This article is part of a collection of my favorite media pieces in 2020.
YOU’RE DEAD TO ME
From BBC Radio, You’re Dead To Me is a neat little history podcast. Each episode, host Greg Jenner invites a historian to explain a historical figure or concept and a comedian to learn and be silly throughout. I listened to somewhere between ten and twenty episodes as I meandered through a lengthy Civilization game (which really made me feel like I was part of the history, y’know?).
The podcast brands itself as “the history podcast for people who hate history (or at least those who forgot to learn any in school)”, and its weekly comedian’s job is both to keep the episode light and porous and to play the role of the everyman sitting in for us, learning about the topic for the first time. That role’s evolved a little as the show has grown; multi-masters degree holder and history enthusiast Sindhu Vee starts with more knowledge of the Mughal Empire than the layman, but she and her better-educated cohort make up for it in genuine enthusiasm and banter quality.
Regardless of the present comedian, the historical knowledge supplied by each episode is surprisingly dense; these aren’t historical tidbits, but realistically the scholar-verified abridged versions of entire lives, conflicts, and historical concepts. You won’t leave any of the episodes an expert on the topic in question, but if you listen as well as the comedian (who’s quizzed at the end of the episode), you’ll absolutely leave understanding something you may have barely heard of going in, whether it’s the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, the course of the Haitian Revolution, or the history of chocolate.
THE JUNGLE PRINCE
In the early 1970s, two children and their mother arrive at a rail station in Lucknow in Northern India. They set up camp for an indefinite stay, but the mother issues demands that would drastically upgrade their housing situation; she wants the Indian government to recognize her claim to the throne of Oudh, a long-gone princely state. Recognition alone is not enough, of course; she’d like a castle too.
No one can vouch for the authenticity of the woman’s claims. Official records are non-existent. Nonetheless, the Indian government gives her her castle. There, she holes up with her family, addressing no one, giving very sporadic interviews. Her children follow suit. Then, some forty years after taking up residence in their Malcha Mahal, New York Times journalist Ellen Berry develops a unique relationship with the Jungle Prince of Oudh.
The Jungle Prince is the rare sort of biographical story that would be just as fascinating as an entirely fictional adventure novel. I had to verify early on that what I was listening to wasn’t a made-up story, even with the New York Times label. The Jungle Prince is fascinating, and I refuse to spoil it any more.
RAISIN D’OR: REPLY ALL
Gimlet Media’s Reply All is an anthological investigation of the internet, and it’s the best podcast I listened to in 2020. Hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt (and now Emmanuel Dzotsi) dig deep into the daunting astral quagmire that is the world wide web to uncover and carefully unwrap bizarre stories like one forum’s years-long search for some guy in a picture, the origins of conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate, and explanations for repetitive creepy phone calls, odd voices in white noise audio, stolen snapchat accounts, and a series of misplaced Uber charges.
Some of my favorite Reply All episodes involve the hosts going to extreme lengths to solve questions posed by viewers. In one, a caller requests aid identifying an obscure song he insists was popular and played frequently on the radio for a fleeting moment in the 1990s. The Reply All guys connect with him and put together a band to bring the tune from one man’s memory to a realized rendition that leads to an absurdly satisfying answer.
Other episodes rely on the personal whims of Goldman, Vogt, and Dzotsi to spur globetrotting adventures for answers. A casual conversation with an Indian phone scammer leads to a three-part investigation and a round trip to India.
Even routine episodes of the show are worthwhile; the “yes yes no” segment features Goldman and Vogt answering internet and technology-related questions from their boss (usually sourced from the weird side of Twitter). The episodes featuring comedian Jason Mantzoukas are wonderful.
Reply All is one of those rare pieces of media that introduces listeners to questions they’ve never thought about and delivers the answers with such an artful command of suspense and storycrafting that each seems purpose-built for the episode. The internet can be an uncomfortably confusing place. It’s good we have guides like these.
- Rabbit Hole