In The Dark
This is the story of a Minnesotan boy who disappeared. It changed a town, and frankly, it was one of my favorite binges in 2016. In nine episodes, the show parses a 27-year-long investigation. In The Dark somehow condensed thousands of pages of documents into a narrative that resonated deeply with thousands of other listeners (and the judges of the Peabody Awards). It’s a work of art, an absolute audio masterpiece.
Line of note: “I’ve been hearing the name ‘Jacob Wetterling’ ever since I moved to Minnesota twelve years ago. Jacob’s kidnapping was a huge deal here. It changed the way people parented their children.”
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
I’ve been thinking a lot, so much about children’s radio over the past month. This is a great audio drama for kids—no doubt about it—but it’s also a tremendous show for adult podcastphiles. I’d go so far as to argue that it’s a fantastic pairing with Missing Richard Simmons. Everyone online is saying that this show is for and by middle school students. I’m in my twenties, have no children, and love this podcast to death. The show offers hope, nourishes our technophilic imaginations, and stimulates the soul. It won a Peabody, and it’s worth your time.
Line of note: “I created this podcast for you, the kid who believes anything is possible.”
The Wells Fargo Hustle
When this episode came out last year, I listened to it over and over and over again, because it was a story that evoked so many emotions—frustration and fear chief among them. What did Wells Fargo do to its employees, the ones who sought to keep the company’s ethics in tip top shape? If this is a question that’s weighed on your mind, tune in now; it’s not too late to listen to the podcast and get a sense of how far a bank was willing to go to protect its reputation. This episode somehow manages to make you chuckle despite the severity of its content. And perhaps that’s one of the thousands of reasons why it helped NPR earn a Peabody for its coverage of Wells Fargo.
Line of note: “Hey, this is just a warning. Bankers sometimes use adult language, and in this podcast, they do.”
This American Life
This American Life: Anatomy of Doubt
Doubt. How does it take hold of individuals, of institutions, of entire communities? How does it take grasp of an entire town, and what are the best ways to document it? This episode of This American Life tries to make sense of a girl’s cry for help. Reporting for this episode involved collaboration with ProPublica and the Marshall Project, so if you have a second, you should check out this written piece too. I’m so tremendously excited that this episode won a Peabody, because it takes a deep dive into the ways in which we talk about truth and sexual assault in America.
Line of note: “It wasn’t the first time that I had been raped.”
Missing Richard Simmons
This show won the Webby for “Best Documentary Podcast.” It’s got some wonderful, wondrous archival footage featuring Richard Simmons. And here’s the best part: you don’t need to know the man to love the show. Maybe you’re an exercise junkie. Maybe you’ve never thought of fitness as fun. Maybe you’re into celebrities and their lives (and afterlives). This show is good stuff, but at first, I couldn’t fully explain why. It took me a long time to understand that it was about love, family, and absence—three things that could take lifetimes to appreciate in full.
Line of note: “That class was like doing jumping jacks at a wake, where the Village People are playing.”
This show won a Webby for “Best Arts & Culture Podcast.” Not too shabby, right? This is hands down my fave podcast out of The New York Times because it’s witty as hell. Everyone needs a pop culture confession booth, and that’s exactly what this show purports to be. If you’re trying to stay up with the times but don’t necessarily have the time for The Read, add this to your weekly list of listens. Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham are here to bring truth, transparency, and tenacity to our world, and they’re killing it.
Line of note: “So, first thing we’re going to talk about is a podcast that is very different from ours; it’s called S-Town.”
How To Be a Girl
I do not know if I have ever heard a thing more beautiful, more enchanting, more heartbreaking than this autobiographical show—a journey into a child’s perception of self, gender, and identity. What does it take to instill fear or hope in a young being? How can a single parent foster love in a time of transformation? This podcast probes what it means to be a girl. I would advise listening to “A post-election message from my 8-year-old trans daughter,” if you can. It’s about a minute long and is definitely the best post-electoral audio meditation that I’ve unearthed over the past few months.
Line of note: “After twelve months of making myself and my child miserable, I finally let my little boy go.”
Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People
I’m so glad that the Webby folks gave Chris Gethard the love and recognition he deserves. At the time of writing, the comedian has been on the other end of a total of 58 anonymous phone calls—ranging from a Trump supporter to an amateur ASMR sound artist. His show has had a wild ride and has an especially active online community of followers, fans, and friends. Earwolf has promised that Chris will be around for many moons to come, so there will be a good number of episodes to come in the next few months. In the interim, have a look at the incredible, remarkable archive. It’s binge worthy and definitely a wonderful audio gem to introduce to first-time podcast listeners.
Line of note: “You’ve told me about a world of grim medical conditions spread throughout your family over three generations.”
Before we go, here’s a quick roundup from the rest of the podcast universe.
Do you have fave women-hosted podcasts? Yes? You do? That’s fantastic. Shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with all the deets about why this is the show that makes your ears happy.
Do you know anyone who listened to (or better yet, called into) WNYC’s “Kids America” back between 1984-1987? If so, I would really, really like to talk to them.
Raised on a strict diet of NPR and C-SPAN, Muira McCammon is a war crimes researcher by day and a podcast reviewer for Paste Magazine by night. She can be found on Twitter @muira_mccammon or walking about the woods of western Massachusetts. Her writing has previously appeared in Slate, Waypoint by VICE, Atlas Obscura, the Massachusetts Review, and other publications.