If My Words Did Glow: Podcasts for the Next Generation of Deadheads

How two enterprising Grateful Dead podcasts found new ways to explore the canon.

There’s no shortage of podcasts about music these days. From the recently released Pixies podcast that details the recording of the band’s latest album to the hit whodunit podcast Winds of Change, plenty of creators have hit their stride covering the stories behind bands and their work. And in some cases, a band’s catalogue is large enough to warrant multiple podcasts. Such is the case with the Grateful Dead. With over 2,000 full concerts available for streaming and 22 official album releases to their name, Grateful Dead fans have more than their fair share of music to debate.

Enter the Grateful Dead centric-podcasts 36 From the Vault and Brokedown Podcast. Both have amassed thousands of devoted listeners, thanks to their accessible approach for those who want to learn more about the pioneering San Francisco outfit. The shows use different lenses with which to view the band—36 utilizes the band’s 36-volume official live series Dick’s Picks, while Brokedown invites friends and famous fans to tell the story of their experience as a “deadhead”—and their contrasting approaches reveal just how many entry points there are to the Dead’s universe. Both programs are instructive listens for other podcasters considering making shows about popular bands with seemingly impenetrable catalogues.

36’s genesis occurred in the early 2010s, when veteran music writers Steven Hyden and Rob Mitchum built a friendship around traveling to Phish shows in the Midwest. These trips often involved long car rides through the middle of nowhere, leaving ample time to listen to—and debate—music.

Mitchum had appeared several times on Hyden’s former music podcast Celebration Rock, often making the case for jam bands he thought were unfairly written off. Having built a rapport, Hyden suggested they do a podcast about the Dead with a framework that could engage even the most casual fans—a dissection of the aforementioned Dick’s Picks.

These live LPs consist of recordings selected by the Dead’s late archivist, Dick Latvala, who chose shows based on his personal preferences. They encompass almost every era of the band, but the sequence isn’t chronological. The series’ decade-hopping nature suited the hosts’ freewheeling approach to the material and helped them keep the conversation interesting by allowing them to cover each performance’s historical context.

“If it was just talking about the concerts, I wouldn’t be as interested in doing the show,” says Hyden, a cultural critic at Uproxx. “People make fun of us because it’ll be, like, minute 80 before we start talking about the show. But the Dead themselves need so much context. They’re a different band, depending on which era you’re talking about.”

What makes 36 From the Vault a compulsively listenable program is how its structure lends itself to a variety of critical talking points. Some episodes start with a broader lens on the group’s catalog—Episode 4, which covers Dick Pick’s 4, situates the 1970 Madison Square Garden concert on the LP within the band’s discography. Other episodes consider performances that took place around the concerts Latvala selected, some of which many fans consider superior to his choices, for varying reasons.

Debate and discourse are two key elements of the Grateful Dead experience and Hyden and Mitchum are no strangers to sparring with fans about their opinions. Both are regularly criticized by diehard Deadheads on social media, often minutes after they’ve posted an episode.

To help new fans understand what all the fuss is about, there’s Brokedown Podcast, hosted by the writer Jonathan Hart. Brokedown Podcast takes a much broader approach than 36 From The Vault. Each episode starts with an overarching theme, such as a retrospective on an album or an interview with a musician guest like members of The Decemberists, Real Estate, and Little Feat. Hart lets the program flow from there.

“One of the things I learned from the Grateful Dead is that you just run out on the whim and see what you can find,” he says. “Most episodes, I start with the guest, talk with them, and sometimes they give me a thread to grab onto [for] the rest of the episode.”

Hart’s shows are slightly more structured than 36 From the Vault, as he spends the last half of each episode playing Dead tracks and other songs that came up in the discussions. While the end goal of each conversation is different, Hart mentions he learned a lot about hosting by listening to Marc Maron’s interviews, where the comedian relates to guests with personal anecdotes before ceding the floor and becoming an active listener. “My wife reminds me, ‘Shut up and listen,’” he says.

In the way both 36 From the Vault and Brokedown Podcast successfully untangle the knotty musical and historical significance of the Grateful Dead, they offer a wider lesson for podcasters who cover niche subjects—namely, make your show informative and inviting to listeners interested in exploring a new subject.

"When you focus on a specific artist, you're not going to have as big of an audience, but you're going to have a more loyal audience," Hyden says. "You want good research. You want to make sure that people care about the band. And you want them to feel like they're going to learn something from your show."

—Corban Goble