What We're Listening To: Ear Hustle Podcast

I don’t say this lightly: Ear Hustle is the best podcast of 2017. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s warm. It’s sincere. It’s gripping. It’s nuanced. It horrifying.

I don’t say this lightly: Ear Hustle is the best podcast of 2017. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s warm. It’s sincere. It’s gripping. It’s nuanced. It horrifying. It is storytelling at its absolute best. And it’s all told by prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in California.

I am categorically calling this the best podcast of 2017 despite being someone who veers heavily toward the lighthearted in my podcast feed. I’m generally of the camp that I have enough crap (literal and figurative) in my life as a mother of three in this climate that I really don’t need to add self-imposed difficulties to my life. That’s why I was hesitant to download Ear Hustle at first. But I’m so glad I did. And you will be too.

What it’s about

Ear Hustle, from PRX’s Radiotopia, is prison slang for “eavesdropping.” And the show feels very much like that. You get a line into prison life that many of us, fortunately, otherwise would never get. The show itself is made inside of San Quentin’s media lab by two prisoners – Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, along with local artist and volunteer Nigel Poor. Earlonne and Nigel co-host the show.

Each episode tackles a different aspect of prison life. Sometimes the episodes focus on one individual and what got them into prison. For instance, episode two focuses heavily on one inmate and his journey that led him to where he is now. More often, the episodes deal with realities of prison life, from the light-hearted (The Boom-Boom Room) to the more serious, like getting old and dying in prison.

Why we love it

Some background on myself: I’ve spent nearly the last decade working for a legal nonprofit that supports and advances victims’ rights. While this doesn’t mean I’m anti-prisoner or anti-defendant, I do definitely veer toward being biased toward the victim. This show gave me a much-needed perspective into the humanity of those who are incarcerated.

Most of the people who we hear from are so heart-wrenchingly human. They are intelligent and funny, and often able to own up to the mistakes they made. One example comes at the end of episode three, Looking Out, where co-host Earlonne asks inmates in the yard what animal they would be and why.

Answers include “Dog, because I know someone would adopt me,” and “Marmot, because they’re misunderstood. Everybody thinks they’re weasels and they’re not, they’re marmots,” and “A jellyfish because it has no natural enemies.” I’ll stop there, but this exchange captures everything that is wonderful about the show. It is honest and smart and funny and surprising and, at its heart, deeply sad.

The inside glimpse into prison life is also incredibly interesting. The episode on solitary confinement, including interviews with prisoners who spent 20-plus years in solitary, will have you rethinking the justice system from top to bottom. Same thing for the episode on California’s three-strikes law. The show tackles smaller issues too, like the process of finding a cellmate or keeping pets in prison or, yes, getting intimate.

Start with this episode

If you like the personal background stories, start with episode two, Misguided Loyalty. It tracks the story of Tommy Shakur Ross, the son of a preacher, who ended up joining a gang, committing murder, and having his family murdered in retaliation. It also tells the story of his gradual transformation in prison.

If you are more interested in big social justice issues, listen to episode four, The Shu. If you watch “Orange is the New Black,” you’re familiar with the Shu, slang for solitary confinement. The look inside what solitary confinement is like, and what it does to those who manage to escape it, is a must-listen.

For just a peek into the life, listen to episode one, Cellies. It explains what cell-life is like, including the incredibly important issue of who you’re sharing your 4.5-by-10-foot cell with.

If you like this podcast, you might also like:

Try Death, Sex and Money by WNYC. The show offers a similar deep dive into difficult subjects. Rating: Listen with teens or wear earbuds due to explicit language and adult themes

Subscribe to Ear Hustle (seriously, do it) on iTunes and find more podcast recommendations here.

What We're Listening To: "Heaving Bosoms" Podcast

Yes, this podcast is called “Heaving Bosoms.” If you find that endearing and hilarious, then more than likely you will find this podcast to be the same.

Yes, this podcast is called “Heaving Bosoms.” If you find that endearing and hilarious, then more than likely you will find this podcast to be the same.

I only recently discovered romance novels. I mean, of course I giggled over the bare-chested Fabio covers at the bookstore when I was a tween, but I never actually read one until a year or two ago. That isn’t to say that I’m not into escapist reading. My Audible feed is basically: mystery novel, mystery novel, legal thriller, token Booker prize nominee, mystery novel.

I used to read “real” books. Really I did. I was an English major! I write stuff! But somewhere around kid number two and a sleep deficit of roughly 7012 hours, I found I didn’t have the mental capacity to fully embrace the nuances of great literature, and was looking for more “escape” than “delve into the thick of it.”

Which is why romance novels are awesome. As co-host Melody Carlisle says, “I don’t mind that a lot of them make me feel tingly in my bathing suit parts.”

What it’s about

Heaving Bosoms” is a self-made, self-produced podcast by two far-flung best friends: Alaska resident Erin McCarthy and New Jersey resident Melody Carlisle. Each week, they pick a Trashy romance novel (the capital T is deserved) and discuss it in intricate detail.

You definitely don’t need to read the books they discuss ahead of time. And if you’re offended by frank discussions of sex and occasional coarse language, this is not the podcast for you. However, if you are not offended by those things – or if you even enjoy them – this podcast is definitely worth a listen.

Why we love it

Much like “By the Book,” “Heaving Bosoms” is as much about the friendship between the two co-hosts as it is about the stated premise of the show. Melody and Erin love each other in a totally adorable, friendship-crush sort of way. They cry tears of empathy for each other, giggle at each other until they snort, and are occasionally rendered speechless by the things that come out of the other’s mouth. (For instance, when Melody discussed how she googled “crotchless leggings” because her legs get cold when she sleeps but she wants to let things breathe down there.)

Their love for each other is apparent despite their different lives. They live on opposite sides of the country. Melody is married with a toddler. Erin is not married and has no children. While being at different stages in their lives could cause some friendships to grow thin, that’s not the case here. There’s great chemistry between the two of them and, honestly, I’d be happy to hear them discussing anything.

However, I’m thrilled that they’re discussing romance novels because they do it in such an open-hearted, open-minded, all-inclusive way. Both Melody and Erin are firmly of the philosophy of “you do you.” There is zero judgment in any of the things that turn the characters on in these books, and what might turn the readers on. It’s a very liberated, feminist approach to sexuality that comes across as honest and refreshing, and not at all tawdry or illicit. Melody, a former sex educator, in particular brings a healthy, consensual approach to sex that is just plain empowering.

I also love that they close each episode with a segment on self-love. They discuss things that make them happy or that got them through a hard week. It can be something small, like a cup of lemon tea, or something more moving, like having a dance party with your toddler.

Start with this episode

Because the podcast is self-produced and self-edited, it took a few episodes to hit its stride. I would start with episode five where they discuss the YA book “A Shade of Vampire” by Bella Forrest. This episode hits all the best parts: their friendship, their approach to healthy sex, and their humor.

Once you’re caught up, go back and listen to the earlier episodes, though be aware that the sound quality is a bit rough in the first few episodes.

If you like this podcast, you might also like…

I’ve already mentioned and reviewed “By the Book,” but that podcast is a natural corollary to this one if you enjoy listening to strong female friends. For another peek into the world of romance – but in a less explicit way – try the Modern Love podcast.   

The details: Listen with earbuds due to explicit language and sexual situations.

Subscribe to “Heaving Bosoms” here.

Want more podcast suggestions? Find all our picks here.

What We’re Listening To: Story Pirates

What do whoopee cushions, dino bank robbers, and dogs’ rights have in common? They’re all subjects of the hilarious podcast Story Pirates.

What do whoopee cushions, dino bank robbers, and dogs’ rights have in common? They’re all subjects of the hilarious podcast for kids (and the grownups who love them) by Gimlet Media: Story Pirates.
It’s on heavy rotation in our household, with my kids requesting some of the episodes by name. And on more than one occasion around the dinner table, we have sung “Some day … some day you will turn into spaghetti!” (From the episode “The Girl Who Turned into Spaghetti,” obvi.) Because, well, my daughter seriously might turn into spaghetti. Apparently it’s been known to happen.

What it’s about

Each episode of Story Pirates is done in three parts. In the first part, the two hosts – Lee and Peter – read a story written by a child. The kid can be as young as two, right on up to tween. Given the age of the authors, the stories are not always linear and are often adorable.
In the second part, talented improv actors take the original story and turn it into sketch comedy. The fundamental story remains unchanged, but the actors take liberty with dialogue, often add in a song or two, and generally make podcast mayhem.
Finally, one of the hosts interviews the author of the story to hear a bit more about the child’s inspiration for the story, and a bit what life is like where they are.

Why we love it

The kids love this podcast because it’s hilarious. I mean, a story about whoopee cushions? You can bet my kids are all over that.
But the podcast is also empowering. This is a podcast where the kids write the stories! I mean, how cool is that? It has even inspired my daughter to submit a few stories of her own for the show. Her “The Big Pirates Steal Mate” was an instant classic, though, alas, not picked up by the Story Pirates crew.
Despite (or perhaps because of?) the potty humor, I love this podcast for those reasons too, but also because of the interviews with the kids at the end. The host, Lee, has a way with kids that gets them to open up about little aspects of their lives in Iowa or Minnesota, or wherever they are. It’s a unique opportunity to catch glimpses of kids’ lives, what they love, and why they love to create.

Start with this episode

We have two absolute favorite episodes in our house. First, as mentioned above, “The Girl Who Turned into Spaghetti.” It’s about – spoiler alert – a girl who ate so much spaghetti that one day she woke up to find that she actually was spaghetti. Double spoiler alert – it all turns out okay in the end, after a surprising twist that her mother also turned into spaghetti when she was a kid!
Our other favorite is “Dino Bank Robbers Who Actually Stole for Charity.” Perhaps you think you can tell what the episode will be about based on the title? Well, yes. You’re right. But oh my gosh, this one is so funny. My favorite line, when the police officer dino tells bank robber T. Rex to put his arms up: “This is as far as they go!”

If you like this podcast, you might also like:

Check out The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, a serialized science-fiction podcast where you follow along with the adventures of eight-year-old Finn and his friends Abigail, Elias, and Vale as they explore space, meet aliens, and try to prevent their planet from being vaporized. You can contribute your own ideas to this show, too.

The details

Rating: Listen with kids. Specifically recommended for ages three to 103.
Subscribe to Story Pirates on iTunes here.
Find our review of another great podcast for kids, Circle Round, here.

What We're Listening To: Circle Round Podcast

While I’m a huge fan of podcasts for adults, there’s a special place in my heart for kids’ podcasts. I mean, really, what’s not to love? You can keep your kids occupied for 20 minutes with a great story that you don’t have to read to them. That means that you can, oh, I don’t know, go to the bathroom? Clean up the cat’s hairball from this morning? Or even join them for some quality time together. And all while avoiding the guilt over screen time!

One of my favorite podcasts for kids is new to the scene. It’s called Circle Round, and it’s produced by the NPR Boston affiliate WBUR. Here’s what you need to know.

What it’s about

Circle Round is a weekly podcast that presents 10 to 20 minute folktales. Out of all of the stories so far (14 at the time of writing this), I’ve only heard two of them before, and I read a lot of children’s books. So chances are that you will get to hear something new.

The stories come from around the world and embrace many different cultures. They also all have a moral, although not a hit-you-over-the-head moral. In general, the stories practice and teach inclusivity, tolerance, and kindness. And, spoiler alert, they all have happy endings.

The podcast is hosted by Rebecca Sheir, who also narrates each story. Each character is played by an actor, with at least one being played by a well-known actor like Jason Alexander or Sela Ward.

Why we love it

I have three kids, ages three, five, and seven, and this is the one podcast that they all ask for by name every week. Despite their different ages, they all get a lot out of the podcast. My youngest loves the voices. My oldest loves to try to guess what will happen next.

My middle child’s favorite part is my favorite part too. At the end of each podcast, the host turns the story over to us. “Now it’s your turn,” Sheir says, and poses a question to us that is related to the story. These questions can range from the practical to the more philosophical.

For instance, after the episode “Why the Ocean is Salty,” a morality tale from Asia about the importance of knowing when enough is enough, Sheir asks us to think about what we would wish for if we had a magic jar that would fill up with whatever we wanted. 

In “The Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle,” an English tale reminiscent of “The Fisherman and the Sea,” Sheir asks us to think about what or who we are thankful for, draw a picture of it, and then ask someone else what they are thankful for. The questions are great for sparking discussion and, often, for feeling good about ourselves and those around us.

Start with this episode

You cannot go wrong with episode 14, “The Shepherd’s Disguise.” It’s a story from Germany about an advisor to the queen who steals ideas from others in order to make himself look good and ultimately pays the price. The advisor is expertly and hilariously played by Tony Hale, who plays Julia Louis Dreyfus’s assistant on Veep and Buster Bluth on Arrested Development. It didn’t matter what he said, his intonation and delivery was so perfect we were all laughing hysterically.

I would caution that if you have easily-scared kids, you might want to avoid episode 5, “The Rice Cakes and the Oni.” While it is ultimately funny, it does involve a boy and his mother being captured by monsters. It took my daughter a few tries before we made it through.

If you like this podcast, you might also like:

Stories Podcast is another great choice for families who love a good story. These are almost all told by a single narrator and has an original song performed in each episode.

The details

Rating: Listen with kids. Specifically recommended for age three to 10 , although I’m thirty-(cough cough), and still enjoy it.

Subscribe to Circle Round on iTunes here.

Want more podcast suggestions? Find all our picks here

What We’re Listening To: "By the Book" Podcast

Each week we suggest a new podcast to add to your playlist. Up this week: the half reality show, half self-help podcast “By the Book.”

Like pretty much everyone else, when Sarah Koenig’s “Serial” podcast came out, I was hooked. The gripping tale of the murder of a high schooler, and the possibly wrongly-convicted (or sociopathic) culprit was addictive in the best way. It was like a mystery novel that you couldn’t put down. But you didn’t have to put it down, because you could listen to it while getting in your workout, tidying up the ever-growing mountain of Lego bricks, or commuting to work.
“Serial” got me hooked, and the abundance of really excellent – and free – podcasts out there have fed my obsession. So I am excited to get to share with you, over the next few months, some of my favorite podcast discoveries. I have listened to scores of podcasts for kids, real crime podcasts, just plain fun podcasts, NSFW podcasts, and yes – parenting podcasts. Every few weeks, I’ll tell you about one of the best out there, often a hidden gem, and why it’s worth listening to.
To start out, let me tell you about “By the Book,” produced by Panoply. “By the Book” is tagged as half reality show, half self-help podcast. But that really doesn’t tell the half of it. (Ba-dum-dum.) More than anything, this is a podcast about relationships and friendship and that nagging worry that many women (read: I) have that we just aren’t good enough. But also guys – it’s funny!

What it’s about

The premise of “By the Book” is that serial self-improver and comedienne Jolenta Greenberg and her more skeptical friend Kristen Meinzer dive deep into a different self-help book every episode. For two weeks, they follow every tenet of the book, from the helpful to the downright bizarre, in an effort to improve their lives, their bodies, their memory, their relationships, and whatever else life throws out them.
Although not an official part of the cast, the duo’s husbands play an important role in the show, as they help them along on their journey, offer words of support, and occasionally get roped in. (Most memorably in the episode on Marie Kondo’s best-seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” when Kristen’s husbands goes apocalyptic about having to open a drawer to take out the soap. “Did you say thank you, soap?” Kristen asks helpfully.)

Why we love it

True confession: I used to be a bit of a self-help book addict. As a new parent, when I had that “oh-my-gosh-these-things-don’t-come-with-instruction-manuals” moment (or years) of panic, I read every parenting book I could get my hands on. Through my reading, I learned that you should never co-sleep, that you should always co-sleep, that you should take time for yourself, that you shouldn’t take too much time for yourself (because attachment parenting), that you should never say “good job,” that you should encourage your child, and don’t even get me started on the toddler years.
By the time I got to kid number three, I settled on the parenting philosophy of “keep them alive,” and let the self-help books go by the wayside. But this podcast speaks to that desire (doubt?) that compels the search for betterment.
The best part of this podcast, though, is the relationships. Kristen’s relationship with her husband is almost too perfect, but you love them for that (even as you envy them, maybe just a little). But it’s the relationship between the co-hosts that really makes the show. They so clearly care about each other and see the wonderfulness in each other that they are trying so hard to achieve. Their honesty with themselves and with us make you feel like they’re your friends too. (BTW Kristen and Jolenta, if you’re reading this, my contact info is below – call me!)

Start with this episode

All of the episodes are worth a listen, but the one that got me truly hooked is the episode on “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” The book was triggering for Kristen, who struggled with disordered eating in college. The book took her right back to that place. Her honesty about her struggle – as well as Jolenta’s and Kristen’s husband concern and support for her – will have you in tears while nodding along with her.

If you like this podcast, you might also like…

“Try “My Favorite Murder.” The podcast also features two women friends, with the draw as much about their relationship and rapport as the underlying show.

The details

Rating: Listen with teens/earbuds, mostly due to explicit language.
Subscribe to “By the Book” on iTunes.
Want more podcast suggestions? Find all our picks here