Starlee Kine seeks support for new podcast

Just a heads-up to fellow podcast fans: Starlee Kine has launched a Patreon page seeking funds to start a new show. In exchange for $5 per month, she offers patrons early access to episodes and access to updates and possibly some unsolved Mystery Show cases.

This is great news for podcast fans. Kine, who appeared on This American Life numerous times over the years, hosted the delightful Mystery Show, which was inexplicably cancelled by Gimlet Media in 2016 after just six episodes. In the show, Kine solved mysteries like the overnight disappearance of a video store and an argument over Jake Gyllenhaal’s height.

You should really listen to the entire series — it’s one of my all-time favorite podcasts — but if you’re looking for a place to start, an episode about a bizarre belt buckle found in the street is a perennial fan favorite. Once you’ve fallen in love with the show, head to Patreon and support Starlee’s next project.

Song Exploder: “Sharon Van Etten – Seventeen”

Rather than diminishing the art by revealing the magic behind it, Song Exploder often deepens the listener’s appreciation of a great song.

While the show has introduced me to some great artists, the extent to which you appreciate a given episode of Song Exploder depends to some degree on how much you like the song it deconstructs. As someone who has gotten a lot of mileage out of Sharon Van Etten‘s Remind Me Tomorrow, a dissection of its marquee track pushed it to the top of my podcast queue.

On Song Exploder, artists track the progress of a song from its genesis to the album version. Listeners hear snippets of demos and individual tracks (the guitar, the vocals, the drums) isolated from the context of the song. Rather than diminishing the art by revealing the magic behind it, Song Exploder often deepens the listener’s appreciation of a great song.

“Seventeen” is no exception. An early demo recording reveals a loping, country-influence song that Van Etten almost left off the album because it felt out of place, but producer John Congleton — known for his work with St. Vincent — reworked the song and turned it into the album’s beating heart.

Van Etten explains how co-writer Kate Davis helped her see the song, initially viewed through the eyes a jaded New Yorker upset with how her neighborhood has changed, from a younger perspective. And in a moving moment toward the episode’s end, Van Etten talks about singing to her younger self and feeling a connection to her mother during the song’s emotional climax.

Host Thao Nguyen, who took over for the show’s creator Hrishikesh Hirway this year, introduces a new segment at the end of this week’s episode. In “Instrumental,” artists discuss their favorite instrument. This week, Van Etten discusses her love of Michael Cera’s Jupiter 4 synthesizer. A song on the album bears the instrument’s name And yes, it’s that Michael Cera, here’s a track the two worked on together.

Listen here.

New episodes of Song Exploder appear every other Wednesday.

Invisibilia: “The Remote Control Brain”

Like the best episodes of Invisibilia, “The Remote Control Brain” feels both personal and universal.

If you could implant a device in your brain that would make you a little happier, a little smarter and a little more confident, would you? Should you?

It sounds like the premise to a science-fiction story, but it’s one this week’s Invisiblia suggests researchers are close to making a reality. The episode from co-host Alix Spiegel follows a girl named Megan. She suffers from severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but her symptoms nearly vanished after she took part in an experiment with deep-brain stimulation.

With deep-brain stimulation, researchers implant electrodes into the brain which are powered by a battery pack concealed near the collar bone. A remote-control can adjust the voltage the electrodes send through the brain. Prior to the treatment, Megan lived a homebound life and contemplated suicide . With the device, she enjoys what sounds like a normal, productive life. She’s married. She has a job.

The episode opens with Megan talking to a doctor about an adjustment to the device. It malfunctions at some point, and she breaks down in tears. She asks the person recording the session to leave, so she can discuss her feelings with her doctor in private. Eventually things are dialed in and Megan returns to normal.

This is the second episode of Invisibilia‘s fourth season to deal with an unusual treatment for an illness. An earlier episode, “The Fifth Vital Sign”, followed a girl with amplified pain syndrome through an extreme treatment regimen that sometimes felt as if it bordered on sadism but greatly improved her life.

Like “The Fifth Vital Sign” and the best episodes of Invisibilia, “The Remote Control Brain” feels both personal and universal, raising several questions in the mind of the listener. Co-host Hanna Rosin compared it to a George Saunders story.

A refined version of deep-brain stimulation technology could do wonders for those who struggle with psychiatric disorders, but could it eventually be used to enhance the minds of otherwise healthy people? Are brains connected to a remote-control device that has a significant effect on mood and well-being susceptible to hacking?

For Megan, the technology doesn’t lead to an existential crisis where the technology alters her perception of herself, but her now-husband wondered if a Megan without obsessive-compulsive disorder would be capable of loving him. Where does Megan end and machine begin?

The episode doesn’t answer the questions it raises — it can’t — but it opens a window into a future where such questions could have significant effects on society.

Listen here.

New episodes of Invisibilia appear on Fridays.

In The Dark: “S2 E13: Oral Arguments”

In the Dark has returned with four additional episodes now that the Curtis Flowers case has found itself before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito echoed the thoughts many people must have had listening to In the Dark‘s second season, when he asked why the Mississippi Attorney General’s office didn’t say “enough already” and take the Curtis Flowers case from District Attorney Doug Evans.

Season two of In the Dark followed Flowers’ case from a gruesome quadruple murder at a Winona, Mississippi furniture store in 1996 to the present day, when Flowers sits on the state’s death row after a guilty verdict in his sixth — yes, sixth — murder trial. Host Madeleine Baran and her team dismantled the district attorney’s case by undermining almost every piece of evidence used to convict Flowers.

The podcast has returned with four additional episodes now that the Flowers case has found itself before the U.S. Supreme Court. This week’s episode — the second of four new episodes — recounts last week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The issue before the court is whether Evans used peremptory challenges to strike jurors on the basis of race.

In Flowers’ six trials, Evans used peremptory challenges to strike 41 of 47 potential black jurors (In one of the most impressive pieces of reporting in season two, In the Dark scanned more than 100,000 documents to determine Evans and his assistant district attorneys strike black jurors at 4.5 times the rate of white jurors). The 1986 Supreme Court case Batson v. Kentucky prohibits attorneys from striking jurors purely based on race (for more on that case, listen to “Object Anyway” from Radiolab’s More Perfect podcast).

As the court works to determine Evans’ motivation, it is aided by the “unusual and really disturbing history” (Justice Alito again) in the Flowers case. Three guilty verdicts against Flowers have been struck down by the Mississippi Supreme Court, once for prosecutorial misconduct and twice because Evans violated Batson.

Those who follow the court know that Justice Alito nearly always sides with prosecutors and law enforcement, so his pointed questioning of Special Assistant Attorney General Jason Davis bodes well for those who hope to see the verdict in Flowers’ case overturned. As the court’s four liberal justices are nearly certain to side with Flowers, it will only take one justice from the court’s conservative branch to overturn the verdict.

Another promising sign for Flowers came from the newest addition to the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who saw fit to lecture Davis on the history of Batson and the effect Batson violations have on a community’s confidence in its justice system.

“Batson said: We’re going to give you the tools to eradicate [bias], so that — not just for the fairness to the defendant and to the juror, but that the community has confidence in the fairness of the system. And can you say, as you sit here today, confidently you have confidence in the — how this all transpired in this case?” Justice Kavanaugh asked.

If — as many court reporters have predicted and the oral arguments suggest — the court rules in Flowers’ favor, his death sentence will be overturned, but the case will again land in the lap of Doug Evans who will determine whether to pursue a seventh trial. Evans, who runs unopposed this fall to retain his seat as district attorney for Mississippi’s 5th Circuit, has vowed to retry Flowers if the court overturns the case. The only good news is that we may get additional episodes of In the Dark.

Listen here:

New episodes of In the Dark appear on Tuesdays.

The Uncertain Hour: “George H.W. Bush and His Baggie of Crack”

The Uncertain Hour reveals a knack for finding interesting angles into seemingly mundane topics.

The Uncertain Hour‘s absence from year-end best-of lists may make it podcasting’s best-kept secret. The series, presented by American Public Media’s Marketplace, delves into controversial topics “because the things we fight most about, are the things we know least about” to quote host Krissy Clark.

The series returned this week with the start of its third season, which will focus on the war on drugs. The first episode, released Thursday, goes back thirty years to the bizarre moment when President George H.W. Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine in the Oval Office. It explores the even more bizarre backstory of how that bag, purchased in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House (but with a caveat), ended up in the president’s hands and examines the misleading facts presented in the president’s address which led to a multi-billion dollar investment in the war on drugs.

While the excesses of the war on drugs may seem obvious in 2019, the story about President Bush and The Uncertain Hour‘s previous seasons reveal a knack for finding interesting and engaging avenues into seemingly mundane topics. Season two, which focused on regulation, opened with a riveting three-part examination into how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined which products could be labelled peanut butter — riveting isn’t overstatement; go listen to it. The first season, which dug into the legacy of welfare reform, uncovered an (unintentionally?) hilarious album created by a public assistance office in Riverside, California to convince its clients that getting off welfare was cool and states that put welfare money toward couples counseling.

The first episode of season three includes an interview with Michael Isikoff, the then-Washington Post reporter who uncovered the history of the bag of crack that ended up on President Bush’s desk. Drug enforcement agents arranged the buy, so the president could tell the nation crack was so prevalent that it had pervaded the shadow of the White House (it hadn’t). The memorable speech led to an investment in the war on drugs over Bush’s four years in office that exceeded that of the previous four administrations combined.

The nation is currently in the throes of another drug epidemic, of course. One that authorities have handled with a gentler touch, which raises its own questions about policing and race. Season three of The Uncertain Hour promises to use the crack epidemic to examine how drug epidemics end. If previous seasons are any indication, it will be well worth the listen.

Listen here:

The Uncertain Hour will release new episodes every Thursday.