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Elon Musk, Rocket Man (and 2 More Podcasts Worth Trying)

Illustration: Vulture

Hey all! We’re rolling into the final stretch of the calendar, which means I’m swimming in a bunch of assignments looking back at a busy, busy, busy year in podcasting. Expect those to trickle out over the coming weeks. For now: the Tesla guy, film culture around the world, and a lost DJ.

As always, tell me what you’re listening to. You can reach me at nicholas.quah@vulture.com or find me on Twitter.

Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket

An intellectual history of a tech bro.
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

One of the more annoying things about tech billionaires (in addition to all the other stuff) is how they often willfully misunderstand the science fiction that they claim to be inspired by. Mark Zuckerberg regards his corporation’s push into a consolidated virtual future as the “metaverse,” despite the name’s intentionally dystopian origins. Jeff Bezos purports to be inspired by Star Trek, though his conduct seems to lack much of the source material’s political humanism.

And then there’s Elon Musk, the guy who’s building electric vehicles, funding private space travel, and sporadically causing pops in cryptocurrency value via Twitter. Musk’s science fiction–rooted intellectual history is the subject of the historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore’s audio series, Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket. The series was originally commissioned and aired by BBC Radio 4 earlier this year, and it’s now brought to your podcast feeds courtesy of Pushkin Industries. Lepore and Pushkin Industries had previously worked together on The Last Archive, another deep dive into intellectual history where Lepore sought to figure out a mighty elusive question: “Who killed truth?”

Those who might have checked out The Last Archive will find some familiar touches in The Evening Rocket, among them Lepore’s affinity for the aesthetic of old-timey radio serials. I bounced off The Last Archive, finding it to be a little too unwieldy, but The Evening Rocket seemed to hit better for me, in large part due to its more specific focus.

There’s a lot in Lepore’s analysis of Musk’s history that’s worth mulling over. In the first episode of the series, she draws an intriguing connection between the billionaire’s upbringing in South Africa, where his generation is still molded by the remnants of apartheid, and his worldview, which rationalizes the way in which massive technological advances often benefit some portions of society at the grave expense of others. Some things are bugs; other things are features of the design.

MUBI Podcast

When a branded podcast is more than a branded podcast.
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

You might’ve noticed that branded podcasts by entertainment companies are pretty common these days. I wrote about Netflix’s steadily expanding audio-marketing portfolio a while back, and HBO has been pumping out companion podcasts for a good bit now, including a Succession one that’s hosted by Kara Swisher, pegged to the new season.

There’s a tiny but growing subset of this podcast genre that’s been tickling my attention lately, partly due to their intriguing substance and partly because they’re genuinely surprising listening experiences. These branded podcasts manage to exceed expectations and turn into something a little off-center and perhaps something a little more ambitious.

I’ve recommended two such examples for this column in the past. The first was last year’s Anime in America, a miniseries hosted by Yedoye Travis for the anime streaming service Crunchyroll that effectively recounts the genre’s journey to American shores through the Saturday-morning cartoon format. The second is The A24 Podcast, where the famed independent studio builds episodes around conversations between pairs of artists and performers that are often unexpected or just plain interesting. Past duos have included Nicholas Braun with Nicholas Britell, Elsie Fisher with Molly Ringwald, and Bryan Washington with Ocean Vuong.

This week, I’m adding another entry to this list: MUBI Podcast, which comes from the global film-curation service. The project is hosted by Rico Gagliano, whom some listeners might remember as one-half of the dearly departed Dinner Party Download. The podcast takes the form of an audio-documentary series that explores several moviegoing cultures outside American shores. Its first season explores many topics, including: the rise of the Chinese film industry as told through the lens of its first blockbuster, Dream Factory; the backstory to the longest-running film in Bollywood history, 1995’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge; and the legend of Living in Bondage, the indie project that sparked the birth of “Nollywood,” Nigeria’s offbeat and bustling film industry.

Bent by Nature

Recalling a lost American DJ.
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

If you’re latently subscribed to KCRW’s Lost Notes — as I am, seeing as how I’ve designated its last two seasons as among the best releases in their respective years — or UnFictional, its radio-documentary shingle, you might’ve spotted some activity in the feeds lately.

The Santa Monica public radio station recently started releasing a new project through both those podcast feeds: Bent by Nature, a retrospective on the legacy of Deirdre O’Donoghue, who created an influential late-night music program called SNAP! that was broadcasted on KCRW between 1982 and 1991. The series describes O’Donoghue, who died in 2001, as “the most influential DJ you’ve never heard of,” and paints a picture of a fiercely and lovingly independent curator who consistently used the show as a platform to champion upcoming acts on the bleeding edge.

Bent by Nature is a family affair in many ways, one that carries the slight air of an overdue wake. It’s a project made by KCRW about a member of its tribe, narrated by a rotating gallery of people who knew her. But other people’s families are always interesting. Even if SNAP! means little to you, there’s a lot here about the texture, legacy, and influence of late-night radio to warrant your attention.

Listening Notes…

Not sure if you heard, but Ye (née Kanye) West went on Drink Champs recently, where he said a bunch of stuff, because that’s what you do when you go on a podcast. Similarly, Aaron Rodgers, the COVID-stricken Green Bay Packers QB, went on a former Barstool host’s podcast recently to say a bunch of stuff as well, ultimately revealing himself as a new vector of medical misinformation, not the “elevated football person” you might’ve thought he was, and a big Joe Rogan guy. What a week it’s been.

By the way, if you’ve been tracking, the documentary portion of Apple TV+’s The Line is coming out later this month. It dropped a trailer a few weeks back.

 Vanity Fair asks, “What happened to the New York Times’ grand podcast ambitions?” The actual story is a little thin, but I know they’re not the only ones asking that question …

And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

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Elon Musk, Rocket Man (and 2 More Podcasts Worth Trying)