Welcome to the latest in my occasional series of things that have been helping me through the Quarantimes. I listen to a lot of podcasts, even in normal times, because I do a lot of walking as part of my commute and I like to have something to listen to. But they’re mostly topical news and politics podcasts, and you don’t need my recommendations for that. I’ve always had some podcasts that I *only* listen to while I’m running – because it gives me an incentive to run to hear the next part – but during the various lockdowns, this has expanded so I have some podcasts that I’m only allowed to listen to while I’m out walking and getting some exercise. And now, even though lockdowns are easing, I’ve moved jobs so I’m working from home rather than in the office, so having a reason to go out and exercise is really useful! So that’s the list I’ve drawn these recommendations from – stuff that’s so good that it’s worth leaving the house to listen to! All of these are available to listen to for free – and although there are premium options available for some, the series are all complete so there’s no waiting to binge.
Unfinished: Short Creek
The second series of Witness Doc’s Unfinished podcast focused on the town of Short Creek, on the Arizona/Utah border, which is also divided by religion. It was the epicentre of the branch of the fundamentalist Mormon sect led by Warren Jeffs and the residents are a mix of FLS members – and ex-members. It’s the story of how the current situation came about – the history of the group and the circumstances surrounding Jeffs’ conviction and imprisonment for sex crimes but it’s also an examination of Freedom of Religion and freedom from religion. There are 10 parts available (and a bonus AMA) available without a premium subscription, and I found it fascinating. And not just because I read a lot of early Mommy bloggers who were Mormon and have watched a fair few episodes of Sister Wives. You may have seen Under The Banner of Heaven on my reading list the other week – and Short Creek features in that too, but that book has a different focus – and is also more than a decade old now. But if you’ve read that – you’ll probably like this. More info about Unfinished here. And if you like this and enjoy it, then my next stop was Heaven’s Gate – another series about a cult, this time one that ended in a mass suicide. And just this week, Wondery have dropped a trailer for a new series about Jerry Falwell Jr called In God We Lust which is going to be next on my list to listen to.
Wind of Change
From Crooked Media (a group of ex-Obama staffers who started a media company, you may know them from Pod Save America) and Pineapple Street Studios (the company who produced Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill podcast), this is an investigation into whether the CIA had a hand in writing the Scorpions’ song ‘Wind of Change’ which became an anthem across Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s got music history and spying but it also says a lot about how America used its culture to spread power, and how Western culture got behind the Iron Curtain. If you like spy thrillers and John Le Carre, this should be on your playlist. I listened to most of this podcast while plodding around my local park in 30+ degree heat back in summer 2020, which feels like so long ago now, but it says a lot about how engrossed I was in it that I was prepared to turn out for a run in a heatwave so that I could keep listening to it! And it’s just been nominated for a Webby Award as well. More info here.
This one is firmly in the spectacular business failures section of my wheelhouse – see also Bad Blood and Billion Dollar Loser – Boom/Bust, as the logo suggests covers what on earth happened to HQ Trivia which was briefly the hottest thing in mobile gaming and allegedly the future of TV. If you didn’t come across it at the time, it was a live trivia game with big money prizes. For a few weeks (maybe months) here in the UK I’d see some of my coworkers on the late shift logging on to their phones to try and win some money. But as quickly as it started, it was over and this podcast from the Ringer looks at what happened and why. The story is actually somewhat longer than I expected – because it was around for longer in the US – but it’s another story of The Next Great Idea – where it got massively popular without a sense of how to sustain it long term. Find out more here.
So if you’re my sort of age, Silvio Berlusconi was a fixture of European and world political life for a long time. In fact, my first foreign trip was to Italy to see relatives right at the time his first successful election campaign was in its closing stages – I remember seeing the Forza Italia song on the evening news while we were there. And I knew it had been a hell of a story since that 1994 election win through to the Bunga Bunga party scandal that saw him eventually banned from holding public office. But as Wondery’s Bunga Bunga demonstrates, it’s actually even wilder than you could imagine. Even if you’re not that into politics, the story of how the child of a middle class bank employee and a housewife became first a media mogul and then one of the most important figures in modern Italian politics is a fascinating one even before the many controversies and scandals that came along the way. You can find more info (and a trailer) here.
What am I listening to next? Well I’ve already mentioned In God We Lust, but that only has the trailer out so far, so I’ll have to wait for that. I’m also looking at Spy Affair (about Maria Butina) and The Lazarus Heist (about North Korean hacking) but again neither of those series are complete yet so I’m still looking for my next series binge. If you have any recommendations please put them in the comments – nothing too violent though please. In the mean time there are a few new episodes of Real Dictators that have been dropping over the last few weeks- but I’m not sure I’m in the right headspace to listen to five (so far) episodes about Hitler. I’ve listened to previous episodes while running and find that the awfulness makes me run faster – I think I’m trying to get away from it (this also happened when I tried listening to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of the Romanovs. So much death, so much torture, so very gruesome). I’m also a few episodes behind in Greg Jenner‘s latest series of You’re Dead to Me but laughing while running is not the best idea for me.
And as a final note, my original “only listen to it while you’re running” podcast was Hit Parade from Slate – which is a examination of Billboard chart music trends. It looks at why some songs become mega hits and how some artists (or music types) came to dominate the airwaves. Early in the pandemic they moved the whole podcast behind the Slate plus paywall and I love it so much that I joined up just so I could keep listening to it. As the situation with coronavirus has changed, it’s rememerged slightly – so there is one full episode every month which everyone can get (although non-subscribers get it as two parts with a couple of week gap in between) and a bonus episode for Slate plus subscribers. The latest episode is about Taylor Swift – although with the news in the last 24 hours about the death of Jim Steinman their October episode is all about his career in music and would make a great listen instead of reading an obit, but it’s one of those podcasts where you can go back to the beginning (an episode about the Beatles) and just work the whole way through. I did. It might change your views on some groups (I’m a lot more pro BeeGees than I used to be) or it might not (I still hate hair metal, but so does the host so it’s fine) but you’ll learn a tonne of stuff.