A Podmass series spotlight
The Sicario Effect
Imagine Jake Paul murdering your parents. That’s a serviceable analogy for describing Jhon Jairo Velásquez, alias Popeye, a former cartel assassin turned Colombian social media star. Popeye killed 300 people by his count while working for Pablo Escobar, but since 2014 he’s been a free man, released back into society following a 23-year prison sentence. He also claims to be a repentant man, one who was only following orders and has reformed his murderous ways. With the world now mythologizing Escobar as Colombia itself conducts a national bloodletting to come to terms with its early narco years, there’s unprecedented bandwidth for Popeye to inject his perspectives.
Jonathan Brandstein, a well-traveled entertainment industry type, structures a 20-episode show around meeting Popeye. He breathlessly reports everything Popeye recounts about his personal and criminal past, from his upbringing and nickname, to murders and kidnapping. Brandstein is not clueless. He’s been to 77 countries, speaks conversational Spanish, interviews a large swath of drug war survivors, and possesses a scholar’s mastery of modern Colombian history. Still, he betrays some ignorance to just how bad those times were for the country’s average citizens. He tells a Colombian friend he sees similarities to the collective trauma caused by gang violence with Chicago, where he grew up. The friend asks if Brandstein knows what it’s like to be robbed at home by gunpoint multiple times.
Brandstein vacillates between not believing Popeye and not confronting him. Early on, he tries to verify a story Popeye told about Escobar recruiting Gabriel García Márquez to deliver a handwritten letter to Fidel Castro asking for a submarine, a trail that ends at maybe. The series contains a good deal of palace intrigue that’s only for the most avid narco history buffs, but on balance, Brandstein does an admirable job of elevating the voices of living, breathing cartel victims, who are all too often conveniently hidden by romanticized depictions of drug trafficking. [Zach Brooke]
Jesse Farrar v. Jon Favreau
Blocked Party is a brand-new podcast from comedian John Cullen and his co-host Stefan Heck, one of the funniest voices on the hellscape that is Twitter. In it, the droll pair discuss a phenomenon that’s become something of a badge of honor among the Twitter cognoscenti: Getting your ass blocked. Heck is a fitting host, as his antics have gotten him blocked by a number of disparate personalities—hilariously, Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer is one of them. For their first episode, Cullen and Heck welcome writer, podcaster, and online troublemaker Jesse Farrar, who breaks down his contentious online relationship with Crooked Media founder and Pod Save America host Jon Favreau, who blocked Farrar for trashing his naive, disingenuous longing for Good Republicans (surprise!: Pod Save America’s own Good Republican was recently revealed to have been hired by Facebook to push anti-Semitic conspiracy theories). To enjoy the podcast, of course, is to enjoy the chatter of the Extremely Online, as well as the hosts’ winding “yes, and…” brand of humor, which, thankfully, tends to land on its feet more often than not. They’ll even share your own tales of getting blocked, should you have so offended any of the platform’s best and brightest. [Randall Colburn]
When describing his new podcast in a recent Rolling Stone interview, Malcolm Gladwell called it “a kind of musical variety show” that the audience could listen to each week and “be surprised by what they hear.” So far, Broken Record has lived up to that description. Each episode has featured a luminary from a wildly different corner of the music industry, offering insights into their personal process and sharing stores from their illustrious careers. This week, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright talks about growing up in a family full of working musicians, discovering opera music at the age of 13, and his unusual familial connection to the late Leonard Cohen. And, in a change of format for the podcast, each of these personal anecdotes is kicked off by an intimate acoustic performance from Wainwright himself. It’s this willingness to shake up the traditional interview format that makes Broken Record such an exciting listen. You never know exactly what you’re going to get each week, but you know you’re going to walk away having learned something. [Dan Neilan]
It probably isn’t a coincidence, according to the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch, that the first ever dog show took place the exact same year Charles Darwin’s landmark work The Origin Of Species was released. As guest and Pit Bull: The Battle Over An American Icon author Bronwen Dickey points out, the public’s fascination with natural selection (and the popularity of animal breeding) that Darwin’s book stirred ran parallel with eugenics, including the bizarre early-20th-century phenomenon of American midwestern “fitter family contests.” This week’s episode considers what can be learned about humans’ behaviors and prejudices by studying their pets. It isn’t all severe; in one segment, Kat Chow takes her beagle mix Samson (who conspicuously barks more relentlessly at people of color) to Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center, only to discover he’s a poor candidate for research. “Samson is not Ivy League material,” she says. Hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby also talk to a number of experts about the topsy-turvy, coded-as-hell history of pit bulls. [Dan Jakes]
New Year’s Eve
The host of Missing Richard Simmons is back with strange tales of millennium madness. There’s never a shortage of people claiming the end of the world is at hand, but the Y2K crop carried more juice than your typical doomsdayer. This episode, however, zeroes in on three stories of people who looked to the New Year as a beginning, only to get more than they bargained for. A Kremlin reporter drags her love interest on a Russian road trip in a bid to win her over. Tired from travel, they wake up midday on New Year’s Eve to the news that Boris Yeltsin has resigned in favor of the relatively obscure Vladimir Putin. In Utah, the race is on to birth the state’s first baby of the 2000s. At stake is a lifetime of “Did you Know?” bragging rights plus $243 some old-timey Utahns bequeathed in a time capsule decades ago. One mom draws the same doctor-and-nurse team who delivered the first babies of 1980 and 1990, so clearly they aren’t fucking around. Also not fucking around is a bank robber in Olathe, Kansas, who takes employees hostage after police show up and demands a resolution by midnight. [Zach Brooke]
Fight Or Flight
The problem with history is that all of its characters are historic. Their flesh and blood, and possibly even their bones, wasted away many years ago. And even before that, their faces had ceased to animate with the expressions of unique individuals. What we have left of them are accounts printed—often in stodgy, cumbersome language—on the musty pages of well-worn books, so it’s difficult to imagine them as real people. And that’s why podcasts like Unobscured are so worthy of our time. Hosted and produced by Aaron Mahnke (of Lore lore) and aided by a panel of noteworthy historians, the podcast will devote entire seasons to looking deeply at the people who existed within “some of history’s darkest moments.” For this inaugural season, Mahnke introduces us to the people who lived (and died) through the Salem witch trials in 1692, imbuing each character with infinitely more humanity than your sophomore year history teacher ever managed. In this, the ninth episode of the season, we see the inequity of how people are treated—even accused witches!—depending upon who they know and how much they were capable of spending. [Dennis DiClaudio]
Unspookable begins its investigation of the neo-mythic figure The Slenderman with a description of a child dressed as Slenderman for Halloween, confirming his role as the latest incarnation of the traditional Boogeyman character that’s frightened children for ages. Audio of children describing Slenderman in their various imaginings illustrates how these stories evolve over time. Host Elise Parisian dives into the origin of Boogeyman tales, exploring stories from around the world, usually spread by parents looking to influence their children’s behavior. Unlike older stories of its kind, The Slenderman has very specific origins and traceable roots (specifically, the web forum Something Awful), and a post seeking spooky, photoshopped images led to his creation. The original artist, Eric Nudson, created the image from which all the stories spread, inspiring fan art, films, and video games. The figure went viral in much the same way earlier mythic figures spread through human consciousness. Parisian does a great job connecting Slenderman to the folk traditions that tap into similar fears, while raising questions about the phenomenon of digital folklore, all within the podcast’s 19-minute run time. [Jose Nateras]
LA Working Artists 5: Be The Tortoise
If you’re at all involved with the so-called gig economy (or just want to learn more about it), this podcast is for you. Based in Oakland, CA, host Reuben Ly is a small-business-owner-turned-journalist with a passion for “creative entrepreneurs” and how they operate. Sleekly produced but laid back in vibe, Working Sunday uses a mix of personable interviews and thoughtful commentary to offer nuanced snapshots of all different kinds of entrepreneurship. The 18-episode first season highlighted small business owners, with a focus on cash flow and economics. The just-wrapped second season turned its attention to Los Angeles artists and how they create authentic but successful brands. The latest episode showcases the slow but steady branding approach of pop artists Truck Torrence of 100% Soft and Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot—both of whom took years to fully break into the art world. (Nakamura, in particular, has had a rollercoaster of a career involving the 2000s recession.) It’s a great place to jump on board, as is one of the standout episodes of the first season, “How to Increase Your Hourly Pay as a Freelancer.” [Caroline Siede]