Six Podcasts That Dive Deep Into Current Issues

1. The Uncertain Hour

A deep dive into the current state of the US welfare system and how a 1996 bill made it what it is today. This first, six-episode season explores the many ways that states use welfare money—including on relationship advice and crisis pregnancy centers—and the people who benefit from the system, whether they know it or not.

2. How to Be a Girl

A deep dive into raising a transgender daughter, from picking the right elementary school to meeting Laverne Cox. Often devastating and always impactful, this is the anonymous story of a mother who’s struggling to raise a strong, proud young girl in a world where many don’t accept her, and of a young girl who’s navigating which friends can be trusted and whether it’s safe for her to be herself.

3. More Perfect

A deep dive into the Supreme Court from the magicians who brought us Radiolab. The show’s first season explores the Court’s role in U.S. history through six landmark cases you may never have heard of, from the loopholes in jury selection to the harrowing decision to redistrict.

4. There Goes the Neighborhood

A deep dive into gentrification in New York City, from the thoroughly gentrified Williamsburg to the recently rezoned East New York. Each of the nine episodes focuses on one of gentrification’s issues, examining what a changing neighborhood means for business owners, developers, recent transplants, and longtime residents—both those who are forced to move and those who decide to stay.

5. Us & Them

A deep dive into controversies that divide Americans, from the war on Christmas to the war on drugs. Host Trey Kay interviews folks on both sides of the issues to explore how deeply held beliefs shape our country, making the show one of the few places where both right-wing Republicans and leftist liberals get a voice.

6. Science Vs.

A deep dive into what science says about the things we have strong, scientifically unfounded feelings about. Is fracking really so bad? Is attachment parenting the answer? And what about guns? While host Wendy Zukerman’s jokes can be goofy, the issues are serious and the explanations thorough.

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Six Episodes About “The Talk”

After the success of my crime show list, I’ve decided to continue the trend with another playlist. This time: the sex talk.

1. Mom, It’s Time We Had the Talk, The Longest Shortest Time

In which a mom talks to her eight-year-old son about sex—or rather, he talks to her. All. The. Time. And she answers him openly and honestly (up to a point). This is a great primer on how to have a transparent, but still mostly comfortable, conversation about sex with an elementary schooler.

2. The Sex Talk, Out in the Open

In which families from various cultural backgrounds navigate the sex talk—from Christian parents who preach abstinence until marriage to the head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada who talks to her daughters about the risk of being trafficked. Also, host Piya Chattopadhyay belatedly discusses sex with her own parents and realizes that they have a very different idea of what The Talk is all about.

3. How Do I Talk to My Kid About Molestation?” How to Get Away With Parenting

In which host Malaika Dower talks to sex and family therapist Courtney Watson about how to talk to her kid about sex, bodies, and staying safe. As I wrote before, it’s also about how to deal with your own issues so that you can raise your kids to respect their bodies and others’.

4. Birds & BeesThis American Life

In which we learn where kids get their information about sex and how colleges work to correct that information. (Also in which adults speak to kids frankly about death and in which parents grapple with how to teach their kids about racism.)

5. The Talk and Sex Ed for Grown UpsUs and Them

A two episode series in which host Trey Kay talks to an education historian and a specialist in Sex Health Ed about how and when Americans learn what they learn about sex. In “The Talk”, we learn how the history of sex education in the United States was shaped, and how it has changed. In “Sex Ed for Grown Ups”, doctors learn to talk to their patients about sex—because for many Americans, nobody else does.

6. Talking to My Kids About Sex in the Internet Age, The Moth

In which writer Adam Savage talks about talking to his kids about porn. This is an oldie but a goodie—funny, awkward, realistic, and a story I still remember after three years.

First Day Back

I found out about First Day Back from How to Be a Girl (which I discussed on an earlier post, and which just started posting episodes again. Yay!).  Both podcasts are part of a collective called The Heard. The two podcasts are similar—both documentary-style narratives by and about a mother and her child(ren). First Day Back focuses more on the mother, Tally Abecassis, a documentary filmmaker who is returning to work after a six year maternity leave. Much of the show features Abecassis speaking into the microphone about her feelings—totally my style—but she also brings her tape recorder to work meetings and occasionally interviews her kids. These interviews are my favorite parts of the show, both because kids say the darndest things and because they often contradict Abecassis’s ideas of how a mother should be. Abecassis uses her own life to explore the question of what it means to have a career and kids, especially for a woman. For all of her concerns, her kids are remarkably unphased by her shift away from full-time parenting.

I am not (yet) a parent, but I am a woman who anticipates having a family and a career that will likely be in a creative field, and I enjoy hearing a person tell her story of balancing a life and feeling, at times, like her work is useless. It’s comforting to hear someone whose work I think matters worry that maybe it doesn’t.

Style: Narrative, Serial

If You Like: First Day Back, Strangers, The Longest Shortest Time, Love + Radio

Favorite Episode: Episode 7, “Good News, Bad News”

Criminal

Criminal is another podcast I binge listened to, on a Greyhound from Chicago to Minneapolis. The show, which is a member of Radiotopia and hosted by Phoebe Judge, explores real-life crimes in bite-sized episodes—25 minutes at most. The crimes range from plant-stealing to murder, though on the whole they are not so gruesome. As I’ve mentioned before, brief episodes can be hard for me, both because they’re too short for my commute, and because as soon as I get emotionally attached, they’re over. For this reason, I prefer to go a few weeks without listening to Criminal and then listen to several episodes in a row. Each episode explores a single crime or a single person, often interviewing the perpetrator or victim. Though the show’s subject is crime, its approach feels a little santized—like crime TV. For easy listening, that’s not such a bad thing, but hearing from those involved is always my favorite part as the dialogue is most authentic. My main issue with Criminal is the narrator voice. I’m not only referring to Judge’s voice, though that’s part of it. (Criticizing a host’s voice feels like a cheap shot, but I’m not a fan of voices that sound overly radioified—sanitized, non-conversational, The “NPR voice”—and Criminal is definitely guilty of that (pun intended).) The structure itself is less adventurous than some other other podcasts, which is, I think, what keeps it a back burner podcast for me. But I’m a sucker for crime shows, and the stories are interesting, so I always come back.

If you have a favorite podcast I haven’t mentioned yet or host/produce a podcast of your own, leave a comment below. I’m always looking for new shows to listen to, and as an added bonus I rate and review every podcast I write about here on iTunes.

Style: Narrative

If You Like: Serial, 99% Invisible, This American Life, Reply All

Favorite Episode: Episode 20, “Gil from London”

This American Life

It’s hard to think of what I can say about This American Life, the podcastiest of all podcasts. It isn’t my favorite podcast, but it’s the one I listen to the most. I find the show to be spot-on nearly every time, in part because it is rather formulaic. The voices have a soothing, if predictable, NPR tone, and the episodes all have the same rhythm, indicated by host Ira Glass’s “each week on our podcast, of course…” And each week’s trappings are the same, down to the music that plays during segments. The segments themselves vary, from interviewing an individual to profiling a town to short stories to a live show of radio dramas, complete with a mini-opera. This is likely a major part of what has kept listeners interested for almost twenty years. There are many years of back episodes in the online archive, which makes it a nice at-home podcast. In the archives, you can choose to listen to only segments that fit a certain tag—teenagers, television, mental health, adoption—and curate your own listening experience. I enjoy listening to episodes from the ’90s in the same way I like looking at old photos. There are moments when everything seems exactly the same, and then I hear Glass’s voice telling me the number to call to buy a cassette of this week’s episode.

Style: Narrative, Interview

If You Like: Radio Diaries, Serial, Fugitive Waves, Radio Ambulante, Re:Sound

Favorite Episode: Episodes 487 and 488, “Harper High School, Part One” and “Harper High School, Part Two”

Undisclosed

Undisclosed is another show about Serial’s Adnan Syed, though, as the host Rabia Chaudry warns you in the first episode, it is not Serial, they are not journalists, and it is very technical. The hosts are lawyers, and the manner in which they discuss the case is more law-focused than narrative. Despite its dryness, I find it an interesting journey farther into the facts that Serial introduced. (I also question whether Serial’s vast fanbase is more interested in the case or the show, and Undisclosed may help me find the answer.) Because Undisclosed’s makers aren’t podcasters by trade, the production quality is not always the best. They sometimes play interviews with what they admit is bad sound quality and then fail to recap what was said. This can make for a frustrating listening experience and at times makes it hard to follow their arguments. On the other hand, the minimally-produced sound of their voices makes for nice background noise, especially when riding public transportation. In any case, the occasional flaws have not dissuaded me from listening to all five episodes, four addenda, one update, and the preview.

Style: Investigative, Interview

If You Like: Serial, Criminal, American Radioworks, the Serial subreddit

Favorite Episode: Episode 2, “Hae’s Day”

Serial

I will try to describe Serial as though it were not the most famous podcast of the last year. Serial is a narrative show, similar to (and created by the makers of) This American Life, the main differences being that the story Serial follows spans the whole season, and Serial maintains one narrator throughout—Sarah Koenig. If you’ve somehow avoided the show since it aired in October, the story it tells is that of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore resident who is in prison for allegedly murdering his ex-girlfriend when they were in high school. Koenig, the host, is a definite personality, though unlike in shows like Strangers or The Longest Shortest Time, we learn more about her opinions on the story than we do about her life. This is a key part of the show—nobody knows what’s going to happen, not even Koenig. It isn’t (necessarily) my favorite podcast, but it does cover all of the interest bases: it’s narrative in the way of a radio drama, investigative in the way of a crime novel, and includes the real voices of those involved. It also has aspects of found sound when we hear recordings from the original hearings. This is only Serial‘s first season, and I’m eager to see what the producers come up with next and if it manages to hold the attention of their impressive following.

Style: Narrative, Investigative, Interview

If You Like: This American Life, Criminal

Favorite Episode: Episode 3, “Leakin Park”