It’s been a pretty rough six months for the podcast world. 2023 began with serious anxieties about the state of the biz, and much of those worries ultimately came to be. Layoffsrippledthroughout the scene, talk of contractions are now pervasive, and some of the celebrity talent megadeals that defined podcasting over the past few years exploded in very public fashion. In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, the Speculative Podcast Boom is over. But there is the business — and then there’s the actual stuff. And the thing is: there are still really interesting, fun, and memorable podcasts being made by talented teams and individuals, from powerful investigative pieces, to portraits of malls, to on-going projects of media critiques that operate at a very high level. We’ll come out of the other end of this industrial slump at one point, but for now, there’s hope.
You’re Welcome appears to have been around for a long time, publishing off and on from as far back as 2013, but it only truly came to my attention through a shout-out on another show. (Such is the nature of podcast discovery: Word of mouth still reigns supreme.) And you know what? It’s kind of incredible. Billed as a “satirical improv comedy show whose goal is to find and share peoples stories, from all over the world,” You’re Welcome is an anarchic, free-flowing, and thoroughly unself-conscious interview pod hosted by a New York event producer named Zoe Nightingale. She makes the show by basically whipping out a recording app whenever in the company of idiosyncratic people and pretty much lets the conversation rip. Sure, that might sound like a parody of what a podcast can be, but in truth, it’s what podcasts should sound like. Nightingale’s commitment to her curiosity and love of strange individuals is electrifying.
Reported and hosted by David Weinberg (Welcome to L.A., The Superhero Complex), Dreamtown tells the strange story of what happened when a tiny city in the California desert tried to revive its struggling economy by transforming itself into a legal-marijuana hub. Things went well for a while until they didn’t. Within a few years, federal investigators became a constant presence in the city’s milieu, and several local politicians found themselves in very hot legal water. There’s been a string of podcasts in recent years that fixate on the drama and oddities of small-city lore — think Crooked City,Boomtown, California City — so much so that I’ve come to perceive them within a subgenre of their own: Let’s call it civic noir. Dreamtown is a great addition to the mix, equal parts fascinating, sad, frustrating, and in the end, hopeful.
Slow Burn: Becoming Justice Thomas (Slate) and More Perfect (WNYC Studios)
There’s a peculiarity to how Supreme Court justices, who are among the most powerful individuals in American life, tend to attain a certain unknowability in the broader consciousness the longer they serve on the bench. This could well be a natural outcome: The more you are eminently visible in the public eye, the less you are actually seen. That’s a pickle, of course, because these are individuals who radically shape American life on the regular.
Justice Clarence Thomas, currently the longest-serving justice on the bench, is perhaps the most pressing modern example of this, a stature amplified by the juxtaposition of his impactful conservatism and the bubbling controversies surrounding him. His opacity is the principal target in Slow Burn’s spectacular eighth season, which features the return of Joel Anderson as host and lead reporter. Anderson cuts straight through the many scandals and narratives surrounding the justice to develop a deeper understanding of the man himself, playing into what has always been Slow Burn’s signature enterprise: elucidating the present by examining the past in its full context.
“Becoming Justice Thomas” arrived around the same time as the return of More Perfect, a Radiolab spinoff focused on the Supreme Court that’s been on hiatus for several years. Now hosted by Julia Longoria, the revival is fine for the most part, though it does suffer from not having fully adapted the feel of its Radiolab-ian roots — which feels better suited for the Obama era — to the darker, more apocalyptic feeling of contemporary American politics. But the new season has a particularly strong episode in “Clarence X,” which tackles similar territory as “Becoming Justice Thomas” and thus makes for a pretty good pairing.
The story with The 13th Step begins long before the podcast actually came out. Produced out of the same unit responsible for Bear Brook, the series is an expansion of New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Lauren Chooljian’s exposé from a year earlier, in which she investigated several tips alleging sexual misconduct on the part of Eric Spofford, the founder of the state’s largest network of addiction treatment and rehabilitation centers. Chooljian has proceeded to dig deeper into the story, and a lot has happened: She faced physical threats, legal retribution, and there had been acts of vandalism targeting her home, along with the homes of her relatives and her editor. Now the series is out, and it offers a sober, sweeping look at issues of systemic abuse — not just in the one rehab network, but in the addiction treatment industry writ large.
And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime…