Unlike film, television or music, there’s a low barrier to entry in the podcasting world: All you need is a microphone and someone to speak into it. Perhaps the ease and intimacy of podcasting is what drives so many people use the medium to ask uncomfortable questions. For many, 2018 was a year of conflict and upheaval, a year that left us wondering: How did we get here? Several shows tried to whisper the answers in our earbuds: Slow Burn and The Wilderness looked to presidents past in order to explain our current political divisions. Several years into the true crime boom, investigators on Serial and In the Dark focused on local cases to trace historic, systemic problems in our criminal justice system.
Even in the cultural realm, Binge Mode: Harry Potter mined an iconic story about teens fighting the magical equivalent of Nazis to explore the nature of the resistance, while Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness brought an unabashed eagerness to his interviews, asking questions others were too afraid to vocalize.
Point being: If you want answers, podcasts have them. Or at least, the best shows are trying.
10. 30 for 30: Bikram
ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast broke from its tradition of tackling a new sports story every episode for a five-episode arc on Bikram yoga’s #MeToo scandal. Host Julia Lowrie Henderson was a devotee until Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the cult-like empire, was accused of sexual assault. Henderson hands the microphone to Choudhury’s victims to share their experiences, setting an example for how to tell a story about perpetrators of abuse while honoring survivors’ pain.
9. Everything Is Alive
The premise of this podcast is admittedly weird: Ian Chillag interviews inanimate objects played by improvisors. Yet the show manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly informative and often moving, like when a grain of sand explains that he thinks of himself in the plural — just one among many — suggesting that if humans thought that way too, they’d be kinder to one another. It all makes for a profound pleasure.
8. Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness
Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame interviews subjects about, well, everything. Guests run the gamut from fellow members of Queer Eye’s Fab Five and Reese Witherspoon to psychologists and activists. Van Ness’s effusiveness buoys the show, even extending to the titles of the episodes (“How Can We Be Less Rude to Bees?”). It’s an age-old interviewer trick to pretend to know less than you actually do, but Van Ness disarms his guests with his genuine eagerness to learn.
7. The Wilderness
The Wilderness is the best post-mortem of the 2016 presidential election yet. Crooked Media co-founder Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, asks why the Democratic Party fell apart and how it might recover. While he interviewed over 100 people for the series, his most intriguing talks are with voters who cast a ballot for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Their insights, however they might frustrate liberal listeners, elevate the show above partisan politics.
6. The Dream
The Dream investigates multilevel marketing companies that employ strategies resembling pyramid schemes. Host Jane Marie travels back to her hometown in Michigan, where many women have been enlisted to sell makeup or Tupperware for one of these morally dubious companies, and explores how MLMs grew into big businesses that ensnare millions.
5. The Habitat
Whoever travels to Mars first will be stuck with several other astronauts for years on end — so NASA enlisted six strangers to live in a remote, Mars-like environment in Hawaii for a year in order to research the social dynamic. Podcasting company Gimlet recorded the whole thing. As romances and feuds ensue, listeners learn a lot about space travel while bearing witness to an engrossing social experiment.
4. Binge Mode: Harry Potter
If Harry Potter spin-offs like Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts haven’t sated your longing for more stories about J.K. Rowling’s magical universe, this exhaustively researched, ridiculously fun show should do the trick. Hosts Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion meticulously recap every single Harry Potter book, chapter by chapter. They highlight Rowling’s careful plotting and discuss how her themes of tolerance and resistance feel more relevant than ever.
3. In the Dark
In the second season of the Peabody-winning podcast, the producers moved to Winona, Miss., to investigate the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man who was tried by a white prosecutor six times for the same murder. If only all true-crime shows would take this boots-on-the-ground approach: host Madeleine Baran susses out leads at family barbecues and on witnesses’ porches. The podcast diligently avoids sensationalism — a rarity in true crime. Instead, Baran breaks down the case against Flowers quietly but thoroughly.
2. Slow Burn
After re-examining Watergate in Season 1, Slate writer and host Leon Neyfakh turns to Bill Clinton’s impeachment for Season 2. The recency of that history makes for a more complex podcast: Clinton is still alive, and today’s feminists are still reckoning with the way the media treated Monica Lewinsky. The parallels between the FBI investigations into Donald Trump and Clinton prove fascinating too — especially since many of the same political players appear in both sagas.
Serial became a runaway hit in its first season, then hit a lull in its second. But the true-crime podcast’s third season is its best. Instead of focusing on one case, the show covers a new story at the Justice Center in Cleveland each week. The cases may seem mundane — like a man caught carrying weed — but many stories end in jaw-dropping revelations, exploring the effects of racial bias along the way. Host Sarah Koenig expertly demonstrates how daily miscarriages of justice amass into systemic problems.
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