The Strop Weekly Roundup

Weekly Roundup: 8 Podcasts That Are Just Too Damn Good

The Strop is a place to whet your appetite for damn good stories. Check back every Friday for our latest recommendations.

1. Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the O.G. fictional podcasts that fully embraced the absurd, the unexpected, and the delightfully weird possibilities of audio storytelling in the digital age. Structured as a community radio show that broadcasts from the fictional town of Night Vale, this is a show that isn’t afraid to subvert the ways we think storytelling should function. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are constantly playing with form to build the show’s larger mythos, whether it’s through an epic, time-bending saga about fallout from the Blood Space War or a quiet, heart-aching story of Fey, a sentient computer program. The creators’ willingness to experiment with story can be at least partially attributed to their background in theatre; in a 2016 interview, Cranor described his time with the theater collective New York Neo-Futurists as “fantastic and formative” because the “aesthetic is about immediacy and honesty, directly communicating with the audience in front of you, rather than pretending some other story as people passively watch.” This immediacy and honesty also defines Welcome to Night Vale; by virtue of the show’s radio format, inclusive cast of characters, and, of course, consistently memorable performances by delightfully baritone narrator Cecil (Cecil Baldwin), this is a show that isn’t afraid to be what it is: a very strange, very real show about the human experience. For a taste of what this show can do, I recommend starting with episode 13, “A Story About You,” or episodes 19A and 19B — two parts of a short series called “The Sandstorm.” Listen here. – Rebecca Paredes

2. Ear Hustle

This. Show. Ear Hustle is a non-fiction podcast about life in San Quentin State Prison. It’s also the first podcast to be created entirely inside a prison. Each episode features real and honest narratives that delve into prison life — the realities of day-to-day living, the paths that brought people to San Quentin, and the difficulties of adjusting to life after spending time behind bars. The show is carried by the easy chemistry among the hosts: Nigel Poor, a visual artist who volunteers at the prison; Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, a current inmate; and Earlonne Woods, a former inmate whose sentence was commuted after the third season by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Woods was an inmate at the start of the podcast, and when the news that his sentence had been commuted was announced on the show, I remember feeling like my best friend had been given his freedom. That’s how much care this show gives to presenting the humanity of everyone involved — their flaws, failures, and ultimate triumphs. Ear Hustle is significant because its willingness to dig into topics that matter — episodes have included perspectives from inmates who have been on death row, have been victims of assault and sex trafficking, and who are immigrants with no idea what their future holds upon release. (The fact that these stories are out in the world is in no small part attributed to Lt. Sam Robinson, the Public Information Officer at San Quentin who approves all episodes.) LISTEN TO IT. – Rebecca Paredes

3. I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats

No matter your craft, there is endless value in learning how other people approach the creative process — and you get a front-row seat with I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. The show features conversations between Joseph Fink, creator of Welcome to Night Vale, and John Darnielle, lead singer of the Mountain Goats, as they explore Darnielle’s process of writing and creating All Hail West Texas (in season one) and In League With Dragons (current season). Featuring raw audio from songs-in-development, frank discussions about what it means to be an artist, and conversations with other writers, musicians, and performers, you’ll glean something from I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats even if you’ve never listened to the band — but after a few episodes, you, too, will want to say, “Hail Satan.” – Rebecca Paredes

4. My Dad Wrote A Porno

If you, like me, adore terrible-but-earnest art and its gentle mockery, then you’re going to love this podcast. It is exactly what the title promises; each episode, the host, Jamie Morton, reads a chapter from the Belinda Blinks series to two of his friends, and they react, discuss, cringe, and laugh. Also, Belinda Blinks just happens to be written and self-published by Morton’s father. High art or media criticism this is not. The Belinda Blinks series is the lesser of what erotica has to offer, but makes a solid home for itself in the “so bad it’s good” cult camp. It’s a roundtable podcast, so sometimes conversation can get messy, but eventually finds its way back to the story. The podcast itself has about four years of content to peruse, and covers several of the six books in the series, so there are plenty of jumping-in points for new listeners. Listen here. – Daniel Mazzacane

5. One From The Vaults 

I’ve never considered myself a history fiend; I have to be in a certain place to really dive into interview-based podcasts. One From the Vaults is the exception to that rule. It features Morgan M. Page conducting interviews that explore the lives of historic trans people, and in doing so, has created a library of realities that are often erased. If you think history podcasts are stuffy, I encourage you to give this one and its fascinating, sometimes chaotic figures a chance. – Daniel Mazzacane

6. Radio Diaries 

What is driven by a straightforward concept — give people a mic to record their own stories — creates a moving, earnest account of personal struggles from all walks of life. Interspersed with historical anecdotes, each episode features one person talking about their life, their interests, and what is meaningful to them. This podcast started in 2013, and each episode is unique, so it’s easy to pick up and find yourself down historical rabbit holes in no time. Listen here. – Daniel Mazzacane

7. Dungeons and Daddies

Don’t let the title fool you. It’s only sometimes a BDSM podcast. Dungeons and Daddies follows four dads, who only wanted to take their kids to their soccer game, as they traverse their way through the forgotten realms in their trusty Honda Odyssey, trying to find their lost sons. What it really is, if you haven’t guessed already, is a Dungeons & Dragons podcast. These types of podcasts are gaining in popularity — look up D&D in Apple Podcasts and you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with shows like The Adventure Zone, Critical Role, and bomBARDed — but Dungeons and Daddies is my favorite. And it’s because of the characters. At first, they do seem like stereotypes. There’s stay-at-home soccer dad Daryl Wilson, Birkenstock-rockin’-granola-munchin’ Henry Oak, rock-and-roll cover band dad Glenn Close, and emotionally detached stepfather Ron Stampler. But the players (Matt Arnold, Will Campos, Freddie Wong, and Beth May, respectively) are committed to them and fleshing out their characters as they traverse the world that daddy master Anthony Burch has set before them. As they play, each of the dads becomes more and more of a person with their own desires. Daryl wants to have a happy family even with his distant son and cheating wife, Henry just wants his boys to grow up free, Glenn is Glenn, and Ron, despite his fumbling, really does want to connect with his stepson even though he’s never known how to connect to people in his life. As silly as the story gets, there’s heart in each of these characters just wanting to be good dads for their kids. The story is real to the characters, and the players, when the time comes, are able to take these moments seriously. Yes, there are terrible dad jokes. Yes, sometimes they just take a couple of minutes to rename a character Lizardboy Scales McStuffins. Yes, Ron wears 20 pairs of pants and nobody questions it. For every moment like that, there’s a moment where Daryl learns his beloved wife is cheating on him, where Ron really tries to connect with his stepson, and where they give a little orphan forced into the fighting rinks the confidence to become a leader with the eye of the tiger. So, yes, it’s a hilarious podcast. But it’s got a lot of heart and absolutely knows how to make great characters that anyone can empathize with. – Becca Calloway

8. The Cryptonaturalist

We all have that uncle or grandfather — the one who the rest of the family tells you not to listen too because they’re a little bit off. And, when you do listen, you’re not really sure what they’re saying, but you just kind of smile and nod and go along for the ride because you can’t get away until somebody rescues you. That’s sort of what listening to The Cryptonaturalist is like. Except, you really do want to just sit around and listen. Each podcast is about 15 minutes and is its own self-contained story. In the first episode, Blue Spruce, our narrator, just sits under the blue spruce near a Waffle House — a liminal space where time does not move and the wall between worlds is thin — and just watches the world go by. Oh, yes, he sees his own fingers from his shadow-self emerge from the ground and even discovers a new type of furry, talkative crab, but in his Southern, nonchalant drawl, the narrator lets you know it wasn’t a big threat as much as it was an afternoon well spent. What absolutely makes this podcast work is the narrator. Written and read by Jarod K. Anderson, there isn’t a moment that I don’t believe our naturalist doesn’t 100 percent believe everything he is saying. Even when he’s talking about yelling at his shadow-self to return to its own dimension, it’s said straight enough to be a little bit life advice and a little bit like something you should be able to relate to. It’s as though the narrator is sitting next to you, laughing, elbowing you playfully in the ribs, because don’t we all know what it’s like to be stuck in that other, terrible shadow dimension? With these stories, it doesn’t necessarily matter where we end up as much as it matters how we got there. While there’s not much plot, it’s nice to just slow down, invite the narrator into your ears and mind, and go along for the ride. – Becca Calloway