It’s time again for a few nonfiction podcast recommendations! I hope you enjoy this reality-focused audio as much as I have.
The “aack!” in the title of Aack Cast! may be enough to identify it to those of us who read the funny pages in the 1990s—or 1970s, ’80s, or 2000s. It was the catchphrase, more or less, of Cathy, the star of a comic strip written by Cathy Guisewite that produced 34 years of comic strips, plus merchandise, a TV show, and sponsorships.
I read Cathy every morning in middle and high school, along with Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield. I think that I was drawn in by an adult—even it was just a cartoon adult—who openly shared their anxiety.
Jamie Loftus’s podcast is an exploration of Cathy, its influence, and its creator, and the best podcast I’ve heard so far this year. Aack Cast! perfectly balances material from the strip, historical context, and insight from Cathy Guisewite herself. I learned about Cathy and boomers and feminism.
The podcast uses voice actors to reenact strips, which was a little odd at first (probably because I had a version of Cathy’s voice in my head) but quickly grew on me, and the theme song is still jaunting around in my head.
Aack Cast! begins with the sniping and snark directed toward Cathy on Twitter when the strip ended in 2010, and quickly reveals that kind of response to be inaccurate.
That’s not to say that this is uncritical fan service; Loftus is not fond of some characters and plots, and Cathy Guisewite herself has a complicated relationship with her own creation.
Aack Cast! is cultural criticism that appreciates the work but treats it seriously, and helped me understand and appreciate Guisewite’s work even more, as it’s both funny and acutely subversive. Highly recommended!
I read Nick Quah’s recommendation of Half-Vaxxed last week and then listened to the whole thing one morning this weekend.
It’s a quick but through, engaging accounting of a ludicrous story: How a grad student with no medical background suddenly became in charge of all of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts.
WHYY reporter Nina Feldman reported the story as it was unfolding, so there’s an eyewitness feel to some of the five half-hour episodes, though it’s a story told in retrospect that also takes a few steps back to look at the larger context.
This is not a story about vaccination or even COVID, but about the rise and fall of an organization and its leader, and who is given trust and who has to fight for it.
Queen of the Con: The Irish Heiress
Queen of the Con: The Irish Heiress takes place in Hollywood, but is not about the Hollywood con queen whose story has been told in Vanity Fair and in the podcast Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen.
And while it’s about a con, I wouldn’t classify it as true crime. This is just the story of a best friend who turned out to be very different. What pulled me in and kept me listening is the narrator, a reality TV show producer.
Johnathan Walton has an extensive resume working as a story producer on shows such as Shark Tank, American Ninja Warrior, American Chopper, Booze Traveler, and Beverly Hills Pawn. He became friends with Marianne “Mair” Smyth when they lived in the same apartment complex.
A lot of people talk about how charming Smyth is, but that’s not what comes through here, perhaps because the podcast starts with Walton angrily saying, “She’s the fucking devil. I regret ever meeting her. We all do.”
Walton tells the story of how Mair Smyth went from BFF to Beelzebub, and talks to people who knew them both, including another reality show producer who’s a close friend. The full story has been told, but the podcast allows us to hear directly from the people who knew and were affected by Mair’s actions.
Queen of the Con acknowledges that some of the audio we’re hearing has been recreated, and most of those recreations are obvious, which is to say they are not great. It is, however, fascinating to hear two reality TV show producers reenact emotional conversations and sound as hollow as reality TV show cast members who were fed lines.
In podcast audio, I usually prefer a less-is-more approach; I cannot stand the beloved podcast Radiolab and its cacophony of sound effects. I share that because Queen of the Con has about 50 percent too many sound effects for me; I don’t need to hear the sound of fire to accompany someone telling me it’s hot in Los Angeles.
But while the presentation occasionally fumbles, the story is compelling, and there’s actual non-recreated raw audio in episode three (the most-recent episode I’ve heard) that ensured I’ll keep listening.
New episodes come out on Thursdays, and as the story unfolds, I’m hoping we’ll also hear more about how a reality TV show producer actually investigated his best friend, but ultimately decided to produce that story.