What Excites This Podcast Critic in 2018
Three years ago, I started Audible Feast because I was frustrated with the iTunes charts telling me what other people were listening to. I wanted to travel off the beaten path of highly-produced (read=highly financially supported) and much-publicized podcasts and find truly great quality from creative people who could be my next door neighbor or someone on the complete other side of the world. I wanted more diversity, quirkier content, and to be able to find things that were similar to something else I liked. There weren’t many podcast review resources at the time, so I embarked on that less traveled path.
I discovered a breadth of diverse content from all over the world. I connected with podcasters through a number of channels – I get pitches often – and tried to listen to everything someone sent me. I listen to about 50 episodes per week. I’ve written 86 reviews (with a little help from some guest reviewers) and have published the “Delicious Ingredients” of my Audible Feast every week on Friday for the last two and a half years. I won’t review a show unless I’ve listened to about five episodes. The only thing I won’t listen to is hate speech or ultra right-wing content.
I love local radio, fiction and non-fiction storytelling, personal journals, under-represented voices, risk-taking, thoughtful sound design, hard-hitting investigative journalism, and people trying to make a difference through podcasting. I probably won’t listen if you’re obnoxiously trying to sell me anything through your podcast (beauty products, your e-book, your “secrets to winning at life”) or if your show is more than 90 minutes long regularly (just don’t have time because I really want to listen to a variety of shows). But I am open to audio dramas, true crime, you name it.
And so, I have been reflecting on what I have seen change over the last three years and what keeps me in love with this medium. Here’s what keeps me coming back:
Diversity is celebrated in podcasting
This is my absolute favorite thing about podcasting as a medium: anyone can do it and everyone’s voice has value. Ear Hustle, which features stories from inside San Quentin prison, skyrocketed to podcast fame after winning Radiotopia’s Podquest in 2016. The Heart gave us heartbreaking and award-winning stories of sexual abuse in gymnastics and genital mutilation – voices that must be heard.
The CBC’s Missing and Murdered has done a phenomenal job educating listeners about the aboriginal women of Canada, whose families are not afforded the same level of investigation as whites when their loved ones go missing. Scene on Radio took on the lack of diversity in our society, first with a 14-part series on “Seeing White” and this year with another ambitious project on “Men.” And one of my all-time favorite shows is Making Gay History, which has a goal, in part, to make gay history just part of the way we teach history – not only celebrated during a certain time of the year. The podcast space is rich with a plethora of viewpoints, opinions, and education about people who aren’t like you, whoever you are.
Fiction podcasts also showcase a wide range of talent. I can’t say enough about how much I loved Bronzeville, about a south side of Chicago neighborhood in the 1940s and the numbers lottery the characters are involved in. It’s led by Tika Sumpter, Larenz Tate, and Laurence Fishburn. I also loved the topical diversity of Homecoming, which is about a government program soldiers are involuntarily enrolled in after returning from war.
Sound design creativity is ramping up
Layering in just the right amount and the right type of sound is an art, and I find it very distracting when a podcast uses too much music. But the perfect intro music can set me in the exact right mind space for the show to come. Two of my favorite examples of this are Radio Atlantic (with its ominous version of Battle Hymn of the Republic) and Sooo Many White Guys (which makes me start laughing even before we get to Phoebe Robinson’s gut laugh at the end of the intro).
Earlier this year I learned about binaural recording, where two microphones are used to record, capturing a more “surround sound” than a single mic. I can hear this best when I have good headphones on, and while I don’t think it’s necessary for all audio recording, it works really well for live stage recordings like The Alice Fraser Trilogy, a comedy show from a very funny Aussie.
Another trend I’m excited about is immersive audio, where the listener is “part” of the story. There hasn’t been a lot of experimentation in this area yet (that I know of) and I haven’t loved everything in this style, but I am super excited by Qualia, where the listener faces a well-described risk and is prompted to think about what path they’d choose (and then votes online to see how other people would respond!). I love this kind of immersive show where I literally have to stop doing anything else and just be in the moment with the show. Nocturne also checks that box for me sound-wise.
I consider it a cardinal podcasting sin when one person talks for 45 (or more) minutes straight on a podcast, but unfortunately, this is a popular sound model. I’d much rather listen to Song Exploder, where Hrishikesh Hirway rearranges an artist’s explanation of how one of their songs was written and weaves a new narrative that ping-pongs between layers of the track and the voice of the guest. In the Dark also does this very well, especially in season one, where the team mixed 28-year old archival audio recordings, present-day interviews with law enforcement and still-grieving family members, and presentation of data analysis about how many crimes are actually solved.
Investigative journalism is taking the spotlight from true crime
I am a broken record when it comes to this (side note: does that reference not even work anymore? Do people even know what records are?). Shows like In the Dark, Embedded, Reveal, Someone Knows Something, and Missing and Murdered are so, so, so much more than true crime or news podcasts. Their in-depth reporting is critical – I’ve heard some fascinating journalism from the border, learned about the extreme violence in San Salvador due to drug cartel rule, and heard a man seek justice for his slain brother after decades of waiting as no killer was brought to justice.
74 Seconds was rewarded, rightfully, for its daily reporting on the Philando Castile/Jeronimo Yanez case where Yanez shot Castile at a traffic stop in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. MPR producers tried their damndest to present an unbiased report of what led up to
Where podcasts have tried to appear as if they are conducting investigative reporting but want the glitz and gore that true crime audiences seem to love, it hasn’t worked. Atlanta Monster, Dirty John, and Ponzi Supernova are three examples that come to mind – they just didn’t tie the whole story together with a cohesive thread and instead opted for a shock factor in an episode or two early on, and what they really needed was a good editor and probably much more tape.
Podcasters are taking more risks
Sometimes the risks seem small to the listener. I remember when Varmints! made the decision to only include original music/recordings instead of clips of TV/movies – they were transparent about the change and tweaked the segues a bit, which I’m sure was a risk. I still remember the famous movie clips from “before.” But they found a clever way to keep the transitions funny, yet inexpensive, by scripting some funny lines for friends, family, and fellow podcasters to voice.
Other risks are big, and can be impactful. Gimlet has shuffled its slate of shows a couple of times in the last few years, even cancelling Brittany Luse’s Sampler after just 31 episodes but keeping her on the payroll to start The Nod with Eric Eddings. Some of Gimlet’s risk taking resulted in critical flops – Sandra was better received than The Habitat, but I liked the latter a little more. (Except when it became too voyeuristic and reality-TV-ish.) But I admire Gimlet for taking those risks and being able to part ways when a show (or creator) doesn’t vibe with the portfolio or team.
Errthang was a Radiotopia coup – I am an Al Letson superfan – and it was a perfect fit for the Showcase model. Errthang is literally Al’s variety show. How awesome is that? He is able to take all the risks on his show that’s just about errthang he wants to talk about. Not everyone has the clout to do this and be picked up by a major podcast network, but I’m glad someone like him did, to show that the model can work and it’s okay to take risks like devoting two whole episodes to radio drama and another on Al’s reflection on his role in #MeToo. So good.
The podcaster network is full of kindness
I have met incredible people through podcasts. Eric Marcus (Making Gay History) sent me a picture of a dog he met during New York Pride this year. Madeleine Baran (In the Dark) was my very first interview – it was in person and I probably sounded like a nutcase with my fangirling – and she was the absolute best person with whom to break that seal. So nice, so down to earth – and she even introduced me to a few other folks at the MPR/APM office in St. Paul, MN. Locally, I’ve gotten to know Danielle Jones and Michel Roy (Between Us Girls) personally through Podcast Brunch Club (where I also met Adela Mizrachi, its founder, who I now co-host the PBC Podcast with!). I loved going to their live show last year and seeing them in their element.
What I have seen over and over again is podcasters lifting other podcasters up, both helping each other improve shows behind the scenes and collaborating on content on air.
What Podcasts are Doing Right
Here are some specific examples of podcasts that I think are really doing something right. I’ve reviewed some of these before, but they really stand the test of time (in most cases, they’ve been published for a while) for reasons that resonate with me.
- HumaNature‘s (Wyoming Public Media) team members are extremely gracious anytime they are mentioned on social media. They take the time to engage with the listeners, which means a lot. They’ll actually write me back – like an actual message – versus clicking on a heart in Twitter. (What a novel concept.)
- The Our Americana Podcast Network engages so well with its listeners. Founder Josh Hallmark uses social media so well. Via Facebook, the PLAYLIST podcast group has a poll about each episode, asking listeners which songs were their favorites; he’ll periodically ask for audience help with research; he does very genuine, funny live AMAs; there is a radio hour for anyone who wants to hear Josh’s personal playlist; and he tries to actually get to know the audience personally. It is a lot to give of oneself, and the audience is a manageable size right now and will not always stay that way, but it’s a terrific way to build a loyal fan base.
- Ologies approaches science, what some might think is a dry topic, with very funny, relatable, and intelligent humor – including jokes your dad would totally make. I can’t tell you how many times I have laughed out loud listening to the show while I was actually learning about science. I will forever think of nostrils as nas-holes thanks to Alie Ward.
- The big guns are doing a lot right too – I am very impressed by the daily production of Today, Explained and The Daily. These shows help me stay current with the biggest news stories every day without making me want to smash anything.
- A few women-centric shows that I love have completely endeared themselves to me because of how real they are. Call Your Girlfriend shared that host Aminatou Sow had endometrial cancer, and then the podcast team organized blood drives across the U.S. in honor of Sow. Ladies, We Need to Talk, Unladylike, and The Enthusiasm Enthusiast have addressed so many “taboo” topics, from not enjoying being a mother to painful periods to not being fiscally responsible. These are things we should be talking about, and I love that podcasts are making it happen – because it gives me a mechanism to bring these things up with my friends.
I used to be a lot more irritated about the things my critical ear heard in podcasts that I didn’t like. But podcasts bring me such joy and there are so many good ones out there, that I don’t have time anymore to get too aggravated. I will still lend a critical ear to the shows I review, but I just think so many things are going right in the medium that I want to encourage more and more of those things. Kudos to podcasters around the world who are filling my ears with tremendous audio.
Audible Feast was started by Sara DaSilva in Houston, Texas and has been a one-woman (who has a full-time job and a family) show since 2015. Audible Feast features weekly picks, called the Delicious Ingredients, interviews, and of course, reviews – an index of which can be found here. The Audible Feast Appetizer newsletter comes out periodically and offers an additional editorial look at podcast news. Sara is also the co-host of the Podcast Brunch Club Podcast.