If the podcasting industry needed any nonfiction show this year, it needed Nancy. In times where LGBT+/queer identities often feel both more public and more understood, Nancy serves as both a haven and a resource. The show is about LGBT+/queer culture and issues, but without feeling like it’s making a massive statement about its content. In fact, some of the best segments are the ones that feel completely normal. The show benefits most from the down-to-earth hosts Kathy Tu and Tobin Low, both of whom has a casualness that makes Nancy feel more like talking to friends than a trudge through a typical public radio program. “#19: The Pentagon’s Secret Gaggle of Gays” was such an interesting listen, and “#14: Kathy Goes to Camp” seems to be the listener favorite of the year.
A quick edit: A reader in the comments noticed how this may have sounded like it was written for a cis/straight audience to show that Nancy is palatable for those who aren’t queer. It should be noted that I am a queer woman, and what I appreciated about Nancy was that it allowed queer people to be depicted as normal instead of putting us on a pedestal, making our lives only sob stories, etc. I can absolutely see how without that context, this mini review would have seemed distasteful, to say the least.
2. Conversations with People Who Hate Me
If Nancy was a haven in 2017, Conversations with People Who Hate Me was the year’s most necessary discomfort. Listening to Dylan Marron of Welcome to Night Vale have lengthy phone conversations with people who sent him hateful messages online was often stressful and anxiety-inducing, but each episode’s conclusion felt healing enough to justify the process. Marron’s knack for empathizing with just about anyone is moving and integral for the current political and social climates. “Episode 2: Hurt People Hurt People” is the show’s most iconic, but “Episode 3: The Call Is Coming from Inside the House” was the episode that stood out the most to me.
3. 99% Invisible
99% Invisible has been a mainstay of nonfiction podcasting for years, but 2017 brought some of the show’s best episodes to date. “The Pool and the Stream” felt like 99% Invisible epitomized, “The Modern Necropolis” was some of the best dark humor of the year, and “The Finnish Experiment” was a timely entry that both cleared up and opened conversation on standardized minimum wage. With production that’s always beautiful and research that’s always insightful, all 99% Invisible needs to supply is the episode’s topic, and each of 2017’s episodes had a topic that was, in true 99% Invisible fashion, as intriguing as it was mundane.
Wonderful! has a setup so simple, it seemed destined to be a show I’d roll my eyes at: a husband (who is somewhat of an internet celebrity) and his wife discuss things they love. From its first episode, though, Wonderful! felt like the perfect antidote to so much of the stress and anxiety and pessimism that 2017 brought. Hosts Griffin and Rachel McElroy are so thoroughly genuine in their love of the topics as well as each other it’s infectious, leaving the listener grinning from start to finish. The show is simply gentle, and honest, and kind, and funny. It’s sweet without being saccharine, funny without being forced. Each episode is a delight; recommending any over another almost feels wrong. With only 15 episodes as of writing, I’d recommend starting from the beginning and just riding along.
5. The Heart
It seems to make sense that The Heart‘s final true season has been one of its best. While the “No” series delivered some of the most important listens of the year, almost every episode of the podcast gave voice to someone whose presence has been massively overlooked by the media until now. The Heart always dared to be strange and different and explicit and intimate and deeply, deeply relatable, and the podcasting world will feel a little more lonely without it. As always, a recommendation for The Heart comes with the warning that the show is very NSFW.
6. Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People
Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People is exactly as the title would suggest, and this year’s callers made for some of the best conversations the show has released. Hosted by Chris Gethard, who a friend of mine once aptly called “a combination of punk rock and a puppy,” this show aims to give voice to people in interesting life situations while also being an archive of stories for years to come. One part anthropological, one part sociological, and about twelve parts humanistic, Beautiful/Anonymous felt like a cousin to Conversations with People Who Hate Me, just with a different, less initially hostile spin. For a weepy listen, “Love Is Everywhere” was extremely moving; for something more upbeat, “Vinyl Market Researcher” is hard to beat.
7. Song Exploder
This year, Song Exploder dissected songs with some of the biggest acts of 2017 including Lorde, St. Vincent, and even Lin-Manuel Miranda. While Song Exploder may seem only interesting if the listener is already a fan of the song or artist being discussed, each episode was such a deep dive into the songwriting and production process the song itself felt almost tertiary to the episode. Song Exploder is a great way for listeners to learn more about their favorite artists, but more important, it’s a beautiful way to unravel the creative process, especially in a medium where so many hands touch the same work on its journey to being completed.
Spirits is a show in which two women drink and discuss mythology. The concept is simple, and the show is hilarious. The energy between hosts Amanda McLaughlin and Julia Schifini, two longtime friends, makes for a podcast that veers off-topic just enough to add life to the content without being completely sidetracked–something most “friends discuss a thing” podcast have such a hard time balancing. The show is respectful to the myths being discussed while still making jokes. The hosts also analyze the context and meaning of the myths through an almost anthropological, always intersectional lens. “Episode 44: Circe” is a good introductory listen for a well-known myth, and “Episode 48: College Ghost Stories” was as creepy as it was hilarious.
9. My Brother, My Brother and Me
After finishing the first season of their Seeso/VRV show, the McElroy brothers gave another hilarious year in 2017’s My Brother, My Brother and Me. MBMBaM is a comedy show in which Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy (of the aforementioned Wonderful!) give terrible advice and answer some of the worst questions on Yahoo! Answers. The McElroys have been at this game for years now and have honed their show into the perfect mix of good humor, good conversation, and genuinely good audio. While the show is riddled with inside jokes, it doesn’t alienate the audience. It also remains one of the few comedy podcasts that makes essentially no unkind jokes, always veering towards jokes that are more absurdist instead of cruel. If you’re going to listen to your first episode of MBMBaM, make sure it’s “MBMBaM 367: Shrimp! Heaven! Now!”
Potterless is another show with a simple concept that delivers on both laughs and insight. In Potterless, a grown man reads the Harry Potter series for the first time. The podcast is less audio book, more conversation between one fan and one half-fan-half-critic. Potterless isn’t just a show for Harry Potter fans; host Mike Schubert’s rants about how Quidditch is a terrible sport are an entertaining listen for just about anyone. Unlike other nonfiction podcasts, I’d recommend starting all the way back with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for this show; hearing Schubert’s opinions and theories develop is a large part of the fun, especially for those listeners who can experience the real-life dramatic irony by knowing the plot of the books.
Which nonfiction podcasts were your favorite of 2017? Please leave a comment below! Podcast Problems will be releasing more Best of 2017 lists throughout December 2017. You can find all of the lists here. Make sure to check back throughout the month for more!
5 thoughts on “2017’s Best in Podcasts: Nonfiction”
re: Nancy, what do you mean by this part: “some of the best segments are the ones that feel completely normal.” By normal, do you mean heterosexual and cis? To me, lgbtq content IS completely normal. It sounds to me, a queer woman, that you are saying that Nancy is easy for straight, cis people to listen to because it doesn’t make them uncomfortable (I take it that’s what you mean by this: “The show is about LGBT+/queer culture and issues, but without feeling like it’s making a massive statement about its content.”), which, if that is what you mean, please just write that. I also don’t know what you mean by “massive statement” in regards to lgbtq content – what does a massive statement look like, and why is that a problem for you? I got the sense you were assuming your readers were all straight, cis people, and they are not. Personally, one of my favorite nonfiction podcasts of the year is Making Gay History.
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Hi, Naanie! Also a queer woman here, just for context. 🙂 What I’ve found in a LOT of podcasts about queer issues is that they go for the Big Sad Story, the kind we’ve been given by pretty much any piece of media about queer people/characters forever. What I love about Nancy is the emphasis on how queer people are just people who have normal lives versus putting us on a pedestal or making our identities Different(TM) or Controversial(TM). I DEFINITELY didn’t mean to equate normal with cis/het. I also don’t assume that my readers are cis/het at all.
Thank you for your comment, though–I can absolutely see how that comes across, and I’ll happily make some edits. I appreciate your notes!