Many talented people created podcasts this year in response to the pandemic helping to create the best year for podcasts yet. While only one podcast on my list was a direct result of the pandemic, many podcasts provided essential accompaniment by informing us, putting things in perspective, or just distracting us momentarily.
I listed my four favorite podcast episodes and my six favorite podcasts of the year…it still adds up to ten.
Best Podcast Episodes
Runner Up – 99% Invisible episode: Their Dark Materials
4. Short Wave, America’s Never-Ending Battle Against Flesh-Eating Screw Worms
Short Wave had lots of great topics this year, such as the episode where they ranked every moon in the solar system, but the screw worm episode stood out, because it is ingenious, audacious, and totally unfamiliar. Screw worms used to be a huge problem for farmers and the solution probably wouldn’t have been discovered if it wasn’t for nuclear bombs. In the 1950s the United States tried to solve the problem, but quickly realized this solution needed to be a huge international partnership. The ingenuity and partnership are an important reminder of what can be accomplished across governments as the United States leaves a period of isolationism.
3. Origins: Almost Famous, Ep 1: Casting, Casting, Casting
James Andrew Miller’s podcasts may have low production value, but his interviews are fantastic. And I think it helped that everyone involved in making this film loves talking about their involvement. The episode opened my eyes to how the magic of film partly derives from the authenticity of Cameron Crowe’s experiences as a teenage rock journalist. I was captivated by the surprising roads that led the filmmakers to choose the perfect actors for the roles and it was great to highlight casting director Gale Levin for creating the incredible ensemble rooted in the actors real-life personalities. Everyone’s pride in their work made for a refreshingly uplifting listen, also I always welcome insane Philip Seymour Hoffman stories.
2. Intrigue: Mayday, Ep4 Hoax Producers
This podcast dives into a mystery involving the White Helmets, an organization that rescued civilians during the Syrian Civil War, and the misinformation campaigns designed to discredit the organization. The subject matter is fascinating, but also deeply concerning how misinformation and propaganda can enable real world horrors. When listening, I often wondered how different things would have been if Clinton won in 2016 and enacted the planned no-fly zone. The drawback of the podcast is the focus on one person involved with the White Helmets. If the investigation was broadened, then the impact and insights of the podcast could have been far greater.
1. Mobituaries by Mo Rocca, The Black Congressmen of Reconstruction: Death of Representation
As we noticed from the Watchmen series last year there are aspects of African American history that were not included in our childhood education. I was fascinated to learn that there were seven African American congressmen in the 1870s. These congressmen represented southern states just years after they were emancipated, often taking over the seats of white supremacists. The episode highlights the often widespread support these politicians held in previously white-only institutions, during an open-minded period following the Civil War. It made think about how things in our country could have gone in a different direction, but as Mo Rocca eloquently states, the moment in the sun was not to last.
Runner Ups – Floodlines and Wind of Change
What started out as a stunt about two comedians (Lauren Lapkus and Nicole Byer) who finally watch Star Wars for the first time, turned into an interesting examination of the series. It was hilarious to see Lauren, despite her protests, gradually turn into an actual Star Wars fan. Asking good questions like “why did Lucas feel the need to reinsert the Jabba the Hutt scene in A New Hope?” Nicole getting names wrong (sometimes on accident and sometimes on purpose) was surprisingly enjoyable. They kept things interesting through the drudgery of the prequels by talking about which aliens they would like to sleep with. Their lack of knowledge about what is coming next in the series is always hilarious, like after they finished Attack of the Clones they were hoping the younglings would get to fight off bad guys in an Ewok-style treehouse…that didn’t work out. Another highlight was that they didn’t read or understand the “A long time ago…” part or the crawl until they had watched almost every Star Wars film. They followed the season up with a Lord of the Rings season, but without the hilarious comedian guests, it wasn’t as good.
5. Working it Out
As a fan of Mike Birbiglia and stand up comedy in general, this podcast provides amazing insight into how a comedian builds a set. Birbiglia introduces some jokes based around a theme, ready for feedback and eager to make minor adjustments to make it incrementally funnier with each revision. As Birbiglia brings his newest draft to comedian friends, it feels like you are in the green room of a comedy club as they suggest tags for existing jokes or different perspectives to add new layers to the joke. As a bonus, guest collaborator Ira Glass shows his commitment to quality storytelling by providing ruthless and insightful feedback.
4. Dead Eyes
What do you do when the most liked person in the world (Tom Hanks) has apparently accused you of having “dead eyes?” Apparently you should wait 20 years and then launch a podcast investigating every aspect of the encounter in hilarious detail. Connor Ratliff has consistently funny and engaging conversations with amazing guests as he unravels more and more of the inconsequential mystery. That alone would have made a successful podcast, however, Ratliff has an ability to create profound reflections on a variety of subjects, elevating the material beyond just a fun podcast. As Ratliff highlights coincidences and connections, it dawned on me just how pervasive Hanks is in our culture. Now we just need to be patient while Jon Hamm and Seth Rogen convince the most liked person in the world to appear on the podcast.
3. Oh Hello
John Mulaney and Nick Kroll bring their infamous characters of Gil and George to the highest form of art: podcasts. This is definitely the funniest thing I heard all year, with great parodies of other podcasts and jokes about famous podcasters. Like this gem: “A friend of mine in hospice told me that Ira Glass is related to Philip Glass, which makes sense because he is repetitive and a little grating.” The fake advertisements in each episode were possibly the highlight. I’m sure Subway was thrilled to hear their restaurant advertised as having “puffy bread and sweaty meats.” Between commercials there is plenty to enjoy as they investigate the truth about that “total babe” Princess Diana. These characters have come a long way since “Too Much Tuna.”
2. Cautionary Tales
Tim Harford provides thought provoking investigations into famous disasters and highlights the psychology that led to massive mistakes. Each episode provides instructions on how we can avoid errors in judgement, such as being overly reliant on a single tool or being unwilling to change our opinions despite overwhelming evidence. Harford tells the stories with rich detail and his empathy and humor shine through. After the pandemic started, he pivoted to deftly address the situations and the complicated decisions we are forced to make during COVID times. He explains how influenced we are by the actions of people around us, if other people aren’t taking a problem seriously then it is difficult to justify taking it seriously ourselves. Harford also investigated his own mistakes. Like many of the people in his tales, he failed to read the clear warning signs regarding the pandemic and he failed to listen to the experts giving good advice. Be entertained while learning how to be a better person!
1. The Daily
This podcast provides amazing news coverage, digging into one big topic each episode. The reporting is forward-looking and was extremely helpful in a confusing and volatile year. I wouldn’t recommend going back and listening to the news podcasts as most are quickly out of date, however, every week there is a “Sunday Read” episode that is not based on current events. These episodes have an extremely high success rate featuring compelling storytelling and fantastic investigations. From the story of the manhunt for the overboard fisherman “A Speck in the Sea” to Dwayne Bettis’ complex, thought provoking, and heartfelt investigation on crime and mass incarceration. When there was an episode dedicated to Weird Al, I expect a fun tribute to the parody musician, instead the episode featured an emotional journey into the psyche of Yankovic and his adoring fans with the standout line “Nobody gets to be self righteous, not in America.” Rabbit Hole was an eye opening miniseries included in the feed that investigated how a YouTube algorithm began radicalizing conservatives. And if you aren’t sold already, I must also recommend the episode on the Jewish Neo-Nazi that invented sea monkeys, which illustrates how marketing can be more powerful than reality.
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