Here in podcast land, the first half of 2019 has been relatively quiet … on the creative front, at least. Over on the business side of things, we’ve seen massive acquisitions by Spotify, bungled roll-outs of a $100 million app, and the Obamas jumping into the podcast pool. But interestingly enough, we haven’t really had a big standout hit just yet. What we do have, however, are some exceptionally solid compositions.
As always, a few quick notes on how I’ve assembled this list: Craft is a bit more important to me than the stories themselves. I tend to put more stock into podcasts that function well as stand-alone experiences, though I’m aware that puts comedy, conversational, and “after-show” series at a disadvantage. As always, more established shows have the added burden of being ranked against prior seasons (which is why, unfortunately, Leon Neyfakh’s Fiasco won’t make the list this time). Also, I’m cognizant of the insanity that comes with pitting narrative, documentary, comedy, fiction, interview, and other podcast genres against each other.
And of course, this list is definitive and all-encompassing and in no way is defined by the subjective limitations of myself, a human being with his own tastes and preferences. With that all out of the way, let’s go.
Headlong: Running From Cops (Topic/Pineapple Street)
When it comes to a pop-culture artifact as iconic and self-evidently ubiquitous as Cops, it can be easy to ask the most basic questions. How, exactly, does something as inherently bizarre as this — a reality TV program that packages footage of police officers doing their jobs as entertainment — come to be? How did it become so influential? What’s real, and what isn’t? And most importantly, what has it done to us? Rigorously reported and elegantly constructed, Dan Taberski’s follow-up to Surviving Y2K is a scorcher of sociological examination. The six-part series takes listeners down the rabbit hole of the show’s legacy, from its somewhat unremarkable origins all the way through to its morally murky rise. What you find on the other end, it seems, is a window straight into our modern dystopia.
Lost Notes, Season 2 (KCRW)
Executive produced by Jessica Hopper, the veteran Chicago-based music critic, KCRW’s music documentary anthology series has assembled an utterly unforgettable collection of stories for its sophomore season. Among the highlights: “Teenage Offenders,” in which the founding member of a punk band, now a middle-aged father, reckons with the mysognigy of his old lyrics; “Sonic Sculptor,” a portrait of Suzanne Ciani, whose synth art is intimately embedded in the sound of the ’80s; and “To Chan Marshall,” which features the poet Hanif Abduraqqib performing a letter to Cat Power, whose album The Greatest may well have saved his life. As with many historically oriented documentaries, reexaminations of the past are abundant in the season. But under Hopper’s guidance, it’s never felt more raw.
Against the Rules (Pushkin Industries)
This should have been abundantly obvious from his books, magazine features, and audiobook readings, but Michael Lewis is a gifted raconteur. Through the filter of his slight Louisianan drawl, his capacity for sketching characters and deconstructing systems takes on new life. When operating as audio documentarian, he’s never been more accessible. Against The Rules is classic Lewisian material, with the focus trained on the degrading role of referees and institutions acting as referees in modern society, and how that process is affecting us. The actual production quality of the show isn’t completely polished, but those bumps don’t really get in the way of the narrative. If you like Lewis’s stuff elsewhere, you definitely shouldn’t miss Against The Rules.
The Big One (KPCC)
The Big One has a slightly oddball premise that’s fascinating enough to be worth the price of admission. Produced by Southern California Public Radio (KPCC), this limited-run podcast endeavors to give listeners a sense of what to expect when the San Andreas fault line that lies beneath the city inevitably rips, and what they should be prepared to do. Half service journalism and half speculative fiction, it’s an innovative piece of science journalism that pulls off the execution. It’s also a pretty fun listen … or at least, as fun as an end-times survival guide can be.
10 Things That Scare Me (WNYC)
Podcasting was made for shows like this. The title basically tells you everything you need to know: Each bite-size episode, which usually runs between five and eight minutes, features a different person, often someone of note but occasionally a listener, discussing ten things that scare them. The fears range from the banal, like bugs, to the existential, like a loss of purpose. When strung together contiguously as a collection, these lists are sublime windows into the quiet horror that comes with being alive. 10 Things That Scare Me also features some wonderful, thoughtful sound design, bestowing an uncommon level of aesthetic polish to these recordings.
The Dropout (ABC)
Is it just me, or has the summer of scams been going for a really long time? Like, I can’t actually remember the last time we weren’t living in a season so luxuriously filled with frauds. Anyway, folks who simply can’t get enough of stories about scams — and, specifically, stories about Theranos, one of the preeminent poster children of scams — shouldn’t miss ABC’s The Dropout, which turned out to be a solid addition to the growing body of literature on the Silicon Valley-based debacle. The podcast doesn’t quite have the depth of the John Carreyrou book Bad Blood, but what it does have instead, crucially, are raw audio recordings of the depositions from the lawsuits that were brought to the company. It’s a sensational get, and they provide a unique, powerful window into the case … and the mercurial figure at the heart of the story, Elizabeth Holmes.
The Last Days of August (Audible Originals)
In this semi-sequel to The Butterfly Effect, Jon Ronson and Lina Misitzis’s fascinating journey into the porn industry and how it’s been disrupted by the internet, the focus is on the mystery of a specific tragedy: the suicide of the adult performer August Ames, initially thought to be the result of cyberbullying until a series of logistical inconsistencies call the causal link into the question. What starts off feeling like what could possibly be another rote exercise in true crime eventually, and elegantly, evolves into a portrait of loneliness. The Last Days of August isn’t without its complications, but it’s compelling, thoughtfully assembled, and genuinely moving.
• If you liked Articles of Interest, the 99% Invisible spinoff series hosted by Avery Trufelman from last year, keep an ear out for Nice Try! Utopia, which also features Trufelman in the hosting chair. The series is currently in the middle of its debut season, and it’s turning out quite nicely.
• I’m still processing Anthem: Homunculus, John Cameron Mitchell’s star-studded podcast musical that’s being exclusively released on Luminary. It is certainly, in many ways, stunning and ambitious and formally fascinating — I’m just wondering if the execution matches up with the aspiration.
• Walking, Jon Mooallem’s absurd-ish audio postcards from his walks in the Pacific Northwest, remains one of my favorite finds this year.
• For those who court the strange: I can’t seem to get enough of Richard’s Famous Foods, which is a surreal and somewhat unsettling “quasi-journalistic” podcast about food.