Best of 2017 Inspiration: Podcasts

As I’ve mentioned, 2017 was a rough year. By July I was unemployed and moving from my 2,000 square-foot single-family home into a 500 square foot downtown apartment. I was doing it largely by myself although I hired movers–a very mature 30’s decision if I do say so.  *pats self on back*

I was surrounded by boxes, sleeping on my couch, and chipping away the monumental mountain of paperwork, phone calls, and decisions that moving requires. I relied on podcasts to distract, comfort, and engage me beyond my present moment-by-moment tsunami of emotions. Truth told, I also relied on these auditory delights to keep me company while I figured out the TV and Internet situation and when I tired of music or the silence that felt unnatural.

Podcasts did not let me down. There were the chatty ones I could put on for background noise while I built seemingly unending IKEA furniture. There were the storytelling ones that helped me process my emotions with their rawness, humor, and vulnerability. Of course there were the podcasts that blew my mind and made me feel smarter moving through the world.

Podcasts and audio books are part of how I relax. I put them on and busy my hands–cleaning, dishes, laundry, cooking, and, in the past, gardening. I get into that happy flow state of having an engaged mind and busy hands. Written like a true Type A overachiever, I know. Yet, if chores must be done, we might as well enjoy them, right? I find delight in pairing inspiration with the mundane.

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Here are some of my favorite podcast subscriptions and their best episodes from 2017.

The Moth Podcast

A live storytelling podcast organized by theme. These true stories told by the real people who lived them never failed to “get” me. Some with tears, others with deep empathy or amazement. I remember one ended in a proposal live from stage that had me cheering. Another titled “Cut, dye, and burn” told the story of a woman in a hair salon that changed one man’s life and perspective forever which reminded me about the big and small ways we all have an impact on each other. I was inspired for days.

Code Switch Race and Identity, Remixed

A conversational NPR podcast led by Shereen Marisol Meraji, a woman with Iranian and Puerto Rican family heritage, and Gene Demby, a black man whose previous jobs were writing for NY Times and Huffington Post. Each episode the tackles a current topic in the news or culture, discussing the how the elements of race, gender, and identity inform the event or frame the national conversation. Of particular note was their three-part series in collaboration with journalists from EdWeek in which they followed a new, innovative high school in Washington D.C. I know someone who teaches at this school, so I was immediately interested in the series. But once I began listening, I was blown away by the nuanced reporting. You were able to follow an ambitious, huge-hearted principal trying to implement a restorative justice system and reconcile it with the district’s emphasis on test score accountability. You heard from teachers who cared so much but disagreed on what it meant to hold students to high standards. You heard from the parents and students themselves about what it felt like to be in this experimental, all-boy school. It is a deeply provoking series that has been lauded on many lists besides this one.

Revisionist History 

Malcolm Gladwell, a longtime favorite author of mine, applies his unique lens to history. I love the way he reframes a seemingly familiar landscape, in this case historic events, that are widely recognized but not known completely. Or forgotten historical events that have an outsized effect on our current understandings and few have made this connection. Gladwell’s podcast often focuses on the intersection of race and American culture, but also explores the patterns of country music and the ironic effect of satire on our political beliefs. One episode focused on the bizarre trajectory of rise of McDonalds as correlated directly with the fraught story of different oils impacting the famous French fries. Another episode detailed two women who were switched at birth and found out as adults that their current family wasn’t their biological one. I can’t say that I finished EVERY episode in seasons 1 & 2, but I did listen to most. Some, I might have listened to twice because they were so fascinating. A few of the most memorable are listed below:

Science Vs. 

I LOVE the Aussie-American, girl-nerd host of this podcast. She has a wicked sense of humor, and manages to pack more information (and jokes) into 45 minutes than I would have ever thought was possible. Best of all, she tackles the most controversial, complex, and muddy issues in our culture today. Her team is religious about their fact-checking and avoiding junk science. Even her commercials are enjoyable to listen to–she does one for a bidet that makes me crack a smile every time. If I was preparing to debate someone on a topic that she had covered, this podcast would be my first stop in my preparations. Each of the episodes I list below, I would listen to again and probably still learn something.

Dear Sugar

Ever since my friend Emily gave me the book Tiny Beautiful Things, I have been a HUGE fangirl of Cheryl Strayed. In my classic backwards way, I read her hit memoir Wild only a year after listening to her podcast and loving her lesser-known work. In this podcast, she continues the premise of her column Dear Sugar in which readers write anonymously to request advice on their deepest life dilemmas and soul conundrums. Rather than answer with a letter as an equally anonymous “Sugar,” Cheryl answers verbally with the help of her co-host and fellow author Steve Almond. I love this podcast because it addresses sticky situations that have no clear answers and still attempts to move people forward in their lives. This year, the podcast introduced me to my newest fangirl target, Ester Perel, in their infidelity series. I listened to it twice and then proceeded to read and listen to everything Ester Perel produced in the past 3 years. More to come on her in my books list. I won’t list specific episodes of Dear Sugar, but will note they are now under the New York Times umbrella, having previously been an NPR podcast, I think.

S-Town

This is straight-up storytelling gold. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way, this story unravels with all the strangeness and delight of a tragic central character who offered his own complex humanity to the world as a mirror to the best and worst that we all contain. I listened to this with my forever-friend as I helped move her across the country. I will cherish not only the story I found here but the memories I made while listening to it. We had trouble getting out of the car when we arrived at our next destination and made each other promise not to listen until we were back together again.

Honorable Mentions

The following are podcasts I subscribe to and enjoy, but just don’t follow as avidly as those above. Inspiration hits us differently at different times–these have either been past favorites or potential new obsessions as I listen more.

So what does 2018 hold for me and podcasts? Surely more of the storytelling genre like Moth and S-Town. I will continue to follow those that offer me new perspectives and expand my horizons. What podcasts would YOU recommend I add to my “On Tap 2018” list? Looking forward to the new gems you will add to my subscription list.

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