After years of being mostly ignored by the larger media apparatus, the podcast-to-television pipeline was fully operational in 2022. So many podcasts (many of them named in this very year-end list feature in years past) have become television shows — Dirty John, Welcome To Your Fantasy, Dr. Death, The Tiger King, The Shrink Next Door, The Dropout, etc. etc. — that getting a podcast optioned for a television adaptation has become the benchmark of podcast success.
This clear path to monetization has been a double-edged sword for the medium. On the one hand, people are putting money into podcasts like they never have before, with some of that hopefully going to actual podcast creators (in this economy??). On the other, it’s not necessarily great when the goal of a podcast isn’t necessarily to be a great podcast, but to get optioned for a TV show (a problem with a lot of media these days).
Just a few years ago podcasts were a cool medium that money folks largely didn’t know what to do with or how to monetize. Now that the money and expectations have arrived, we may look upon that earlier era as a golden age. Or maybe not. Hell, what do I know.
This year brought us many more podcasts, but not necessarily many more good podcasts. Or probably a lot of good podcasts and not many great ones. The hosts have gotten more famous and the soundscapes busier, but productions seem to have gotten more rushed, with looser editing (characters droning on extemporaneously before they’ve been introduced or you have any idea who they are or why they’re important), shakier stories, and more “local color.”
Sometimes I get the feeling that there are more people involved in podcast production who don’t really listen to podcasts. The same way an audiobook shouldn’t be a radio play (we like it because it sounds like someone reading, not actors acting!), a podcast doesn’t need to be an aural music video. People talk, and tell stories, without the demand of instant audience feedback. That’s why a lot of us like it! Any time someone uses the phrase “innovative editing” to describe a podcast, I run for the hills. Rest assured, few of the podcasts on the following list were innovatively edited, that is my promise to you.
Wait, “Serialized Non-Fiction?”
Obviously, there are a lot of different types of podcasts these days, from your daily current events wrap-up type podcasts, funny people hanging out podcasts, episodic history podcasts, and two hilarious geniuses discussing a 20-year-old television show podcasts (ahem). I listen to lots of those, but they’re largely driven by personal habit, how much the hosts feel like your substitute friends, and the subject matter.
“Serialized Non-Fiction” better lends itself to a year-end list, because:
— The podcasts are new for that year.
— The stories are self-contained.
— They rely more on quality of storytelling/story being told than familiarity with the hosts.
So, that’s how I settled on this year’s modifier. Got it? Great! Now then, let’s get listicle-ized.
10. We Were Three
From The New York Times and Serial, “We Were Three” bills itself as “a story of lies, family, America and what Covid revealed, as well as what it destroyed”– wait, come back, where are you going?
Listen, a Covid-themed podcast from the New York Times wasn’t something I thought I wanted. In 2022 I did not feel like I needed more vax-fight content in my life. But We Were Three, hosted by Rachel McKibbens, whose father and brother both died in the pandemic last fall, is more a specifically-minded story of dysfunctional family (and yes, internet-induced brain worms) than it is a broad topic covering the pandemic and vaccine rollout. “Dysfunctional family drama” is one of my all-time favorite podcast and audiobook subgenres.
McKibbens also isn’t your typical New York media pod person (as parodied so well in BJ Novak‘s 2022 movie, Vengeance), which helps. At three episodes of about 50 minutes each, We Were Three is also the ideal length for a long car ride and eschews the “short story stretched into a 15-episode season” virus currently afflicting the podcast and streaming docuseries industries.
After telling the story of the 1991 Iraq Invasion and the Cuban Revolution in seasons one and two, respectively, Blowback hosts Brendan James and Noah Kulwin were back this year with season three, this time telling the story of the Korean War, which was simultaneously not officially a “war” and also never ended.
As a bit of a history dad and someone who has read extensively about North Korea, I was surprised to realize how little I actually knew about the beginnings of the conflict, and how much I’d bought the official US line that it all started with the North’s unprovoked invasion of the South. As Blowback goes to meticulous lengths to explain, there was a lot more to the story than that.
There are times when Blowback loses some of its characters (their loving portrait of Mama’s Lil Glory Boy Douglas MacArthur being a notable exception) and edges into litany-of-atrocities territory, but in an age when so many podcasts, even ones with massive listenerships, basically consist of someone reading a Wikipedia entry to their friend, it’s clear how much extensive reading and genuine scholarship went into Blowback. Not for nothing, it also has the best theme song in the game.
8. Evaporated: Gone With The Gods
I knew of Jake Adelstein as the writer of Tokyo Vice, his memoir about being a crime reporter in Tokyo in the late 90s/early aughts (which became an HBO series this year) so I was excited to listen he also had a podcast. Loosely structured around the investigation into Adelstein’s accountant, who vanished without a trace (and with some of Adelstein’s money) in 2018, Evaporated (co-reported by with Shoko Plambeck) is more of a look into the phenomenon of people essentially dissolving all connection with their lives and moving to a new place to start a new one, which is apparently much easier, and a lot more common in Japan. To the point that there are even specialized moving companies that will help you do it.
A lot of podcasts this year explored narrative side streets and were a little bit woolly in the telling, getting caught up in local lore and the backstories of the unique characters. Evaporated was one of the few to do it well, and in a way that wasn’t dull or confusing. Like Tokyo Vice, Evaporated offers an interesting window into contemporary life in Japan on top of the more conventional detective and narrative stuff. Adelstein is also an enjoyable narrator, a nice mix of informative, unaffected, and sardonically funny in a not-trying-too-hard kind of way.
7. Crooked City: The Emerald Triangle
Marc Smerling, creator of Crimetown and The Jinx, is sort of a perennial on this list. This year, his Crimetown spinoff, Crooked City, released two podcasts. First, Crooked City: Youngstown, OH, hosted by Smerling himself, about the rise and fall of crooked congressman James Traficant; and second, Crooked City: The Emerald Triangle, hosted by Sam Anderson, about a murder in Humboldt County that a childhood friend of Anderson’s was involved in.
I’ve always liked Smerling’s podcasts and was always curious about Traficant, but surprisingly I found myself enjoying the Emerald Triangle season more. The Youngstown season goes down so many narrative side streets and edits its interviews so loosely that I found myself lost or having to rewind thinking I’d missed something, if not outright checking out. Emerald Triangle, meanwhile, is strikingly similar in content to other true-crime-in-pot-country shows like the Sasquatch Murders and Murder on the Mountain, and Anderson at times tends to overshare as a narrator.
Even acknowledging all that, I ended up tearing through it. Something about crime in pot country and the characters there remains compelling, even when you basically know how the story will end from the first episode and you’ve heard almost the same story before. Just when I thought it was fizzling out, Emerald Triangle would reveal another doozy of a detail.
6. Hot Money: Who Rules Porn?
It’s true, I usually have at least one porn-related podcast on my year-end list, and this year is no different (no refunds). While Jon Ronson has done some incredible work in the genre, Hot Money reporters Patricia Nilsson and Alex Barker (both from the Financial Times) finally did what I was hoping someone would: follow the money that porn makes and who underwrites it and try to understand the market forces behind it.
There are reasons this kind of reporting usually doesn’t get done, and it goes beyond editors not wanting to dirty their hands with X-rated content (though that’s also a factor). The people behind some of the world’s biggest porn sites (and figuring out who they even are is a steep climb for even the most seasoned investigative reporters) are both very rich and very litigious, not to mention often sketchy and/or criminal. People generally assume those factors are unique to porn, but as Hot Money goes to great, and brave lengths to point out, they’re actually almost always a symptom of the money porn brings in.
5. Twin Flames
“Cult content” is probably my second favorite non-fiction podcast genre behind “insane con-person.” With NXVM (aka, the most boring “sex cult” in the history of cults) being the most recent cult in the news, we were really due for a good new cult story. Luckily there was “Twin Flames,” a YouTube-famous couple who convinced thousands of lonely followers that they were destined for deep, romantic connection with only one other soul in the universe — and to pursue that soul beyond all reason, mutual attraction, or restraining order. Somehow this becomes, like all cults, both a business scheme and something that looks sort of like religion.
Hosted by Stephanie Beatriz, Twin Flames offers all the surreal lunacy you expect from cult content (“The couple met in 2012, when he “was running ‘a vegetarian Airbnb’ in Hawaii,” and she was “working in a hair salon and studying with a spiritual teacher in Sedona, Arizona.”) and does at least an adequate job reporting what seems like a still-developing story. It sort of fizzles towards the end and probably could’ve benefited, like so much streaming and podcast content these days, from a few more years between the story and the podcast, but not-quite-done-baking cult content is still cult content (I’m explaining how I help cause the problem I’m complaining about here, I know).
4. Chameleon: Wild Boys
Relying as they do on real stories, it’s hard to keep upping the ante on non-fiction podcast series. Yet Chameleon (which had a brilliant first season and a not-too-shabby second one) returned this year with possibly their best story yet. Sam Mullins reports Wild Boys, about a story that took place near where he grew up in British Columbia in 2003, when a pair of emaciated teenagers showed up in a rural town claiming that they’d been raised in the woods by cult survivalist parents and had had no contact with outside society.
That’s a strong premise, and Mullins turns out to be a great host and reporter, selling not only the mystery but also such an evocative slice of people and place that they remain compelling even when the central mystery starts falling apart. Wild Boys ends up being this thoroughly charming mix of the exotic and the familiar. It’s also hard to listen to without partly wishing you were Canadian. Not many podcasts can claim that.
3. Gone South (Season One)
Gone South has released two seasons, season one in late 2021 and season two in October 2022. I guess that technically makes season one a 2021 podcast, but I liked season one a lot better so I’m breaking my own rules and putting it on the list here (listen, buddy, you don’t like it you can take it up with management).
Reported and hosted by Jed Lipinski (producer of Fyre Fraud, in my opinion the superior of the two Fyre Fest documentaries), season one, Who Killed Margaret Coon? is a deep dive into the 1987 stabbing death of the titular former prosecutor, who at the time was out jogging with her dog in an upscale suburb near New Orleans. Obviously, it’s not the first true crime series ever to be made about the murder of a white lady, but there are so many mysterious and lurid subplots in the still-officially-unsolved Coon murder that it’s hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t cooked up by a brilliant novelist. How does every character seem to have a secret life?
Lipinski doesn’t give the impression that he played fast and loose with the truth to make a better podcast here, and yet Who Killed Margaret Coon? is as good a southern gothic crime tale as anything Harry Crews or Elmore Leonard ever wrote.
2. The Trojan Horse Affair
What was that I was saying about my favorite podcast genres? That’s right, a crazy con-person. The Trojan Horse Affair, reported by Hamza Syed and Brian Reed (the latter the creator of S-Town) is a masterpiece of the genre. It all starts with a mysterious letter sent to a city councilor in Birmingham, England, laying out a far-fetched plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools. The letter seems like a hoax on the face of it but still manages to touch off a moderate panic.
In trying to trace the letter’s origins, it turns out this whole national crisis may go back to a somewhat esoteric workplace beef between some public school employees. It turns out, the only thing that makes a phony crisis story more compelling is when it’s also a petty workplace squabble. Meanwhile, Syed and Reed end up having some workplace squabbles of their own, over when being A Person should take precedence over being A Journalist, and vice versa.
1. Bone Valley
Gilbert King won a Pulitzer Prize for Devil In The Grove, and even by the standards of his lifelong project, of documenting the corruption of small-town southern Sheriff’s Departments, his new podcast, Bone Valley, is a shocking tale of injustice. Depicting the case of Leo Schofield, who was convicted and sent to prison for the 1987 murder of his then-wife, Michelle, Bone Valley offers about as much closure as true crime podcast possibly could. It’s the government refusing to provide any.
Even after a convicted serial killer’s fingerprint was found in Michelle’s car, Leo Schofield remained in prison. Even after… well, I’ll save some of the factual details to keep from spoiling the podcast, but suffice it to say, there are a lot. An infuriating number. Short of video, maybe no case has ever had more exculpatory evidence than Schofield’s. I’m willing to betBone Valley will be the most infuriating podcast you listen to this year.
Gilbert King famously helped exonerate four innocent men in Devil In The Grove and explores another corrupt, racist Sheriff in Beneath A Ruthless Sun. You wouldn’t think he’d be able to keep upping the ante on corrupt and/or incompetent Sheriff’s departments, even while moving forward in time (Devil in the Grove – 1949, Beneath A Ruthless Sun – 1957, Bone Valley – 1987), yet it seems he’s been able to do exactly that. Bone Valley raises many important questions, such as what exactly would have to happen for this conviction to get overturned, and why do we even have Sheriff’s Departments?
Did I miss one of your favorites? Leave it in the comments section. Or keep it to yourself, it’s your world, man.