Quaintly named for a once-revolutionary audio device that most people now no longer own nor remember, the podcast has slowly but addictively wormed its way into the hearts and ears of... it must surely be at least a couple hundred thousand people, right? Is it millions? Is it hundreds? Depends on which network is doing the syndicating.
Like every other form of media in 2017, even popular podcasts ride the line between things everyone has already gotten tired of discussing and things the person who sits next to you at work only pretends to know what they even are. Meanwhile, mention a Casper mattress or how you never have to go to the post office again to the right person, and you might have something else to text about before you inevitably eventually blow each other off forever.
So-called terrestrial radio has lost its hold on a wide audience in recent years. As with television, the proliferation of a superior cable alternative has played a role. But industry-wide corporate consolidation and the accompanying reduction of stations to formats, cities to markets, and listeners to demographics have played a much bigger one.
Radio was a miracle that allowed large regions of people to be united by a common experience. Now it's a series of soviets—some openly idealistic, some nakedly malignant—addressing propaganda to pockets of people who are already sympathetic to their message.
Podcasts aren't miraculous in the same way as a song playing on the radio, or an archetypal NPR "driveway moment"—where you feel like time and circumstance conspire to bring you to the broadcast. Their magic exists in the precisely opposite dimension.
In addition to offering a truly astonishing variety of production value and subject matter (even as I type this, I'm listening to two droll nerds discursively recapping an episode of a TV show that originally aired when I was in junior high school), podcasts have the uncanny ability to feel like they are being addressed directly to you, for your specific benefit, tickling your fetishy interests and arming you with facts for your next argument. They are fascinatingly, alluringly private—and the fact that they're beamed directly into your ear by way of a tiny plastic bud is only part of the reason.
Another is that they often feature the thing that is most famously lacking from contemporary life: Actual IRL (or at the very least Skyped) conversation between actual human beings, some of whom disagree with one another. Podcasts model discourse, inquiry, performance, and extemporaneous thought for a world in which those elements are increasingly mitigated at best, absent at worst. Maybe that's why people aren't that into talking about them—not everyone wants people to know what's going on in their heads.
But we do.
This list makes some effort to avoid the most obvious titles. Hence, no WTF (though the show has been excellent in 2017), no This American Life (still reliably amazing), no Fresh Air (how does Terry Gross do it?), and no Radiolab (see above); nor am I including Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast and The Dana Gould Hour, though I would never dream of missing either one.
The ones we chose instead reside somewhere between things the podcast-savvy already know, and things that almost qualify as confessions. SEAN NELSON
Enter a real-life world of mobsters, corrupt government officials, and hard-nosed FBI agents—and, yes, they all have amazing accents. Crimetown is Providence, Rhode Island, where corruption and crime ruled for 20 years in the late 1970s to early 1990s. The episodes follow all the tangled threads woven between people like former disgraced but beloved mayor Buddy Cianci, who ended up sitting in jail with the guys he used to prosecute, and Jerry Tillinghast, a former mobster who now plays Dungeons & Dragons in his spare time. There's also unbelievable bank heists, hot wiretaps, dramatic court testimony, double-crossing hit men, and more. AMBER CORTES
, host and This American Life
alum Jonathan Goldstein interferes in people's personal lives, whether they want it or not, to correct or confront some error from their past. The dramas are often minor in the grand scheme of things—a grown woman wonders why she was kicked out of her college sorority, an old suitcase full of love letters is found on a New York City street—but not to the people who lived them. And Goldstein, who is more bumbling idiot than licensed social worker or therapist, actually seems to have some effect. Old tragedies aren't always resolved, old friendships aren't always renewed, but Goldstein, a Jewish-Canadian humorist in the vein of fellow This American Life
favorite David Rakoff, is a funny, deft, and capable writer, both in print and on air, and Heavyweight
feels as much like a work of art as any novel or short story. Listen, and listen close. KATIE HERZOG
A genuine Northwest success story, this inquiry into the unknown—with a special focus on rituals that you might not think of as obvious candidates for audio essays (the burning of religious scriptures, amateur surgery, a sex addict's quest to toe the line so as not to lose their family)—has blossomed since hooking up with Santa Monica public radio station KCRW and matured into an always surprising, sometimes astonishing program that leaves room for the listener's unconscious mind to interpret, or perhaps simply to receive the pieces created by Jeff Emtman, Bethany Denton, and their collaborators. I don't know for sure that there's nothing
else like Here Be Monsters
in the land of podcastia, but given how much my own listening habits are dominated by medium celebrities talking about themselves or news junkies analyzing the smoke rising off of the burning world, I'm always grateful for the opportunity to be beguiled for a change. SEAN NELSON
Did you know that millennials are less likely than people older than 65 to say vaccines should be required for schoolchildren? What the fuck? That's just one of the weird/fascinating things I learned on a recent episode of After the Fact
, a podcast by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Each episode dives into an area of Pew's research into policy issues and public opinions. It's wonky but fascinating stuff explained in 10- to 20-minute interviews with the researchers who know it best. The episode "Perception of Childhood Vaccinations" explains that despite the conspiracy theories, most Americans support vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella, and most people think scientists should be involved in policy making. Thank god. Other recent episodes include: "Treating the Opioid Epidemic," "From TV to Twitter: How Americans Get News Now," and "Antibiotic Resistance: When Drugs Don't Work Anymore." HEIDI GROOVER
The mystifying thing about pop music is that somehow it keeps working. Every song uses the same formula, the same melodies, and practically the same words. I should be fully bored with the form by now. And yet every time some hot new pop song soars up the charts, I find myself alone in my apartment whisper-screaming "Des-PA-cito!" so that my neighbors don't hear. In their podcast Switched on Pop
, musicologist Nate Sloan and musician Charlie Harding reveal the hidden complexities of these seemingly simple songs, offering up the technical and socio-historical reasons for why they make my heart and limbs do things I can't control. Their analysis not only returns to me some power over pop songs that have claimed me, but helps my mind appreciate them as deeply as my body already does. RICH SMITH
Reply All is at its best when hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt—who seem to both genuinely love and annoy the shit out of each other—explain weird and fascinating contemporary dramas that those of us who don't spend all of our time online may have missed. Marketed as a show about the internet, Reply All
is much more about the world we live in now and how technology has changed it (usually for the worse). Standout episodes include "Antifa Supersoldier Spectacular," in which the hosts deftly explain to their ancient, clueless boss (he's 50) how conservative YouTubers misinterpreted some minor anti-Trump activism and started rumors that eventually spun out of control and reached all the way to the White House. Start there. KATIE HERZOG
After years of casual listening on NPR, I became hooked good and proper on this show when I heard its hosts, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield, do a postmortem after Trump won the election. It was honest, raw, and transparent in a way that almost no news-related programming is. They were really arguing with each other, emotionally and intellectually, dispensing with the presentational formality that often makes public radio unpalatable, and simply having it out. It was a mirror on the kinds of conversations everyone on Planet Fact was having, and it ended with both hosts seeming galvanized, though possibly for different reasons. That resolve extended into their coverage of Trump year one. In an age where subjectivity has become both armor and weapon, On the Media
's mission has never been more important. It's clear from their work (their recent Puerto Rico coverage in particular) that they have never been more aware of that fact. SEAN NELSON
Gimlet Media's knack for addictive podcasts (they also did Crimetown
) continued this year with Mogul
. From the very first episode tracing the origin of hiphop and legendary and beloved producer Chris Lighty's early life in the Bronx, Mogul
delivers. Reggie Ossé (of the Combat Jack
podcast) talks to family, friends, and the celebrities he helped skyrocket to fame about Lighty's tremendous legacy (and generosity), right down to his tragic and mysterious death (which was ruled a suicide, but as the show proves, there's more to that than meets the eye). And don't miss their exclusive featuring Fat Joe and his unbelievable rags-to-riches story. AMBER CORTES
Indivisible turned one year old this month. The movement started as a typo-ridden Google doc written in the blood of Democratic congressional aides who fought valiantly in the war against the Tea Party. Now it's a nationwide congressional advocacy movement that's been helping to flip red seats blue all year. With his friendly baritone and his big laugh, public radio vet Stephan Cox does his part to keep this movement alive, well-informed, and well-connected in Washington State. The city kids out in Western Washington learn about successful engagement strategies (and failures) from the more rural east side, and vice versa. Party leaders and candidates from all over get ample time to talk strategy. There's always a simple, direct, and meaningful call to action that listeners can perform each week. And, to keep things from getting too dark, Cox always includes a dose of good news to spell away the ever-looming gloom. RICH SMITH
Sometimes you just want to hear several hours of primary and secondary sources discussing one of your favorite bands. This five-part documentary was written by former Stranger
contributor Michaelangelo Matos, produced by the Minneapolis public radio station the Current, and prominently features all three band members, plus a ton of fans, friends, and insiders to tell the story. The voice is definitive, the research is rock solid, and the format is classic rockumentary, which has proven, over the past 20 years, to be more reliable than the LP as a means of introducing bands to new listeners. If you have any fondness for the band, or indeed for bands, Do You Remember?
is a delicious milkshake that takes nearly three hours to run out. And though the story is not at all similar, the force and effect of Do You Remember
is similar to that of the Beatles Anthology
: If you're a huge fan, you'll listen to the whole thing in a day, then start over from the top. (Everything is so fucked up, I guess we like it that way, etc.) Best of all, given the often contentious post-breakup relationships of the band members, you get to hear Bob Mould, Greg Norton, and (in the last interview he gave before his untimely death) Grant Hart speak in glowing terms about one another and the immortal work they did together. SEAN NELSON
Call it a conflict of interest, I don't care—but two of the best reporters in Seattle, The Stranger
's own Sydney Brownstone and Heidi Groover, have come up with one of the best podcasts of the year. With solid fact-checking chops, fierce curiosity, and fantastic on-air chemistry, Sydney and Heidi break down the wild and very, very weird world of conspiracy theories and the people who posit them—including pet anti-vaxxers, eco-sexers, and coffee-enema aficionados. After hearing about what other people on this planet consider "the truth," your trust issues may not be solved, but you will surely laugh your ass off at the follies of humanity. AMBER CORTES
This podcast used to be about presidential campaigns of yore, but it has since become a historical dive into issues facing American presidents in office. Every time Trump does something that sounds unprecedented, unheard of, truly mad, or completely despotic, host John Dickerson—who also runs CBS's Face the Nation
and serves as a core panelist on Slate's Political Gabfest
—tells the story of a similar moment from presidential history. Think Trump's executive orders are unheard of? Try Truman's. Think "alternative facts" is a new thing? Go back to Goldwater. Think Trump is uniquely unhinged? You won't believe the shit Andrew Jackson did. When I'm not busy being delighted by the language in Dickerson's selection of passages from the past, I spend a lot of time wondering whether or not I'm calmed by the fact that we have been here before, and many times over, albeit not all at once. RICH SMITH
Everyone in the United States should be listening to NPR's Embedded
. Host Kelly McEvers, a veteran war reporter and cohost of All Things Considered
, digs into big stories, from police shootings caught on video to how a powerful prescription painkiller called Opana sparked an HIV epidemic in small-town Indiana. But the best—and most important—episodes are part of a recent five-part series called "Trump Stories" about the making of Donald Trump. In the first episode, McEvers explains Americans' growing fascination with Trump during The Apprentice
—a fascination much of the left wasn't even aware of. We thought the man was a joke; the rest of America thought he was a star. Now look where we're at. And if it isn't going to happen again, those of us who don't want Trump in power need to be aware of what the other half sees. This podcast is the place to start. KATIE HERZOG
I mean, in a way, how could Karina Longworth's audio marriage of cinema scholarship, reportage, and gossip ever top the breathtaking one-two punch of its series about the Manson family (2015) and the Hollywood blacklist (2016)? By continuing. This year's You Must Remember This
cycles were a little more atomized—a series called "Dead Blondes" examined the common ground in the tragic fates of actresses from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe, evoking an entertainment industry that views women as objects to be exploited for pleasure, exposure, and disposal. (The Barbara Payton episode is especially dire.) Then came a series that ambitiously juxtaposed the almost parallel lives of Jean Seberg and Jane Fonda—two iconic performers, only one of whom was able (allowed) to evolve into a "survivor." If your love of movies involves thirsty speculation into the psyches of the people who make them, You Must Remember This
is still the best show in town. SEAN NELSON
I'm generally not the fan-girl type, but if you're gonna fan-girl, fan-girl over the fabulous Emma Gannon, a true millennial and "digital native" who has made just about every mistake you can on the internet (as documented in her blog Girl Lost in the City). With charm and empathy, Gannon gets celebs, CEOS, and authors like Gillian Anderson, TED talker Seth Godin, and poet Melissa Broder to dish about everything from feminism, finances, self-care, to their online lives. I mean who else could make me appreciate Elizabeth Gilbert? (Still couldn't quite stomach Lena Dunham, though). AMBER CORTES
In Science Vs
, host Wendy Zukerman takes on hot-button issues in American culture—GMOs, vaccines, obesity, fracking, vitamins, bigfoot, acne cures, baldness, and, my personal favorite, detoxes and cleanses—and dissects them into easily digestible parts. All these issues have passionate supporters and detractors, but Zukerman ignores ideology and dogma and gets down to the facts. What she reveals is frequently surprising and may even shake up what you believe. Take GMOs, for instance. Despite everything you may have heard, science says they're actually not that bad, and may even be good for the planet. This may be hard to believe, but Science Vs
is the kind of show that makes you reconsider what you know to be true, and, especially at this moment in time, a dose of hard truth may be exactly what we all need. KATIE HERZOG
The four former Obama staffers who run the most popular political podcast on iTunes have one goal: make liberal talk radio as popular and as influential as conservative talk radio. With their seemingly ever-expanding empire of pods they seem to be on pace to accomplish that goal. (Ira Madison III's Keep It
just came online this month, and two others are expected.) The spinoffs are great, but I still prefer the original cast. Jon Favreau is the straight man with a convincing earnest bent. Jon Lovett is the comic relief (and a straight shooter respected on both sides). Tommy Vietor is the amiable gym bro who's good at briefing people on complex matters of foreign policy. And Daniel Pfeiffer is on there for reasons I don't fully understand. Nonetheless, their political connections are deep, so the guests are always relevant and high profile, their aim is true, and their knowledge of how the government is supposed to work is increasingly useful during this era of rapid decay. RICH SMITH
This seven-part series from Jon Frechette, Todd Luoto, and Radiotopia is about a mysterious and possibly dangerous arcade game from the 1980s that allegedly led to a boy being abducted in Portland. The show investigates both the myth and the reality, and it's almost hard to tell what's real and what's not. Compelling, eerie, and highly bingeable, The Polybius Conspiracy
will be especially nostalgic to those who were alive before the internet, when video games were played at quarter arcades and mysterious happenings couldn't merely be googled. KATIE HERZOG
starts off as an intriguing murder mystery, and then grows into an in-depth character study, and eventually becomes a scathing but also tender look into a forgotten corner of America—as well as the recesses of a brilliant, eccentric, lonely soul. By any usual journalistic standards, host Brian Reed, a producer for This American Life
, may have gotten too emotionally close to his subject—but the result is seven captivating, binge-worthy "chapters" peeling back the heartbreaking layers that make up a life. AMBER CORTES
It gives me little pleasure to include this weekly program from my boss/colleague Dan Savage. (The only thing that alleviates my shame is that Savage himself will be the one person who gets less pleasure from this blurb than I do.) Nevertheless, I am compelled, because I never, ever miss it and I believe the world would be a better place if everyone listened to it every week. This show is astonishingly consistent, hilarious, heart-rending, infuriating, and illuminating. It highlights Savage's superpower: certitude. I still wring my hands over whether it was a good idea to wear a tie to school that that one day in 1985, meanwhile, some caller has an incredibly complex, nuanced problem and Savage instantly knows exactly what they should do. It's compelling. But there's another dimension to the show's appeal that elevates it from the category of very-good-radio-but-with-swear-words and makes it indispensable—the callers. The process of hearing one after another after another person unburden themselves of their frustrations, however major or minor, however sexual or social, however real or imaginary, has the powerful effect of making you—with your own litany of major, minor, sexual, social, real, and imaginary problems—feel less broken, less hopeless, less alone
. The Lovecast
stokes the empathy gland in host and listener alike, and leaves you feeling like the world is a lot more interconnected than we give it credit for. Plus, like the column it's named for, the Lovecast normalizes sexual proclivities once considered to be marginal (and even actionable). The political rants are pure gold, too. Conflict of interest noted, but please believe me when I say that I was under whatever the opposite of pressure is to write these words. I'm going to leave it there. SEAN NELSON
CORRECTION: We changed Provincetown to Providence.