The Coronavirus Podcasts Have Arrived

Photo: Vulture

Not long ago, the impeachment saga proved to be fertile ground for the wide world of podcasts, with that extended political drama serving as a major narrative well for newsy podcasts and a healthy jumping off point for several new podcasters. Right now, we’re beginning to see similar trends play out with the ongoing coronavirus story — similar, but not entirely the same. As the situation evolves from a rising threat to a global emergency, we’re seeing the infrastructure of crisis-driven podcasts seamlessly shift its attention from politics to the pandemic right before our eyes … for better or worse.

Let’s start with an obvious positive: The ever-expanding galaxy of solid news podcasts has been proven to be effective in covering the pandemic as it ramped up in severity. Daily shows from established news institutions like the New York Times (The Daily), Vox Media (Today, Explained), Slate (What Next), and the Washington Post (Post Reports) all swiftly moved to lay down a solid bed of coverage from the early goings, and as a class of news products, they ended up being able to accommodate the massive headline explosion of the past few days — a crashing stock market, a quarantine zone in New Rochelle, the suspension and cancellation of sporting events, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson testing positive, and so on — quite well.

Major global events also have a way of highlighting the prominence and power of major personality-driven podcasts. The big example here is The Joe Rogan Experience, widely believed to be one of the biggest active podcasts out there and consistently criticized for views deemed as questionable or outright offensive. On Tuesday, Rogan brought on an infectious disease expert, Michael Osterholm, to discuss the virus, and that interview ended up being one of the more useful discussions on the pandemic I’ve encountered as a lay news consumer. It was a somewhat confusing moment of alignment; I was grateful for the conversation, while feeling slightly weird about the whole thing.

So, yes, many podcasts have been handling the pandemic admirably. But things get significantly dicier when it comes to the rush of newly launched coronavirus-focused podcasts.

If you were to type in “coronavirus” in the search engine of Apple Podcasts or Spotify, you would be served a vast but chaotic array of choices. Some might leap out at you for their affiliation with established media brands. (Whether or not you trust those brands depends on your political views, I suppose.) CNN’s Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction With Dr. Sanjay Gupta is perhaps the most prominent example of this, and that podcast turns out to genuinely be the best of the lot. Serving up bite-sized episodes that are published daily, the CNN podcast functions really well as a tool for constant anxiety recalibration and modest reassurance. It’s systematic and thoughtfully produced, with Gupta using each installment to rationally talk through a different aspect of this complex story, whether it’s the definition of the term “pandemic” or anxiety over flight risks. Not for nothing, it’s also the rare production in which generic Big Pharma ad–sounding music is deployed to a decent, calming effect.

But the bulk of what you’d get from those podcast search results is a kind of surreal mess; the audio equivalent of the stuff you’d find past the second page of a Google search. You’d find several shows with poorly rendered cover art and generic titles looking to game the search engine algorithm. Any rational assessment would lead to the conclusion that most, if not all, of these podcasts should be avoided, and that listeners should really stick with established news brands. After all, a health-related story of this magnitude, complexity, and severity shouldn’t be filtered through anything less than professionals.

But podcasting, much like the rest of the internet, is subject to a wide variety of charlatans and questionable types looking to exploit its underlying systems for their own benefit, whatever that may be. Furthermore, these are also times where trust in “established news brands” have never been lower, or more systematically assaulted by bad-faith actors.

Which is to say, there are toxic elements at play on these podcast platforms. One of the higher-ranked search results for coronavirus podcasts on both Apple Podcasts and Spotify is a DIY podcast created by a former Maine town manager who was dismissed in 2018 after he conveyed sentiments that have been described as potentially sympathetic to separatist movements and white supremacy. That individual now leads an anti-immigrant group. The podcast, which won’t be named here, is long and poorly edited, packed with rambles and recitations of scientific papers of dubious fidelity. It’s a spitting image of caricatures about crackpots and charlatans who vie for attention during crises, but it’s also the kind of thing that can catch people at their most anxious.

However, within the context-flattening effects of a standard search result, a podcast like that sits squarely among entries like CNN’s Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction and genuinely helpful independent efforts like Epidemic with Dr. Celine Gounder and Ronald Klain. (Gounder is an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, while Klain was the U.S. Ebola czar from 2014 to 2015.) Which means the scammy shows are directly competing for attention with news products that actually play a role in disseminating important information. That’s the tricky, unsettling, and potentially dangerous thing about the theoretically infinite world of podcasting: anybody can publish, which means that anybody can publish.

On that note, in the spirit of trying to be helpful, here’s a list of what we believe are genuinely helpful coronavirus-specific podcasts, if that’s something you feel like you’d want to add to your podcast diet in these times. Listen carefully.

America Dissected: Coronavirus (Crooked Media)

Last fall, the progressive media company Crooked Media launched America Dissected, an audio documentary series hosted by a physician and former city health commissioner, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, that sought to examine America’s deeply broken healthcare system and general relationship to science. That debut season laid the foundation for this more immediate second season, which is positioning itself to not only keep listeners updated on the latest COVID-19 development, but root the analysis in a longer view of how we got here.

Coronavirus Daily (NPR)

At this point, all news podcasts are coronavirus podcasts, and one thing to watch is how different news podcasts, traditionally built for more general coverage, find different ways into this demanding story of a global pandemic. But if you wanted to stay close to incremental development, and if you want to keep yourself within the public radio frame of mind, NPR has your back with this specialized daily news podcast.

Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction with Dr. Sanjay Gupta (CNN)

Serving up bite-sized episodes that are published daily, the CNN podcast functions really well as a tool for constant anxiety recalibration and modest reassurance. Systematic and thoughtfully-produced, it’s good for a daily moment of zen, given the circumstances.

Viral: Coronavirus (ThreeUncannyFour)

Made by the same podcast studio that brought you Broken: Jeffrey Epstein, this podcast endeavors to balance what’s happening in the big picture and how you should processing all of it as an individual, without hype or hysteria.

Epidemic With Dr. Celine Gounder and Ronald Klain (Just Human Productions)

If you wish to go deeper into the science and public policy angle of the COVID-19 phenomenon, look no further than this podcast from an infectious disease specialist and the former U.S. Ebola czar. They may not be radio professionals, but that doesn’t matter when they’re actual experts.

Coronavirus Global Update (BBC World Service)

The coronavirus pandemic is a global phenomenon, obviously, and so if you’re hoping to keep daily tabs on what’s going on in other countries, the BBC World Service has got your back. The BBC has excelled at this format for a long time with its regular daily news dispatches, so it makes sense that they would be one of the stronger outfits to cover this crisis.

Coronavirus Daily Briefing (Ride Home Media)

An audio digest of all the major coronavirus-related headlines, for folks who really want to stay close to the story. The irony is that Ride Home Media specializes in the listen-to-this-on-your-after-work-commute genre of podcasting, and while fewer people are even commuting at all any more, their COVID-19 briefing will still be useful even if you’re stuck at home.

The Coronavirus Podcasts Have Arrived