The first season takes a deeply reported and highly skeptical look at multi-level marketing schemes. If you’ve ever paused in your scrolling to wonder why so many of your Facebook friends want to invite you over to try their cosmetics, an extremely binge-able 11 episodes from Little Everywhere and Stitcher will explain all, and leave you wondering how this can possibly be legal. Their second season, on the wellness industry, just launched in December.
If you can’t get enough of the wild story of Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos – or just can’t seem to get around to reading the copy of Bad Blood you bought – you’ll enjoy this six-part account of how the Stanford dropout with the fake-deep voice conned investors, employees and the media into believing her too-good-to-be-true tale. No matter how many times I read/hear/watch this story, I never get tired of it.
No matter what he’s talking about, Dan Taberski’s narration manages to be so delightful that I’d listen to him read a list of shampoo ingredients. But this six-episode show from Pineapple Street Studios is much more interesting, even for someone (like yours truly) who has never watched a single episode of the ubiquitous “reality” policing show. Taberski himself is a veteran of the reality-TV industry, and uses his insight into how the sausage is made to explore how the long-running show’s popularity has changed policing, recruiting and interactions with citizens.
From the brain and vocal chords of Jad Abumrad (of Radiolab fame) and WNYC studios come nine gorgeous episodes that seek to explain how the Tennessee singer became so beloved in a country that can’t seem to agree on anything but its love for her.
But at an even more fundamental level than that, I enjoyed this podcast purely for its entrepreneurial up-by-her-rhinestone-bootstraps story. (For hip-hop fans, season one of Mogul, produced by Gimlet, offers a look at a very different rags-to-riches music industry story.)
This engrossing true-crime tale from New Hampshire public radio looks at a cold case almost completely solved (spoiler alert) in 2019. As with the better-known Golden State Killer case, the breakthrough hinged on DNA submitted voluntarily to those wildly popular find-lost-relatives, track-your-ancestors databases. A thought-provoking look at the unintended consequences of a burgeoning, and not all that regulated, industry.
‘Tis the season of impeachment, so what better time to brush up on your knowledge of prior presidents’ improprieties? Seasons 1 and 2 look at Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, respectively, and capture what it felt like to live through those scandals when the outcome wasn’t certain, and every random red herring seemed like it could be The Final Straw.
To my ear, this is the single best podcast out there on our current president’s impeachment crisis. Over three seasons, it looks at Donald Trump’s campaign ties with Russia; the run-up to and aftermath of the Mueller report; and the rise of Vladimir Putin. It’s also Australian – produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – which gives it a healthy dose of distance. Somehow, despite the heavy subject matter, it’s really fun to listen to.
Believed, Dr. Death and The Shrink Next Door
This trio of podcasts will have you questioning the implicit trust we put in the people wearing white coats. Believed (produced by NPR and Michigan Radio) focuses on Larry Nassar, and how he managed to get away with abusing hundreds of young gymnasts for so long – many of them while their parents were in the room. It’s a tough listen, but an important one.
Dr. Death, from Wondery, asks why a destructive quack surgeon was so hard to stop. And The Shrink Next Door, from Wondery and my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Joe Nocera, turns the lens of medical malpractice onto the mental-health arena.
Technically, this is not a standalone podcast. Instead, it’s a classic two-part episode by This American Life that I just can’t unhear. The story of how a high school janitor managed to terrorize an entire town – narrated and reported by a pre-Serial Sarah Koenig – is a bizarre illustration of just how completely even a small amount of power can corrupt. Something to keep in mind as we head into a new year: We each have some amount of influence, no matter how small, and we we each have the power to decide how we’ll use it.