I’ve made a lot of documentary work over the years, but I am also a true believer in the power of two or three people sitting around a table and talking about something they love. In this list I’ve tried to include shows, no matter the format, that capture the core things that make podcasts special: personality, enthusiasm, and a burning question.
Wright Thompson has the writing chops, sense of scale, and that voice — he’s perfect for podcasting. Through the story of doping in horse-racing, he ends up telling the story of the great American experiment. Hard to believe it’s only three episodes long.
While doing endless other amazing work, Bianca Giaever knocked out this brilliant short series for The Believer that jolted me into remembering how magical, and weird, audio can be.
At the end of every episode of this show, I feel more open to the world. What a gift.
I grew up in Latin America, and listening to this show is a great way to keep my Spanish skills sharp. It’s also timely, snappy, and well-produced. Helps pull me out of my US-centric news bubble.
A five-part series from last summer in which Jay Ellis explores some of the more hidden reasons for why policing is broken in this country, and starts to get at some real practical solutions.
I know this is a century-old BBC institution, but I still don’t know why DiD isn’t the most popular show in the world. It’s got everything I could ever want out of a podcast. The best episodes are the ones in which the guests really are able to tell the story of their life through music. Nothing else comes close.
The best podcast ever. You know how sometimes you’re much better off re-listening to “What’s Going On” instead of a newly released but subpar album? Same thing here. People don’t re-listen to great podcasts as much as they should.
Alana Casanova-Burgess explores the Puerto Rican experience, on the island and off. Released in Spanish and English, listen to them both.
Short, poignant, often unsettling in a very good way. I tend to let them pile up and then listen to a dozen back to back while walking, appropriately, through Greenwood Cemetery.
The best cinematographer duo in the world share their secrets.
What a premise. Take two interesting people, usually artists or musicians who admire each other, and have them… talk. Proof that you don’t always need a professional interviewer.
Maybe my favorite documentary work of the last five years. The second season of Leah Sotille’s series expands beyond rancher Cliven Bundy’s circle to look at the rise of anti-government, conspiracy-minded violence in the Pacific Northwest. This came out before the January 6th insurrection but all the throughlines are there.
Full disclosure: I worked on this. But I was attracted to the project because of Adam McKay’s audacious idea — that you can explain modern America through the deaths of NBA players in the 1980s. I think we pulled it off, and I’d love for you to listen, whether you care about basketball or not.
What a premise: Connor Ratliff tries to find out why he got fired from the TV show Band of Brothers. Sounds simple, but this show manages to weave around and end up in all sorts of surprising places. I was genuinely inspired by this one.
One of my favorite authors talks with his editor about the “great books” they love and don’t love. Mostly I envy having such a healthy relationship with one’s editor.