Another year, another bunch of podcasts! I think I was hesitant to post this year’s list (hence, the late, late publication date of this blog), but I think I need to re-frame my thinking.
I’ve been lamenting loudly that the quality of podcasts has been going downhill, but I think I might be wrong on two fronts with that concern.
There are so many podcasts being created, and so many podcast companies that are coming into their own as real, significant media sources. Off the top of my head, Apostrophe Podcasts, Night Vale Presents, Pineapple Street, and Tortoise Media are all production companies that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago. By a sheer balance of numbers, with so many new podcasts being published, some of them are going to better, and some are going to be worse. I hope that through the stumbles and missteps of misreported facts and episodes that required full retractions, podcast companies are learning more and adapting to the changing media landscape. But, as I said, it’s a numbers game. For every company that is committed to journalistic integrity, there’s a person in their basement willfully misrepresenting the facts. And they’re all on the same platforms without any indication who fact checks, and who doesn’t.
On another note, I’ve been listening to podcasts since 2008 – my very first podcast (which I actually still subscribe to and listen to on occasion) was Philosophy Bites. In the decade and a half that I’ve been taking in podcasts, I’ve driven roads trips, taken flights, hopped a bunch of busses, worked a job that required a lot of data entry, found corners of the day to relax, cleaned my apartment once or twice, and washed a lot of dishes.
So, there’s been time to listen to some podcasts.
Now that I don’t have (seemingly) endless time to listen to podcasts, I so often think “what’s the point of this? Why is this being produced?” We have so many choices (see paragraph above), what is the point of someone sitting down to record and release a podcast? What is it in the host’s interviews, analysis or research of existing data is adding to the larger discussion or knowledge base?
This year, podcasts that I have previously loved have ended, found a new rhythm after losing a host, podcasts have been re cut and re- released, and sometimes I go back to podcasts I listened to before only to discover I had missed the thesis almost entirely because of where my own brain was at. Podcasters don’t always get their podcast right on the first cut, or even for the first several episodes. Who I am as a listener is changing and what might have been engaging before doesn’t add enough to the discussion to keep me listening now, and what I accepted as conventions of storytelling are simply not acceptable to me as a listener these days.
So to summarize, I don’t think podcasts are getting worse, I think A) there are so many being created that it’s just a numbers game that a certain percentage will be poor, B) as a more discerning listener, I’m expecting so much more, and C) Things change.
With all that said, here are the best podcasts I listened to this year.
This dive into the heartbreaking story of marital abuse is raw, glaring, and, I believe, purposefully unresolved.
Anna Maria Tremonti shares the story of her first marriage with so much honesty that it left me breathless at times.
When people stand up and tell their story, it makes the tapestry of our understanding of the world more complex and better for it. Stories without a neat tidy structure allow us to see the complexity of life outside of fiction stories.
Chameleon knows how to tell a story – and this one, the rough outline of a story from years ago, locked away in the back distant memories of my brain, this one is a ride.
With just a touch more journalism than in past seasons, this is an excellent addition to the chameleon series!
Hold your breath. Listen when you’re in a good place. Take frequent breaks.
This podcast is fully from the heart, but it is firmly grounded in fact-based reporting. Episodes focus on the last day of someone’s life, and is a gut punch every time. I have had to stop to catch my breath and dry my tears many times.
The first season, focusing on loss by drug overdose is heartbreaking, truth-motivated journalism. I learned SO much and have such a deeper understanding for the crisis affecting our country. Take your time, but absolutely worth a listen.
Of course me, the evidence based queen, has Maintenance Phase on this list.
Taking down health grifters and wellness bullshit, Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon are my literal heroes for fighting misinformation with fact based takedowns and a generous portion of belly laughs.
Much like You Must Remember This’ epic season on Charles Manson, this series is about the crimes of the titled criminal, but it’s also not. It’s about the world Kaczynski lived in, his philosophy, his goals. It’s about his family.
It’s about his brother. His brother who is likely the only reason Ted Kaczynski was ever caught. His brother who granted hours of interview time for this podcast. His brother who is salt of the earth and philosophical, and open and honest, and despite being pilloried in the media, is joyful in his life.
This is a really special piece of journalism, beautifully balancing the truth of the crimes and giving context to the criminal.
I love Lauren Ober’s podcast because it feels like a full hearted, full speed ahead journey into herself that never once feels narcissistic.
Everything she feels, I feel for her. Every time she laughs, I’m right there with her. In a way that is warm and honest to the point of fear inducing, she’s there, showing us who she is.
Ober’s journey of self discovery had me cheering for her every step of the way.
Bias alert: I know the co-host Sara and I think everything she does is brilliant.
Despite my bias, this is an objectively excellent podcast, examining how fat bodies are presented on film while considering intersectional issues in a way that is insightful but not overly academic. The hosts are warm and inviting and gently prod you to rethink your biases.
I hope to see more from this podcast soon!
Despite this being an incredibly USA-focused podcast, it really is a snappy little look at the big and small stories that I would bet even the most ardent history buffs might not know.
Where possible, the hosts are able to link these stories to important historical context that came later, even some affecting us today.
There are a LOT of daily news podcasts. Some are good, some have a few brilliant episodes, and some are poorly researched opportunities to have the host listen to their own voice.
As a Canadian, I honestly believe there is no better daily news podcast than Front Burner. Poisson’s interviewing abilities are incredible. Asking the right questions that I didn’t even thing of, providing expert insight when needed, just excellent.
The editorial team working on selecting the topics and finding the experts have such incredible insight into what stories complement the headlines, and which are being overlooked. I always leave feeling better informed and more knowledgeable about what questions to ask.
One of the many things that I believe is contributing to the lack of social cohesion is a lack of common understanding or common vocabulary. What I love about these short little podcasts (each is just a few minutes each) are the way that they give an appropriate summary and context in such a short format so that anyone can walk away with the absolute basics of what they need to know, without spin, without political actors telling you their version of what the facts are.
It’s a great little learning tool to intersperse between longer podcasts.
Homecoming (only available on spotify)
I listened to this probably 4 years ago, and recently I re-listened on a whim.
Guys, THIS is the fiction podcast. Better than Video Palace. Better than Rabbits, Better than Limetown. This is so good. The sound mixing alone should win piles of awards, but coupled with the incredible job done by the voice actors, and the taut could-be-real-life script, it’s just a low burning military mystery at a breakneck speed.
Listen for the scene set on a ferris wheel, and try to listen with headphones. The sound editing in that scene? I have never in all my podcasting listening life come across anything as good.
I wanted to talk about this podcast specifically because I listed it as an honourable mention last year, but if I were redoing that list, it probably would have been my #1 pick for the year.
I love Dan Tabersky’s work, in my opinion, he’s one of the best podcasters working today. But when I first listened to 9/12, I thought it was good. Very good, but not his best.
When I re-listened now, after another year of insanity, it is without a doubt Tabersky’s best work. There’s so much that Tabersky covers in this podcast, it is hard to take in when I was listening casually. I’m so glad I got to listen again on a roadtrip.
What did we lose, morally, socially, ethically, and spiritually on September 11th? Who did we allow ourselves to become? How did the soul of a nation change on 9/12?
Humane and philosophical, a scathing look at a nation’s choices all the while filled with empathy and understanding. It sounds like a drag but the episodes move at an incredible pace. There’s so much content in each of these episodes.
I implore you: listen to this podcast. And then, maybe listen again.