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Science Vs Does Joe Rogan (and 5 Other Podcasts Worth Trying This Week)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Hey everyone! Quiet week, huh? Let’s get to it. As always, tell me what you’re listening to. You can reach me at nicholas.quah@nymag.com or find me on Twitter.

The Trojan Horse Affair

The latest release from Serial Productions.
Available on all platforms. Listen here

Given the purpose of this newsletter, you might not need an introduction to The Trojan Horse Affair. Indeed, perhaps you’ve already checked out the new Serial Productions series, maybe even read my review. (Which you can find here, do give it a click click.)

But let’s go over the details, just in case.

The Trojan Horse Affair follows Brian Reed, a veteran producer at This American Life who was also behind 2017’s S-Town, and Hamza Syed, a British former doctor-turned-journalism student, as they cut a trail across the English city of Birmingham to uncover the truth behind a national scandal: a secret letter in 2014 revealing some sort of Islamist conspiracy to take over schools in Birmingham. The letter would later be widely regarded as a fake, but it nevertheless sparked a nationwide panic, ruined lives, and generally made life much harder for Muslim immigrants in the UK.

Yet despite everything caused by the letter over the years, the question of who wrote it and why remains unanswered. Reed and Syed’s investigation begins with this mystery, and their journey to uncover the letter-writer would take them through a labyrinth of documents, halfway around the world, and deep into the unresolved questions about who the journalistic profession is supposed to serve and how.

Put simply, The Trojan Horse Affair is very good. It’s probably Serial Productions’ best release since S-Town, and definitely the best limited-run podcast out at this moment by a mile. I talk about the reasons why in my review — which, again, you can find here — so I won’t overcook the meat in this write-up. But one thing I will point out is how neatly The Trojan Horse Affair sits in the Venn Diagram of what has been Serial Productions’ core preoccupations: public education as a contemporary battleground (Nice White Parents); the far-reaching consequences of political lies (The Improvement Association); the imperfect nature of legal and justice systems (the third season of Serial); and of course, the tenuous place of Muslims in the Western world (the first season of Serial, and maybe even aspects of the second).

As much as I’m taken with the show, though, I’m genuinely curious as to whether The Trojan Horse Affair will garner a level of popular response that matches S-Town, let alone Serial. It’s been a while since we had a bona fide podcast phenomenon that wasn’t in some way linked to controversy.

Speaking of which…

Science Vs: “Joe Rogan: The Malone Interview”

What to do when your employer undermines everything you’re about. Available on all platforms. Listen here.

Of course Spotify was going to stand by Joe RoganHe’s fundamental to their future; the arrowhead of their budding podcast advertising business, and whose exclusivity, as The Verge reports, provides key leverage for deals with hardware partners like Amazon and Google, which have their own audio streaming services. (Though I would assume the fact they’ve signed other exclusives would have sufficed.) Spotify will make adjustments, sure — remove offending episodes, find various ways to mollify employee frustrations, maybe have a conversation or two with the JRE team — but given that they’re paying $100 million for the guy, Spotify will make the same fundamental choice every time.

And in the off-chance they do decide to pull the plug and take what winnings they already have, we’d be looking at a situation where Spotify firmly becomes Call Her Daddy country. Which would be… interesting.

But let’s get to the rec here, because this is a podcast recommendations newsletter. One of the more interesting participants in the coalition that publicly protested Spotify was Science Vs, a seasonal podcast series published by Spotify’s own Gimlet Media. Originally an Australian Broadcasting Corporation property before Gimlet acquired the show during its startup era, Science Vs is a fun, peppy, nerd-empowerment program that takes a research-driven lens to an array of intriguing questions about things like sharks and dinosaurs as well as less expected stuff like, hey, is monogamy unnatural?

Over the past two years, the show has, of course been tackling the coronavirus pandemic with its typical rigor, and so when Spotify sided with Rogan shortly, the Science Vs executive producer/host, Wendy Zukerman, and editor, Blythe Terrell, issued a statement saying that the podcast will no longer be making new episodes, “except those intended to counteract misinformation being spread on Spotify,” until the company implements “stronger methods” to prevent the spread of misinformation on the platform.

On February 5, the series released the first of what could be more counteracting episodes: “Joe Rogan: The Malone Interview,” in which the team attempts not to comprehensively debunk every falsehood or misleading claim in the JRE episode that sparked all this — that would be a little too arduous, and probably wouldn’t make for a particularly smooth listen — but tackle some of the more salient logical mistakes and/or misinformation tactics that were present in the conversation.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this Science Vs episode. On the one hand, using the platform you have to take a stand like this in the face of likely personal cost is utterly commendable. On the other hand, there’s just something about the show’s deployment of its usual zippy tone under the circumstances, as well as the further awkwardness of the show’s corporate ownership, feels … I don’t know, uncanny.

Still, it’s something. Even if it ultimately works out to be a drop in the pond, the show is doing what it can for the community it serves. Besides, symbolic stands still matter.


One final Spotify-related note in this issue: Last Podcast on the Left, the wildly popular comedy-horror podcast that was once the subject of an exclusive Spotify deal, is now back to being available on all platforms.

Something to keep an eye on: The Stacks, an independent books podcast created and hosted by Traci Thomas, is publishing an intriguing miniseries throughout this week focused on interviews with authors, educators, students, and others who have been affected by the recent wave of book ban efforts here in the United States. Start here.

Now that Disney+ is giving Jeremy Renner the Magnolia Network treatmentThe Renner Files should probably come back for another season.

It’s NBA trade deadline week, folks, which means you’ll find me almost exclusively in the sports section of the Apple Podcast directory this week. I’m a Lowe Post guy, myself.

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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Science Vs Does Joe Rogan (and 5 More Podcasts Worth Trying)