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. As we are learning from the rise and fall of Netflix, just because a platform 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. Not so. Even the most sensational stories can be ruined by irksome music choices, an overacting narrator, or simply bad 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. Thankfully, plenty of podcasting veterans are producing new, addictive shows. In past years I’ve included podcasts hosted by Clare Malone (formerly of FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast), Hrishikesh Hirway (Song Exploder, West Wing Weekly, Home Cooking), Connor Ratliff (Dead Eyes), Brian Reed (S-Town), Esther Perel (Where Should We Begin?), Jon Ronson (The Butterfly Effect, The Last Days of August), and PJ Vogt (Reply All) on my “best of” lists. All those podcasters have found their way onto this roundup as hosts, interviewers, or producers of new series.
I’m a sucker for a fun food podcast and was crestfallen when my favorite example of the genre, Home Cooking with cookbook author Samin Nosrat and podcasting vet Hrishikesh Hirway, wrapped up its pandemic run. So when two of my favorite Bon Appétit Test Kitchen alums Carla Lalli Music and Rick Martinez announced that they were launching a cooking podcast, I eagerly awaited the first episode.
Music and Martinez are rays of sunshine (just as they were on the Test Kitchen video series before it imploded through 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.
PJ Vogt knows how to spin a great yarn. Fans of Reply All may remember Vogt as the former co-host of that series. (Vogt left Reply All and Gimlet after he was accused of union busting and blindness toward his own privilege.) Whatever you may think of Vogt, there’s no denying that Crypto Island plays like vintage Reply All: crazy stories about the Internet often sold as nail-biting mysteries.
In this series, Vogt focuses on the particularly bizarre land of crypto, where acolytes are trying to build crypto-only societies (hence the name, Crypto Island) and outbid billionaires for copies of 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. He weighs the potential democratizing benefits that its fans tout with the chaos that always seems to result from true democracy on the 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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I never should have doubted that Tom Hanks would be an amazing podcast guest. For two years now, comedian Connor Ratliff has pursued an interview with Hanks. Back in the early 2000s, Ratliff had been cast in the Hanks-produced HBO series Band of Brothers, a much-hyped drama that wound up churning out stars like Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Andrew Scott, and Damian Lewis. 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. So decades later, he started a podcast in which he interviewed famous people, ranging from Jon Hamm to Damon Lindelof, about their own professional rejections. Ratliff isn’t bitter: the podcast is surprisingly funny and empathetic.
Ratliff has slowly circled the 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 is notoriously a nice guy and thus normally a difficult 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. But he does, of course, charm Ratliff and his audience, and we all leave with a sense of closure.
Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America
You probably know Clare Malone as a former (and, by my estimation, the best) panelist on FiveThirtyEight’s political podcast. So her new podcast, which pulls back the curtain on 2000s tabloid culture, may seem like a major pivot. Malone, now a writer for The New Yorker, interviews photographers who all but stalked Bennifer and editors who debated how to cover Britney Spears‘ meltdown. There are, of course, larger ethical, social, and political questions at play. 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. But the political bits are sparse, and Just Like Us proves to be a breezy listen for anyone who obsessed over People and Us Weekly as kids and wants to re-examine the narratives they were being fed.
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 Exploder (both the podcast and Netflix series), television junkies to listen to The West Wing Weekly with Joshua Malina, and foodies to seek out the aforementioned Home Cooking with 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.
In each episode, Hirway sits with creative partners like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, and romantic partners like Roxane Gay and Debbie Millman, to paint intimate portraits of teamwork. Fans of the interviewees will delight in lovely little stories of courtship or disagreement. Hirway explains that every successful partnership is, in a way, a love story. It takes luck, commitment, and love for what you’re creating together. At a moment when the pandemic and politics continue to wreak havoc on daily human connection, stories of sometimes messy but still successful collaborations will bring a smile to your face.
Run, Bambi, Run
I’m a true-crime skeptic. Most true-crime podcasts are filled with the bodies of dead, beautiful women, and they make me feel prurient and icky. So I’m always delighted to find a series in the genre that has something more on its mind than the crime itself. 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 in Run, Bambi, Run, host Vanessa Grigoriadis (Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen) pauses to consider how, exactly, Bembenek ended up in prison in the first place. The podcast chronicles the sexism Bembenek experienced as one of the first female cops in her local police department, and how resentment against Bembenek may have contributed to a possibly wrongful murder conviction. The story of her prison break, especially, manages to be gripping without resorting to voyeurism.
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The Trojan Horse Affair
By now, Serial Productions may be the most well-established player in the podcasting game: hits like Nice White Parents and S-Town deserve as much hype—more, even—than that first season of Serial that kicked off the podcasting boom. Because of their dominance, I approach each new Serial production with skepticism: can they continue to find new ways to tell compelling stories? But The Trojan Horse Affair quickly won me over. 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. Upon investigation, the letter looked to be a forgery. Nonetheless, it set off a media frenzy and was leveraged by conservative politicians to not only change policies and curricula in schools but implement counter-terrorism measures that made life more burdensome for Muslims living in the U.K.
The podcast sets out to discover who wrote the letter. But the narrative quickly focuses in on a much more interesting question: how the two co-hosts should report the story. Brian Reed is a veteran journalist, an alumnus of This American Life and 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. The genius of this podcast is that Reed and Syed put their cards on the table. They share their philosophies. They argue. They compromise. They teach one another. Their conflicting views evolve, and in the end the listener must decide what exactly a journalist’s duty is.
Things Fell Apart
I know, I know. You want to escape the culture wars, not listen to a podcast on them. But hear me out. Jon Ronson is a thoughtful scholar of social phenomena: he was an early examiner of cancel culture with his bestselling 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 Effect and The Last Days of August. As the name of Butterfly Effect might suggest, Ronson has become a master at tracing how one isolated incident can create a ripple effect that shifts the way we think as a society.
He applies that same logic to Things Fell Apart: how did the culture wars get so heated? Ronson reports on surprising incidents that stoked the fire on issues like textbooks and abortion. He manages to outline our social ills without losing the humanity of his subjects. Somehow, he manages to find interviewees that are either inspiring or loathsome, depending on your political bent, but universally fascinating and complicated. In one episode, he speaks to Alice Moore, a woman who crusaded against the inclusion of quotes from liberal and particularly Black writers in textbooks. Extraordinarily, Moore reads Ronson a poem from an 80s textbook that she argues promoted lascivious behavior. Ronson suspects the poem may in fact be arguing against free love and tracks down the poet himself to hear his interpretation. And it turns out that, yes, Moore radically misinterpreted the text. Ronson kindly confronts her with this information, and she responds with a rather 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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This Is Dating
If you are utterly addicted to Netflix shows but also feel that your brain cells are dying as you consume their manufactured drama, I have an equally compelling but far more nourishing show for you: This Is Dating allows listeners to eavesdrop on 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, Where Should We Begin, in which the famous psychologist records couples’ therapy sessions. Unlike the woefully straight, often quite white reality dating shows on television, the singles on This Is Dating hail from diverse backgrounds and are interested in a variety of different kinds of a relationships. And the podcast repeatedly asks participants to reflect on how queerness, race, gender politics, religion, and other factors impacted their past relationships, their self perception, and how they view 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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