Best New | November-December Podcast Roundup
New Gimlet Podcasts, Y2K, and some Irish Horror
Phew, its been a bumper year for podcasts, and once again the bar is being raised for the platform. I’ve been busy producing my own podcast series, so my podcast listening time has been mostly swallowed by listening to myself back over and over again ad infinitum… but there’s been a couple of real stand-out moments from the last couple of months. Two new Gimlet podcasts, a retrofitted podcast series on Y2K, and an Irish horror audiodrama.
1. Start Up – Success Academy (Gimlet)
The stand-out first season of Start Up, which ended up being adapted for TV (in the now-cancelled Alex Inc), was a runaway success about the founding of podcast network, Gimlet media. Since then each series focuses on a new start-up company or companies, and it has been hit and miss for me – mostly misses. But I always give them a go, and I’m glad I went back to this one.
The series focuses on a network of schools, founded by a former city councillor and social innovator, in New York state called Success Academy. The intention was to create a school environment for kids from a disadvantaged background, where they get an education that prioritises achieving top-notch grade point averages and state test scores and, ultimately, the opportunity to get into elite universities. This behind-the-scenes look inside the classrooms of Success Academy reveals a darker, more sinister side to the school – where inexperienced teachers spend days upon days drilling these poor kids in an army-bootcamp style, rote-learning environment; coaching them to game multiple choice test scores, taking countless tests. The consequences on these poor kids’ social and psychological development is going to be monumental. Fascinating and depressing in equal measure, what’s most surprising about this is how occasionally it doesn’t seem that many miles away from the Irish Leaving Cert prep. It challenges us to think about what education means, what skills we prioritise, and how we measure success in our children and young people.
2. Without Fail (Gimlet)
This is another one from the Gimlet stable, who have been churning out the good stuff recently. When I heard Alex Blumberg, CEO of Gimlet was making an interview podcast, I wasn’t particularly jumping out of my skin at the prospect. Alex is a veteran producer of narrative journalism, storytelling radio with characters, scenes, tension and resolution. I wondered how he’d fare in the bare-bones environment of a one-on-one interview podcast. And with so many competing ‘two guys and a mic’ podcasts out there, how would his rise above? I also find that a lot of interview podcasts suffer similar problems: often, the interviewer is a name in and of themselves, and uses the podcast as a self-promotion tool, so they talk too much, it’s too much about them; they are often sparsely if at all edited (please, please edit your podcasts); and they tend to be way too long, and have way too many tangents. But Without Fail is a stand-out in the sometimes-tired interview genre.
Because he’s a total radio stalwart, Alex knows how to ‘get good tape.’ He is a kind, compassionate, empathetic listener. He gives a shit about his guests, he cares about their lives. So the resulting interviews are compelling, eye-opening and like no other interview I’ve heard with any of his guests. The Ira Glass interview is an absolute stand-out. Interview mastery at its finest.
3. Headlong – Surviving Y2K
Some of you may have listened to Missing Richard Simmons, one of the most controversial podcasts of last year with a massive cult following. If you haven’t, immediately go listen. It’s well worth your time. Its producer, Dan Taberski is back, and after the success of this one-off series, he’s retrofitting an idea for a recurring series, called Headlong: a deep dive into culture he thinks we might be getting wrong. This was a really smart move, because his one good idea (Missing Richard Simmons) ended up having legs, and rather than try and start again from scratch, he’s making it work.
Surviving Y2K takes all of the pent up tension, energy, and possibility wrapped up in the turning of the millennium as a jumping off point to tell the story of people impacted by Y2K: doomsday preppers, end-of-the-world cults, computer programmers working on the bug, people caught up in a hostage situation as the clock turned 12, and his own personal story of his marriage ending. We all know where we were on that night, and I can remember the feeling of the looming unknown in the lead-in to the year 2000. Traberski expertly weaves these stories together, and despite it being all historical stories (which, when retold, can lose dramatic impact), he retains a nail-biting urgency. Emotional, hilarious and at times, excruciatingly tense; Surviving Y2K isn’t just one of the best new podcasts in the last two months: it’s a favourite of mine from 2018.
I do love a well-made, well-written fiction podcast (although they can be hard to come by), and horror fiction is my favourite. This new Irish horror anthology podcast is from the brilliant and innovative theatre producer Peter Dunne and veteran radio journalist and podcaster Liam Geraghty. Every week, there’s a brand new story with a cast of Irish actors. The first episode is set in a remote, late night radio station, and is a terrifying tale of increasingly disturbing calls from listeners out there in the dark. It wonderfully evokes the uniquely Irish gothic imagination… motifs of the night, isolation, loneliness, dark boreens and mysterious strangers echo throughout; and yet it feels utterly current.
Petrified’s first episode is really promising, and highlights the opportunities for theatre-makers to explore podcasting as a medium: the sound design, the atmosphere-creating potential, along with the intimacy with the audience through headphone listening – it’s all there for the taking. I’d love to see more fiction podcasts created by theatre makers in the future, and the potential for companion live events is huge here, too.
And the rest…
A couple of honourable mentions:
- Strong Songs by Kirk Hamilton is a treat for any music lover
- Heston’s Pod and Chips is a multi-sensory food podcast with Heston Blumental
- Their Own Devices tackles the impact of technology on children’s lives.
And if you’ll allow me to be a little bit cheeky, I’ll give a little plug to my own latest podcast, Where There’s A Will, is a six-part series that looks at the mental health services in Ireland. It was a tough make, and it can be a tough listen at times, but it’s radically changed the way I think and feel about mental health.