The 3rd annual Quartz Casties: Our favorite podcasts of 2019

The 3rd annual Quartz Casties: Our favorite podcasts of 2019
Image: Bárbara Abbês for Quartz
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There are a lot of podcast best lists out there. What we, the pod listeners of Quartz, have for you for our 3rd annual Casties is a lovingly created, admittedly idiosyncratic assemblage of our favorite things in the world of podcasts in 2019. There’s way too much podcast content out there at this point for our little team of devoted listeners to assign a definitive list of bests, so instead we created a master list of over 70 titles we listened to over the course of the year, and selected a handful for recommendations and quirky awards. Hope our list helps you discover shows, episodes, seasons, and series you missed but would enjoy, or validates your personal playlist.

Podcast Type: Limited Series

Category: Culture & lifestyle
Title: Dolly Parton’s America
Casties award: Our favorite thing in the Dollyverse

“But I’m not familiar with her music,” is a thing I often heard when shilling this mini-series from the minds of Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee. It’s not so much about the music—though that’s essential— as about bringing a Dolly-lens to consider late-century America to the present day. The show opens up musing about Dolly’s seemingly impenetrable coat of many colors from the rankling partisan divisions in the US. 

As Abumrad and Oliaee travel time and space from the Tennessee mountains to college classrooms, they touch on the indelible mark of slavery on conception of America to the transformative powers Dolly’s lyrics have had on queer musicians searching for identity. The strength of the storytelling mirrors its subject matter. While I found myself turning away from politics podcasts this year, Dolly Parton’s America is a Parton panacea as we enter a new and uncertain decade. This nine-part series wraps up just before the new year. So put it on during the family reunion, because even if y’all cannot agree on impeachment, y’all can definitely agree that Dolly brings us together. —Daniel Wolfe

Category: Memoir
Title: Scattered
Casties award: Favorite pod to make you cry (and laugh!) in public 

In Scattered, comedian Chris Garcia sets out to learn more about the life his late father left behind in Cuba. This journey takes him to the archives to find out more about Cuban work camps. It takes him to the science museum he hated as a child. And it takes him more than once to his mother’s living room, where it is most evident how well we know the people we love—and the limits of that knowledge. With a son’s care and a comedian’s humor, Garcia welcomes listeners into his family’s favorite stories, his father’s struggles with trauma and mental illness, and the enduring, complicated love of Cuba that is evident in his father’s final request: to have his ashes scattered off the island’s coast. Scattered is compelling because Garcia is vulnerable. He laughs and cries, and you probably will, too. One more thing: Scattered features my all-time favorite podcast theme music, “Please Won’t Please,” by Helado Negro. —Dasia Moore

Category: True crime/investigation
Title: The Shrink Next Door
Casties award: Most surprising

I listened to a lot of true crime podcasts this year. My family teases that I’m addicted or obsessed, and they’re probably right. And 2019 was a very fertile year for this genre—I can easily imagine creating a whole separate edition of the Casties for true crime alone. The limited series titles I eagerly devoured included Culpable (a thorough investigation into a supposed suicide that looks more and more like murder as you listen), Cold (the deepest dive imaginable into a single alleged crime story), Who the Hell Is Hamish? (the damage created by an Australian surfer-boy serial con man), To Live and Die In L.A. (music writer Neil Strauss playing murder detective), The Dropout and The Man In the Window (compelling examinations, with new details, of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and the Golden State Killer, respectively), The Clearing (an attempt to solve one woman’s insistent question: was my father a serial killer?), and Root of Evil (the deeply disturbing Black Dahlia case and related crimes involving one dysfunctional family [shudder]). They all deserve honorable mentions, and listens.

But the most compulsive listen in the pack was reporter Joe Nocera’s efforts to unpack how a psychiatrist—his (apparent) neighbor, hence the title—held one patient under his sway, with life-altering, almost unbelievable consequences. Bonus: Unlike some other true crime pods, there’s little if any voyeuristic unease or attempts to titillate with gratuitous details. The Shrink Next Door felt fresh and different in the worlds of audio journalism and true crime. —Holly Ojalvo

Category: Business & work
Title: Land of the Giants
Casties award: Most revealing about a company we thought we already knew

Yes, Recode Media’s deep dive into all things Amazon might no longer be technically considered a limited series because a second season was just announced this week. But as season two leaves Amazon behind to instead cover Google, I think we can make an exception. From explaining how Prime became the most heavily-subscribed membership in the country, to a zoom-in on why so many packages pass through a small Montana town, the eight-part Land of the Giants dissected a different part of Amazon’s sprawling business empire with each episode. But at the end of the day it is host Jason Del Rey’s ability to get so many current and former Amazon employees, executives, sellers, competitors, and shoppers on the record and in front of microphones that earned Land of the Giants a 2019 Castie. —Max Lockie

Podcast Type: Ongoing

Category: Entertainment & comedy
Title: Everything is Alive
Casties award: The show you didn’t know you needed

If Terry Gross lived in a Murakami-like novel, her interviews would sound like these: Conversations with a lonely hopeless-romantic satellite, the family politics of Russian nesting dolls, an examination of confidence with an Expos baseball cap living in the Bronx. These are not your ordinary interviews; these are interviews with everyday objects. 

I first heard Everything is Alive—hosted by former Fresh Air producer Ian Chillag—at a live taping of one such conversation. On stage, a cellist tuned her instrument, while Ian opened a laptop and adjusted his microphone. The guest was brought out on stage: sitting upon a barstool was a chainsaw. The sincerity of Chillag’s interviews serve the humor but also poignancy of the topics. The chainsaw’s greatest fear, it turns out, is hurting its operator. Ironic, as Chillag points out, since humans tend to fear the machine for its implicit violence. A turn in dialogue reveals the chainsaw has never been hugged, and—in a pause fitting an on-air interview—to fulfill its request, Chillag gingerly embraces the saw. That moment, while the cellist played on, is “not what I expected, but it’s what I needed,” says my wife. A token, I think, of the gift this often bittersweet podcast bestows on humans and things. —Daniel Wolfe

Category: Science & technology
Title: BirdNote
Casties award: Tweets of the year

In World War I, a carrier pigeon saved 100 lives and received the French medal Croix de Guerre. Tiny warblers follow the stars for 2,500 miles to Central America, where they make their way surrounded by Baltimore orioles, toucans, and some 100 other migratory birds who depend on shade-grown coffee trees in places like Belize where they make their home. These are just a few facts that flit by in this podcast purely about birds. 

BirdNote is escapism in purest form. What started out of the Seattle Audubon Society in 2004 now has nearly 3 million loon listeners. Encapsulated in peck-sized trivia-laden treats, and measuring just under two minutes each, the flocks of episodes will flutter by and leave you light as a feather. So next time you’re waiting for a friend, close out of Instagram and instead transport yourself to a little retreat with these birds of paradise. —Daniel Wolfe

Category: News, politics, and history
Title: 1619
Casties award: The podcast that should be required listening

“They say our people were born on the water. When it occurred, no one can say for certain.” With these haunting words, and standing at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Nikole Hannah-Jones opens 1619. The podcast is part of the New York Times’ larger project to commemorate the arrival of enslaved Africans in what is now the US and reveal the living legacy of slavery in American institutions, from banking to farming. But as much as 1619 is a searing history lesson, it is also a tribute to the black American spirit. Through historical research, on-the-ground reporting, and cultural criticism, the podcast unearths stories of black people resisting oppression to hold the US accountable to its highest democratic ideals. —Dasia Moore

Category: Business/work
Title: 80,000 Hours
Casties award: Most inspiring for a career pivot

Idealists want to change the world. Pragmatists want to change their lives. What do they have in common? They probably picked their career through a haphazard, ad-hoc determination without evidence about what makes a good career—for them, or in general. The 80,000 Hours podcast, so named because most people will spend 80,000 hours working over a 40-year career, explores the world’s most pressing problems and the people trying to solve them. As a bonus, each episode is geared toward helping you identify a career, a switch, or even just something that brings a little more meaning or perspective to your life. —Katrina Dix

Category: Business/work
Title: Exponent
Casties award: Podcast that is as essential as ever

Ben Thompson’s blog Stratechery has been a must-read for Silicon Valley management types since it launched in 2014. Shortly after that—and while he was still working at Microsoft—Thompson, along with James Allworth, now of the web security firm Cloudflare, introduced the Exponent podcast. Even though Exponent broke its weekly publishing schedule this year and went on a long summer hiatus, it earned a Castie because this was the year that business podcasts became tech podcasts and vice versa—and Exponent has been in front of that trend for years. Covering everything from Apple News and Spotify to the NBA’s controversy in China, Thompson’s Taiwan-based operation has also helped put Exponent ahead of the curve on the changing geography of the tech industry.

Honorable mentions go to Slate Money, which does the best job of delivering the most important business news of the week, and Track Changes from digital product studio Post Light, where founders Paul Ford and Rich Ziade tease out the nuts and bolts product management and working with clients along with a little inside New York media scuttlebutt. —Max Lockie

Category: Culture & lifestyle
Title: Ten Percent Happier
Casties award: Most mindful 

As a sporadic meditator, I aspire to a more consistent and fulfilling practice even as I admit to having trouble committing the time. I focus on meditating, I get distracted, I come back, over and over. That, as it turns out, is similar to how Ten Percent Happier host Dan Harris describes mindfulness meditation: Basically, you focus on your breath, you get distracted, you come back, over and over. But he doesn’t lead listeners on guided meditations in this podcast (which shares its title with two other Harris projects: a book and an app). Instead, he interviews various experts and practitioners about their experience and insights into not only meditation but also meditation-adjacent topics like self-acceptance and kindness, simultaneously maintaining both devotion and detachment as he guides the conversation. Whenever I listen to Ten Percent Happier on the way to work, I start the day on a calmer, more reflective note. —Holly Ojalvo

Category: Culture & lifestyle
Title: Terrible, Thanks for Asking
Casties award: Best mix of courage, heart, and humor

In 2014, Nora McInerny had a miscarriage. Five days later, her father died—and six weeks after that, so did her husband. A lot of people asked how she was doing, but most of them, of course, had no idea how to respond to an honest answer—or a funny one. Now, on Terrible, Thanks for Asking, she interviews people who have experienced all sorts of pain and loss with a steady, compassionate, and yes, humorous approach, reminding us that while our pain is unique, we’re not alone in experiencing it. As McInerny says, “You’re allowed to feel all the things at once.” It’s the most unflinching yet somehow uplifting take on tragedy you’re likely to hear. —Katrina Dix

Category: True crime/investigation
Title: Criminal
Casties award: Quickest click in crime

As Quartz’s resident true crime junkie, I have to shout out my favorite ongoing pod in the category. My Favorite Murder is probably more popular, but I found it’s not for me. But Criminal very much is, and I’d argue that it deserves a higher profile. Host Phoebe Judge’s voice lulls you into a semi-dream state as she fills your ears with a wide range of crime cases and incisive questions for her sources. Whenever I open Stitcher, I find myself checking to see if the next episode has dropped yet. When a new one appears, I can’t click to listen fast enough, and it never disappoints. —Holly Ojalvo

Category: News, politics, and history
Title: Today, Explained
Casties award: Most improved

Not all podcasts are born perfect. When Vox Media released its daily news podcast Today, Explained in 2018, it was nothing special. The host, Sean Rameswaram, brought a warm playfulness to the show, and relied on a strong stable of journalists for coverage. Still, it mostly felt like a lightweight version of the New York Times’ news show The Daily

Then they got weird. 

Perhaps sensing the need to differentiate themselves, the show became increasingly experimental in 2019, sometimes even bordering on the strange, and it has really worked. Recent episodes included laugh tracks, a spoof of This American Life, and a bizarre cover of the Game of Thrones theme. The show remains informative, but it now has an anything-goes vibe that adds to the excitement of listening.  It’s a wonderful sign for podcasting that the space is now so competitive that it is forcing a new level of creativity. —Dan Kopf

Podcast Type: Seasonal

Category: True crime/investigation
Titles: Over My Dead Body: Tally and The City: Reno (tied)
Casties award: Best use of local reporters

It’s unfortunately becoming a truism that local journalism is struggling. All the more reason to highlight two seasons of investigative podcasts that leveraged the expertise and sources of local reporters. The first season of Over My Dead Body, Tally, separates knowns from unknowns in the murder of a law professor shot to death in his driveway, leaning on reporting by the Tallahassee Democrat, which covered the case from the start. Meanwhile, the second season of The City, Reno, illuminates changes in the Nevada city and some of the key players involved, from strip clubs to Tesla to the city council. It clearly wouldn’t have been nearly as good had a longtime local reporter not been tapped to report this story. —Holly Ojalvo

Category: Business & work
Title: Startup
Casties award: Lifetime achievement

Launched just weeks apart, the one-tow punch of Startup and Serial in the Fall of 2014 was arguably the birth of the modern podcast. It’s been an uneven eight seasons of Gimlet Media’s flagship show, but this final installment returned to its roots with host Alex Blumberg delivering audio access behind the seasons of his company. Now, instead of showing his audience what it takes to get a venture-backed business off the ground, he’s going through the steps of being acquired by the streaming music platform Spotify. A favorite moment is during one of the final episodes when someone in a Spotify board meeting tells him to stop recording, as well as candid conversations with Spotify CEO Daniel Ek.

For me, the show earns a few personal demerits because the show has continued to post new episodes—interviews with celebrities and business people—after Blumberg issued his heartfelt goodbye. It’s not his company anymore, though, so who knows if he’s even the one calling those shots. —Max Lockie

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the second season of “Land of the Giants” would focus on Netflix, instead of Google. It also identified Peter Kafka as the host of “Land of the Giants”; the host is Jason Del Rey.