Ty Burr

Podcasts: the good, the bad, and the finding their groove

The theft of artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the subject of “Empty Frames: A Heist Story.”
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file
The theft of artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the subject of “Empty Frames: A Heist Story.”

The great thing about podcasts is that anyone can make one, right?

Maybe so, but making a good one is another matter entirely.

One of my resolutions for 2018 has been to duck out of the movies/TV sphere and do some more watching with my ears — to sample more podcasts than I usually do and stick with the ones that work. Those would be the ones that engage, inform, entertain, and take me somewhere I wasn’t expecting to go.


How do you tell the ones that don’t work? Easy: They stick a few cohosts in a recording studio with little idea of what they’re talking about or not very much to say and a self-impressed way of saying it. Based on some new podcasts available through iTunes and other venues, I believe this is actually becoming a genre.

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For instance, “Empty Frames: A Heist Story,” a podcast from Crawlspace media and Audioboom that launched last week, devotes itself to an intricate and endlessly fascinating subject: The 1990 theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Yet the first episode is deeply unpromising, with cohosts Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna coming off as two genial millennials who just learned about the heist last month and haven’t finished researching it.

The segment wanders without focus, the discussion of the paintings is laughably amateurish, and I couldn’t figure out what Tim and Lance’s extra-special mystery guest, “Mr. K.,” has to do with the case other than that he’s read a lot about it. Maybe future episodes will clear that up; if so, someone let me know. “Stranglers,” a 2016 true-crime serial about the Boston Strangler, or the current “Atlanta Monster,” about the 1970s Atlanta killings, are the far better, more professional bets. (,, (For the record: I wrote this before finding out that the Globe will be launching its own upcoming podcast on the Gardner heist, in partnership with WBUR. When it’s available, I’ll offer my honest opinion of that as well.)

Even more debilitating is “Forked Up: A Thug Kitchen Podcast,” a new arrival from production studio PodcastOne. It’s ostensibly an hour of food talk cohosted by Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway, authors of several bestsellers on the theme of eating well on a budget. In practice, it’s a mostly calorie-free infomercial for their books, interspersed with humblebragging about their social media success. Davis laughs at her own comments far too often — nerves, probably — and Holloway plays the too-cool-for-school dude. Eventually they invite in Buzzfeed “personality” Nick Guillory for more self-congratulation, and then the three sit around watching a video. On a podcast. (

Is it too much to ask one of these hosts to have a knowledge of the subject at hand? “Punch up the Jam,” which kicked off late last year, features two young comics, Miel Bredouw and Demi Adejuyigbe, reverse-engineering classic pop songs and making them comically “better.” For the Valentine’s Day episode, they deconstruct Elton John’s “Your Song,” for which they’re joined by the two guys that run their podcast production company — honestly, the show is like sitting around a dorm room with people who aren’t nearly as funny as they think. At least Bredouw’s pop-culture literacy extends beyond the 21st century; she’s the only person here who knows John wrote “Candle in the Wind” for Marilyn Monroe, not Princess Di. Reader, I bailed. (


To be fair, these are mostly new shows, and it can take a number of episodes to find one’s groove. “Edge of Fame,” a joint offering from WBUR and the Washington Post, gives Post culture-beat writer Geoff Edgers free rein to profile celebrities. Edgers used to work at the Globe, and he’s a colleague and a friend. That said, the series’ first official episode (not counting a preview show with comedian Norm Macdonald) is a visit with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay as she gears up for the release of “A Wrinkle in Time,” and it shows a promise that’s only partly realized. The line between journalistic profile and feature-article puff is always a hazy one, and Edgers hasn’t quite landed on the right side here. (It doesn’t help that DuVernay, a former PR person, keeps her private life strictly private.) Ironically, “Edge of Fame” needs more edge. Stay tuned; I bet it gets some. (

Sometimes a podcast can get it right off the bat, as seems the case with “Endless Thread,” a co-production of WBUR and Reddit. Reddit is the info-feed/social community — a.k.a. “The Front Page of the Internet” — where everyone under 30 gets their news and almost no one over 40 ever goes. The idea is so simple it’s practically insulting: strip-mine the endless pages of Reddit for interesting human stories. But those stories are there, brought to your ears by cohosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson and a lot of average Redditors and readers. The Valentine’s Day show features a romance between two pro-wrestling fans, a box of parental love letters that had me in tears, and a sweet tale of two anonymous teenagers in love as told by a third-party observer. Good stuff. (

Then there are the podcasts that have been around a bit and proven their bona fides, and I have to confess that either I’m a sucker for a British accent or they just know how to do these things well in England. “The Butterfly Effect With Jon Ronson,” a binge-able seven episodes that went live last year on and iTunes, lets the dulcet-voiced, impish-minded journalist and author (“So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”) follow a trail of seemingly unrelated events that result in the takeover of the Internet by free porn, the wholesale transformation of the smut trade, the rise of “bespoke porn,” and much, much more. Ronson isn’t so much salacious as deeply inquisitive (and really funny), and he asks all the right questions. I’m only on episode 2, and we’ve already gotten to the guy who paid women to get naked and burn his stamp collection while being filmed. I’m hooked. (www.jonronson/butterfly.html)

Another goodie featuring nearly incomprehensible accents: “Soundtracking With Edith Bowman,” which plays to my movie-loving heart by allowing Scottish radio DJ Bowman to focus on the scores and songs we hear in film soundtracks. Curiously, she mostly avoids composers and spends time chatting amiably with directors, which pays off with detailed discussions of how music is used in the larger artistic picture. Subjects since the podcast launched in August 2016 include writer-director Rian Johnson of “The Last Jedi,” Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, and more. Great talk, lots of music, not enough online playlists. Worth it to hear “Darkest Hour” director Joe Wright describe star Gary Oldman twerking to Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” while on set in costume as Winston Churchill. Can that go on the DVD, please? (

Lastly, there’s “The Allusionist,” a long-running Radiotopia podcast that in each brisk 20-minute episode takes a peculiarity of the English language and has great smart fun with it. London-based host Helen Zaltzman and her guests recently discussed the mysteries and farce of online-dating introductions — what works, what doesn’t, what’s just weird. A week before that, she was investigating the world of eponyms, or how famous people become household words. Did you know “Silhouette” was the name of an 18th-century French finance minister? Me neither. Did you know “Trump” may be the first instance of a name voiding previous meanings of the word? (It’s slang for “fart” in Great Britain, though, so maybe not.) Anyone can make a podcast, but few make them as entertaining as Zaltzman. (

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.