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Greta Johnsen is the host of WBEZ Chicago’s Nerdette podcast, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary - a decade of delight! Follow Greta on Instagram here, and on Twitter here. Get book recs on Nerdette’s instagram here!
Nerdette is ten! Can you tell us her birth story?
Back in 2013, I heard Nerdette’s co-creator Tricia Bobeda make a joke about Star Wars from across the WBEZ newsroom and cackled a little too loudly in response. A year later, we had made 50 episodes!
How has Nerdette changed in ten years?
The show’s format has changed a lot over the years, which is honestly something I’m really grateful for because we’ve been able to keep things fresh and interesting. Our episodes now have multiple segments, which makes it possible to cover a whole range of subjects each week, from books to science to pop culture. Plus, we’ve added a monthly book club that includes listener voices. But at its core, the show is always about celebrating enthusiasm and curiosity, and that will always be our constant.
How has the industry changed, in your opinion? Are you more or less excited about working in it?
The industry is totally different! As Julie Shapiro noted in a Transom piece in 2013, only 9 of the top 100 podcasts on Stitcher were hosted by a woman or had a female co-host. It was a male-dominated field, and it was also barely its own industry. Serial hadn’t come out yet. Being a podcaster in 2013 was less of a trendy thing to do and more of a quirky thing to do.
Is there a moment that sticks out to you as most memorable?
We’ve made more than 500 episodes now, and every single one was a joy to make! Interviewing Tom Hanks about typewriters was surreal. Talking to Lizzo was amazing. We have also branched out from interviews to make more ambitious reported pieces, like this episode about my own medical history.
Should podcasters read their ratings/reviews? (Any memorable ones you’ve gotten that you’d like to share?)
I try really hard not to look at them, but I remember years ago someone complained that I used the word “delightful” too much. It was really liberating to lean into the criticism and make tote bags that said “delightful AF”!
Self-care ritual: There is nothing better than getting in bed with a book at 8 p.m.!
🚨If u only have time for 1 thing🚨
In 1995, Carole Fisher was looking for love so her friend Mindy introduced to Bob Bierenbaum, a Jewish plastic surgeon who flew planes and spoke several languages. (Mindy dated him and was passing him along.) He was “perfect on paper,” a fact that allowed Carole to dismiss several red flags. Like telling her that his ex-wife Gail was missing and presumed dead but he definitely did not kill her!!!! Carol and Mindy start talking about him and along with a bunch of other girlfriends, start this sort of armchair detective club where they attempt to track down what happened to Gail. It was a joke. But the dots start to connect and on The Girlfriends, Carole Fisher tells the story of how her girlfriend gang of dicks found out more than they bargained for, uncovering truth that they system hadn’t. Much like Do You Know Mordechai?, this is a mystery backed by a group of friends that I desperately want to join. Murder isn’t fun but this podcast is. Justice for Gail.
✨ Read my Lifehacker piece 10 Conspiracy Theory Podcasts They Don’t Want You to Listen To.
✨ Read about making a podcast newsletter that works in Podcast Marketing Magic.
✨ Read my piece about unleashing the power of your back catalog via Descript.
✨ Read my piece about how to be a guest on a podcast via Descript.
🎙️Mortified usually gives people the chance to read, in front of a live audience, from their childhood diaries. Every. Single. Episode. is excruciating, hilarious, and a beautiful portrait of teenage awkwardness. Buried in the feed is an episode that breaks the mold called How TV Saved My Life, a story about a nerdy friendless kid who created his own television network called NBS to fuel his creativity and overcome his isolation. I wish, wish, wish, I had been friends with this kid (now an adult, John, who is interviewed on the show) because the only difference between him and me was that I didn’t have this great idea, but I would have loved to contribute to it. Listen here.
🎙️Craig Warner has made a short and focused independent queer comedy with Michael Maloney (The Crown) called Night Games that had me hanging on every word. In it, a straight sociopath comes knocking on a gay man's door one night, and never leaves. Craig told me it’s about abuse in a straight/gay relationship, something we don’t talk about very much. I listened twice in a row. The sound is rich and the story is carried by intense conversation. The script reminded me of My Dinner with Andre—each line and could be individually examined. It also made me feel like I was seated in a small theater, at the edge of my seat, breathless for what would happen next, how things would escalate. It’s an atmospheric and psychological thriller smartly written and with deep intensity. Listen here.
🎙️Miles Gray (The Daily Zeitgeist) is the host of The Good Thief, the story of Vassilis Paleokostas, aka “Greece’s Robin Hood,” who is famous for robbing banks and sharing money with the poor, kidnapping people known for unfair labor practices, and escaping from prison by helicopter twice. Miles Gray and a team of Greek reporters follow Vassilis’ trail from Athens to tiny islands to remote mountain hideouts to meet Vassilis’s inner circle, chat with police chiefs and prime ministers, and work to understand how one crook with a conscience became a threat to the rich and powerful yet beloved by so many people who are cheering him on. Miles is a great storyteller and injects so much personality and humor into this exciting story. Listen here.
🎙️On Hollywood Handbook, Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements talked to their podcast friends Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci for the third time. (I love them.) (It’s really best if you listen to the first two.) It’s a continuation of what I can only describe as an ongoing improv scene in which Amanda and Maria have decided to join as hosts, splitting up their episodes underneath a new show called “Holly Hand” while Hayes and Sean call their portion of the show “Wood Book.” In the latest installment, Amanda and Maria offer to buy Wood Book for $500 million. Amanda, Maria, Hayes and Sean flawlessly volley jokes back and forth to create a hilarious scenario so perfectly executed it’s almost believable. The doesn’t feel like an interview or a podcast episode. I would have paid to see it live. Sometimes guests of Hollywood Handbook get the premise, sometimes they don’t. This time it totally works. So hard. Listen here.
🎙️Rattled & Shook is like a variety show-version of Radio Rental (it’s “Radio Rental's annoying little step-sister”) with a scary storytelling time, horror-themed games, special guests, and more. Hosts Aprile Ruha and Meredith Stedman collect spooky stories read to you by the people who experienced them, and keep things casual and light. It’s like Radio Rental with some fun stuff mixed in (including the added bonus of a kind of friendshipy conversation that makes you want to pull up a chair and hang out) and seems to be made for all those people who are like, “want more episodes of Radio Rental nowwww!!!” The artwork is fantastic. Listen here.
🎙️Anthony Atamanuik has created a podcast about anxiety that is so much more than giving tips on how to deal with it or interviewing girlbosses or tech bros who have claimed to have overcome it. Don’t Panic is a variety show (it feels kind of like an audio comic book) that brings in guests to go over life’s worst case scenarios. Conversations are about panic in general and rich soundscape makes you feel like you’re going through the disaster yourself. Tips are offered—try to use them as you feel like you’re being attacked by a swarm of bees or have accidentally launched your car into a lake. In the end, you might die. Anthony and his guests might, too. The whole thing is buoyed by a funny conversation about what keeps us up at night that feels like two people cracking each other up at a bar. I am always forgetting what to do if I meet a bear (run uphill or downhill? climb a tree?) or become trapped in quicksand. I need this. Hope I make it out alive. Listen here.
🎙️The Truth just launched the last part in a 3-episode series called Pariah, a romance/mystery about a performance art piece that turns into a crime scene. When does a performance piece stop being a performance piece? What lengths will artists go to for art? Is performance art real? And if it is, what is an audio drama about it? This is what The Truth does best, it envelopes you into a funny and sharp world where the characters are believable and the storylines are oddly Black Mirror-ish, makes you struggle to separate fact from fiction, and discover why fables, fantasies, and myths are so universally true. (I was reminded of a previous series they did called The Body Genius, a dark comic mystery about a personal trainer in Hollywood.) It was a gut-punch to discover during the last episode that The Truth is ending…for now. The Truth is the podcast I send to anyone who says they don’t listen to fiction. It’s a dare. I dare you not to like this. It always works to convert people. So this is your chance to listen to the huge and gorgeous archive, listen to Pariah , and hope it comes back someday soon. Listen to Pariah here.
🎙️Novel Pairings is a podcast “dedicated to making the classics readable, relevant, and fun.” The hosts are huge book nerds and talk about books they love, but aren’t afraid to talk about the stuff they don’t like. I love this show because they aren’t snobs about the classics—they let you know when you should just read the Wikipedia page, when it’s best to listen to the audiobook version, and which books to skip. They tie books together and explain the conversations they are having with each other, have helpful guides to reading Jane Austen and finding literary allusions in what you’re reading today. This is a podcast that will make you be a better reader. but I just got so much joy listening. I used to work in book publishing and was reminded about all these worlds I love to visit. I felt like I was window shopping, adding books to my TBR list that I know I’ll want to go back to one day, or finally get around to reading for the first time. Listen here.
🎙️Join The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman as he plays 2 Chefs and a Lie, where he interviews three people about their restaurants and cuisine but one of them is making everything up. This is the third time he’s played…he lost the past two times. Is the third time the charm? I love this play on To Tell the Truth—podcasters should steal this idea and skin it to work with their themes. I would listen to every one. (You get to play along, and I must admit that I lost. Though now that I know the truth, it seems incredibly obvious.) Listen here.
🎙️The Sporkful also took a trip to Monticello to discover the contributions of enslaved Black chefs, whose work influences American cuisine to this day. I’ve been to Monticello, but it still felt almost eerie to hear a recording from Monticello’s Granger/Hemings Kitchen, to feel that overlap with history. Dan talked with historians to weave together the story of Thomas Jefferson’s trip to France with the enslaved chef James Hemings (Sally Hemings’ brother) to train with French culinary masters of the day. (It was James who brought macaroni and cheese back with him.) There was a French law that allowed a slave, even one brought in from another country, to petition the courts for freedom. But James left Paris with Jefferson in October 1789, returning to the United States an enslaved man. Listen here.
🎙️Paris Hilton opens up the very first episode of The History of the World’s Greatest Nightclubs, with a memory of dancing to Ultra Naté’s “Free” during hard times and feeling really free (I imagine if you’re Paris Hilton, you don’t often feel free) before saying, “some of the best times of my life have been spent inside nightclubs.” She then hands the mic to Ultra herself, to take over hosting duties for a 12-part podcast exploring how different clubs around the world revolutionized the way we party, starting in Detroit, where The Bellevue Three became the fathers of techno and brought a new sound to the short-lived Music Institute. The New York City episode was too much fun—it takes you to Danceteria, where The Beasties (before they were The Beastie Boys) were your bus boys, Sade bartended, and Madonna pestered Danceteria’s Rudolf Piper to sing. Can you imagine? Ten more episodes to come. Pair with Night Fever. Listen here.
🎙️Hug House launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for its upcoming serialized fiction podcast Levian, by creator Samy Souissi (Desperado—see below!) It’s a queer adventure story with cinematic storytelling and sound design, with all the stakes stakes and energy of Pirates of the Caribbean and Game of Thrones. It follows the story of Lord Valentin Tellari, the clever, cunning, and disgraced heir to his family’s fortune. After his sister’s betrayal forced him into exile, he now must face the deadly ocean that rages against the Drumming Isles. But neither storms nor leviathans will smother the vengeful fire that burns within Valentin. He will not know rest until he has reclaimed what is rightfully his. Levian will be available on July 19th, and the crowdfunding campaign ends on August 31st. Listen to the trailer here.
🎙️Pet owners know how devastating it is to lose a pet, but non-pet owners don’t always get it. Chalk that up to something called disenfranchised grief—a loss that's not openly acknowledged, socially mourned, or publicly supported. You can call in sick but you might seem like less of a grinder if you need a day to get over the completely gut-wrenching milestone of your cat’s passing. Especially if you had to put her under. (My sadness for anything that happens to my cat is absolutely off the charts—I think it’s because I can’t explain to him why he’s in pain or needs to go to the vet. I always wish it was me, instead.) On Work Appropriate, Anne Helen Petersen touches upon this with Dr. Karen Fine, DVM and author of The Other Family Doctor, but also why a good vet clinic is so important, and getting harder to find. (Welcome to America, drink every time you hear the phrase “private equity.”) Veterinarians have a risk of death by suicide at a rate 2-4 times that of the general public, and there are so many reasons why. Vets must be the kind of people who are so personally driven to help animals that they can’t do anything else, because it sounds like draining and punishing work. (I know one and she is a badass saint.) This episode didn’t cover anything you don’t know (probably) but it was my introduction to the concept of disenfranchised grief, and it’s a huge reminder to keep in mind that if someone at your vet clinic is grumpy, they might just be having the shittiest day ever. Give them a break. Thank them. This is a really important episode. Listen here.
🎙️Behind the Bastards has two-part exposé on Oceangate CEO’s Stockton Rush and the “most Ayn Rand-y death ever” that went down when his submersible imploded while exploring the remains of Titanic. Partially because so little has been written about Stockton, the conspiracy theories are flowing in faster than water through the cracks of a…submarine. (The other part is because this story is so fucking weird.) Robert points out that the bulk of what will be written about Stockton will be a lie. (Then Chat GPT will gather those lies and misinform anyone too lazy to properly research him.) Stockton was the scion of two extremely wealthy families who got rich off slavery and exploiting the earth’s resources in the most despicable ways possible. He frequented The Bohemian Club. He was an exploiter, not an explorer. Leave it to Robert Evans to do actual research and unfurl the completely gross story of this man who, as guest Andrew Ti points out, proves that there’s a certain amount of wealth that can completely rot your brain. Listen here and here.
🎙️On Dan Schreiber’s We Can Be Weirdos (you know him from No Such Thing As a Fish,) Dan interviews people about their wildest, most unfounded beliefs, ideas, and theories and gives them The Batshit Survey, which determines if they believe in ghosts, déjà vu, telepathy, premonitions, and more. Dan Snow (of Dan Snow’s History Hit) was on to talk about weird stuff through a historical lens, and how if you know a lot about history you’ll start to notice a ton of crazy synchronicities and maybe start believing that there is an intelligence behind them. This is an episode packed with quirky history stories a new way to think about these coincidences, and what ghosts really are. (Why don’t people ever see cave man ghosts?) Listen here.
🎙️I once was mugged by a band of adorable-looking teenyboppers (they were wearing braces and florals—ask me about it later) and made the idiotic mistake of calling the cops, who tried to get me to identify a grown-ass Black woman in a lineup of people who looked nothing like the people who robbed me. (I wouldn’t.) Before then, line ups were things I had heard about all the time and didn’t really wonder about too much. I assumed they were things that worked. An episode of Stuff You Should Know breaks down what they really are and the different types, the problem with eyewitness testimony, and how lineups aid in the huge police injustice machine. It’s rage inducing. This episode was recorded in 2018, before we started chanting that Black Lives Matter. Now that we’ve defunded the police, I’m sure things are much, much better. (JK.) Listen here.
🎙️I love you!
📦 From the Archives 📦
[From February 21, 2020] I listened to Dane Terry & Ellie Heyman’s Dreamboy and was immediately swept away. The setup: Dane is a musician spending the winter in Cleveland, Ohio (my homeland) and is balancing his time between working at the Pepper Heights Zoo and hooking up on Grindr. But he starts having strange, vivid dreams, and finds himself embroiled in an incident at the zoo that involves a murderous zebra. (There is only one thing more intriguing than a murderous zebra, and that is a set of creepy children. This podcast has that, too!) I mean this in the best way: listening to Dreamboy makes me feel like I am going through Sleep No More—floating through a parallel place and time, discovering things on my own. I would listen to this show for the music alone—it tells its own damn story. Dreamboy is mysterious, immersive, funny, and haunting. I wanted it to last forever.
From the Desk of Tink
Describe the show in ten words or less: Three avatars of Death Gods embark on a road trip
Who is it for? Anyone who loves urban fantasy, mythology, intersectionality of cultures, and a show that spotlight queer and marginalized voices.
Which episode to start with? The beginning is always a good start, episode 1!
Favorite listener interaction: We’ve received a lot of listener support since we started, but there’s something that will remain so special about the first time we saw someone make fan art of our characters. To think people enjoyed our story enough to want to bring our characters to life themselves and spend so much time and effort doing so, it still blows my mind every time.
Dream guest: Grey DeLisle has voiced my childhood and it would be a dream to have her on the show.
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