Top tales from around the world are finding their way into a growing number of ears, writes Eric George
If you had asked 10 people a year ago to name their favourite podcast, chances are they would all have named the same show: Serial. Ask 10 friends today and you’re likely to get 10 different responses. The defining audio dynamic of the past year has been the rapid growth of easily available high-quality audio storytelling around the world. Existing broadcast and print outlets continue to join an array of start-up companies in embracing the potential of so-called on-demand audio storytelling.
That proliferation has made it increasingly difficult to keep track of the latest podcasts. Here are a few of the highlights from the past 12 months to catch up on over your summer break.
American start-up Gimlet Media entrenched its reputation this year as a leader in the field with a range of excellent output, but nothing felt quite as fresh as Heavyweight. Canadian expat Jonathan Goldstein spends each 40-minute episode trying to help a close friend or relative work through a highly personal problem.
Each of the eight episodes feels sensitive, honest and intimate. Goldstein has a knack for drawing surprising and honest reflections from his subjects, and allowing his own neuroses to bleed into the show without seeming selfish. His quest to help an old friend recover a box set of CDs from musician Moby is a particularly memorable episode.
Another highlight from Gimlet this year came in a miniseries that ran on one of the company’s longest running shows: Reply All. In May, the program delved into the story of a prisoner who improbably maintained an extensive blog while serving a life sentence inside a maximum-security jail in Illinois.
On the Inside provides a very raw, personal insight into the lives of those within America’s prison system. And as with Serial, it’s fascinating to listen to host Sruthi Pinnamaneni develop a rapport with a man convicted of murder. At only four episodes, this doesn’t require the investment of time that many true crime dramas demand.
As for Serial, its second season, focusing on American soldier (and alleged deserter) Bowe Bergdahl, may have disappointed in the wake of the program’s stellar debut, but it’s still a very impressive piece of storytelling. Go in with fresh ears now that the dust has settled and enjoy the superb production and extremely thorough journalism.
If you are after substantial storytelling that strikes a slightly lighter tone, check out The Real Thing, one of the many excellent podcasts launched by the ABC this year. Hosts Timothy Nicastri and Mike Williams tell a diverse array of very entertaining, and very Australian, stories, from the origins of Redgum’s Vietnam War anthem I was Only 19 to the unbelievable yet true tale of a lioness that escaped into western Sydney in 1995.
The magic of The Real Thing lies in its lively, imaginative production. The use of sound effects and music in audio is a very challenging thing to nail; even slight misses turn lavish podcasts into tacky mistakes. There are no such problems here, as each episode sings with highquality design.
US public radio station WNYC’s Radiolab has been enormously influential in the imaginative use of sound in audio storytelling. The show had another phenomenal year, and provides a deep catalogue of documentaries to work through. A great place to start is the very challenging but fascinating episode Playing God, which looks into the ethical dilemma of triage. When a disaster strikes a hospital, how do you decide who gets to live or die?
At the other end of the spectrum lie shows such as Earwolf’s Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. During each episode, comedian Chris Gethard takes a call from an anonymous participant, and isn’t allowed to hang up for an hour.
This is the polar opposite of the ABC’s excellent Conversations with Richard Fidler; Gethard’s is a messy interview style, where he essentially plays therapist on live radio. But that messiness is what makes the show exciting. True moments of surprise are born from the fact that no one involved knows where the conversation is heading.
The Australian has also produced a number of exciting podcast series this year. The Walkley Award-winning Bowraville is a six-episode investigation of the 25-year-old unsolved murders of three Aboriginal children. Ballarat’s Children tells the backstory of the police coverup that allowed pedophilia to flourish in the Catholic churches of western Victoria.
Creative Tension is a series of interviews about Australian art and culture, hosted by Michaela Boland.
For the rapidly growing audience of podcast listeners, this year is described quite accurately by the most tired political joke of the year: “There never has been a more exciting time.”