I’m back with more recommendations for outstanding nonfiction podcasts.
Like the best reality TV, these shows take us into other people’s lives, delivering entertainment and information. They’re available wherever you get your podcasts—and if you don’t know how to do that yet, this should help.
Also, if you have great real-life podcasts you’re listening to, I love recommendations! Share them in the comments below.
Let’s start with a podcast I cannot get enough of, and want you to check out right now so we can talk about it!
I’m late to the Normal Gossip party, which began late last year, but I started listening just in time to burn through all its episodes before season two started.
In each episode of the Defector Media podcast, host Kelsey McKinney chats about gossip with a guest, and then shares a juicy story that comes from a third party. (It’s often a friend-of-a-friend’s story, or a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend.)
They’re so satisfying, and my only complaint is that I hate when stories and episodes end.
That’s because the stories are unspooled well, and have just the right amount of surprising twists and juicy moments.
With each story, I generally have a moment when I can’t quite figure out where this is going to go, and then suddenly I’m invested—and that’s before the “oh shit” moments arrive.
Kelsey and the guest start each episode by talking about the guest’s relationship to gossip, and then they gossip about the gossip. She stops the stories periodically to ask guests a variation on What would you do?, and that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Some guests get ahead of the story, while others want details that are just unknown.
Occasionally I found myself wondering about the veracity and verifiability of the stories, but that’s gossip, right? And the season-one bonus episode answered most of my questions, especially about how stories are anonymized, i.e. fictionalized.
If you’re unsure if this sounds like it’s for you, I’d suggest starting with “Always Google Your Neighbors” and “Nemesis by Proxy”; those will either hook you or won’t. And once you’ve listened, please gossip with me about them in the comments below!
I’ve recommended podcasts by Jamie Loftus before, because I love the way she ties together pop culture, history, cultural criticism, and personal experiences. (Loftus’s look at the comic strip Cathy is by far my favorite of her shows.)
Ghost Church follows Loftus to Cassadaga, Florida, the largest spiritualist camp in the South, as she explores both the place and the practices.
As a person who lives in Central Florida, I’ve been to Cassadaga three times: as a college student, with a class and professor; with a friend, for a reading; and on a, uh, date.
So I knew some of the basics, but had not even the faintest idea of the origins of spiritualism in America, and how it intertwines with historical figures and involves two girls, ages 11 and 14.
While Ghost Church deals with, well, the idea of ghosts and life after death, Loftus treats that seriously and skeptically. This is not Travel Channel nonsense about ghosts, but a really spellbinding podcast.
Lemonada Media calls its newest podcast “a groundbreaking new form of podcasting: audio reality. Think reality TV, for your ears.”
I think reality TV for my years has existed for quite a while—early shows such as Serial and Gimlet’s origin story Startup were documentary-style audio—but of course, I welcome more of it! (It seems that Lemonada is planning more, too, since this podcast comes from its Being Studios, suggesting future seasons of “Being ____.”)
Being Trans is a compelling listen. Producers follow five trans people, dipping into their lives for scenes that range from specific to trans experiences (hormone therapy) to universal (not communicating well with a romantic partner, pursuing dream jobs).
The audio compensates well for lost visuals, not by filling our ears with sound effects but with subtle things like having the cast members identify themselves as scenes change. Alas, it also follows some of reality TV’s more obnoxious tropes, like repeating part of a scene again after an ad break. Why?!
But ultimately, Being Trans succeeds as a window into people’s lives.
It’s entertaining and informative—and more necessary than ever right now, considering the violence that trans people face in their lives, and now personal attacks from cowardly politicians like the piece of shit who is governor of my state.
Wild Boys is one of my favorite kinds of podcasts: it tells me a story I knew, but didn’t know.
The short version is two teenagers appeared in a small town, claiming to have been raised in the wild. They were referred to as the “bush boys” in the media.
You might actually know what happened next. (If you don’t, resist the urge to Google!)
But even if you do Google the story, or remember the news, I almost guarantee you have no idea what happened behind those headlines, and that’s where Wild Boys excels.
The people who were involved all talk, and share their stories more than 20 years later. It deepens our understanding while taking some unexpected twists and turns.
Between its access and storytelling, Wild Boys is a fascinating show. Highly recommended!