Best podcast episodes of 2018 (according to this producer who listens to LOTS of podcasts)
My day job at KUOW is to produce and edit podcasts. I absolutely love the process of taking mountains of tape and ideas and transforming them into something focused and compelling.
As a result, I’m constantly listening to other producers’ work for ideas and inspiration for my own.
This year there certainly was no shortage of inventive audio storytelling. What follows is a completely subjective list of my favorite podcast episodes of 2018.
These are the stories I heard that hooked me, filled me with envy that I didn’t do it myself or made me think of something in a completely new way.
Necessary caveat: I am a public radio producer (tote bag and all), and that informs my taste in what I listen to and enjoy. There are so many reasons to listen to podcasts; compelling narrative-driven storytelling is mine.
Length: 54 minutes
Listen while: Just stop what you’re doing and listen. It will change your life. Great for road trip listening.
This is my favorite podcast of the moment, and the only one I save for when I’m on a road trip with my husband. There’s something about the genius of this podcast that makes it particularly fun to experience with someone else.
Hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, an alum of This American Life, each episode is a profile of a person trying to overcome something, and it often involves the struggle of navigating thorny nuanced relationships with other people.
Each episode is titled after the first name of the person profiled, and the episode about Rob is actually about Rob Corddry of "Hot Tub Time Machine" fame.
The premise of the episode is simple — did Rob Corddry break his arm or not? He remembers it vividly; his entire family does not. Who is right? It’s a relatively low-stakes mystery, but the themes explored throughout the episode — the unreliability of memory, who has what immutable role in a family, make the stakes very real and connect on a deeply personal level.
Length: 46 minutes
Listen while: Only light multi-tasking allowed. You’ll want to catch the details.
The second season of Slow Burn delves into the saga of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
It’s definitely worth listening to the whole series, but this episode stands out for obvious reasons. It’s the episode where the host Leon Neyfakh interviews Linda Tripp, the woman who secretly recorded her conversations with her then-friend Monica Lewinsky and set in motion the events that would change Lewinsky’s life and American history forever.
It gets meta. During the production of the episode, Neyfakh secretly records a conversation with Tripp. He debates whether or not to use it in the episode.
The episode proceeds with a detailed look at why Tripp did what she did. The episode doesn’t tell you how to feel about what she did and whether it was justified. Listen and decide for yourself.
Length: 28 minutes
Listen while: Folding your laundry so you can think about the history behind your clothes
Women love pockets. That is possibly the only generalization about women I’d feel 100 percent comfortable making. (I sincerely apologize if you are a woman who does not love pockets. But also, what is wrong with you?!)
So why not listen to an entire podcast episode about the history behind why women have been forced to suffer through fake, inadequate or no pockets on their clothing?
This episode is just one in a terrific series by Avery Trufelman on the podcast 99% Invisible where she explores the history and significance of various items of clothing.
The opening story of the episode is perfection.
Length: 34 minutes
Listen while: It’s short and sweet. Great for a commute.
This is the story of an enslaved woman’s struggle for freedom in the face of a relentless slave owner who was determined to give her away as a wedding present.
That slave owner is George Washington. Yes, that George Washington, the first president of the United States, who has largely received the benefit of the doubt compared with other slave-owning protagonists in American history.
This episode centers on one woman’s inspiring and heartbreaking struggle for freedom. It's a slow burn, but full of cinematic twists and details.
It is just one episode from the Peabody award-winning series Uncivil, hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika, that brings stories that challenge a very distorted, but entrenched narrative about the Civil War.
Listen to them all if you love history, listen to this episode if you want to get hooked.
This American Life
Length: 1 hour
Listen while: It’s a long piece, but it is gripping throughout. It’s a perfect companion to listen to while cooking a meal or during a long drive.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that This American Life is consistently great and pretty much the reason why people talk about podcasts in the first place.
I've loved so many of their episodes this year, but this story about a woman named LaDonna Powell reported by Chana Joffe Walt is an unforgettable portrait of a principled woman battling a remarkably petty manifestation of the patriarchy at her job on the tarmac at JFK Airport.
LaDonna is the worker we pretend to be in job interviews. She’s tough, she follows the rules and rises to challenges—many of them absurd.
You’ll leave the episode feeling inspired that women like her exist and confounded we don’t do everything in our power to ensure more of her do.
Length: 25 minutes
Listen while: This is a perfect commute or laundry-folding companion
Nancy is a lighthearted WNYC podcast about the queer experience hosted by Kathy Tu and Tobin Low.
Their interview with Alexandra Billings who stars on Transparent is a fascinating look at a show that is both celebrated and fraught.
She's hilarious, honest about her difficult experience working on Transparent and shares an amazing story about the importance of living in the moment.
Episode: "This Is The Way Up"
Length: 29 minutes
Listen while: On vacation, when you have time to binge a new series
It’s a trip to Mars, except it’s not Mars, it’s a facility in Hawaii that’s a simulation of the Red Planet.
That’s possibly the most concise way to describe the setting of the podcast The Habitat.
Hosted by Lynn Levy, the podcast is science meets reality TV, accompanied with beautiful sound design.
It’s enchanting. With some podcasts, the less you know about them going in, the better. Start with the first episode and listen through until the end.
Call Your Girlfriend
Episode: "Hey Ladies"
Length: 54 minutes
Listen while: A great podcast episode if you’re multitasking, need to turn your brain off and rethink how you did your wedding
“I’m pretty sure nobody will ever invite me to their wedding ever again after listening to this episode, but I’m okay with that,” declares Aminatou Sow at the top of the podcast.
Call Your Girlfriend is a chatty podcast featuring conversations between “long-distance besties” Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. They also interview guests on a variety of topics that interest them.
This episode is a lively, honest and amusing conversation about the awkward dance and cost of attending weddings and bachelorette weekends.
It’s a thoughtful, relatable and necessary conversation that centers on weddings but becomes a deeper conversation about friendship.
Length: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Listen while: This is my favorite podcast to listen to when I simply want to turn my brain off and laugh. Not a lot of focus required. Be in a place where you won’t be embarrassed to guffaw.
The Rewatchables is a podcast that revisits popular “rewatchable” movies like "Speed", "Die Hard", "Jaws" and "Face/Off" and through a lively, accessible discussion recounts what makes them great.
I have enjoyed all the episodes I have heard so far, but their episode on "Taken" was my favorite of 2018 (my favorite of all time was their episode on "Speed"—I literally cried with laughter).
This podcast is a lot of fun, and this was especially the case for the "Taken" episode, in part because of how many times I’ve seen that movie. Your enjoyment of one episode over others might depend on which films you’ve seen.
Episodes consist of a discussion of the plot of the movie, talk about casting "what ifs," a debate over the most rewatchable scene (obviously the “particular skills” speech) and situate it within a broader context and raise questions like:
Did Liam Neeson starring in "Taken" kick off a golden age of middle-aged dude action heroes (ie "The Equalizer")?
Was "Taken" the pinnacle of Liam Neeson’s career or "Schindler’s List?"
They use adjectives like “Die Hardean.” The hosts (who rotate; usually Bill Simmons is spearheading) exaggerate a lot, but that’s part of the fun, especially for me as a public radio employee who is accustomed to rigorous fact checking.
There’s a cliché about some loosely-formatted podcasts where they are essentially conversations you wish you were having with your friends. This podcast is the best execution of that idea that I’ve encountered.
Episode: "A High School Assault"
Length: 25 minutes
Listen while: Commuting to work, washing dishes, in a place where you feel comfortable getting emotional.
I listen to The Daily, The New York Times’ news podcast hosted by Michael Barbaro, every day before going to work, which makes choosing just one episode incredibly difficult.
"A High School Assault” stands out for a variety of reasons. This episode was released at the height of the Justice Brett Kavanaugh controversy earlier this year, and the episode profiled Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan’s experience being sexually assaulted in high school.
Many people, women especially, experienced tender emotions during this time and Flanagan’s story added an intimate dimension to a jarring time. Flanagan’s emotion, honesty and clarity about her experiences touched me deeply.
I hung on to her every word, and you could tell Barbaro did too. Her story, and the conclusions she drew about it regarding apologies and closure, made me think about the impact of #MeToo stories in a new way.
Scene on Radio
Length: 52 minutes
Listen while: This is hard to listen to, potentially triggering.
#MeToo stories frequently center on the downfall of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer.
But often, the circumstances where women experience abuse are more mundane. This story from the podcast Scene on Radio (from PRX and the Center for Documentary Studies), looks at what happens when one woman tells her friends that another one of their friends assaulted her.
It’s a painful, brave examination of how unprepared society is to hold men accountable for their actions-legally or socially.
In the Dark
Episode: "July 16, 1996"
Length: 42 minutes
Listen while: This is a serialized podcast that requires paying attention to detail. Dive in when you are in the mood to focus and binge on a new podcast.
Madeleine Baran is a superhero. More commonly, she’s known as the host and lead reporter of the podcast, In the Dark, a Peabody Award-winning investigative podcast that takes a magnifying glass to the flaws in how many of our systems operate.
The second season examines one man’s experiences in the criminal justice system: Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime.
I chose the first episode because it’s important to listen to the whole series from the beginning.
The series is powerful, infuriating and features reporting at its most heroic.
Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace
Length: 28 minutes
Listen while: Going for a run
Yes, I produced and edited this episode. But you know what? I think it’s great, even while I’m fully aware of my shamelessness.
On this episode, Celeste Ng discusses her experiences with online harassment and shares advice to others who have experienced it. Ng’s empathy for her harassers is inspiring.
As the person who cut this episode together, I found it incredibly difficult to edit her tape down. She is the gold standard for radio guests: hilarious, lively, introspective, wise.