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.

Episodes

April 10, 2024 37 mins
Magazines have fallen on hard times – especially the weekly news, fashion, and celebrity mags that once dominated newsstands. The revenue from magazine racks has plummeted in recent years, and many magazines have stopped appearing in print or shut down altogether. And yet, there is something growing in the checkout aisle: one-off publications, each devoted to a single topic, known as “bookazines.” Last year, over 1,200 different bo...
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In 1986, Andrew Wyeth was the most famous painter in America. He was a household name, on the cover of magazines and tapped to paint presidents. And then he revealed a secret cache of 240 pieces of artwork, many provocative, all featuring the same nude female model. This collection, called The Helga Pictures, had been completed over 15 years and hidden from his wife, until they were revealed and wound up on the covers of both Time ...
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March 13, 2024 42 mins
Like a manager or an agent or a publicist, a stylist has become a kind of must-have accessory for well-dressed, A-list celebrities. It’s just expected that they will have hired someone to select the clothes they’ll wear at public appearances. But this was not always the case.  In today’s episode, Avery Trufelman, host of Articles of Interest, will guide us through the collapse of a certain kind of Hollywood glamor; to the rise of a...
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February 28, 2024 43 mins
Thirty years ago, a new kind of soda arrived in select stores. Instead of crowing about how spectacular it was, it offered up a liquid shrug, a fizzy irony. OK Soda was an inside joke for people who knew soda wasn’t cool. But what exactly was the punchline? In today’s episode, we’re going to ask how Coca-Cola, a company predicated on the idea that soda is more than "OK," ever bankrolled such a project. It was either a corporate att...
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February 14, 2024 33 mins
The eerie similarity of coffee shops all over the world was so confounding to Kyle Chayka that it led him to write the new book Filterworld: How Algorithms Are Flattening Culture. In today’s episode, Kyle’s going to walk us through the recent history of the cafe, to help us see how digital behavior is altering a physical space hundreds of years older than the internet itself, and how those changes are happening everywhere—it’s just...
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February 7, 2024 1 min
We’re back with a new batch of cultural mysteries! This year, we’re putting out more new episodes—like many more of them. We’ll be diving down a new rabbit hole every two weeks all year long. Starting with a question hiding in plain sight: why do so many coffee shops look the same? We’re also heading back to the early 1990s to ask if you can successfully sell a soda by celebrating that it’s just… OK? You can hear these episodes and...
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November 15, 2023 47 mins
In 1992, a Minnesota-based software company known for its educational hit The Oregon Trail released another simulation-style game to school districts across the country. Freedom! took kids on a journey along the Underground Railroad, becoming the first American software program to use slavery as its subject matter. Less than four months later, it was pulled from the market. In this episode, we revisit this well-intentioned, but fl...
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November 8, 2023 37 mins
From the moment it was released in 1995, The Rules was controversial. Some people loved it—and swore that the dating manual’s throwback advice helped them land a husband. Others thought it was retrograde hogwash that flew in the face of decades of feminist progress. The resulting brouhaha turned the book into a cultural phenomenon. In this episode, Slate’s Heather Schwedel explores where The Rules came from, how it became so popula...
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We receive a lot of fantastic show ideas from our listeners—and we’re grateful for each and every one. For our latest mailbag episode, we’re tackling five of your questions, including “Why the hell do we teach kids to play the recorder?” (We’re paraphrasing a bit.) Also: We’ll explore the rise and fall of the stretch limo, the incredible versatility of the word “like,” the meaning of the “Baby on Board” sign, and why it took so lon...
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October 25, 2023 41 mins
In the mid-1990s, the prime time drama Melrose Place became a home to hundreds of pieces of contemporary art—and no one noticed. In this episode, Isaac Butler tells the story of the artist collective that smuggled subversive quilts, sperm-shaped pool floats, and dozens of other provocative works onto the set of the hit TV show. The project, In the Name of the Place, inspired a real-life exhibition and tested the ability of mass med...
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October 18, 2023 45 mins
Judging from teen dramas on Netflix, the slow dance seems to be alive and well. But when you talk to actual teens, it’s clear this time-honored tradition is on life support. In this episode, we trace the history of slow dancing from its origins in partner dances like the waltz to the modern “zombie sway” seen at middle-school dances and high-school proms. Plus, former slow dancers offer up stiff-armed, nostalgia-soaked stories abou...
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October 11, 2023 1 min
We’re back with a new batch of cultural mysteries! This season, Decoder Ring explores the decline of an awkward yet unforgettable rite of passage: slow dancing. And, how did millions of TV viewers miss the experimental art installation that was embedded in the 1990s primetime drama Melrose Place? Plus, stories about stretch limos, an ill-fated video game from the makers of Oregon Trail, and the enduring appeal of a controversial da...
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Once you start listening for catchphrases in everyday life—you can’t stop hearing them. From the radio era’s “Holy mackerel!” to Fonzie’s “Ayyy!” to Urkel’s multiple go-to lines on Family Matters, we explore the irresistible quotables from sitcoms, movies and social media that have burrowed into our collective lexicon. Oh, just one more thing… bazinga! (Did I do that?) This episode was written by Willa Paskin, who produces Decoder...
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August 2, 2023 42 mins
When Slate’s Evan Chung was a kid, he was obsessed with a mysterious advertisement that ran for decades in the scouting magazine Boys’ Life. Under the enticing headline “You Can Float on Air,” the ad assured Evan—and generations of scouts—that a personal hovercraft could be theirs for just a few bucks.  In this episode, the adult version of Evan journeys halfway across the country to wield power tools, summon his latent scouting s...
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July 26, 2023 36 mins
Kissing—the romantic, sexual, steamy kind—is so ingrained in us that it just seems like a fact of life. Like breathing or eating, we just do it. But what if it’s not like that at all?  In this episode, we’re going to look at passionate kissing, well, dispassionately, not as something instinctual and innate but as a cultural practice. We’re going to backtrack through history in search of the origins of the kiss, with some surprises...
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The mosh pit has a reputation as a violent place where (mostly) white guys vent their aggression. There’s some truth to that, but it’s also a place bound by camaraderie and—believe it or not—etiquette. In this episode, we explore the unwritten rules of this 50-year-old, live-music phenomenon with punks, concertgoers and a heavy metal physicist. Decoder Ring is produced by Willa Paskin with Katie Shepherd. This episode was written ...
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July 12, 2023 44 mins
Parmesan is a food—but it’s not just a food. Italy’s beloved cheese is often paired with a deep craving for tradition and identity. But its history also involves intrepid immigrants, lucrative businesses and an American version that’s probably available in your local grocery store. After a notorious debunker of Italian-cuisine myths claims this Wisconsin-made product is the real deal, we embark on a quest to answer the question: H...
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July 5, 2023 1 min
Join Decoder Ring as we unlock a whole new season of cultural mysteries. First, we’ll sniff around Italy’s best-loved cheese to test an incredible claim: Is the most authentic parmesan being made not in Parma—but in Wisconsin? Next, a group of seasoned concertgoers, hardcore punks and one heavy metal physicist help explain what’s going on inside mosh pits. Plus: a brief history of super sexy, on-the-mouth kissing. Hear these episod...
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May 10, 2023 38 mins
We pride ourselves on being grounded, rational beings, but flitting amongst us is a mystery: the Tooth Fairy. This flying piece of folklore is alive and well in the 21st century, handed down to kids in whatever way their parents see fit.  In this episode, with the help of Tinkerbell, Santa Claus, and some savvy humans who are trying to exploit this strange creature’s untapped intellectual property, we’ll explore the origins of this...
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Parking is one of the great paradoxes of American life. On the one hand, we have paved an ungodly amount of land to park our cars. On the other, it seems like it’s never enough.  Slate’s Henry Grabar has spent the last few years investigating how our pathological need for car storage determines the look, feel, and function of the places we live. It turns out our quest for parking has made some of our biggest problems worse. In th...
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