Welcome to Should I Listen To This?, where we deep-dive into a podcast to find out what it’s about, what works, what doesn’t, and whether or not you need to make the all-important decision to hit subscribe and add it to your rotation.
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What Is It?: Prior to every episode, there is a long introduction that I’ve practically memorized. “ESPN Audio and SC Featured presents…a 16-episode podcast, Pin/Kings. It’s the story of two All-American high school wrestlers – teammates and friends – who ultimately ended up on the opposite sides of the war on drugs.” It’s a series recorded and laid out in the vein of Serial.
Who’s The Host?: ESPN The Magazine senior writer Brett Forrest and SportsCenter producer Jon Fish fill the role of Sarah Koenig for Pin/Kings. They only talk when explaining key details or summarizing facts and events. Fish and Forrest performed over 20 interviews for the series.
What’s a Normal Episode Like?: Similar to Serial, each episode summarizes one side or period in the two wrestlers’ lives. Unlike Serial, most episodes here are about half an hour in length.
In the first episode, we “meet” Kevin Pedersen and Alex DeCubas, the two players central to this narrative. Other early episodes sum up their formative years, with the latter portion of the series focusing on how far their lives veer into opposite directions. It’s a story that is almost too good to be true.
Who Is It For?: If you watch Outside the Lines or listen to The Sporting Life, you’re a perfect fit for Pin/Kings. It digs deep into a story most sports fans probably don’t care about or want to know. If you like piecing things together and looking for connections à la Serial, then you’ll like Pin/Kings.
Who Is It Not For?: It’s not for your surface level sports fan who wants scores or highlights. This is a modern telling of a decades-old story. It’s not for people who want a podcast to listen to during work or even on their commute. This is a podcast that requires dedicated listening; otherwise, you could miss a key detail or moment. I tried listening to an episode while writing part of this review and found myself struggling to focus on anything.
If the kids are around, make sure to wear headphones. Before each episode of Pin/Kings, there’s a warning that it is for mature audiences. This isn’t a Disney-approved, “squeaky clean,” bleached version of the story. This is the real, gritty truth, told episodically.
How Many Episodes Are There?: The podcast debuted on Aug. 1, with an episode released each weekday since. There will be 16 podcast episodes total. The series culminates with a one-hour SC Featured special and a 5,000-word feature, penned by Forrest, in ESPN The Magazine‘s NFL Preview issue.
Can I Jump Right In?: I would not recommend that. This is a podcast that requires you to listen intently to understand the entire story. If you skip an episode, you’ll miss a piece of the timeline. As DeCubas and Petersen grow apart, that makes jumping around very confusing.
What’s Not Great?: There are times when Fish and Forrest try too hard to sound like Koenig. There are points where they try to be too conversational, which slows down the pacing. Considering the audio is cut to tell the story in a certain time frame, I’m surprised their segments sound more-or-less unscripted.
The quick pacing helps get through difficult episodes, such as episode 12, which focuses on how the United States changed drug-related jail sentences during the War on Drugs. Because of how they changed the penalties, suspects were more cooperative because they wanted shorter sentences. This enables the government to start fighting back against all of the illegal drug smuggling. In this episode, Fish and Forrest do a good job helping the listener digest a lot of boring law history.
Most of the time, the show is easy to follow, though it feels like there are too many details sometimes. This is most prevalent early on, as the characters are established. I’m not sure their earlier years need as many details as are given.
I’m not sure I buy that DeCubas and Petersen were “best friends.” They’re referred to as such, and they were profiled by Sports Illustrated together, but it doesn’t feel like they kept in touch much after graduation. Had they kept in contact, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up drifting so far apart. Also, while I heard Petersen’s voice at various points, I’m not sure DeCubas ever spoke to anyone for the series. Apparently, he’s about halfway through his jail sentence.
Speaking of small details…the first five episodes prefaced the title description with “Episode X,” which was nice for when I forgot where I was in the series. For some reason, the episodes after that dropped the number. It’s a small nitpick, but it would have been nice to keep things consistent.
Lastly, I would have liked a short recap of previous episodes. Even after just one day between episodes (not counting weekends), I found myself forgetting some names and mixing up some people. A couple minutes at the beginning of every episode summarizing “how we got here” would have been nice before trudging ahead. Instead, I got an introduction that sounded identical regardless of what episode I was listening to. They did previews of the next day’s episode so why couldn’t they do recaps of the day before? While I’m glad ESPN didn’t release everything at once like they did with Dunkumentaries, episode previews would have helped jog my memory every morning.
Yes, I have a lot of issues with the series. But it is because there is so much information to cut through. Since Serial already exists, I have to compare it to this extremely high standard. I’m looking forward to the final episodes, so I cannot say these problems are anywhere close to detrimental.
So, Should I Listen To This?: If you spend time focusing on podcasts when you listen, you’ll pick up all of the juicy details. It’s binge-worthy and can be considered the sports version of Serial. However, I wouldn’t go as far as placing it alongside the first season of NPR’s mega-podcast. I didn’t find the story of Pin/Kings as engaging as that of Adnan Syed, though it is leaps and bounds ahead of season two’s Bowe Bergdahl saga.
The series is still ongoing as I’m writing this. It took until the college episode, episode four, to fully draw me in. This could be influenced by my personal status as a college student, but it is also the episode where the cracks begin to form and grow. For as similar as their high school lives were, college shows Petersen and DeCubas drifting down separate paths. This is when it became clear which side each person would take while not spoiling how unbelievable the story would become.
Listen to the first four episodes. By that point, you should be in one of two camps: you’re so enthralled you have to hear the rest of the story…or you couldn’t be drawn in enough to want to keep listening. I fell ears first into the former and can’t wait to hear how the story ends. There is no doubt I’ll be reading the magazine piece on ESPN.com this weekend and watching the TV special when it airs next week.
Bottom Line – TL;DR: Pin/Kings isn’t perfect, but it lives up to being mentioned in the same breath as Serial. The story is almost unbelievable, even if portions of the series veer off into too exaggerated, too detailed or too confusing.