The Best Podcasts of 2023

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It was another tumultuous year for the podcast industry, with layoffs and cancellations at Spotify, Pushkin, WNYC, and NPR, which cut four of its series and ten per cent of its staff in March. But great work continued to be made, including by independent and listener-supported shows. There were bold new projects from veteran producers and creators; series that managed to make unbearable subjects addictively listenable; storytelling with the confidence to engage us without sensationalizing; and even, improbably, a funds-and-consciousness-raising podcast, “Strike Force Five,” hosted by the biggest names in late-night TV. (Cue thunderclap.) Several perennial favorites impressed, among them “Heavyweight,” “Rumble Strip,” “Slow Burn,” “This American Life” (including the “Jane Doe” episode), “Ear Hustle,” “The Paris Review Podcast,” and “La Brega,” whose music-focussed second season was followed by cancellation; may it find another home. My picks for the year’s ten best are below.

10. “Classy with Jonathan Menjivar”

Jonathan Menjivar’s exploration of class—how we perceive it, how we’ve internalized it, whether we try to change ourselves in relation to it—begins with a discussion of teeth. Menjivar, a longtime audio producer and the son of L.A. factory workers, goes to the dentist and is scolded by a hygienist about the “crowding” in his mouth. “It’s true—my teeth are all jacked up in the front,” he says. “But when she said that, all I heard was, ‘Your teeth are crooked, because you were too poor.’ ” It’s an “emblem of my class status stamped right on my face,” he says. “But I’m done keeping my toothy mouth shut about it.” Menjivar explores issues like class disparity in military service, the role of race in fashion, and trying not to be a “classhole” as he interviews a range of figures, including the comedian and actor Wyatt Cenac, who talks about debt, Hollywood, and the creative life; Terry Gross, Menjivar’s old boss, who grew up working class in Sheepshead Bay and became synonymous with NPR bookishness; and the British pop icon Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp, whose hit “Common People” became an anthem to many. “I wanted to find a different class,” Cocker tells Menjivar. “I wanted to find my own place to live, and people to live in that world with me.”

9. “Magnificent Jerk”

Besides having the best title of the year, “Magnificent Jerk,” from the producer-host Maya Lin Sugarman, has a singularly amazing premise: it sets out to solve the mystery of how Sugarman’s late uncle secretly wrote a semi-autobiographical screenplay about Chinese American gangsters that morphed into a straight-to-video action movie set in Eastern Europe, starring Burt Reynolds, Ice-T, and a pre-comeback Rob Lowe. (“I wanna stop smokin’ rock . . . real bad,” Lowe slurs in the movie, 1997’s “Crazy Six.”) Sugarman’s uncle, Galen Yuen, straddled the worlds of street crime and Hollywood—after getting out of jail, the podcast says, he moved to L.A. and played roles like Low Life No. 1 in “Kindergarten Cop”—and she briefly lived with him after college. But she didn’t know much about his past, and her education takes us to a pool hall in seventies Oakland Chinatown, a B-movie shoot in nineties Bratislava, and a recent “Crazy Six” screening in L.A. By the end, it’s become a moving rumination on why we keep family secrets, and what we choose to hide.

8. “Normal Gossip”

Kelsey McKinney and Alex Sujong Laughlin’s cozy-chatty podcast, now part of Radiotopia, has been widely beloved since its début, in 2022, and this year’s episodes have continued to be delicious. In each, McKinney, who hosts, introduces a distinguished guest, gabs with them about the role of gossip in their life, and then gives us the good stuff: some actual gossip, courtesy of “a friend of a friend,” that’s full of sharply described scenes and characters, staggeringly nutty decision-making, and plenty of surprises. The stories avoid the head-shaking horror of what we find in many advice columns or subreddits, and they’re not mean. They deal with the weird, mind-bending minutiae of daily life: a house-sitting-for-a-rich-cousin gig, a local-dog-park Facebook group, a “Who stole the despised relative’s hair straightener before the wedding?” mystery. The stories’ oratorio-like endings evoke the absurd, well-constructed pleasures of a “Seinfeld” episode, but the show never loses its organic tone. Many scripted podcasts struggle to achieve narrative power or conversational naturalism; “Normal Gossip” does both, and makes it look easy.

7. “The 13th Step”

You might not expect a public-radio exposé to turn into a true-crime thriller, but that’s what happens in “The 13th Step.” When the New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Lauren Chooljian gets a tip that Eric Spofford, the leader of the state’s biggest addiction-treatment network, has allegedly been sexually harassing and assaulting women, she uncovers multiple accounts of abuse. Then chaos ensues. In the twelve-step community, “the thirteenth step” refers to preying on a newcomer; with extraordinary sensitivity, Chooljian shows how coping with newfound sobriety in a twelve-step setting—with vulnerability and a willingness to share personal stories—can also lead to manipulation. Spofford, the series indicates, was a master at this. “What he ended up being like was, like, the supreme commander of recovery, like, god of recovery,” one woman says. “And to have God send me a friend request was, like, ‘Whoa, that’s so cool.’ ” During the course of Chooljian’s reporting, Spofford sold his business for what he claimed was more than a hundred million dollars, moved to Florida, began posting vainglorious YouTube videos, and sued Chooljian and her station for defamation. Also, someone began throwing bricks through Chooljian’s windows and spray-painting threats on her house. As her reporting expands, this meta-plot darkly, perversely illustrates her themes, just as much as the story itself does.

6. “The Big Dig”

If you spent any time in Boston in the nineties, you likely noticed endless construction, enormous piles of dirt, and signs that said “ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY.” This was the Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in the history of the United States, which replaced Boston’s intrusive, city-bisecting elevated highways with a network of subterranean and underwater tunnels. It also added beautiful parks and bridges above ground, and became shorthand for a certain kind of civic nightmare. This nine-part series, produced by GBH News and reported and hosted by Ian Coss, excavates the whole fascinating story, with an eye toward understanding current-day cynicism and idealism about infrastructure. Coss, a Boston-based audio whiz and podcaster (“Forever Is a Long Time” ), was a toddler in 1991, when Big Dig construction began, and had graduated from high school when it ended, in 2007; he brings the story to life with original music and excellent archival audio, which illuminates the mid-century establishment of the highway system, as well as the various Bostonian personalities that drove or impaired the Big Dig. As we listen, we find ourselves pondering things like transit authorities and slurry walls with feverish intensity; throughout, Coss deploys memorable details, like a key character, hard at work, waking up one night with his nose in a pizza.

5. “Grapevine”

One of the strengths and amazements of “Grapevine,” produced by the stellar team of Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton from NBC News, is that it delivers the same kind of knockout punch that its predecessor “Southlake” did. “Southlake” explored how white parents upset about “critical race theory” took over a Texas school board, and then an entire town; “Grapevine,” reported in the next town over, details a parallel situation about trans kids and L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights—or, as yet more angry parents call it, “woke gender ideology.” Hixenbaugh and Hylton are remarkably thorough; they interview—and really listen to—teens, parents, teachers, and others, forming a vivid picture of not just an issue but a community. Several of the characters are hugely sympathetic, including a dad who is gently, firmly supportive of his trans daughter and a high-school English teacher at the center of the firestorm, who had loaned the girl a graphic novel called “The Prince and the Dressmaker.”

4. “Articles of Interest”

If you recently looked at Timothée Chalamet’s latex travel coat, shook your head, and thought, I sure hope he doesn’t rip that, you may have listened to the “Paper and Rubber” episode of Avery Trufelman’s terrific series about clothes and culture, in which we learn that latex, in all its slippery exoticism, is nearly impossible to sew. This year, Trufelman followed up last year’s season, “American Ivy,” about the history and influence of preppy clothing, with biweekly episodes that feature a closetful of topics, including corduroy, paisley, plus sizes, pointe shoes, and, in a crossover with “Ear Hustle,” prison uniforms. “Articles,” which started as a miniseries for Trufelman’s longtime employer “99% Invisible,” is always well researched, unexpected, and entertaining, and is all the more impressive for the fact that Trufelman writes, produces, reports, sound designs, mixes, masters, and hosts it, with a voice that’s like velvet for the ears. In an episode about the importance of articulating one’s personal style, she talks to a woman who describes her own as “chill, modern, and classic”; the same could be said of the series, and if it were a dress, it would have pockets.

3. “The Kids of Rutherford County” / “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children”

Two remarkable series this year featured deep investigations about incarcerated kids. Meribah Knight, a Nashville Public Radio producer who made the excellent Peabody-winning series “The Promise,” about the city’s public-housing and school systems, joined forces with ProPublica and Serial Productions to make “The Kids of Rutherford County,” a four-part series about a Tennessee county that arrested and illegally jailed children—hundreds, possibly thousands of children—and got away with it for more than a decade. “A boy accused of stealing a football jersey—jailed. A girl accused of pulling someone’s hair—jailed. A girl trying to use a blank check at a school book fair—jailed,” Knight says. Knight tells the story via several compelling characters, including Wes Clark, a young defense attorney struggling to recover from OxyContin addiction, who tries to get justice for the kids as he deals with struggles of his own. Meanwhile, “Unreformed,” a stunning and exhaustively researched series from the journalist Josie Duffy Rice, tells the story of an Alabama institution commonly known as Mt. Meigs, where generations of Black children endured horrific abuse—some of it, like a punishment known as the Rock Pile, almost dreamlike in its surreal cruelty. It’s an often excruciating listen, but the presence of several of the institution’s survivors, including the renowned artist and musician Lonnie Holley, offers some beauty in the darkness.

2. “Next Year in Moscow”

The Economist has become a reliably great source of thoughtfully produced, expertly reported podcasts, including “Drum Tower,” about China, last year’s “The Prince,” about Xi Jinping, and “Next Year in Moscow,” about Russians trying to cope with what their country has become in the era of Putin’s war crimes. Our host is The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky, who travels to Istanbul, Europe, “and the fringes of the old Soviet empire” to talk to Russians who left when Putin’s attacks on Ukraine began, in 2022. “I clearly remember this feeling that this is not my world anymore,” one says. Another remembers what amazed him about Gorbachev, and what Russia needs again: the understanding “that human life and dignity would take priority over the prestige of the state.” The sound design is artful throughout, as when a crackling recording of Leo Tolstoy railing against state-sponsored executions, in 1908, segues to a discussion of Tolstoy’s symbolic role after the invasion began, with police arresting Russians quoting him on placards. “To a nation undergoing a moral catastrophe, the old man offered a point of certainty,” Ostrovsky says.

1. “Think Twice: Michael Jackson”

“Think Twice” astonished me twice. First, for existing: when I learned that Leon Neyfakh, one of the most consistently creative forces in podcasts, was releasing a series about Michael Jackson, I thought, Why? After “Leaving Neverland,” the 2019 HBO documentary that suggested that Jackson had indeed sexually abused boys, what else needed to be said? Then, when I listened, “Think Twice” astonished me with the breadth of its accomplishment. One of Neyfakh’s strengths is his ability to upend the fossilized narratives of a cultural or historical moment, laying out details and stories we overlooked. (See also Neyfakh’s other excellent series this year, “Fiasco: Vigilante.”) As Neyfakh’s co-host, Jay Smooth, observes, after the documentary’s release, it felt almost like Jackson had died a second death. But his music continues to be everywhere, and “MJ the Musical” is a hit on Broadway. “Think Twice,” which incorporates interviews, rare archival audio, and meticulous reporting, doesn’t seek to defend or condemn the singer; it just helps us make sense of him, and the results are revelatory.

It begins, as Neyfakh’s series always do, with an unforgettable scene. At the 1994 N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards, the “Cool Runnings” actor Doug E. Doug, having just given Whitney Houston an award for the “Bodyguard” soundtrack, is amazed to see Jackson, who was accused of child molestation a few months earlier, show up unexpectedly, come onstage, and deliver an impromptu speech in his own defense, in that soft, strong, confident voice. The crowd gives him a standing ovation. A year earlier, the author Stephen King recalls, Jackson had come to him with a short-film idea, in which he would play a Boo Radley-like figure who alarms parents but is understood by children; when police announced they were investigating Jackson, production shut down. (The short was called “Is This Scary?”) “Think Twice” homes in on such moments, which evidence Jackson’s other kind of performance—a performance of innocence, increasingly unconvincing as the years went by. The series, listening closely to the music we love and the realities we don’t, achieves a kind of miracle of content and tone. If “Think Twice” lets us process Jackson’s death, it’s because it allows us to mourn for the person we wanted him to be. ♦


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