Like many great podcasts, “Love and Radio” tells stories of ordinary people, creating engrossing cocktails of comedy, tragedy and mundane in-betweens. “Love and Radio” quickly stands out from the pack — it is fully distinctive in both form and content. This interview series is part of the podcast network Radiotopia, but while this signifier might suggest something stuffy or straight-laced, in reality, “Love and Radio” is quite the opposite. In each episode, a person is interviewed about a unique aspect of their life — a curious hobby, dark secret, bizarre occupation or surprising experience. The subject matter is often dark, raunchy and bizarre. Past episodes have covered a fetish sex worker, a man who turned himself into a publicly traded company and a morally queasy political activist. Each episode focuses almost entirely on the voice of the subject, minimizing questions from interviewers. The results are illuminating and sometimes disturbing postcards from people who live in extreme ways, pushing the edges of the counterculture.
The series’ editing matches the unsettling, boundary-crossing material of its storytelling. Episodes are musical and dreamlike, combining heavy vocal manipulation, otherworldly sound effects and ambient music interludes. The show’s production team attempts to build a fully immersive, inimitable audio experience that adds new textures to the episode’s storyline. In some episodes, such as the recent episode “Photochemical,” the show’s innovative production techniques are just as memorable as the subject matter.
To Binge or Not to Binge:
Even if you listen to a lot of podcasts, “Love and Radio” is probably unlike anything you have experienced before. The series is innovative and expands the podcast medium in consistently interesting ways. While the show’s eclectic sonic style can be disorienting on a first listen, the playful production quickly becomes one of the chief delights of “Love and Radio.” The series’ innovations keep each new season fresh, even as the podcasting landscape becomes increasingly crowded with human-interest stories targeted at liberal arts majors. In fact, the series shrewdly adopts and updates techniques from some of the most influential radio storytellers of the 21st century. Host Nick van der Kolk is like Ira Glass’ cool younger brother, and in aggregate, “Love and Radio” feels like an alternate universe NPR dipped in acid.
Luckily, the stories in “Love and Radio” are meaty enough to keep up with the show’s avant-garde audio experiments. Van der Kolk and his team employ masterful twists in narratives, and each episode is guaranteed to explore surprising new directions. The staff has an excellent instinct for choosing subject matter, and the series features a remarkably diverse array of ideas and experiences rarely seen in media of any form. Throughout each episode, listeners are granted intimate access to the interviewee, and the results are often startling in their emotional and moral complexity. Some of these people are charming, strange and genuinely disturbing, but few are anything less than fascinating.
When the show’s confessions get especially sordid, the series flirts with exploitation, like a hipster-friendly “Maury,” but “Love and Radio” mostly avoids these tropes — the interviewers display a genuine curiosity, and the episodes are more interested in fully absorbing a new perspective than in making pat judgments. The show’s editing puts the subject as the focus, presenting the person in their own words, with few interruptions and no filters. The results can be oddly empowering and even therapeutic — the series becomes a radical forum to find beauty in the bizarre. If you get deep enough, this approach feels like more than a storytelling device — it becomes a deeply intoxicating worldview.
Best Episode: “The Living Room” is a quietly gorgeous piece of storytelling and is probably the series’ most famous episode, but “A Girl of Ivory” might win for shock value alone. Avoid spoilers and listen to it in one sitting. If the subject matter turns you off, “Love and Radio” is probably not for you.
Similar Shows: “99% Invisible,” “Ear Hustle,” “The Heart,” “Home of the Brave,” “Millennial,” “Radio Diaries,” “Radiolab” and “This American Life.”
Trigger Warnings: Many episodes contain strong language and explicit sexual content. Some episodes include frank discussions of violence and sexual assault. The series includes a warning at the beginning of potentially objectionable episodes.
Rating 4.5/5 stars
“Love and Radio”
Available to stream or download on some major podcasting services, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. The show is best experienced with headphones.
84 episodes, generally ranging from 15-60 minutes. The show’s seventh season premiered on May 17, with new episodes to follow monthly.