Once dominated by bros shouting over one another about sports, or straight, white comics making jokes about ‘the missus;’ the last few years have seen podcasting breath new life into spoken word stories. From much-needed investigations into ISIS, to fictional feminist stories about art and attraction, we shortlist our favourites from 2018.
West Cork seeks to unravel the mystery of the more than 20-year unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Three years in the making, West Cork examines why the crime and subsequent fallout could have only happened in West Cork, Ireland, a community where the last murder on record occurred over 100 years ago. This is by no means a salacious whodunnit, Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde thoughtfully examine the impact the case has had on the local area, before extending outwards to look at how the crime captured the attention of the nation and what the ongoing international ramifications are. Humanely told and richly detailed, the series features in-depth interviews with Sophie’s family and friends, and with forensic experts, detectives who worked on the case, witnesses, locals and the prime suspect.
Pitch tells intimate stories that get to the heart of why we listen to music, how we experience it, and what we’re actually hearing when we hit play. The most recent season on Audible brings together an elegant mix of micro-documentaries that look at how ISIS use music to recruit, how a soca song from a beloved Calypso singer in her 70s brought about Carnival’s #MeToo moment and what happens when politicians co-opt tracks that challenge their policies.
The show that kickstarted a podcasting renaissance took a different approach with its latest season. Instead of following one extraordinary case from beginning to end – as it did with the stories of Adnan Syed and Bowe Bergdahl in seasons one and two – season three saw co-hosts Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi explore the peculiarities of ordinary cases in Cleveland, Ohio. What results is a nuanced examination of the American justice system, its racial biases, the communities it fails and the citizens who suffer for it.
Hosted by Josie Long, Short Cuts brings together a mix of personal storytelling, true stories, radio adventures and found sound. It’s a clever, touching and at times, funny, collection of audio vignettes that are loosely grouped by themes like ‘longing’, ‘beginnings’ and ‘the other side’. Each episode is an anthology of stories that remind us that there’s greatness in the small events that make up our shared human experience.
Building on the success of her Peabody-nominated and Prix Italia-winning The Heart, Kaitlin Prest has produced an exceptional fictional story that straddles documentary, memoir and abstract confessional in her tale of a young artist struggling to make great work and find great love. Probing the anatomy of a relationship – a crush, a choice, a resentment and an ending – The Shadows considers what happens when one is faced with an impossible choice and a decision that can't be unmade.
In The Dark
As with Serial, In The Dark subverts traditional true-crime storytelling to spotlight injustices in America’s justice system. The sophomore season builds on the success of their excellent Jacob Wetterling series to examine the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who has been tried six times for the same crime. For 21 years, Flowers has maintained his innocence. He's won appeal after appeal, but every time, the prosecutor just tries the case again. What does the evidence reveal? And how can the justice system ignore the prosecutor's record and keep Flowers on death row? This is investigative journalism at its best.
What can the behaviour of past presidents teach us about the current political moment? That’s the driving force behind Leon Neyfakh’s Slow Burn. Excavating the strange subplots and forgotten characters of recent political history, Neyfakh and his team uncover striking parallels between Bill Clinton’s presidential scandal and Trump’s ongoing hush payments saga. At times a difficult listen, particularly for those on the left of the ideological spectrum, it’s a necessary and worthwhile listen which bursts political bubbles.
An intimate, feminist exploration into the forces of history, society and identity that shape women's health, each episode of Bodies looks to answer the question, “What’s wrong with me?” As the medical mysteries unfold, new questions begin to emerge – why have a litany of male doctors told their female patient that some level of pain during penetrative sex is normal for women? Why is it more common for black women to experience severe pain during their menstrual cycle, and what can be done about it? What prejudices are preventing a stripper from being diagnosed with ADD? Bodies answers all these and more with clarity and compassion.
Of all the things we know about the war on terror, who we’re fighting and how they’re radicalised remains possibly the most obscure. Reported by The New York Times’ ISIS and terrorism expert Rukmini Callimachi, and produced by Radiolab alum Andy Mills, Caliphate is a nuanced, gripping and intelligent investigation which looks past the political dog-whistles and sensational headlines to examine the more disturbing reality of Islamic extremism.
On a remote mountain in Hawaii, six volunteers secluded themselves in an imitation Martian habitat where they worked as dummy astronauts for one very real year. The goal: to help NASA understand what life might be like on the red planet and plan for the day when the dress rehearsals are over, and we blast off for real. Hosted by Lynn Levy – another Radiolab alum – the show mimics the experience of its subjects. It’s an exercise in escapism, a binge-able, touching and funny miniseries; self-contained and perfectly formed. Crafted from hours of audio diaries from the crew this documentary tells the true story of a fake planet.
Whilst not exactly ‘new’ releases for 2018, some of our favourite existing shows have continued to produce exceptionally reported stories. Consider these a selection of unmissable special mentions...
This American Life - Five Women
A different kind of #MeToo story, about several women who worked for the same man. They talk with bracing honesty about their experience of harassment, their lives before the incidents occurred and how these experiences went on to shape their lives afterwards.
Love + Radio - The Recruiter
It’s almost impossible to talk about specific Love + Radio episodes without accidentally revealing the hidden feints, twists and turns of each story. Each tale is masterfully crafted to reveal tantalising details which completely turn the story on its head – in The Recruiter what begins as a pious portrait of a rising gospel singer ends up somewhere entirely unexpected.
Showcase - The Stoop
Showcase from Radiotopia brings together a collection of exceptional mini-series spanning everything from conspiracy theories and chronic depression, to heartbreak and how we hear. With The Stoop, hosts Leila Day and Hana Baba tell smart and incisive stories from across the black diaspora.
Reply All - The Crime Machine, Parts I & II
A year in the making, The Crime Machine looks at how New York cops have been trapped in a war against themselves. Across it’s two episodes PJ Vogt investigates how the computer programme that saved the city from the grips of a crime epidemic is now manipulating its police departments to engage in racist, corrupt policing.