The podcast episode to listen to learn more about North Korea

tl;dr — For a good introductory look at North Korean society, I recommend the first segment of the second episode of Vox Media’s new show Worldly. Find this episode by scrolling down to the Worldly section on the Vox.com Podcasts Page.

As the United States and North Korea “rattle sabers” at each other, as the chances of a U.S. preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear capabilities seem to grow, and as our news shows dwell more than ever before in my lifetime on the grim consequences of retaliation — the North leveling their neighbor South Korea’s capital of Seoul, and a terrible escalation to total war that would kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of civilians — you may be wondering how we got here.

I recommend listening to the second episode of a new show from Vox Media called Worldly. The episode is titled “Why North Korea is scary, comical, and horrifying — all at the same time”. You’ll get a sense of the Orwellian experience of being a North Korean citizen, the state’s brutal oppression, its leader’s Bond villain-like qualities, and a bit of the history between the state, its neighbors, and the U.S. There is far more to learn about the rogue nation than fits into 32 minutes, but this segment makes the best of that time to get you started.

(The episode’s second and final segment is devoted to Israel’s changing dynamics regarding which sect of Judaism influences policy, how the state treats women, and who it consider to be Jewish. It does just as well on this topic if you’re interested.)

On those merits, I give this specific episode 4 PODCATS (😺😺😺😺).

It’s a bit premature to judge a show overall when it’s only on its third episode, but so far Worldly only rates 3 PODCATS (😼😼😼). If they want to improve, Wordly’s co-hosts need to start sounding like they’re having fun.

Vox Media, better known for pioneering (the wonderful) “explainer journalism” through their Vox.com news property, started producing podcasts in October 2015 with The Weeds, a weekly wonkishly-detailed show generally looking at domestic policy issues. Their growing portfolio of podcasts includes The Ezra Klein Show (surprisingly good, a standout in the genre of “A smart person you like interviews a guest each week on whatever topic provided the guest is also smart”) and I Think You’re Interesting (I’ve yet to give this a listen, even though they’re 19 episodes in).

The Weeds is strong because its three co-hosts Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias sound like they’re having a really good time. This is built from their great mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work, plus their high comfort level from being colleagues for years. They crack jokes that send each other into genuine laughter, give each other a hard time, and often enjoying being sarcastic, moody, and fatalistic together — all without ever detracting from the quality of information they put out. On the contrary, they make discussions of important but dry topics fun to stick around through. That is getting it right.

Worldly’s co-hosts are there yet, probably because the show is so new. Yochi Dreazen, Jennifer Williams, and Zack Beauchamp seem like they’re still getting to know each other, and still establishing themselves. I find myself oddly bored even while learning from their discussions, which is unusual and unpleasant, and a very bad thing for a show in the bountiful market of podcasts.

I’ll bet some of Worldly’s hosts may feel imposter syndrome (which is unwarranted), and I expect that this will all get better with time as they get into a groove. After all, the first episode of The Weeds was titled “Ezra, Matt, and Sarah try to podcast”.

But, I’m just as concerned that this dryer sensibility may be due to structural factors that won’t change. The Crooked Media network’s foreign policy show has a similar flaw: Whereas Crooked’s flagship Pod Save America is three guys clearly having a really time together while analyzing domestic news, its foreign-focused Pod Save The World is far more serious, to its detriment.

It might be that there is something about the kinds of people drawn to foreign policy that leads to this dry tone. Or, it might be that flagship shows benefit from first-out-of-the-gate energy, or from founder energy. (Klein and Yglesias are Vox co-founders, and Kliff is a Vox Senior Editor.) I think this is more likely, and if so, the producers of Worldly and Pod Save the World should both consider how to overcome that.

Despite its dryness, Wordly is already on my listen-to-each-episode list. I’m interested in foreign policy, and it’s the best foreign policy-focused current events news analysis podcast I’m aware of. If I were grading on the curve with its peers, it would rate far better than 3 PODCATS.

(Pod Save America and Pod Save the World have other flaws that I intend to review in the future; Into the Weeds and Worldly are both far better.)


As of this post, Vox.com’s page dedicated to Worldly’s episode notes is incomplete. (Get yer act together, Ezra and crew!) You can find this episode from the Vox.com Podcasts Page, instead.

Or, you know, find it “wherever you get your podcasts”.

Worldly: 3 PODCATS (😼😼😼)

 

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