Another quality month in the world of podcasts has come and gone. An industry titan made a reappearance in a surprising way. Daily shows continue to grow in quality and their ability to react to an ever-shrinking news cycle. The level and style of reporting has never been more boundary-pushing, making for a veritable bounty of returning shows and new favorites. We’ve gathered some of our favorites from the month (here are our picks from January and February and all of 2016 if you’re new to these) to help you keep up with the growing crop.
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Robert Andersson’s Chicago-produced audio essays are keen observations, largely by virtue of placing their subjects at the forefront. By getting out of the way, this episode gives a voice to a city, a neighborhood and a reporter. An evening ride-along with a journalist responding to news of a neighborhood shooting brings in the tiniest of details that rarely show up in newspaper crime reporting. The clicks of a camera capturing the crime scene, the overheard conversations between neighbors, the music from passing cars. It’s a reminder of all the work that goes into quality reporting, without Andersson ever calling attention to his own part in crafting this insight.
My favorite entry in the recently launched Panoply Pilot Project, this down-the-rabbit-hole look at self-help books signals a promising start if the show goes to series. Co-hosts Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer use “The Secret” as an entertaining springboard for a look into their own lives and relationships. (The banter with their respective husbands is a wonderful added layer, one that’s also present in another enjoyable PPP entry “The Awkward Family Podcast.”) Their conclusions about the effectiveness of the Law of Attraction are winking enough to prod at the more absurd parts of this phenomenon and sincere enough to embrace the power of positive change. That balance could easily sustain a shelf of future episodes.
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Public radio has carefully laid the groundwork for daily news podcasts to thrive. But what shows like “The Daily” and Slate’s “The Gist” do on a daily basis is an impressive blend of a familiar template and the format freedom of a podcast. NYT reporter Michael Barbaro and the “Daily” team routinely tackle the previous days’ headlines with thoughtfulness and a next-level angle rarely found on any cable news outlet. This episode’s pair of stories on Russian hacking address the overarching terrors of the day, but dig deeper to touch on the logistics and individuals behind what many other news sources treat as a nebulous whole.
Earlier this year, “Death, Sex & Money” aired an episode about Mahershala Ali and Amatus Sami-Karim’s marriage, a sweet, insightful look into how fame and faith can affect a relationship. In the show’s other best episode of the year (taken from a Facebook Live call-in show), Anna Sale and the husband/wife pair of singer/songwriters also have a frank, honest discussion of new parenthood and past tribulations. Neither Isbell nor Shires pretend to be paragons of parental behavior, but their one-day-at-a-time philosophies and personal conceptions of a spiritual life are calm, refreshing antidotes to an often-hectic world.
The debut episode of James Simenc’s new show does the near-impossible task of finding a new avenue into the 2016 election. By looking at Maine’s peculiar half-century history without a governor elected by majority rule, “Digits” shows that you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to recognize when something can be improved. Simenc takes the more complex elements of abstract numerical concepts and makes them accessible for fans who may come to the subject matter with less scientific interests. It’s a promising start for a show that has a premise wide enough to encompass just about anything, but a sense of focus to let audiences know they’re in good hands.
If any audio show could build an in-depth reported series on an inherently visual subject, it’s “Embedded.” Kelly McEvers and the team are back with more stories, this time focusing on the circumstances surrounding various police videos. This episode on the killing of Jonathan Ferrell goes beyond a simple gathering of viewpoints and opinions and gives context for the splits in the criminal jury and the community at large. Not just a podcast “Rashomon,” it’s an opening statement in a series that examines how shifting circumstances often lead to shifting consequences.
For eight years, the co-hosting team of Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis and Mike Pesca have run the best three-man weave in all the sports-talkisphere. As the latter made his farewell appearance, it was an ideal opportunity for the show to run through all of what Pesca’s brought to HUAL’s particular brand of off-kilter banter. Come for the typically cogent March Madness/World Baseball talk, stay for a trip down memory lane lined with puns and hockey horns.
The show saves its focus on the Hitchcock film of its title for later episodes, but the first installment of “Inside Psycho” wastes no time delivering on terror. Host/Writer Mark Ramsey tells the story of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer who helped to inspire the novel that became “Psycho.” It’s here that Ramsey does what few other true crime anthologies do: untether the story from a single viewpoint. This format hovers beyond authoritative biographer to give a truly unsettling mental picture of a murderer. The compulsions that Hitch mined for on-screen thrills are just as frightening coming through headphones.
Nate DiMeo’s monthly sojourn into the forgotten and underappreciated corners of American history often point toward the concrete. But some of the show’s best moments and entire episodes delve into the hypothetical. DiMeo’s modest example this month? A simpler, profound Washington Monument that would have been far different from the one we all recognize today. It’s an indicative example of the way “The Memory Palace” confronts us with what and why we choose to remember about our nation’s past. Delivered with just the right amount of levity, it’s a testament to how quickly we can forget and reshape the ideas and legacies of centuries past.
In the same way that policy makers search for the one lasting image that can drive public opinion towards one side, “Outside/In” brings an unforgettable addition to the ongoing coal discussion: the sound of one man’s breathing. Black lung is a disease that’s often reduced to an oversimplified consequence (or even a punchline). So it’s heartening to hear an investigation that considers the real health risks and government-lead efforts to defray their consequences. Placing a family at the center shows that coal-related policies aren’t simply campaign promises or cartoonish attempts to squelch private enterprise. It’s an industry that envelops the fates of thousands, regardless of what the industry’s future has in store.
The ultimate fate of our daily waste rarely gets a second thought. When it comes to old, used electronics, this episode of “++” shows just how perplexing the various, multi-level process for dispensing of dead TVs can be. It’s a complicated melange of private services, international smuggling and toxic, hazardous materials, but Jason Koebler does an effective job or bringing these threads together with some illuminating, on-the-ground reporting. The result is an enlightening tech longread in podcast form, one of the most effective ways of inviting the average listener into a strange, labyrinthine world.
The “Serial” pedigree of this show was always going to carry with it some mystery expectations. “S-Town” truly distinguishes itself by indulging the early central question but developing a deeper, more meaningful pursuit. Later episodes fundamentally change how we understand the individuals at the center of the story, but few hours from 2017 will be as satisfying as those spent listening to John B. McLemore wax poetic about everything from his fellow Woodstock, Alabama residents to the encroaching dangers of climate change. It’s the perfect start to a thoroughly enlightening seven-episode journey.
“Selected Shorts” always has an uncanny way of matching readers to stories. For this installment, Kirsten Vangsness’ performance of “A Talking Cure” brings exactly what the original work needs to cut through the graduate-study facade and get at the lingering relationship issues underneath. The trepidation, the awkwardness and the unexpected conclusion all come through in a way that also lets in just the right amount of ambiguity. It’s the kind of story that comes with the nervous laughter that marks so many of these readings, a consistently odd, satisfying series.