On Podcasts – Society and Culture and Stories 2/3

Continuing with Society and Culture, This American Life is almost invariably good. Each weekly episode focuses on one – often topical – theme, developed over several unrelated stories. This year so far, I have particularly enjoyed episode 729: Making the Cut which explains, among other things, how Covid has altered dating in NYC and made men keen to ‘find their winter’ rather than date as many women as possible as used to be the norm. Episode 489: No Coincidence, No Story, narrated by Sarah Koenig of Serial fame, is exactly what a podcast should be on a rainy day: amusing, tender, uplifting, slightly absurd, and the story of the student who drops coins when showering is hilarious. Jon Ronson, untangling conspiracy theories in 670: Beware the Jabberwock, was fascinating.

In 2020 a few old favourites were rereleased. Switched at Birth, which I believe was written by Sarah Koenig of Serial fame, is remarkable and cleverly constructed, and Break Up thought-provoking and funny. Americans in Paris in 2019 made an impression, maybe because I am French, maybe because of the comparison between American racism and French racism, something I had never thought about. 129 cars will give PTSD to anybody who’s ever had a sales job.

My absolute favourite episode though is 510: Fiasco! which tells a madcap story involving a rookie policeman, a beautiful blonde, her husband and a large squirrel.

The Tip Off is a series of topical episodes narrated by journalists who have investigated, sometimes for years, and ultimately exposed, various frauds and scandals.  My favourite is Ep.40: O Sister Where Art Thou? about a Chinese baby girl stolen from her family and adopted by an American family who’d been told she was abandoned by her birth parents. It takes many years but she gets to meet her biological family again – who’d never given up on her – including her twin sister, thanks to a very determined journalist. Another episode that stuck in my mind is Ep. 43: Canned Tomatoes about modern slavery practice in European agriculture. Even darker, Ep. 33: Clues of a Killing, follows the quest of a journalist who identified the perpetrators of a war crime using only open source material. This isn’t the podcast to listen to when you’re feeling depressed but it is always gripping.

1619 is an excellent thought-provoking six episode podcast about the influence of slavery in the US, named after the year when the very first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived on American soil. The four first episodes focus on one topic each:  politics, economy, music and health. The last two deal with land ownership and how black landowners still now, have less chances of making a living from agriculture than their white counterparts.

In a much, much lighter register, Love Stories is a series of light hearted interviews by Dolly Alderton, now the agony aunt for Style (Sunday Times) I enjoyed a lot. Sharon Horgan was particularly good.  

This brings me onto Stories i.e podcasts comprising four to ten episodes. I have now collected quite a few which I have listed below roughly in order of preference.

Wind of Change is possibly my current favourite, because it made me laugh out loud at times and also because although it is about a conspiracy theory, it is completely harmless. The premise is that the song, Wind of Change may not have been written by the Scorpions but by the CIA and may have been used as Western propaganda against the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in the eighties. I know it sounds mad but it works somehow.

Mayday is the cover for three different Radio BBC4 stories, Mayday itself, Tunnel 29 and The Ratline.

The Ratline is ‘an investigation into Otto von Wächter, a senior Austrian Nazi indicted for mass murder, who escaped justice after the war.’ Told by Philippe Sands who also wrote a book on the same topic, it is gripping and infuriating at times. The state of denial von Wächter’s son still exists in is hard to fathom and the loving banality of the letters von Wächter sent home while signing orders for the mass extermination of Jews is shocking.

Tunnel 29 takes place a few years later in 1961 and tells the story of a young student, who managed to escape from Eastern Germany only to try and dig a tunnel in order to help more people escape after the Berlin wall comes up. It sounds simple. It isn’t. It is a heart-warming story that shows the best of the human spirit.

Mayday is the polar opposite. It is the story of the life and tragic death of James Le Mesurier, who was instrumental in raising awareness of the Syrian White Helmets in the West, bringing them much needed financial support.  But because the White Helmets didn’t just rescue victims of war but documented their fate, they became a thorn in the side of the Syrian government and their Russian allies, who set out to destroy their credibility and portray them as Islamic terrorists. They find much needed help with ‘citizen journalists’ including a particular vile British woman. She lives in Damascus now. Good riddance. Warning, this is a profoundly depressing story even though it needs to be told.

The Drop Out, an ABC News podcast, is the barely believable but well-documented story of Elizabeth Holmes a Stanford drop out and self-made billionaire who modelled herself on Steve Jobs, conned a staggering number of investors – and endangered the life of many sick people – before losing it all. Her company, Theranos, marketed a simple and portable machine that was supposed to deliver reliable and cheap blood tests without patients having to donate an armful of blood. Brilliant concept…if it had worked. If you want proof that women can be as deluded, power hungry and dangerous as men, look no further.

The Missing Crypto Queen, a BBC Radio podcast, is the European counterpart of Elizabeth Holmes with a cultish dimension to her deception. She ‘persuaded millions to join her financial revolution and disappeared’ leaving her investors high and dry. Her classic get rich quick Ponzi scheme for the twenty first century was marketed brilliantly with expert middlemen and loud music. It left a trail of devastation spanning several continents.

The Assassination, a BBC World Service podcast, deals with the life and untimely death of another powerful woman, Benazir Bhuto. Largely sympathetic to her cause, it retraces an extraordinary destiny which was always bound to end in bloodshed.

Fake Heiress, a BBC 4 podcast, is let down by the fact it is partly acted rather than narrated, and that the main character has the most irritating voice ever. But it is a gripping story with a regular girl with huge ambition, prepared to cheat, deceive and betray anyone to achieve her goal to make it big in NYC. She ended up in prison but she’s getting out soon and Netflix is making a film of her life. We’ve probably not heard the last of Anna Delvey. Not her real name. Obv.

The Orgasm Cult, a BBC Radio 4 podcast, features another dangerous woman, Nicole Daedone, CEO of the sexual wellness company OneTaste. It describes how what started as an esoteric pursuit on the fringe of the wellness movement, turned into a money making machine and a cult where vulnerable people in search of healing, connections and belonging were crushed. Sad yet predictable.

We Crashed, a Wondery podcast, tells a similar story without the sex element: an original verging on revolutionary business idea, a charismatic leader, innocent or hapless sidekicks, downtrodden troops and ultimately abysmal failure. Perfect schadenfreude for anybody who’s ever been accused of not having enough ‘vision’ at work.

Jeffrey Epstein’s story is well known and two podcasts approach it from different angles. Truth and Lies Jeffrey Epstein focuses on the main perpetrator while Hunting Ghislaine focuses on his alleged accomplice and facilitator, and why and how she ended up helping him and enabling in many cases his abuse of very young women. The stories are grubby and unpleasant but three things stick out: the fact that Epstein acted pretty openly and simply assumed his wealth would protect him, the initial powerlessness of his victims, mostly uneducated and from poor backgrounds, and how by working together they eventually destroyed him

The Catch and Kill podcast by Ronan Farrow retraces the story of the Harvey Weinstein case, how many people turned a blind eye to his serial abuse of women but how some very persistent and courageous ones eventually toppled him down. A sad dirty story but one that shows that sometimes the good guys win. Even when the bad guy is impossibly wealthy and well-connected.

Believed and Where is Georges Gibney tell similar stories of sexual abuse of young athletes by people supposed to protect and look after them. Larry Nassar was USA Gymnastics national team doctor and abused at least 265 young girls and women between 1992 and 2015. The number of his victims is mindboggling.  He was sent to prison in 2017 and is likely to stay there until his death. Georges Gibney was head of Ireland’s Olympic swimming team in the eighties and nineties and although less prolific than Nassar abused a large number of girls and boys. In both cases, it is made clear that parents were groomed as well as the young victims, and each victim thought he or she was the only one. Until they started talking. Unlike Nassar Georges Gibney was never convicted and lives in the USA as a free man albeit an itinerant one as his past catches up with him with what he probably regards as irritating regularity. The podcast, which aired over the summer and the autumn convinced more of his victims to come forward and may eventually help to put him away for good.

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