The 35 Best Podcasts of 2022
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Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2022” coverage here.
Widespread remote work may have changed where people listened to podcasts, but many are back to their prior routines and hitting “Play” like it’s 2019. Fittingly, certain trends from yesteryear have stuck around for this resurgence: The audio space is still packed with true crime, which is often entertaining yet rarely remarkable. Shows about right-wing extremists and conspiracy theories are still popular. (Now, though, we’re finally hearing about the left’s fringe, too.) But a lot of what’s emerging in 2022 seems to be a rebuttal to two years of vegetation.
Dating shows have guests who are meeting in person again, and the latest podcasts are heavy on the fieldwork. Makers went back out into the world; some revisited their hometowns, some headed abroad, and others journeyed through ungoverned waters. We also observed the inverse of travel—burrowing deeper into one’s own headspace. Podcast hosts read poetry or, like so many people, came to terms with sorrow and grief, both private and shared. One thing remained constant: The best material we heard subverted popular tendencies or flat out surprised us.
This list contains 35 podcasts, not our usual 50 from years past. The audio space has become so creative and crowded that the bar for a standout entry has necessarily gotten higher. We’ve chosen only the podcasts that managed to cut through the noise, slide into our heads, and stay there. (As in prior years, we’re recusing ourselves from ranking any Atlantic content.) These shows don’t gawk at tragedies so the audience can rubberneck along. They don’t merely recap movies or shows or current events. Instead, they provide as much inspiration as they do provocation. We offer them as a balm for loneliness, a call to adventure, and a blueprint for the future of the art form.
35. My Unlived Life
Where book lovers’ and arm-chair psychologists’ interests intersect, you’ll find My Unlived Life. According to the host Miriam Robinson, life is made up of small choices—you could’ve gone left but you went right, and so on. She invites guests to pinpoint one such decision and imagine, step by step, what life would’ve been like if they’d gone down the other path. They consider big choices such as having children or moving to New York, but also more seemingly mundane ones, such as attending a pool party or auditioning for a play. Hearing these guests, many of them writers, reimagine their own story in real time will inevitably inspire listeners to reflect on their own what-ifs and forks in the road. But instead of the worry that can often accompany such rumination, Robinson and her guests arrive somewhere closer to catharsis. Yes, life could be different, but you’re always on a road that leads to yourself.
Gateway Episode: “Irenosen Okojie”
34. My Mother Made Me
Part golden memory, part real-time conversation, My Mother Made Me is Jason Reynolds’s collage-style ode to his alive-and-well mother, Isabell. (He jokes that she forced him to make the podcast—hence, the title.) Sifting through their shared past, he contemplates his relationship to not only his mom but also life in general. The topics can get heavy: He ruminates on his mother’s scare with cancer, his brother’s alcoholism, and his grandfather’s gambling. Yet this audio diary relies on lyricism and the joy of wordplay, which makes listening a unique pleasure. My Mother Made Me may approach even its most serious themes with a gentle beauty, but underneath its velvet touch is hard-earned wisdom.
Gateway Episode: “I Can Do Anything”
33. Can I Tell You a Secret?
Not long after Facebook arrived in Northwich, England, Matthew Hardy started stirring up conflict. He assumed fake but plausible identities on the platform, then messaged people that their boyfriend or parents were cheaters. He commented on what people were doing or wearing in real time and escalated his behavior to sexual harassment. His schemes made for one of the most extreme cases of cyberstalking that a Google search will retrieve. One could argue that the most compelling part of Can I Tell You a Secret? is its horrifically juicy fare. But in the hands of the host and Guardian reporter Sirin Kale, the show also provides a clear-eyed analysis of modern-day stalking, the damage that can be caused without any laws being broken, and the ways in which a nonviolent person can still cause physical harm. Can I Tell You a Secret? leans slightly into salaciousness, but only enough to pose important questions about how far the legal consequences of a virtual crime should go.
Gateway Episode: “The Beginning”
32. Til This Day
For his playful conversations with prominent artists, thinkers, and comedians, Radio Rahim adopts a format inspired by his career as a boxing journalist. Rather than spanning a single episode, each interview is broken up into three chapters. That structure riffs off three-round bouts but also mirrors the gradual way we tend to get to know people in real life. Auto-Tuned voices, music, and sound effects dramatize key moments. Rosie Perez’s voice is made to echo as she recalls the intensity of working 12-hour days while choreographing In Living Color, and heavy-metal music and crowd noise kick in while Jon Stewart explains the terror of a mosh pit. Rahim also had a tête-à-tête with Bob Saget: The interview, recorded in 2021, was published shortly after the comedian died, and it serves as the perfect homage to a beloved American figure. Rahim is an agile and clever host, always ready with a follow-up question that hits the mark.
Gateway Episode: “Michael Che: Ch 1”
31. Réunion: Shark Attacks in Paradise
This show takes listeners to Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean that saw an alarming rise in violent shark encounters in 2011. The resulting beach shutdowns affected tourists, surfers, and business owners, not to mention local politics. The host, Daniel Duane, mostly interviews the island’s residents and discusses patterns in shark encounters—the surface-level stuff listeners might expect for a shark-attack show. But the podcast ventures deeper too: One surfer legally hunted and killed a shark, which sparked outrage from other surfers. Another gives a play by play of how a bull shark bit his leg off and of the unexpected relief that came when it finally did. Duane shows how the increased presence of sharks is a symptom of bigger issues and a problem in its own right while also depicting how many surfers have to play mind games with themselves in order to keep doing what they love.
Gateway Episode: “Bienvenue au Paradis”
30. School Colors
Some call the borough of Queens the most diverse place in the world, and yet its schools aren’t integrated. This podcast’s second season tracks the implementation of a “diversity plan” for District 28, only no one will tell the parents what the plan actually is. Recorded in 2019 during a packed school-board meeting, the first scene will disabuse listeners of idealized notions about modern integration in the classroom. To understand the racial dynamics, the hosts Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman offer a history of the community going back more than 100 years. Additionally, comments by former Mayor Ed Koch and ex-Governor Mario Cuomo (made prior to their election to those positions) reveal how high-level politicians bowed to pressure from white constituents. Very little has changed since then, except that maybe the language of discrimination has gotten gentler. In a time when conspiracy theories about what powerful people do behind closed doors run rampant, here is an account of colossal American dysfunction hiding in plain sight.
Gateway Episode: “There Is No Plan”
29. Case 63
Case 63 (played by Oscar Isaac) is a psychiatric patient who claims he’s from the year 2062 and has come back to save the world from the latest lethal virus. He tells his psychiatrist, Eliza Knight (Julianne Moore), that after 2020, the world will go through many rounds of lockdowns and vaccinations, that people will grow more distrustful of one another and institutions, and eventually, a new disease will kill anyone who doesn’t take extreme caution. Case 63 is the perfect binge at under two hours total, which is about the right amount of time to sit with this brand of existential fear. Each plot twist bends the mind just enough to remind listeners that the show is science fiction, not prophecy (or is it?). Julio Rojas’s exquisite writing, adapted for English by Mara Vélez Meléndez, transforms fuzzy pandemic anxieties into crystalline conclusions.
Gateway Episode: “The Story I Grew Up With”
28. Welcome to Paradise
Anna Maria Tremonti is a broadcast journalist who’s covered conflict zones so dangerous that she had to write her blood type above her heart just in case. She posits that she was drawn to reporting on violence toward women because of the physically abusive marriage she survived and kept mostly secret for decades. Now, with the help of her therapist, she’s telling her story publicly. She sets the stage for Welcome to Paradise with: “Maybe we all travel towards hell and are fooled, lulled by pockets of paradise along the way.” Tremonti grapples, episode by episode, with how she became part of a statistic—one-third of women worldwide experience physical violence, many from a partner—and with her feelings of shame. Considering how rarely women discuss their own experiences of intimate-partner violence in public, Welcome to Paradise is an urgent roadmap, as moving as it is brave.
Gateway Episode: “One of Those People You Hear About”
27. Not Lost
Before the pandemic, the radio host Brendan Francis Newnam decided he needed new “creative meaning” and a dramatic change of scene. The result is the freewheeling travel podcast Not Lost, a series about communing with others—and living in your own skin—when you’re away from home. In each episode, Newnam is joined by a friend; his most frequent guest is the TV writer Danielle Henderson. They plan typical tourist activities, such as dance lessons in Mexico City, but the subsequent conversations take unexpected, introspective turns. (For example, Henderson says she’s too tall to dance, prompting both of them to chat about their bodies and abilities.) At every location, Newnam attempts to get invited to a dinner party by someone he has just met. That conceit pays off wonderfully, forcing him to win over strangers, at the risk of rejection. During a Valentine’s Day trip to Las Vegas in 2020, just before COVID shut down production, the dialogue frequently turned to not just love but also the meaning of being alone—an omen of things to come. Not Lost vividly captures the highs of travel as well as the longing and self-examination that come with exploring foreign territory.
Gateway Episode: “New Orleans: Anybody’s Gumbo”
26. Borderline Salty
Borderline Salty packs a lifetime of cooking into tidy 30-minute episodes. The hosts Carla Lalli Music and Rick Martinez field questions from listeners, usually regarding anxieties about foods and intimidating techniques (one listener asks about cleaning mussels, another about how to choose the best spicy-sweet dessert). At-home chefs will feel encouraged to take risks and create, because Music and Martinez are utterly committed to the inquiries. The hosts have a supernatural ability to bring meals to life with their words, a skill they probably perfected while working for Bon Appétit. Martinez describes a decadent refried-beans-with-chicharrónes dish as “pork on top of pork, on top of more pork, on top of lard.” Music describes cooking over medium heat and “listening to the fat sizzle on the coals, and the smoke in my hair.” Listening to them is a sumptuous experience; Borderline Salty is a feast of superior kitchen wisdom.
Gateway Episode: “Like a Kiss From a Chile”
25. Women’s Work
The reporter Ashley Ahearn takes listeners out West, introducing a round-up of ranching innovators, all of whom are women. Ahearn visits six states and covers the many sides of this business—the ecological, the financial—but her exploration of the land’s inherently contentious history makes the show a standout. Each episode begins with someone acknowledging the tribes that represent the ancestral land on which the show was produced. In one, someone rightly points out that many techniques described today as revolutionary have been used by Native Americans for millennia. And though a major conclusion of the show has to do with the current lack of creativity in the food system, Women’s Work delves so deep into its subject that nothing is left to the imagination.
Gateway Episode: “Waiting for Babette”
24. Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade
The repeal of Roe v. Wade demolished nearly 50 years of constitutional protections for a woman’s right to choose. This season of Slow Burn explores the judicial battles that culminated in the 1973 precedent. Revisiting this material today, when restrictive laws are back on the books, may seem like agony. However, this history—of the people who fought in court and won—demands attention. The podcast begins in the early 1970s, when the state of Florida prosecuted a woman named Shirley Wheeler for manslaughter for having an abortion. From there, the story expands out, to President Richard Nixon’s cynical propagandizing of the fetus for the sake of votes, and to the Connecticut activists whose case, Abele v. Markle, was studied by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun before his majority opinion for Roe. Women are still treated as pawns in political games; Slow Burn gives us hope that we’ll restore federal protections.
Gateway Episode: “Get Married or Go Home”
23. Uncared For
A former reporter for MTV News, the host SuChin Pak is now a mother of two and podcaster. In Uncared For, she analyzes health care for pregnant people in the United States, where carrying to term, especially for Black people, has greater risks than it does in any other wealthy country. Pak kicks off the series by discussing with her postpartum doula the ways in which the American medical system disempowers pregnant people and how a lack of confidence, support, and trust can lead to dire consequences. In light of these realities, the show mindfully argues—via anecdotes, expert interviews, and plenty of statistics—that when pregnant people are centered, instead of the fetus, everyone benefits. We learn about how, in Germany, every pregnant person has the legal right to a midwife and how Dutch providers treat pregnant people as experts in their own body. Uncared For takes this last idea seriously, showing again and again that nobody knows your body better than you.
Gateway Episode: “America the Outlier”
Buffy may be the most famous folk singer you’ve never heard of. This show argues that her relative obscurity, despite her many cultural contributions, may be a result of blacklisting by radio stations and industry executives. Alongside the Mohawk and Tuscarora host Falen Johnson, Buffy tells much of her own story—how she grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in Massachusetts, reconnected with her Cree heritage, and came up in the 1960s alongside Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. She was the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar. She brought Indigenous programming to Sesame Street. Elvis Presley, Barbara Striesand, and Cher covered one of her songs. But the show’s main draw is telling the story of how Buffy, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, maneuvered for future generations. Her extraordinary legacy as a consummate protester offers a guide for Native Americans seeking to reclaim power.
Gateway Episode: “Javex, USA”
21. Normal Gossip
Pushing “Play” on Normal Gossip is like entering another world. In each episode, the host Kelsey McKinney shares a story that’s been submitted to her for discussion. Real names are scrubbed. Facts are unchecked. Though normal is in the title, many of the tales are scintillating. McKinney begins by chatting with a guest about their relationship to gossip, and why it matters to both of them. As the journalist Sam Sanders memorably quips, “It is a way for the powerless to have power.” The show perfectly re-creates how people gossip; McKinney dispenses plot points for dramatic effect but also adds some flourishes, such as choose-your-own-adventure-style questions. This series seeks to formalize the art of gossip, giving it the respect it deserves, tantalizing events notwithstanding.
Gateway Episode: “Spot the Scammer With Claire Fallon and Emma Gray”
20. We Were Three
Soon after the writer Rachel McKibbens, her husband, and children—all vaccinated—came down with COVID, she lost her father and brother—both unvaccinated—to the disease. At the time, she was estranged from the two of them because of their staunchly different views on medical treatments. Still, McKibbens struggled with the fact that COVID had destroyed her family. The veteran podcaster Nancy Updike and McKibbens explore this fraught divide, and the deaths of otherwise healthy people. By looking at a fascinating archive of text messages from the phone of McKibbens’s brother, We Were Three offers a taxonomy of the polarizing, sometimes fatal misinformation surrounding COVID. But the podcast is primarily a family portrait, one that illustrates, by turns, fierce loyalty, violence, love, survival, and something like closure too.
Gateway Episode: “Black Box”
19. Cover Story: Seed Money
The host Hanna Rosin takes listeners to Whitefish, Montana, a stunning town at the base of Glacier National Park, where a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Mike Goguen started a company with his best friend, Matt Marshall, to conduct CIA-style missions. On the surface, Seed Money shows what someone with a superhero complex might do if given the opportunity, and in this way paints a somewhat embarrassing portrait of how billions of dollars can impact the male ego. When it’s revealed that Goguen has been depositing millions into women’s bank accounts around the country, what looks like nefarious power dynamics leads to a case study in what the show describes as “macho drama.” The podcast also uncovers a spectacular crime that, through a wildly entertaining investigation, lands someone in prison. In Seed Money, wealth is a red herring.
Gateway Episode: “Mind Your Own Business”
18. Dear Poetry
As a girl, the reporter Luisa Beck was riveted by Dr. Erich Kastner’s Lyrical Apothecary, a book that sorted poems by ailment. Dear Poetry takes its cues from that work: Luisa and a guest writer prescribe poetry to ease callers’ problems. Cheryl Strayed responds to a question about accepting the evil in the world with “Good Bones,” by Maggie Smith. Someone wondering how to stay connected to an ailing father who has alcoholism and Alzheimer’s is encouraged by Jane Flett to read “Bottom of the Ocean,” by Bob Hicok. Reproductive anxiety, romantic woes, and racial inequity are all treated with poems. Beck kicks off each episode with a lyrical interlude from her own life, and her guest writer reads the literary treatment. Then, they tie the verses to what the caller shared, reminding listeners that poetry has the power to heal. The show is as dreamy and transcendent as it sounds.
Gateway Episode: “Always Near Ends”
17. La última copa/The Last Cup
The soccer megastar Lionel Messi is the focal point of The Last Cup, but the host Jasmine Garsd’s fandom and personal history also underpin much of this saga, which starts with the economic collapse that forced her family out of Argentina. For many, Messi is a peerless goal-scoring machine, but back home, some fans think he is too privileged, too timid, and too European. (He moved to Spain when he was 13.) The series is a brilliant dissection of class, race, culture, and what it means to be an immigrant who idolizes the place where they were born. The Last Cup finds parallels between Garsd and Messi—they were both teenagers who left Argentina in the early 2000s, for instance—and connects both to the political turmoil in which they were raised. This podcast makes a global celebrity seem like the boy next door.
Gateway Episode: “The Goal”
16. Articles of Interest: American Ivy
The creator of Articles of Interest, Avery Trufelman, devotes an entire season to a type of preppy clothing called “Ivy,” and what its history tells us about class, race, and possibly everything we put on our body. Styles are supposed to ebb and flow, yet Ivy doesn’t go away. Though the subject of fashion may be opaque, Trufelman argues that navy blazers and chinos are essential to our understanding of ourselves. She tells two stories: one about the garments themselves—the uniform worn on campuses in the mid-century Ivy League—and another about a Japanese man named Kensuke Ishizu who may have single-handedly made the clothing a fashion staple. Interviews with industry experts, which can sometimes drag down a podcast, are spellbinding here. The stylist and author Jason Jules gives one. When asked by Trufelman about the meaning of cool, he tells her, “Sometimes I wonder if cool isn’t the perception of the outsider who aspires to this thing but can never actually reach it.” The genius of this season of Articles of Interest is that listeners will never look at a pink polo the same way again.
Gateway Episode: “American Ivy: Chapter 1”
15. Mother Country Radicals
In the early 1970s, Bernardine Dohrn was on the FBI’s 10-most-wanted list because of her actions as part of the Weather Underground, a radical group that used violent measures to protest the Vietnam War and the country’s treatment of Black people, among other social issues. She and the other “weathermen,” as they called themselves, believed that as white people, it was their job to stop these injustices, even if it meant resorting to illegal, dangerous tactics and hiding to avoid prison. But Bernardine was a mother too—and her son, Zayd Dohrn, is the host of this show. Mother Country Radicals takes you to the far left, then past it. The series grapples with the impact of bold choices on children and what it means to feel entitled to reproduce—to live freely—despite the consequences.
Gateway Episode: “Chapter 1: The Most Dangerous Woman in America”
14. Missed Fortune
This seven-year epic podcast begins with a riddle about a stash of gold, sapphires, and rubies hidden in the Rockies and one man, Darrell Seyler, who ruined (and redeemed) himself looking for it. The host and journalist Peter Frick-Wright accompanies Seyler to Yellowstone multiple times. On one trip in 2015, you can actually hear Seyler’s delusion, which is partly why, it seems, Frick-Wright decided to stop going into the field with Seyler, at least for a while. But the story doesn’t end until 2022. In Missed Fortune, listeners accompany Seyler and Frick-Wright on their search and as they interpret the nine clues in the riddle, which was designed by a man named Forrest Fenn to get people into nature. The show is full of magic, not to mention pathos when you consider the toll of devoting one’s life to an elusive treasure.
Gateway Episode: “$1 Million”
13. The Sum of Us
The host of The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee, who also wrote a book with the same name, visits a cross section of America, searching for grassroots movements, whether those supporting voting rights for felons in Florida or protesting an oil pipeline under a Black neighborhood in Memphis. Because the show zeroes in on hyperlocal issues, it doubles as an audio travelog capturing regional values and personalities. The common thread of each episode is people coming together across racial lines to solve problems. These partnerships often require soul-searching and radical self-examination, which make for some gripping, if difficult, conversations. A white woman with a job in fast food admits that she used to believe she was better than her Black and Latino coworkers. A Black activist has to tell his white colleagues to stop interrupting him in meetings. The Sum of Us is a treatise on how to engage with people whom you want to persuade, making the age-old argument that all politics are local.
Gateway Episode: “Minden, NV: The Last Sundown Siren”
12. This Is Dating
This Is Dating offers the pleasure of eavesdropping on professional matchmaking. The show’s creators, including the behavioral scientist Logan Ury, determine matches based on personality, after coaching daters on their attachment styles and on avoiding pitfalls such as love bombing. In each episode, the audience listens to a potential couple’s online date, starting with their sometimes sweet, sometimes stilted first hello. The meetups are spliced with the producers’ commentary on subtle moments, such as when a man looks down after being asked out on an in-person date (a pretty good sign that he’s not interested). This Is Dating invites you to join in on the fun of deciphering whether two people are getting along—before you hear what they actually thought of the encounter. Romantic success frequently hinges on how honest the participants are with each other about their needs. The hosts politely nudge the guests—and, indirectly, the listeners at home—toward sharing their authentic selves.
Gateway Episode: “Love Bombing: Khan Date 1”
11. Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s
For more than a century, the U.S. and Canada stole Native American children from their families and placed them in residential or boarding schools under the guise of assimilation and support. But what happened was actually cultural genocide that often included unthinkable abuse—one school used a homemade electric chair for punishment. Surviving St. Michael’s zeroes in on one survivor, the father of the host and investigative journalist Connie Walker, and the intergenerational trauma that resulted from his experiences. Justice is rare, so Walker sets out to find the priest who allegedly abused him, her remit expanding with each episode as she uncovers the scale of atrocities committed at the school. But the care that Walker takes with survivors makes this show exceptional, setting a powerful example for how trauma reporting should be done. Under her watch, victims speak for themselves and perpetrators are named. In the end, it's her and her father’s Cree culture—which the government tried to erase—that saves them.
Gateway Episode: “The Police Officer and the Priest”
10. The Loudest Girl in the World
The Loudest Girl in the World begins by diagramming how the host Lauren Ober’s penchant for talking has manifested throughout her life. She almost constantly asks and answers questions, compulsively shares witticisms and critiques, can’t tolerate silence, and, you guessed it, is extremely loud. At 42, she decided to explore how these tendencies have caused friction in her life. She recorded her journey, starting at about the time she received an autism diagnosis. Ober gets to know herself all over again through the lens of this revelation while opening up to her family and finding support despite the various systems that fail autistic people. She includes a brief history of autism and several expert interviews alongside her still-unfolding personal narrative and infuses everything with an unparalleled level of charm and delight. The show is a hit because Ober also happens to be one of the loveliest people in the world.
Gateway Episode: “Talking: A Love Story”
9. The King of Kowloon
The King of Kowloon is a story of dispossession, that of both the titular artist, born Tsang Tsou-choi, and of the show’s host, the journalist Louisa Lim. Tsang started tagging Hong Kong in the 1950s, using calligraphy-style graffiti to mark land that he claimed Britain had stolen from his family. Lim grew up seeing those markings everywhere and wanted to uncover how the King of Kowloon had gone from being labeled a mentally unwell vandal to becoming a street-art icon. Eight years of reporting led Lim not just to the details of Tsang’s life but to Hong Kong’s complex history as a British colony and then a city with its own system of government. This six-part series explores the cultural impact of that liminal political space, as well as its uniquely high stakes, which are still felt today, not least of all for Lim. Because she criticizes the Chinese government throughout the show, she can likely never return home.
Gateway Episode: “Disappearance”
8. Sorry About the Kid
In 1990, Montreal police sped through an intersection outside a local high school, striking and killing 14-year-old Paul McKinnon. On Sorry About the Kid, his younger brother, Alex McKinnon, grapples with that tragedy by reporting on it and sharing personal narratives as well as on-air sessions with his therapist. Although Alex was 10 at the time of Paul’s death, he has almost no recollection of his brother before the day of the accident. Alex commits to recovering his lost memories and doesn’t shy away from interrogating the details of the killing, including researching the man who drove the cruiser that hit Paul. Yet even that investigation is in service of introspection, not retribution. Featuring forthright interviews with the rest of the McKinnon family and a teary, tender breakthrough, Sorry About the Kid builds a monument to Paul while guiding the host and the audience through a confrontation with buried grief.
Gateway Episode: “Where’s Paul?”
7. In Trust
At face value, you’d think it’d be easy to prove that the United States government has failed Native American people. But In Trust shows that even when this broader history is undisputed, veils of secrecy can still remain. The show delves into the mismanagement of a trust that led to the Osage people losing possession of their mineral rights and Osage County land. The host and reporter Rachel Adams-Heard follows the paper trail left by generations of Drummonds, white settlers whose family today owns the largest square mileage of the land in question. In Trust argues that white guardians and executors who were assigned to look out for Native Americans used price gouging and financial manipulation to take Osage people’s wealth after they died. The tug of war between Drummonds and the Osage people traces all the way to present time: Gentner Drummond is the current attorney general–elect for Oklahoma while Osage Nation is moving for self-determination.
Gateway Episode: “The List”
6. Chameleon: Wild Boys
Wild Boys depicts an encounter between a small town and two mysterious trespassers. In 2003, the brothers Tom and Will Green arrived in picturesque Vernon, British Columbia, looking shaggy and eating lots of fruit. The host Sam Mullins zeroes in on two of the locals who first got to know the odd but polite young men: a woman who cared for them and a cop who didn’t buy their story about growing up in the woods. Listeners will immediately get caught up in the intrigue of multiple plot twists. However, once the timeline flashes forward to the present day, and the point of view changes to the brothers’, the story evolves into something profound as the motivations behind the pair’s duplicitous acts are revealed. The brilliance of Wild Boys is that it shows the manipulative power of perspective.
Gateway Episode: “Arrival”
5. Bone Valley
With Bone Valley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and host Gilbert King endeavors to free an incarcerated man named Leo Schofield, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1989, by proving that someone else committed the crime. More than three years in the making, the show is a true-crime marvel, standing alongside “The Innocent Man,” by Pamela Colloff, in the pantheon of reportage about wrongful convictions. Bone Valley has important things to say about redemption, forgiveness, mental health, child abuse, the failure of criminal justice, prosecutorial misconduct, and the obsession that has consumed Schofield’s defenders (including a sitting judge, who appears in this podcast). But the mystery of who killed Michelle Schofield is the primary fixation. King knows how to paint a picture in your head: of the seedy lovers’-lane crime scene, the dirt roads and trailer parks of Central Florida, the courtroom showdowns—each will enter your mind’s eye with the power and vividness of a great novel.
Gateway Episode: “God Help Us”
4. BEING Trans & BEING Golden
So many podcasts offer people a platform to tell their stories that it may not seem like much of a departure that BEING claims to be “reality TV for your ears”—but it is. Each season follows four people with main-character energy in their everyday lives. There’s no host or narrator, just the protagonists and their communities. We listen as they navigate life while being trans in Season 1 and while being “golden” (a.k.a. older than 60 and chasing their dreams) in Season 2. Listeners tag along for moments that could be considered mundane, and yet the experience is quite extraordinary. Women in both seasons set up dating profiles. A comedian goes to the doctor’s office because he’s been procrastinating for years on getting the right testosterone dosage. A man’s adult son worries about how his father will earn a living, because his acting career doesn’t pay the bills. This is prestige reality, where the plot doesn’t stem from drama but, instead, from the simple passage of time.
Gateway Episode: “Let’s Get This Out of the Way” & “Why Can’t Dreams Happen at 70?,” respectively
3. Death of an Artist
The avant-garde artist Ana Mendieta confronted death in her work—by coating herself in blood, digging graves, lighting things on fire. She died young and under suspicious circumstances, just as her career was taking off. Death of an Artist serves as a retrospective, a reexamination of her untimely demise, and a scathing repudiation of the idea that we can separate the art from the artist. When Mendieta’s body was found in 1985, she had fallen 34 stories from the New York City apartment she shared with her husband, the sculptor Carl Andre. He was acquitted of her murder at trial, but the host Helen Molesworth explores his culpability. She’s a curator who once admired his work, but after Mendieta’s death, the rise of the #MeToo movement, and years of seeing galleries honoring “genius” white men, Molesworth is facing the industry’s shortcomings. Death of an Artist argues that, so often, what the art world is actually promoting is silence.
Gateway Episode: “The Haunting”
2. The Outlaw Ocean
Each episode of The Outlaw Ocean could be its own movie, such is the nature of the high seas and this cinematic show. It kicks off with the host and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ian Urbina telling the story of receiving a 10-minute video of unarmed men being killed at sea while their captors laughed. But the lens opens up in even more dramatic fashion from there—the show isn’t about one bad actor or a single agenda. In “The Dark Fleet,” listeners accompany Urbina aboard a Sea Shepherd vessel with a group of vigilante environmentalists; at one point, you hear them take control of the crew on an illegal fishing ship. The focus shifts each episode, from a boat that takes people out to sea to administer legal abortions to the horrific scale of slavery and human trafficking. The Outlaw Ocean demands that people contemplate the lawlessness of the world’s waters through vivid on-scene reporting, without ever leaving listeners feeling stranded.
Gateway Episode: “The Murder Video”
1. All There Is With Anderson Cooper
In All There Is, Anderson Cooper is sorting through his deceased mother’s home. When he was 10, his father died from a heart attack, and when he was 21, his brother died by suicide, so the task at hand actually involves his entire family’s accumulated belongings. Along the way, he speaks with people who have also experienced extraordinary loss, such as Stephen Colbert and the author Elizabeth Alexander, to help him make sense of it. The interviews are unexpectedly hopeful. They’re also raw. Cooper openly struggles with letting go of a lifetime of mementos that include posthumous notes from his mother and telegrams that Frank Sinatra sent her. The expository writing that weaves the podcast together rivals the best we’ve ever heard. But the real draw is seeing what grief has driven Cooper to question and contemplate. “I need to learn something from all of this … This can’t be all that there is,” he says. We know that Cooper succeeds, because his inquisitive, vulnerable show is proof.
Gateway Episode: “Facing What’s Left Behind”