Originally, I was going to just add this on to the end of my Best Books post as sort of a bonus, maybe mention 5 podcasts that really informed, inspired, and entertained me this year. But as I started to make the list, I realized there were way too many really good podcasts that got me through this year that they deserved their own post rather than a supplement to another. And then as I was making the list, I couldn’t even keep it to 10 as was my original intention. In the interest of editing my list, I didn’t include any podcasts that are just audio versions of TV shows like Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher. (I know, I know, “Lee, zip up your Iowa farmboy, your liberal hippie is showing.”) This is the year that I became obsessed with podcasts and there were so many good ones out there to fill my earholes. Here are my favorites.
12. There Goes the Neighborhood
This year I became a little obsessed with the concept of gentrification and this podcast fed that obsession in a very understandable way. It unpacks all of the issues related to gentrification at all levels by speaking directly to people affected by it on all sides. Specifically focusing on the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, it shares interviews from those who are being displaced to those who are replacing them to the housing developers and politicians making the decisions. It takes a broad but comprehensive look at a specific place that is wrestling with a reality that has started to affect cities all over the USA.
In a year that really capitalized on the popularity of true crime podcasts, to me, Accused stood out as one of the best. What I appreciated about it was that from the very outset in the first episode the producers and hosts were clear about the fact that they were doing the podcast in hopes of actually solving the unsolved case from the 70’s. They were also upfront with the fact that although they intended to present all of the facts as objectively as possible, they couldn’t completely abandon their own human tendencies to form opinions. Establishing these factors from the beginning made the whole podcast more captivating and less clinical for me. It pursues the case of the murder of Beth Andes in a small Ohio town in which a suspect was tried but acquitted and then the case was abandoned to never be solved. A couple other worthwhile true crime podcasts that didn’t make my list are In The Dark and Up And Vanished.
I remain loyal to Serial after their second season knowing that it kept me invested and informed throughout once again. It remains the standard model and inspiration for so many podcasts that have come after it, and in many ways it can be credited for the popularity of podcasts in general today. Many people found season two less interesting than season one but I think that’s mainly because it didn’t provide the opportunity for listeners to play detective. But to me it still shone a clarifying light on a news story that I personally, at least, didn’t know enough about. And through their effective zooming out, they made me see how such a story effects us all. The story of US serviceman, Beau Bergdahl, being captured by the Taliban, is one that is easy to put into a category of hard to define war stories but Serial has a way of showing it to be much more than that.
9. The Room Where It’s Happening
I confess, I’m a Hamilhead. And this podcast provides me with all the super fan Hamilton nerd goodness I need to keep from throwing away my shot (even though I’m really more of a Burr). Having theater and entertainment insiders get together every week and geek out over every detail of the musical makes me know I’m not alone. Every new hidden easter egg and background technical detail I hear about makes me love the musical even more. The best episode, in my humble opinion, was with the musical supervisor, Alex Lacamoire. I also love that it’s always available first thing Monday morning after a weekend without podcasts. Perfect way to start off the week.
8. Tiny Spark
This is the perfect podcast for nonprofit nerds like myself. Each episode takes an in depth look at the most pressing issues facing the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors through interviews with a variety of experts that are often on the cutting edges of these worlds. Hosted by Amy Costello, an experienced journalist whose work has often revealed some of the complicated inner workings of charity efforts on a global scale. Also her voice is so steady and reassuring that it’s a pleasure to listen to and she always asks exactly the right questions.
7. Code Switch
This is an NPR podcast that looks at issues of race and identity led by journalists of color, primarily Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol. For me, their topics are kind of hit or miss but when they’re good they’re really good. If you only listen to one episode, make it “Apocalypse or Racial Kumbaya?” But there are lots of good ones. While addressing issues that can typically be so contentious, the hosts maintain a level of professionalism and realism that makes the context of what they’re saying approachable while remaining challenging. It’s a great model of how to have civilized conversations about controversial topics. Plus, Demby closes out each episode with his standard “Be easy,” which I love because he’s the perfect model for such advice.
6. Sooo Many White Guys
Yes, I’m also a huge fan of 2 Dope Queens, but I actually liked Phoebe Robinson’s own podcast more because while it maintains Phoebe’s always funny and refreshing voice, it conducts interviews with some of our generation’s leading thinkers on the current issues that define us. Rather than being just comedy its comedy + politics + pop culture. And honestly I’m just waiting for God to make my path cross with Phoebe’s somehow so that we can fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. YQY
5. About Race
This podcast is described as “a lively multiracial conversation about the ways we can’t talk, don’t talk, would rather not talk, but intermittently, fitfully, embarrassingly do talk about culture, identity, politics, power, and privilege in our pre-post-yet-still-very-racial America.” It’s got a stellar team of hosts, including one of my favs, Barathunde Thurston, that take a different topic each week that is consuming the current national dialog about race and they deconstruct and debate it often with a wide spectrum of views on each topic. The hosts always have a healthy debate where they often disagree with each other and ask all of the important questions that we should each be asking ourselves in our interactions with each other every day. It can sometimes get a little too intellectual and cerebral making certain perspectives harder to follow. But it’s successful at being real and raw and leading the way in a conversation that we collectively as a nation should be having.
4. Fake the Nation
Hosted by one of my favorite comedians, Negin Farsad, this podcasts features a variety of unique voices, most of them from minority comedians, many of them Muslim. Each week they bring levity, humor, and a healthy dose of cynicism to the week’s political news. As voices that are typically othered in our political conversations, I appreciate this podcast for amplifying these voices instead. Negin frequently echoes the thoughts that I have in my own head, which isn’t necessarily constructive, but she expresses those thoughts in a much more entertaining way. And her guests always add nuance and diversity.
3. Politically Re-Active
W Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu taking politicians to task and making us laugh with an incomparable lineup of guests, including politicians themselves sometimes, what more could you ask for? Unfortunately this podcast was only designed to go through the election, but I’m an optimist and believe that it was popular enough that they’ll bring it back again soon. It helped keep me sane throughout the year leading up to the election and often made me look at things in a new way. Their interviews with Rosa Clemente and Jill Stein made me see the Green party in a whole new light. Their post election episode with Roxane Gay was perfection. Keeping my fingers crossed that this one comes back.
2. We Live Here
If I was in charge of giving out awards, I would give all of them to this team of local reporters at St. Louis public radio! They do such a stellar job on this podcast that each new episode can never come soon enough for me. I have a lot of podcasts on this list that deal with race, but none of them do it better than We Live Here. Their most recent episode on race issues in the contemporary art world brought me enough life to last through 2017 and beyond. But even before that, I loved every episode they produced. My only complaint is that they don’t come out frequently enough. What started as a podcast exploring “race, class, power, poverty, systems and the people they touch,” initially in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the Ferguson protests that followed, has grown to project insightful analysis and absolutely essential investigation into how these systems affect all of us whether in St. Louis, elsewhere in the US, or around the world. From modern segregation, to implicit biases in schools, to housing crises, this podcast addresses it all and does so from the inside looking out rather than the outside looking in, which is what we get from the national media. I can’t heap enough praise upon this podcast! Even though it’s #2 on my list, it’s still the best in a lot of ways, especially from a local perspective.
1. NPR Politics Podcast
I honestly don’t know how anyone survived the past year in politics without listening obsessively to this podcast. In a country that is so divided by partisan prejudices, every week, sometimes more, the NPR politics team was a breath of objective, nonpartisan, fresh air providing facts and context to all of the chaos of the election. And I am so thankful to still have them to help me understand the next 4 years. The beauty of it is that they have journalist on the team, that if they allowed themselves to, would have a right to extremely personal opinions on what is happening. Muslim, black, queer, Latino, women, and yes, even a couple old white men, all together using their superhuman powers of objectivity to cover the current political news. Any time you feel like you’re about to freak out and break down from all of the other news your hearing, NPR Politics shows up in your podcast feed and restores your faith in facts and truth and humanity. I am such a fan of this podcast that when one of the team members made a joke about the word “vocalness” sounding like a 90’s R&B group and that joke was embraced by fans to the point that they actually offered Vocalness band posters, I was one of the first ones to sign up. I’m so excited to know that I have a Vocalness poster waiting for me back in Iowa! And now, I have to give this podcast the credit they deserve, especially before they lose two of their best journalists, Asma Khalid and Sam Sanders. Thank you, NPR Politics team, for getting me and so many others through this past year!
Let me know what you think of this list. Are there other podcasts that you enjoy that I need to check out? If you listen to some of these, do you agree with my assessments? Looking forward to the new podcasts that 2017 will bring us. I might just have to make one of my own. Until then, Happy New Year to all my readers!
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