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Decoder Ring

Author: Slate Podcasts

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Decoder Ring is the show about cracking cultural mysteries. In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

47 Episodes
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Custer's Revenge

Custer's Revenge

2021-12-2348:512

Custer's Revenge is widely considered one of the worst video games ever made. Originally released as part of a series of Swedish Erotica-branded adult games for the Atari 2600, Custer's Revenge involves moving a pixelated General Custer across the screen to rape an Indigenous woman tied to a post. It's unfathomably racist, sexist, and un-fun to play. Today on Decoder Ring we tell the story of how Custer's Revenge came to be, the people who protested it, and the even stranger story of how the whole thing became a considered trolling operation. This is the final episode of our current season, but we'll be back in 2022. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Note: This episode has been edited to correct a misstatement about Women Against Pornography's aims. The group did not advocate the banning of pornography. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Fame That Got Away

The Fame That Got Away

2021-12-1445:284

Today on Decoder Ring: Three stories about fame, and one about monkeys. Are primates susceptible to celebrity endorsements? What does fame do to the mind of a famous person? Who were the famous tattooed ladies of the 1880s? And what's it like to be in a rising rock band, only to see everything fall apart over a beer commercial? If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Truly Tasteless Jokes

Truly Tasteless Jokes

2021-12-0751:464

Note: This episode is about offensive material, and so contains explicit and offensive language. Truly Tasteless Jokes were a series of joke books that dominated the bestsellers list during the 1980s. An equal opportunity joke book: Truly Tasteless Jokes were collections of jokes ranging from Helen Keller, to dead babies, to sexist and racist jokes that from the vantage of 2021, seem entirely abject. For readers in the 1980’s though, these books were ubiquitous. On this episode we dig into the history of these books and their author Ashton Applewhite. It’s a story that involves the tangled history of 1960’s free speech politics, conservative backlash, and the strange moment in the 1980’s when left and right wing speech politics converged to help make these books mainstream.  If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In literature, the choice to become a vampire is a metaphor for transformative experiences. On this episode, we bring you a story from Slate's Hi-Phi Nation podcast, which explores problems in contemporary philosophy through story. From real-life blood suckers, to Lord Byron, to Twilight, vampires are a tool for philosophers to think about otherness, sexuality, and the transformative experiences we all go through in life. To listen to more Hi-Phi Nation, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
You Just Lost The Game

You Just Lost The Game

2021-11-2327:322

When you think about the game, you lose the game. When you lose the game you must declare that you have lost the game, causing all others in your vicinity to also lose the game. That’s it, that’s the game.  The game is mind game that trades on a quirk of human psychology, and is so intensely viral that it went from a college science fiction club in-joke to an endemic mind virus in only a few decades. If you’re a bit older and already know about the game, you likely learned about it in the aughts, but the game continues to spread through social media, most recently on TikTok, where the game became a meme over lockdown. On this episode, we examine the game to figure out how it works, where it came from, and the curious psychology that powers its viral nature.  Note: A version of this episode was originally released as a secret bonus to our 2018 episode “The Incunabula Papers”, but this is its official public release. The episode has been updated with new voice over, sound design, and minor story changes to bring it up to date in 2021. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Alberta Rat War

The Alberta Rat War

2021-11-1641:502

Rats live wherever people live, with one exception: the Canadian province of Alberta. A rat sighting in Alberta is a major local event that mobilizes the local government to identify and eliminate any hint of infestation. Rat sightings makes the local news. Alberta prides itself on being the sole rat-free territory in the world, but in order to achieve this feat, it had to go to war with the rat. On this episode of Decoder Ring we recount the story of how Alberta won this war, through accidents of history and geography, advances in poison technology, interventionist government policy, mass education programs, rat patrols, killing zones and more. The explanation tells us a lot about rats and a lot about humans, two species that are more alike than we like to think.   If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Great Helga Hype

The Great Helga Hype

2021-11-0957:124

In the summer of 1986, both Time Magazine and Newsweek ran blockbuster cover stories on the same subject: a secret cache of provocative, intimate paintings by Andrew Wyeth, one of America's most famous artists. These paintings were completed over fifteen years and all featured the same, often-nude model named Helga, and had been hidden from his wife and the public for 15 years. The implication was obvious: Wyeth had been having an affair with this woman. But just as the story was breaking in Time and Newsweek, it began to unravel, and something even stranger and more complex emerged. On this episode we examine the story of these secret paintings, the backlash to that story, and question if, maybe, that backlash was itself overdrawn. This is the first episode of our winter season. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can get ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Selling Out

Selling Out

2021-08-0649:207

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey invited Jonathan Franzen to come on her show to discuss his new novel The Corrections. A month later she withdrew the invitation, kicking off a media firestorm. The Oprah-Franzen Book Club Dust-Up of 2001 was a moment when two ways of thinking about selling out smashed into each other, and one of them—the one that was on its way out already— crashed and burned in public, barely to be seen again. So today on Decoder Ring, what happened to selling out? This is the last episode of our current season. See you in a few months! If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. For a behind-the-scenes look into some of the articles we read when we create the show, check out our Pocket collection at http://getpocket.com/slate . Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Tattoo Flash

Tattoo Flash

2021-07-2750:151

Time does funny thing to everything, but especially to tattoos. Today, four stories about tattoos whose meanings have shifted with the passage of years, decades, or centuries: first, a look into an archive of 300 preserved tattooed skins, then a personal investigation into into the Tasmanian Devil tattoo, the story of the Zune tattoo guy, and finally mistranslated Chinese character tattoos. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Tootsie Shot

The Tootsie Shot

2021-07-2038:13

You know the Tootsie Shot. It’s that shot from the movies: a really busy midtown street, protagonist smack in the middle of it all, everyone going somewhere. It’s one of the most recognizable shots in film. It can be found in Working Girl, Midnight Cowboy, Wall Street, Heartburn, Elf, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Devil Wears Prada, The Wolf of Wall Street, and so many more. This is a short, transitional moment that often comes in the middle of a montage and takes up 30 seconds max, and sometimes just two or three. It’s just someone walking down a crowded street. So why is it so sticky? If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Who Killed The Segway?

Who Killed The Segway?

2021-07-1342:584

In the year 2000, Dan Kois was a junior book agent working on selling a secretive book proposal called IT, a codename for what would eventually be revealed as the Segway personal scooter. This is the story of the invention and development of a potentially revolutionary device, how Dan may or may not have doomed it, how the hype got out of control, and how that speculation helped birth the modern internet. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Sign Painter

The Sign Painter

2021-07-0657:252

Ilona Granet was a New York art-scene fixture who won the praise of the art world when she put up anti-harassment street signs in lower Manhattan in the mid- 1980s. Her career seemed like a sure thing, but three decades on, and so much more art later, it still hasn’t materialized, even as her contemporaries are now hanging in museums. This episode is not about the familiar myth of making it, but the mystery of not making it. What happens, to an artist—to anyone—when they’re good enough, but that’s not enough? If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
That Seattle Muzak Sound

That Seattle Muzak Sound

2021-06-2943:364

If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. On this episode, we explore the misunderstood history of Muzak, formerly the world’s foremost producers of elevator music. Out of the technological innovations of World War I, Muzak emerged as one of the most significant musical institutions of the 20th century, only to become a punching bag as the 1960’s began to turn public perceptions of popular music on its head. By the 80’s and 90’s, Muzak was still the butt of jokes, and was trying to figure out a new direction as they happened to employ many players in Seattle's burgeoning grunge scene. This is the story of how different ideas about pop music butted heads throughout the 20th century, including inside Muzak’s offices.  Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
To say that hydration is an invention is only a slight exaggeration. Back in the 1970’s and ‘80s, no one carried bottled water with them, but by the ‘90s it was a genuine status object. How did bottled water transform itself from a small, European luxury item to the single largest beverage category in America? It took both technological innovation, but even more importantly it took savvy marketing from brands like Gatorade and Perrier to turn the concept of hydration, and dehydration into problem they could solve via their wares. Today, hydration has branched out from athletics to wellness to skincare, but the actual science behind all of it is pretty sketchy. If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The Soap Opera Machine

The Soap Opera Machine

2021-06-1551:393

Welcome to a brand new season of Decoder Ring! On this episode, we investigate the wild world of soap operas through the lens of one legendary, decades-long, ripped-from-the-headlines storyline. The rape of Marty Seabrook dared to combine the melodrama of soaps with a serious examination of sexual assault, and over time morphed from an award-winning story about believing victims into a redemption arc for the rapist at its heart. This is the story of those who made it happen: the producers, actors, writers, and the soap opera machine itself: the perpetually moving, forever-churning, complex system that create the miracle that is the daily soap opera.  If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Right now Decoder Ring is working on a full season of new episodes coming this June, but in the meantime we wanted to share this episode from our friends over at The Sporkful. Each week on The Sporkful Dan Pashman and his guests obsess about food to learn more about people. This episode is the first in a five-part series called Mission: ImPASTAble. The series follows Dan as he embarks on an epic quest: to invent a new pasta shape, get it made, and actually sell it. It's great! To hear the rest of the series, go subscribe to The Sporkful on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
What took blue food so long to catch on? Today it’s all over the freezer aisle, in candies for kids, in tortilla chips, and novelty foods, but it wasn’t very long ago that food experts agreed: blue food was an impossible sell. Their best evidence was a study from the 1970’s in which subjects were served blue steaks to sickening effect. On this episode, we uncover the strange, misinformation-stuffed history of blue food, the rise of blue raspberry, and what to make of the blue food experiment that made those people sick. It may have something to do with Alfred Hitchcock. This episode was produced in collaboration with Proof, from America's Test Kitchen. Proof is a podcast that investigates the food we love. Subscribe to Proof on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify. Special programming note: Decoder Ring is going seasonal! That means you won’t hear from us for a while, but we’ll be back in 2021 with a bunch of new stories released week-by-week. Thanks for sticking with us, we’re excited to try something new, and we’ll see you soon.  Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In 1983, the Cabbage Patch Kids were released, causing widespread pandemonium in toy stores and in the media. How did a children'a toy inspire such bad adult behavior? On this episode of Decoder Ring we explore the strange world of the Cabbage Patch Kids to figure out why they hit it so big. The answer involves butt tattoos, slightly grotesque faces, industrial innovations, an origin story in a cabbage patch, and serious accusations of copyright theft. Slate Plus members get ad-free podcasts and bonus episodes of shows like Dear Prudence and Slow Burn. Sign up now to listen and support our work. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
How did Hanoi Jane become Exercise Jane? This is the second part of our two-parter on Jane Fonda's Workout. If you haven't yet, listen to the previous episode "Jane and Leni" first, it will give you the full context for this episode. This time around we explore how an academy award winning actor and controversial political activist managed to transform herself into a category defining fitness icon. It's a story involving a persistent VHS entrepreneur, dozens of bizarre celebrity workout tapes, and Tricky Dick, himself. Slate Plus members get ad-free podcasts and bonus episodes of shows like Dear Prudence and Slow Burn. Sign up now to listen and support our work. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
When Jane Fonda granted us an interview to talk about her famous workout tape, things didn't go as planned. On part one of a special two-part Decoder Ring, we explore the decades-long friendship of Jane Fonda and Leni Cazden, the relationship that birthed the workout that changed the world. It's a story of creation, regret, fame, forgiveness, trauma, survival, politics, and exercise. In two weeks, we return with part two: the story of the bestselling VHS tape of all time. Slate Plus members get ad-free podcasts and bonus episodes of shows like Dear Prudence and Slow Burn. Sign up now to listen and support our work. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
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Comments (22)

Dannielle Furness

, no

Dec 4th
Reply

April

Jesus Willa sounds like she's yelling

Aug 26th
Reply

Chak Olate

In The Tootsie Shot, I was disappointed they didn't even mention The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She did it in 1970, before any of the movies mentioned.

Jul 24th
Reply

ISN

Love the subject matter, research is great. however I could not listen to the last episode about the color blue in food. The hosts voice is so lazy... The end of every sentence is filled with gravel. it's too bad because it is an excellent podcast but the lazy delivery makes it non-listenable

Dec 26th
Reply

Jesstifide

80’s Massachusetts we called it an Ape Drape.

Aug 23rd
Reply

Somnambulist_23

Can you do an episode on Four Loco? 🙏

Jul 25th
Reply

Yasmine C

I'll never forget that poop game I used to play on my phone. It was adorable. I think it was called super poo. 💩💩💩

Apr 28th
Reply

upendar kattal

I'm from India and I remember my father hating laugh track on some Indian shows they used on. but I really enjoy them 😀

Apr 17th
Reply

GAlexSan

Fascinating history that is a good perspective to realize today is not necessarily hugely different from moments in the past.

Mar 2nd
Reply

Tanja Budde

Hi

Jan 18th
Reply (1)

Alissa Maxwell

But how many people completely broke from reality and descended into madness?

Aug 3rd
Reply

archnof0

I can't believe you tackled this subject. I hate to tell you this but I have hated laugh tracks from the very first moment. I do recall loving The Wonder Years for eschewing them. Being as old as I am I listen to Jack Benny on radio and loved him on television and it didn't feel strange to me at all as you described. as you say, I always hated to be told where to laugh. the only thing I came to appreciate listening to your exposition is how the laugh track synchronized with comedies so that without them the show didn't make much sense.

May 28th
Reply

Maeve Lynch

I have lots of feelings about this guy but it sounds like he was in prison for less time than the time his victims have tried to correct the fraud.

May 14th
Reply

Scott Eigenbrode

how anyone can come away from hearing this story rooting for this guy escapes me.

Feb 11th
Reply (3)

Barby Hotard

Waiting for more, love it!

Jan 18th
Reply

Glade Runner

I think the Hotel Art bollocks was just the limit for me. unsubscribe

Dec 5th
Reply

Michael Martinez

I love this podcast! It's such a cool concept, and I love the range of topics.

Dec 4th
Reply

TCcap12

can we all agree that this show should post episodes more often than on a monthly basis? I would like to hear episodes like this more often

Oct 9th
Reply
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