And we’re off to the races. After 2022, this year might have started out with big questions over Spotify and the podcast biz, but from a new-releases standpoint, it’s already been an intriguing year. Serial Productions delivered a new entry — late winter seems to be a favored slot for the studio, as The Trojan Horse Affair came out around the same time last year — and I reckon there’ll be more to come. iHeartMedia has been pumping out a steady stream of small, unexpected, but thoroughly interesting projects anchored by strong singular voices. And we’ve seen the cozy subgenre of sleep podcasts turn out to be the perfect vessel for an idiosyncratic comedian. If the rest of 2023 keeps up at this pace, podcasting will be in a pretty good creative place.
All podcast picks are listed from newest to oldest.
This American Life: “Jane Doe”
This American Life reached 800 episodes this year, and its octocentennial installment is a big one. In a bid to explore how things have (or haven’t) changed five years after Me Too, senior producer Miki Meek tells the story of a teenage legislative intern in Idaho who reported that a state rep, Aaron von Ehlinger, had raped her and the traumatizing effects of the public ethics hearing that took place afterward. Meek has been on a tear lately; “Jane Doe” follows another Idaho-set piece from March, about an OB/GYN’s decision to leave the state after it passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
Scriptnotes: WGA-Strike Sidecasts (Independent)
John August and Craig Mazin’s screenwriting podcast — now 12 years old! — has long been a reliable educational resource for the craft, and it has taken on further duties during the current WGA strike. August is a member of the guild’s negotiating committee, and parallel to that, he’s been publishing short “sidecasts” tailored to explaining the perspective and certain technical details behind the strike. What’s a “neutral gate”? Are general meetings still okay to take? Combined with dispatches capturing the vibe of various picket lines, these sidecasts are shaping up to be a fascinating document of this particular moment in Hollywood history.
The Scandoval Podcast Industrial Complex
You know, I wasn’t previously a committed Vanderpump Rules watcher, but, like many, I did become a recent convert after inhaling several seasons’ worth of content in just a few weeks, feeding a manic pull to fully ingest the entire ornate drama of Scandoval, which was totally worth it. And let me give recognition where recognition is due: A good deal of this experience played out in the metatext, not just through social-media tête-à-têtes but also via a veritable cottage industry of podcasts that further blurred the line between what’s real and what’s reality-television performance. Among those ranks: Scheananigans With Scheana Shay, Give Them Lala, Straight Up With Stassi, and, of course, Howie Mandel’s pod. The entire spectacle has been incredible and will likely continue to be until it ends. If it ever does.
Louder Than a Riot: Season Two (NPR)
There is very little quite like Louder Than a Riot, which is bold in a myriad of ways. Led by hosts Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael, the NPR Music podcast made its debut back in 2020 with a season that explored how hip-hop has been marginalized historically within American culture. But when it returned for a second season earlier this spring, it did so in striking fashion: inverting the frame to explore how hip-hop exerts a marginalizing force within itself, pushing against women, queerness, and forms of masculinity that don’t conform to traditional machismo. Topics in this sophomore season run the gamut, ranging from the Tory Lanez trial to the groundbreaking importance of MC Sha-Rock to the rise of the “bad bitch.” Sadly, this might be all we get from Louder Than a Riot, which was among the podcasts canceled during NPR’s recent wave of cost-cutting. The place will be worse off for it.
Stiffed (iHeartMedia and Crooked Media)
This limited nonfiction series covers a curious and under-remembered episode in magazine history: That moment in the ’70s when the founder of Penthouse, Bob Guccione, created an erotic magazine for women called Viva that featured a feminist staff — perhaps inadvertently on Guccione’s part. Stiffed primarily hangs on a recounting of the era’s sexual politics, but the series also doubles as a look into how the sausage gets made within magazines. We’re treated to a picture of how an intellectual culture is formed within an institution, how work gets done despite tension between founder and workers, and how internal conflicts of ideas connect to a historical moment. For culture and media nerds, it’s great stuff. Stiffed is hosted by the writer and editor Jennifer Romolini and features a production team that includes Megan Donis, Sydney Rapp, and Mary Knauf.
Holy Week (The Atlantic)
This follow-up to 2020’s Floodlines is a magisterial effort to reckon with the aborted history of the Civil Rights Movement. Hosted once again by Vann R. Newkirk II, working with producers Jocelyn Frank and Ethan Brooks, The Atlantic’s sophomore narrative-podcast series reconsiders the week of uprisings immediately following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 — in doing so, resurfacing the connective tissue between the incomplete political projects of the era and those in the present. Holy Week elegantly illustrates the nature of history as a process and how the past is a story that never truly ends.
Read Nicholas Quah’s full review of Holy Week.
Next Year in Moscow (The Economist)
Over the past year or so, The Economist has steadily emerged as a dependable publisher of fantastic audio reportage on what can be stodgily described as topics pertaining to “global affairs and international relations.” Last year’s The Prince, for example, served up a holistic look into the modern political context around Chinese premier Xi Jinping, and with Next Year in Moscow, the magazine has constructed a piercing look into the lives of Russians who have gone into exile following their opposition to their country’s invasion of Ukraine. Led by Arkady Ostrovsky, the series offers a sober but heartfelt look into a specific iteration of political conscience, resistance, and imagination.
The Coldest Case in Laramie (Serial Productions)
I wasn’t particularly taken by The Coldest Case in Laramie, which has the distinction of being the first Serial Productions series hosted by a New York Times reporter and is easily the grimmest entry in the studio’s canon thus far. But it’s still an utterly compelling piece of nonfiction crime storytelling. The investigative podcast revolves around an unsolved murder case from host Kim Barker’s childhood that heats up again when a long-suspected ex cop is finally charged for the crime decades later based on seemingly surefire evidence — only for those charges to be inexplicably dropped shortly after. Questions about the unreliability of memory, the subjectivity of truth, and the gravitational pull of closure arise.
Read Nicholas Quah’s full review of The Coldest Case in Laramie.
You Didn’t See Nothin (USG Audio)
There’s a mythical quality to the premise of You Didn’t See Nothin. The injustice of a horrible crime leads a man to investigative journalism, but he becomes disenchanted and ultimately leaves the profession altogether due to the force of its constraints. Years later, he returns to that instigating story, looking to settle a spiritual score. The individual in question is Chicago writer and designer Yohance Lacour, and the story he revisits is a hate crime that took place in the late ’90s: a young Black boy, Lenard Clark, beaten into a coma by a gang of white teenagers for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You Didn’t See Nothin is a fluid amalgam of things — memoir, journalism, social history — but above all, it’s a spirited litigation of a systemic failure. It’s an outstanding listen. Lacour is a fantastic writer and an even better narrator.
She Wants More (iHeartMedia)
Jo Piazza’s kaleidoscopic series about the many forms and motivations of female infidelity is a little bit Death, Sex & Money, a little bit Esther Perel, and entirely intriguing. Drawing heavily from the 1993 ethnography A Passion for More, by Susan Shapiro Barash, who appears on the show as a talking head, She Wants More assembles a collection of interviews with a variety of women — cutting across race, class, and all around the country — discussing their experiences with extramarital relationships, often for the first time. What transpires is primarily a treatise about the limitations of traditional marriage, but Piazza’s conversations also nudge toward a grand question: What do you really want out of your life?
Read Nicholas Quah’s interview with Jo Piazza.
Drifting Off With Joe Pera (Independent)
Joe Pera Talks With You might not be getting any more seasons, but those with serious Pera withdrawal can thank their lucky stars for Drifting Off With Joe Pera, which imports the Buffalo native’s style of quiet observational comedy into the form of a sleep podcast. Created with frequent collaborator Ryan Dann and produced with Grant Farsi, Drifting Off is an effective example of shifting mediums. Far from being an afterthought, here is a project that clearly understands the mechanics of its principal talent and takes its chosen format seriously. I’m writing this blurb on the basis of just its first monthly episode, but I’m already convinced it’s one of the best podcasts from this year.
Read Nicholas Quah’s interview with Joe Pera and Ryan Dann.
Svetlana! Svetlana! (iHeartMedia)
You can hold a lot against Svetlana! Svetlana! The podcast by the playwright Dan Kitrosser, about the eventful life of Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva, is at turns messy, obnoxious, and all over the place. At the same time, it’s messy, obnoxious, and all over the place; which is to say, for the right person, it’s spectacularly free and fun. We seem to be in a boomlet of fanciful, individually anchored narrative-podcast projects — funded to some noticeable extent by iHeartMedia — that are reminiscent of the kinds of general-interest nonfiction books that used to populate the best-seller list. (See: City of the Rails, Unread, the assorted works of Jamie Loftus, and so on.) Listen, I’d be perfectly happy to get hundreds more of these.
Mallwalkin’ (Pistol Shrimps Radio)
Hear me out. Mallwalkin’ is exactly what it sounds like: each episode sees Matt Gourley and Mark McConville, both longtime comedy-podcast regulars of Superego and OG Earwolf lineage, walking around malls in the greater Los Angeles area with audio equipment in hand as they talk through their impressions of the place until they run out of mall or management kicks them out for violating recording policies. It’s likely too shaggy and self-indulgent for most listeners; it’s also the perfect thing to leave on in the background when you just wanna zone out with, oh I don’t know, a blunt. Yeah, I can be high-falutin about this pick and make a whole argument about how Mallwalkin’ carries forward a beautiful micro-tradition of independent podcasts that serve as naturalistic windows into the actual world (see also: Walking, Field Recordings) — and I would be goddamn right — but really, Mallwalkin’ is just plain ambling fun.
Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children (iHeartMedia)
The criminal-justice reporter Josie Duffy Rice travels to Mount Meigs, an unincorporated community outside Montgomery, Alabama, where she looks into the history of a juvenile-reform school once known as the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. Originally created around the turn of the 20th century to provide Black children with an alternative to actual prison, the institution took a sordid turn when it was sold to the state in 1911, after which it developed a history of abusing many of the children held within its system. Patiently reported, Unreformed joins an emerging subgenre of recent audio docs focused on state-run institutions designed to subjugate vulnerable populations — see also, among others, Gimlet Media’s Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s and the CBC’s Kuper Island.
The Turning: Room of Mirrors (Rococo Punch and iHeartMedia)
The Turning’s debut season spun together a story of Mother Teresa’s Catholic order, the Missionaries of Charity, told through the perspective of women who had left the group after suffering under the weight of its religious demands. The series was notable for its delicate touch, constructing a picture of that insular world’s stark realities while honoring the specific nature of the women’s faith. Host Erika Lantz and the team returned earlier this year with an equally sensitive look at another insular world containing somewhat similar power dynamics: that of modern American ballet, which was defined in large part by a singular figure, George Balanchine, and the elite company of female dancers he built as co-founder of the New York City Ballet.
In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight (Radiotopia)
Created by Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth, who previously partnered up on the criminally underrated How To Do Everything, In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight nominally takes the shape of a weekly nostalgia recap podcast — recalling the bursting subgenre epitomized by shows like Office Girls and Back to the Beach — with the twist being they’re revisiting a hit mid-aughts TV show that never existed. It’s a silly, quiet, smart-dumb premise befitting a silly, quiet, often idiotically brilliant show that gives Chillag and Danforth expansive license to parody a broad range of things, not least of which is podcasting itself. Maybe it’s too inside baseball, but I don’t particularly care.
If Books Could Kill (Independent)
I would be remiss if I didn’t list the latest project from Michael Hobbes, this time in collaboration with 5-4’s Peter Shamshiri, due to a quirk of release timing. If Books Could Kill debuted last November, deep in year-end-list territory, but the indie podcast has taken on such a life that it feels like it’s been around forever. In the style of Maintenance Phase, the podcast features the duo systematically interrogating many of the seminal texts that have come to define the “popular nonfiction” book-publishing category over the decades — and, by extension, mass intellectual thought. Episodes so far have tackled books ranging from Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History to Rhonda Byrne’s self-help smash-hit The Secret to a book so successful it now has its own popular podcast network, Freakonomics, and the podcast has also crept into more contemporary concerns, such as high-brow media’s excessive fascination with campus controversies. If Books Could Kill is a thoroughly modern expression of intellectual history and criticism, made ever more accessible by its form and format.
Skyline Drive (Kaleidoscope and iHeartMedia)
It would have been enough if Skyline Drive simply explored modern interest in astrology with an open mind and a thoughtful consideration of America’s multicultural composition. Which it does! But in the hands of Mangesh Hattikudur, previously the host of Part-Time Genius and part of the HowStuffWorks brain trust, the podcast really comes to life when the show becomes a moving reflection on being a second-generation immigrant. How does one relate to their parents and the culture of their roots, and what is to be passed down to their own kids? As an added bonus, Skyline Drive features killer music supervision courtesy of Hattikudur. What a treat.