The 5 best pod­casts we’re lis­ten­ing to now

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY GLENN MCDON­ALD

With the hol­i­days ap­proach­ing, ‘tis the sea­son of long car rides to visit fam­ily in ex­otic lo­cales like De­troit and Pitts­burgh and Cleve­land.

The noble pod­cast is here to help. Long trips are the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for check­ing out new shows or catch­ing up on old fa­vorites.

In this edi­tion of Pod­cast Picks, we rec­om­mend some re­cent re­leases, new sea­son col­lec­tions from some old fa­vorites, and three ter­rific pod­casts for hope­less his­tory nerds.


“Se­rial,” from NPR’s “This Amer­i­can Life,” is prob­a­bly the planet’s most fa­mous pod­cast, com­bin­ing tire­less in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing with cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ry­telling. Cre­ator and host Sarah Koenig is so good at what she does, it feels like she was ge­net­i­cally de­signed for this work.

Sea­son Three breaks from pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions by fo­cus­ing in on one spe­cific lo­ca­tion: the Jus­tice Cen­ter in Cleve­land, Ohio. Rather than tell one story, Koenig and co-host Em­manuel Dzotsi bounce through dozens of tales of jus­tice gone wrong, gone side­ways or just gone crazy. The team’s re­port­ing is fair but tough, and there are de­tails here which will in­fu­ri­ate any Amer­i­can cit­i­zen with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in so­cial jus­tice.

Starter Episode: It’s best to lis­ten to the se­ries in se­quence, but if you’re in the mar­ket for in­stant ou­trage, try Episode Six on the ut­terly bro­ken po­lice de­part­ment of East Cleve­land.

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For more than a decade, The Bowery Boys – am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans Tom Mey­ers and Greg Young – have been ex­ca­vat­ing yes­ter­year sto­ries of the Big Ap­ple. The for­mat is ba­sic and fa­mil­iar: Two guys re­search a topic, then talk for an hour or so, ev­ery other week.

The dif­fer­ence is sim­ple ef­fi­ciency. Ban­ter is min­i­mal, and each episode is thor­oughly re­searched and tightly fo­cused. It’s clear that Mey­ers and Young put a tremen­dous amount of work into each show. In fact, they of­ten bur­row into the end­less stacks at the New York

Pub­lic Li­brary to ac­cess pri­mary sources. Top­ics bounce through the en­tire his­tory of the city, from the city’s roots in Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties through the Dutch colony of New Am­s­ter­dam to to­day’s head­lines.

Starter Episode: Browse the gen­er­ous archives – 275 shows and count­ing – and see what catches your eye: Coney Is­land, the Chelsea Ho­tel, the Great Fire of 1776. Episode 88, on El­lis Is­land, is a good rep­re­sen­ta­tive episode.

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Fans of the ven­er­a­ble pod­cast fran­chise “Stuff You Should Know” may al­ready be fa­mil­iar with this one. It’s a spin-off project from SYSK co-host Chuck Bryant ded­i­cated to his var­i­ous movie nerd ob­ses­sions.

Each week, Bryant sits down with an in­vited quest – of­ten a co­me­dian or fel­low pod­cast celebrity – and digs into one par­tic­u­lar film. You might get comic John Hodg­man talk­ing about “The Avengers,” or pod­caster Aaron Mahnke (“Lore”) on “The Vil­lage.” The vibe is loose and funny, but Bryant keeps con­ver­sa­tion on the rails by pre­par­ing top­ics for each in­di­vid­ual film. He re­ally does love movies deeply, and it shows.

Starter Episode: Dig back to June 14, 2018, for a killer con­ver­sa­tion on “The Si­lence of the Lambs” with the hosts of the block­buster pod­cast “My Fa­vorite Mur­der.” Per­fect match, re­ally.

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Writer Mal­colm’s Glad­well’s foray into pod­cast­ing has been one of the very best things to hap­pen to the for­mat. Glad­well, a master sto­ry­teller, can make the phone book in­ter­est­ing, and he’s got a top-flight pro­duc­tion here from the pod­cast net­work Panoply. Like “Se­rial” and other blue chip pod­casts, Glad­well’s se­ries airs in sea­son col­lec­tions. Sea­son Three dropped last sum­mer.

Glad­well’s gen­eral strat­egy with the se­ries is to tackle his­tor­i­cal top­ics that he be­lieves have been over­looked or mis­un­der­stood. The se­ries slo­gan: “Be­cause some­times the past de­serves a sec­ond chance.” But what he’s re­ally do­ing is chas­ing down his own ran­dom ob­ses­sions. Sea­son Three in­cludes med­i­ta­tions on Elvis Costello, im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy and the na­ture of mem­ory. Glad­well is so im­pos­si­bly smart and in­ter­est­ing that he makes us all feel smart and in­ter­est­ing. It’s a pub­lic ser­vice, re­ally.

Starter Episode: Again, it’s bet­ter to lis­ten in se­quence. There are a lot of call­backs in the var­i­ous nar­ra­tives. But sports fans may want to start with Episode 3, con­cern­ing Wilt Cham­ber­lain and the science of free throws.

More: re­vi­sion­isthis­


“In­trigue,” a fas­ci­nat­ing se­ries from Bri­tain that has mostly flown un­der the radar on this side of the pond, is worth track­ing down. Pro­duced as a 10part se­rial nar­ra­tive from BBC Ra­dio 4, “In­trigue” tells the story of Nazi of­fi­cial Otto von Wachter, a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tor who dis­ap­peared after the war. In the process, we learn about the World War II “rat­lines” – the es­cape routes used by Nazis to flee Europe when the Third Re­ich fell.

But se­ries cre­ator Philippe Sands has a more per­sonal story to tell. Sands lost fam­ily in the Holo­caust, and he’s de­vel­oped a friend­ship with von Wachter’s son Horst, now a lonely old man who des­per­ately wants to be­lieve that his own fa­ther was not a mass mur­derer. Was Otto a Nazi king­pin or just a duped and in­no­cent ad­min­is­tra­tor? Flash­back se­quences fea­ture voiceover work from Stephen Fry and Laura Lin­ney.

Starter Episode: You’ll want to start at the be­gin­ning, of course, but don’t worry. “In­trigue” is such a grip­ping story that you’ll be down­load­ing the other nine episodes be­fore you fin­ish the first.

More: /pro­grammes/p04sj2pt


From left, Ju­lia Syn­der, Em­manuel Dzotsi, Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass of the pod­cast “Se­rial.”

AMY HAR­RIS In­vi­sion/AP

Au­thor and jour­nal­ist Mal­colm Glad­well is a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller with a gift for ex­plain­ing com­plex top­ics. His tal­ent is on dis­play in “Re­vi­sion­ist His­tory.”

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