Lauren Ober is the host of Spectacular Failures from American Public Media. TIME magazine called the show one of its top 10 podcasts of 2019. Someone on the internet called it “a nauseating listen.” Check out shows that Lauren loves about all the quests.
I love a quest — a quest to uncover the truth, a quest to right a wrong, a quest to take down some jerk who deserves it. So most of my podcast listening these days has some kind of journey element to it. Maybe that’s because the news in 2020 is so, so depressing. To escape it, I need to be transported by a thing that has a beginning, middle and end, with familiar arcs and beats. That’s not to say I don’t relish my old listening loves — Heavyweight, This Is Love, Song Exploder and Las Culturistas to name a few. But at this particular time, deeply reported serialized investigations are what’s up for me. Here are my most recent faves.
Reveal: American Rehab
Reveal (from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX) is a masterclass in investigative reporting. Its new series “American Rehab” is proof of that. The show delves into a controversial and exploitative drug and alcohol rehab program named Cenikor that forces addicts to work without paying them. In unpacking the bananas history of this peculiar type of substance abuse treatment, it is apparent that so much of drug and alcohol rehab is based on exactly zero science. Also in the series: one of the most amazing interviewees I’ve ever heard on a podcast — Kandy Latson, a man with a singular voice and a singular story.
I love a scam. I love a grift. So California City from LAist Studios is right up my alley. The show is about a man named Nat Mendelson who built a city in a California desert and sold garbage plots of land to people desperate to own a little piece of the American Dream. My favorite description of this swindler comes from host Emily Guerin: he could sell shit to a diaper. I’m always a little bit envious of people who are able to so fully believe in their own fantasies and then sell them to others. But then those are also the people who bilk folks out of their life savings. So maybe it’s not a trait to be envied. This podcast doesn’t glorify swindlers, but it also doesn’t fully demonize them either. Because we’re all pretty complicated characters.
The Other Latif
There are a handful of Lauren Obers walking the earth. One is an expert bass fisherwoman. Another is a stripper with a criminal record. None of them are detained in Guantanamo. Unlike Latif Nasser’s name doppelganger. This show from WNYC’s Radiolab follows reporter Latif Nasser as he digs into the story of a Moroccan man with his same name who has been locked up in Guantanamo for more than a decade. Nasser’s reporting takes him all over the world trying to uncover the truth about the other Latif. Like whether he’s actually an Al-Qaeda explosives expert as the U.S. claims. Or whether he was just a bumbling guy who got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s excellent reporting with some real stakes.
I had initially been reluctant to check this show out because its conceit — “What is the internet doing to us?” — seems like a terrifying question to ponder. I don’t WANT to know what the internet is doing to us! I’d like to continue to live in a fantasy world where parents don’t cyber-stalk their teen’s cheerleading rival. Or where a deranged mass murderer doesn’t post his carnage on social media. But alas, that ship has sailed. Thankfully New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose is here to walk us through just what happened with the internet. Or more accurately, YouTube. From a young college dropout who is radicalized then de-radicalized on the internet, to the epic rise and slow return to earth of a YouTube celebrity, this series digs into what has gone wrong with the internet and maybe what can be done to wind it back in.
Once I fully invested in stories about what a trash can the internet can be, I stumbled upon this series from CBC Podcasts and Norwegian newspaper VG. The show follows law enforcement efforts to track down the operators of one of the most massive child-abuse sites on the dark web. In a sprawling investigation that covers multiple continents and employs the latest technological tools, host Daemon Fairless unpacks the lengths law enforcement will go to capture some of the most unrepentant predators on the web. WARNING: This show is not for the faint of heart, and the content warnings are no joke. People who profit off of images of child abuse are the most repellant people on the planet, and this show lays that fact bare.
Intrigue: Tunnel 29
I love me some Cold War history. Mostly because it wasn’t a war; it was just a bunch of machismo chest-thumping. And all that cloak and dagger skullduggery is enormously appealing. But there were legions of real people whose lives were upended by all of it. This podcast digs into that by telling the story of an unbelievable caper — tunneling under the Berlin Wall to rescue people trapped on the Communist side. Narrated and reported by the BBC’s Helena Merriman, this podcast is cinematic, capturing all the drama and, ahem, intrigue of this derring-do. When listening, you really feel like you’re trapped in that confined space with those tunnelers, hauling out rocks and mud to clear a path to safety. And when things start to go sideways, it’s a visceral listen. I hope to never have to dig a tunnel ever.
The Missing Cryptoqueen
Cryptocurrency feels like one of those nouns that I will never fully be able to define. Like Bildungsroman or pilgarlic. Which is why I was drawn to this BBC series. Presenter Jamie Bartlett takes listeners on a journey into the heart of a massive financial scam perpetrated by a woman called Dr. Ruja Ignatova. Her company, OneCoin, promised financial freedom to millions. But when Ignatova disappeared, her investors/followers were left ruined, their investments in this cryptocurrency rendered totally worthless. I am endlessly fascinated by the psychology and pathology of crimes like this and what it takes for someone like Ignatova to dupe so many people. Mostly I’m just taking notes for my future as a cult leader.
The Ballad of Billy Balls
What can I say about this beautiful, vulnerable mystery-cum-memoir that hasn’t already been said? This Crimetown series is a deep plunge into what makes and breaks a family, masquerading as a true crime narrative. Artist/activist iO Tillett Wright unpacks the story of the murder of his mother’s great love. Billy Balls was a rock star, a daredevil, a drug dealer and a man who deeply loved Wright’s mother. No one ever knew definitively what happened to him the night he was shot in his apartment. Until this podcast. The production alone makes this podcast a must-listen. But the humanity of it (plus the extraordinary insight into late 1970s downtown New York) is equally gripping. Prepare to invest — it’s 13 episodes long.
Wind of Change
The problem with doing a podcast series about the origin of one song is that the song will burrow into listeners’ earholes and never leave. Not for a while anyway. I finished Wind of Change a minute ago, and I am still humming the eponymous song by The Scorpions. I remember when this song came out in 1990. I was a kid, but I still remember every word to this most power ballad of power ballads. But obviously, I had no idea about the history of the song and how it may or may not have been written by the CIA. And how the CIA may or may not have deployed it as a pro-democracy earworm. Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe expertly unfolds this tale of Cold War lore. I’m not going to tell you how it ends. But I will tell you that you’ll learn a lot about America’s spymasters and the agency that employs them. And you’ll come away knowing a lot more about Gorky Park than you knew before.
The Thing About Pam
Ok, first we need to establish that Keith Morrison is a master of the true crime format. There is truly no one on Planet Earth who can come close to replicating this TV legend’s authority, insight or command of DRAMA. I live to hear this man say “diabolical.” And so when I learned that the Dateline NBC correspondent had a podcast, well honey I was all over that. I normally eschew true crime — I don’t love making entertainment out of death and dismemberment. But Keith Morrison is another story. In this series, he unwinds the tale of Betsy Faria’s murder and all the attendant twists and turns. I was less interested in the story itself than in Morrison’s calming yet eye-raising baritone accompanying me on my corona dog walks. And I was not disappointed.