Life

Our Favorite Podcast Episodes of 2020

Your holidays might look different this year. These Slate podcasts will keep you company.

Headphones in pop art style
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via YDS/DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images.

This Thanksgiving looks different for most of us. As the holiday approaches, with COVID-19 cases again rising across the country, the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear: Don’t travel. For many of us, that means the holiday will be quieter than usual.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve heard from listeners who have increasingly turned to podcasts for information in an endless news cycle (and an occasional escape from it, too). So this year, we asked your favorite Slate hosts, producers, and writers to put together a list of their favorite Slate podcast episodes to help keep you company as you make Thanksgiving dinner. Go ahead and fill your headphones with some fun, weird, insightful listens this weekend.

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Amicus

“The Class of RBG,” Parts 1 and 2

Making the Class of RBG series was one of the great privileges of my career. It started as a thought experiment: Could any of those women in that famous Harvard Law class have ascended to the highest court in the land? Then it ended as an elegiac goodbye to an icon and a personal heroine. I wonder now why Justice Ginsburg, who surely knew she was dying, gave us so much precious time to record this tribute to her classmates. (It was one of the last big, personal interviews she did before everything at the court closed down due to the coronavirus.) We were so giddy in the car going over there, and I felt about 17. I’m pretty sure the justice helped us finish this project because it was a love letter, not just to the law and law school and sisterhood and the women in the trenches alongside her, but to the women starting law school this year, facing so many challenges and doubts, and to the women in the class after that, and again in the class after that. She was paying it forward, because she was always paying it forward, and then we were paying it forward too, so that our daughters’ daughters will remember what came before.
—Dahlia Lithwick, Amicus host

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Subscribe to Amicus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Culture Gabfest

The “Summer Strut 2020” Edition

I’m always overjoyed when I get to incorporate lots of music into a podcast episode, and the Culture Gabfest’s annual tribute to catchy music is fully loaded with audio bliss. Every year, listeners write in with their favorite earworms of the moment, and all the suggestions are compiled into a giant playlist. Then the Culture Gabfest hosts pick their favorites and discuss them with chart expert and host of Hit Parade, Chris Molanphy. The result is an episode that’s just as fun to listen to as it was for me to edit together. As we head into the darkest months of a very dark year, allow yourself a measly hour of fun with Summer Strut 2020.
— Cameron Drews, Culture Gabfest producer

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The “Endgame” Edition

I recently listened to this episode while undertaking a boring cleaning project, and while I picked it because I, like everyone else in the world, had just watched The Queen’s Gambit, it was actually the rest of the show that stood out. The subsequent topics require no preparation—an interview with Dwight Garner about his commonplace book (a compilation of quotations sourced from daily life and reading), a discussion of how we will remember the Trump administration that morphs into a discussion of “what will America even be in the year 2075,” and the Slate Plus section on the Enneagram, a very specific kind of personality test. It was that last one that led me down a very delightful rabbit hole once my cleaning project, and the podcast, were complete—one I hope you fall down too.
—Susan Matthews, news editor

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Subscribe to Culture Gabfest on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Dear Prudence

The “A Nonprofit Liar” Edition

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For my favorite of the year, I’m going with the episode with Jack Doyle, where we try to figure out how much fabulism is to be expected in a nonprofit CEO, and when it might become a problem.
—Danny M. Lavery, Dear Prudence columnist and host

Subscribe to Dear Prudence on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Decoder Ring

Mystery of the Mullet

When host Willa Paskin brought this idea to me, I thought it was a terrible topic. Like, the mullet … really? Hasn’t that haircut gotten enough grief? We had gotten an email from a listener suggesting the idea, along with some notes on a minor mystery concerning the origin of the word mullet, which seemed interesting but also hard to report. Still, Willa was convinced, and she was right. The mullet is a “bad” haircut, sure, but it’s also a fascinating, slippery, cultural lightning rod. It’s a signifier for the ’80s that is so maligned that we don’t even remember how much we don’t remember about it. It’s a story about fashion, punk rock, etymology, and a genuine case of false cultural memory. We even managed to solve a mystery that had been bugging the Oxford English Dictionary for years and recorded their reaction to tape. “Mystery of the Mullet” is easily one of the most fun episodes we’ve ever done, and also one of the best.
—Benjamin Frisch, Decoder Ring producer

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The Karen

This Decoder Ring episode came at just the right time and explored how this weirdly potent meme became a thing. It’s easy to understand on the surface why the name Karen would stick for pervasive white woman privilege—it’s a common enough name for a white lady—but I didn’t realize how deep the Karen hole really was or her specific role in eras past. She haunts our past, but knowing who she is, she won’t terrorize our future.
—Melissa Kaplan, producer

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Subscribe to Decoder Ring on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Flashback

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers got a bad rap when it first came out but has since evolved into a cult classic—making it a perfect fit for Flashback, our Slate Plus podcast about older and classic movies. Every two weeks, hosts Dana Stevens and K. Austin Collins dig into a movie from the 20th century to give deeper context into a film’s production, its place in an oeuvre and in film history, and how its reception has changed over time. In this case, the two reexamined how the blatant campiness of Starship Troopers is what actually makes it great, and how its political and cultural themes were really quite clever and forward-looking for its time. Besides just having an amazing breadth of film knowledge between the two of them, Dana and Kam also just have such enthusiasm for film culture and history. I always learn so much, and they can always make me see and appreciate a movie with new eyes.
—Chau Tu, Flashback producer

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The Gist

Redefining Racism

The open to the show is my examination of St. Louis gun-toting (and future RNC-attending) lawyers Mark and Patricia McCloskey. I tried to talk to a person who I imagined was a McCloskey supporter but who wasn’t entirely impervious to reason. Maybe no such person exists, but if they do, and they’re among the Gist listeners, minds were surely changed. Then I talked to linguist John McWhorter about how the language of racism and white supremacy has changed and what that says about us as a culture. I ended with an examination of Trump not as a liar, but as a bullshitter. It’s an important distinction, and I got into why “don’t bullshit a bullshitter” is a permission structure for Trump’s ongoing bullshit.
—Mike Pesca, The Gist host

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Losing the Liberty of Public Debate

The heated media debate over the Harper’s letter, cancel culture, and free speech seems a zillion years ago. But it was maddening. It was largely a bad debate, mostly due to the loudest voices on the argument’s pro–“the left is illiberal” side continuously dodging their strongest criticisms. But one grace was this Gist episode, in which Mike Pesca did what no one else did: hosting two of the debate’s avatars to actually debate the issue. Pesca showed how useful and illuminating it can still be. Hearing (ex-Slatesters) Yascha Mounk and Osita Nwanevu trade points was not just a delightful display of intellectual battle; it allowed two prominent voices to make their strongest case possible against what their opponents considered to be their strongest counterarguments. I also enjoyed that the argument, to me, had a clear victor, and I edited the article adaptation, so I’m biased. But hearing the episode, one felt that there was little left worth saying on the matter. What a relief.
—Seth Maxon, associate editor

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Hang Up and Listen

The “Pac-12 Football Players Are United” Edition

My favorite episode was from Aug. 3, when we invited UCLA football players Otito Ogbonnia and Elisha Guidry on for a conversation about the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited movement. My recollection was that we were the first podcast to have college football players on to discuss their fledgling unionization efforts and what they were doing to hold their college and conferences accountable for protecting them amid a pandemic. (If I’m wrong, sorry!) That episode exemplified one of the best things about our show: empowering voices and perspectives and having conversations that aren’t often heard in sports media. I will say, after we had Otito and Elisha on, they and a few other players went on a few other shows. Which, hey, is great too! I’m just glad we took the extra step of going beyond the protective bubble of college athletic departments and sports information directions to speak to the players. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough.
—Joel Anderson, Hang Up and Listen co-host

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The “What Happened to Equal Pay?” Edition

The episodes where Josh Levin, Joel Anderson, and Stefan Fatsis discussed the The Last Dance were great because they are three people with different opinions: Stefan’s crankiness playing off Joel’s clear-eyed indictment of Jordan’s character and Josh as the sensible moderator. I would start with the “What Happened to Equal Pay?” Edition episode, which is the first time they discuss the doc, and follow it up with the “Michael Jordan Is a Jerk” Edition and the “What Was The Last Dance?” Edition.
—Mike Pesca, The Gist host

Subscribe to Hang Up And Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Hi-Phi Nation

Redemption in Solitary Confinement

Driving four hours to meet a man who spent eight years in solitary, and then finding out that we were the same age and had a lot in common except our lives took radically different paths when we were teenagers, reminded me why I love making podcasts. This was also the first episode that our new executive producer, Alicia Montgomery, gave me notes on, and it was a great experience to have. The episode hit all the tones I wanted: intense, tragic, contemplative, and redemptive.
—Barry Lam, Hi-Phi Nation host

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Hit Parade

Still Billy Joel to Me” Edition

What I’ve learned hosting a pop-music podcast is that everyone’s got dream subjects—favorite artists and genres that feel ripe for the Hit Parade treatment. This year, I feel like I knocked off a list of long-outstanding topics. Most were subjects listeners had been imploring me to do—like novelty songs, or Latin pop, or Yacht Rock, or country music, or Lilith Fair. But probably the biggest white whale I harpooned this year was my fellow New Yorker and the bard of outerborough pride, Mr. William Martin Joel. For those of us who’ve grown up with Billy Joel’s music, we know there’s nothing cool about him. So we have kind of a complex about it. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but I knew I wasn’t going to do an episode about Joel unless I had a “take.” And thanks to my friend Julian Velard, I finally formulated a thesis on Joel—“He’s not the Piano Man, he’s the pastiche man”—that could work for both Joel lovers and Joel loathers. I did right by Billy while calling him out for his shtick, acknowledging him as a Big Shot but still Keepin’ the Faith.
—Chris Molanphy, Hit Parade host

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One and Done” Edition

Chris Molanphy’s pop chart nerdiness is always a delight, but this episode goes above and beyond by creating a detailed heuristic to define, with extreme precision, the phenomenon of a one-hit wonder. Listen for the meticulous scholarship. Stay for glimpses into the other “hits” by your favorite flashes in the pan.
—Abby McIntyre, assistant managing editor

Subscribe to Hit Parade on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

How To! With Charles Duhigg

How to Write the Perfect Breakup Song With Ben Folds

Ben Folds is a musical hero of mine, and that was before he agreed to help Lorenzo, a dental student and amateur musician, write the perfect breakup song. What could’ve been like pulling teeth was instead a fascinating look at Ben’s creative process and collaborative spirit. Best of all, we managed to rent a piano for the interview so he could demonstrate his songcraft in person. He told us the only thing missing was “a big stack of notecards and a bottle of scotch.”
—Derek John, How To! producer

How to Lose 155 Pounds Happily

“I watched your movie after my race, and I bawled like a baby,” our listener Ashley told our expert Brittany O’Neill, the real-life inspiration behind Brittany Runs a Marathon, in this episode. “I immediately texted my mom and was like, ‘You have to watch this. Now you’ll understand what I’m going through.’ ” On How To!, we are always searching for listener and expert pairings that will yield not only useful advice, but also a genuine connection. And to me, the very best episodes, like this one, are when our listener feels heard in a way that they never have before—like the connection that sparked between Ashley and Brittany as they talked about their struggles with self-acceptance even after crossing the marathon finish line.
—Rachael Allen, How To! producer

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Lexicon Valley

White Author, Black English. Problem?

Every time I listen to an episode of Lexicon Valley, I have the same two thoughts: Wow, I gotta listen to that again, and We aren’t charging tuition for this? Host John McWhorter is a gift. His shows are rich and witty, suffused with love for people and how they express themselves. I cannot get enough.
—Mary Wilson, What Next producer

Subscribe to Lexicon Valley on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Visit From Mike Birbiglia” Edition

The episode is one of my favorites. It was a great balance of sweet, sentimental, and hilarious, which is how I like to think of our show. I had a really big and emotional triumph to share with everyone on the top of the show, and it was just such a highlight of our summer. Then we had this great conversation with Mike, who is my husband’s favorite comedian. Hearing my husband laugh listening to the show was just so satisfying.
— Elizabeth Newcamp, MADAF co-host

The Teacher Roundtable” Edition

How to safely educate kids was, and continues to be, one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic. So MADAF co-host Dan Kois sat down with four of Slate’s Ask a Teacher columnists for a candid discussion about how they were really feeling about the 2020 school year. As we are headed into the next round of school shutdowns, it’s worth hearing the level of care, consideration, and concern from teachers as they try to figure out the best path forward for our students. If you’d like to hear more from our teacher roundtable, Jamilah sat down with the teachers halfway through the semester for a Fall Report Card.
—Rosemary Belson, MADAF producer

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Outward

Caught in Gay Amber

Hosting Outward is one of the highlights of my job, and this episode is a perfect example of why I feel so lucky to get to process queer culture with Bryan Lowder and Rumaan Alam every month. We reviewed two recent depictions of queer history: Netflix’s all-gay remake of The Boys in the Band and HBO’s docuseries EQUAL. These very different takes on earlier eras of LGBTQ life led us into a discussion about what makes a rendering of the past feel real, what we know and don’t know about the lives of our LGBTQ forebears, and whether any telling of history is obliged to comment on the present day. It was a conversation I can imagine returning to in the future whenever I watch or read a new queer historical narrative. My brain was whirring for hours after we wrapped.
—Christina Cauterucci, Outward co-host

ACT UP and Larry Kramer’s Legacy

This year we lost a major figure of ACT UP! and AIDS activism: Larry Kramer. Outward’s interview with his colleague and sometimes-frenemy Sarah Schulman was by far the most enlightening reflection on his legacy that I encountered in the many, many remembrances of Kramer and his work. Come for the queer history, stay for the fascinating activist conflicts and drama.
—Madeline Ducharme, production assistant

Subscribe to Outward on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Political Gabfest

The “COVID Tsunami” Edition

My favorite episode of 2020 was our Nov. 19 show. John Dickerson wore a spectacular red, white, and blue sweater modeled on a sweater Bob Dylan once wore, and for whatever reason—maybe the sweater!—he blazed through the episode. It’s not that he was mean or shouty the way I am when I get worked up. He was clear, devastating, and terribly sad about the particular way President Trump was corrupting the nation with his lies about the election results. Add to that Emily Bazelon walking us through the legal nonsense of the Trump challenges, delivered with that irrefutable Bazelon clarity. Then add to that Ta-Nehisi Coates appearing as a guest. (Is there anyone who talks more wisely about the state of American life than Ta-Nehisi Coates?) The maraschino cherry was my demented Slate Plus soliloquy about how to make the movie Love, Actually even better.
—David Plotz, Political Gabfest co-host

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The “Because of Sex” Edition

This episode marked the historic Supreme Court decision Bostock v. Clayton County, which prohibits employers with more than 15 employees from discriminating against LGBTQ workers. It also included a gracefully delivered exchange where the hosts compare themselves to Bruce Springsteen. Guest Chase Strangio explained the SCOTUS ruling and offered an enthusiastic look behind the scenes of the judicial process, including a description of what it means to work for months and months to prepare a “brief” for Justice Neil Gorsuch. It’s hard to express the metaphoric splash of cool and refreshing water that the levity and hopefulness of this episode delivered, especially in the midst of an extremely heavy and painful summer of suffering.
—Jocelyn Frank, Political Gabfest producer

Subscribe to Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Slate Money

The Salmon Legacy

The episode that probably resonated the most was the one from August with my cousin Thomas Harding. Slate Money’s core appeal is to, well, people who are interested in money things, but this episode is really about family, and everybody has one of those. Plus, it’s a first-person account of an incredibly unique family financial structure. And as an extra special bonus, it was recorded in a physical studio, so it sounds great too!
—Felix Salmon, Slate Money host

Subscribe to Slate Money on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Slow Burn: David Duke

The Nazi and the Republicans

Being a part of the team that told Anne Levy’s story of surviving the Holocaust, confronting David Duke, and organizing to stop his bids for elected office in Louisiana is one of the things I’m most proud of doing as a journalist. Levy is just one of the many, many everyday heroes who halted Duke’s despotic gubernatorial race, but her story is truly unforgettable. I hope it’s heard far and wide—and I hope listeners take the lessons of her life and work with them long after they’ve tuned in.
—Madeline Ducharme, Slow Burn production assistant

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The Road to Hell

Don’t miss this episode, where an aging but irascible Edwin Edwards answered Josh’s questions through his 50-year younger wife.
—Mike Pesca, The Gist host

Subscribe to Slow Burn: David Duke on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Spoiler Specials

Palm Springs

2020 has been such a weird time for new movies. But Palm Springs was such a lovely little film oasis. And Dana Stevens’ hilarious discussion with Willa Paskin and Sam Adams is an equally delightful respite from the pandemic. I mean, who doesn’t need a fun wedding rom-com complete with a (potentially?) infinite time loop and dinosaurs?
—Rosemary Belson, producer

Subscribe to Spoiler Specials on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thirst Aid Kit

The Adventure Known as John Boyega

We’d been wanting to talk about John Boyega for a minute, and it was like he heard us … because this was the year he bloomed! All that self-assuredness made him an official Thirst Object, and also: the perfect muse for our drabbles.
—Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, Thirst Aid Kit co-hosts

A Dog Called Rex

I dare you not to blush while listening to this absolutely delightful episode, which digs into relationships, classic romantic comedies, and of course, what makes one sexy. It’s thrilling to hear Jason Mantzoukas dare to go toe-to-toe with Bim and Nichole, and their surprise and amusement is evident throughout. Major swoon.
—Chau Tu, Slate Plus editor

Subscribe to Thirst Aid Kit on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism

Croc of Ages: The Strange Staying Power of a Cheap, Ugly Clog

Our episode about Crocs is among my favorites for a few reasons. First, it’s a fascinating story about the value of a brand name that is as hated as it is loved. Second, we got amazing guests: the founder of IHateCrocs.com, an investment analyst who explains the nitty gritty of Crocs’ business, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic who refuses to call Crocs “shoes.” And last, I got to interview my wife, who, bless her, simply could not understand why I wanted to buy a pair of Crocs.
—Seth Stevenson, Thrilling Tales host

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The Shocking True Story of the National Enquirer

Of all the episodes we produced this year, this one had the most twists and turns. I mean that both production-wise (we almost didn’t make it because we couldn’t get anyone to talk to us) and in terms of story. We were lucky to finally connect with the National Enquirer’s former editor-in-chief, Iain Calder, by phone. To be honest, he gave us several episodes’ worth of material to work with. But what you hear in our piece is an audio-rich story of car crashes, mafia figures, Jayne Mansfield, Elvis, O.J., Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump, and more. Confession: I still laugh when I hear O.J.’s deposition about “ugly ass shoes.”
—Jess Miller, Thrilling Tales producer

Subscribe to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Trumpcast

Our Interview With Mary Trump

This episode was particularly noteworthy to me. Although Mary was hardly quiet as she toured media outlets to talk about her book, she actually follows the show and had a special opportunity to open up to Virginia and further validate many of our podcast’s themes. It was intimate, and they both managed to laugh together through a lot of the worst of it. If you can laugh through an autocracy, you’re on the right track.
—Melissa Kaplan, Trumpcast producer

Fear Is Our Common Political Enemy

Virginia Heffernan’s opening and table-setting on this episode was the perfect encapsulation of the ridiculous, counterproductive, loathsome, inexcusable excesses of some of the worst of the Bernie Shock Troops—and why’d she’d support him for president anyway.
—Mike Pesca, The Gist host

Subscribe to Trumpcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

What Next

A Biden Accuser on the Latest Biden Allegations

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One of my favorite What Next episodes of the year was one that featured host Mary Harris in conversation with Lucy Flores discussing Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden. Often on the show, the booking is the angle: The person you find has everything to do with the story you’re able to tell. And Lucy was a fantastic guest because of the unique personal experience she brought to the conversation. Another one I recommend is “Kelly Loeffler Picked the Wrong Fight,” about the WNBA’s effort to elect Raphael Warnock. We spoke with Amira Rose Davis, who has such a deep understanding of the politics of sports, both as a theorist and a fan.
—Elena Schwartz, What Next producer

A Small Business Owner’s Dilemma

My favorite episodes of What Next are the ones about someone who is maybe not at the center of an issue but is at the emotional heart of whatever is happening. That skill of the show really comes through here: I felt how much Christopher Escobar was trying to make the best decision for his business and his community in the face of (extremely risky) pressure from the Georgia government to open back up. It wasn’t the first time I cried during the pandemic, but it was the first time I cried about the pandemic. If you miss movie theaters and don’t mind shedding a tear or five, this episode is for you.
—Emily Mulholland, HR generalist

Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

What Next TBD

Risking Your Life for $8.71

What Next: TBD covered so many interesting ways the coronavirus impacted the tech world, from testing and contract tracing to remote learning and forecasting models to how big tech is faring in the pandemic economy. But an episode that punched me right in the gut was the one that focused on how COVID-19 has made gig workers essential while putting their lives at risk. The episode was as interesting and eye-opening as it was moving, ultimately leading me to change my own online shopping habits while remaining focused on the bigger picture on protections for and safety of delivery workers.
—Katie Rayford, director of media relations

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What’s a City Without the Office?

After the pandemic started, this was the first episode of anything I heard that was actually recorded in the place it was about—the first in-person interview, the first ambient background noise that had signs of life, not just the low fan of a computer or an air conditioner over Zoom. I was floored. I had forgotten how much I missed that noise. It took me back to a neighborhood where I used to spend a lot of time and helped me reimagine it, remotely.
—Jess Miller, producer

Subscribe to What Next: TBD on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Working

Poet Javier Zamora Wants Readers to Know What It’s Like to Be Undocumented

Rumaan Alam and Isaac Butler, my Working co-hosts, are amazing interviewers, and they both have really smart things to say about the creative process. I especially loved Rumaan’s recent conversation with poet Javier Zamora. The episode first appeared five days after the presidential election, and in that confusing time there was something incredibly moving and soothing about hearing two men talk about writing and politics and turning a traumatic childhood event into beautiful art.
—June Thomas, Working co-host

How Jane Lynch Strikes the Perfect Level of Mean on Weakest Link

Jane Lynch on Working is an absolute delight, with her typical dry but earnest sense of humor. The interview, which chronicles everything from Glee, to her hosting the Weakest Link, to those infamous Sue Sylvester tracksuits, is not to be skipped!
—Amanda Godman, publicist*

Subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Correction, Nov. 25, 2020: Due to an editing error, this article originally misspelled Amanda Godman’s surname.