Listening to podcasts is a personal passion. As a talent booker and media producer, they play a big role in my professional life, as well, which is why narrowing down a year-end, best-of list is such a challenge. Everyone listens differently, and we all have varied interests. While some love interviews or scripted series, I lean towards the documentary style. As a news and entertainment junkie, it’s a great way to dive deep into things you’d otherwise never know. Below, in alphabetical order, are the 10 podcasts that rocked my world in 2022. If I missed your favorite, please reach out and tell me what it is. My airpods are ready.
America’s GirlsIn the ’70s and ’80s the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were as much a pop-culture phenomenon as Saturday Night Fever or The Love Boat. Texas Monthly journalist Sarah Hepola presents a revealing audio documentary explaining the squad’s origins, how the cheerleaders evolved and why people seem to have different takes on them. From the strict rules to the iconic uniform, some feel it’s an honor to be a part of this elite team, while others are more focused on equal pay, rules and respect. Which side will you cheer for?
BonaparteAn unsolved death is revisited after 25 years by prominent New York City attorney Anne Champion. Her best friend Laura Van Wyhe was mysteriously killed and found on the side of the road in Bonaparte, Iowa. Strangely, no one was charged with her death. Champion, along with journalist Jason Stavers, travels to Iowa to talk to the family and all those involved in Laura’s life. They try to see if they can put the pieces together. Interesting angles are uncovered, but even after all these years, people still don’t want to talk. It’s still an active, open case.
Bone ValleyPulitzer Prize-winning reporter/author Gilbert King investigates the case of Leo Schofield. He was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife Michelle. Her body was found in a Lakeland, Fla., phosphate mining pit back in 1989. Schofield maintains that he did not commit the crime. King’s investigation leads him to a string of events where the criminal justice system failed. Each episode reveals new information that could potentially carve a path to his freedom. While this series is a slow burn, once you come into the story you’ll be hooked. The last episode will haunt you for days.
[Full disclosure: My passion for this series led me to working with the team that makes Bone Valley and Lava For Good. They specialize in wrongful conviction awareness. I am currently working with their team to get more attention for Schofield’s case.]
Into ItNPR’s Sam Sanders has been synonymous with pop culture for years. His new show explores a topic in the zeitgeist each week and dissects it with the experts. They cover everything from why the Jeffrey Dalhmer series resonates, to Taylor Swift’s megastardom to why Yellowstone is a TV show favorite among conservatives. Whatever is popular in the moment, Sanders is on it. He’s relatable, thoughtful, funny and has great guests. I especially love the end segment called “cutlure-geist” where people discuss what they are obsessed with that week.
Sweet BobbyJournalist Alexi Mostrous was researching the consequences of online porn when he stumbled across a bizarre catfishing story. Kirat Assi was terrorized in an online web of deceit for 10 years as she thought she had found her true destiny in Bobby. The conversations became intimate and, of course, his story was not what it seemed. The reveal is absolutely unexpected and wild. Most importantly, Sweet Bobby looks into why there are few consequences for people who commit this kind of online psychological warfare.
Sympathy PainsSarah Delashmit spent the past 20 years scamming people into believing she has cancer, muscular dystrophy, a variety of injuries and other random illnesses. She latches onto charity message boards to find friends/victims. The scams are so convincing at first, it’s hard not to believe her. She even goes after the disabled, making up jaw-dropping lies along the way. Midway through the series, she gets outed on the Dr. Phil Show. More victims of her deceptions come out of the woodwork to seek revenge. It’s a bonkers situation that makes you wonder what drives someone to manipulate others this way. Host Laura Beil (Dr. Death, Vaping Fix) attempts to figure out why.
Things Fell ApartWhat are the origins of cancel culture? How did we become such a divisive society? Jon Ronson does a brilliant job of rewinding topics like abortion, sex education, gay liberation and school curricula. This series finds the strange and sometimes heartwarming examples of how things came to be. People who were on the front lines tell their stories. Whether you agree or disagree, Things Fell Apart explores these monumental moments that have shaped our current culture. It’s a beautiful learning experience.
We Were ThreeHosted by “This American Life” producer Nancy Updike, the theme of this podcast is lies, Covid and America. Updike focuses on Rachel McKibben, telling the story of the relationship between her father and brother in the height of the pandemic. While at first you think it is a series about vaccine hesitancy, it’s more about how family trauma and propaganda can lead to tragedy. There are so many shocking moments, you’ll wonder how she got through it all. The brilliance of We Were Three is that it’s only three tidy, exquisitely done episodes. You’ll want to listen to it all at once.
Wild Boys (season 3 of Chameleon)In 2003, two skinny, starving teenage boys were spotted roaming around a small Canadian town. Good samaritans took them in and tried to help, but the more they got to know them, the stranger their back story seemed to become. The boys are the talk of the small town. They even had nicknames, Bush Boys or the Wild Boys of Vernon. But how did they get there? Why are they only eating fruit? Where are their parents or ID? Journalist Sam Mullins peels back the layers of this story that ended up making national headlines. It gets much more interesting when Mullins brings you to the present day and where they are now. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, their story takes another turn.
Will Be WildThe creators of the podcast Trump, Inc thought they’d be done once he was out of office. That was until the capitol riot on January 6th. Will Be Wild (based on one of Trump’s tweets encouraging people to go to DC on January 6th) investigates how that day came to pass. They conduct interviews with former FBI and Homeland Security agents, White House Officials and people who were at the capitol that day, always laying out specific examples to show how it had been brewing for a long time. They also delve into the Domestic Terrorism angle, talking to those who’ve been sounding the alarm for years. This eight-part series gives plenty of insight about what’s to come. It’s terrific but also terrifying.
Mara Davis is a media personality based in Atlanta. In addition to hosting the VoteHer podcast with Senator Jen Jordan, she also is a senior talent booker for various television networks and podcasts.