It’s impossible to try to sum up an entire month’s worth of podcasts in one overarching theme. But, in sifting through some of the best episodes of May 2017, it’s hard not to see a few patterns that have emerged.
Audio entertainment is figuring out how to represent the best of what makes visual media so captivating. Crime stories continue to bubble up and captivate the public consciousness. And podcasts have become a special way to memorialize the achievements of those whose stories have otherwise gone unsung.
As usual, we’ve highlighted 13 of the top shows from the month, complete with links to listen to their best episodes and discover more of their ever-growing back catalogue.
“Over That Rainbow” (with Morris Day)”
To commemorate the one-year anniversary of Prince’s passing, “Another Round” co-hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu spoke with the legendary musician’s former cohort Morris Day, the lead singer of The Time. With unique insight into what made the artist special, Day describes growing up in the same community as Prince, complete with anecdotes from his childhood and memories of their early shared musical career. It’s an interview that also draws on Clayton and Nigatu’s obvious appreciation for Day, playfully addressing his lasting legacies in the world of music, romance and laughter. Bonus: Keep your ears open for Day’s description of the greatest idea for a TV show never to make it to air.
“The Three Owls: The Face of Evil”
Matt Holzman and KCRW’s new podcast documentary mashup is a new spin on audio journalism. Listening to existing, upcoming, and abandoned projects with an ear to stories that are just as profound in audio form, this series taps into the power of storytellers and the special bond that they have with their subjects. This particular episode is uniquely terrifying in the way that it relays and relives an official, church-sanctioned exorcism. Holzman’s initial dose of healthy skepticism makes the eventual reveal of documentary filmmaker Harris Fishman’s footage all the more profound. Somehow, it’s scarier to discover that you can ponder the nature of evil without having to see its face.
“Episode 7 : For a Small Investment…”
Maria Konnikova’s ongoing look into the history of international swindlers takes on some legendary figures from the con-man universe. This particular episode focuses on a historic instance of mail fraud, perpetuated in a time before Nigerian prince emails were ever a scourge of the spam folder. But Konnikova shows how the story of Oscar Hartzell is also notable for the individual reactions to his Sir Francis Drake scheme. Hartzell’s many willing marks are illustrative test cases for the biological and psychological reasons why so many people are so willing to continue believing in scams long after they’re disproven. And it shows that the people behind these lies are just as capable of deluding themselves as much as their victims.
“A Better Love”
In a month filled with Mother’s Day-themed episodes, this season finale of “Hi-Fi Nation” examined the many different ways that a mother’s love can transform a life. Bringing a relatable entry point into the world of philosophy, Barry Lam introduces lofty, theoretical concepts and ground them in real-life stories that are as heartbreaking as they are illuminating. Investigating societal views on marriage and motherhood and grief, it says multitudes about how we view our relationships with others, whether or not we’ve ever been parents ourselves.
“Trump’s Casual Lying and Norman Lear on Creating Socially Impactful Television”
Larry Wilmore is a comedic voice that’s been sorely missing from the airwaves since the cancellation of “The Nightly Show.” Luckily, Wilmore’s back and in the podcast game, picking right back up where he left off. This first episode not only shows Wilmore’s unique filtering of recent news, it shows his skills as a thoughtful, engaging interviewer. On the other side of the recording studio, legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear is right there with him. It’s a conversation between past and present that illuminates so much of what we face today, both in the entertainment landscape and beyond.
“Ep. 18 – JMW Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship’ (1840)”
You’d think it would be impossible to have a podcast about an explicitly visual medium. But Tamar Avishai breaks down the basics of fine art to easily digestible ideas that any listener can relate to. By including reactions to the painting in question from casual museum-goers of all ages, “The Lonely Palette” makes these works of art the subjects of a communal experience. This episode, highlighting a notable work in the career of JMW Turner also frames the painting in context, explaining how the painting’s place within the art world and global history can unconsciously influence our emotional reactions.
“Ep. 2: When Madoff Calls”
The ongoing saga of former NASDAQ-head-turned-historic-financial-villain Bernie Madoff is one of the most tragic in recent American history. Audible’s series on the lead-up to and aftermath of the collapse of Madoff’s financial empire takes a look at the devastation from all sides. Other episodes dig into the reasons for this catastrophic scheme, one that’s left so many of its participants in financial and emotional disarray. But as a way into the series, it’s perhaps most enlightening to hear from the man himself. Host Alex Fishman’s call with Madoff, straight from a correctional facility, is a unique perspective of a man still trying to make claims to his own righteousness, even in the face of legal and psychological punishment.
Up next: a farewell to the circus, a disembodied cartoon voice and the untold side of an NBA life