Hey, all! We’ve got a chunky issue today, so let’s get to it.
The Big Hit Show
Hold on tight, spider monkey.
Exclusive to Spotify. Listen here.
Today marks the debut of The Big Hit Show, the latest audio release from Higher Ground, otherwise known as the Obamas’ production studio. Published as a Spotify exclusive, part of the almost certainly lucrative partnership announced between the two parties back in 2019, and written and hosted by the journalist Alex Pappademas, The Big Hit Show intends to “explore what happens when a wildly successful piece of pop culture gets so big that it changes the world.”
As of this writing, the series has named only two artifacts as its opening targets of study. The first is the monumentally popular vampire-romance saga Twilight — ’tis a big day for Wolfgang Ruth, Vulture’s social maven and resident Twilight enthusiast — and the second will be Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, presumably because of its housing of “Alright,” a track that was quickly elevated to a protest anthem. According to the press material, The Big Hit Show will spend multiple episodes unpacking each piece of pop culture, referring to each collection of installments as “chapters.” (The series was produced with the studio Western Sound and features Sabrina Fang, Lori Galarreta, and Taylor Jones as producers. Colin McNulty, a WBEZ alum whose credits include Making Oprah, is the showrunner.)
I’ve listened to only the first episode available for preview, on Twilight, and for the most part, I liked what I heard. I tend to be wary of any framing device that goes something along the lines of “We were all wrong to have made fun of cultural object X at the time!” There’s a strong level of assumption baked into who’s supposed to be part of the we in such a statement. That said, somewhere deep in this episode Pappademas seems to tip his hand in a more interesting direction when he spends some time reflecting on how he used to ridicule the Twilight phenomenon … while simultaneously writing magazine pieces about the importance of comic books. Whether The Big Hit Show makes the most of this confessional mea culpa frame and takes the full analysis into genuinely new places remains to be seen, but I’m willing to follow along for the ride.
(A quick sidebar. Believe it or not, the whole Twilight thing passed me by when it first kicked into high gear. The films were released throughout my college years when I wasn’t going to see new movies in theaters very much, though I think I did see the first Twilight on a plane or something. To prep for this blurb, I revisited the movie over the weekend, and you know, I had a lot of fun. Much of my enjoyment obviously comes from the meta: That Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson are now some of the finest art-house actors working today (Personal Shopper! Spencer! Good Time! Cosmopolis?) definitely fed into my reading of their performances in Twilight, which struck me as punching well above the weight of the material. Also: the baseball scene? Fuckin’ “Supermassive Black Hole”? C’mon!)
Anyway, back to the podcast: I should note that I’m predisposed to being interested in Big Hit Show. Besides generally being curious about the quality of Higher Ground’s releases, seeing as they do seem to be a vital cornerstone of the Obamas’ postpresidential activities, I’m interested in the various works of Pappademas, who’s currently writing a book about mythologies of Keanu Reeves and once served as the executive editor of MTV News during a stretch, sometime between 2015 and 2017, when that site was producing some truly excellent work. (It also published a few podcasts during that time, some of which I really dug, like Skillset with veteran film podcaster Amy Nicholson; the political podcast The Stakes; and North Mollywood, which Pappademas hosted with fellow ex-Grantland writer Molly Lambert, who, by the way, is working on a new narrative podcast about the “Hollywood Madam,” Heidi Fleiss, scheduled for next month.) In other words, I’m a fan.
The Big Hit Show is coming out at a curious time for Spotify. Podcast Twitter was lightly abuzz earlier this week following a column by Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw titled “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced a New Hit in Years.” The reporting suggests that execs at Spotify and other studios are concerned about not being able to produce enough new hits in a bit, how each new release seems to garner a smaller audience than its predecessor, and how, since the podcast world stands to become increasingly more competitive, the difficulty of overcoming these problems won’t be lessening anytime soon. In a development appearing to underscore the executive sweating, Hot Pod’s Ashley Carman broke the news yesterday that Spotify is shutting down its founding podcast studio, known as Studio 4 or Spotify Studios, which predates the company’s acquisitions of Gimlet Media, Parcast, and the Ringer.
For what it’s worth, I’m mixed on Shaw’s column. A lot of it tracks with what I’ve heard, and frankly, the notion that some (many?) podcast studios are sweating doesn’t surprise me that much. We’re almost a decade into the post-Serial boom, but it’s still apparent to me that the studios motivated by the pursuit of hits still haven’t figured out pretty fundamental things, like good marketing practices, not stacking your releases, and some awareness that if you hit the same formula too many times, you’re probably going to get diminishing returns. Yet I echo Carman’s quibble with how Shaw defines a “hit,” i.e., something that breaks into the top-25 largest podcasts according to Edison Research. It’s a very narrow definition.
Although … if you’re Spotify, and you’ve sunk a ton of cash into this whole podcast thing, you’re definitely in the game of pumping out unambiguous successes that crack the stratosphere. On that specific note, Spotify needs a win, and soon. Will The Big Hit Show be one of those wins? Maybe. Or maybe it’ll just have to depend on your definition.
This Is Dating
Eavesdrop to your heart’s content.
Available on all platforms. Listen here.
If you like reality dating shows and the collected works of Esther Perel, or just have a simple curiosity about how another person’s dating life is going, you’ll want to check out This Is Dating, from Magnificent Noise, the studio notable for originating Perel’s popular couples-therapy podcast, Where Should We Begin?
This Is Dating is a show about modern courtship that offers a blend of formats. Broadly, it follows four singles — Virginia, Aziz, Khan, and Amanda, not their real names — as each of them goes on a pair of virtual blind dates curated and, to a large extent, facilitated by the producers. Much like Where Should We Begin?, a good deal of the thrill of This Is Dating lies in having the opportunity to listen to recordings of these dates in all their awkward, fascinating, potent glory. The show also features its own resident expert, the dating coach and behavioral scientist Logan Ury, who provides the singles with counseling between dates and, by extension, lessons for the audience to take into their own lives.
I’m working on a longer review of this show, so watch out for that, but for now, suffice it to say I think it’s worth a pickup. This Is Dating is produced by Jesse Baker, Hiwote Getaneh, and Eleanor Kagan, who also operate, to varying extents, as the show’s hosts, game masters, and Greek chorus.
— Wooden Overcoats, the utterly charming British audio sitcom about a failing funeral parlor on a tiny island in the English Channel (and one of our Best Podcasts of 2018!), returns for its fourth and final season tomorrow. There will be ten episodes in this good-bye, and the team will be streaming live performances of each one, from Kings Place in London, every Sunday through the end of the series. More details can be found here.
— Later this week, Netflix is scheduled to drop its adaptation of Archive 81, the 2016 indie fiction podcast created by Marc Sollinger (nowadays at The Moth) and Dan Powell (nowadays at the New York Times audio team), which means, of course, that this is as good a time as any to revisit the original or pick it up for the first time.
— The New York Times’ Modern Love podcast has a new host: Anna Martin, who was a producer on the team and will continue to produce the show as she takes on hosting duties. She replaces the original column’s creator, Daniel Jones, and editor, Miya Lee, who co-hosted the podcast since 2019 after it broke from its partnership with WBUR and was brought in-house.
— An update on a thread from last week: It was announced earlier this week that Audie Cornish, who wrapped her final day as an anchor on NPR’s All Things Considered last Friday, is joining CNN, where she’ll front a new show on CNN+, make appearances on the main cable channel’s various news programs, and host a new podcast for CNN Audio. That’s a whole lot of work!
— This is awesome: The Library of Congress is acquiring the full body of work of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, a.k.a. the Kitchen Sisters, spanning 40 years of audio pieces, including radio broadcasts and podcast releases. More details here.
Reader Pick: Sweet Bobby
Available on all platforms. Listen here.
“Sweet Bobby is an investigative podcast from Tortoise Media that recounts a twisted tale of a ten-year catfishing scheme perpetrated by someone uncomfortably close to the victim. It’s equal parts evocative storytelling and well-researched journalism, and I love how reporter Alexi Mostrous takes us down the rabbit hole of the elaborate scam, then pivots the pod to lead a live investigation to uncover the catfish’s motive and take a dive deep into the dark side of social media.” —Hayley K.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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