We made it, fellow listeners!
Welcome to the Special Edition Audio Dramatic: Bests in Podcasting! Thank you for sticking with me through an empty December while I healed from eye surgery and handled the holidays, and thank you in advance for your patience in January, because that's when I'm taking a bunch of time off to go to weddings and conventions. (More on this later!)
Not to just keep repeating myself, but 2018 has been the longest decade I’ve ever experienced, up to the point where a couple of my choices on the best of lists were placed after I realized “wait, that came out in 2018?”. I have aged in 2018 and all of it together has made me a little afraid for 2019 -- what if it’s just more of the same? Am I able to take that loop off? -- and I'm sure I'm not alone. It becomes important now to recall that as people who have been engaged with pop culture and entertainment media for a long time, we’re able to identify the paths that publishers and sponsors have gone down before that don’t work and just lead to another loop.
When we think of 2018, I want us to think of Phoebe Wang’s fiery speech from Third Coast, and how we can all support podcasters of color -- really support them, not just pay lip service. I want to think about how audio fiction is getting to have its time in the sun, overshadowing those who were built up only around celebrity names. We can point to events like Podcast Movement and the Austin Film Festival as important, central stars in podcasting conferences and conventions, who lift up creators, find them resources, and give them the tools they seek. Let’s talk about how great the indie podcasting scene is, in nonfiction and in fiction, and about the rise of hopepunk not only as a way to find the fire and courage to continue the fight for equality and justice, but to discuss all of the different communities and outcomes we can hope for.
And when we say goodbye to 2018, I want us to celebrate the incredible audio delights that reached our ears and those of our friends, audio that may have changed someone's mind, touched someone's heart, or brought people closer together.
Before we begin, some essential housekeeping:
- As ever, I am one person and I cannot consume all the podcasts (no matter how much it may look like I do). Not only that, but I am a person, which means I have likes and dislikes and biases towards genres, styles, and methodologies. Some preferences that guide my listening in general are indie fiction, a focus on marginalized voices, and tightly-scripted historical narratives. Preferences that guided my listening in 2018 were nonfiction personal storytelling, one-on-one interviews, and non-traditional editing styles.
- I have six separate lists -- best debut fiction/nonfiction, best returning fiction/nonfiction, best performances, and best production. I have not compiled a favorite episodes of 2018 list because you can find those on the Bello Collective 100 Outstanding Podcasts list. “Returning” is for podcasts that returned in 2018 with an exemplary new season; “debut” is for podcasts that started in 2018 only.
- Why have I made the Debut vs. Returning distinction? I feel it’s necessary to not conflate new podcasts with pre-existing ones that already have a season or more under their belt; it’s an unfair advantage, especially in independent podcasting where a lot of skills are learned on the go, as it were. At the same time, I don’t want to ignore exemplary and incredible seasons produced by those returning podcasts, especially if it shows marked improvement; they also deserve to shine and to be called out as models for podcasting. Thus, I’ve separated the lists. (Really, it just means more podcasts for you to listen to.)
- I found it difficult to keep up with podcasts that have a lot of output (e.g. weekly), but every time I was able to tune in to Just Break Up, I always ended up touched, crying, and thinking deeply about relationships, both romantic and platonic. Sierra DeMulder and Sam Blackwell are empathetic hosts with great chemistry, and with all the necessary qualities for guiding a relationship advice podcast, and they deserve an honorary mention.
- Limited series investigative crime seems to keep climbing in production numbers, and it soon became overwhelming for me in 2018, especially since my academic work deals with social injustices. Which leads me to my next honorary mention: Death in Ice Valley, for being the true crime podcast with a methodology that led them to be one of the most ethically understanding and grounded of the genre that I’ve heard in a long time.
- I was unable to get to some things that I wanted to until it was too late, which brings me to my final runner-up: The Phenomenon, which has had a great return with their second season and whose team has consistently managed to create unnerving audio while deftly handling an enormous cast.
In order to be considered for best production (a term which I use to encompass editing, mixing, and sound design), the podcast had to be exemplary in episodes released in 2018. That means the podcast could have debuted in 2018, or it could be new episodes in a returning podcast. Sound design from previous years was not part of the consideration process.
1. What’s the Frequency?
What's the Frequency? brazenly broke rules and pushed back against boundaries to create experimental noir audio that was wrapped around and woven through a mysterious narrative. The design challenges the listener--this podcast requires your full attention and benefits from multiple listens--but never went so overboard that the plot or characters became lost and impossible to be found again.
2. The Shadows
The production of The Shadows is, first and foremost, raw; the improvised scenes of a messy, romantic relationship were recorded on Zoom H1s (digital recorders), sometimes left within bedsheets. The realness of this sound design is what makes The Shadows one of the most subversive and challenging podcasts of the year.
Ear Epic astonished right out of the gate with its audacious and cinematic production, morphing cues usually found in visual mediums to a podcast and setting new heights to reach. This colorful, strange world is rife with impressive foley, especially for the machines and weapons, tied together with lush backgrounds of busy cities and vast deserts.
Whisperforge's hopeful science-fiction travels through space and across planets, each with their own sound pattern that brings a sense of culture and life to them. Between the hands of Mischa Stanton and Anna Rodríguez, StarTripper!!'s universes jump out of your headphones and directly into your senses.
5. Wolverine: The Long Night
Between the combination of ambisonic microphones with on-location recording, and the clever design like the zooming in on previously muffled or distant audio to shift in time, Wolverine's production was stellar across the board. Marvel's podcast played with the link between past and present, mirrored between the sound and the story.
6. Archive 81
Archive 81 has been known to push the envelope of horror design, and their third season is their best foray yet into what makes a listener's brain curl up in fear. In creating new horrors to explore--the danger of ritual, far away dream lands, magic spells and strange ingredients--Archive 81 revelled in complex and layered soundscapes.
7. Janus Descending
This is Julia Schifini's debut as a sound designer, though you'd have to read that somewhere in order to believe it; Janus Descending's rich and detailed environment encapsulates the horrors of space yet unknown. This is a ride of pure tension and distress, from every staticky scream to the ominous vague vocalizations, and even the silences are full of that horrified quality.
Dreamboy's magic is in the seamless creation of a world from music alone; music underscores Dane's emotions as he languishes in this small town and outlines the narrative path while the sky starts going purple. Like the story itself, the production is esoteric, dreamlike, and surreal, but there is no bumpy feeling of skipping through songs on an album; every moment and note has a place and purpose.
9. Point Mystic
Point Mystic's second season is an intricate design of close-to-the-ear narrative and right-behind-you sound design that has made me check over my shoulder in the dark. But its pinnacle achievement is the level of editing involved in producing improvised interviews set in a fictional universe and drawing from very real experiences, so that they don’t feel out of place.
Tides’ production for their first season was an accomplished balance between polishing dialogue until it gleams and highlighting loneliness in a dialogue where one-half of the conversation isn’t happening. What's most impressive about Tides is the subtlety of the alien planet of Fons, which we're listening to through the helmet of Dr. Eurus; alien life is distant, until it's not at all, and that moment will make you swallow your own tongue.
Performances are specifically for voice actors who performed in audio fiction in 2018, both in debuting and returning podcasts. In order to be considered, performances had to be exemplary in episodes released in 2018. They had to be standout, memorable performances, or bring new insight into the character. Performances prior to 2018 were not part of the consideration process.
1. Mayumi Yoshida, The Big Loop: “Surfacing”
The Big Loop’s writer Paul Bae casts actors before completing the writing for the monologue, so that every word is perfectly in tune with the voice actor’s skill. Yoshida’s performance in the season two opener was soft and subtle, poignant and agonizing; she makes everything in the world seem suspended in water for the entirety of this episode.
2. Paige Gilbert, Adventures in New America
Adventures in New America is a frenetic Afrofuturistic universe full of high-energy hilarity, all of it packed into in the character of Simon Carr. Listening to Gilbert embody danger and risk, speaking everything she thinks, and stand strong for everything she believes in, raises the heart rate and infects listeners with nervous and delighted laughter.
3. Morgan Givens, Flyest Fables
In Flyest Fables, Givens showcases his impressive range of vocal talents, as he voices all of the characters and narrates the stories. It gives the podcast a genuine storyteller quality, the kind of thing you read out loud or with a flashlight right before bed, and the depth and distinction between all the voices is truly masterful.
4. Julia Schifini, Tides
In 2018, Julia Schifini has quickly become the voice to know and one that will soon become familiar to regular listeners of audio fiction, as she’s been cast in all kinds of productions, but her work as Tides’ Dr. Winifred Eurus is a highlight so far. She is riveting as she spews scientific analysis of alien life as though they were second nature and entices listeners to love her, even as she hides her pain and fear behind sarcastic barbs.
5. Oscar Sabogal, Love and Luck
Sabogal's debut as Michael brought tears to my eyes, and he has consistently put all of himself and his experiences into Erin Kyan's writing. As the focus of Love and Luck widens its scope, so too does Sabogal demonstrate the breadth of possibility with only his voice to bring Michael to the edge of distress and to quietly firm moments of warmth.
6. James Oliva, Greater Boston
Oliva’s versatility is what makes him excel in his many roles across a multitude of podcasts, especially as gentle and shifting Michael in Greater Boston. Michael's role in season three required both mimicry and an enormous shift in style, without forgetting the roots and foundation of his being; Oliva excels at layered characters, and in keeping hold of the reasons why listeners adore Michael.
7. Adriana Ugarte, Guerra 3
Ugarte’s performance as reporter Jimena Torres slams into listeners heart-first, right from the beginning, tragic and fierce in the world where World War III has broken out. You can either imagine a thousand different ways WWIII could go down, or none at all; Adriana Ugarte will make you believe this one in its entirety.
8. Brian Irwin, Boom
For three seasons, Irwin has played the part of Boom’s villain to the hilt, with all the skeeze and distortion of reality necessary for Luke’s character. It can be difficult to play this character where that level of wrongness feels natural, where a listener might think no, he really believes what he’s saying; Irwin has always made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
9. Courtney Dietz, Midnight Radio
Sybil was one of the most soothing, reliably period voices in podcasting; Dietz carries this podcast's sepia-toned mood in her timbre. Every inch of this performance was immersive and, importantly, not cheesy, which is easy to fall into accidentally when aiming for an old school radio tone.
10. Jordan Cobb, Janus Descending
The tragedy of Chel and Peter, introduced through the opposing timestream narrative structure, takes on a new form when Cobb plays Chel as cheerful, reckless, adventurous, and curious. Cobb is going to pull our hearts out. When you already know whatever is going to happen isn’t good, it becomes that much harder to get listeners to invest in that character; Cobb makes it effortless to love Chel.
In order to be considered for best new fiction, the podcast had to have debuted their first full episode in 2018, as well as at least five episodes of their season (including bonus content, but not including promotional materials). The season had to have been exemplary, and previous work by anyone involved was not part of the consideration process.
1. The Shadows
The Shadows’ six episodes tackled with uncomfortable honesty the expectations of monogamy and what it means to be in love. Everything about this work challenges societal standards about love and relationships with no apologies, and it would not have worked without the brilliance of both Kaitlin Prest and Phoebe Wang, as well as the mind-blowing decision to improvise the scenes between Kaitlin and Charlie.
Set in a futuristic city, Joseph follows a bounty hunter as he tracks down a terrorist using exo-skeleton tech to exact revenge. This is the kind of fiction that demands a replay solely because you can’t believe this audio design is possible; boasting an immensely talented and diverse cast and crew, Joseph demonstrated their understanding of how best to get listeners to stop dead in their tracks.
Arden swept me away with a satire of investigative true crime podcasts, when two investigators go looking for the answers to the case of Julie Capsom, who disappeared ten years prior. It subverts both true crime and parodies of them at one time and is a much needed look at what it means to put victims and their lives on full display. Michelle Agresti and Tracey Sayed astound with their chemistry and their comedic timing, and that assurance and talent is what clinches Arden as an insightful critique, and not a mistimed joke.
When I just need to escape, joining Feston Pyxis on his journey into space after quitting his boring desk job was always my first port of call. Ian McQuown is delightfully chaotic as Feston, who travels with his integrated assistant, Proxy, across galaxies abundant with life and fun. At a time when the real world threatens many things we hold dear, StarTripper!! centers radical empathy and hope in Feston and Proxy’s lives.
5. Station Blue
A slow burn horror in isolated Antarctica, the story of Matthew Leeds is one that made me grit my jaw and cry my eyes out. In Station Blue, it might feel like you’re in Antarctica, but what it most feels like is that you’re in the Antarctica inside Matthew’s head, pitting a future Matthew who knows what happens against the present Matthew, as well as the listener, which makes for a frightening, existential podcast.
6. The End of Time and Other Bothers
I don’t listen to actual plays very often, but Other Bothers captivated me with its dedication to storytelling over number crunching and table talk, while three very unlikely heroes have to go save time and the universes as we know them. These are hilarious, talented improvisers and gamers, the entire experienced enhance by the expert sound design of Eli McIlveen, and by the end of the first season, listeners will find that they have placed great care and love into the protagonists.
7. Adventures in New America
A surreal political satire, in the Afrofuturistic New New York the depressed and dying IA becomes desperate to find money to treat his cancer, though that means having to deal with Simon Carr, the bombastic sneak-thief who IA wishes would just go away. It’s uproarious, but it doesn’t shy away from cutting, unveiled social critique.
8. Super Ordinary
Super Ordinary follows the intertwining storylines of Anika, the teenage girl whose superpowers are unfortunately connected to her anxiety attacks, and Sean, the reporter who is hellbent on covering her story. It deals both kindly and pragmatically with mental illness, and how we frame the stories surrounding those whom we may not understand.
9. Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services
Lisette Alvarez burned brightly this year as Kalila Stormfire, a witch who suffers from sabotage to her new business. Structured as separate case files from each time Kalila helped a customer, the underlying thread of that mystery comes to an explosive head in the season finale throughout an intimate story.
10. We Fix Space Junk
We Fix Space Junk centers on the galactic travels of a fugitive ex-heiress and a seasoned smuggler after they get saddled with each other and a spaceship-load of debt. It’s a Discworldian comedy inspired by student debt, where the ridiculousness dials up to eleven and hangs on by its fingernails, tempered by emotional moments and the occasional shock as is found in deep space.
2018 was a great year, and I can promise more exciting things coming in 2019, including a rapid expansion into nonfiction podcast critique on my website. If you'd like to support my work, the continuance of this newsletter, or anything else I've done that's helped or supported you this year, my Ko-Fi link is below. Every little bit really does help in the world of freelancing and the hustle.
In order to be considered for best new nonfiction, the podcast had to have debuted their first full episode in 2018, as well as at least five episodes of their season (including bonus content, but not including promotional materials). The season had to have been exemplary, and previous work by anyone involved was not part of the consideration process.
Accession steps outside of the box for art history narratives, as well as outside of the ivory tower. This podcast exemplified risky decisions with audio and structure that have incredible pay-off and a genuine care and concern not just for the content and artwork, but for the listener and their accessibility.
This immersive experience takes listeners into the experience of being trapped in an avalanche, and deeply inside of empathetic experiences. Qualia produced research and reporting that was not just ambitious, but beautifully and intelligently designed to reach listeners where it matters most: their hearts.
3. Bughouse Square with Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing’s skills as an interviewer shine in this podcast created with the Studs Terkel Radio Archive; all of these episodes are insightful dives into a variety of complicated social issues. The pairing of lovingly archived and selected interview recordings between Terkel and a variety of famous voices, and Ewing’s own interviews with leaders in a related field, creates compelling, thought-provoking audio.
The newest podcast from Multitude Productions is a quietly subversive podcast about basketball, but not about the points and numbers. I never thought I’d listen to a sports podcast, but Silver and Schubert are wacky, fun hosts, who are all about kindness, unbelievable facts, and breaking down patriarchal walls.
5. No Bad Ideas
From the Wolf 359 creator team--Gabriel Urbina, Sarah Shachat, and Zach Valenti--comes this hysterical delirium of a writing podcast. In each episode, one of them brings a bad idea from the internet, and the other two are tasking with crafting a story around it, and it’s a total hoot; afterwards, they spend time talking about their projects, progress, and the issues they have to tackle as creators.
6. The Dream
This podcast set my teeth on edge with its deep dive into multi-level marketing and how those pyramid schemes take advantage of its targets, especially women. It’s thoughtful, it’s a wild ride, and it’s chilling and you can't help but think about the bravery and stubbornness of all the journalists involved.
7. The Slowdown
This podcast became a near-daily focus of my weekdays, as U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith guides listeners to look at the world differently through the lens of poetry. It’s a quick five minutes for every episode, but they’re episodes to be played over and over so you can keep Smith’s commentary in mind while experiencing lovingly delivered poems.
An exemplary podcast for niche historical narratives, Shedunnit provides the context, background, and mysteries surrounding classic detective novels. Caroline Crampton’s dedication to making sure that the mood is thematically appropriate with era-appropriate music and her skill at narrative means that Shedunnit is both enriching and fascinating.
New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi tackles the question of how people are radicalized into ISIS in a brutal, teeth-gritting listen. It coolly hooks listeners over and over again, even when it’s least expected, and provides a complete picture of related reporting and events.
10. Ghoul Intentions
Ghoul Intentions boasts a difficult balance of spooky narrative audio and funny, engaging conversation between the hosts Jamie Marchi and J. Michael Tatum. They are both accomplished voice actors and they treat the submitted stories with kindness and understanding, while also speaking honestly about their own experiences.
In order to be considered for best returning fiction, the podcast had to have premiered its first season prior to 2018, and released at least five episodes of a new, especially exemplary season in 2018 (unless the podcast regularly has fewer than five episodes as their complete season). The season had to have exceeded the expectations set by previous seasons.
1. Greater Boston
Greater Boston’s third season has been wrapping up loose ends and opening up new ones in this slipstream fiction about an alternate Boston; their greatest strength has always been in the interweaving of seemingly disparate stories and through the dragging hand of fate, drawing them closer together. Jeff Van Dreason and Alexander Danner’s season this year was a sparkling return to Redline, and all its mess.
2. The Big Loop
Season two of The Big Loop was, if possible, more heartbreaking than the first. Between an inspiring list of actors, and Bae’s personalized monologue writing style, and Jin’s exacting precision for sound design, The Big Loop returned this year with a more nuanced look at what it means to be human.
3. Archive 81
This season astonished with the expansion in scope--an hour-long whaling adventure episode, complex foley creation, drawing together the threads placed in previous seasons--and has cemented its place as my favorite season. It was terrifying not only in sound, but in conceit, with a navigable storyline and a concrete understanding of what, exactly, there was to fear.
Palimpsest’s second season, about a 19th century child of Irish immigrants who meets the Fae in a period-appropriate circus, is the queer, likely-doomed love story I never knew I needed. Featuring Hayley Heninger as the tender narrator of Jamie Ridenhour’s touching, gorgeous wordsmithery, Palimpsest embraces the ghosts and shadows we don’t want to speak about.
5. Alba Salix
Alba Salix’s return for season two is much lauded for a reason: they have found a solid footing in both purpose and design. The House of Healing in Farloria, run by the perpetually exhausted eponymous Royal Physician, is getting the bureaucratic sprucing up this season--an interloper! While each episode is still the somewhat standalone hijinks we know and love, there is now a strong central arc linking them all together, creating a cohesive season that’s heavily tongue-firmly-in-cheek.
6. The Far Meridian
The best part about any follow-up season is witnessing tangible growth in much beloved characters; Peri, who sought her brought with her traveling lighthouse, grows a little more confident, knowledgeable, and understanding in this season. Eli Barraza puts into practice all that was shown in the first season, and in the same beautiful and haunting way that The Far Meridian is known for.
7. Within the Wires
Lee LeBreton starring as the protagonist for the political thriller of this season was an inspired casting, as they are able to create that 50s suave confidence and yet also entirely sympathetic persona. This season of Within the Wires has been the best for me so far, with fluid scripting, a noticeable comfort within the frame, and atmosphere-setting jazz music.
8. El Gran Apagón
This science-fiction podcast portrays what happens after an enormous solar flare knocks out the electricity on earth. Each episode deals with disparate characters and families, and pulling those threads together and tying them off neatly is not an easy feat, but one that El Gran Apagón succeeded in doing for their final season.
9. The White Vault
Fool and Scholar Productions have managed to make the second season of The White Vault even colder than the first. As everything continues to worsen and each step down into the winter brings only more complications, the horror here closes in on the protagonists; just as it circles them, so too does the sound trap the listener in closer and deeper.
Boom has always been the most anxiety-inducing thriller podcast on my list, and the third season did not hold back on the tension, when it could have easily dropped away. Faith McQuinn’s Boom follows the life of Porter after an explosion rocks his world, and the third season showcases not only McQuinn’s tight scripting and the voice actors’ immense talents, but the research and care taken in portraying subjects like the legal system, PTSD, and recovery from trauma.
In order to be considered for best returning nonfiction, the podcast had to have premiered its first season prior to 2018, and released at least five episodes of a new, especially exemplary season in 2018 (unless the podcast regularly has fewer than five episodes as their complete season). The season had to have exceeded the expectations set by previous seasons.
1. Love + Radio
Love + Radio’s third season has been beautiful, gut-wrenching, and unexpected--for instance, it broke down the reality of Scientology and produced a fiction episode. This podcast continues to push at the boundaries and expectations for interview and storytelling audio, and that includes giving exactly as much space as it needed to the subject.
2. The Stoop
If you haven’t listened to The Stoop, this is about Black joy and stories from across the Black diaspora with two phenomenal hosts, Hana Baba and Leila Day. Their second second launched them to the top of my listen queue on the regular, as they have settled into a wonderful rhythm and selected topics that often go unspoken and benefited from being brought into the light as they did.
3. Missing & Murdered
Finding Cleo was an impactful, heart-wrenching season, as Connie Walker investigated what happened to a young Cree girl, Cleo, who was taken from her family in the 1970s as part of the governmental program to “rehome” Indigenous children. It’s uncomfortable and does not sidestep the colonialism, racism, and related horrors suffered by Indigenous communities in Canada.
4. SPUN Stories
Spun Stories is a live storytelling event from Darwin, Australia, and their fifth season was top to bottom a phenomenal line-up of honest, emotional storytellers. They keep the vibe of an intimate setting, with the sounds of the audience reactions in all the best places, and this season was a wrenching exploration of risk, danger, and strength.
5. Sound Africa
Sound Africa's creative nonfiction does not toy with the expectations of reality, but instead with presentation and sound design to great effect. These are deeply personal stories from South Africa and the rest of the African continent, and their season this year has been fearless in style and subject matter.
Iconography’s second season was some of the best niche historical storytelling in 2018, demonstrating increased confidence and focus from the first season in every aspect, from the writing to the audio design. This season deconstructs historical icons and related myths from New England and leaves no stone unturned.
7. Hollywood in Color
Diana Martínez’s return with Hollywood in Color, which discusses people of color left out from the history of the silver screen, brought the flawlessly researched three-part series of Hattie McDaniel, the first Black performer to win an Academy Award. Martínez weaves history until it interlocks with the present, from McDaniel’s triumphs to the awards won by more recent Black actresses.
8. Esto No es Radio
Esto No es Radio is an impeccable look into the extraordinary moments of people’s lives, stories that are personal and highly emotional. Fernando Hernández Becerra traveled throughout Mexico collecting these stories, and with both precision and care, executed a beautiful vision of that glimpse into transformational moments.
9. Hostile Worlds
Hostile Worlds is a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, a podcast about exploring space and everything that's out there, through the framework of a the small crew of The Tardigrade, an all-purpose vehicle that includes spaceflight. They presented incredible work in 2018, and listening to academics and scientists play along with the game while imparting useful scientific understanding of the universe is always a whimsical experience.
10. Flash Forward
Flash Forward’s fourth season made no bones out of tackling difficult subjects head-on, while continuing to raise the bar for curious topics (what would it mean to be pregnant in space? what would a museum of robot-made art be like?) and scientific research. Rose Eveleth has executed an expansive project in considering the possibilities for the future, and done so with finesse and expertise.
AND THAT'S A WRAP!
You'll be able to find these lists on my website as well! Remember, as always, that these aren't objective and are, in fact, highly subjective. Thank you for creating, listening, supporting, and reading in 2018! Newsletters dates for January are Wednesday the 16th and Monday the 28th, after which they'll return to a regular schedule.
If you'd like to ask me questions or comments, you can reply to this newsletter (it goes directly to my email!) or reach out to me on Twitter.
Happy New Year!