QueueTips Newsletter

QueueTips - No. 6

'Home of the Brave': Prisoner of Zion

Like anything in the age of the vast internet, there are big and small things, broad and narrow, insular and cosmopolitan. Podcasts are no different (they might actually be the best representation of the internet as a whole) and that’s part of what fascinates me. It’s a big part of why I listen. I want to understand every angle of every story and viewpoint, and the industry tries (successfully, most of the time) to give me that. For every white-guys-talking-at-a-table show, there’s Buzzfeed’s Another Round. For every Serial or Invisibilia, backed by big radio enterprises with lots of resources, there’s Home of the Brave, the independent show by seasoned radio reporter Scott Carrier, where he travels around the country talking to people. That’s it. Just talking to people. It’s some of the most compelling audio you’ll hear all year.

In 2016 alone, Carrier has recorded from the ground at the National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon during the Bundy standoff, a handful of political rallies and caucuses, both political conventions, Yellowstone National Park, and most recently at the Standing Rock Reservation in Bismarck, North Dakota, at the protests there over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Home of the Brave is a program that transports you — as all good audio journalism does — to a place in the world where you aren’t.

But while Home of the Brave relentlessly moves around the country to attempt to provide as wide a scope as possible, my personal favorite this year was “Prisoner of Zion,” an episode “on where I live and what I live for.” It’s an inward-looking episode, focused on Mormonism in Utah, which is where Carrier lives. It’s part personal narrative, part history lesson about Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, and part examination of the major religion of his state. 

Carrier is one of my favorite narrators in the podcast world, partially because he’s not afraid to insert himself — and all his thoughts, feelings, and views — into the story. He’s a key character in many of his stories. He got into a verbal altercation with open-carry advocates in Cleveland, Ohio, during the Republican National Convention. He called them “fucking cowards” as, it sounded like, the men puffed their chests out at him and forced him to back away from them. This brings up another conversation about objective journalism, but I don’t have the answers for that one. I only know that the audio produced by Carrier’s methods is completely captivating.

Even though “Prisoner of Zion” is not an in-the-field episode, Carrier’s story is told through his eyes. There’s a story about him being told by his second-grade classmates that he should start reading the Book of Mormon. There’s his description of a screenplay he’s writing, where God shows up with golf clubs in the office of a New York City public relations executive, wanting to quit his duties as God. And then there’s my favorite line, a dry reading of a powerful line of sarcasm: “In other words, the Mormons believe the United States of America was designed by Jesus Christ for Joseph Smith to become God’s prophet of this last chapter of civilization as we know it.” He doesn’t shy away from his skepticism, but he doesn’t make Mormonism feel like a less worthy religion in this world. To me, especially now, that’s an essential line. Near the end of the episode, when presented with the theoretical idea that he could wipe out all of Mormon history, he quickly realized he wouldn’t. “I’d miss their stories,” he said.

Despite Carrier’s busy production schedule, Home of the Brave is a true indie. It’s completely listener-funded — in a recent episode, Carrier read the names of all the people who donated $100 or more. Its website basically has four pages. Its shop has four items. The contact page says the show has no internships or other positions available.

There’s a discussion raging on right now in the podcast world about the place of independent shows in the landscape. Where do they fit? Are they going to be KO’d by major media and production companies that are quickly professionalizing the medium? I’d say it’s like any other thing in the vast, wide world of art. Independent shows like Home of the Brave…they’re there, you just have to look a bit harder for them. The search is worthwhile.

QueueBits:

  • Here are a few other indies I’d keep an eye on: Rumble Strip Vermont by Erica Heilman; Flash Forward — “a show about possible and not so possible futures” — by Rose Eveleth. I’ve enjoyed every minute of both shows. They’re creative and sometimes wonderfully weird and always good listens. (Also, selfishly, I produce a few indies myself: “IBSIBS” is a food podcast I record weekly with my sister, and “Drafts” is a show of short fiction stories produced for your ears. I hope you like them!)
  • I’m finally catching up on season two of Invisibilia, and, as always, this show succeeds in making me cry. “The Problem With the Solution” is a episode with an ending that will wrench your heart like you’re wringing out a wet towel.
  • In honor of me seeing Joseph, the sister trio folk band from Oregon, this week, here’s their great appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk.
  • Lastly, there’s this show called Mostly Functional Humans that my good buddy Andrew Dooley produces out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the most recent episode, he and co-host Rich Retyi talk candidly about their relationships with their bodies and food and what diets they’ve tried. It’s really, really good. Cool and good job, Dooley.

Next week I’m going to write about my favorite episodes of the year, my favorite podcast episode of all-time, and a bit of technical discussion about the form of first-person narrative stories, but that’s all I’ve got in my brain this time. Now, I’m going to put on an ugly sweater and go drink something called Jingle Juice. Pray for me.

-Grant

QueueTips Newsletter

QueueTips - No. 5

Podcasts and Politics and Still Processing

When I started this newsletter in September — which, after the election last week, seems like an eternity ago — I stumped for podcasts as a vehicle of comprehension, as an essential way to understand the things in our world. It can, like movies, television, books, and everything else we ingest for fun, be a way to escape the world for a few hours. And in the middle of those two spaces is where I’ve lived since Tuesday’s results: Angry, confused, not sure if I want to submerge myself in the political podcast world or if I want to be left alone.

So, my listening habits have been erratic, irrational: I listened to Keepin’ It 1600, my weekly democratic therapy session, and Code Switch, which is just about the best show in my feed every week. I avoided the Political Gabfests and Radio Free GOP. The last four episodes of the well-done but stress-inducing The United States of Anxiety are still waiting for me. Straight-up deleted Hidden Brain’s episode entitled, “What Happened?” Unsubscribed from Presidents Are People, Too. I took my brain away from politics by catching up on weeks-old episodes of Heavyweight and 2 Dope Queens and The Football Ramble.

I did all that in a flailing attempt to figure out which shows actually have influence and staying power. I was trying to figure out what matters anymore. (It’s been a slightly darker-than-normal week, and I’m a white guy.)

But, in the midst of the relative purge of my feed and a creeping need to throw the covers over my head, I heard the most recent episode of Still Processing, a show hosted by Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham at the New York Times. During “The Reckoning,” I cried as they cried, and I remembered why listening to people — really hearing them — is important. I remembered why I believe in the power of audio to be something really good in the world.

Morris, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is perhaps my favorite critic in the country and has been on my must-read list since his days at Grantland. I’m new to Wortham’s work, but together they form one of the best duos in the whole podcast landscape — in just 10 episodes, they’ve proven to be thoughtful, funny, bold, and important. “The Reckoning,” obviously, was no different: Their recorded conversation was the kind I assume many millions of people had with friends and family in private during these past eight days. It feels as though the two friends walked into the building, hugged silently, and went directly into the studio to record a conversation about the election that was more personal than anything I heard this week; the most intimate discussion in the most intimate medium. 

“We’re all stuck, for better or for worse,” Wortham said in the episode. “I have a lot of concerns about personal safety for my community and my family. I’m very anxious. We have no idea what’s going to happen next. And that’s…a really difficult thing to grapple with.”

“You know one of my weaknesses in life, which is empathy. It’s a great thing to have sometimes and other times it’s a problem,” Morris said, and then through tears: “I’m really trying to understand the fear that people have of us [or] the President…who never hurt anybody, didn’t start a war, wanted to give people stuff like healthcare. I feel so ridiculous right now crying about this.” At that point, Wortham jumped in to help her friend, and the two of them got through the show. It was brave of them to be so open.

Our conversations about race and politics are tightly bound. They are not intertwined because someone or some entity tells us they should be, but in part because we are a country with a history of racial issues, and in part because people voted along racial lines. That second fact alone should indicate that asking “Why?” — and all the discussions that ensue — are topics worthy of our time and energy. But perhaps we found out this week that, before you can answer that big question, it’s best to talk — and cry — with a friend.

QueueBits:

  • This American Life did its part this week in the aftermath of the election, interviewing a dozen (or more, I lost count) different people who all had different backgrounds and opinions for an episode called “The Sun Comes Up.”
  • For you Hamilton junkies, Lin-Manuel Miranda was on WTF with Marc Maron this week. I’ve heard great things, although I haven’t gotten to it yet.
  • The Heart, one of my all-time favorites, just won the Third Coast Audio Festival’s top award for “Mariya.” I’ll be writing more about The Heart in later editions of this newsletter, for sure.

I’m going to start spotlighting an independent show in each of these newsletters…starting with the next one. Love each other, all of you.

-Grant