We’re living through a golden age in podcasting — that perfect sweet spot where the general public has started to recognize the form, creators are expanding its possibilities, and there isn’t so much money in play that the speculators and non-enthusiasts have swept in to ruin it like… well, like most other things on the internet.
For now, podcasts are almost exclusively created by and for the people who love them, supported sometimes by ads, but even more often by people paying specifically for that content. It’s a refreshingly simple model. So enjoy this brief period of podcasting’s adolescence while it lasts, and be glad that for now we only have the occasional Zip Recruiter live reads to fast forward through.
True crime writing, long-form reporting, documentaries, and radio documentaries have all existed for a long time. But the serialized podcast format is creating all sorts of new opportunities for this brand of reporting and allowing it to be more in-depth than ever before. New stories are being told in unique ways, and — best of all — they’re being heard.
Audio is a more passive medium, in that it doesn’t require your full attention, and you can experience it while you do something else, like drive a car or clean your doll collection. This ability to be experienced on less than full engagement paradoxically makes podcasts more intimate. It’s content you can take with you wherever you go, keeping you company on your commute or in your desperate attempt to tune out coworkers. This quality also allows for more in-depth, more detailed reporting. Storytellers can tell longer-form narratives, some of these lasting up to 10 hours, without worrying that they’re boring people.*
*Though it’s worth mentioning: just because you can make a 10-hour podcast doesn’t always mean you should.
At the close of 2018, we’re seeing incredible advocacy journalism being done in podcasts. Many of these series offer top-notch entertainment, but they’re also Important. I don’t expect it will always be this way. Here are some of my hopes for the medium going forward:
1. Let audio be audio.
One of the most obnoxious trends in podcasts right now is the push to turn podcasts into “soundscapes.” Some shows do it better than others, and there are certainly some soundscape-y pods on this list, but the reason the medium is popular in the first place is that there is a simple power and pleasure in listening to a single human voice. It’s fine for a podcast to be just that. So many podcasts are starting to add unnecessary sound effects, pointless music, and conspicuous edits that I’m reminded of that Simpsons episode where Homer learns to edit video. “You know there are other transitions besides a star wipe, right?”
It’s crass enough that we have to listen to your live reads about mattresses in the middle of the story of someone’s wife’s murder, don’t double down by adding some god awful slowed-down cover to “set the mood.” If the story alone isn’t sufficient to set the mood, fix the story.
2. Understand the responsibility
A good investigative podcast can help solve a murder or get someone wrongly convicted out of prison. A bad one can get an innocent person fired, run out of town, etc., and solely because he seemed like he might be the killer for half an episode. Maybe finish running down a lead before you post it, just in case. As Jon Ronson put it, “don’t use narrative dead ends for dramatic tension.”
3. Don’t rush it
Closely related to number two. Sometimes a story takes a few years to report. That’s a long time! Not every reporter or outlet can afford to pursue a story for that long, and not every story has closure. We’re blessed to have so many reporters willing to spend years working the same story. But as the medium becomes more lucrative, it’s easy to imagine people throwing bigger money at shows and demanding faster results. That could be disastrous.
4. Use your damned voice
Maybe it’s because so many of the best podcasts are coming from public radio right now and these criticisms have probably all been made before in that context, but… what is it with hosts who talk like they’re trying not to wake a baby in the next room? It’s an epidemic in podcasting. There’s nothing more infuriating than listening to a host try to mimic broad, newscaster-y inflections while speaking in a quavery half-whisper. You don’t have to be the morning zoo guys, but maybe find a happy medium?
Now then, to the “Best Of” list!
PART I: Honorable Mention
Reply All is a perennial favorite, and the only reason it’s not higher is that I’m not sure it quite fits the category. Generally, it’s a nice little breakdown of weird niches of the internet, but their recent deep dive about the Foxconn factory coming to Wisconsin was one of the best podcasts of the year. Basically, imagine the monorail episode of the Simpsons, only the Simpsons lose their house at the end.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough #CultContent, and Heavens Gate gave what I crave. Dear Franklin Jones, also hosted by Glynn Washington, also fits the bill.
Dan Carlin is kind of the OG of non-fiction podcasting, and Hardcore History was one of the first on my favorites list. I don’t know that it necessarily fits this category, but it still earns its spot in my favorites. Dan Carlin sounds exactly like a rightwing radio guy and has that same skill of being able to just talk for four hours at a clip with no one else in the room, only he’s actually thoughtful and good. He’s like a Bizarro World Rush Limbaugh.
Some of the podcasts at the top of this list are about Sheriff’s departments with outsize power. Repeat, about police-involved shootings in LA county, proves that isn’t just something that happens in the past or in small towns in the South.
The Ruby Ridge standoff was relegated to a footnote in this year’s miniseries on Waco, and Slate’s deep dive into the Weavers was the perfect complement. See also: #CultContent.
Offshore is a series out of Hawaii, telling stories specific to that part of the world, which manages to be simultaneously relevant and escapist. Everything is a little strange and mysterious out in the Pacific, and the most recent season, about illegal adoptions in the Marshall Islands, is a fascinating slice of life in a little-thought-of corner of the world, plus a compelling mystery solved all rolled into one.
PART II: The Top Ten
What was that I said about #CultContent? Cults and commerce combine in The Dream, which explores the history of multi-level marketing and how it came to be so intertwined with the government. It seems to be a peculiarly American disease. MLMs have always had outsize influence at the government level, but now we actually have MLM heirs running branches of government. “Grifter” isn’t just a clever insult when it comes to the Trump administration. That makes The Dream a must-listen, and Jane Marie makes it fun, with an unapologetically conversational style.
#CultContent strikes again! When it happened, the Cliven Bundy story was just too weird and esoteric, with too many side quests, to understand entirely. It really took a podcast to tell the full story and NPR and Longreads found the niche.
Not to poo poo the Trump-Russia investigation or anything with the potential to get him out of office, but every time I read about meetings with “operatives” and arcane violations of campaign finance rules my eyes glaze over a little bit. I’m much more interested in what feels like the bigger story: that Trump is essentially a scam artist who built his entire career on fraud (allegedly, I guess). From his $413 million inheritance to his seemingly daily violations of the emoluments clause, Trump, Inc. delves into the details. There are probably too many bonus episodes, but it’s all the kind of stuff everyone should know.
I know sports documentaries arguably aren’t “important” in the same way as exposés about the failings in the criminal justice system, but I still can’t get enough. And to be fair, this series from Wondery and the Boston Globe about former Patriot/murderer Aaron Hernandez did have plenty about the criminal justice system as well. If you can get past Bob Hohler’s odd accent (why is white trash New England so much easier to listen to than newscaster New England? Same with Australian) there’s a new revelation about Aaron Hernandez in almost every episode.
Another Wondery show, Dr. Death is the spiritual sequel to Dirty John, following a sociopathic spinal surgeon who managed to maim or kill almost everyone he operated on. While its subject, Christopher Duntsch, is perhaps less a deliciously mundane psychopath than John Meehan, what the sequel loses in lurid bingeability it gains in relevance — an actual indictment of the way the medical system works, rather than an isolated story of one crazy villain. Like all Wondery shows, the soundscape editing is a bit much at times, and with some truly ill-fitting music (to say nothing of the jarring ad reads), but the thorough, thoughtful reporting itself, from Laura Beil, more than makes up for it.
Bear Brook, from New Hampshire Public Radio, delves into a cold case that began with the discovery of two bodies in a 55-gallon drum in the woods in 1985, and ends up unmasking a serial killer before it’s finished. Exploring cold cases has been a staple of true crime shows and podcasts as long as they’ve been around, but what makes Bear Brook so special is the science reporting. It’s a fascinating depiction of just how difficult it can be to identify bodies and the technological advances that make new revelations possible. It’s also unique in that it finds actual answers to the questions it asks about a 35-year-old case (not all of these kinds of shows offer them, and in many cases it’s out of the reporters’ hands).
Caliphate reporter Rukmini Callimachi is the journalism equivalent of Alex Honnold from Free Solo, the kind of person whose work is both incredible to watch and seems almost suicidally brave. In Caliphate, Callimachi combs recently destroyed ISIS hangouts to gather information about how it actually works and meets with a former recruit, a seemingly normal kid from Canada. If nothing else, it will drive home just how similar ISIS recruits are to the alt-right incel members who purport to hate them.
Last season’s Crime Town, from reporters Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier (who also worked on HBO’s The Jinx), profiled corruption in Providence Rhode Island. The latest season is about Detroit, and while it may not have a character quite as compelling as former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci or accents as fun as Rhode Island ones (I got a few angry emails for saying Michigan accents are terrible a few months back but I stand by it), it does have murderous policemen and Gil Hill as a main character, who also happened to play Axel Foley’s boss in Beverly Hills Cop. Any show that uses a Death song as its theme is okay by me.
Much like “the CSI effect” conditioned us all to believe that handsome lab techs with irrefutable DNA evidence would solve all crime, we tend to believe exonerating DNA evidence is a get-out-of-jail card, the end of an injustice story, after which everyone lives happily ever after. Murderville, from The Intercept, about a 1998 murder at a Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia, shows just how much that isn’t true. Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith (whose voice is so scratchy it sounds painful) report this infuriating story, which takes prosecutorial incompetence and small-town corruption to new levels.
It almost feels hack to put Serial at the top of a podcast “best of” list, but in this case the conventional wisdom is absolutely true, and Sarah Koenig earns all the praise she gets. The traditional way of doing an investigative podcast series about the criminal justice system was to document its greatest anomaly, its “worst” injustice, where an obviously innocent man or women sits behind bars.
The problem with that kind of reporting is that it can too easy for people to assume those cases aren’t proof of dysfunction but genuine outliers. In season three, Serial moves from One Crazy Case to documenting a series of cases in the Cleveland area. In so doing, it has evolved to depict average, everyday injustice — the kind it’s impossible to see as anomalous. There’s the guy who’s in jail for the murder he didn’t commit, sure, but what about all the people who take a plea over the bar fight they didn’t start or the possession charge based on an illegal search? And end up in the same predatory probation system?
Serial season three doesn’t just depict injustice, it explains how injustice happens, which makes it some of the most valuable reporting around. It also has a reporter with an inexplicable British accent who can’t pronounce TH sounds, which is kind of the most public radio thing ever, isn’t it?
Remember everything I said about Serial evolving from anomalous to everyday injustice? Well In The Dark season two is the opposite of that, reporting the story of just one case, Curtis Flowers, a guy who has spent the past 21 years in jail for a quadruple murder at a furniture store in Mississippi. What makes the Curtis Flowers story so compelling is the sheer magnitude of the injustice at stake.
In The Dark somehow always manages to combine incredible reporting with unbelievable serendipity (perhaps if you do enough of the former it creates the appearance of the latter?). In season one, the 30-year-old cold case that reporter Madeleine Baran profiled — the stranger danger kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling — happened to be solved just weeks before the first episodes were set to be released. In season two, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed to hear the Flowers case just months after season two released its (original) final episode.
In combining dogged advocacy journalism with smart but inconspicuous production values, In The Dark is the gold standard of the investigative podcast.
You didn’t think I was going to get to the end of this list without mentioning my own podcast, did you? What a waste of SEO that would be. No, the Frotcast isn’t as good as any of the podcasts mentioned, and certainly not as important. Every week we investigate movies and pop culture and combine bad jokes with almost-as-bad production values. It would be a true crime not to listen.