Like so many other parts of our lives, podcasts were different this year. For people suddenly working remotely, there were no more commutes. Instead, podcasts soundtracked evenings making dinner, weekends doing chores, long walks to stretch our legs, or drives to clear our heads. For those still working outside of home, distraction and comfort in trusty listening material may have been more sought-after than ever. The pandemic produced new types of audio series, too, offering tips to help us cope or cook our way through the dark days of isolation, and revealing how creative types were dealing with their own unexpected downtime. From an actor’s ruminations on the industry to comedians developing new material, from an examination of racial segregation in schools to a black mother’s search for her son’s killer, from the origins of the modern far-right to the mysteries of Hollywood, here are Rolling Stone’s picks for the best of the year.
(Topic Studios, The Intercept, the Invisible Institute, iHeartRadio, in association with Tenderfoot TV)
Shapearl Wells felt like Chicago police knew more than they were telling her about the shooting death of her 22-year-old son, Courtney Copeland. With the help of civil rights reporters from the Invisible Institute, on Somebody, she investigates the crime, re-interviewing witnesses, collecting hospital records, and gathering security-camera footage from the scene. And she’s right: there is more to it. Wells shares the captivating story of her persistent efforts to unearth the truth about her son’s killing and to grieve and heal as a mother. Somebody makes you consider why true crime investigative pieces about black victims are so few and far between. At one point Wells visits the police precinct, something she’s done before, but this time she has Invisible Institute reporters in tow. “Maybe this time, if I came in with two white journalists, they’d actually listen to me,” she says. Maybe it takes a polished crime podcast for people to believe a mother deserves to know what happened to her slain son, but it shouldn’t. – Andrea Marks
The stories were eerily similar. First, there was a phone call. A powerful Hollywood producer, a woman, was reaching out to hire an up-and-coming gig worker, like a trainer or a stylist. There would be some more communication, and then an invitation to come to Jakarta, Indonesia, for a movie shoot. If the hire was a man, sometimes there would be some flirting, or even sexual harassment. Either way, they’d be asked to front their own money for expenses — flights, drivers —thousands of dollars they were expecting to have reimbursed. Then the shoot would never happen, and the worker would return home, broke and confused. But if this were a scam, what could possibly be the payout? In this 10-part (and growing) podcast, journalists Vanessa Grigoriadis and Josh Dean go deep inside the story of the so-called Hollywood Con Queen, and the decade-long scam that made her famous. Through countless interviews with everyone from scam victims to PIs, the pair not only pick apart the plot, but find out who was behind it, too, taking the listener on a journey through investigative journalism as they uncover the crimes. – Elisabeth Garber-Paul
It’s been 15 years since Katrina broke the levies of New Orleans, but it’s still one of the most misunderstood natural — and unnatural — disasters in modern American history. In this deeply reported eight-part story from The Atlantic, host Vann R. Newkirk II walks us through the personal stories of those whose lives were changed by the hurricane — as well as the affect it continues to have on the city. – EGP
It was only supposed to be a four-episode series. Samin Nosrat and Hrishi Hirway launched Home Cooking in March to help people cook their way through the new stay-at-home orders. But the pandemic continued and luckily, so did the podcast.
Each episode feels leisurely and relaxed, opening with the hosts talking about the meals they’ve been making lately. Nosrat describes even cheese on toast in luxurious terms: smeared, buttery, melty. Then they answer questions from homebound listeners around the world: How long before dried beans go bad? Never. Just cook them longer. Can I make dessert with no oven or microwave? Stovetop pudding! They interview celebrities in the second half — actors, authors, Yo-Yo Ma (as one does) — about food and its role in their lives and work. From the first episode about beans to the two-part series on prepping a pared-down Thanksgiving dinner, there’s tons of useful kitchen advice to be gleaned, and just listening feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket with a bowl of soup on a cold day. It’s comfort food for your ears. – AM
(Three Uncanny Four/HyperObject Industries)
“This will be a short-lived podcast,” cohost Kumail Nanjiani says in the first episode of Staying In with Emily & Kumail, which was released on March 19th. “Just while we’re in this weird self-quarantine, social isolation period.” And for the first three months of lockdown, they kept their word, with Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, putting out weekly episodes, helping listeners navigate (or at least stay entertained during) the era they call “the weirds.” For anyone who was a fan of their relationship-origin story The Big Sick, this podcast is a fresh and self-deprecating take on all aspects of pop-culture. And just in case you weren’t sold yet, profits from the podcast go to help people affected by Covid-19. – EGP
Comedian Mike Birbiglia has been making the most of his halted 2020 stand-up tour with live-streamed ticketed events, a smattering of outdoor, distanced performances over the summer and his first podcast, Working It Out. The concept began as an Instagram Live series where Birbiglia and guests told jokes and chatted, encouraging viewers to donate money to shuttered comedy clubs across the country. Working It Out still invites on a comedian each episode, but it is more structured, with prompts from Birbiglia to generate conversation and maybe even some new material. It’s not the radio-verse’s slickest production quality and guests can be hit or miss, but when they hit — like SNL’s Bowen Yang — it’s superlative, and when they miss, it’s still two smart comics nerding out about their craft, and the shockingly prolific Birbiglia always has some good bits prepared to fill the space. – AM
In the 1980s, on the outskirts of Chicago, there was a nascent scene that was coming up alongside punk. It adopted some of its style — shaved heads, steel-toed boots — and twisted a subculture based around obscure music into a rallying cry for race war. Three decades later, as we face another Neo-Nazi youth movement, class and WBEZ race reporter Odette Yousef delves into how the violent, racist subculture of Nazi skinheads pushed new life into a dying white supremacist movement. Throughout the eight-part show, she talks to everyone from researchers to former leaders of the movement, she asks difficult questions like, can a one-time Nazi ever really be a voice of change? – EGP
For two years, actor Paul Scheer and critic Amy Nicholson worked their way through the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies List (2007 edition), spending an hour-plus on each film. They described it, contextualized it, pondered it, and even brought in people who worked on it or studied it to discuss it. Then they asked themselves (and their large, vocal fanbase) whether the film should stay on the AFI list, or be booted. In the end, they posted a list of the Top 40 films of the API, or Amy and Paul Institute. (Don’t worry, Citizen Kane is still number one.) For season two, they took a similar approach — wildly entertaining conversations about really great movies — but started building a new list from scratch. Each mini-season — with titles like “Fucked Up Family Films” and “Back to School” — consists of a handful of episodes that explore a certain theme. Now they can revisit older films that didn’t make the cut in 2007 (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Frankenstein) as well as modern classics like Dazed and Confused that weren’t even considered. In the end, they plan to collect their all-time top 100 movies (some from the first season, some from this one) and shoot them into space — if only SpaceX will call them. – EGP
(Serial, the New York Times)
Can you convince those holding too much power to relinquish some of it? The issue pervades systemic inequality, and it’s particularly pointed when it involves the fates of people’s kids. In Nice White Parents, host Chana Joffe-Walt uses one majority black, Latino, and Middle Eastern Brooklyn school to illustrate the infuriating persistence of de facto segregation in the American public school system. In the first episode, a white dad who is a professional fundraiser hijacks the PTA’s more modest efforts to throw a full-blown gala, bent on starting a French program to lure more white parents to the school. In public schools, these families hold disproportionate sway. Funding and resources follow them, and throughout decades of the history of this school, even the white parents who have made strides toward integration and equality, have, when it comes down to it, eventually made the choices that most benefit their own children, oftentimes at the expense of the greater good. The issue could not be thornier or more urgent. Recently announced as a forthcoming HBO series, Nice White Parents will give you plenty to think and talk about in the search for a better way forward. – AM
Originating in Reddit’s horror-heavy No Sleep forum, Borrasca is a fictional podcast about a boy who moves to a small Ozarks town plagued by disappearances — and a mysterious grinding noise from the hills. Starring and produced by Riverdale‘s Cole Sprouse, the story was written by Rebecca Klingel, who also wrote for Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. Expert storytelling, acting, and production all combine here to create a truly engaging aural story full of twists, turns, and drama. – Brenna Ehrlich
(The New York Times)
There’s a concept that New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roost calls “machine drift.” When you find yourself thinking something — or listening to something, or watching something — not because you made the decision to do it, but because it was recommended by an algorithm. “Often, I have a hard time telling where the internet stops and my personality starts,” he wrote in April, in an announcement for his new podcast Rabbit Hole, which delves into the question: What is the internet doing to humanity? He starts by looking at the first social-media megastar, Pew Dee Pie, and works his way up through Q-Anon. This could have been a simple rundown, but this being the New York Times — and Roost being a thoughtful and curious guide — the listener comes away with a deeper understanding of the of the internet, not just how it’s polarizing our culture, but how individuals become radicalized. -EGP
Actor and comedian Connor Ratliff purports to be investigating why he was fired by Tom Hanks from his first big break, Band of Brothers, in 2001. But he already knows the main reason: it’s because Hanks thought he had “dead eyes.” It’s a story Ratliff clearly loves retelling. What a brutal reason to be fired by Hollywood’s most beloved actor! And at the very beginning of his career.
Part of what makes the 15-episode (and counting) podcast work, however, is Ratliff sticks to the mission. It’s a sendup of an investigative podcast, but he really does dig into the history of the firing, reaching out to casting directors to talk about how a scenario like this could happen, finding the old script to see if it could have revealed deadness in his eyes, and even connecting with the actor who replaced him on the project, who gets a real kick out of the whole thing. Most entertaining, he speaks to fellow actor friends, from The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden to John Hamm about the ups and downs of their own careers as foils of his own experience. As Ratliff gathers thread on this low-stakes mystery, the podcast turns into an insightful and sometimes juicy series about the world of acting, the trials of growing in a career, and the slipperiness of memory. – AM
In the 1980s, David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a statehouse legislator in Louisiana ran for the U.S. Senate and for governor. He didn’t win, but the fact that he was a major contender was itself a reckoning for the state. For the fourth installment of this Slate stalwart, host and Louisiana native Josh Levin delves into the story of how a smooth-talking man put a slick sheen on white supremacy — and convince the electorate to follow. – EGP
(Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media, Spotify)
What if it turned out your favorite song was actually a piece of government propaganda? Listen along with the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe as he explores a tantalizing tip he received that the Scorpions’ 1990 hit “Wind of Change” was composed by the CIA to help defeat the Soviet Union. Vacillating between debunking and chasing a conspiracy theory, Keefe interviews musicians and their fans, historians, and ex-CIA spooks. He even confronts the possibility that he might be unwittingly spreading CIA propaganda himself. After all, the agency might like it if people thought they were behind a popular power ballad. Part spy caper, part Cold War-era music history lesson, Wind of Change is the perfect high-quality escapism we needed in 2020. – AM
It almost doesn’t matter what You Must Remember This creator and host Karina Longworth picks for her seasons — Joan Crawford, the Blacklist, Charles Manson’s so-called family — from the moment you hear Ingrid Bergman humming the opening sounds of the song from Casablanca, you’re sucked into Longworth’s mysterious world of old Hollywood. This year, the film historian and critic took a deep look into the life of Polly Platt, a director and producer who helped mentor some of the biggest voices of late-Twentieth century cinema, like Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe. Since her death in 2011, she has been mainly remembered as the ex-wife of auteur Peter Bogdanovich, who left her for Cybill Shepherd during the filming of The Last Picture Show. But Longworth uncovers a much more interesting story of a woman who helped shape Hollywood. In this season, Longworth does what she does best — going back in time to discover the “secret and/or forgotten histories” of Hollywood’s past. – EGP
Jill Lepore has never really been just one thing — New Yorker feature writer, Harvard historian, world’s foremost expert on Wonder Woman. Now add to that list producer of a 1930s-style radio drama about the death of truth. In this 10-part series, she looks at a few key moments in history — from the creation of modern investigative techniques, to lie detectors, to vaccines, to the internet — to discover what happened to it. Throughout the episodes, Lepore brings her warm curiosity and natural urge to educate, making for a great podcast experience. – EGP