Storytelling through podcasts can be as compelling as any great book. The medium is hardly new, but the popularity of podcasts has led to better quality, sound design, journalism and even crime solving. There is literally something for everyone in the podcast world. It’s as intimate and personable as great radio used to be. These 10 series will make you want to put everything else on hold until you finish.
1. Catch And Kill
Ronan Farrow’s companion to his best selling book on Harvey Weinstein is a thrilling 10-episode series. You’ll get the backstories on Farrow’s excellent reporting on what broke open the Me Too Movement. The opening episode is a chilling interview with Igor Ostrovskiy from Black Cube, assigned to spy on Farrow on behalf of Weinstein. Conversations with sexual assault victims Rose McGowan and Ambra Gutierrez and are candid and raw. You’ll also hear from his longtime TV producer Rich McHugh. He quit NBC because they were covering up stories of sexual assault. Farrow’s interview style is relaxed and personable so he makes really tough subjects palatable. Catch and Kill
goes deep into the dark side of media and power.
2. Gangster Capitalism
Two spectacular seasons uncover corporate corruption in America. First, host and journalist Andrew Janks takes us through Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions scandal. Audio and transcripts of the rich and famous (Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin) make it all the more eye-opening. The series also explores racial injustices in college admissions and how the rich can buy their way in and out of anything. Season 2 tackles the corruption of the NRA and the civil war revolving around President Wayne LaPierre. Jenks breaks down the complicated and now divisive partnership with their long time advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen. They were the architects that reshaped the organization from a group of gun enthusiasts to a political force. The stories or corruption, backstabbing, sexual harassment and lawsuits are simply jaw dropping. This spring, Season 3 will take on Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University.
3. Dolly Parton’s America
No matter your race, religion, political affiliation, gay, straight, urban or rural, everyone loves Dolly. Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee from WNYC explore the reasons why. Although Parton has consistently stayed out of politics and social issues, she’s always been outspoken in her lyrics. From women in the workforce to teen pregnancy, you just have to listen. The most moving moments are between Parton and host Jad’s father Dr. Naji Abumrad. He’s her longtime physician and friend and the inspiration for this series. The interview links how from Lebanon to Tennessee, everyone can find a way to connect to the idea of Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home. Dolly Parton’s America
explores racism, sexism, celebrity culture and all things uniquely Parton. It’s wonderful.
4. I Am Not A Monster
This fairly new series from British investigative journalist and filmmaker Josh Baker follows the story of Sam Sally (aka Sam Elhassani), an American woman who allegedly joins ISIS. It starts with the audio of her 10-year-old son who seems to be coached on how to carry out a suicide bombing. This jarring and uncomfortable video becomes worldwide news and makes you wonder, how did this happen? Why would a mother do this to her kids and family? Josh travels to Syria and Iraq in impossibly dangerous situations to find answers. All while keeping in touch with her family in Indiana who seem to be perplexed by the entire scenario. Without giving too much away, Sam holds a lot of secrets—some revealed and some still being pulled out while she sits in jail.
5. Chameleon, The Hollywood Con Queen
Chameleon tells the story of people who thought they were getting a lucrative film job but instead taken on a wild ride to hell. The Con Queen was able to make people believe they were a dealmaker, hiring people to do various jobs. Prominent people in the industry were being impersonated to offer opportunities and victims bought into it. Make-up artists, personal trainers, actors and writers were part of the scam. They all had a similar story which was exposed on social media. It caught the attention of journalists Josh Dean and Vanessa Grigoriadis who unravel a twisty, turny situation that comes together through listener tips and extensive research. Who is the con queen? You will be shocked with what they learned.
This is a complicated, maddening look at what really happened through Hurricane Katrina. The Atlantic
’s Vann R. Newkirk II dissects the racial inequity in the aftermath of this powerful storm. The true stories told by the victims will leave you frustrated, sad and angry. Although this took place 20 years ago, the injustices are relevant and echo similar themes today. The most fascinating interview is from disgraced former FEMA chief Michael Brown—a.k.a. “heck of a job Brownie”. The conversation is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. There’s a lot to be learned from the stories of New Orleans spoken by the people who lived it. This series is simply brilliant.
7. Uncover NXIVM
There have been other movies and podcasts about the NXIVM sex cult, but this one from the CBC is a great place to start. Journalist Josh Bloch runs into his old friend Sarah Edmunson and says “How have you been” and she replies “I just escaped a sex cult”. She agrees to do an interview and goes on to tell how she got sucked in. She then ultimately exposed founder Keith Raniere. Since Edmunson recruited so many people into NXIVM, it’s easy to have conflicting feelings about her. But she’s honest and raw about the situation. You’ll be blown away from the tales from the people who survived this cult.
8. Rabbit Hole
New York Times
tech journalist Kevin Roose takes you on YouTube journey mapping out how the platform influences news and culture. It starts by showing how viewers get radicalized by content being served to them. From Qanon to cats: how do people find these videos? Why do they stay? How will companies like this be regulated? Are they doing enough? The ramifications can be damaging. The series showcases YouTube stars, trends and what’s next in big tech. Honorable mention to the fantastic sound design on this podcast. It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
9. Louder Than A Riot
NPR’s Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden break down how hip hop and incarceration intersect. There are a few mini sections within the 10-episode series—from the story of Nipsey Hussle’s murder and incarcerated emerging hip-hop star Bobby Schmurda to extensive interviews with Rapper Activist Killer Mike on the state of politics today. It shines a light on how song lyrics can unfairly taint criminal trials and racial inequity and bias for these artists. Special note on the episode about artist/rapper Isis Tha Savior. Her heartbreaking story about giving birth in prison will haunt you for days. But you will be inspired by how she overcomes.
10. Even The Rich
It’s hard not to love the trials and tribulations of rich and famous families, especially when they’re flawed. If you want to escape from current affairs and don’t want to think too hard, rely on Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams. They cover famous and infamous families in a hilarious and well-researched way. They talk about the Royal family—the real life Succession story—plus the Murdochs, Beyonce and Jay Z, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and more. They’re constantly coming up with new families so the juicy details never seem to end. The latest family is the Kardashians—because of course it is.
Mara Davis is a media personality based in Atlanta, Ga. In addition to hosting the VoteHer podcast with Senator Jen Jordan, she also is a senior talent booker for various television networks and podcasts.