Much ink has been spilled—including in this very magazine—about the proliferation of podcasts. Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and smaller podcasting platforms seem to be in an arms race to produce new shows, even as the monetization model for podcasts (the vast majority of which we’ve all been enjoying for free for over a decade now) remains hazy. We are seeing the fall and rise of Netflix. Can produce a lot of content doesn’t mean that it’s all good content.
The ease of access to the podcasting medium—plus recent portrayals of podcasts on television and film—has given laymen the impression that it’s easy to record a show. It’s not so. It is possible to ruin even the most captivating stories with a bad music choice, an inept narrator or poor fact-checking.
As I wade through the ocean of stories, interviews, and investigations on various podcasting platforms, I find myself returning to trusted voices—people who know how to spin a good yarn in this specific format. There are many podcasting experts who produce new and engaging shows. In past years I’ve included podcasts hosted by Clare Malone (formerly of FiveThirtyEight Podcast on Politics), Hrishikesh Hirway (Song Exploder, West Wing Weekly, Home CookingConnor RatliffThe Dead EyesBrian Reed (S-TownEsther Perel (How do we begin?Jon Ronson The Butterfly Effect, The Last Days ofAugust), and PJ VoigtAnswer All) on my “best of” lists. As podcast hosts, producers, or interviewers of new series, all those people have made it onto the roundup.
I’m a sucker for a fun food podcast and was crestfallen when my favorite example of the genre, At-Home Cooking It was concluded with Samin Nosrat, a cookbook author, and Hrishikesh Hhirway (a podcasting veteran), When two of my favorites were able to be together, I was thrilled. Bon AppétitTest Kitchen Alumni Rick Martinez and Carla Lalli Music announced they were starting a podcast on cooking. The first episode was eagerly anticipated by me.
Music and Martinez both shine brightly (just like they did on Test Kitchen’s video series, which collapsed due to no fault of their own). Even a few episodes in, it’s clear they put a lot of thought into the structure of Borderline Salty. Yes, they answers listeners’ cooking questions on matters like how to shop for meat on a budget and the best technique for flipping pancakes. But they’ve also introduced recurring segments like “Rad Fad or Bad Fad?”—in which they rate a TikTok cooking trend—and “No Thank You Please,” in which they discuss giving a second chance to an ingredient that historically they have not loved.
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PJ Vogt can spin a fantastic yarn. The fans of Answer AllVogt may be remembered as the previous co-host. (Vogt left Answer All Gimlet and after he was charged with union busting, blindness towards his privilege and other crimes. Whatever you may think of Vogt, there’s no denying that Crypto IslandPlays like vintage Answer AllThese stories are sold often as nail-biting mystery tales about Internet technology.
Vogt examines the peculiar world of crypto in this series. Acolytes try to create crypto-only society (hence the nickname). Crypto Island() and bid billionaires more for the Constitution. Vogt approaches the stories with a healthy dose of skepticism and just the right amount of empathy for the typically young, revolutionary-minded, but often naive advocates of cryptocurrency. Vogt balances the potential democracy-enhancing benefits its supporters tout against the chaos which always seems to be the result of true democracy on Internet. Your mileage may vary on Vogt, but there’s no denying that the podcast itself is one of the most entertaining shows produced in years.
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Continue reading: Here are 10 of the Best Podcasts in 2021
The Dead Eyes
It was impossible to believe that Tom Hanks could be an incredible podcast guest. Comedy comedian Connor Ratliff pursued Hanks’ interview for two years. In the 2000s Ratliff was cast in Hanks’ HBO series. Band of BrothersIt was the highly anticipated drama, which produced many stars including Tom Hardy, Damian Lewis, James McAvoy and James McAvoy. But at the last minute, Ratliff was told they were recasting the part because Hanks thought he had “dead eyes.” The rejection put Ratliff on a totally different career trajectory, but the pain stuck with him. A decade later, Ratliff started a podcast where he talked to famous people (from Jon Hamm and Damon Lindelof) about their career rejections. Ratliff isn’t bitter: the podcast is surprisingly funny and empathetic.
Ratliff is slowly circledThe interview with Hanks himself, even scheduling Hanks’ son Colin Hanks this season. This year, he finally got his sit-down with the world’s most beloved A-lister, and Hanks doesn’t disappoint. Hanks, a known nice man, is often a hardy and vague interviewee. But because this interview is grounded in the negative repercussions of Hanks’ actions, the conversation necessarily becomes a more specific reflection on hanging on to empathy and humanity in a brutal business. He charms Ratliff, his audience and leaves us with an euphoric sense of closure.
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We are just like them: America’s Tabloids that Changed Everything
You probably know Clare Malone as a former (and, by my estimation, the best) panelist on FiveThirtyEight’s political podcast. This podcast may look like a significant pivot, as it pulls back tabloid culture 2000s. Malone is now a journalist. The New Yorker, interviews photographers who all but stalked Bennifer and editors who debated how to cover Britney Spears‘ meltdown. Of course there are larger political, ethical and social questions to be considered. The show touches on how racism informed the media’s skepticism of Bennifer’s relationship, how photographers dismissed the possibility that they were playing a major role in overwhelming stars like Spears, and how gossip sites leaned even further into cruel coverage than their magazine forebearers, prompting a backlash from celebrities and the rise of stars like the Kardashians who maintain total control over their image.
The coverage shaped our national conversation and, eventually, our political views—given Malone’s background, it’s no surprise that Donald Trump, a decades-long tabloid fixture, comes under scrutiny. However, the political aspects are very sparse.Just Like UsFor anyone obsessed by it, this album is a pleasant listen. People Us Weeklyas children and the need to examine their childhood narratives.
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Veteran podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway couldn’t make a bad podcast if he tried. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage music fans to tune into Song ExploderTelevision junkies will love to listen to (both on the podcast as well as Netflix). The West Wing WeeklyJoshua Malina, foodies to look out for the aforementioned At-Home Cooking Nosrat. In all of those podcasts, Hirway digs into the question of how something—be it a song, a TV show, or a Thanksgiving turkey—gets made. Partners takes the same approach to partnership, and as a result may be the least technical, most human, and loveliest show he’s made yet.
Hirway spends time with his creative and romantic partner, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Interviewees tell charming tales of their courtship, or of disagreement. Hirway says that each successful relationship is in some way a love story. It takes luck, commitment, and love for what you’re creating together. Stories of successful, sometimes chaotic collaborations can bring smiles to our faces in a time when politics and the pandemic continue to disrupt daily human connections.
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Run, Bambi, Run
I’m a true-crime skeptic. True-crime podcasts often feature the corpses of beautiful, dead women. This makes me feel icky and prurient. So I’m always delighted to find a series in the genre that has something more on its mind than the crime itself. You can enter Run, Bambi, Run, a series about the life of Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek, a cop-turned-model accused of murdering her husband’s ex-wife who then escaped from prison in the 1980s.
As you can imagine, given Bembenek’s looks, the media became obsessed with tracking the allegedly murderous beauty on the lam. But there was more. Run, Bambi, RunVanessa Grigoriadis, the host (Hollywood Con Queen: ChameleonBembenek is questioned about how she ended up in prison. This podcast focuses on the sexism Bembenek endured as one of her first female police officers. It also discusses how Bembenek’s resentment may have led to a possible wrongful murder conviction. Her prison escape is especially gripping, without resorting too much to voyeurism.
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Continue reading: 9 Podcasts that were made into TV shows
Trojan Horse Affair
Serial Productions might be the biggest player in the field of podcasting: hit songs like Beautiful White ParentsAnd S-Town deserve as much hype—more, even—than that first season of SerialThat was the start of podcasting. They are so dominant that I am skeptical about every Serial production. Can they find compelling new stories to share? However, Trojan Horse Affair It won me over quickly. Like many other Serial podcasts, it centers on a mystery: in 2014, an anonymous letter outlining an alleged Islamist conspiracy in the schools of Birmingham dubbed “Operation Trojan Horse” leaked to the British press. After investigation, it was found that the letter had been forged. The letter caused an immediate media frenzy. Conservative politicians were able to use it as leverage to alter policies and curricula at schools and also implement counter-terrorism strategies that make life difficult for Muslims who live in the U.K.
This podcast aims to determine who wrote that letter. However, the podcast’s narrative quickly shifts to an even more intriguing question: What the two hosts should do with the story. Brian Reed, a veteran journalist and alumnus from the University of California at Berkeley, is an example of a co-host. American LifeAnd S-Town, and he’s had to wrangle with some thorny reporting and ethics questions in that capacity. He’s joined by Hamza Syed, who at the beginning of the multi-year reporting process was a student in journalism school, reporting his first big story. Whereas Reed tries to approach every interview with “objectivity,” Syed challenges that notion, especially when sitting down with subjects who are clearly directing biases and even racism his way. In fact, he’s so open about his political views and journalistic agenda that he gets the show into trouble with a source, setting up a fascinating argument between Syed and Reed about the tenets of journalism. They’re both right, and they’re both wrong—and there’s no single answer. This podcast’s genius is Reed and Syed putting their cards out there. They discuss their ideas. They disagree. They make compromises. They learn from one another. Their conflicting views evolve, and in the end the listener must decide what exactly a journalist’s duty is.
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The Things Fall Apart
You know what? If you want to get out of the culture wars, don’t listen to any podcast about them. Hear me. Jon Ronson, a social phenomenon scholar who is thoughtful and insightful, was an early observer of cancel culture through his book. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and painted a nuanced portrait of the porn industry—and the most vulnerable people operating inside of it—in his two excellent podcasts, The Butterfly EffectAnd It The Last Days of August The name is Butterfly EffectRonson, as the name might suggest is an expert at finding out how an isolated event can have a ripple effect on society.
This logic is also applied to him. The Things That Go Wrong: How did culture wars become so heated? Ronson reports about the surprising instances that ignited controversy over issues such as abortion and textbooks. His ability to highlight our social ills while not losing the humanity and compassion of his subject is remarkable. He is able to identify interviewees who, depending on what political leanings you have, are inspiring or frustrating, yet universally interesting and challenging. One episode features him speaking to Alice Moore. Moore was a feminist who had opposed quotes from Black and liberal authors in textbooks. Moore takes Ronson to Moore’s house and reads a poem she wrote in an 80s textbook. She claims it encourages sexual promiscuity. Ronson thinks that the poem could be argument. ForFree love, and tracks down Moore to listen to his interpretation. It turns out Moore had radically misinterpreted this text. Ronson graciously confronts Moore with the information and she replies with a charming joke. Ronson doesn’t vilify Moore. He doesn’t have to. The moral of this and the podcast’s other episodes are clear: nuance is lost in outrage.
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Continue reading: Here are 50 of the Best Podcasts You Should Listen To Right Now
It’s all about dating
You don’t have to be a Netflix addict. But if you feel like your brain is dying from watching their fake dramas, there are other shows that are equally as compelling and just as nourishing. It’s all about datingAllows listeners to observe blind dates. Producers ensure that these meetups go beyond small talk by prodding the duo with questions like, “Who in your life is a role model for a healthy relationship?” Between dates, a psychologist meets with the singles to break down how the dates went and discuss what they’re looking for in a partner.
The studio behind the show also produces Esther Perel‘s popular podcast, How do we begin?, in which the famous psychologist records couples’ therapy sessions. Contrary to reality TV dating shows that are often very white and woefully straight. Singles instead It’s all about datingThey come from diverse backgrounds and have an interest in different types of relationships. The podcast asks listeners to think about how their queerness and gender politics have influenced their relationships in the past, how their self-perception has changed, and what their views are on finding a partner. The show scratches a voyeuristic itch, but instead of feeling guilty when you finish it, you’ll emerge wanting to interrogate your own attachment style or scrutinize why you’re attracted to the people you’re attracted to.
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