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2 podcasts look back at the messy decades of the American counter-culture

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. At the recent Tribeca Festival, two nonfiction podcasts were honored for their look back at the messy decades of the American counterculture. As podcast critic Nick Quah finds, these podcast's similarities run deeper than just the time period. Here's his review.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: Earlier this summer, the Tribeca Festival, formerly known as the Tribeca Film Festival, until they started to recognize other media formats, gave their top narrative audio nonfiction awards to two podcasts that have a lot in common. For one thing, the two shows, "Mother Country Radicals" and "I Was Never There," are projects that take listeners back into the era of the American counterculture. Also, both shows deal with family affairs. "Mother Country Radicals," which won the award for best audio storytelling in nonfiction, explores the history of the Weather Underground, the militant left-wing organization that opposed American imperialism over the course of the '70s, sometimes through violent means. The series tells the story from the inside out as the podcast was created by Zayd Ayers Dohrn, a playwright who happens to be the son of two former leaders from the group, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MOTHER COUNTRY RADICALS")

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: I knew from my very first memories when I was 2 or 3 years old that the FBI was chasing us. But I didn't know exactly what FBI was, why they or it wanted to catch us or what would happen if they did. It felt more abstract, a childhood bogeyman, something I knew was bad the same way I knew, like any kid knows, that my family had to be good.

BERNARDINE DOHRN: Did you know that you had secrets that you couldn't talk about? I don't know what you knew, but we tried to make it fun for you.

QUAH: "Mother Country Radicals" is a remarkable document. It's detailed and layered and tricky at many turns. Zayd walks listeners through the experience and evolution of the group, carefully placing them within the context of its historical moment, marked by the Vietnam War and the rise of many overlapping undergrounds, including the Black Liberation Army. He portrays the young people in the movement seriously and empathetically as ordinary people responding extraordinarily to the political problems of their time. And he's largely successful, helped in no small part but the sheer strength of his recorded interviews. Zayd draws from numerous conversations not only with his parents but also with living former members of the broader revolutionary network, including Angela Davis. They all have stories to tell. But actually, even though it's been four decades since the Weather Underground dissolved, they still have some secrets to keep.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MOTHER COUNTRY RADICALS")

AYERS DOHRN: And this is actually a difficult part of this story to write about, to research. People don't want to talk about the most militant actions of the underground, who built bombs and who planted them.

CATHY WILKERSON: That's not something I really want to go into.

JEFF JONES: I'm going to let you down, Zayd. I really don't want to.

LAURA WHITEHORN: Oh, no, I'm not going to talk about that. Sorry.

ELEANOR STEIN: I don't think I want to go there.

JONES: I don't remember.

AYERS DOHRN: That's right. I have other people who do remember.

JONES: Well, shame on them.

(LAUGHTER)

QUAH: Meanwhile, "I Was Never There," which won special jury mention for the same category, focuses more on the family dynamics. The series follows a mother-daughter duo, Jamie and Karen Zelermyer, as they work to uncover more information on Marsha Ferber, a West Virginian suburbanite turned regional hippie folk hero who disappeared in the late '80s. In many ways, "I Was Never There" is a classic true crime podcast, filled with the usual beats - a cold case, an amateur investigation, more questions than answers. But Marsha's disappearance is personal to the Zelermyers. Karen, the mother, had been a close friend of Marsha when both were back-to-the-land homesteaders living in the same communal house. As the Zelermyers dig further into her disappearance, the series becomes a portrait of the West Virginia hippie subculture in the '70s and '80s, a localized reflection of how many Americans were internalizing the politics of the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "I WAS NEVER THERE")

KAREN ZELERMYER: I'd been an activist protesting the war for years. We'd been doing all kinds of actions, and it was just starting to feel really pointless, like nothing was changing. There was a whole wing of the activist community that was leaning towards taking up arms. And to me, that felt really crazy. I just started feeling more and more like the only solution was to pull out, to just say, this is all too [expletive] up. We were going to show the world there was a different way to live.

QUAH: The two podcasts make a fascinating double billing, in part due to their contrasts. The former keeps the story focused on the political struggle. The latter, meanwhile, brings the focus into the home, framing the counterculture around personal terms. But they're far more interesting as sister projects. Taken collectively, the podcasts offer a vivid window into a historical moment when ordinary Americans looked upon the intractable problems of their time and radically reimagined how things could be. Of course, their efforts were deeply imperfect. Many of these groups suffered from gender and racial disparities. The extremism of some of their political actions gives pause. And to some extent, "I Was Never There" and "Mother Country Radicals" grapple with this as the storytelling often features older subjects reflecting upon the choices they made as younger activists.

It's hard to listen to these stories and not be stirred. Yes, they speak of a moment that was volatile and, at times, dangerous - in some ways, not unlike today. But it was also a time of profound political imagination. These were people bold enough to dream of a better, more equitable world. Even bolder, they were also people who risked their lives to build it.

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Quah