provides. WordPress hosts files too, if your’e into that sort of thing). I’ll probably review this experience at some point, but I chose it because it offers a lot of control over the podcast feed, with fairly minimal cost.
  • A big shout out to Wikirascals for helping me out with podcast art, and to @ZShevich for helping us come up with a name for the podcast.
  • This article about the last days of Blockbuster is beautiful.
  • I finally caught up with this powerful essay in which Darius Miles explains what the hell happened to Darius Miles.
  • Sandi Doughton has written a meditation on how to survive in Seattle traffic, which turns into a broader piece on the psychology of road rage. I can support Sandi’s premise that Seattle has some pretty terrible driving. Getting around by car is pretty unbearable and the lack of a subway system doesn’t help.
  • Roxane Gay writes about why you should vote even if you’re disillusioned right now:

Every single day there is a new, terrifying, preventable tragedy fomented by a president and an administration that uses hate and entitlement as political expedience. If you remain disillusioned or apathetic in this climate, you are complicit. You think your disillusionment is more important than the very real dangers marginalized people in this country live with.

Don’t delude yourself about this. Don’t shroud your political stance in disaffected righteousness. Open your eyes and see the direct line from the people in power to their emboldened acolytes. It is cynical to believe that when we vote we are making a choice between the lesser of two evils. We are dealing with a presidency fueled by hate, greed and indifference. We are dealing with a press corps that can sometimes make it seem as though there are two sides to bigotry. Republican politicians share racist memes that spread false propaganda and crow “fake news” when reality interferes with their ambitions. Progressive candidates are not the lesser of two evils here; they are not anywhere on the spectrum of evil we are currently witnessing.