Best Podcast Episodes
5. Against the Rules, The Neutral
Michael Lewis’ new podcast series was a great look at the increasing criticism directed at judges and referees in recent years. This episode was a cut above the others thanks to the introduction of Ken Fienberg, a mediator who has created unprecedented breakthroughs on stalled negotiations, elevating him to the status of the “go-to neutral party” for a truly impressive list of high profile settlements. What makes Fienberg capable of such achievements seems to be a mix of empathy and knowing who can be reasoned with. Which is why he has refused to mediate US politics or Palestine/Israel. But after hearing this, you will wish he would give it a shot regardless.
4. Boring Talks, Toilet Graffiti
The premise for this series of podcasts is great: people talk about things that they are interested in that seem boring. But…the talks were more boring than I had anticipated and this is the only episode that I was truly captivated by. Scott Kelly makes a good point as toilet graffiti is the one instance when people write a message that they know the opposite gender will never see, making it worth studying. I had never considered what graffiti was written in the women’s restroom, I didn’t really think that many women would be juvenile enough to feel the need scrawl messages while pooping. But it turns out there are many similarities, women just have more uplifting bathroom graffiti than men. Also, the pensises that men draw are shorter than the ones the women draw… but maybe that’s just the women being uplifting again. They get really into the data on this episode which is hilarious considering the subject matter. Also listen to this episode if you want to know what happens when you call the phone numbers you see on the bathroom walls, the answer is more boring than you might expect.
3. Superego, 5:2
The podcast improv veterans returned for a new season after years of doing improv on other podcasts. And it was great to see that they still had the ability to find hilarious characters and interplay. This episode was the highlight of the season anchored by one of their best sketches yet: The Legion of Doom. Mark McConville’s Lex Luthor is a great straight man who nails being annoyed while still really respecting a sick burn. Paul F Tompkins’ Bizzaro Superman is great and Matt Gourley’s Krypton Girl is inspired. However the Living Chair improvisation is probably the most impressive part of the sketch. This episode also featured a sequel for my all time favorite sketch: HR Giger at the drive-thru. The follow-up did not disappoint. Gourley took the second encounter in some great new directions. Tompkins again shines in the “Listening to Looks at Books” segment proving why he belongs somewhere on the list of best podcasts every year.
2. Twenty Thousand Hertz, The Voyager Golden Record
For some reason when the Voyager Golden Record was sent off to space, there wasn’t adequate interest in producing the record for Earthings to listen to it. Finally two years ago the Golden Record was released on vinyl. Dallas Taylor was among those who were astonished by the ingenuity and care that went into making the legendary record. He steps through the tracklist explaining the tracks that provide insights into who we are as humans and what we value. The technical tracks are fascinating and the music carefully chosen to represent cultures from around the world include some great songs that I had never heard. Carl Sagan’s contributions to this project as described on this podcast should only add to the legend of the famous astronomer. There is something uplifting about the Voyager project, to use an analogy introduced on the podcast, there is beauty in the attempt of one one island civilization to reach out to another.
1. Radiolab, The Beauty Puzzle
This podcast got me to reconsider what I know about nature and evolution. I considered ending the paragraph there, but I guess I will give some context. We think the foundation of Darwin’s thoughts on evolution was “the survival of the fittest,” however, Darwin’s message may have been filtered by fellow naturalist Alfred Wallace. Darwin’s writings express a consideration for beauty and the influence of love in natural selection. Biologist Richard Prum provides evidence that this could be a large part of natural selection by pointing to species that are evolving to become weaker, which kinda blew my mind. The power “art” has in the animal kingdom is an interesting concept to consider, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Radiolab does a great job digging into the subject. It was also fantastic to see Robert Krulwich still doing his best work as he prepared for his retirement this year. He will be missed.
5ish. Tunnel 29
Helena Merriman layers the real-life story of students trying to tunnel under the Berlin wall with enough details to enable listeners to imagine living in Germany during the height of the Cold War. The bravery, ingenuity, and danger are palpable in this podcast. Extraordinary circumstances prompt ordinary people to go to extreme measures, which force them to make a series of life or death decisions. This podcast also features great producing with sound effects that put you in the action and music to perfectly fit the mood. Unfortunately the episodes are only about 15 minutes long, with the first couple minutes dedicated to a recap of the previous episodes, so the listener is constantly pulled out of the world. That minor quibble was enough to bump it from my top five of the year.
5. Running from Cops
An in depth look at reality tv shows that follow law enforcement wasn’t very interesting to me, but the investigation that Dan Taberski conducts and the questions he dives into are fascinating. Subjective truth and framing a story are major themes as Taberski draws on his experience working on unrelated reality shows. Unsurprisingly some of the issues with the show represent major issues with US law enforcement in general. Apparently I need to go back and listen to some of these Headlong podcasts, because the quality of the journalism in this podcast was very impressive.
4. Edge of Sleep
QCode is churning out these high quality narrative fiction podcasts with great voice acting talent, well drawn characters, and impressive sound design. These are more instances of taking stories that were hard to get made into pilots and adapting them into podcasts. While I definitely enjoyed Blackout and Carrier, Edge of Sleep introduced a more complicated narrative and seemed to conclude the story more effectively than the other two releases. Great unconventional characters feed into the effective comedy writing, which provides refreshing counterweight to the drama and tension. One drawback was the late introduction of a conventional horror trope, I won’t say what it was to avoid spoilers, but it was not effective and did little to enrich to the story. But overall, this was great storytelling and the best narrative fiction podcast that I heard all year.
3. Rough Translation
Gregory Warner has done great work over the years as a freelancer and was covered in podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab, now he has his own podcast, but he is still reporting about small scale stories from around the world that represent larger international themes or issues. His team’s reporting in Iraq was an intriguing, featuring people motivated to improve their country despite the cultural or technical hurdles that they must try to overcome. But the best two episodes of the season were probably on the Israeli doctor who was recruited to sedate Adolf Eichmann during a famous Mossad mission and the episode on IT guy who tried to take down a multimillion dollar scam business in Costa Rica. Both were fantastic and enthralling episodes. The latest reporting has been out of Ukrainke and provided very interesting insights into how truly corrupt systems operate, and how new politicians are trying to fight against it.
Allie Ward has a philosophy for this podcast “ask smart people stupid questions.” While only a small percentage of her questions are stupid, she is able to prompt great answers and interesting conversations from passionate scientists. Her self-deprecating humor and refreshing editing ensure the conversations are top notch entertainment. In between experts on hagfish, ticks, volcanos, and brain chemistry she provides some insights into her radical career shift and her search for fulfillment, which is what led her to become almost obsessively dedicated to a podcast where she talks about lizard dicks. She has made so many Ologies podcasts and they are all worth your attention. The backlog, my god the backlog.
1. Memory Palace
Nate DiMeo is a talented storyteller with a keen interest in forgotten lives and events. He is able to identify the humanity inside these stories and recognize that people long ago are fundamentally the same as we are today, with complicated emotions and desires. The short stories are always beautiful, and often profound. He will paint a vivid picture of the world’s best flagpole sitter, or the woman who struck out Babe Ruth, or the only person to be struck by a meteorite, and then expound on the significance of the event, and how it affected real people’s lives. The episode Let it Snow was a moving standout as DiMeo recognizes the tragic shift a radio DJ must make from playing Christmas music to warning families about an active shooter at a nearby school. And he interrogates the reality that kids shoot each other in school in 2019 and we do our best to go on with our lives. And what illustrates DiMeo’s unique perspective is that he tries to look back at this time from a potential future where the concept of frequent school shootings seems foreign and hard to imagine.
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