2018, Podcasts

Bag Man (2018)

This podcast tells the Watergate-adjacent story of Spiro Agnew’s resignation prior to Nixon’s, a story I was basically entirely unfamiliar with. It’s a story that’s particularly relevant to today, as you might imagine, but it’s even interesting if what is going on with the current Administration wasn’t going on. But I can’t give it a ringing endorsement due to who made it, and how she presents it.

So, let’s deal with the good parts of this show first. This is a story I have never heard before. I have no idea whether or not Rachel Maddow’s claims about how it has never been told before are true but I can say that I am not aware of another podcast about it, at the very least. And, it is well told in the sense that all of the relevant details are covered – I certainly wasn’t left with any unanswered questions (more on that below). It features interviews with many of the major players and archival interviews and recordings of those who aren’t around to participate. The story is compelling enough that I listened to the entire podcast despite my many gripes about its style. It’s also very instructive given the political situation in the United States at the moment. (The relevance here is that Nixon was only accused of covering up a crime, not committing the original crime, whereas Agnew was formally accused of committing crimes, much like Trump may be.) So it’s worth your time if you’re interested in US history, or in US politics. But there is a big “but…”

Listening to this, it’s pretty clear Rachel Maddow and her producers don’t really get podcasts. They treat the format like it’s Maddow’s TV show, and the audience as if it’s an elderly TV audience that is only half paying attention to MSNBC. There are two very annoying things Maddow does throughout the podcast which makes it really hard to listen to:

The first thing she does is that she recaps information that we just heard, either in a previous episode or, worse, in a previous segment of the same episode. If you binge this, you might just want to kill her by the end of it. (Don’t binge it!) She seems to think the audience is not paying attention or gets distracted in the commercial break. I listened directly on the website and so listened to the audio without commercials, which made this even more frustrating because I would get a “Up next…” followed by a “We just discussed…” just as if I was watching reality television, where a full third of the episode is devoted to recapping and previewing. Honestly, this 7 episode podcast could have been told in 4.

The other problem is entirely related to this unwillingness to trust her audience. If you played a drinking game with this podcast, and picked certain phrases – “a criminal in the White House,” “young [adjective] prosecutors” and some other select phrases – to do shots to, you would die by episode 2. (You wouldn’t pass out, you would actually get alcohol poisoning and die.) Maddow appears to believe that only if she repeats certain phrases ad inifinitum will us dumb viewers… um, I mean listeners, ever get that Agnew committed actual criminal acts while a sitting politician, or that the prosecutors were relatively young for their jobs, and so forth. Again, this feels like a deliberate decision based upon the demographics of Maddow’s TV audience. Maybe it’s just who she is as an anchor, but it’s really, really annoying. It’s so annoying that, along with the constant repetition of information and recaps, it almost caused me to quit the podcast at least once per episode in the first few episodes. (Once I was half way done, my completist streak kicked into high gear and I was finishing it regardless.)

If you like Maddow, or you can handle the endless repetition and phrases and information, then you should listen to this. If you dislike her, or you hate feeling like you are being condescended to, this might be a slog. If only Slow Burn had covered this story instead.

6/10 I guess, because I definitely learned things.

PS: Oh, one other thing: Maddow also tells you multiple times that this story has never been told before. I have no idea whether or not that’s true (see above) but I will tell you that being told that over and over again is really annoying.

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