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'Dreamtown' podcast examines how legal marijuana transformed one small town


This is FRESH AIR. The new podcast "Dreamtown: The Story Of Adelanto" is about a small California desert town that turns to legal cannabis sales to try to revive its small economy. Critic Nick Quah sees it as a worthy addition to a handful of podcasts he calls civic noir, examining small city life, corruption and renewal.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: It's an image straight out of an old Western or the Bible. A small desert community finds itself on the brink of disaster when a stranger appears with a bold vision for the future. The dream was realized, and for a while, things were good until they weren't. In this case, the desert community is a tiny city called Adelanto, located just north of the greater Los Angeles area. Like so many other places in the United States, Adelanto was hard hit by the 2008 recession, and the city's finances were so dire it almost went bankrupt in 2014. That's when the stranger comes through. His name is John Woodard, but he goes by Bug. And the vision he brings is the dream of a modern gold rush - a legal marijuana economy.


DAVID WEINBERG: Bug's plan was to make Adelanto the first city in California to legalize commercial cannabis cultivation, which, it turns out, is a very difficult and complicated thing to pull off.

BETSY ZYKO: It's hard to overstate how much riskier and more dangerous the cannabis industry is because of the inconsistency between federal and state law.

WEINBERG: But still, Bug persisted. And his idea started to catch on with the rest of the city.

JOHN BUG WOODARD: The wheels are in motion. Ain't nobody getting in the way. I don't care if you're the sheriff. I don't care if you're the governor. I don't care who you are.

QUAH: Such is the setup for a limited audio documentary series called "Dreamtown: The Story Of Adelanto," the fascinating tale of crisis and capital told through the lens of a city's local politics. And just to paint a picture of how local the story is, in his quest to turn Adelanto into a legal weed hub, Bug runs for a seat on the city council and wins, spending only $700 on the effort. Adelanto's bet on weed pays off to some extent. And the city's finances begin to improve. But what starts out as a quirky tale of economic redevelopment quickly transforms into something else - a dense saga of shady real estate deals, zoning disputes and political corruption. Within a few years, federal investigators become a common sight in the city.

"Dreamtown" fits neatly into a growing podcast subgenre that digs into the drama and oddities of city lore. The vibe is a kind of civic noir, exemplified in recent years by podcasts like "California City," which recounts the tale of another false fortune in a desert, "Crooked City," which continues the documentarian Marc Smerling's interest in organized crime making the leap into local government, and "Boomtown," about a small West Texas city's transformation by the oil industry. These shows collectively capture an anxious, melancholic feeling around the fragility of local democracies, constantly vulnerable to forces beyond their control. That melancholia pervades "Dreamtown" as well.

The series is reported and hosted by David Weinberg, a veteran radio journalist. His best work, the nonfiction anthology series "Welcome To LA," is filled with stories about odd characters building colorful lives in and around Southern California. In many ways, "Dreamtown" is a continuation of that project, with its keen interest in the people that make up Adelanto and the way their lives are transformed by the larger shifts around them. Weinberg has a distinct style - quiet, observant, wry. He has a wonderful eye for vivid imagery, which he translates into evocative scenes written for the ear.


WEINBERG: Tim is in his 60s, collared dress shirt and a vape pen in hand as he navigated the poorly paved streets of Adelanto. In the distance are the peaks of the Angeles National Forest. All around us, Joshua trees were sticking up out of the ground. And along the side of the road were bulldozers flattening the land for the foundations of the massive warehouses that would soon be filled with weed.

QUAH: That understated approach serves the material well, given how ornate and bizarre things can get in "Dreamtown." One episode, for example, traces the story of another Adelanto city councilmember, Jermaine Wright, whose time in government ended with a federal prison sentence for taking a bribe to help open a cannabis business while also trying to commit insurance fraud by hiring someone to burn down his own restaurant.


WEINBERG: So Jermaine gave this fake electrician a tour of his restaurant. They set a date for the fire, and Jermaine paid him the money for the job. And it was actually kind of a steal. Apparently, it only costs 1,500 bucks to burn down someone's restaurant, at least, you know, if you're paying an FBI agent to do it. But before the scheduled torching, the FBI showed up to the restaurant with a search warrant. And they interviewed Jermaine, and he confessed.

QUAH: There is often a fable-like quality to "Dreamtown," which speaks to the somewhat archetypal nature of Adelanto's predicament. Across the United States, there are countless other rural cities grappling with some form of the same economic quandaries and ethical temptation. "Dreamtown" might seem like a Coen Brothers-esque caper, but it's fundamentally a story about what a city represents, the kinds of people who feel drawn to fight for its preservation and what can happen when you make a deal with forces you're not quite prepared to grapple with. Whether a fable or cautionary tale, one thing's for sure. It's a deeply American story.

MOSLEY: Nick Quah is a podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. He reviewed "Dreamtown: The Story Of Adelanto," from Crooked Media. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, award-winning actor Richard E. Grant joins us to talk about his new memoir, "A Pocketful Of Happiness," which chronicles his 35-year marriage to the late acclaimed dialect coach to the stars Joan Washington. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's going on with the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.


MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. A special thank you to Conor Anderson for engineering this show from WDET in Detroit. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY WILSON'S "MOONGLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nick Quah