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.
Allow me to introduce myself: I’ve been making, listening to and generally hyping on-demand audio since the first days of the internet. It is so satisfying − and, I’ll be honest, personally vindicating − to see that in 2018, millions of people around the world and about 10 million and growing just in Canada, are on board with the immersive, intimate and, in some cases, life-changing qualities of audio storytelling.
After the industry’s near-death experience in the early 2010s when nobody could find or fund them, podcasts are finally too big to fail (thank you, Apple podcast app!). Which also means: There are a lot of podcasts. I’ll help you find your way to the best shows out there, from entry-level series and episodes that will convert the uninitiated to deep cuts that’ll surprise and delight the most loyal “Friends of the Pods” out there.
What do I know? I’m a digital journalist who launched the audio departments at the Washington Post and Time and an alumni of WNYC, New York’s public radio station (and I make a print tennis magazine called Racquet on the side). I’m a dual American-Canadian citizen − my heart remains in Montreal − who travels extensively and tries to be conscious of the U.S.-centric focus of most podcast conversations in North America. I’d much prefer to recommend a smattering of shows from across the globe, with plenty from my native land, for your ears to take in. I hope you enjoy accents.
I created and launched the Racquet Magazine Podcast, a weekly interview show about life, love and tennis with some professionals, but I also host a tremendously unprofessional tennis chat show called The Main Draw, with Peabody-winning audio journalist Chris Neary. The latter show is definitely mediocre in terms of production and import, but it’s incredibly fun to make with a friend and allows two non-professional tennis commentators the chance to talk (and use well-timed explicit language) about a sport we love.
And that last point is important: Nowadays podcasts are brought to you by some of the largest media companies, most seasoned radio veterans and slickest audio production houses around. But this world still has room for − and it has to keep making and protecting space for − the DIY amateurs who, with no more than a laptop and microphone or two, get their chance to be armchair pundits, bedroom storytellers or one-person tour guides to the weirder corners of the world.
For the future of the medium, it’s important to have new voices constantly joining the conversation and helping to spur more narrative innovation. It democratizes the talk-audio space by allowing unheralded creators to find their own audiences that might be overlooked on broadcast radio or by established podcast producers. In some cases, they become overnight successes. See: Pod Save America, Anna Faris is Unqualified and ESPN 30 for 30.
I’m not a believer that impeccable microphone quality and twee production sensibilities necessarily make for the most gripping listener experience (hello, NPR), but as a rule, any good podcast has to have two of these three qualities to catch my attention: great theme, great host(s), great format. With that in mind, I’ll start with some can’t-miss shows for you to check out during this, the courtship phase of our podcast relationship. You can search for all of these shows by name on your favourite podcast app.
A 20-minute-ish show where “musicians take apart their songs and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.” It’s hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway and features artists and musicians from every genre imaginable. Episodes are carried by the tension that builds as you hear a tiny bit of each song, explained and layered on top of what came before, until it culminates in a beautiful listening experience of hearing the complete track anew. Regardless of whether you’re listening to an episode on your favourite artist or a musician you’ve never heard before, each one is a masterpiece. My favourite features the singular Bjork.
Two Brad Pitt movies enter, one Brad Pitt movie leaves. “The world’s only March Madness-style, Brad Pitt-themed podcast,” this extremely winning show is co-hosted by Hannah Skibbe and Sarah Davis Baker and uses the premise of “pitting” the actor’s films against each other in a Thunderdome-esque showdown while sneaking in some very intelligent cultural theory. The episode “Se7en vs. World War Z,” which manages to unpack everything from Hollywood nepotism to our knee-jerk reactions against thinky genre films, is a great place to start.
It’s not an accident most people first listen to a serial podcast (or Serial, the podcast) and this is a best-in-class true crime investigation hosted by Christopher Goffard and created by the podcast network Wondery and the Los Angeles Times. To say more would reveal the story’s delicious twists and turns, so strap in and start at the beginning.
This Buzzfeed podcast is ostensibly about two on-point cultural commentators, Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, having a drink and talking about “everything from race, gender and pop culture to pop culture to squirrels, mangoes and bad jokes.” But it became known as the smartest place for nuanced political conversation after an interview with Hillary Clinton got her talking about systemic inequality in the social justice system, sexism and The Good Wife.
This show − which began as Audio Smut on Montreal radio station CKUT − is currently on hiatus while they cook up something new, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dive into the evergreen three-year archive of this tender, fierce and unflinching look at love, sex and power. Creator Kaitlin Prest and senior producer Mitra Kaboli describe The Heart as “an audio art project about intimacy and humanity,” and if you listen to my favourite episode, “First,” you’ll understand what that means.
Caitlin Thompson is a journalist who loves audio and print. Find her on Twitter @caitlin_thomps.