Fame and its discontents

Now that I’m taking a break and finally have enough time to do things like read books and listen to podcasts, I’m finally catching up on a lot of media I’ve missed over the past few years.

One such program is a podcast called Heavyweight, where the host helps people resolve long-held grudges or other issues. In particular, I really appreciated the second episode of the show, which features an interview with the musician Moby.

The setup is that a friend of Moby is upset with Moby’s success, especially after Moby refused to acknowledge the friend’s contributions to it. When confronted about this, Moby explains that fame is not all it’s cracked up to be and that it was at his most successful that he felt the most despondent:

You think when you get to where you want to go, finally you’ll finally be happy. But then you get to where you want to go, and you’re just as miserable as you were. In fact, you’re even more miserable because you no longer have anything to aspire to. And you feel this hopelessness because, what’s left to aspire towards?

This quote really struck me coming from someone as successful as Moby. No matter how successful you are, someone else will always be more successful. It’s how one deals with that knowledge that determines one’s level of happiness.

A podcast recap of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’

The season (series?) finale of Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic works I’ve ever seen on television. Overall, I found this season to be inspiring and maddening in almost equal measure, but I was grateful for the unpredictable ride.

I was also glad to be able to recap the show with my frequent collaborator Joanna Robinson. Listen to our thoughts on the season below:

Vulture names “A Cast of Kings” as one of the top 5 Game of Thrones podcasts

I’m honored that Vulture recently chose “A Cast of Kings” as one of the top 5 Game of Thrones podcasts:

Dave Chen is a prolific publisher of podcasts about film and TV going back years, perhaps most prominently as the co-host of the Slashfilmcast. Here, he partners with frequent collaborator Joanna Robinson, with whom he’s also done recap pods for Westworld and Twin Peaks. Chen is an interesting recapper, more technically driven in his approach than others, which pairs nicely with Joanna Robinson, who is one of the more prominent, engaging, and prolific Thrones recappers on the internet.

You can listen to our recaps of this season here.

Radiolab removes its ‘Truth Trolls’ episode from podcast feed

WNYC’s Radiolab is one of my favorite podcasts of all time. For years, the show has informed me, delighted me, and astonished me. I have even gone to see their live show in Seattle twice. But this week, they failed their listeners in a spectacular way.

Over the past few weeks, the show has been doing an extended meditation on truth, starting with a rather frightening episode about that new video technology that lets you make anyone say whatever you want them to. This exploration culminated this week with the release of a now-removed episode called “Truth Trolls.”

“Truth Trolls” documents the trials and tribulations of Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” art project. From that project’s official website:

Commencing at 9am on January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, the public is invited to deliver the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, repeating the phrase as many times, and for as long as they wish.

Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency. In this way, the mantra “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” acts as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.

Of course, in today’s political environment, no good deed goes unpunished. Through multiple locations and permutations, trolls from online forums were able to locate the art installation and basically lay waste to it. “Truth Trolls” tracks one particularly inventive attempt to do so, in which online commenters used forensic evidence to track down the location of a “He Will Not Divide Us” flag being live-streamed.

On Saturday, Radiolab’s creator/producer Jad Abumrad announced that they would be pulling the episode. Abumrad made a post on Radiolab’s blog explaining the takedown:

Radiolab has decided to take down our episode called “Truth Trolls.” Some listeners called us out saying that in telling the capture the flag story in the way that we did, we essentially condoned some pretty despicable ideology and behavior. To all the listeners who felt that way, and to everyone else, please know that we hear you and that we take these criticisms to heart. I feel awful that the things we said could be interpreted that way. That’s on us. It was certainly not our intention, and we apologize.

I’ve listened to the episode and I agree with Abumrad’s decision. In fact, the episode never should have run in the first place.

“Truth Trolls” was almost a self-parody in how it attempted to apply Radiolab’s form of awestruck investigative journalism to a loaded political situation. The hosts portrayed the online trolls in an almost heroic fashion, and described their pursuit of truth (in this case, the truth of where the flag was located) as “comforting.”

Hearing the show’s hosts chuckle and banter light-heartedly when you’re talking about how sound waves work is one thing — it’s quite another when they’re talking about one of the most toxic forms of politics that’s out there right now.

Obviously, many other folks felt this way:

One of the commenters on Radiolab’s website purports to be Luke Turner, a creator behind the “He will not divide us” project:

This is truly abhorrent and irresponsible reporting from Radiolab, describing white supremacist vandalism and harassment here as “a really encouraging story” and “comforting.”

As the artists behind this project, we have been targeted incessantly, received death threats, been subjected to extreme racist, antisemitic, homophobic and misogynist abuse and harassment from these far-right groups.

Because of a political movement that received great support from the likes of those featured in “Truth Trolls,” lives have been ruined. And we’re at the end of a weekend where people have died trying to stand up against the nationalism and hatred that’s slowly sweeping the country.

I don’t think one bad episode can erase a decade’s worth of goodwill that Radiolab has built up. But it definitely made me question what exactly they were thinking when they ran this episode in a way that evinced almost no understanding of the broader implications of the subject matter.

This podcast took me on an emotional journey

Recently, while browsing for new podcasts to listen to, I found a show called Pregnant Pause, in which journalist Zak Rosen and his wife Shira Heisler discuss whether or not they want to have children. I decided to subscribe because I was personally interested in exploring the same question.

The show is well produced and tackles a variety of aspects of child-bearing with thoughtfulness, honesty, and sensitivity. While I found the standard podcast bumpers to be a bit jarring when applied to this situation (e.g. “Stay tuned next week to hear what happened with my wife’s hospital visit!”), overall I’d highly recommend this show. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that “Pregnant Pause” took me on an emotional roller coaster ride that I won’t soon forget. I’m grateful to Rosen and Heisler for their willingness to share themselves with the world in this way.

Listen to all 8 episodes here. They’re only about 30 minutes long each.

The new 30 for 30 Podcast is great

ESPN has recently launched the “30 for 30” podcast, based on its 30 for 30 documentaries. Hosted by Jody Avirgan, each episode explores an untold side of a popular sports story.

The first episode chronicles the trials of Reebok’s once-ubiquitous “Dan and Dave” ads. As someone who was a kid when these first came out, I was fascinated by the backstory of Reebok’s bold marketing campaign, and the consequences that befell them when they put the cart before the horse.

I wasn’t as crazy about their second episode about the Yankess Suck phenomenon — not because the podcast wasn’t well made (it is) but because this particular story sums up a lot about what I dislike about American society and sports fandom in general.

Nevertheless, it’s a really strong start to what I hope will be a great podcast. I’m subscribed for the foreseeable future. [Apple Podcasts link]

Season finale

After a multi-year absence, Stephen Tobolowsky and I re-united to put out another 12-episode season of The Tobolowsky Files over the course of the past few months. While we will have more projects together, they will be somewhat infrequent until the next season of the show, likely not coming until 2018.

After publishing the last episode this year, Stephen emailed me and said, “We did it, David. Congrats. It was tough with the book tour and the travel and no internet and no time…but we did something good.”

As I’ve started refocusing on what is important in my life, I’ve realized that this has been my only goal with The Tobolowsky Files: to make something good. It is of paramount importance, beyond ad dollars or listenership numbers. It’s rare to be able to be involved with something whose quality you can believe in. This season of stories, which in my opinion represents some of Stephen’s best work, fits that bill for me.

Here’s a link to the season finale. If you like that episode, you can also subscribe to the show in Apple Podcasts or via RSS.

Homecoming: Season 1 review

I finally had a chance to listen to the Homecoming, Gimlet Media’s first narrative fiction podcast. Spanning six episodes, Homecoming is a psychological thriller that tells the story of a Heidi, a caseworker at a government facility that uses an experimental method to treat soldiers coming home from war. The show stars Catherine Keener as the protagonist, and a pretty amazing supporting cast that includes David Schwimmer, David Cross, Oscar Isaac, and Amy Sedaris.

I was impressed by Homecoming and would recommend anyone interested in podcasting as a storytelling medium. Here are a few specific thoughts:

  • The story is told using recordings of conversations between Heidi and other characters. While some of these recordings are diagetic, meaning there’s actually a reason for them to exist in the world of the story, some of the other recordings have no explanation. I would’ve been interested to hear a more “found footage” approach to this story, as I think it would’ve increased the immersion.
  • The performances were extremely strong all around. The highlight for me was David Schwimmer, who played Colin, Heidi’s boss. The interactions between Colin and Heidi illustrate a lot of the challenges common in the modern workplace — namely, how management separation from problems on the ground can lead to suboptimal decisions. Schwimmer plays Colin as both threatening, cunning, and oblivious in a performance that really surprised me with its subtlety.
  • The overarching story of this podcast could basically be a Black Mirror episode (In fact, there was an episode from the newest season that has a very similar story). This is meant as a compliment. Homecoming presents troubling truths and possibilities about the current state of our medicine and technology, and how we apply those things to our citizens in times of war.

You can listen to Homecoming here. The show is being developed as a TV series by the guy who created Mr. Robot.

R.I.P. Gen Pop

This month, Gen Pop — my pop culture podcast with Joanna Robinson — will come to an end.

Sometimes I’ll create a podcast that lasts 10 years (and counting). Other times, a show will last 6 months. Unfortunately, Gen Pop was one of the latter.

Out of all my podcasts, Gen Pop was probably the show that I worked the hardest on and stretched myself the most on. And while it didn’t have the largest audience, it had a really impassioned fan base. I’m so grateful to people who donated to the show and who supported us every step of the way.

The folks at Nerdophiles wrote up this lovely retrospective on the podcast, and it’s awesome:

I’m sad to see Gen Pop go, but happy for the other opportunities to catch Joanna and David still podcasting. Gen Pop truly was one of my favorite podcasts that really had its finger on the pulse of pop culture. It delivered a weekly interesting conversation that was topical and well-informed, often times giving me new insight and perspective.

I’m glad that people got something out of the show. It makes me feel like all the work we put into it was not ill-spent.

You can listen to the entire back catalog of Gen Pop here.

The podcasts I fall asleep to

I often have difficulty falling asleep at night without the assistance of podcasts. Left to my own devices while lying in bed, I’ll start planning my next day, thinking about the future, or worse, pondering every terrible decision I’ve ever made.

So I listen to podcasts to lull me into a peaceful slumber. But not just any podcast will do. These “falling asleep” podcasts need to have certain characteristics:

  • They must be interesting. It can’t be a boring podcast, or I will get irritated by how boring it is and that irritation will keep me awake.
  • The hosts must have soothing voices. I’m trying to fall asleep here, folks. The hosts can’t have extremely grating or piercing voices, lest I’m jostled awake while I’m drifitng off.
  • The subject matter must be inessential. I don’t mean “inessential” to be a slight here. Pretty much all of the podcasts I host (with the possible exception of “The Tobolowsky Files”) I consider to be “inessential.” All I mean is that I can’t listen to important news about the world presented in a straightforward fashion, since that will likely upset me and prevent me from sleeping.
  • It’s a conversation between people, vs. a highly produced show. I don’t go for the long-form, intense storytelling podcasts while I’m falling asleep, because I want to listen to these shows while I’m awake. In the past, when I’ve tried listening to shows like Planet Money or Radiolab while in bed, I will fall asleep during it, then get annoyed later when I need to wake up and re-listen to the entire thing again.

So with all that said, what are the shows that I fall asleep to? Before I list them, I want to make clear: Just because I listen to these podcasts in this fashion, it doesn’t mean that I think any of these podcasts are “boring” in any way. They simply fulfill all of the curious and extremely specific characteristics I listed above.

Here they are:

Battleship Pretension — Tyler Smith and David Bax have been hosting this podcast for longer than I’ve been hosting the /Filmcast. They are extremely well-informed, articulate movie geeks, but they also speak with a lovely, calming cadence that I find ideal for provoking thought and also falling asleep to.

The Flop House — Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington discuss films that are critical and commercial failures in an engaging and funny way.

The Accidental Tech Podcast — Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and Casey Liss cover weekly tech news from the perspective of those who are power users and skilled reviewers. My favorite component of this show: Siracusa’s and Arment’s extended rants.

The Bugle — Hosted by Andy Zaltzman and a rotating list of co-hosts, this podcast covers the week’s political news with a sense of humor that is drier than the Mojave. The show isn’t quite the same after John Oliver left to host Last Week Tonight, but Zaltzman himself is still a great talent.

**

I realize that many people listen to the above podcasts without falling asleep to them. I’d encourage this! But for me, they fulfill a very specific purpose in my life and I’m grateful for that.

The rise and fall of American Apparel

I’ve been catching up on a lot of old podcasts recently and finally had a chance to listen to the StartUp podcast’s 7-episode arc on American Apparel (originally broadcast in late 2016).

It begins as a profile of Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel, who is trying to launch a new clothing business. But as it dives deeper and deeper into Charney’s history, it provides a level of detail and insight that goes beyond the headlines. Charney comes off as enterprising, sharp and hard-working, but also completely self-delusional and self-destructive.

There is some tape in this series that blew me away — several gut punches that I did not see coming. It was riveting. I think I enjoyed this series more than I did S-Town, which is widely regarded as a game-changer in terms of long-form podcast storytelling.

Producer and host Lisa Chow should be proud of what she accomplished here. I’ve linked to all 7 parts below.

Listen to Part 1 here. 

Listen to Part 2 here.

Listen to Part 3 here.

Listen to Part 4 here.

Listen to Part 5 here.

Listen to Part 6 here.

Listen to Part 7 here.

You can also subscribe to the StartUp podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Radiolab’s “Nukes” episode

During my recent drive down to Las Vegas, I had a chance to catch up with dozens of podcasts. Radiolab in particular has been on a tear, with some of their most important and powerful work coming out in the past few weeks. Among these: their “Nukes” episode, which I’d recommend for anyone who cares about the fate of the world.

TL;DR – It’s as bad as we all think it is; there are essentially no checks on the U.S. President’s power to launch nukes; the decision can be unilateral; and no easy path exists to change that. Enjoy.

The upsetting implications of the “Missing Richard Simmons” podcast

Amanda Hess, writing for The New York Times, has written a thorough takedown of the new (and apparently very popular) “Missing Richard Simmons” podcast:

The relationship between journalists and subjects shouldn’t be confused with friendship. Journalists have power over their subjects and a responsibility to try to minimize harm. But Mr. Taberski leverages his claim to friendship to reverse the equation, arguing instead that it’s Mr. Simmons who has the responsibility to speak to him, and to explain himself to his former acquaintances and fans. He compares Mr. Simmons’s relationship to them to the responsibilities of a licensed therapist. Mr. Taberski says he took care to ask Mr. Simmons’s manager “if there was something serious going on, like illness, so I could just let it be.” But is depression not an illness? Is a person’s gender identity not sufficiently serious to leave alone? Having decided that Mr. Simmons’s reasons for withdrawal are not “serious,” Mr. Taberski feels freer to pursue the guy.

“Missing Richard Simmons” speaks to both the possibilities and the limits of the emerging prestige podcast form. Many of the podcast’s tropes — the mystery framing, the crowdsourcing of clues from the audience and a format that focuses on the narrator as much as his subject — are borrowed directly from “Serial.” By turning a journalist into a friend and casting a man’s personal life as a mystery, “Missing Richard Simmons” has retooled the stale Hollywood documentary as an addictive media sensation. But it’s also turned it into a morally suspect exercise: An invasion of privacy masquerading as a love letter. Mr. Simmons is a public figure, and that gives journalists a lot of latitude to pry. But a friend who claims to want to help Mr. Simmons should probably just leave him alone.

Many recent true crime and mystery podcasts/shows have exhumed details from the lives of private citizens for public entertainment. While shows like Serial and Making a Murderer are ostensibly about correcting some systemic or institutional injustice, they still wreak havoc on the lives of those who are its subjects.

If we take “Missing Richard Simmons” at face value, then it appears to have all the devastating impact of other similar shows, only without the journalistic value — just the veneer of it. Truly upsetting.