The Podcasts to Listen to While You’re Social Distancing
By Sarah Larson March 13, 2020
As we steel ourselves for the next novel-coronavirus developments—many of us from inside our homes—getting clear, reliable information becomes ever more essential. Not surprisingly, one source is podcasts: as of this week, COVID-19 episodes and stand-alone podcasts abound. “Today, Explained” has a fascinating interview with Carl Goldman, who contracted the virus aboard the Diamond Princess and talked to the show’s host, Sean Rameswaram, from his quarantine bed; “The Daily” delves into the complexities of the testing situation in the U.S., with predictably worrisome results. The stand-alone coronavirus pods are hit or miss. Among them, there’s the exceptionally so-so “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction,” a daily offering from CNN, featuring its chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, who calmly walks listeners through topics like the difference between a pandemic and an epidemic, whether the elderly should be scared (somewhat), whether a “virus hunter” interviewee has seen the film “Contagion,” in which Gupta has a cameo, and whether an unnamed airplane pilot thinks listeners should cancel domestic vacation plans. (“Not unless you have better plans,” he chuckles. Shouldn’t Gupta, a doctor, be doing the advising here?)
My favorite coronavirus podcast is the efficient, antiseptic, unpodcastlike, and somewhat mysterious “Coronavirus 411.” It’s a quick, facts-only daily update, with no obvious affiliation, delivered by an unidentified female voice: pure news, culled from the C.D.C., the W.H.O., and other sources, piped into your ears. It offers a roundup of worldwide and national news updates (“Italy has put the entire country on lockdown through April 3rd”; “St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have been cancelled in Dublin and Boston”) and a reading of case numbers in each country and, now, state. It’s extremely sobering to listen to a few days’ episodes in succession—the numbers rise quickly. The show’s narrator is human, but she could pass for a bot, and that’s just fine with me: as we practice our social distancing, the uncanny valley seems as good a place as any to seek refuge. The famous qualities that tend to distinguish podcasts—intimacy, folksiness, a hangout vibe—happen to be what I don’t want during a pandemic, and “Coronavirus 411” lacks them all.Read more of The New Yorker’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis.
“Coronavirus 411” was created by William Corbin, who works at a branded-podcast company called Sound That Brands, which produces the show. He got the idea in January, after becoming frustrated at his Amazon Echo. “I asked Alexa for information about the coronavirus, and she read the Wikipedia entry,” he told me, incredulous. He tried building an Alexa coronavirus skill, then realized that making a short podcast would be easier. He wanted its content to be authoritative: C.D.C., W.H.O., verified news. “One doctor’s opinion is not of interest to me; a thousand doctors’ opinions are of interest to me,” Corbin said. He joined forces with a newscaster to read the results—just the facts. “If you ever want to get news out, go to a marketer,” he said. “What people want in news is news.” A similarly homespun, and promising, new show, “Coronavirus Daily Briefing,” from Ride Home Media, seems to share that ethos. In it, a serious, somewhat stressed-out-sounding man named Brian McCullough reads news, shares horrifying field reports from Italy, and explains why regular old soap is effective and should be used on our hands, posthaste. It stays on the right side of informed, nonhysterical, and focussed, and I appreciate that as I cower on my couch.Video From The New YorkerA Couple’s Last Words to Each Other
On a lighter note: politics. For perspective, especially welcome after the recent bloodbath known as Super Tuesday, I’ve been appreciating two pods in particular. The first is “Fiasco,” Leon Neyfakh’s forensic political-scandal series, now in its second season—or the fourth, if you count his work on “Slow Burn.” Those seasons explored Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, and Bush v. Gore; this one is about Iran-Contra. I’ve long been hoping that Neyfakh would turn his focus on the scheme, in which Reagan Administration officials secretly sold arms to Iran, behind Congress’s back, during an arms embargo, in an effort to procure the release of American hostages—and to use the proceeds to support the Contras, in Nicaragua. It’s a complex story, ripe for juicy reëxamination—and its antihero, Oliver North, recently served as president of the N.R.A. (His term was brief, after infighting, which reminds me: I’d definitely listen to an investigative podcast about the N.R.A.)
“Fiasco: Iran-Contra” is, basically, what I’d hoped for: confounding, Cold War-atmospheric, and quietly enraging. Neyfakh is as wonkishly companionable as ever, and, as usual, he begins the series by sitting us down and telling us a story of a regular person embroiled in a historical moment. In this case, it’s Kevin Kattke, a Macy’s maintenance engineer from Long Island who moonlights as a volunteer for various covert government operations. (Yes, you read that right.) Listening to a podcast about the Iran-Contra scandal in 2020 doesn’t provide the frisson of excitement that listening to a podcast about Watergate did in 2017, when the Trump Administration was new, our stress was primal, and the show’s dominating conceit—Watergate took longer to reach a breaking point than we might have realized—seemed to portend a comforting, if distant, de-Trumpification. But the new season is a refreshing corrective to some cultural nostalgia that’s emerged for flawed leaders who, compared with Trump, seem pretty good. Listening to Reagan address the public on “Fiasco” is an essential reminder of life under a subtler kind of malign President: one who sounds rational and warm and reassuring.
Reagan, intriguingly, makes some equally maddening cameos in the excellent “LBJ and the Great Society,” from PRX, hosted by Melody Barnes, President Obama’s chief domestic-policy adviser. It’s a successor to “LBJ’s War,” from 2017, hosted by David Brown. Both series feature recordings of Lyndon Johnson’s phone calls, Lady Bird Johnson’s audio diaries, and other archival tape that lets us eavesdrop on how Johnson managed to create the most ambitious social safety net of our time. It’s spellbinding to listen to him in action: buttonholing friends and foes, cajoling for the greater good. Weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson bullies Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver into, on top of directing the Peace Corps, spearheading Johnson’s proposed War on Poverty. “You’ve got the responsibility, you’ve got the authority, you’ve got the power, you’ve got the money,” Johnson says. “Now, you may not have the glands.” You can practically hear Shriver’s double take. “The glands?” he says. Then: “I’ve got plenty of glands.” The rest is history. In another episode, “Medicine Man,” Reagan, in 1961, says, about the idea of Medicare, “One of the traditional methods of imposing socialism on a people has been by way of medicine.” Reagan’s approach to medicine, as history would show, wasn’t adequate for a pandemic.
And, finally: fun. I highly recommend “The Case of the Missing Hit,” the latest episode of “Reply All,” which you may have read about on social media, for good reason: it combines the old-fashioned pleasures of solving a mystery with themes of the Internet’s relationship to memory—something I think about a lot as the two become ever more entwined. It’s about a listener who discovers that a hit he remembers from nineties FM radio is un-Google-able; after hours of searching, he finds no evidence of it, despite its highly specific lyrics (rhyming “Holyfield ringside” with “sultan for a bride,” for example). Did it even exist? “I was getting increasingly frustrated, but also kind of scared,” he tells our heroes, P. J. Vogt and Alex Goldman. “It felt almost like he’d found, like, a hole in the world—like, a glitch,” Vogt says. Ultimately, they get to the bottom of things, doggedly and entertainingly. I haven’t enjoyed a podcast episode this much in a long time—by the end, I even felt some affection for Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” a song I’ve long despised. May you enjoy it, too. Meanwhile: stay healthy, my friends, and flatten the curve.Most Popular