The best podcast you won’t tell your friends about

Rating: 😻😻😻😻😻 PODCATS

I’m not the first to observe that podcasting is an especially intimate medium. Rich gentle voices recorded close to a microphone sound confessional and personal. Listening through headphones is not only personal by definition, it also exploits your auditory perception to locate the source of the sound in the middle of your head. Call it the Rule of Intimacy.

What makes The Heart rank among the very best podcasts is how it builds upon that intimacy.

Recommending The Heart feels a bit like recommending a vibrator.

Each edition opens with the host’s quiet, syncopated introduction, usually set to the show’s understated theme, a simple yet energetic bass riff with a heartbeat’s casual, steady rhythm.

“From PRX’s Radiotopia… Welcome… to The Heart. I’m Kaitlin Prest.”

Kaitlin intones playful, sensuous delight into each. careful. word, evoking pillow talk… like she’s tickling your ear with a whisper and is about to lick chocolate off your neck.

The Heart describes itself as “an audio art project about intimacy and humanity… comprised of a community of badass writers, radio makers and artists who make personal documentary work about their bodies and their loves.”

It is a show that invites you into its producers bedrooms, not to titillate you, but to empathize with and liberate you by sharing everything with you, a fellow sexual creature.

The Heart grew out of an earlier project called Audio Smut, of which (I think all) the back episodes are still available in The Heart’s feed. Audio Smut celebrated the variety of human sexual experiences and delighted in flipping the bird at all manner of puritanism and prudery.

It succeeded at subverting the very idea of obscenity by rushing into obscene spaces — the intersection of sex and scatalogy, for example — and throwing shameless audio parties there.

Audio Smut wasn’t afraid to be pornographic. (It would be fun to listen to back episodes and calculate its ratio of recorded orgasms-per-episode.) But it rose to the status of art and stayed there by presenting sexuality as a bigger part of our lives than we acknowledge, full of joy, confusion, banality, pain, and trauma. All of it.

Audio Smut evolved into The Heart and joined Radiotopia in 2014, a perfect fit for the network’s brand of top-shelf sound design, creative format, and immersive listening.

Just like the earlier project, The Heart centers non-binary gender, non-traditional relationships, sex positivity, and queer experience. What changed was its scope and ambitions. It would have been difficult for Audio Smut to continue much longer without repeating itself (which it never did, excluding reruns in-between seasons).

The Heart lives in the house that Audio Smut painted. Having established a sex positive world for listeners, the producers were able to start taking that for granted, and explore next-level questions and stories in new depth. It turned down the “yay for all things sex!”, began to tackle issues, and added more editorial voice.

A few seasons ago they focused on producer Mitra Kaboli and Kaitlin’s relationship. That culminated in an event where they were (maybe?) married, teasing listeners a bit with whether this was real, or metaphor. Is that your business? Does it matter? Well, no… but your curiosity is understandable. You the listener have been invited into relationship with these people.

More recently The Heart has featured episodes looking at sex and disabilities, a mini-series on feminine-presenting heterosexual-acting men, a series called “Ghost” examining what lingers when a love dies, and the haunting “Silent Evidence” series documenting a woman’s investigation into childhood abuse.

I suppose every episode of this show ever deserves a trigger warning for something, but these next three paragraphs certainly do for grey areas of sexual assault.

As I write this, The Heart is in the middle a mini-series called “No”. It documents the messy evolution of Kaitlin’s power to say “no” throughout her life. Its dramatic reenactments are as effective as they are brutal, retracing Kaitlin’s real life experiences with men who… let’s say pushed her limits.

It is remarkable, even heroic how Kaitlin avoid applying value-laden language to these men and events. Withholding her judgement is a masterstroke, leaving you the listener with unresolved tension and some intense emotions to work through.

And I don’t know whether this was intended or if I’m projecting here, but the nuance and depth to this mini-series are a righteous rebuke of our culture’s disfunction in this political moment, with our Rapist in Chief.

“No” deserves awards for how astonishingly honest and unafraid it is to force you to deal with this stuff. (That The Heart can still astonish me with its honesty at all is itself astonishing.)

The show’s discourse is light years beyond mainstream conversations about sex and gender. It has received some critical acclaim and enjoys some popularity, but the world would be better of if it had a wider audience. Too many people miss out on the pure pleasure of listening to these episodes, not to mention personal growth from encountering its ideas. It presents true and varied experiences that simply aren’t represented elsewhere, proof positive of the value of diverse voices. (It would be impossible for cisgendered straight men to make this show.)

Reviews on iTunes criticize The Heart for self-obsession. True, its producers often indulge in their own experiences, but they’ve never repeated themselves, and frequently feature others. Having a main cast of characters is a device that builds the show’s intimacy.

Others find fault with the sound design, which often features voices “too quiet to hear”, presumably over road noise during a listener’s commute. That’s laughable for a concept that revolves around the bedroom. The Heart requires the time, attention, and quiet moments you would devote to a new lover. And probably better quality headphones.

Still others complain the host is too “self-important”. I can think of a few reasons why someone might decide this: If sex isn’t important to them, if they’re against sexual liberation for women and queers, if they are themselves repressed, if they reflexively find art that explores ego pretentious, and/or if they don’t actually value every individual’s universe of experiences.

Those listeners aren’t likely to agree with me on much.

This isn’t a show to speed through. It isn’t for multitasking. It rejects your emotional distance. It invites you.

Be willing to be vulnerable, and The Heart will seduce you.

No other podcast with this kind of subject matter commands my respect to this degree, save fellow Radiotopia show Love+Radio, which is far less focused on sex, but similarly unafraid to probe strange, delicate places, and the hilarious, wonderful call-in show The Savage Lovecast, which I also recommend.

No other show is high art, at the pinnacle of the medium, and an erotic experience just to listen to. Only The Heart.

This post is part of the thread: Podcast Reviews – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.