Brow Beat

The 10 Best Podcast Episodes of 2015

So many choices.

Art by Natalie Matthews

In 2015, which shall forever be known to podcast fans as “Year 1 After Serial,” listeners were overwhelmed with new options. An awesome improv show from Paul F. Tompkins! So many different kinds of chat, from Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour on BuzzFeed to the Grantland alums now settling in at Bill Simmons’ new Channel 33 to Panoply’s own awkwardly titled but wonderful Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race! Documentary, with new network Gimlet now boasting five shows on its roster, and adding more! Creepy, gripping scripted science fiction, from Limetown to The Message! It’s all been a bit much.

Short of putting your phone under your pillow and pioneering sleep-listening techniques, farming out your queue to an army of mind-melded clones, or listening to every show at twice the speed, what’s a devoted fan to do? You have to choose, difficult though it may be. In that spirit, I picked my 10 favorite individual podcast episodes from this year. (I left out Panoply shows, because I find it tough to be impartial about friends and co-workers.)

Below is a stellar collection of downloads not to be missed.

The Longest Shortest Time: The Parent’s Guide to Doing It (WNYC, Jan. 21): This episode of the parenting chat show (which just announced its move from WNYC to Earwolf) hosted by Hillary Frank features sex advice guru Dan Savage and writer Jane Marie, talking about sex after baby (or babies). Because Savage is a parent who adopted a child with a partner, while Jane Marie gave birth to hers, the conversation has an interesting range; emotional and physical obstacles to satisfying parental sex are both explored. This non-parent found the conversation hilarious, as well as occasionally useful for child-free couples who are simply domesticated and tired. (The follow-up to this episode, which was recorded live with guests Twanna Hines and Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, is likewise enlightening.)

Roderick on the Line: It’s Ramifications (Self-distributed, July 9): Followers of this weekly podcast, a “frank and candid” phone call between San Francisco writer Merlin Mann and Seattle musician John Roderick, know to expect rambling conversations on everything from anxiety management to infrastructure. (Infrastructure talk is omnipresent on RotL.) This year, as Roderick conducted a well-received, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a seat on Seattle’s City Council, he waxed analytical about the experience. Starting at the 30-minute mark in this episode, the two podcast partners fall into a painful, emotionally honest conversation about the toll political candidacy can take. It’s a totally natural addition to the show, yet revelatory; where else would you find a candidate in the middle of a campaign who’d be willing to dissect his position in such detail? The dynamic built up over more than 150 episodes really pays off.

This American Life: The Problem We All Live With (PRX, July 31): Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones follows one Missouri district’s struggle to improve its failing schools, exploring the implications of one irrefutable fact: The simple action that can improve the educations of kids from underperforming school districts is integrating them with students from wealthier, usually-white schools. In a moving, and infuriating, sequence, the episode juxtaposes chilling audio from school board meetings, with parents from the nicer school district clamoring against the idea of allowing children from poorer schools to enroll, with an interview with one high-achieving black student struggling to understand her place in her new school.

Death, Sex, and Money: In New Orleans: Big Freedia Bounces Back (WNYC, Aug. 19): The show’s five-part Katrina anniversary series follows one resident’s story in each episode. In the Big Freedia installment, the bounce musician goes back to her youth to recount how she came out to her mother, and then describes being shot in her car, right before Katrina hit. After the storm, Freedia moved away from New Orleans for a few years, before returning to the city with a new sense of commitment to its music scene. The creaking porch swing where Freedia and host Anna Sale are sitting offers a nice audio counterpoint to the story, which is punctuated with Freedia’s exuberant music.

Radiolab: The Rhino Hunter (WNYC, Sept. 7): This episode was surely in production before the news of Cecil the Lion’s death at the hands of a Minnesota dentist broke in July of this year. Lucky for Radiolab: Their meditation on the cultural and emotional meanings of trophy hunting turned out to be quite timely. The major character of the episode is Corey Knowlton, a Texas hunter who paid for a license to kill a black rhinoceros in Namibia. Knowlton is sincerely committed to the idea that hunters actually save endangered wildlife. He’s a charismatic and self-assured interviewee, who espouses a position that many NPR listeners would probably find confusing and wrong-headed. Like the best Radiolabs of late (“American Football” comes to mind), the episode is a rich exploration of a potent and unresolvable point of conflict. 

Do You Like Prince Movies?: The Final Episode (Grantland, Oct. 1): This wrap-up episode of the Grantland pop-culture show featuring critics Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris was taped before the dissolution of Grantland. Morris’ new job at the New York Times prompted the two friends to call it quits, and occasioned a goodbye episode that left this loyal listener feeling a bittersweet kind of love for the show. From the very beginning of the episode, Morris argues that they need to minimize the occasion— “The only way to get through this is to make it not a big deal”—while Pappademas can’t help but reflect on their long friendship. Pop-culture conversations intertwine with memories, making a fitting capstone to the awkwardly-named, yet delightful podcast.  

Another Round: Hillary Clinton (Buzzfeed, Oct. 11): Podcasting broke through some kind of a legitimacy barrier this year: Marc Maron interviewed President Obama, and BuzzFeed’s spring podcasting launch got a huge boost when hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu sat down with Madam Secretary. The two asked Clinton some tough questions about the effects of her husband’s policies during the 1990s (“Regardless of your intent, do you ever look at the state of black America and think ‘Wow, we really fucked this up for black people’?”). They also got Hillary to admit a deep and shocking truth: She is actually a robot constructed in a garage in Palo Alto. All in all, good humor prevailed, and Another Round, new on the scene this year, cemented its place as a must-listen for people who like interesting conversation. 

Reply All: Shine On You Crazy Goldman (Gimlet, Nov. 5): Many Reply All eps from this year could easily be on this list (“@ISIS”; “The Fever”; the nothing-happens-yet-it’s-utterly-charming romp “Today’s the Day”). This episode combines some of the best qualities of its worthy counterparts. “Shine On” looks at an interesting corner of the Internet: a website where really tripped-out people connect with counselors who will help them calm down. It then moves on to the bulk of the episode, which is reported from the personal perspective that’s a hallmark of the show. Along with another co-worker, host P.J. Vogt tries microdosing himself with LSD, to see if he can become kinder and less impatient with those around him. The answer: Yes, sometimes; other times he sounds utterly manic.

StartUp: Words About Words From Our Sponsors (Gimlet, Nov. 19): Why should people who don’t work in media care about whether or not corporate sponsors are allowed to directly fund, or have editorial control, over content?  In this episode, the shoptalk show that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of podcasting network Gimlet Media tackles sponsored content. The episode takes listeners through an awkward phone call with a potential sponsor, and many conversations between leaders at Gimlet who disagree about where, exactly, to draw the line. It’s meta, to be sure, but the episode eventually arrives at the realization that the stakes of these types of decisions are highly emotional: “These fights, deep down, are often about fear or respect, or both,” host Alex Blumberg says. “In times of stress it became possible to see the other’s priorities as a sign of disrespect.”

Ronna & Beverly: Two Bevs Don’t Make a Right (Earwolf, Nov. 20): This sui generis show is hosted by comedians Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo, who assume the personas of two fiftysomething Jewish best friends from Marblehead, Massachusetts. The conceit is delightful: Ronna (Chaffin) is an intelligent, fastidious woman with a taste for the finer things in life, while Beverly (Denbo) is a gonzo whirlwind. Sure, the two banter with each other and interview guests, but the similarity between this show and staples like Maron or Nerdist stops there. Ronna and Beverly harass their interviewees, asking extremely blunt questions (Ronna) and eating in front of the microphone, groaning periodically, and interrupting with left-field comments (Bev). This forces the guest to decide whether she will go along with the bit. The show’s at its best when real improvisers drop by to visit, and my favorite episode features UCBT stalwart (and Playing House actress) Jessica St. Clair yes-anding with real gusto, aligning herself with Beverly and eventually forcing Ronna to let down her hair.