Business

Podcast Overload

In the middle of the pandemic my wife and I moved to Manhattan from Brooklyn. There would be less space for Gerda, our husky, but no more 45-minute car commutes and no more road rage. I would walk everywhere. And I would take Gerda with me.

Those first morning walks were exciting for both of us. As we rounded the island’s southern tip, I admired the view of the Brooklyn Bridge as Gerda lunged at scraps of food. But soon the charms of the garbage-strewn plaza in front of the Staten Island Ferry started to wear off, and the 1980s architecture of Battery Park City seemed to take on a generic look. With so much to sniff, Gerda was content, but I felt the need to fill the hours with something that would drown out the city noise and occupy my brain.

A friend recommended “Red Scare,” a cultural commentary podcast, pointing out that it was hosted by two self-described “bohemian layabouts” from the former Soviet Union, Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova. Since I’m from Belarus, my friend thought the show would speak to me.

When I was 15, my family left the Soviet Union as political refugees fleeing anti-Semitism. I made it through the local public high schools and a mediocre business college that left me with more student debt than knowledge, before I finally learned something while getting a master’s degree at a liberal university. Each of my 30 years in America had gradually chipped away at my once-rosy view of my adopted home as I battled my way out of poverty, material and spiritual.

Politically, I was on the left, the Marxist teachings of my Soviet youth only strengthened by the injustices I saw during my formative years in the United States. But in the past several years I’ve come to feel lonely on the political spectrum, finding moments of sanity in conversations with friends, rather than in publications that seem to favor opinion-driven pandering. Still, I looked to the news media for a reality check, hoping that someoneout there must have a clue. But where do you find sanity in an insane world?

When I started listening to “Red Scare” on my walks with Gerda, I felt like I had found a refreshing critique of the increasingly polarized political landscape. While situating themselves on the left, Ms. Khachiyan and Ms. Nekrasova didn’t shy away from calling out the excesses of so-called progressivism. They waded into the culture wars, highlighting the absurdity and cynicism of corporate media while emphasizing that the poor always seemed to get fleeced in the end.

The hosts went after the political naïveté of some leftists and criticized slogans like “Defund the Police,” noting that the police were more often than not from lower-middle-class and minority backgrounds. Ms. Khachiyan spoke highly of “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch, one of my favorite books.

On my rounds with Gerda, I came to think that the hosts shared a mature, European sensibility to go with a certain wisdom common to immigrants who have grown up without privilege and are able to see America with some clarity.

I wasn’t the only one enthralled with “Red Scare.” Patreon reports that it has roughly 12,000 supporters who collectively donate nearly $53,000 a month. Part of the show’s appeal has nothing to do with politics. Mixed into their dissections of current events, the hosts frequently discuss shopping, beauty regimens and bits of celebrity gossip. The show’s popularity is probably helped by the celebrity of Ms. Nekrasova, an actress who has appeared on “Succession” and “Only Murders in the Building.”

More often than not, I nodded along as I listened to back episodes. Gerda and I started spending more time on our walks, much to her delight, and my headphones discouraged strangers from trying to engage me in mind-numbing doggy chitchat. To celebrate her new outdoorsy lifestyle, Gerda took NASCAR-style laps around the dog run, chasing off the males who tried to hump her.

But somewhere along the way, the podcast began to grate on me. Maybe it was when Ms. Khachiyan offered a defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who fatally shot two men and wounded another during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin. (Mr. Rittenhouse was acquitted of criminal charges in 2021.) And it didn’t sit well with me when Ms. Khachiyan questioned the efficacy of vaccines in the efforts to curb Covid-19, describing herself as becoming “an even more conservative Covid truther.”

While “Red Scare” had played host to favorites of the so-called dirtbag left — Slavoj Zizek, Adam Curtis and John Waters — a guest in November 2021 was Alex Jones, the founder of the misinformation website Infowars and a prominent conspiracy theorist who described the killings of 27 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School as a hoax.

The hosts were apparently trying to rehabilitate his reputation, asking him softball questions like, “Do you feel like a caricature that the liberal media made you out to be?” A photo posted on Ms. Nekrasova’s Instagram account at the time of the interview shows the two hosts on either side of a smiling Mr. Jones, with Ms. Nekrasova’s arm around him. (Late last year Mr. Jones was ordered by a court to pay the victims’ families nearly $1.5 billion in damages.)

Ms. Khachiyan declined to comment about the apparent shift when I contacted her via email for this essay. Ms. Nekrasova did not reply to requests for comment. In a 2019 interview with The Face, the hosts complained about critics who have likened them to “crypto-fascists.” “The idea that we’re somehow dangerous or influencing discourse in a toxic way is unfair and misguided,” Ms. Nekrasova said. Her co-host added, “We are two chicks with an entertainment radio show that you can voluntarily opt in or out of. We’re not policymakers or political figures.”

Increasingly, I was dismayed by what I was hearing. Did they truly believe what they were saying? Was it a function of being children of Russian-speaking immigrants, whose conservatism, often tinged with racism and anti-socialist sentiment, is commonplace and one of the reasons I couldn’t wait to get out of my old Brooklyn neighborhood?

On it went, along with their talk about their shopping trips and spa routines. Worst of all was the careless spouting of increasingly provocative and unsubstantiated views. I found myself stopping 20 minutes into each episode, wondering why I was wasting my time. As I fumbled with my phone, Gerda looked at me judgmentally for interrupting our walks.

One day a “Red Scare” episode notification popped up on my phone. I hit the little x. Then I deleted the podcast.

Since then I’ve been mostly listening to music, which allows me to spend time with my thoughts as we navigate the narrow downtown streets. Gerda doesn’t seem to mind, as long as she has something to sniff.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine.

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