With the Pulitzer board’s recent announcement of a new audio reporting category within the Pulitzer Prizes, podcasts will now be eligible to earn one of journalism’s most prestigious awards.
But where do podcasts stand amid the extremely subjective internet lists that wrap up the year? I looked at some of the audio storytelling world’s best podcast offerings in 2019.
For this list, I rated shows that either premiered in 2019 or provided a new story thread for the year — meaning while I remain devoted to longstanding favorites like Reply All, Criminal and On the Media, I didn’t include them here.
From ABC News and “Nightline” and hosted by ABC News correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, “The Dropout” is a deep dive into the rise and fall of startup Theranos and its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes (much like John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood”). If you are unfamiliar, Holmes dropped out of Stanford after her freshman year to launch the company, claiming to have technology that could run hundreds of tests with a drop of blood, extracted by the prick of a finger. Unfortunately, that technology didn’t (and doesn’t) exist. The collapse involves deception, romance, betrayals and all the other things that make for an engrossing story.
I generally try to limit my consumption of true crime podcasts (I say as I put two on the list), largely because many simply try to mirror Serial. In NPR’s “White Lies,” two Alabama journalists look to solve the infamous 1965 murder of white civil rights activist James Reeb. And here’s the wild thing — they did. But at its core, “White Lies” isn’t a whodunit, it’s an examination of the cultural divide in the civil rights era deep south and its legacy today.
Running From Cops
Host Dan Taberski, perhaps best known in the podcast world for his breakout hit “Missing Richard Simmons,” watched, by his estimate, 850 episodes of the TV show “Cops.” The result is “Running From Cops,” a finely crafted audio story that offers not only a detailed look on how “Cops” is created, but also how one of TV’s original reality shows grossly distorts crime and law enforcement in the United States. Interviews with the show’s creators, police, suspects and law enforcement experts are bolstered by data collected by Taberski during his marathon viewing (for example, 92 percent of traffic stops in “Cops” end in arrest, versus 2 percent in real life). Perhaps most important is Taberski forces us to look at the impact this distortion has on our expectations and interactions with police today.
“The 1619 Project,” an interactive and multimodal project from reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times, examines the legacy of slavery in the United States 400 years after the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived on the continent. The podcast is just one part of the project and its episodes trace the impact the institution had and continues to have on American politics, economics and culture.
From WAMU, “Unprecedented” premiered in October and fills the void left by “More Perfect,” which hasn’t produced an episode in a full year. Focusing on Supreme Court cases with First Amendment implications, the show offers not only legal commentary (including from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg) but interviews with the so-called “accidental guardians” of Americans’ free speech rights. The interviewees aren’t always savory, but they are fascinating and force listeners to analyze where they think free speech lines should be drawn.
Bundyville: The Remnant
I included season two of “Bundyville,” a seven-part series from Oregon Public Broadcasting and Longreads, because it veers in a different direction from season one. While the first season focused on Cliven and Ammon Bundy and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, season two focuses on the armed radicals and white supremacists inspired by the Bundys. It’s a deep dive into fringe groups that seem to be moving in from the edges all the time.