Podcasts have been around for more than a decade, but it was the NPR audio thriller Serial, which unpacked the murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and subsequent botched investigation by the Baltimore Police Department, that arguably made podcasting take off. While personalities like comedian-MMA commentator Joe Rogan and history storyteller Dan Carlin had become cult-like sub-genre superstars with hundreds of millions of downloads, odds are it was the buzz around Serial that put podcasts on the map for your aunt in Ohio who had never before thought about what that purple app on her iPhone was for.
This year, the medium further distanced itself from being only for niches of sci-fi fan theories and success coaching, and moved into the arenas of respected investigative journalism and scripted audio entertainment that’s the closest thing we’re going to get to TV behind the wheel of a car.
In an increasingly polarized America, one thing we can all agree on is how different the world looks in 2017 than it did just a year ago.
Highly anticipated by fans of This American Life, Serial and NPR aficionados in general, S-Town begins with an odd loner in Alabama begging NPR to investigate an alleged murder local police are covering up. During the investigation, another death occurs. There are two parallel stories running through S-Town.
One of the unwinding of a murder mystery and another about loneliness, living on the edge of poverty, mental illness and what it means to be a member of a community. It’s a heartbreaking look at the backwoods of Alabama, a place where movies and TV rarely transport the audience to.
74 SECONDS (MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO)
On July 6, 2016, Americans were shocked by a live viral Facebook video of a woman begging the same police officer who shot her boyfriend to help him as he bled out in the front seat next to her. Within days, Philando Castile became a household name and the most important aspect of a larger conversation about the relationship between police and civilians, race and guns, power and accountability.
In a highly controversial decision, a jury found St. Anthony, Minnesota officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of murder for opening fire on Castile with a 4-year-old in the back seat of the car at a traffic stop. Yanez claimed he believed Castile was reaching for a concealed handgun, that Castile had already informed the officer he had and was licensed to carry.
74 Seconds takes the listener into the lives of all parties involved and through nearly each step of the polarizing event that resulted in a man dying, captured for the world on live video. It’s top-notch reporting that could easily be nominated for a 2018 Pulitzer if the renowned prize didn’t distinguish between the written and the spoken word.
EAR HUSTLE (RADIOTOPIA)
Although country legend Johnny Cash’s most famous album was recorded for a captive crowd at Folsom Prison in 1968, simultaneously signaling his pop culture comeback after years lost in addiction and the rise of the live album as a serious piece of art, Live from San Quentin is a stronger album. Recorded a year later, just two hours from Folsom at another of California’s most notorious penitentiaries, Cash both draws cheers from the audience and protests the brutal living conditions when he asks a guard for a glass of water, then pretended to gag on it.
Nearly 50 years later, life at San Quentin is once again brought into the limelight with Ear Hustle, a project by two inmates examining everything from solitary confinement to parole. As my own state of Wisconsin examines the possibility of becoming the third state in the union to legalize recreational marijuana without overturning the sentences of cannabis related offenders, Ear Hustle is a stark reminder that the American justice system is far from perfect, by looking at the lives of men who must find a way to hold onto hope and life while serving time considering questions around who is imprisoned and who is simply slapped on the wrist.
In August, the white supremacist movement announced to America that white hoods and burning crosses were definitely not a thing of the past when a large mob of protesters gathered under the instructions of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Neo-Nazis carried shields, sticks and tiki torches and clashed on more than one occasion with counterprotesters in hand-to-hand combat. Tragically, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when Neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd, injuring 30 and murdering Heyer.
The violence was gut-wrenching for an already-divided nation, but pales in comparison to the brutality of regular civilians during Civil War. Unfortunately, the history books of formal education almost always overlook the more human stories of America’s bloodiest conflict to focus on battles, dates and generals, which is what Uncivil sets out to correct.
The series kicks off with “The Raid,” an episode which tells the true tale of Kansas Jayhawkers. While the group’s pro-free-state motivations might have been pure, their tactics were far from it. Many Jayhawkers regarded all Missourians, residents of a slave state, as enemies regardless of the individual views held. There’s no doubt that today we would file the actions of the Jayhawkers under “terrorism.”
Uncivil isn’t just for history buffs. The series strives to connect the (thrillingly told) forgotten past to the unrest of today.
In 2017, it became undeniable that entrepreneurship joined sports, acting and music as a path to fame in modern American culture. Although it was barely a blip on the map of an amazing year of TV, Apple Music’s first foray into visual entertainment with Planet of the Apps, a Shark Tank rip-off that featured foul-mouthed New Jersey native Gary Vaynerchuk alongside a-list celebs Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am. Unlike the rest of the panel of judges, Vaynerchuk built his brand from the ground up by documenting the rise of his business aspirations and spreading the gospel of hard work and risk-taking one tweet and YouTube video at a time.
This fall, Vaynerchuk became the first entrepreneur with a shoe deal thanks to K-Swiss. He hangs out with chart-topping artists and can be seen courtside at Knicks games. To younger millennials, he’s basically Drake or LeBron James without the musical or athletic chops.
Startup began by documenting the up-and-down journey of launching a company from scratch in 2014. This year, the show mixed the ambition for money and celebrity in a Lord of the Flies environment for the StartupBus, which put 20 strangers on a charter bus for 72 hours, with the goal of launching companies from inside the bus. After that? The contestants compete against each other.
In addition to the expected human drama that comes along with any reality gameshow, the StartupBus is also a fascinating look at a modern pathway to (relative, at least) fame in a culture obsessed with celebrity.