Each week, The Moth Radio Hour delivers true stories that cut to the heart of life’s wonders, tragedies, and inherent humor. Since the group’s start in 1997, The Moth has held nearly 4,000 live events and its stages have seen the telling of over 34,000 stories. Some of the very best of these stories — about finding the strength to face the impossible — have been collected in Occasional Magic, available now in bookstores and online.
We sat down with The Moth’s executive producer, Sarah Austin Jenness, to discuss her favorite podcasts. Jenness’s eye for effective and innovative storytelling, honed over her years of experience at The Moth, shines through in her recommendations.
Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me
I’ve tuned in for years to Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. There’s a reason this show has been on for decades. To me, it’s like joining a family gathering of quirky mega nerds. I love the rotating panelists, and the “found” humor as they riff off of each other. I especially love the silly limericks and the “current events” speed round at the end. I answer as they go, to see how much I’ve been able to engage in world news that week. (Results vary.) Many of the guests have also told Moth stories – and it’s fun to hear them on air.
Uncivil, with Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt, is astounding. Catherine Burns, The Moth’s Artistic Director, turned me on to this podcast (and both hosts have also told stories at The Moth). The series is a deliberate effort to unearth and shed light on a “truer” history of the Civil War. It’s like going back in time for the real story. The soundscapes in every episode are captivating – and their recent episode “The Ring,” about spies in Richmond and a hero named Mary Bowser who lived inside Jefferson Davis’s home – unfolds like a thriller. This series reminds me a lot of many discussions we’ve had at The Moth – about which narratives have been left out and go untold. Stories we choose to tell (and not tell) directly impact the world’s memory of historic events and these decisions can be detrimental. Stories have power and the Uncivil team impresses with every episode they produce.
S-Town is a work of art. I was in Kenya, facilitating Moth Global workshops last March – and I listened to the entire series during our travel. Brian Reed’s line at the top of Chapter 1 is meta. He says: “I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening – you’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere. And all you’ve got are these vague witness marks which might not even mean what you think they mean so at every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time – or not.” From a structural standpoint, I look for a strong resolution at the end of Moth stories I direct, but that’s not always how life works. Life is messy, fraught, and sometimes unexplainable – and that’s the thrust of this series. In the weeks and months that followed my binge listening of S-Town, I’ve thought of John B. McLemore a lot, the maze, the murder, and that tattoo parlor. The series was so alive, it now lingers like a ghost.
Death, Sex and Money
Death, Sex and Money are all things I like to talk about. The frankness that Anna Sale and her team bring to these taboo issues is refreshing. Anna asks tough questions — but kindly and directly. She asks the questions I often have but may be too self-conscious to ask in real life. I love the variation in the episodes and the editing – there are sometimes pregnant pauses while her subject reflects on the answer to her question, and I love to hear silence in interviews. Their “Opportunity Costs” series – especially the Friendship and Fertility episode – is touching and provocative. The “Hot Dates” episodes are tragically fun, and the 2017 episodes that explored grief were profound and relatable to me.
WTF with Marc Maron
I love long-form interview shows like Fresh Air or WTF with Marc Maron. His interview with Darren Aronofsky, where Darren reveals that addiction is the “hero” of Requiem for a Dream, was incredibly satisfying for a story nerd like me. I’m also interested in Alex Blumberg’s new show Without Fail, because with any Moth story you need to tell on yourself and risk failure. No risk, no reward.
Jack Conway is the editor of Podcast Review