Decoder Ring

Decoder Ring

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.


November 22, 2022 46 min
For about two decades towards the end of the Victorian era, in the 1870s and 1880s, a large bustle-enhanced bottom was the height of fashion. In this episode we explore how it’s connected to today’s big booty craze. We look at the bustle’s history with a curator fascinated by old undergarments; consider the various theories about its popularity with the author Heather Radke; and then hone in the tragic story of Sarah Baartman. The ...
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In the history of viral images, #TheDress has got to be in the top 10. This unassuming photo of a party dress kicked off a global debate when people realized they were seeing it completely differently. Is it black and blue, or white and gold? In today’s episode, we’ll talk to someone who was there when the photo was first taken, and the BuzzFeed writer whose post briefly broke the internet. Then we go down the optical rabbit hole w...
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November 10, 2022 1 min
Decoder Ring is back with a new season of juicy topics, like.... Remember the viral phenomenon and optical mind-blower known as “The Dress”? What does another peculiar piece of clothing from the past—the bustle—tell us about fashion trends today? And, what can we learn from the rise and fall of one of the most notorious personal injury law firms in America? You can hear these episodes and more on the new season of Decoder Ring. Lau...
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October 12, 2022 47 min
McGruff the Crime Dog arrived on the scene at the dawn of the 1980s, just as a firehose of anti-drug PSAs was inundating the youth of America. These messages didn’t always work as intended—but they did work their way into the long term memories of the kids who heard them.  In the second episode of our two-part series on the weird world of PSAs and very special episodes, we look at how the McGruff Smart Kids Album influenced everyth...
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October 4, 2022 37 min
McGruff the Crime Dog arrived on the scene at the dawn of the 1980s, just as a firehose of anti-drug PSAs was inundating the youth of America. These messages didn’t always work as intended—but they did work their way into the long term memories of the kids who heard them.  In the first of two episodes, we take a look at PSAs and their strange afterlife through the lens of a trench-coat wearing bloodhound and his bizarre, yet catchy...
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Host Willa Paskin talks about topics versus narratives, translating fabulists, and creating a sound landscape for the world of Mae West. Slate Plus members have access to this whole interview. Sign up for Slate Plus to access this exclusive episode and support the show. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
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In the early 1930s, Mae West’s dirty talk and hip swiveling walk made her one of the biggest movie stars in America. But before West hit the big-screen, she was prosecuted for staging not one, but two scandalous plays. In this episode, we look at how West honed her persona when she was under the bright lights of Broadway and the flashbulbs of the tabloids — and briefly behind bars. More than a century later, her career arc offers a...
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August 9, 2022 41 min
When you think of an alien abduction, what do you picture? Humanoid creatures, medical experiments, lost memories retrieved through hypnosis? That narrative was largely unknown until Betty and Barney Hill went public about their own alien abduction in the 1960s. Betty Hill’s niece, Kathleen Marden, recounts how the story went viral and her aunt and uncle became unwitting celebrities. Then professors Susan Lepselter, Chris Bader, Jo...
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August 2, 2022 48 min
Rod McKuen sold multiple millions of poetry books in the 60s and 70s. He released dozens of albums, was a regular on late night, and was even nominated for an Oscar. So, how did the most salable poet in American history simply disappear? On today’s episode, Slate writer Dan Kois went searching for Rod McKuen, a famous poet who isn’t so famous anymore. We’ll hear from Stephanie Burt, Mike Chasar and Barry Alfonso, author of Rod’s bi...
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What do we lose if we lose the mall? 70 years into their existence, these hulking temples to commerce are surprisingly resilient and filled with contradictions. In this episode, Alexandra Lange, the author of the new book Meet Me at the Fountain: an Inside History of the Mall walks us through the atriums, escalators, and food courts of this singular suburban space. We also hear from mall-goers whose personal experiences help us mak...
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July 19, 2022 1 min
Decoder Ring is coming back with a new season featuring a whole new set of questions.... Like, is the shopping mall really dying? How did a poet who sold millions of books and records 50 years ago, come to be completely forgotten? And what does a century old Broadway scandal involving Mae West have to tell us about the creation of celebrity? You can hear these episodes and more on the new season of Decoder Ring. Launching July 26, ...
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May 17, 2022 41 min
When did everyone become a storyteller? Decades after George Lucas and Steve Jobs made storytelling a big business, every company now wants to tell “Our Story.” Instagram and TikTok let everyone else tell their “stories,” and the number of people calling themselves storytellers on LinkedIn is now more than half a million. Something we have done for the entirety of our existence as a species has become just another fad.  In this epi...
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May 10, 2022 35 min
In the 1970s, a song about protesting truckers topped the music charts in multiple countries, and kicked off a pop culture craze for CB radios. In early 2022, that same song became an anthem for a new trucker-led protest movement in Canada and the US. How did C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” come to exist, and what had it been trying to say?  For this episode, which was inspired by a listener’s question, we’ve updated a story that originally...
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May 3, 2022 39 min
In 2004, the indie flick Sideways was released in just four theaters, but it had a big impact, earning five Oscar nominations and $110 million worldwide. “I thought it was just going to be a nice little comedy,” filmmaker Alexander Payne tells us. Instead, the movie became known for something else so notable that it has a name: The Sideways Effect.  In this episode, we explore all the outsized effects of this one little movie on th...
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April 26, 2022 47 min
When we think of method acting, we tend to think of actors going a little over the top for a role – like Jared Leto, who allegedly sent his colleagues dead rats when he was preparing to be The Joker, or Robert De Niro refusing to break character on the set of the movie Raging Bull. But that’s not how method acting began. On this episode of Decoder Ring: we look at how “The Method” came to be so well-known and yet so widely misunder...
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In the early 2000s, an arms race broke out in the world of men’s shaving. After decades with razors that had only one blade and then decades with razors that had only two, the number of blades rapidly spiraled up and up and up. It’s a skirmish sometimes referred to as The Razor Blade Wars, and it was a face-off about innovation, competition, capitalism, masculinity, and most of all, how strange things can become after you’ve create...
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April 12, 2022 1 min
Decoder Ring is coming back with a new season featuring a whole new set of questions…and some good surprising answers. Like, how did razors come to have such a ridiculous amount of blades on them? Did one line from Paul Giammati in the movie Sideways really change Americans’ wine buying habits? And why is our understanding of method acting wrong? You can hear these episodes and more on the new season of Decoder Ring. Launching Apri...
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December 23, 2021 47 min
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 ca...
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December 14, 2021 44 min
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...
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December 7, 2021 50 min
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 thoug...
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