The Bests of 2015

Happy New Year!

This was a big year for podcasts, and for my own listening. I added a lot of shows to my docket, and, more importantly, I continued to develop/determine my podcast preferences. So without further ado, here are my favorites.

 

BEST NEW SHOWS (in alphabetical order)

1. Anxious Machine

I have consistently referred to Anxious Machine as my favorite show  of the moment since I learned of it last summer. Hosted by Rob McGinley Myers, it tells stories about how humans relate to technology—considering everything from email to hearing aids to camping out.

2. First Day Back

This is probably the show I’ve recommended most this year. The first season consists of nine episodes that follow the host, Tally Abecassis, as she goes back to work as a documentary filmmaker after six years as a stay-at-home mom. It’s great for anyone in a creative field, and, I imagine, for any parent. In short, it’s a great listen for anyone trying to figure out how to balance “work” and “life”.

3. Invisibilia

NPR’s newest science show, in which Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore invisible, human-making themes (fear, thoughts, categories) through means both scientific and exploratory.

4. Scene on Radio

Created and hosted by John Biewen out of Duke University, this documentary show leaves the studio and explores whatever it finds. The first seven episodes considered sports in American culture (but in a way this non-sports fan could get into).

5. Mystery Show

A funny show in which Starlee Kine solves seemingly-unsolvable, and seemingly-too-personal-to-be-interesting-but-still-interesting, mysteries.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

1. ARRVLS

A non-narrated storytelling podcast hosted by Jonathan Hirsch. about “transformation, migration, and change.” One could argue this is what every story is about, but these stories are good, so let’s not quibble.

2. Home of the Brave

In which Scott Carrier lulls us into calm with his soft voice and interesting storytelling. HotB went on a four-episode “Tour of Burned Churches” and later followed the refugee trail backwards from Lesbos, Greece.

4. Out on the Wire

I have mixed feelings about this show. I stopped listening after episode 3.5 and then dipped back in for part of episode 7 before leaving it again. However, I read the eponymous book (a long-form graphic narrative by host Jessica Abel about podcasts that sparked the making of this one) and loved it. And I think this podcast is doing something interesting, new, and important in its audience-inclusion. It’s about how to make a story—in any genre or media—and works with listeners from its Google-driven community.

5. UnFictional

A  non-narrated storytelling show from KCRW hosted by Bob Carlson. Each episodes features a story or group of true stories on the same theme, à la The Moth or Re:Sound or Risk (but less risky). If you like those shows, you’ll like this.

 

BEST EPISODES

1. “695BGK”Criminal

The story of an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police and survived.

2. “A Red Dot”Love + Radio

A registered sex offender talks with the L+R hosts about why the sex offender registry is a problem, and they push back.

3. “Cops See It Differently”, Parts 1 and 2This American Life

Stories about cops and civilians, from cops and civilians.

4. “Didn’t Want to be Conscious”Anxious Machine

One woman’s history with intoxication.

5. “Fearless”, Invisibilia

What is fear? Do we need it?

6. “Last Chance to Evacuate Earth”Here Be Monsters

The story behind the Heaven’s Gate cult, as told by two who joined it.

7. “Shipped to Timbuktu”Reply All

A mistaken identity online leads Reply All to a woman whose Girl Scout troop helped her survive a concentration camp in China during World War II.

8. “The Accidental Gay Parents”, Parts 1 and 2The Longest Shortest Time

Trystan and John, a gay couple in their 20s, make a quick decision to adopt John’s sister’s kids, and then have to convince the legal system to make it official.

9. “The Problem We All Live With”, Parts 1 and 2This American Life

How segregation holds us back, and why we aren’t integrating.

10. “Three Miles”, This American Life

How life differs for kids attending high schools a mere three miles apart.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

1. “Abdi and the Golden Ticket”, This American Life

2. “Birthstory”, Radiolab

3. “Britney”Mystery Show

4. “Fresh Out”ARRVLS

5. “Najibullah in America”Home of the Brave

6. “The Facts (About Transgender Kids)”How to Be a Girl

 

End Notes

My Best Episodes list is pretty This American Life-heavy. This isn’t always true, but I think they did a great job this year when it comes to telling stories that matter. It helps that education is in my wheelhouse, but it seems they’re focusing more energy on the hard-hitting, history-of-our-country episodes—and these are the ones that truly matter.

As so many spew hate at Muslims and refugees, some podcasts have used the medium to let these populations speak for themselves. Home of the Brave did a series that followed the refugee trail back from Lesbos, Greece, and listened to the stories of those he met along the way. Scene on Radio did an episode on hijabis, and the decision Muslim American women make to wear or not wear the headscarf.

In this way, podcasts are like articles in a magazine with a wide circulation. Like a magazine, they arrive in your mailbox (app). You’re not quite sure what you’re going to get, but you like the author, so you start reading. Sometimes they’re lighthearted, but they can also speak to current events, comment on what’s happening right now, and, even more importantly, give a voice to those we don’t otherwise hear. They take an Issue and make it a story, giving us the chance to listen to and empathize with those we might not otherwise meet.

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