Podcasting may be facing a reckoning. For years the podcasting bubble has grown ever larger. As investigative and indie shows struggled, producers turned to celebrities as their salvation. Sometimes it feels like every other actor—particularly those who starred on sitcoms in the 2000s—has their own show these days. But it turns out that Hollywood won’t save the industry. Not only are most of those shows starring A-listers rather dull (more on that later), but they don’t seem to be bringing in big enough bucks to justify their existence. And even the most successful podcasts are evaporating for reasons which may be more complicated than simple math: News broke this week that Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, have “mutually agreed to part ways” with Spotify. Layoffs across the industry, pullbacks in programming, and recession concerns indicate that we may get fewer exciting podcasts than usual this year.
And yet a few new shows have managed to capture listener attention and prove their worth in this ever-shifting landscape. Here are the best of the best so far, in alphabetical order.
Read More: The 10 Best Podcasts of 2022
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The Coldest Case in Laramie
I try to resist the urge to populate “best of” lists with podcasts from Serial Productions, perhaps the best known creator in the industry. But nobody knows how to do true crime—a genre that in the wrong hands easily veers into the melodramatic or downright problematic—quite like the New York Times-owned company. Times reporter Kim Barker investigates an unsolved murder that took place in the 1980s in her hometown in Wyoming. Barker, who would occasionally Google for updates on the long-cold case, picks up the investigation after learning that the key suspect, a cop, was charged with the killing only for those charges to be suddenly and inexplicably dropped. The show is ultimately less about who committed the murder than the trickiness of memory and elusiveness of closure.
The long-running, wonderful storytelling podcast The Moth has created its first spinoff: Grown, a series that focuses on tales from those awkward teenage years. Two Moth veterans, Aleeza Kazmi and Alfonso Lacayo, introduce a new story, told in front of a live audience, each week. Predictably, the tales of first crushes, school dance drama, and mental health struggles range from hilariously awkward to deeply personal. But in that Moth way, the stories are always engaging and can even reach cinematic heights. The podcast may particularly resonate with teens who will recognize moments of self-consciousness and self-discovery from their own lives.
If Books Could Kill
Michael Hobbes—one half of the original duo behind You’re Wrong About and, later, Maintenance Phase—launched a new show last year. This time he has partnered with Peter Shamshiri of the Supreme Court podcast 5-4. Each episode, one of the hosts reads one of those ubiquitous airport books that climbs the charts because it seems to explain everything, like Freakonomics or Outliers or The Secret. One host then explains to the other why the book caught fire and, in retrospect, how much it gets wrong about human existence. The episodes are often full of surprises: I was fascinated to learn that the notion of the “five love languages,” which has taken on a life of its own as an Instagram meme, actually originated in a book written by a pastor in the 1990s that brims with sexism and homophobia. The hosts balance fact-checking and withering jokes to informative and entertaining effect.
In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight
Celebrity podcasts have become largely insufferable (with one notable exception later on this list). It’s become particularly tiresome to listen to comedy stars of yore talk about their old hit television series on rewatch podcasts. Their recording sessions tend to be filled with unfunny inside jokes and pandering stories about production. The new comedy podcast In the Scenes: Behind Plain Sight takes aim at these shows. Each episode, creators Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth (How to Do Everything) start a meandering conversation about working on a fake aughts show that skewers celebrity self-indulgence, bad television scripts, and the awkward commercial breaks inherent to podcasting.
Louder Than a Riot
Louder Than a Riot debuted in 2020 with an objective to explore how American mainstream culture marginalized hip-hop and those who created it. In the second season, hosts Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael switch up the perspective of the show and examine how hip-hop marginalizes people within it, specifically women and queer folks. The season begins with the Tory Lanez trial and teases out the sexist arguments levied not only by Lanez’s fans but by his own legal team against Megan Thee Stallion when she took the stand to testify that the rapper had shot her. (A jury found Lanez guilty of three charges in December; he has yet to be sentenced.) Disappointingly, NPR recently canceled Louder Than a Riot, but I’m eager to see what Madden and Carmichael do next.
I ran across Petty Crimes while on the hunt for shows like Normal Gossip during that hit podcast’s hiatus. This podcast is light and easy: Listeners call in with their trivial disputes—neighbors having their cars towed; a patient who questions the ethics of her therapist letting her kids walk in the background of their Zoom therapy sessions; a girlfriend who abandons her slow-walking boyfriend in an airport to make a flight. Hosts Ceara O’Sullivan and Griff Stark-Ennis snarkily investigate each case and reach a verdict. The hosts’ easy banter buoys the conversation from debate to high comedy.
Read More: How 2022 Became the Year of Gossip
Reign of Error
Knicks fans have been miserable for decades and largely place the blame on one man: James Dolan. Dolan inherited the team from his father and refuses to cede control, even though it seems he would really prefer to be a Blues musician. Reign of Error traces Dolan’s life and the Knicks’ misfortunes. It’s well-worn ground in sports journalism, but when threaded together into one story, the drama Dolan stirs up can be staggering. After all, this is a man who once had basketball legend Charles Oakley forcibly removed from Madison Square Garden. When the producers of this podcast reached out to various celebrities to host the show, every single one begged off for fear that they, too, might be banned from Madison Square Garden. Perhaps it was all for the best: David Greene—a former foreign correspondent based in Moscow with some serious journalistic chops—does an admirable job finding a way to make the podcast pop.
Matt Belloni’s Puck newsletter and his accompanying podcast have become essential for anyone even vaguely interested in the business of Hollywood. In a world increasingly dominated by PR babble from the trades, Belloni cuts through the BS. He gets scoops and doesn’t pull punches. During the writers’ strike, Belloni has invited voices from both sides of the picket line onto the show to explain what’s at stake and how the way we watch television and movies may fundamentally shift in the coming years depending on the outcome of these fights.
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Wiser Than Me
Broadly speaking, celebrities don’t make good interviewers. They’re rarely willing to ask the incisive questions a journalist might. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the exception to the rule. The comedy icon recently launched an interview-style podcast in which she sits down with older women to talk about their life experiences. The particular angle of the podcast—gleaning wisdom from her subjects—offers structure to the conversation, and guests like Fran Lebowitz, Jane Fonda, and Ruth Reichl do, indeed, drop sage insights about infidelity, female friendship, and food. Louis-Dreyfus keeps the chats intimate and even sprinkles in little details that will delight her fans like how she quoted Jane Fonda in her high school yearbook.
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