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The podcast Guardians of the River traverses the Okavango River from its source in Angola to its discharge into the Botswana Delta 1500 kilometres later. Photo: Shutterstock

River stories, culture wars, share house sagas: 5 of the best podcasts of 2021

It has been another huge year for podcasts, with a rise in both fictional and celebrity-hosted podcasts, along with the perennial true crime ones. Themes of diversity, social justice, environmental issues and cancel culture were also prominent this year.

Here, then, are five of the best podcasts of 2021 – and some suggestions for companion listening.

1. Suave

From Serial to Ear Hustle (produced inside San Quentin prison) to Darwin’s Birds Eye View, the podcast medium has allowed us to fully hear prisoners’ stories, without any prior judgement based on their appearance. Suave extends the tradition with a deep dive into the story of a Latino-American man called David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, sentenced to life imprisonment at Graterford State Correctional Institution, Pennsylvania, aged just 17.

It turns out that like other juveniles in that state, he pleaded guilty rather than be subject to a potential death penalty. Journalist Maria Hinojosa tracks Suave’s story over decades, until a new ruling means he may find freedom, at almost 50. A penetrating exploration of prison psychology, this podcast is anchored in a complex relationship between a journalist and her source.

Companion listening: In the Dark, Series 2, Episode: Curtis Flowers. Years of investigation by this podcast team helped obtain the release of a Mississippi man, Curtis Flowers, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years partly due to a racist district attorney. This long-awaited interview with a freed Curtis reveals a man who is sad, charming, clear-eyed and remarkably free of bitterness.


Read more: Michelle Obama, podcast host: how podcasting became a multi-billion dollar industry


2. Things fell apart

Jon Ronson, the Louis Theroux of podcasting, provides a historical take on the culture wars in this carefully crafted BBC podcast (dropping Feb 9 in Australia). In the first five episodes (all I’ve heard), Ronson deploys his trademark ability to scratch a big theme and find the quirky human stories that flip common perceptions.

A televangelist espouses gay rights at the height of AIDS; the censoring of progressive school literature in America in the ‘60s gives way to a woke backlash decades on against a seminal black memoir; a reformed anti-abortion crusader rues his propaganda; and a 1980s proto-Q-anon-style conspiracy that sent an innocent childcare worker to jail for years shows that framing a victim does not need online hysteria. The series provides sobering context for the conflicts that have been so amplified by social media anarchy, delivered with a kind of wry wonder at our inhumanity.

Companion listening: The Eleventh from Pineapple Studios documents horrifying tales of contemporary cancel culture in its first series, The Inbox, while Limited Capacity from CBC is a more playful take on internet predations.

3. S***hole country

The title derives from then President Donald Trump’s vicious description of Haiti, El Salvador and some African countries in 2018. This spurred young Ghanaian-American Afia Kaakyire to delve into family history and self-discovery, telling “true tales dipped in entrepreneurial dreams, green card anxieties, complicated love”.

A slur from Donald Trump has sparked a wonderful podcast. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Though her name is made-up (for obvious reasons), Afia’s voice is utterly authentic. She chronicles with honesty and irony her ambivalent, evolving relationship with Ghana and her extended family, in a wide-ranging essay-memoir produced to the excellent standards we associate with the Radiotopia network of independent artists. Episode 3, in which she interviews her remarkable mother, Agnes, about her long journey to becoming a property-owner in New York, is a standout. And unlike many narrative podcasts, the ending doesn’t disappoint: the final two episodes positively sizzle.

Companion listening: Crackdown shares themes of being Other and wishing to be truly seen. This activist Canadian podcast is hosted by Garth Mullins, a drug user who is also a professional radio reporter. In collaboration with a community of drug users in Vancouver, the podcast robustly advocates for opioids and other drugs to be made legal, styling itself as “the drug war, covered by drug users as war correspondents”.

4. Guardians of the river

The Okavango river. Shutterstock

This epic podcast traverses the Okavango River from its source in Angola to its discharge into the Botswana Delta 1500 kilometres later, through the eyes of local keepers and scientists dedicated to its conservation. Funded by the National Geographic Society and others, it’s a sound-rich portrait of the river as a vital, living artefact, narrated by two engaging African scientists who are emotionally and environmentally connected to it.

Companion listening: The Repair Season 5 of the always-on-the-Zeitgeist Scene On Radio tackles the climate emergency, starting at the Book of Genesis, which exhorted man to “subdue” nature.

5. Housewarming

Sometimes the Big Topics get a bit overwhelming and it’s nice to be reminded of what podcasting means to many: a chumcast/chatcast, where a couple of pals shoot the breeze on whatever takes their fancy. Countless chatcasts dabble in sport, pop culture and TV recaps.

With corporate heavies like Spotify, Audible and lately Facebook, muscling in on the medium, it’s refreshing to hear two homegrown Aussies randomly ruminating on a very pertinent theme – surviving the share house and riding out the rental crisis. Hosts Marty Smiley and Nat Demena have lots of fun with Karen bin nazis,(entitled white women who police bins on streets), food-tamperers and housemates that never flush.

Companion listening: Helen Garner reading Monkey Grip, her own tale of toxic share houses, set in Melbourne in the ‘70s. Deliciously observed, this gritty urban anthropology (disguised as a novel) makes you realise not much has changed, despite the internet. Free on ABC Listen app, or on Audible.

Siobhan McHugh’s book The Power of Podcasting will be released in February.

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