Hello, hello, hello! Welcome to another entry in the podcast spotlight series. Today we are going to be discussing a Singaporean podcast which I’ve recently discovered, and another one by a more prominent host.
podcast Spotlight: Longkang Kitties
The Singapore based show, Longkang Kitties, takes the first podcast spotlight for today. At its core, the episodes feature discussion and debate on socio-political topics among its 4 hosts, Jon, Dan, Angie, and Jerry. But while the topics, ranging from government funding of the arts to racism in Singapore, can be sensitive, the overall mood doesn’t feel too serious.
This is reflected in the wonderful episode artwork and is further shown with the banter between the hosts. Also, rather than statistics and hard facts, the debates involve plenty of personal stories, which helps ground the issues and make them easy to relate to. In some sense, the show format and mood is similar to the Last King Podcast and its style of discussion among a group of friends. However, the artwork, banter, and debate are definitely features that set the Longkang Kitties brand apart.
Episode 11: Bones & Suicide
The podcast spotlight episode I want to feature today is “Bones & Suicide”. Although the show title is a little underwhelming, I find the underlying debate to be fascinating. In essence, the hosts discuss whether mainstream media should be allowed to portray taboo topics, and what kind of effect this has on its viewers. Specifically, the hosts touch on a couple of Netflix shows, “To the Bone” and its portrayal of anorexia, and “13 reasons why” and its portrayal of suicide.
On one side, hosts Angie and Dan advocate for some kind of control against the portrayal of such topics to the impressionable youth. In their view, these shows glorify anorexia or suicide and influence teenagers to follow suit. However, on the other side, host Jon believes that any kind of control other than banning the show outright is impractical, since it is impossible to determine the viewer’s age before watching the program, or to have the children’s parents watching over them constantly. The beauty about this particular episode is the intricate layers of socio-political topics that are woven in. What if the shows actually help victims of anorexia or suicide by introducing their plight to the mainstream consciousness? What if preventing discussion further isolates and alienates these victims? Should the government get involved with censorship? To what degree, how, and at what cost to art?
If this is the kind of thing that interests you, then you can check out the episode below:
Podcast Spotlight: Revisionist History
The next podcast spotlight goes to the show Revisionist History, hosted by Malcolm Gladwell. Now, on the surface, Revisionist History is already noteworthy for 2 things. First, it is part of the Panoply podcast network, a sort of centralized network that helps podcasts find sponsors and listeners. Other notable podcasts within the same stable include the WSJ Minute Briefing, or Slate’s Represent. If those media brands are familiar to you, it is no coincidence. In some sense Panoply is an elite network that aids in the podcast distribution for well-known brands. The second reason why Revisionist History stands out is of course its host, Malcolm Gladwell. Author of five New York Times Best Sellers including Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, or Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell is also a renown journalist and has been invited to host and speak at many events.
Due to the resources available to Gladwell at Panoply, it should be of no surprise that the production quality for Revisionist History is top notch. Every second you hear out of the show is tailored and edited professionally, from how the music sets up and transitions different topics, to how different guests are interspersed throughout each episode. The overarching theme of the show, as the title alludes, is to take a second look at history and tell the untold side. Some great examples of this include the irrational stigma against underhanded free-throws, or the true story behind the song Hallelujah, made famous by the artist Jeff Buckley. The stories make for riveting listening, and Gladwell, with his hours of research, interviews, and not to mention his distinct raspy voice, is a fantastic host.
In terms of journalistic storytelling, Gladwell’s Revisionist History is very much the gold standard.
S2E9: Mcdonald’s broke my heart
The podcast spotlight episode is a story about McDonald’s and their french fries. To many, french fries are simply a staple to any fast food meal, merely something to accompany your burger and drink. To several characters within this episode however, it meant a whole lot more.
Bliss and Heartbreak
First, there’s Gladwell himself. He recalls the first time he tried their french fries, crispy and golden brown on the outside while soft as a pillow on the inside. That experience left such an impression on Gladwell that he likened to the first time a puppy sees snow, excited and amazed at the same time. But that all changed when McDonald’s changed the recipe for their french fries in 1990. Where McDonald’s had used a special mix of tallow, a rendered form of beef fat, it had now switched to one using vegetable oil. The consequences, as related by Gladwell, were drastic. The McDonald’s french fry was no longer the same in terms of flavor and texture; the new fries tasted like cardboard.
That is the rough summary of Gladwell’s bliss and heartbreak with the McDonald’s french fry, and this episode was dedicated to finding out what led to the recipe change back in 1990.
The Omaha Crusader
In comes Phil Sokolof, a multi-millionaire businessman who made his fortune selling construction supplies. Though he was never overweight and never smoked, Sokolof would suffer a heart-attack in 1966 at the age of 43, and would dedicate the rest of his life to fighting its roots. His research would ultimately lead him to believe that high fat foods were the culprit, and Sokolof would spend millions buying pages in newspapers to spread the anti-fat crusade.
Inevitably, Sokolof would set his sights on the fast food juggernaut McDonald’s, and particularly in the way they prepare their famous french fries. Beef tallow was high in saturated fats that led to high cholesterol, he argued, and even went on national television to debate Dick Starman, then a senior vice president at Mcdonalds.
Eventually, McDonald’s would cave in and change the recipe, a victory for Sokolof but a crushing blow to Gladwell and lovers of the beef tallow french fries. However, this is where the narrative gets a little muddled. Instead of putting the blame squarely on Sokolof, Gladwell holds him up to be the hero. After all, Sokolof was just one man using his own resources to take on the giant corporation McDonalds, and he won! It is a classic David vs. Goliath story retold with french fries, and Gladwell readily obliges.
The Sellout Fries
To fill the vacant spot for villain in this story, Gladwell turns to McDonald’s, noting how they gave in rather than stuck to their product. Initially, I was perplexed. I mean, here was a company fighting a media onslaught and they are the villains? They gave the public what they wanted, shouldn’t they be lauded for trying to make their food somewhat healthier?
At first I thought that Gladwell is simply too attached to the underdog, and all too willing to find blame on the big evil corporation. However, after a second listen, I find myself agreeing with Gladwell. For other than Gladwell, Sokolof, or anyone with a vested interest in McDonald’s french fries, no one cares more than McDonald’s itself. And this is evident in the company’s history, where founder Ray Croc found that the McDonald’s fries were its competitive advantage; it was what set it apart from the dozens of other fast food chains or burger joints.
Changing their signature recipe is therefore tantamount to changing their legacy. Sure, McDonald’s faced plenty of criticism for their food, but they could have stood firm! Instead of giving in, McDonald’s could have come out and said their customers love their french fries, and changing the fries would lower the customer experience. I mean this is fast food we are talking about! Changing from beef tallow to vegetable oil is not going to make that drastic a difference if you’re still stuffing your face with french fries. If you really were concerned about eating healthy, maybe you should just stay away from fast foods altogether. That is the point that McDonald’s could have stood on. And that is what I mean by the sellout fries.
Of course, on the larger scale of things, Gladwell’s story does seem somewhat dramatic. After all, McDonald’s is still a fast food juggernaut, no one is complaining too much about the fries, and high cholesterol and diabetes are still prominent health problems. But I’m still a little sad that the McDonald’s experience is not what it could be, though credit should be given where the company constantly looks for ways to improve their menu. For the episode’s sake I’m glad that Gladwell cared so much about his french fries. So much so that I’m probably going to get some McDonald’s right after I submit this entry.
You can listen to the episode here.