The best podcasts of 2018 so far

Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

With one study recently estimating that as many as 180 million Americans are listening to online audio each month, podcasting as a form is indisputably on the rise in every way—a fact demonstrated by its inclusion, for the first time, in The A.V. Club’s “best of the year so far” coverage. As the sheer number of podcasts has spiked dramatically, so too has arisen the need for producers to separate their work from the pack with artful editing, compelling material, and enough respect for the listener to assume they can keep up with the subject matter, however dense or winding. On these points, several newcomers in 2018 succeeded, and with many more new promising series slated for release this summer, it’s already obvious that the year-end list will be hard to rein in.

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Making Obama (WBEZ)

Barack Obama has only been out of the White House for just over 500 days. Before that, he was a near-daily fixture in American discourse for eight solid years. So it would seem early to start reappraising the man—give the guy a chance to be gone long enough before the wave of nostalgia builds around him, right? Maybe so, except that Obama was first elected a decade ago, a period distant enough to require willed remembrance, and events since his exit have underlined the remoteness of his time in office. Maybe now that it’s all over and starting to get hazy, can we properly ask ourselves: Where did this guy come from in the first place?

Making Obama revisits the former president’s professional trajectory, starting with his fabled time as community organizer on Chicago’s South Side (which was not as long and laudatory as might be expected for how frequently it was a talking point) and continuing through his early forays into politics. It’s not an overtly political podcast. The issues discussed aren’t anything anyone campaigns on. Rather, they are the personal appraisals we often make of one another, sometimes justly and sometimes with prejudice. In one instance, then-state Senator Obama opens up a debate over his own blackness following an ill-advised challenge against congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush. He loses that one, and there are other moments throughout the six-episode run that highlight his shortcomings and frustrations during those early years. (He once got into a shoving match with a fellow legislator at the state capitol.)

But the setbacks are brief detours in what’s otherwise a meteoric rise made possible by remarkable stores of personal ability, networking skills, and just plain luck. It’s implied, if not outright stated, that Obama wouldn’t have become who he is without Chicago, without former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, without Michelle, without a tough 1996 opponent failing to qualify for the ballot, and without some similar electoral breaks in 2004. It’s a great story. No matter how recent, or how long ago, it all seems now. [Zach Brooke]

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Felonious Florida (Wondery)

In March, Wondery debuted Felonious Florida, a look at two unsolved cases that “cast a dark shadow on the Sunshine State.” Further proof that no medium is spared from the public’s longstanding and insatiable desire for true-crime content (think Netflix’s aggressive hat trick of 2018 releases Wild Wild Country, Evil Genius, and the newly repackaged The Staircase), South Florida Sun Sentinel reporters Lisa Arthur and Juan Ortega joined in by uncovering new details about two terrifying crimes. The first, most commonly referred to as the Casey’s Nickelodeon Murders, involves the brutal murders of a popular South Florida bar owner and the two women he invited home after a night out in 1994. The second is the 2007 kidnapping of a mom and her 7-year-old daughter after an afternoon of Christmas shopping. With no standing convictions for either crime, the podcast opened with a palpable sense danger, as it’s possible the murderers are still among the Florida population.

Well-produced and -paced, Felonious Florida takes a series of enthralling turns, including connections to O.J. Simpson and the mob that actually crack the case wide open. Throw in multiple suspects, appeals, acquittals, and $800,000 in a freedom fund, and you’ve got yourself an inherently addictive storyline. Luckily for listeners, it’s bolstered by the journalistic prowess of Arthur and Ortega, who bring with them a wealth of experience. Arthur was actually a court reporter for the Sentinel when the Casey’s Nickelodeon Murders came to trial the first time. With so many true-crime offerings, it’s the cases’ bizarre sequence of events coupled with the exceptional reporting and storytelling skills that make Felonious Florida a standout in its genre and the world of podcasting at large. [Becca James]

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The Dave Chang Show (The Ringer and Majordomo Media)

David Chang has always done things his own way. The late Anthony Bourdain profiled Chang in his 2010 book, Medium Raw, painting a portrait of the passionate, honest chef whose original concept for his New York restaurant Momofuku featured Asian-style burritos. Coinciding with his new Netflix series Ugly Delicious, the first three episodes of The Dave Chang Show will appeal to foodies (and anyone who’s ever spent time in the restaurant industry), with a focus on the opening of his L.A. spot Majordomo. The show explores food allergies, the stress of opening a restaurant, customers who don’t show up for reservations, and how ride-booking has impacted the restaurant industry. (People are getting drunk again.) However, the series also features the restaurateur diving into whatever he wants from episode to episode: his feelings on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, dealing with criticism, and in the most recent episode, detailing his own struggles with anxiety and depression in the wake of the death of his friend Bourdain. Chang welcomes guests ranging from Bill Simmons of The Ringer (the show is on The Ringer’s podcast network in conjunction with Chang’s own Majordomo Media), Olympic gold medal winner Chloe Kim, and Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, all of whom come to the table with honest and candid conversation. Series themes include Chang’s attempts to cope with his own fears of failure and the complex legacy of a Korean upbringing, making this one of the more surprising and refreshing offerings of 2018, especially from such an unlikely source as a celebrity chef. [Mike Vanderbilt]

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Punch Up The Jam (HeadGum)

Depending on who you ask, comedy in podcasting is either one of the medium’s greatest strengths or one its worst flaws. For a format with a low barrier to entry, producing a show can be as simple as sitting around a microphone and talking. For gifted comedians, this can often be enough, attracting an audience on the strength of their jazzy, extemporaneous riffing. But for some listeners, it’s simply a sign of laziness, souring the very notion of the genre. This year, however, has seen the debut of a show that takes podcast comedy to a new level, one of investment, polish, and obvious effort. That show is Punch Up The Jam, from Demi Adejuyigbe and Miel Bredouw. It’s a wonderfully inventive spin on what’s become a rote podcasting archetype: the lengthy denigration of bad media for maximum comic effect. Unlike shows focused on movies, books, or bands, Punch Up The Jam is focused on lampooning songs that haven’t held up.

While their show devotes a large portion of each episode to a comedic line-by-line examination of those tunes, there is a distinctly different feeling to it for a few reasons. Most notable is the tone of Adejuyigbe and Bredouw’s commentary, which is free of any malicious attempt to besmirch the works or shame their creators. The pair is gifted with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for amelioration. If a particular song doesn’t really work, no worries, because the two are always ready to help make it better. These punch-ups are the show’s real prestige: at the end of every episode, either Adejuyigbe or Bredouw will have reworked the song into a more successful version. The results are eminently rewarding with their hilariously rewritten lyrics, full production, and impressive vocal performances. It’s one thing to simply skewer the works of another, but to put your own work back out in response to it is a gutsy move indeed, and Punch Up The Jam always delivers. May all comedy podcasts aspire to be this bold. [Ben Cannon]

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The Windsor Knot (Radio Stakhanov)

The hosts of The Windsor Knot picked an ostensibly narrow subject, the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and gave themselves but a few rules: Each episode would have a single-word title and be somehow related to the royal wedding. For 17 weeks, Joe Skrebels and Daniel Krupa dug deep and went wide, with episodes with titles like “Security” and “Queen,” over seemingly frivolous topics like flowers, cakes, and dresses—and ended up discussing a “super stinger” spiked net that could be used to deter an ISIS attack, what Slack channels and Trello cards ISIS might use to plan said attack, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, and a rather charming conspiracy theory that involves Harry and Meghan’s future offspring being both British royalty and the U.S. president. Skrebels and Krupa’s utter resolve to stick with their original premise turned out to be expansive rather than limiting, with topics like lemon elderflower cake being plumbed well beyond their natural depths.

Listening to two guys talk for an hour at a time about an event that you probably didn’t care much about doesn’t sound like it would be the best use of your time, but Skrebels and Krupa are so delightfully curious and unabashedly joyful that The Windsor Knot soars past expectations. And although the royal wedding has come and gone, nothing will be spoiled for listeners who start it now. (Note: Several A.V. Clubbers became dedicated listeners, and we were called out in a few episodes, but we have no professional or personal relationship with them. We have, however, lobbied Skrebels and Krupa to start a podcast on the history of the British monarchy, beginning with Edward III, whom Meghan is a 24th generation descendant of.) [Laura M. Browning]

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Caliphate (The New York Times)

The opening scenes of Caliphate present an ISIS member justifying beheadings, followed by firsthand intelligence gathering from a freshly liberated ISIS stronghold. Reality only gets more raw as the show progresses. Caliphate is certainly not the first nonfiction podcast to go big and deep, but it might be the first to succeed in transcending the genre.

Unlike massive hits before it, Caliphate is presenting a story as it unfolds in real time. Serial succeeded in taking a second look at a years-old murder case. S-Town painted the world of a thoughtful yet unhappy man, recently deceased. Both podcasts were autopsies of events largely passed. The story Caliphate tells is, at present, without an ending. Instead of predicting how war with ISIS will end, New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi focuses on understanding the organization. There’s the academic backstory, of course, the group’s belief they are the anointed enforcers of God’s law and have been called to recreate and spread a very specific period in Islamic history. But there’s more than that. Stuff you can’t get anywhere else. She finds the people who bought into ISIS teachings. One man she speaks with confesses to murdering two people before getting cold feet and absconding back to Canada. It’s implied he remains at large today, not eager to bring his story to authorities. And still she found him. Another man whom she knows only through his paper trail and conversations with his loved ones joined as a direct result of what he saw as insulting treatment of his family by the U.S. military.

Callimachi’s work surpasses the typical journalistic podcast format of condensed interviews in order to shed greater light on the operations of ISIS. Revenue streams, weapons procurement—it’s all sourced and laid out in detail. And her deep contacts with a group of rape survivors lay bare ISIS’s promotion of sexual slavery. Through it all, the podcast reports with an immediacy not easily captured by print accounts, while also providing a level of emotional and strategic analysis typically unseen in documentaries. It’s an important work that should be studied for years to come, and certainly not just by podcast geeks. [Zach Brooke]

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The Boring Talks (BBC)

A better name for The Boring Talks might be “brief talks about one person’s strange obsession.” From a man who has counted his sneezes for decades to the algorithms behind Amazon’s book-pricing to the size specifications of wooden pallets, each episode of The Boring Talks spends 10 to 15 minutes on a topic you’ve almost definitely never given thought to before. Each presenter is concise and practiced, and though the topics are often focused through personal stories, they aren’t as raw as Moth-style storytelling. Recommended episodes: #02 “Book Pricing Algorithms,” #08 “Danish Public Information Films,” and #18 “Kinder Egg Linguistics.” [Laura M. Browning]

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Trump, Inc. (WNYC Studios)

The hosts of Trump, Inc. take a simple concept—follow the money—and track its many tangled paths into President Trump’s businesses and real estate deals. A joint production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica, this is journalism at its finest, as teams of researchers look for answers to where Trump’s financial interests lie. Trump, Inc. neither starts from a hypothesis nor jumps to conclusions, but merely does solid, on-the-ground reporting, following each clue as far as they can. [Laura M. Browning]

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A Very Fatal Murder (OPR)

Listeners will be devastated by the artistry with which host David Pascall races to find answers to Bluff Springs, Nebraska’s perfect murder. With twists you’ll never see coming, A Very Fatal Murder is a podcast experience that could neither be replicated nor forgotten. [Marnie Shure]

Full disclosure: This excellent podcast was created and produced by our hard-working colleagues at The Onion.