Our podcast team shares their favorite listens of 2021

Need a podcast to listen to? The WBUR podcast team has you covered. (Getty Images)
Need a podcast to listen to? The WBUR podcast team has you covered. (Getty Images)

Podcasts: Are there enough of them? Yes, we think so, but there’s always room for more! Right, Quentin Tarantino and Carrie Bradshaw?

2021 has been another red-letter year for podcasts, which means there is an endless list to pick from. So, our podcast team has some suggestions for you – aside from the podcasts we’ve made and produced at WBUR, which you should totally listen to! Take a break from Twitter and, hopefully, some time off from work to do some lean-back listening over the holiday.

From shows we just discovered, to new arrivals and classics that are still bringing the goods, here are some of our favorites:

Nora Saks, producer

Guardians of The River: A collaboration of National Geographic, the Wild Bird Trust and House of Pod, this is an immersive and complex journey into the Okavango River Basin in Southern Africa, as told by those trying to protect it. The sound design puts you right into the magic and mystery of the jungle and the delta, as you travel alongside the people and groups who live there and have the most stake in its future.

Outside/In,“Windfall” series: NHPR's Outside/In team will blow you away as they get deep into the promises and pitfalls of one industry that could have a big role in our renewable future: offshore wind. This also has a local tie: It looks into this power source, and who has the power over it, by telling the surprisingly dramatic story of one project off the coast of Cape Cod.

Stolen: The Search for Jermain: Gimlet’s Connie Walker continues to shine a bright light on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women by investigating what happened to Jermain Charlo, a young Native mother in Montana. Stolen is a must-listen because the reporting is brave, necessary, and highlights voices and communities we need to hear from more. This is high-impact journalism, and masterful storytelling.

Quincy Walters, producer

Planet Money, “Night Of The Living Inflation”: Adrian Ma — a former WBUR reporter --  told the story of inflation as if it were a time-transcendent monster. It was cool and inventive — and also informative.

Adultish, “Owning Up to ISH”: I like this one because it’s a good exercise in narrative storytelling. The show is usually like a chat-cast, but this episode takes us through a journey. It was very thoughtful in both sound design and story. I actually DM’ed one of the hosts to tell them how awesome that episode was. (And I’m never compelled to do that.)

Paul Vaitkus, manager of podcast production

The Nine Club: Skateboarding has influenced culture and community for decades. Sit back, relax and be a fly on the wall during conversations with some of today's most influential skaters from the past to present. It’s a great way to learn about skateboarding's past and keep up-to-date with the present.

Song Exploder: Each episode dissects a hit song, peeling back the layers to explain what makes the song great. From Aurora to Weezer, if you're passionate about music, there is an episode for you.

Kristin Torres, producer

Spectacle: An Unscripted History of Reality TV: Neon Hum's Spectacle is on nearly every “best of” list, and for good reason. Whether you're a reality TV junkie or curious about what draws people to watch these TV circuses, you'll get a fun and surprisingly deep look into the cultural history of trashy TV.

Suave: From the co-creators of our award-winning podcast “Anything for Selena,” “Suave” is a gripping narrative series about a decades-long relationship/mentorship between veteran journalist Maria Hinojosa and an incarcerated youth who, now at 50, must come to terms with what it means to spend life behind bars.

Dean Russell, producer

The Shadows: Written, directed and starring Kaitlin Prest, this 2018 CBC series is an elegant portrayal of a relationship in all of its ecstasies, agonies and fraught choices. Few fiction podcasts compare to The Shadows, with its vérité sound design, creative storytelling and effortless acting.

An Oral History of The Office: Most TV-centered podcasts are gabfests. But An Oral History of The Office is a comprehensive rendering of how a television show gets made — from seed to awkward-yet-beautiful blossom. Hosted by Brian Baumgartner, a.k.a. Kevin Malone, this series is a treat for anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to be behind the camera.

Radiolab, “Breath”: Got an hour and a half? This episode of WNYC’s Radiolab will likely deter the average listener with its epic length, but not one second is unwelcome in this circuitous saga from a baby’s first breath — wait, how do lungs just know what to do? — to breath mints and ventilator allocation in New York. It’s great for long car or plane rides.

Amory Sivertson, senior producer

How it Happened: The Next Astronauts: This series from Axios introduces you to the four people who made up the first all-civilian crew to go to space earlier this year on SpaceX's Inspiration4 mission. You can feel their anticipation, nerves, hopes and wonder. It's like listening to a dream come true.

Not Past It: Whoever thinks history shows are dull has never listened to this one from Gimlet, ZSP Media and Spotify. Each episode revisits an event from that week in history, and I'll shamelessly admit I hadn't heard of most of them. The host, Simone Polanen, guides you through each story with personality and wit, and the sound design is *chef's kiss.*

The Turning: The Sisters Who Left: In 2019, WBUR iLab alums Jessica Alpert and John Perotti formed the podcast company Rococo Punch. This limited series from Rococo and iHeart Media, reported and hosted by former host of WBUR's Kind World Erika Lantz, tells the story of Mother Teresa's Catholic order, the Missionaries of Charity. The stories are told through the lens of women who left the order. It's poignant, painful, surprising and beautifully done.

Ben Brock Johnson, executive producer

Heavyweight’s “Brandon”: I have a question. Do you remember joy? It’s a hard thing to do in 2021, as we careen into another lonely COVID winter. While it may not be everyone’s favorite Heavyweight episode, this story from one of my favorite podcast writers, Jonathan Goldstein, brought me joy. Maybe it’s the main character’s specific memories about being a misfit, or the unapologetic love of his partner --1 or even the simplicity of how his prom date explains why, of all the overweight weirdos in the world, she picked him to go do the big dance. Whatever it is, this podcast has  great vibes.

Endless Thread’sI’ve Heard This Before”: Yes yes… wearing my own band’s t-shirt on stage here, but Dean Russell did a fantastic job of taking my weird idea for an episode from our meme series and making it real. In our final deep dive on memes we talk about a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode that may have predicted internet memes, how musical ideas of all kinds fit the definition of memes, and how in some way, defining memes as their own thing ignores the fact that like everything else, they’re just units of culture we all share with each other and discuss in a creative way–which feels eternal.


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