The summer before my senior year in high school, my father and I road tripped across the country. But it wasn’t a vacation. He had someplace to be — Palo Alto, Calif. — so instead of contemplating the purple mountain majesties, we mostly just drove, averaging about 500 miles a day.
That was 40 years ago, before satellite radio or Bluetooth; our vintage Toyota wagon didn’t even have a tape deck. As we sprinted across Pennsylvania, through Illinois and Minnesota, and over endless, blank stretches of blacktop in South Dakota and Wyoming, I could only read or listen to whatever cloying classic rock I could find amid all the static on the FM dial.
If we were making the same trek today, it’d be infinitely more enjoyable, in part because my father and I have a better relationship than we did when I was a sullen, self-absorbed teenager who wore his hair in the style of Woody Woodpecker, and in part because of podcasts.
I’ve been in the car a lot lately, driving back and forth to Western Mass. to see my aging father and ailing mother. And podcasts have made these trips — two hours out, two hours back — not only bearable, but something I look forward to. Whether it’s a compelling narrative, a funny or provocative conversation, or a deep dive into some calamity from the past, podcasts, it turns out, are the antidote to the tedium of the Turnpike.
I also listen in the woods with my dog, or while pulling weeds, but there’s something about the car. I’m keenly engaged. Engrossed, even. Yet this focus also makes me fussy. I’m less forgiving of mediocre production. I know the pandemic has rendered in-person interviewing difficult, but podcasts with too many voices recorded over the phone or via Zoom are, literally, a turnoff. I stop listening for other reasons, too — if the host is grating; the story’s unsurprising; or I’m just in the mood for something else. Sometimes I return to it, sometimes I don’t.
Here then are a few recent podcasts I’ve binged while behind the wheel of a station wagon with Bluetooth. Download them before embarking on whatever summer adventure awaits and, I promise, even as you’re idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, grumbling about all the high-priced gas you’re guzzling, you’ll be entertained.
You’ve probably never heard of Tiffany Dover. I hadn’t. She was a nurse in Tennessee who, in 2020, fainted on live TV after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Dover quickly recovered, explaining that she has a condition that causes her to faint when she feels even slight pain. But it was too late. The viral clip of her collapsing was seized on by anti-vaxxers as evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous. And that’s not all. To this day, there are legions of conspiracy theorists around the world who insist Dover is dead and the US government doesn’t want you to know. (One anti-vaxxer has offered a $100,000 reward for proof that Dover’s alive.) This stellar podcast, hosted by NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny, lifts the lid on the community of anti-vaccine “truthers” and tries to track down Tiffany, who, for good reason, doesn’t want to be found. The series’ aggressive theme song, written by Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, will suit your mood if, like me, your blood starts to boil listening to conspiracists peddle their malignant nonsense. (NBC News)
As much as I don’t enjoy crummy audio, recorded phone conversations are essential to the success of this seven-episode series about David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who was a teen in 1988 when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing another juvenile. Journalist Maria Hinojosa met “Suave” in 1993 while she was speaking at a prison, and the pair began communicating regularly — over the phone — developing a relationship that raised ethical questions for Hinojosa, who considered “Suave” a source but also a friend. The podcast, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Audio Reporting, is a nuanced portrait of “Suave,” who’s ultimately sprung from prison after nearly 30 years. Up-close and personal, Hinojosa chronicles the challenges Suave faced before, during, and after his incarceration. (Futuro Media/PRX)
When supporters of former president Donald Trump, some armed with stun guns, pepper spray, and baseball bats, stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, it was shocking. But as “Will Be Wild,” an eight-episode series about that terrifying day, makes clear, it shouldn’t have been, at least not to people in a position to prevent it. They’d been warned it might happen and did nothing. Hosted by reporters Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz, whose previous podcast was the award-winning Trump, Inc., “Will Be Wild” examines the insurrection from the perspective of those who took part, and those, like DC police officer Michael Fanone, who found themselves at the tip of the MAGA mob’s spear. (Fanone, who suffered a heart attack and traumatic brain injury in the onslaught, tells a story in episode 5 that’s so harrowing it should come with a warning that listening may cause you to lose faith in humankind.) What’s most chilling about this podcast, whose title is taken from a Trump tweet in December 2020 predicting that the Jan. 6 rally “will be wild,” is the belief, expressed by people who track domestic terrorism, that the Capitol riot was just a precursor to something that will be even more destructive to our democracy. (Pineapple Street Studios/Wondery/Amazon Music)
How could Nuseiba Hasan, a 26-year-old Jordanian-Canadian woman, disappear in 2006, but not be reported missing by her family for nine years? That’s one of the many questions investigative reporter Habiba Nosheen tries to answer in this podcast. Nosheen, who’s done segments for “Frontline” and “This American Life,” spent three years reporting Hasan’s story, an investment of time that reflects her strong connection to her subject. (Nosheen and Hasan didn’t know each other, but both grew up, sometimes unhappily, in conservative Muslim families in Canada.) Multiple theories eventually emerge about what might have happened to Hasan — that she ran away or was killed by an abusive boyfriend — but Nosheen, understandably, can’t get over the fact that Hasan’s family didn’t contact police for nearly a decade. Some podcasts that don’t provide all the answers feel unsatisfying. This isn’t one of them. (Gimlet Media)
Generally, science podcasts don’t interest me. I just don’t have an aptitude for science. As a senior at Bates College, I flunked geology and wasn’t allowed to graduate. (I had to take a summer school course to get my degree.) Nuclear power is different. I don’t know if it was reading John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” living through the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in 1979, or watching “The Simpsons,” but the promise and peril of smashing the atom intrigues me. “Wild Thing” is a deeply reported podcast that subjects our weird obsessions — the first two seasons were about Bigfoot and extraterrestrial life — to serious scientific inquiry. The new season, about atomic energy, begins with the story of SL-1, the experimental nuclear reactor created by the Army in the late 1950s. Located in the Idaho desert, SL-1 was the site of the world’s first nuclear disaster, a meltdown in 1961 that killed three young Army specialists. “Wild Thing” gets science-y at times, but ultimately this is a human story. (A love triangle may have played a role in the explosion at SL-1!) Host Laura Krantz argues that pop culture continues to influence — mostly negatively — the public’s perception of nuclear power at a time when the world, reeling from the effects of climate change, is desperate for clean energy. (Foxtopus Ink)
The obvious advantage that a podcast has over, say, a magazine piece is the audio. You hear people’s anger, joy, and desperation, and that makes the story feel urgent in a way that words on a page sometimes can’t. That’s especially true of this forensic, five-episode narrative examining the bedlam and bloodshed known as the Crown Heights Riot. The unrest between Black and Orthodox Jewish residents in a New York neighborhood three decades ago highlights the intractable issues of racism, antisemitism, and police violence, and host Collier Meyerson, a half-Black, half-Jewish journalist who lived in Crown Heights, is the right person to tell the story. (Her father, an attorney, defended Pierre Regis, a Haitian immigrant who was severely beaten by police during the riot.) Among the great, if unsettling, audio is the demagoguery of Rudy Giuliani, who used the tragic deaths of Gavin Cato, a Black child, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish doctoral student, to defeat David Dinkins, New York’s first Black mayor. This is not easy listening, but it is worthwhile. (Pineapple Street Studios)
Before listening to this podcast, I had only a vague sense of Siegfried & Roy, the flamboyant wranglers of white tigers whose show at the Mirage Resort and Casino in Las Vegas was a cultural phenomenon. (Over five decades, the act was seen by 50 million people.) I certainly didn’t know anything about their grim childhoods in Germany; Michael Jackson-level eccentricity (their big cats liked to lounge in the pool at S & R’s Vegas abode, known as “the Jungle Palace”); or the gruesome details of Roy’s mauling — in front of a horrified live audience in 2003 — that ended the pair’s career and sparked a government investigation. (Incredibly, late Nevada Senator Harry Reid tried to impede the inquiry.) Calling Siegfried & Roy “the world’s most openly closeted celebrities,” host Steven Leckart makes clear how little of themselves the pair revealed, including some other near-catastrophes involving their beloved pets. (In 1966, their cheetah, Chico, got loose at a gala in Monte Carlo and wandered right past Princess Grace of Monaco.) (Apple)
British journalist Jon Ronson is easy on the ears, and it’s not just his accent. Ronson is an original thinker. If you haven’t heard “The Butterfly Effect,” his podcast about the porn industry, you should. It’s strange, sweet, and occasionally very funny — not at all what you’d expect, which is what Ronson does. On “Things Fell Apart,” he explores “everything people yell at each other about on social media” (abortion, QAnon, gay rights, etc.) — by going back to the origin stories — “the pebbles thrown in the pond creating the ripples.” In one episode, Ronson talks to Alice Moore, who moved to West Virginia with her minister husband in the 1960s and joined the school board expressly to ban books. One of the poems she condemned, believing it promoted promiscuity, actually opposed free love. We know because Ronson tracks down and talks to the poet who wrote it. Each episode is a revelation, and if there are kids in the car while you’re listening, good. Maybe they’ll learn to think for themselves. (BBC)
I initially stopped listening to this podcast after one episode. I couldn’t make myself care about actor Connor Ratliff’s quest to learn why, 20 years ago, Tom Hanks fired him from “Band of Brothers,” the HBO miniseries Hanks directed and produced. At the time, Ratliff was told he lost the small role because Hanks thought he had “dead eyes,” but was that true? Ratliff needed to know. I, on other hand, did not need to know, so I stopped listening. But then I read that Hanks was coming on the podcast, and I wanted to hear what he’d say. So I went back to the beginning — “Dead Eyes” debuted in 2020 — and listened to all 30 episodes before the Hanks finale in March, and it’s a remarkable series. Ratliff tells his peculiar and deeply personal tale of professional disappointment from odd angles, and enlists interesting guests to help him, including “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof, singer Aimee Mann, comedian/filmmaker Judd Apatow, and Hanks’s actor son Colin. (Turns out Colin had listened to — and liked — some of the early episodes and recommended his father come on.) If you’re wondering if Hanks recalls sacking Ratliff, the answer is no, and that makes Ratliff feel even worse. (Headgum)
New Jersey politics are so rough and tumble that jokes about its crooked politicians are a cliche. Still, no one knew what to think when 72-year-old John Sheridan, a prominent Republican lawyer with ties to three New Jersey governors, was discovered dead with his wife, Joyce, in 2014. (Firefighters responding to a report of smoke at the couple’s home found their bodies, both stabbed multiple times, amid a fire that had been intentionally set.) Over eight episodes, WNYC reporter Nancy Solomon reviews the police investigation — such as it was — and casts serious doubt on the conclusion: murder-suicide. (The Sheridans’ son, Mark, an attorney who once worked for former governor Chris Christie, didn’t buy it, either.) Earlier this month, questions raised by the podcast prompted the state’s acting attorney general to open a new probe and “follow the evidence wherever it leads.” We’ll see about that. The podcast suggests the initial investigation was so shoddy because someone with power or influence doesn’t want us to know what happened to the Sheridans. (WNYC)
The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were about denial and blame. President Trump said the virus would “disappear,” and when that didn’t happen, he said it was China’s fault. A similar playbook was used in the early 1980s with “gay cancer,” as AIDS was called at first. Rather than do what it took to identify and treat the mysterious illness claiming the lives of an alarming number of gay men, the government — and some in the gay community itself — was slow to act. This cogent, comprehensive look at the early days of the AIDS crisis examines the reasons for the appalling inaction (spoiler: it was denial and fear) and the disastrous consequences. (An example: 10,000 hemophiliacs died because, despite repeated warnings about the threat of tainted blood, the government, the American Red Cross, and for-profit plasma centers didn’t protect the nation’s blood supply.) It would be nice to think the public, politicians, and the media learned something from the AIDS debacle, but, alas, I’m not sure they have, or at least not enough. (Audible)
If, as it appears, the Supreme Court is about to strike down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion, now would be the time to download this just-released four-episode series that delves deeply into the antecedents to that landmark decision, and the social and political factors that still make abortion among the most volatile issues in American life. A characteristic of the best podcasts is their ability to tell a big story through a series of small, often overlooked moments. Thus we get an episode about Shirley Wheeler, who was 22 in 1970 when she got an illegal abortion in Florida and refused to tell police who performed the procedure. She was charged with manslaughter, becoming the first American woman ever held criminally responsible for ending a pregnancy. We’re also introduced to Jack and Barbara Wilkie, the “prolife” pioneers — they were sex educators! — who published the “Handbook on Abortion” in 1971 and became unlikely heroes to the antiabortion crowd. (Slate)