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Lauren Ober listens to a lot of podcasts.
Ober is the host of The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts, you see. Her job is to listen to, and recommend, tons and tons of podcasts.
We — Glen Weldon and Linda Holmes — at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, also listen to a lot of podcasts. Not on an Ober-esque order of magnitude, admittedly, but we have plenty of favorites.
Ober recently joined us on Pop Culture Happy Hour to talk about our favorite episodes of non-NPR podcasts that came out this year. Click the audio link above to hear our conversation. (Pop Culture Happy Hour is usually hosted by Linda, but for this episode, regular panelist Stephen Thompson took over the host chair.)
Below you'll find a list of recommendations made on the show (plus, in Lauren's case at least, many more!)
At The Big Listen, we try to make the wide world of podcasting a little more manageable. We can't have you stumbling through the podcast wilderness alone and afraid, now can we?
It is in that spirit that I humbly present to you some of my most favorite episodes from new shows of 2016. They're perfect for that flight home to see your folks or that seemingly interminable drive to your in-laws'. Whether they are the best moments of digital audio is up to you to determine. But they are the episodes that stuck with me long after I pulled my earbuds from my ears and put my phone down.
Merry listening! And the happiest and healthiest of New Years to you and yours!
Making Gay History: "Wendell Sayers"
This podcast from Eric Marcus, Sara Burningham and Pineapple Street Media is a compilation of oral histories Marcus recorded with everyday LGBTQ heroes in the 1980s and '90s. As Making Gay History so expertly shows, the human voice is breathtakingly powerful. I found all of these interviews to be soul-stirring, but particularly the one with Mr. Sayers. He was a deeply closeted black man who as a child in the 1920s was sent to the Mayo Clinic to figure out why he wasn't like other boys. Sayers later went on to have a successful legal career, despite being branded a homosexual. To know that there was a time when doctors would diagnose homosexuality as an incurable illness, and that people could overcome that stigma, is both devastating and inspiring.
In The Dark: "Stranger Danger"
You can't throw a stone these days without hitting a true crime podcast. Thanks, Serial. But if there's one you choose to invest some time in, make it In The Dark from APM Reports. Reporter Madeleine Baran and producer Samara Freemark doggedly recount the story of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped and killed in a small Minnesota town in 1989. But this isn't a prurient exposé of crime against a child. It is the story of the chilling knock-on effects the murder had on a nation. This particular episode details the how the crime led to the passage of the nation's first sex offender registry and how that registry has had unintended consequences for communities around the country.
Politically Reactive: "Dave Zirin On Loving And Hating The Olympics"
It needs to be said that I love Dave Zirin. With a deep and abiding passion. If I cared more about the optics of such things, I would be concerned. But I don't, so I'm not. Dave is a sports writer at The Nation and the host of the peerless podcast, Edge of Sports (listen to this now). Over many years, he has crafted a career at the precise center of the intersection of sports and politics. Politically Reactive, hosted by comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, lives at the intersection of comedy and politics. And the three of them together talking about the Olympics, my longtime frenemy, is a podcast dream come true.
Sleepover: "Judy Wants Romance"
It was only a matter of time before the reality television genre permeated the podcasting realm. But lucky for us, it was the CBC that busted open the form, not some trashy production outfit. Sleepover is reality radio in that it invites three strangers from all walks of life to have a hotel pajama jammy jam with host Sook-Yin Lee. Each of the guests has a problem he/she is grappling with — love, loss, loneliness, etc. And each person gets a chance to unpack his/her challenge with the group, like Judy's search for love and connection as a disabled senior. The result, especially in the selected episode, will renew your faith in humans and our boundless capacity to love.
Why Oh Why: "How Will I Know"
Much of Andrea Silenzi's delightful podcast from Panoply, Why Oh Why, explores dating and relationships in a digital age. Naturally, that means interrogating the ways in which we connect, or don't. To that end, many of the episodes seamlessly stitch together fact and fiction to create a composite sketch of romance in the 21st century. But not so with this particular episode. In "How Will I Know," Andrea walks us through a breakup...her own. It's an intimate portrait of love and loss that at times is deeply uncomfortable to hear because of how closely it cuts to the bone. Which is the precise reason you should listen.
More Perfect: "The Imperfect Plaintiffs"
The Supreme Court is hot right now. With the death of ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, the Senate's stonewalling of President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, and the questions swirling around who will be President-Elect Trump's pick to fill the vacancy, the nation's highest court is very much in play. So the Radiolab spin-off couldn't come at a more perfect time. "The Imperfect Plaintiffs" delves into two cases where the plaintiffs were less than ideal, but whose legal battles served as the perfect test cases for laws that activists felt needed to be challenged.
Who? Weekly: "Glennon Doyle Melton?"
No one is more surprised by how much I love this show than me. I can't stop listening (thanks, Auditors). And I'm certain that apart from the hosts' moms, I am their oldest listener. No matter. The conceit of the show is this: the hosts, Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber, decipher the "whos" (unknown, or desperate-to-be-known celebrities) from the "thems" (celebrities with status and cachet) for listeners. The result is an epic ride on the Shadeville Express, where Bobby and Lindsey skewer (and at times celebrate) the absurdity that is celebrity culture. Like a no-name television actor coming out as straight. Or a Christian self-help author coming out as a lesbian (see: "Glennon Doyle Melton?")
Historically Black: "Tracking Down A Slave's Bill of Sale"
In September 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened to great fanfare on the National Mall. To commemorate its opening, APM Reports and the Washington Post collaborated on a podcast featuring stories of everyday African American families as told through the objects they held dear. In this episode, James McKissic, the descendant of a slave named Wilson Woods, tracks down his ancestor's bill of sale. The original 1862 document lives in a courthouse in rural Tennessee. It's a powerful exploration of the legacy of slavery for one African American family.
Candidate Confessional: "Michele Bachmann On Her Run For The White House"
Every political race yields more losers than winners. And those losers often have great stories to tell from the campaign trail. That's the premise of Candidate Confessional from The Huffington Post. Former Republican representative and presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, has more than a few tales from her failed run. Most of them have to do with the sexism and misogyny that dogged her during her campaign. Like when a Newsweek photographer used a wild-eyed test shot of Bachmann for a cover image. Regardless of your political leanings, it's hard not to be moved by her story.
Making Oprah: "You Get a Car!"
My friends have gotten so tired of me talking about this podcast any chance I get. But that's because IT'S. SO. GOOD. Our pals at WBEZ put together a delightful and engaging documentary about The Oprah Winfrey Show to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the show's arrival on the daytime talk show scene. The best episode by far is the final one, which delves into the making of the big car giveaway in 2004. In meticulous detail, listeners learn just what went into making Oprah's show the greatest thing on T.V. at the time, and why the size of the bow on the present matters.
Leave A Message After The Tone:
"If You're Reading This It's Too Late Go To Bed"
The world deserves more quirky, weirdo podcasts. This little gem about voicemails fits the bill. The hosts ask listeners to call and leave messages in response to specific prompts — What does Donald Trump eat?, or What is Drake's bedtime routine? Then the responses are stitched together into little five-minute audio amuse bouches for your listening pleasure. In the Drake episode, listeners posit that the Jewish Canadian hip hop star ends his nights with a night guard for his teeth-grinding and lots of lotion. More please.
I recommend a lot of podcasts. I've mentioned several on the show over the years, including old favorites Jordan, Jesse Go!; the Slate Gabfests; My Brother, My Brother and Me; The Adventure Zone; Judge John Hodgman; Ronna and Beverly; and Stop Podcasting Yourself.
For this list, however, I resolved to spotlight podcasts I haven't been yammering about for years. But rest assured, every one of those shows mentioned above remain just as wonderful as ever, and worth checking out, if you haven't.
But as for this list:
The Read: "Beymergency: Formation"
Co-hosted by Crissle and Kid Fury — two black, queer, funny, discursive and deeply, gleefully profane people — The Read is a dependably great listen, week in and week out. But when something happens in the culture — and when that something involves, even tangentially, Beyonce — their joy is pure, and powerful, and hilarious. This episode sees them reacting to the surprise drop of Beyonce's "Formation" last February. (If you like this, be sure to check out the April episode following the release of Lemonade.)
Hello from the Magic Tavern: "Dr. Ward"
Ok, yes, I've talked about this podcast a lot. And Linda, Stephen and I even appeared on it once. But this episode represents such a hugely satisfying listen I had to include it. HOWEVER. It's not an episode to jump in on. Instead, I'd recommend starting with the very first episode, to determine if it's your thing. If it is, this episode, which arrives after the show's been building out its huge, improv-driven world for over a year, cracks open everything that came before in a rich and powerful way. To say how it does this would spoil it. (Oh - what's the show about, you ask? Guy from Chicago winds up in a magical fantasy land, and interviews its residents. It's hilarious.)
My Dad Wrote a Porno: "Jim's Secret"
This wonderful show doesn't need any help from me — it's been hugely successful, as it's built on a genius idea, hilariously executed. A British guy and two of his friends read, and make ruthless fun of, a series of pornographic novels written by the guy's father. The writing of said novels is hilariously ... inefficient, shall we say, and the three friends are sharp and witty. This episode features them reading a chapter of the father's second novel. By this point, if you've been listening from the beginning, you've grown accustomed to the formula, and you'd be forgiven for worrying if the show's unique appeal was beginning to wane. But then, this episode comes along, in which the writer's ... "gift" ... for strangely clinical anatomical detail takes a truly absurd detour into downright mystifying body-horror; the three friends' resulting incredulity and outrage is the funniest thing I heard all year.
Our Debut Album: "King of the Deep"
Graham Clark and Dave Shumka are two Vancouver-based comedians whose Stop Podcasting Yourself podcast is, as noted above, one I listen to as soon as it drops. They're consistently funny, and they find a way to riff with every guest so effortlessly their show never disappoints. For Our Debut Album, it's just Graham and Dave, attempting to write a hit song in one hour. They're comedians, not musicians, but they challenge themselves to write sincere, non-comedic songs. Their friendly back-and-forth as they work through finding rhymes and melodies and song structures is breezy and unforced, and fun to listen to. They're writing a 12-song album, and at this writing, they've finished their 8th tune.
One of the things I learned from making this episode is that I haven't picked up as many new podcasts in 2016 as I thought I had. Just another thing to add to my list of resolutions for next year. I remain, however, faithful to many that I love a lot, including these four.
Judge John Hodgman: "In Moto Parentis"
Judge John Hodgman — one of many fine products of the Maximum Fun network — is, as I have said a few times, my actual favorite podcast. On it, writer/actor/comedy person John Hodgman becomes a "fake internet judge" who resolves real disputes that are often very, very petty. In this episode, a 16-year-old named Duncan who has his heart set on a motorcycle — which he hopes his parents will not only allow, but pay for! — is brought into fake court by his mother, Leigh, who would like to stop hearing about this request, since she'll never grant it. Hodgman, as always, finds his way to the real issues that bring the two into court, and the conversation is biting at times but also funny, compassionate and surprising. A late detour into a discussion of Duncan's desire for a vape pen is just a bonus.
The Poscast: "Poscast Olympics"
The Poscast is sportswriter Joe Posnanski's baby, but my favorite episodes are the ones he does with Michael Schur, a TV producer with the impressive calling cards of having created or co-created Parks And Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. The two have regular "drafts," which are just like drafts for sports fantasy leagues, only much, much more pointless and fabulous. In one episode, for instance, they draft letters of the alphabet. In this episode, however, they decide which sports should become official Olympic sports. Some of their suggestions are fairly plausible; others come from Chuck E. Cheese. It's weird and dumb and I absolutely love it.
99 Percent Invisible: "America's Last Top Model"
The flagship podcast of the Radiotopia network is about design, and in this episode, reporter Ryan Kailath explores a story I'd never heard before, about a giant working model of the Mississippi River that was built decades ago to predict and prevent flooding before the blossoming of computer simulations. Not only is it the kind of story you think you'd have heard before but you may not have, but it leads to an intriguing peek at computer modeling now, and at the people who still believe that physical models have advantages that computer models can't yet match.
Longform: "Heben Nigatu And Tracy Clayton"
You already know how wonderful Buzzfeed's Another Round, with Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, is. (Or you probably do.) Rather than just recommend them again, I give you the episode of Longform, an interview show focused on writers and other journalists, in which Heben and Tracy are interviewed both alone and together. They talk about process, collaboration, and the challenges of dealing with an audience that includes both listeners who consider this one of the few shows that's ever really made them feel represented and listeners who can't quite find appropriate ways to listen to something that isn't about themselves. It's a great conversation with two of my favorite hosts, and you'll learn a lot.