Podcast review: Revolutions

Revolutions is one of those podcasts that you hear about years after it started and then find yourself devouring episode after episode. Kind of like binge watching shows on Netflix.

I first heard of Revolutions on the NPR Politics podcast. One of the regular presenters shared a podcast that she had found very enjoyable: a historical podcast on revolutions around the world. Ooooh! That sounds interesting, I thought.

I have devoured the first year of backlogged Revolutions podcasts with no sign of letting up. Yes, they are interesting. Very.

The podcaster, Mike Duncan, makes history wonderfully engaging, full of anecdotes, facts, and commentary. I find myself laughing at descriptions he paints or emitting an exclamation of surprise about a tidbit of information that he shares.

In one case, he described a German officer who was attempting to train Americans to be soldiers. He spoke no English and the Americans spoke no German. Communication occurred through French. (He spoke French. Someone translated from French into English.) Often he would get frustrated or enraged at the American soldiers, turning red in the face and swearing in German—which the American soldiers found absolutely hilarious.

In another case, he related an observation by this same German officer: that European soldiers immediately obey when they are told to do something. In contrast, Americans want to be told why they need to do something before they will do it. I spit out whatever I was drinking. Some things, I thought, do not change with time. Imagine Americans not doing something until they knew why?! (I’d add that Americans need to agree with the reason.)

Revolutions are divided into, well, different revolutions. The podcast starts with the English Civil Wars and continues with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and others.(I’m currently in the throes of the French Revolution.) The various episodes describe the political/social/historical situation that led up to the revolution under discussion, the revolution itself, and the immediate aftermath.

The podcast has definitely increased my knowledge and understanding of history and events. For example, while some names of the English Civil Wars are familiar to me (such as Oliver Cromwell), I was pretty much in the dark about England’s civil wars. (There were two civil wars back to back?!)

When I hear names in other contexts, I can now place them in time and understand the historical context around them. (Oh, King Charles II? The king that was invited back from exile after the English attempt at a republic failed? Oh, the Howes? Those brothers who led British troops in the American Revolution?)

The episodes on the American Revolution solidified, expanded, and corrected what knowledge I did have about my country. Who knew that Washington was the master of the graceful retreat? What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?

The episodes also piqued my interest. I found myself picking up books about the American Revolution and noticed nice confluences between the book I was reading and the podcast. I am now feeling yearnings to re-read political theory from undergraduate classes. Anyone up for Burke, Paine, or Locke?

Lafayette, who popped up in the American Revolution episodes, reappears in the French Revolution episodes that I am currently listening to. (I am waiting for Thomas Paine to make an appearance in the later French Revolution.)

Only two and a half more years of backlogged episodes to go! (Or only two and a half revolutions, depending on how you look at it.) And then I can turn to his initial podcast, The History of Rome, which ran from 2007 to 2012 and has only 191 episodes.

Check out either podcast—Revolutions or The History of Rome. (I can’t vouch for The History of Rome yet, but in 2010 it won Best Educational Podcast.) You won’t be disappointed.

Podcast review: Serial, season one (2014)

I recently heard coworkers talking about this series of podcasts. And then I heard the host and producer interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. I was intrigued and thought about dipping my toe in to see how it was.

I ended up plunging in head-first. The real-life story is that engrossing.

Serial is a series of 12 podcasts that debuted October 2014 as a spin-off from This American Life. The host, Sarah Koenig, as an investigative journalist, looks into the 1999 strangulation of a high school student and the subsequent incarceration of the newly deceased’s ex-boyfriend.

Sarah has ongoing telephone conversations with Adnan Syed from his prison. She reenacts the events of the day, walking through the timeline presented in court. She interviews different people: Adnan, Jay (the sole witness), jurors, lawyers, detectives, and those that knew Hae Min Lin (the deceased). She tracks down any item in the records that wasn’t followed up on or that seems suspicious, such as girl who could corroborate Adnan’s alibi or the lack of DNA testing done.

Through her investigation, we learn things about the judicial system and how police investigations are carried out. For example, Sarah tests the hypothesis that memory is reliable, which is a bit shocking when you consider how much stock we place on witness accounts and their memories in criminal investigations, at trials, and in life in general.

Sarah also discusses her feelings, the ups and down, the roller coaster she is on. One minute she thinks Adnan is innocent, and then something suggests that there is no way that he is innocent, and then something else suggests that there is no way that he committed the murder. And on and on.

And she discusses her perspectives on Adnan’s reactions and feelings. Fifteen years after the conviction, the wounds for him are being reopened for him to suffer through again.

It is disconcerting to consider the amount of human error in legal judgments. And what Sarah is investigating and discussing is not a hypothetical. It is a real case with a dead high school woman and a convicted man behind bars for life. Swirling around them are numerous lives that were affected to varying degrees…from the friends, to the parents of Hae, to the guy who helped bury Hae’s body.

Both the interview with Terri Gross and the podcast series Serial are well worth a listen. The first season of Serial is over and you can binge listen to all 12 episodes (which is what I did). 2015 brings a new season…and a new story.