From the true story at the heart of Netflix’s The Crown to conversations between inanimate objects, 2020 provided a lot of material for podcasts.
We asked members of WBEZ’s podcast team — including the people behind Curious City, Motive, Nerdette Recaps and others — to name the podcasts they relied on over the past 12 months. Below are some of their picks.
For horror fans: Radio Rental
From the team that brought you Atlanta Monster and Up and Vanished, Radio Rental is a semi-scripted show featuring the true stories of real people who found themselves in a waking nightmare. From a college student’s brush with a notorious serial killer to inexplicable encounters with the paranormal, this show is sure to keep you up at night.
“In a year where we could all use some escapism, Radio Rental was a great source for true scary and weird stories,” said Colin McNulty, Senior Producer of the third season of WBEZ’s Motive. “The concept, pacing and story structure are super well done.”
For pop culture junkies: You’re Wrong About
You’re Wrong About is hosted by two “obvious friends,” according to Jill Hopkins, host of Making Beyoncé and Vocalo’s Jill Afternoons. Each week, writer Sarah Marshall and Huffington Post reporter Michael Hobbes do a deep dive into a juicy topic from pop culture history. Anything from Koko the talking gorilla to the rise and fall of Jessica Simpson to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
“They take misremembered or poorly taught history and tell us what actually happened,” Hopkins said. “The arc on Princess Di’s life and death was the perfect companion to a binged fourth season of The Crown.”
For refreshing takes on today’s news: The New Abnormal
The New Abnormal is a twice-weekly variety show from two editors at The Daily Beast, Rick Wilson and Molly Jong-Fast. Launched amid America’s first COVID-19 surge, the show is a refreshing and often irreverent take on the latest fiascos to consume our frantic news cycle.
“Political operative Rick Wilson actually knows some inside dope, and co-host Molly Jong-Fast seems to know everybody,” said Peter Sagal, host of Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and Nerdette Recaps with Peter Sagal. “It has an array of guests unmatched in the genre, and in conversation with Molly they get to talk like real human beings.”
For grownups who still crave storytime: LeVar Burton Reads
Remember the magic of Reading Rainbow? Well, its host, Star Trek and Roots actor LeVar Burton, has once again lent his warm and familiar voice to a storytelling show. In each episode, Burton reads a piece of short fiction, accompanied only by a bit of subtle sound design and scoring. The simple episodes transport listeners into mystery investigations and fantasy quests, science fiction worlds and comedic jaunts.
“In a year filled with chaos, this podcast provides all the comforts of childhood story time – only for grownups,” said Jenn White, who recently left her role as the host of WBEZ’s Reset for a new role as the national host of 1A. “LeVar Burton’s choice of stories, skill as a performer and insights into each tale makes this podcast the perfect listen for challenging times.”
For documentary lovers: Floodlines
Floodlines is a gripping examination of the lead up to and fallout from Hurricane Katrina, as experienced by four New Orleanians who stayed in the city through the storm and are still living with its aftermath. This sonically rich eight-part series features an original soundtrack by New Orleans composer Christian Scott.
“Perhaps not the most uplifting listen during this difficult year,” said Kevin Dawson, who oversees WBEZ’s podcast team, “but it felt timely, with systemic racism at the core of the story.”
“The experiences of those interviewed were contrasted with how the story was told in the national media at the time,” Dawson said. “It is a podcast about what really happened, set alongside a false media portrayal and deep-rooted government failures. A story for our time.”
For the inexhaustible news junkie: EU Confidential
EU Confidential provides weekly news coverage for those looking to stay informed and up to date on global events. Produced by Politico EU, it is a heavily reported and digestible window into European policy, international news, and more.
Alexandra Salomon, current editor of Curious City and previously of Worldview, eats the show up.
“While the world has been connected in a kind of unprecedented way through this shared lived experience of the coronavirus pandemic, I found myself eager to hear how the rest of the world was approaching the virus.,” Saloman said.
“It’s a great way to get a nice fix on what is happening outside the United States,” she added. “Plus, it’s hosted by Andrew Gray, and I never get tired of a Scottish accent.”
For those who like their comedy to be a bit philosophical: 7 Deadly Sins
Fair warning: this series contains coarse language … among other things.
In 7 Deadly Sins, British actor and comedian Stephen Fry takes on the seven deadly sins one by one, offering historical anecdotes, hilarious ruminations, and some refreshingly frank discussions.
“This show is beautifully simple,” said Curious City producer Steven Jackson. “But that’s just the frame that allows Fry to expound on history and politics and philosophy and art and … anything he feels like talking about I suppose. If your first reaction is ‘Ugh, audio think pieces!’ I get it. But give it a try. Fry has a big nerdy brain and a magnificent heart and he’s worth a listen.”
For history buffs who miss hair metal: Wind of Change
Was “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions — a power ballad that marked the end of the Cold War — really the work of the CIA?
That’s the question at the heart of this offbeat series from New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe. It follows Keefe’s investigation into a tip about the origins of the 1990 heavy metal hit, unpacking espionage tactics and revealing government secrets along the way.
Brendan Banaszak, WBEZ’s executive producer of podcasts, calls it “a fascinating journey through spy craft and hair metal nostalgia.”
For anyone wondering if their mirror can talk: Everything Is Alive
Everything Is Alive, from Radiotopia, is an original interview show in which all the subjects are inanimate objects. Guests include a $10 bill, a mirror, a tattoo and a song.
“If I’m honest, it was the only thing I could stomach last spring,” said Candace Mittel-Kahn, producer and host of season two of WBEZ’s Motive. “I found myself laughing out loud, but also thinking deeply about the world as Lillian the song ponders what makes a word a word, or Alex the mirror questions her identity.”
Season three released back in March, just in time to provide the perfect antidote to 2020 blues.