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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Podcast: 30 for 30 Podcasts
Network: ESPN Films and ESPN Audio
What Is It?: What if I told you…the beloved documentary series now looks to make magic without a camera? The first season consists of five audio podcasts, all created specifically for the audio medium.
Who’s The Host?: There really isn’t one, though it seems like 538’s Jody Avirgan is very involved with the series, narrating the series promo and the season’s first audio documentary. That said, each episode is driven on its journey by the subjects, whether it be the guys behind the famous “Yankees Suck” shirts or Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, for example.
What’s a Normal Episode Like?: It’s a documentary, minus the video. There are multiple voices retelling the events in their own words. Each episode’s narrator exists to help introduce voices and to keep the narrative from dragging. They fill in the gaps left by the episode’s subjects. Unlike their television counterparts, 30 for 30 podcasts do not have commercial breaks in between segments.
Who Is It For?: If you like the documentaries on ESPN, these follow the 30 for 30 format you are already familiar with. Even if you think you know a story, there are so many twists and turns that are completely unexpected. Stories go from happy to sad and vice-versa. These are all bigger than sports, as most of the TV documentaries have been. If you’re looking for substantial storytelling on your commute or while you’re at work, this is for you.
Who Is It Not For?: Plenty of people won’t care about these stories because they don’t care about tangential sports storylines. They also might not like the Boston fan perspective on “Yankees Suck,” which I found bothersome for the first half of that episode.
In some ways these documentaries redefine what a podcast can be. Most people want to listen to podcasts as background noise they can fade in and out of. These podcasts require your devoted attention, which plenty of people may not like at their desk every day.
Can I Jump Right In?: Since each episode is a standalone documentary, yes you can! Of the podcasts I’ve reviewed for AA, this is right up there with Pin/Kings and Dunkumentaries (two other ESPN-produced podcasts) for the least time-sensitive offerings. These documentaries will feel fresh to listen to again in a few years, just like how nearly all of the 30 for 30 movies stand on their own and are still worth watching years after their respective premieres.
What’s Not Great?: I have only heard two episodes so far, so these comments are only on the first two documentaries. In the first episode, “The Trials of Dan and Dave,” I was disappointed there was no video to go with the audio. With a documentary focused on television commercials, playing the audio and describing the visuals made it seem like the episode was shoehorned into the podcasting format. It isn’t the worst thing ever, but it’s like watching a game versus listening to it on radio.
I wonder if ESPN decided to make these stories into podcasts because each episode seems to have a narrower focus than the movies. With commercials, these could become 60- or 90-minute movies. Maybe ESPN is lacking the necessary b-roll, but I really think the narrower focus is the reason for the decision to release these as podcasts. Adding video costs a lot of money, and while these stories deserve to be told, it might not be cost-effective for ESPN to make these into movies.
Lastly, the profanity is extreme in “Yankees Suck.” I can understand why bleeping out some words would take away from the quotes, but I’ve heard sailors who swear less than these Boston fans.
So, Should I Listen To This?: The 30 for 30 series joins a somewhat crowded field of ESPN sports storytelling podcasts. Aside from the aforementioned Dunkumentaries and Pin/Kings miniseries, there are also shorter format stories told on feeds like SC Featured and The Sporting Life. Aside from length, there is nothing that makes 30 for 30 explicitly better than everything I just listed. That’s not a bad thing because all of these feeds are really high quality, but it leads to a lot of content.
If you are still on the fence, maybe consider waiting for the episode that most interests you and starting with that one. “The Trials of Dan and Dave” is already out while “Yankees Suck” releases on July 4. I have not listened to the final three episodes, so I have to go with ESPN’s episode previews to describe them.
On the Ice
“On the Ice” explores how 20 ordinary women with no expedition experience whatsoever, did something many thought was impossible. It started with a classified ad in a newspaper, an open call for women to trek to the North Pole, and ended with a profoundly life-changing experience. On the ice, they came face to face with just how deadly the Arctic can be, along with the supreme beauty of the top of our planet.
A Queen of Sorts
In 2012, poker star Phil Ivey pulled off an elaborate baccarat scheme that won him over $20 million from casinos worldwide. The huge wins got international attention when one casino refused to cash out his chips, and another sued to get its money back. Ivey had cheated, the casinos said, by figuring out a way to know what the value of the cards were in advance. But while Ivey has always been the face of the case, he couldn’t have done it at all without the help of a secretive mastermind named “Kelly” Cheung Yin Sun, who crafted this whole scheme to get revenge.
The Fighter Inside
How does a professional boxer, convicted of armed robbery in 1975, end up boxing on live national television in matches called by Marv Albert — from inside a state penitentiary? This is the unlikely and mostly forgotten story of an inmate who had a dream, and the visionary prison warden who turned it into reality.
Of those remaining three episodes, the Phil Ivey one most interests me. Being the only episode that is set in my lifetime, I am already a little familiar with Ivey’s alleged cheating scheme. Getting the backstory on that topic should be worthwhile. Even if it doesn’t live up to expectations, I’m still going to learn about an interesting sports-related tale, just as I did with “The Trials of Dan and Dave” and with “Yankees Suck.” That is what 30 for 30 is all about.
Bottom Line – TL;DR: ESPN has another long-form storytelling hit with 30 for 30, giving the network a strong documentary podcast series.