Sound and Narrative Fury? Best Podcast of 2020

You know how newsletters in your email from prominent journalists (Clare Malone, Dave Weigel, Anne Helen Peterson, etc. etc.), while all the rage (as the kids in their mid-60s like to say), are really just a veiled return to the sort of chain emails that dominated the internets early years, but now in a more professional form? Well aren’t podcasts just really a revamped, better produced, arguably more high-minded version of talk radio? This isn’t to devalue the medium – indeed podcasts are more popular and influential than ever – but just to say, sometimes new media isn’t new so much as refurbished. However one prefers to think about podcasts, as a brave new narrative leap or refitted traditional narrative saw, The Metropole‘s editors have their preferences. Here are their picks for Best Podcast 2020. Keep in mind, the podcast didn’t have to be new this year, just whatever got you through these last 12 months.

Best Podcast

Avigail Oren: When I no longer had anywhere to go, I no longer had devoted time for podcast listening. The only one I’ve kept up with is Erin and Aliee Hate Everything, because who doesn’t hate everything these days? These two women vent out all my rage for me. (Full disclosure: Erin and I sat next to each other in middle school band class).

Troy Hallsell: I’ll list 3.

1) 99% Invisible: A great podcast on how people design the world. From airplane safety cards, to typefaces, and cities and the shade they create (or not), this show helps me understand all the things in my world that hide in plain sight.

2) The Modern West: A podcast by Wyoming Public Media that tells the story about the modern west (hence its title). As a transplant from Memphis, this show helps me understand the social, cultural, and economic forces that influence my world today: natural resource extraction, Native American identity and legal concerns, and the ghost-towning of small towns throughout Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

3) Popular Front: Focuses on niche and under-reported conflicts from around the world, such as the ongoing Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, white supremacist networks in the US, and how the US military uses eSports to recruit people to join its ranks. As a former Army member and current Air Force historian the events discussed in this podcast touch my professional life somehow.

Charlotte Rosen: There are tooooo many good Left/academic ones to pick, but my favorite gossip podcast is Who? Weekly. The premise is covering gossip/news on “whos” aka the antics of marginal, B-list celebs and people in their orbit. The hosts are very funny and I end up knowing a lot about really unhinged subjects, like Tik Tok houses and the happenings of Real Housewives castmates.

Dylan Gottlieb: Heavyweight. One (glowing!) article dubbed host Jonathan Goldstein a “radio weirdo.” But it takes a weirdo to make a show that’s at once deeply nebbish-y, moving, and hilarious. Each week, Goldstein helps a guest make amends for a past trauma or regret: the eponymous “heavy weight.” Start with #2, when Goldstein takes Gregor to confront Moby–yes, that Moby–over the CDs he loaned him 20 years ago.

Eric Michael Rhodes: Citations Needed on “media, PR, power, and the history of bulls*t.” Check out Episode 116: The Pro-Gentrification Aspirationalism of HGTV’s House-Flipping Shows.

Ian Toller-Clark: It probably won’t surprise many historians that read this but my all-time favorite podcast is Past-Present with Nikki Hemmer, Neil Young, and Natalia Mehlman-Petrazela. In terms of a single episode, I very much enjoyed Nostalgia Trap’s 198th Episode with Paul Renfro about his new book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral States

Angela Stiebold: I have been listening to so many podcasts this year. Mostly while I do my self-care (running and crafting). And for which I bought my best thing to cope with 2020 — Bluetooth ear buds. 

While prior to this year I listened to a lot of news, history, and politics, this year I needed podcasts to escape from just those things. These are a sampling of my favorites. The Sporkful, which as they say of themselves “it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters,” is a wide-ranging discussion of food and restaurants. Accused (Season 3) is a true crime investigation of a man’s disappearance; what I found fascinating was the history of the mid-twentieth century nuclear power processing facility near Cincinnati where he worked. The Bitter Southerner Podcast is the source of a diversity of stereotype-breaking stories about the American South, past and present. Finally, a podcast whose leads are local historians/archivists in a fictional small town in upstate New York, Weeping Cedars, a “slow burn” mystery-thriller.

Ryan Reft: I’d like to tell you I have some super indie secret podcast to recommend but I don’t. I’ll second Troy’s recommendation regarding 99% Invisible which is really an outstanding show that explores design, particularly in urban settings, in ways you’ll find surprising. There are a number of great episodes, but why not check out The Metropole contributor, Columbia University’s Sarah Seo, in Episode 410 – Policing the Open Road. For transit enthusiasts, Episode 388 – Missing the Bus, extols the virtues of bus infrastructure. For those interested in conflict mediation, Episode 367 – Peace Lines explores the ways walls have been used in Belfast to reduce violence between Catholics and Protestants; and Frank Lloyd Wright fans can check out Episodes 246 and 247 – Usonia 1 and Usonia the Beautiful to hear the story of the architect’s visionary effort to create low-cost, affordable, but very Frank Lloyd Wright homes. For a great podcast on sports, check out Bomani Jones, The Right Time. A bit of Black nationalism mixed in with some pretty astute sports/cultural commentary.

Featured image (at top): Miss Sylvia B. Fisch listening in to a radio program, 1923, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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