What Podcasts To Listen To This Summer
Readers of this column of Bar News will be familiar with perhaps the most famous podcast of all time: the ground-breaking Serial which has been mentioned in this column more than once.1 For those who have missed it, in 2014 it was the first ‘blockbuster’ podcast, breaking all download records. Countless subsequent podcasts have tried in vain to match both its popularity and its quality.
Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig, told the story of a young man, Adnan Syed, 17 years old at the time of the events in question (1999), who was convicted of murdering his school mate and former girlfriend, HaeMin Lee. Koenig’s painstaking exploration of the events, the police investigation and the ultimate trial captured the imagination of millions around the world and sparked renewed interest in the case. There were some attempts to reopen the case following the podcast but none succeeded. Then in September 2022, there was a sensational development: the conviction was vacated and Syed released from prison. Much of the media commentary credits the podcast with leading to this result.2
Shortly after his release, Koenig posted an update episode which, with the same precision that she devoted to the story in 2014, explains how it came about that the conviction was vacated and Syed released after serving 23 years, with prosecutors advising the court that ‘the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction.’ The update episode was itself updated when prosecutors further advised the court that they would not seek to retry him.3
While the case and the podcast is interesting for its own singular story, in her 2022 episode, Koenig locates it within a flawed criminal justice system: Adnan’s case contains just about every chronic problem our system can cough up. Police using questionable interview methods. Prosecutors keeping crucial evidence from the defence. Slightly junky science. Extreme prison sentences. Juveniles treated as adults. How grindingly difficult it is to get your case back in court once you’ve been convicted.
If you didn’t listen to it in 2014, don’t miss it now. The Serial podcast, which started as an offshoot of the long running This American Life,4 is now part of the New York Times media organisation. Aside from the extraordinary success of its original 2014 podcast, simply titled Serial, this year they have also produced two outstanding new series.
The first, The Trojan Horse Affair, 5 is set in England. It explores what was a local school board scandal that gained some national notoriety when, in 2013, an anonymous letter was received by a city counsellor in Birmingham, which has a large migrant population. The letter purported to document what was said to be an extremist Islamic plot to infiltrate Birmingham’s schools ‘Trojan horse style’ and indoctrinate students by running the schools on ‘strict Islamic principles, potentially with the aim of radicalizing students.’ The story became a media sensation: then Education Secretary Michael Gove accused then Home Secretary, Theresa May, of being soft on extremism. More than twenty Birmingham schools were investigated; no jihadist plot was found, though in the process, a number of people lost their jobs or positions on school governance bodies.
The podcast is reported by two (very different) people: an experienced US podcaster, Brian Reed, himself the producer/ reporter of another (also recommended by your correspondent) Serial productions success, S-Town6 , and Hamza Syed, a local (Birmingham) doctor turned journalist who wanted to explore the matter more fully, not least because, despite many inquiries at various government levels, the identity of the person who sent the letter remained a mystery. The podcast is not only riveting for its content, but also raises interesting questions, including ethical questions, about styles of, and motivations for, long form investigative reporting. Some of the interactions of the two producers, and their vastly different modes of inquiry, provide as much interest for the listener as tracking down the origins of the letter and following its outcomes. As the New Yorker's Sarah Larson put it, while it is a ‘careful, moving investigation of a British scandal,’ it 'works best when studying itself'.7
The Trojan Horse Affair was generally very well received, but at least one commentator has been highly critical of the focus on Islamophobia at the expense of other real concerns.8 Listen to its eight parts and decide for yourself.
The latest series from Serial is entirely different. Released late in 2022, and comprising only three episodes, We Were Three is described by the NY Times as ‘a story of lies, family, America and what COVID-19 revealed, as well as what it destroyed’.9 Rachel McKibbens, an American poet who lives in New York, gets a message from her brother telling her that their father had passed away. She travels to California to find out what happened and to see her brother. The podcast tells the story of the family, and the father and brother’s refusal to be vaccinated and resistance to conventional medical treatments and ultimately their experiences with COVID-19. Some people might find it ‘too soon’ but the personal focus on this one family makes it far more than a story about the science denialism that has become so highly politicised, perhaps nowhere more than in the USA.
Also leaping out of recent headlines about current events is Will be Wild, 10 described by its producers as an eight part series:
about the forces that led to the January 6th insurrection and what comes next. Through in-depth stories from a wide range of characters – from people who tried to stop the attack to those who took part – hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz explore the ongoing effort to bring autocracy to America, the lasting damage that effort is doing to our democracy, and the fate of our attempts to combat those antidemocratic forces. Because January 6th wasn’t the end of the story, January 6th was just a practice run.
As one reviewer described it, it is ‘grimly gripping.’
Lest it be considered that this type of insurrection and support for autocracy and dictatorship is a new phenomenon in the US, generated by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, journalist, presenter of her eponymous primetime TV show on MSNBC, podcaster,11 and holder of a doctorate in political science from Oxford where she was a Rhodes Scholar, Rachel Maddow, has just released her second podcast, Ultra12 which takes no time at all to get the listener totally engrossed. It starts with a US senator from Minnesota sitting in his office, sobbing uncontrollably, shortly before boarding a plane on 31 August 1940. The flight goes down minutes after take-off, killing everyone on board. In addition to the senator, that included an FBI special agent, another FBI employee and a federal prosecutor. As Maddow explains, the crash seems to be connected to the infiltration of the US Congress by a Nazi agent as part of an extraordinary plot by a number of people, including members of Congress (as well as Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin who had a weekly radio broadcast with an audience of some 30 million), to overthrow the US government. There are eight episodes, only three of which had aired at the time of writing, but it promises to be too good to miss.13
While the podcasts discussed above all provide compelling listening, some might find them a bit depressing or even too earnest for summer listening. So here is a very brief list of some podcasts that do not engage with politics, history or the criminal justice system. If you like opera, or want to know more about it, look no further than Aria Code, 14 hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, herself a trained opera singer: each episode takes a famous aria and discusses it with (usually) three different interviewees, and concludes with a rendition of the song. That may sound bland, but it is anything but. For those who love words, try The Allusionist, 15 a podcast about language, by Helen Zaltzman.
If you are a fan of Bach’s music, there is 30 Bach, a podcast about the Goldberg Variations.16 As the website tells us: ‘There’s piano, harpsichord, afro-Cuban jazz, free improvisation, Brazilian guitar and chamber music. Laughter, pain, and nanoscience. All inspired by one piece.’
For fans of Succession (and if you are not, you should be), HBO’s Succession podcast is great listening:17 Each week journalist and host Kara Swisher unpacks real world events that echo the saga unfolding on screen. Guests include top journalists, writers, psychologists, as well as some of the people involved in making the TV show. Plus, weekly power rankings from the latest episodes of Succession — Who’s up? Who’s down? Who made the week’s biggest power play? One on one interviews can be great listening if the interviewer is good at her/ his job.
Actor David Tennant (Dr Who, Broadchurch etc) has recorded several series of interviews released as David Tennant Does a Podcast.18 Other exponents of that genre include Marc Maron19 (the most famous was his interview with Barack Obama while the latter was president20); the long-running NPR series Fresh Air with Terry Gross,21 who is perhaps the best interviewer of all time, or the equivalent series in Australia, Conversations with Richard Fidler and Sarah Kanowski.22
And finally, if you really are a law nerd tragic and can’t leave the courts behind for the summer, there is even a podcast with extracts of the Ben Roberts-Smith against the media defamation hearing, with actors voicing the judge, counsel and the parties and witnesses.23 BN
2 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/19/us/adnan-syed-murderconviction-overturned.html; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-uscanada-62964216; https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/ sep/21/adnan-syed-serial-podcast-case
6 https://stownpodcast.org/: this is also highly recommended albeit it raises some interesting ethical questions about what can/should be reported
8 Sonia Sodha, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/ feb/20/the-trojan-horse-affair-how-serial-podcast-got-it-so-wrong: She says that by casting the blame entirely on Islamophobia, 'The Trojan Horse Affair presents a one-sided account that minimises child protection concerns, misogyny and homophobia in order to exonerate the podcast’s hero, a man called Tahir Alam.
11 Her first podcast was the compelling 'Bagman' about former Vice President of the US, Spiro Agnew: https://www.msnbc.com/bagman. She has also published the book and it is soon to be released as a film: see https://www.focusfeatures.com/bag-man.
13 For a summary, based on an interview with Maddow, see Joe Pompeo: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/10/rachel-maddows-podcastis-a-history-lesson.
16 https://www.thirtybach.com/ (thanks to Hamish Bevan SC for the recommendation).
20 https://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode613-president barack_obama