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The Podcasts of 2020: A Tribute — Year in Review

We attempt to match both halves of a tumultuous year via the shows that helped make sense of them.

2020 Podcasts - A Tribute
IndieWire Best of 2020

For the past few years, we’ve published Best Podcast Episodes of the Year (So Far) lists, usually giving an overview of 50 noteworthy shows from the preceding six months. It poses an existential problem when December rolls around and the time comes to do the same all over again.

In that process, sometimes episodes get repeated and others fall off. Like the ranking from 50 to 1, it’s arbitrary in nearly every case. In past years, we’ve included the idea that the year-end and mid-year lists are companion pieces, not meant to be mutually exclusive but taken as a whole.

Taking a cue from an atypical calendar year, I had the idea to find a spiritual connection for each of the 50 shows from our mid-year check-in back in July. It wouldn’t negate the previous list and would hopefully provide a complementary perspective on what the second half of 2020 has had to offer.

I realized just how many natural pairings there were among that first collection. So, below, you’ll find plenty of additions as well as episodes that spoke to each other in surprising ways. This is all to say that this isn’t a standard Best Of list and there are plenty of shows that are equally worthy of attention.

For now, in no particular order other than mostly alphabetical, here are a number of podcasts that helped illuminate what 2020 was, in all its various forms:

Aria Code - Record Club

Aria Code, “Rossini’s La Cenerentola: Opera’s Cinderella Story”
Record Club, “Fleetwood Mac — Rumours”

We can’t say for certain whether Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood will occupy the same place in 2210’s culture that Gioachino Rossini holds in ours. But with the help of two different formats, these shows balance the way that our personal connections to music can help inform its power. The Rhiannon Giddens-hosted “Aria Code” dives into the backstories and narratives of legendary operas, here centering on scholars’ and performers’ ideas about Rossini’s interpretation of the Cinderella story. Mostly recorded in front of audiences in Vancouver, “Record Club” gives the live storytelling show a musical hook, assembling personal recollections all stemming from a single album. Each style touches on the fundamental ways that these works remain timeless with each successive generation.

(Listen to “Aria Code” here and “Record Club” here.)

Articles of Interest - Lost Notes 1980

Articles of Interest, “Knockoffs”
Lost Notes: 1980, “Stevie Wonder”

As reinvention became part of our recent reality, each of these episodes detailed the power that artists have in recontextualization. Part of its uncanny ability to reframe corners of the fashion world, this chapter of Season 2 of “Articles of Interest” looks at who has claims to ownership of an idea within the context of design. Highlighted by this opening installment, Hanif Abdurraqib’s “Lost Notes” series on albums from 40 years ago finds a number of artists faced with reinventing themselves. The story of how Stevie Wonder reemerged from a perceived career low to create an anthem that endures four decades later shows how these changes aren’t so much an adaptation to changing times but a way to help others make sense of them.

(Listen to “Articles of Interest” here and “Lost Notes: 1980” here.)

Asking for It - Appearances

Asking for It, “Too Much”
Appearances, “Prologue”

These two shows, both productions under the Mermaid Palace banner, have striking similarities in the way they build a narrative trust with their audiences, even as they chart different paths. Drew Denny writes and stars in “Asking for It,” a tale of one musician’s path across promising and destructive relationships, casting about for a safe emotional tether. From its opening episode, Sharon Mashihi’s “Appearances” defies categorization, bringing the listener into the difficulties of extracting informed personal experiences from a layer of dramatization. In both substance and craft, these are rich, carefully honed stories that do not conform to expectations and do not hesitate to challenge your assumptions.

(Listen to “Asking for It” here and “Appearances” here.)

Bodies - Crackdown

Bodies, “Not This Again”
Crackdown, “Somebody Else’s Problem”

This year proved that health-related setbacks may feel insurmountable alone but there is strength in facing it with someone else. That’s true for Angelina Fanous, a VICE reporter currently living with ALS, who explains both the challenges of living with the symptoms of disease and the way that her parents and caregiver have helped her stay connected to the life she lived before her diagnosis. That spirit of community is always present in Garth Mullins’ “Crackdown,” which details the ongoing need to reevaluate how drug use is treated and conceptualized, both in Canada and beyond. These series aren’t about making one person’s experience represent an entire whole. Instead, they recognize how no one’s journey follows a preset pattern.

(Listen to “Bodies” here and “Crackdown” here.)

Brought to you by - Cat People

Brought to you by…, “Heard It Through the Grapevine”
Cat People, “$10,000 of Meat”

Here are two perspectives on what happens when an unexpected cultural force wildly outgrows its intentions. In unwinding the tale behind The California Raisins, producer Sarah Wyman looks to explain how an agricultural ad campaign morphed into one of the most confounding cultural artifacts of the last 35 years. And while a TV documentary series about figures in the exotic animal world may have become a phenomenon in its own right this year, Longreads and investigative journalist Rachel Nuwer brought a more nuanced understanding of the workings of big cat culture.

(Listen to “Brought to you by…” here and “Cat People” here.)

Clever Creature - Shaking Out the Numb

Clever Creature, “RALLY”
Shaking Out the Numb, “Influences”

Rarely is it a bad time to think about where inspiration comes from. Jason Gots’ journey through the creative process combines poetry, fiction, and honest conversations about the difficulties of making something meaningful to put out into the world. The complicated journey of synthesizing your various life experiences into art is also a focus in episodes of “Shaking Out the Numb,” a series of conversations and audio entries from “Rumble Strip” host Erica Heilman and the band Sylvan Esso (whose new album “Free Love” is also spectacular). Regardless of where you look, brilliance doesn’t always come from the places we tend to assume.

(Listen to “Clever Creature” here and “Shaking Out the Numb” here.)

Constant - A Podcast of Unnecessary Detail

The Constant, “Use the Accident”
A Podcast of Unnecessary Detail, “Stick”

There’s an incomparable delight in shows that can truly be about anything. “General knowledge” can sometimes feel like an incomplete or backhanded designation, but in the context of series like this (see also: “No Such Thing as a Fish,” “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week,” “Underunderstood“) that vagueness morphs into something far more thrilling. Mark Chrisler’s series “The Constant” flipped its usual look at historical failures to show the times when unexpected results actually led to unintended successes. The “Unnecessary Detail” crew of Helen Arney, Steve Mould, and Matt Parker took part in six far-reaching episodes this year, each taking a trio of linguistic, scientific, and logistical excursions from the central suggestion of a single word.

(Listen to “The Constant” here and “A Podcast of Unnecessary Detail” here.)

Constellations - California Love

Constellations, “Feel the Sky”
California Love, “Parrots: A Parable”

Here are two abstract stories of motion, using the way we see and hear birds to illustrate something about how we view each other. Just one of a series of fascinating audio adventures from “Constellations” (their X-Y-Z-axis-structured “Accumulation Over Time” from late summer is probably the year’s most innovative use of audio storytelling), this two-part series featured producers Jaye Kranz and Myra Al-Rahim’s respective interpretations of a single source of archival audio. Also looking at the movement of cultures, Walter Thompson-Hernandez writes and narrates a metaphorical life experience of a green parrot. Amidst the “California Love” collection of tales encompassing the city, this episode follows its narrator from a home in Mexico to part of a flock that one day fills the skies above Los Angeles.

(Listen to “Constellations” here and “California Love” here.)

Dead Eyes - You Must Remember This

Dead Eyes, “Ryan Johnson’s Star Wars Prequel Rumors”
You Must Remember This, “‘It wasn’t sexism, then'”

There is no shortage of Hollywood histories available in audio form, but it takes a special kind of show to reframe the idea that entertainment doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Connor Ratliff’s show begins with a tantalizing question — why was he cast and then eventually dropped from the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” — and evolves to incorporate even more near-misses and what-ifs from the worlds of TV and film. Looking a bit further back into the past, Karina Longworth’s stellar examination of the life and work of Polly Platt puts forward not just the due credit of a film artist but takes a wider view at why the contributions of women like Platt have been unjustly excised from our collective film canon understanding.

(Listen to “Dead Eyes” here and “You Must Remember This” here.)

Dying for Sex - Dirty Diana

Dying for Sex, “Coming Clean”
Dirty Diana, “LIZ”

Two conversational expressions of desire that evolve into something deeper. As her friend Molly faces a terminal cancer diagnosis, “Dying for Sex” host Nikki Boyer takes listeners through a six-part chronicle of her and Molly’s chats about looking for physical connection in a time of personal upheaval. Shana Feste’s scripted series “Dirty Diana” takes that talking-it-out idea and funnels it through the life of Diana (Demi Moore), a woman who records anonymous contributors describing their fantasies in audio form. Neither of these shows stop at guest star-delivered imaginary liaisons or hookup recaps. Both of them recognize the intimate boundaries of sex and relationships and who or what we choose to let inside of them.

(Listen to “Dying for Sex” here and “Dirty Diana” here.)

Ear Hustle - Resettled

Ear Hustle, “Nobody Comes Back”
Resettled, “Jobs”

These stories each track the realities of starting over. “Ear Hustle” has become a podcast mainstay by giving voice to those living in prison, with many of their stories addressing the differences from their lives before. This episode serves as a kind of bridge, following a trio of formerly incarcerated individuals encounter both reasons for hope and barriers to their next chapter. That search for a new source of stability is also documented in “Resettled,” a Virginia Public Media production illuminating the experiences of refugees. Host Ahmed Badr and producer Angela Massino profile Dadi Neopaney’s path from his home in Bhutan to the adjustments to life in Richmond for him and his family. Together, these underline the value of a support system, in whatever form it may manifest.

(Listen to “Ear Hustle” here and “Resettled” here.)

Election Profit Makers - Blowback

Election Profit Makers, “Hang in There Kitty Cat vs. Thanos”
Blowback, “Curveball”

With the fortunes of the hosts’ respective political prediction market portfolios constantly hovering in the background, “Election Profit Makers” became an essential week-by-week diary of an unfolding flurry of catastrophes. It’s an unpacking of a crisis that the team behind “Blowback” brought to their examination of the Iraq War, blending the kind of full-view geopolitical context with the forgotten (or at least less-remembered) details of what transpired in the years before and since the 2003 invasion. Each filled with meticulous consideration and an air of perpetual disbelief, they both try to make sense of the kind of disasters that seem to mirror themselves throughout history.

(Listen to “Election Profit Makers” here and “Blowback” here.)

Floodlines - Language Keepers

Floodlines, “The Wake”
Language Keepers, “The Power of Revitalization”

In a year marked by it, these series looked at the way that historic loss can be felt on a widespread scale. In “Floodlines,” host Vann Newkirk II examines the lingering lessons of Hurricane Katrina, both in how an unfolding crisis was portrayed on an international stage and in the misunderstandings that persist over a decade and a half later. “Language Keepers,” Emergence Magazine’s audio component of its series on the survival of indigenous languages in California, fills its six episodes with testimony from those in Native communities working to ensure that an indispensable part of their culture somehow survives. Whether brought into focus by a catastrophe or a slow disappearance happening largely away from collective memory, both of these show the urgency of learning from those with the power to teach.

(Listen to “Floodlines” here and “Language Keepers” here.)

Folk-on-Foot-Pindrop

Folk on Foot, “Bella Hardy in Edale”
Pindrop, “Bangkok”

A chorus of ambient noise backdrops both these audio portraits, even with very different foregrounds. “Folk on Foot” takes strolls with musicians through meaningful locales, all the while stopping to let them play the songs that they cherish. Most editions of “Pindrop” (now releasing new episodes under the title “Far Flung“) swap out the sounds of nature for the clamor of the city, but there’s still an energy and a vibrancy to it nonetheless. The streets of Bangkok echo with radio transmissions, vehicles, and the other voices adding to the harmonic bustle. These series are transportive in their own way, immersive in the environment of a particular place and time, regardless of the relative speed with which they’re moving.

(Listen to “Folk on Foot” here and “Pindrop” and “Far Flung” here.)

Have You Heard George's Podcast - Richard's Famous Food Podcast

Have You Heard George’s Podcast? “Concurrent Affairs”
Richard’s Famous Food Podcast, “Everything is Peeklay”

At first glance, it wouldn’t seem like these shows would find much overlap in their subject matter (though the idea of George the Poet writing a rhyming ode to cornichons is certainly welcome). Listening to both of the series, you’d be hard-pressed to find two shows that use sonic landscapes and occasionally recursive storytelling in a more captivating way. They’re parallel windows into the physical manifestations of creativity, one using George the Poet and producer Benbrick’s ability to make abstract emotional ideas tangible and another harnessing Richard Parks III’s labyrinthine representations of podcast production quandaries. These are rich worlds made all the more compelling as their creators expand outward to new creative territory.

(Listen to “Have You Heard George’s Podcast?” here and “Richard’s Famous Food Podcast” here.)

In Those Genes - Natal

In Those Genes, “Skinfolk, Kinfolk”
NATAL, “Myeshia’s Story”

Throughout “In Those Genes,” Dr. Janina Jeff examines the way that an understanding of genetics can help illuminate the ways that scientists have become investigators and caretakers of lost corners of cultural identity. The early-season considerations of modern trends in ancestry DNA testing (and how those products are marketed) give way to this episode that looks at two companies trying to rectify the growing industry’s shortcomings. “NATAL” centers the stores of Black birthing parents, many of whom have experienced firsthand how the American healthcare system is sometimes underequipped to handle — and in some cases, acknowledge — the needs of all its patients. In their own ways, these shows are counters to the idea that vital areas of science and health are adequately addressed by a one-size-fits-all approach.

(Listen to “In Those Genes” here and “NATAL” here.)

The Intersection - Constellation Prize

The Intersection, “DESERT meets DEFAULT at Burning Man”
Constellation Prize, “Crossing Guard”

Those who search for spiritual connections rarely find what they’re looking for. On “The Intersection,” an art project at Burning Man 2019 ends up facilitating phone conversations between those on the Playa and people around the world unable to travel there physically. “Constellation Prize” host Bianca Giaever takes her own chance encounter with a stranger and crafts a loving portrait of one woman’s quest to find God in her own life. These shows prove that it’s not that those connections don’t exist, they just come from places that are impossible to predict.

(Listen to “The Intersection” here and “Constellation Prize” here.)

The Last Post - Dirt Cheap

The Last Post, “Tom and Alice review 10 years of Tom being on the show”
Dirt Cheap, “Meet Phil (Chapter 1, Part 1 of Murder in the Glass Room)”

It’s not easy maintaining a window into another dimension. Every weekday this year, Alice Fraser has been beaming in the news from an existence filled with interplanetary travel, an ascendant brain-manipulating octopus species, and a weredragon governing the largest city in Britain. The alternate reality for “Dirt Cheap” hosts Amanda Meadows and Geoffrey Golden is the 1946 novel “Murder in the Glass Room,” a dime store detective novel that the two read one stretch at a time. (Along with a healthy tongue-in-cheek approach to the novel’s plot, the show elevates the standard collective read-along format, complete with a custom sound design that makes Golden’s narration more immersive.) Sometimes, these shows work as escapes. Whatever the reason, it usually helps being able to laugh at a world connected to — but just different enough from — our own.

(Listen to “The Last Post” here and “Dirt Cheap” here.)

The Lonely Palette - Kerning Cultures

The Lonely Palette, “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Deer’s Skull With Pedernal (1936)”
Kerning Cultures, “Zabelle”

There are plenty of instant associations with the work of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, both in her subjects and what symbolic power they might have. In this edition of “The Lonely Palette,” host Tamar Avishai considers what lies beyond those kneejerk reactions. Zabelle Panosian, the subject of this “Kerning Cultures” episode, never reached that level of ubiquity, but her most enduring recording, captured in 1917, spoke to something just as urgent. Producer Alex Atack centers the experiences of a woman who gave both literal and figurative voice to the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. There will always be some amount of story behind a particular work of art that’s unknowable. These episodes prove there’s immense value in pursuing that context anyway.

(Listen to “The Lonely Palette” here and “Kerning Cultures” here.)

Make My Day - Enthusiast

Make My Day, “A Super Jane Austen Thing with Karen Chee”
Enthusiast! “Kate Wagner: Concert Halls”

Providing a distraction from the events of the year without dismissing the challenges that face us all is a tricky needle to thread. Turns out, the answer is to find as many small delights as you can. That can be in game show form, as with comedian and host Josh Gondelman’s revolving door of winning contestants, each providing a more cheerful spin on their topics of choice. Or it can come in the “Enthusiast!” collection of bite-sized odes to passions great and small, from apples to duct tape to the Vienna Musikverien. Whether you share those interests or revel in the secondhand excitement, there’s plenty of joy to go around.

(Listen to “Make My Day” here and “Enthusiast!” here.)

Motive - Long Distance

Motive, “Gabrielle Vega”
Long Distance, “Myrla”

“Who gets to tell someone’s story?” is a question that reverberates well beyond the bounds of audio. In these two series, like others in this collection, the answer lies in honoring a person’s experience by giving them a direct voice. In this season of “Motive,” reporters Candace Mittel Kahn and Alexandra Salomon follow the stories of survivors of abuse, honoring both them and those who are no longer able to tell their own. The same is true for this “Long Distance” first-person account of Myrla Baldonado, whose activism against an oppressive regime meant years of uncertainty and tumult for both her and her family. They’re both examples of reporting the recent past that’s rooted in respect and dignity.

(Listen to “Motive” here and “Long Distance” here.)

Murmurs - Spooked

Murmurs, “The Queue”
Spooked, “Isabelle”

True tales and fictional events each have the power to shake us to our psychological cores, using sensory details and our own imaginations to their benefit. Both of these episodes take advantage of more universal experiences and pull them slowly into the realm of the inexplicable. A dramatic tale, written for the BBC anthology series “Murmurs,” imagines the logistical and ethical dilemmas presented by the appearance of a woman who can tell people how they’ll die. “Spooked,” a dedicated home of eerie firsthand encounters, presents this story of a woman who cannot shake the ethereal presence of a mysterious houseguest. Both arrive at fascinating conclusions that tantalizingly invite even more questions about the unknown.

(Listen to “Murmurs” here and “Spooked” here.)

My Year in Mensa, “Phoenix in July”
Lolita Podcast, “Dolores, Not Lolita”

This year was bookended by a pair of Jamie Loftus-hosted series, first-person dissertations that are funny as they are thorough. The first involves her accounting of a trip to the annual Mensa gathering and the social media circumstances that preceded it. The second takes on a broader cultural scope, a show that tries to make sense of the place that the Vladimir Nabokov novel “Lolita” and its subsequent adaptations has in the cultural perception. Similar in spirit, if not always identical in execution, these are carefully constructed longform stories that don’t need much more than Loftus’ keen observations to help keep them moving forward.

(Listen to “My Year in Mensa” here and “Lolita Podcast” here.)

Nancy - ZigZag

Nancy, “Nancy Was Here”
ZigZag, “End of a Partnership”

Some shows seem like they’ll just keep going on without an ending. In a year filled with difficult goodbyes, some came from podcasts that either ended their run or closed a chapter. Kathy Tu and Tobin Low ended “Nancy” with a tribute to favorite episodes and moments, tying up some loose ends and offering fans a chance to share their connections to the show. “ZigZag” co-hosts Jen Poyant and Manoush Zomorodi looked back on the show to that point, a chronicle of a journalistic experiment that became something else over time. Zomorodi still hosts a version of “ZigZag” with a shifted focus and Tu and Low have each gone on to work on other series and ventures. But both of these farewells stand as fond remembrances of what these teams accomplished, what their stories meant to grateful listeners, and the medium’s constantly changing landscape.

(Listen to “Nancy” here and “ZigZag” here.)

Next Stop - Unseen

Next Stop, “The Red Flag”
Unseen, “Into the Dark”

One is a podcast spin on the roommates-centered sitcom, the other an anthology-adjacent collection of single-character stories from a world where magic is real. The strongest point of connection between these is that their ensembles encompass a number of distinct characters that feel integral to the same whole. Inside their apartment and outside it, “Next Stop” pals Ally, Cameron and Sam are aware how much their lives sometimes play out like a scripted comedy. The revolving door of individuals in the world of “Unseen” (a show from the creative team behind last year’s “Zero Hours“) may face fantastical hurdles. Still, many of those performances bring that same welcome, lighthearted bit of knowingness, just enough to forge a connection with our own reality.

(Listen to “Next Stop” here and “Unseen” here.)

Off Track - Grouse

Off Track, “Barking gecko, boop-ing emu”
Grouse, “In Search of The Bird, Through Time”

It might well be impossible to make a show about nature without an explicit consideration of humans’ place in it. Sometimes that adjacency deals with conservation efforts, the consequences of an expanding ecological reach, or the process of shaping the lens through which we see creatures beyond those in our immediate environments. This episode of the ABC series “Off Track” yields its space to the sounds of a species with its own fascinating history, then includes an installment of an ongoing series aimed at younger animal enthusiasts. Pair that with veteran public radio reporter Ashley Ahearn’s look at the polarizing Greater Sage-Grouse. It’s a welcome spin on the form that also brings in shades of memoir and public policy detail, making a natural tapestry that melds wide-scope and up-close considerations.

(Listen to “Off Track” here and “Grouse” here.)

Our Plague Year - Love Letters

Our Plague Year, “Pasta Water for Plants”
Love Letters, “Jenny Plus Molly”

There’s plenty of solace in listening to testimonials from people who won’t give up on each other. One of the mid-quarantine podcast projects that ended up being both a collective support mechanism and a virtual respite was “Our Plague Year,” a Nightvale Presents series that shared voice messages from listeners grappling with their respective corners of pandemic life. Though not explicitly about the events of this year, the “Love Letters” story of the intertwined lives of photographers (and eventual co-authors) Jenny Riffle and Molly Landreth captured the power of a bond that endures through tumultuous times. Not simply dwelling on either tragedy or perseverance, these celebrate all the messy and beautiful stages in between.

(Listen to “Our Plague Year” here and “Love Letters” here.)

PlayME - Richard II

PlayME, “The Show Must Go On: ‘Three Women of Swatow'”
Free Shakespeare on the Radio, “Richard II: Episode 2”

In a year when theaters were largely closed, these shows looked to less-conventional virtual productions. And yet, despite the centuries’ gap in the original writing of both works — Chloé Hung’s “Three Women of Swatow” was slated to have its world premiere — these plays both manage to speak to the current moment in audio form. In their performances and in their contexts, both works deal with generational trauma and what is asked of those who are looking to break that cycle. With a pair of strong casts (including André Holland as Richard II himself), this is theater that fully embraces the demands of its production.

(Listen to “PlayME” here and “Free Shakespeare on the Radio” here.)

Rabbit Hole - Cyber

Rabbit Hole, “Looking Down”
Cyber, “We Deepfaked Our Podcast Host”

Technology continues to be the double-edged sword of modern life. The thing that offers us a means to connect comes with the ever-present potential to curdle into something more dangerous. Such is the case for “Rabbit Hole,” the New York Times series’ look at the growing influence of algorithms, largely in the context of the shortcomings of content moderation. Coupled with that look at where we’ve been, this episode of the Motherboard series “Cyber” might just be part of where we’re going. Advances in AI-generated music have in turn informed a sharpening of the process that allows for digitally created replicas of existing voices. For now, it’s closer to a novelty, but with the long-reaching effects still uncertain, there’s still at least a faint echoing across this pair.

(Listen to “Rabbit Hole” here and “Cyber” here.)

Radio Diaries - Home Cooking

Radio Diaries, “Centenarians in Lockdown”
Home Cooking, “Guess What? Chicken Butt Is Delicious (with Yo-Yo Ma)”

One of the frustrating disconnects of this year was facing a universal threat while everyone had disparate experiences because of it. In turn, it made it easier to make sense of everything by recognizing the ways those experiences intersected. Giving a microphone to those with enough life on Earth to remember the immediate aftermath of the last global pandemic of this magnitude, the resultant “Radio Diaries” talk between engaged couple Joe Newman and Anita Sampson showed how we all reconsidered what mattered most to us. And for those trying to use this time to expand culinary horizons, “Home Cooking” hosts Hrishikesh Hirway and Samin Nosrat kept finding ways to help listeners get the most out of what they already had.

(Listen to “Radio Diaries” here and “Home Cooking” here.)

Rightnowish - Driving the Green Book

Rightnowish, “This Librarian Holds the Keys to Oakland’s History”
Driving the Green Book, “Preserving History”

These episodes are a pair of reminders that the relatively recent truth of triumphs and challenges alike don’t have to disappear when those with firsthand knowledge aren’t around for the telling. “Rightnowish” host Pendarvis Henshaw leads this portrait of Dorothy Lazard, an Oakland-area librarian whose knowledge of the city comes in part from, and is accessible in, the physical records of which she is a steward. In “Driving the Green Book,” Alvin Hall and Janée Woods Weber document their travels from Detroit to New Orleans, traveling via the locations and routes listed in the historical guide that helped Black Americans navigate a segregated country. Along the way, this episode highlights the efforts to save the physical spaces along that unofficial trail. These celebrations of historical caretakers are another in a line of ways that podcasts can serve as a means for preserving the realities of a collective experience.

(Listen to “Rightnowish” here and “Driving the Green Book” here.)

Rough Translation - In the Dark Delta

Rough Translation, “Hotel Corona”
In the Dark, “Coronavirus in the Delta: Delta State”

As a shifting reality became impossible to ignore, plenty of shows adjusted their usual formats to examine Covid-centered stories. “Rough Translation” chronicled the residents at a Jerusalem hotel, where a cross-sectional representation of pre-pandemic life converged and became an unexpected and welcome social media sensation. Before getting the chance to interview Curtis Flowers for the first time as a free man, the “In the Dark” team tracked stories of urgent change happening elsewhere in Mississippi. Church congregations, performance spaces, and football teams now have their own time capsules, outlining the ways they responded and adapted to a looming health crisis.

(Listen to “Rough Translation” here and “In the Dark” here.)

Soundstage - Imaginary Advice

Soundstage, “PRIME: A Practical Breviary by Heather Christian”
Imaginary Advice, “Sex and the City: The Return (Parts 1 and 2)”

Two of the year’s most indelible journeys follow imagined lives. Heather Christian’s day-in-a-life song cycle remains a cleansing spiritual celebration of just getting to another morning. Similar in the way it builds from a modest opening into a wave of something unexpected, Ross Sutherland fashions a fictional tale of one man’s obsession with the most elaborate immersive theater experience in history. These take wildly different approaches, with one taking a musical universal and reveling in the everyday emotional specifics, and the other taking a small-scale obsession and projecting it onto an enormous canvas. You won’t hear anything like either of them anywhere else.

(Listen to “Soundstage” here and “Imaginary Advice” here.)

Strangers - VENT Documentaries

Strangers, “Wilmot of Helena”
VENT Documentaries, “Why Does Everyone Call Me Carlos?”

There’s so much we can take from conversations built on trust. In the case of “Strangers,” host Lea Thau often allows her subject to convey their own story. This episode features Wilmot Collins detailing his life in Liberia through to his early days in Helena, Montana, a city where he has served as mayor since 2018. VENT gives the young people of the London borough of Brent the opportunity to transmit their artistic and emotional realities through carefully crafted slices of audio. Here, the episode’s narrator Santos explores what a name means to someone’s self-conception, whether it’s one chosen or given in error. With both of these, there’s a commitment that the life experiences passing from one person’s memory to another’s waiting ears will be treated with respect and care. In that telling, there’s sometimes pain and confusion, but there’s also a pathway to understanding that comes through the act of listening.

(Listen to “Strangers” here and “VENT Documentaries” here.)

This Is Not a Drake Podcast - Louder Than a Riot

This is Not a Drake Podcast, “Toronto was always a hip-hop city”
Louder Than a Riot, “The Badder, The Better: Bobby Shmurda (Pt 1)”

Both of these series catalogue the ways that hip-hop reflects the environment it emerges from and how that music can take on a life of its own as it finds new audiences. Though each tackles specific moments in time across decades (intersecting at points, including the 2007 arrest of DJ Drama), they’re all connected to plenty of other societal institutions, whether by choice or in the minds of listeners and critics alike. Through the dissections of Canada’s place in the music world or the pulse of a city’s heartbeat or the ways that hip-hop and the American criminal justice have become interlinked, these are threads in a greater musical fabric that can’t be ignored.

(Listen to “This is Not a Drake Podcast” here and “Louder Than a Riot” here.)

The Topical - Low Tide

The Topical, “Anti-Cyberbullying Campaign Encourages Kids To Get Out There And Do It In Person”
Low Tide, “Conch County is for Lovers”

Maybe the mark of just how wide the podcast scope has gotten in recent years is that “public radio parody” has become its own fruitful subgenre. Unsurprisingly, The Onion has managed to keep making sense of 2020 through the increasingly dark existence of OPR host Leslie Price (Dan Rodden, giving truly the performance of the year). The local community bulletin complement to that daily national news update is “Low Tide,” a collection of dispatches from a coastal town that probably has as many secrets as it has seafood restaurants. They’re the perfect blends of the cadences of their real-life counterparts with the twisted, outrageous mythologies that somehow manage to emerge from them.

(Listen to “The Topical” here and “Low Tide” here.)

Truth Be Told - Scene on Radio

Truth Be Told, “Healing for Black America”
Scene on Radio, “The Cotton Empire”

History can be a helpful guide, particularly in episodes with the freedom to follow wherever a conversation may lead. In her ongoing collection of talks with Wise Ones (including one here with author Kiese Laymon), “Truth Be Told” host Tonya Mosley makes sense of navigating a changing world, and the effects those shifts have on the way that different communities across generations see themselves. In the show’s season premiere Mosley and Laymon outline the need for, and the difficulty in finding, a sense of healing for those who have long been denied it. As part of the “Scene on Radio” season “The Land That Never Has Been Yet,” John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika describe how the origins of that collective pain helped shape our current notions of American democracy: in who it was intended to benefit and the inequities that reverberate through the centuries.

(Listen to “Truth Be Told” here and “Scene on Radio” here.)

Welcome to LA - Secret Adventures of Black People

Welcome to LA, “Friday Night: The Kingdom of Time”
The Secret Adventures of Black People, “Listen to Black Women in Parks”

The more Friday nights that pass in relative isolation, it becomes both harder and more tempting to revisit this “Welcome to LA” weekend-kickoff omnibus, made from evenings spent with folks across Los Angeles. Those prom nights and window washings and streetcorner calls for change have a natural match in this episode of “The Secret Adventures of Black People,” a more-recent product of a momentous summer. This episode, from series creator and host Nichole Hill, centers on one park catchup as Hill and her friends talk about different responses to the nationwide calls for racial justice. If podcasts preserve moments in time, these are proof that those records can be both immediate and long-reaching.

(Listen to “Welcome to LA” here and “The Secret Adventures of Black People” here.)

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