In A Pod of One’s Own, Caitlin Thompson is your go-to guide and curator of the best shows from the world of podcasts.
The shows that rose to the top of the ranks this year represent a huge step forward for podcasting as a medium and it felt like a cause for celebration. Appreciating where we are now as a community of creators and listeners requires an understanding of how thin and one-dimensional this space was just a few years ago.
Pan back to 2014 and the few podcast apps tended to be crowded with over-precious public radio shows and their imitators, joined only by comedy shows that sounded as if they were made with little thought and fewer production values. These were the kinds of things one could listen to if you could figure out how and where to find them.
Now, the podcasting space has exploded to its full potential – featuring well-reported docu-series coming from all types of creators, scripted fiction featuring Hollywood talent, improvisational comedy that’s better than many things you’ll watch on streaming television and daily shows that give you the news with candour and empathy. This year’s list of my favourites are the most successful of these efforts to check out – if you haven’t already.
You can search for all of these shows by name on your favourite podcast app.
This 99% Invisible miniseries, created and hosted by long-time producer Avery Trufelman, is a deep dive on clothing. Through this filter she unearths socio-historical concepts such as why women’s-wear doesn’t have pockets, the wartime boom of the Hawaiian shirt and the environmental impact of textile manufacturing. It’s the world’s most interesting modern-history class and a rollicking good time thanks to Trufelman’s unabashed curiosity, enthusiasm and ability to weave the minutiae into a larger narrative that astounds.
I was hooked within the first five minutes, when the show’s host and creator digs through a crate full of spiral-bound notebooks and begins reading a letter he wrote as a child to his family’s guru, Franklin Jones. He ends with this epitaph: “I love you forever, beloved of my heart. Love, Jonathan Hirsch.” Jones was later accused of running a cult filled with brainwashing and sexual abuse and these letters offer a perfect premise for Hirsch to revisit his upbringing, unpack childhood beliefs and follow Jones’s transformation from West Coast counterculture figure to a leader of a cult on a remote Fijian island.
This series from Stitcher and Little Everywhere is technically an exploration of multilevel marketing schemes (MLMs), and if you’ve ever been pitched juice in powdered pill form, you’ll know what they are. But what makes this show exemplary is host Jane Marie’s personal connection to this story – she’s from a small town in Michigan where MLMs are seen as a viable career (mostly for women) in places where options aren’t abundant. Marie and her team of producers approach the subjects, including her friends and family, with curiosity and empathy.
This charming show from indie-radio juggernaut Radiotopia is unscripted and lets guest stars (mostly professional comedians) shine through dialogues as inanimate objects. I love the whimsical concept of anthropomorphic subjects – elevators, pillows, cans of colas – but the real brilliance is in transforming them into philosophers. Start with episode two, featuring Maeve [Higgins], a lamppost: “I see some people with the confidence of a person with a full head of hair, but I know that confidence is misguided. Or not long for this world.”
Getting me to dive into history, especially conspiracy-theory history, with a bunch of dudes as my aural tour guides, is not an easy task. But this show, from the creators of Crimetown, jumps out of a crowded field as a stellar example of using amazing source audio. Here, 1965 Los Angeles Police Department recordings surrounding the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy are put to the test by a credible, but complicated historian and a host who questions it all. This series is a tour-de-force, from the incredible ear for detail that went into production to the meta-narrative about the divergence of belief.
Editor’s note: This podcast incorrectly says Robert F. Kennedy was killed in 1965, when he was killed in 1968.
This fictional show from Gimlet has a dream cast of Alia Shawkat, Ethan Hawke, Christopher Abbott and Kristen Wiig as the titular character, an in-home artificial-intelligence software bot. Sitting somewhere between tech thriller and social satire, this show is an immersive storytelling experience that is perfectly designed for headphones, with some fantastic performances and interesting things to say about the times in which we live.
Fans of Kaitlin Prest’s The Heart will recognize the breathy dialogue, quavering sound design and mixture of subversive humour and heartbreak. The Shadows, by Prest and producer Phoebe Wang, is a CBC production and has the ambition to match. It’s a six-part fictional look at the relationship between puppeteers Kaitlin and Charlie, told from varying perspectives and propelled forward with the help of, yes, NPR’s Terry Gross! With all Prest projects, what starts in the quotidian has implications on the profound.
Canadaland’s docuseries about the northwestern Ontario city, one that’s earned the nickname “Murder Bay," is a devastating report on a slowly unfolding tragedy. Host and Anishinaabe journalist Ryan McMahon takes listeners on a tour of his hometown, where there are high tensions between a corrupt ruling class and Indigenous youths – nine of them have turned up dead with no explanation, and he asks the hard questions about why.
In a year with an abundance of literal cult content, this CBC podcast stood out for its old-fashioned storytelling discipline as it unravelled Keith Raniere and Allison Mack’s MLM-turned-sex-trafficking operation. Documentarian Josh Bloch leaves no stone unturned as he traces the group’s roots as a life-coaching scheme that roped in half the casts of Smallville and Battlestar Galactica.
Producer and host Julia Lowrie Henderson was a hot-yoga devotee and instructor before she turned her attention to the controversial founder of hot yoga himself, Bikram Choudhury, and his increasingly dark behaviour. She spends this season of ESPN’s 30 for 30, which is usually produced as standalone episodes, telling the larger story of Bikram yoga’s rise in popularity as it helped usher in the celebrity fitness craze and the abuses of power that come with Choudhury’s unlimited power over a legion of followers.
While nobody was looking, New York magazine’s style vertical The Cut has turned into the most essential reading on the internet. Under Stella Bugbee’s leadership, they’ve now also launched a weekly podcast showcasing the charismatic host and senior editor Molly Fischer. I don’t listen to a lot of interview chat shows, but when I do, I insist they’re at least half as good as this.
Just like the phantasmagorical NBC sitcom it is based on, this recap show – hosted by the actor Marc Evan Jackson, who plays the demon in charge of the antithetical Bad Place – is nicer and eons more considered than it needs to be. Sure, it features behind-the-scenes anecdotes about making a network show, but it also roots the conversations in philosophy and craft.
When I reviewed this show, hosted by former Radiolab producer Lynn Levy, I called it “the Real World meets The Martian,” which pretty much sums up what you get when astronauts are picked to live in a habitat (meant to simulate Mars) and find out when people stop being polite and start getting real.
This CBC comedy bills itself as “a self-improvement show that helps you be your best you. As best we can. Given the constraints.” In a world of GOOPs and celebrity influencer overload, a frank and humble approach to wellness is refreshing.
The daily news phenomenon really exploded in 2018, when we went from a small handful of short news shows to the bevy we have now, so grading in this category is harder than ever. One that stood out far beyond the others is Vox’s daily show, hosted by Sean Rameswaram with curiosity and warmth.