Four Podcasts for Election Boycotters (and One for Polling Wonks)

Tyee's recommended listening considers crime, love and pop mega-hit masochism.

By Shannon Rupp 4 Sep 2015 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

I don't know about you, but after a month of electioneering I've already had enough of desperate politicians acting out their version of John Cusak in Say Anything. With more than six weeks to go I've resorted to entertainment podcasts to take my mind off the news.

Still, I realize some of you are election junkies. For you, CBC has put together Pollcast.


CBC is great at doing news backgrounders, and Pollcast is typical of the radio service at their educational best. Eric Grenier, founder of, spends an average of 20 minutes a week chatting over the latest implications of the polls with his guests, including journalists and other pollsters.

He and Angus Reid pollster Shachi Kurl answer a question I've wondered about: Has the first month of campaigning had an impact on voters’ intentions? (Short answer: it's complicated.)

'The Lapse': True Stories, Gussied Up

When it comes to podcasting there's no doubt that Americans with public radio pedigrees are dominating the medium, which is why it was such a delight to find this stellar independent offering from Vancouver's Kyle Gest. The show is beautifully edited and rich in sound -- he layers in sound effects that make you feel as if you're experiencing the story.

Gest favours the reminiscences of everyday folks who have done weird stuff. Like the woman who fell in love with a man after she pretended to be his fiancé in order to spring him from a Mexican jail.

The episodes average 20 minutes and all 30 are worth your time. But a good place to begin is with his smorgasbord show.

'Switched on Pop'

I'm a music junkie and the newish podcast Switched on Pop, which analyses why mega-hit pop songs become mega-hits, is my new favourite thing.

Songwriter Charlie Harding and musicologist Nate Sloan aren't afraid to break out in song or give us a few chords on the piano as they explain things like the T-drop. That's their term for Taylor Swift's clever songwriting trick -- moving from a major to minor chord unexpectedly, giving her that distinctive sound that has propelled her beyond the reach of all the other bubblegum pop princesses.

The show is surprisingly well produced for an indie podcast. It's a sideline for the hosts, who are based San Francisco, where Sloan is a PhD candidate in musicology at Stanford. There are 18 half hour shows in their archive, and there isn't a dud in the lot. But I particularly appreciated Episode 17, their breakdown of that gawdawful earworm of a song, "Shut up and Dance." You know: the one that has been billed as this year's song of the summer and sounds like every bad 1980s pop anthem. That's because Walk the Moon steals signatures from every bad 1980s pop anthem and jams them all together.

The duo dug 'em all up and they play them side-by-side. Corey Hart. Genesis. It's all there. And concentrated. Knowing why I have trouble getting this pop dreck out of my head is worth the price that comes with this episode: it triggers the earworm. In fact, writing about it triggers the earworm. So reading about it probably does too. I'm sorry. That episode is only for masochists.

For everyone else, here's how Taylor Swift does it.


Criminal bills itself as stories of people who've done wrong, been wronged, or been caught somewhere in the middle. But the exquisitely produced monthly podcast is really about weird crime. Legendary crimes. Sometimes comic crimes. There's also lots of hard-to-believe crime. And just as many memorable characters.

It kicked off in 2014 with a tale of a man wrongfully accused of his wife's death after she was found dead in a pool of blood that poured from her skull. You'll never guess whodunnit. And if you aspire to find a great plot for a mystery novel, Animal Instincts is the episode for you.

Then there's Episode 3: The Buck Stops Here about some enterprising young DIYers with an ink jet printer who experimented with home counterfeiting. It turns out this couple was part of a hipster trend circa 2000, when 40 per cent of the fake dosh in the U.S. came from the home printers of ambitious youth. (And for those keeping score in the intergenerational wars, that's a stat suggesting Gen X-ers were easily as lazy and entitled as Millennials.)

That's one of the things I like best about Criminal -- it uncovers surprising facts and debunks a lot of common beliefs, all the while telling an engaging story. The other thing I like is host Phoebe Judge's clear, easy-to-listen-to voice that takes us through the superb reporting. She and co-producer Lauren Spohrer are public radio producers who do Criminal as a side-project for the Radiotopia network.

The podcast runs roughly 20 minutes and there are about two dozen timeless episodes in the archive. But I suggest starting with a story worthy of a pink-cover novel, about a couple of elderly newlyweds. They're fans of Raymond Chandler's hardboiled detective fiction and his own romantic marriage, and were distressed to learn that Chandler and his beloved wife were separated in death. So they began a quest to reunite the ashes.

It manages to be sweet and strange all at once.

'StartUp' Season 1: Gimlet

Serial, the spin-off from This American Life, may have been the podcast that made 68 million people sit up and take notice of podcasts, but it's Alex Blumberg who made audiences realize podcasting's commercial potential. Blumberg is yet another alumnus of This American Life -- I think of them as the TAL Mafia -- who has struck out on his own. In Season 1, he reports the horrors of launching the company that will become Gimlet. And (brave soul that he is) he tells it in real time and highlights his gaffes.

Blumberg has been quoted widely saying he hopes to become the HBO of podcasting and he's certainly mastered the cliffhanger. The 12 episodes are an addictive delight. Our hero has a lot at stake personally, since left one of the few plum jobs in journalism, as a producer with an NPR station. His (long-suffering) wife appears on the podcast and they have two young kids, which adds to the pressure. As Blumberg notes wryly, he needed the excellent health insurance that came with his full-time job.

Blumberg's self-deprecating sense of humour doesn’t just make him a charming narrator, it contributes to the growing tension. Will this be the episode in which his harebrained scheme finally blows-up on him? Will his wife leave him?

I listened to this series with a guy pal who took to wondering about Mrs. Blumberg often. When she's not laughing at whatever foolish thing her husband has done this week, she's exasperated.

"Do you suppose she's going to divorce him? That tone in her voice: you never want to hear that tone from the woman you live with," he said.

I kept reassuring him that it was the audio version of "creative non-fiction" in which people exaggerate things about their lives, sometimes to the point of making them up, to spin a more entertaining tale. Magazine writers have done this forever. As have memoirists. And documentary makers. (Now he’s suspicious of everything labelled non-fiction.)

Domestic drama aside, StartUp is a good roadmap for would-be entrepreneurs since it takes us from his first encounter with a venture capitalist through the hard-slog of learning basic business skills. All 12 episodes are worth your time, but if you can listen to only one episode make it the one about Lexicon, a company that names companies. It explains how Blumberg’s original venture --The American Podcasting Company -- ends up being named for a 1928 cocktail featuring gin and lime juice.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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