Ghosts, grit and genius

Siobhan McHugh finds the most gripping podcasts of 2023, including a list of the best quick listens.

Dec 27, 2023, updated Dec 27, 2023
Photo: State Library of Queensland

Photo: State Library of Queensland

Despite downturns at the corporate end of town, podcasts again this year proved to be a powerful medium for new voices and previously overlooked stories.

As a judge of the Walkleys and New York Festivals, I listened to a lot of content. I was struck by how open this medium is still to newcomers, and how a passion project can outgun the big names (some of whom were victims this year of their own hubris).

Lovers of imaginative audio will be disappointed by the recent cancellation of the “documentary adventures” show Lights Out, produced by small but stellar UK company Falling Tree. Falling Tree has been an exceptional mentor of new talent such as this luminous reflection on family and loss by Talia Augustidis. Happily, nascent outlets such as Audio Flux and Sound Fields promise fresh artistic delights.

Here, then, are my podcast picks of 2023 for your summer listening pleasure.

1. First Eat with Nakkiah Lui

Even for a versatile playwright/actor/director such as Nakkiah Lui, this podcast has a challenging remit: to investigate how Lui’s food habits and body image as an Indigenous Australian might link to identity and impacts of colonialism.

She and producer Nicola Harvey stitch together a sprawling narrative that digs into Lui’s family history and draws on global academic research to traverse Australia, creating vivid aural landscapes.

The podcast’s excavation of exploitation and cultural erasure evokes shades of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ remarkable opus, The Case for Reparations.

2. Dying Rose

Dying Rose investigates in forensic detail how poorly the justice system treated the deaths of six young First Nations women. Host Douglas Smith from the Advertiser puts his Indigeneity explicitly in the frame, telling listeners: “our normals are not the same […] I’ve been to more funerals of relatives than I can count. Sometimes it feels like these deaths in our community get written off”.

Smith gains deep and empathetic access to the bereaved families. Being an Indigenous journalist starkly informs his frustrated interactions with police.

3. Nobody Dies Here

Nobody Dies Here takes us inside Melbourne’s medically supervised injecting room, perhaps not the most appealing premise.

What makes this podcast so good is its total absence of judgment or earnestness. The genuine curiosity and empathy of host/producer Michelle Ransom-Hughes humanises both addicts and healthcare workers, making us lean into their stories, rendered even more engaging by assured production.

4. The Lawyer, the Sniper and the NSW Police

Authenticity is a buzzword in podcasting and this indie offering has it in spades.

The hosts are real people, not media professionals, telling gripping stories of the injustice they suffered as police workers: former police lawyer Lina Nguyen was raped by a cop she trusted; Mark Davidson was a sniper at the Sydney Lindt Cafe siege in 2014.

Their powerful testimony is beautifully shaped and sound designed by former ABC operatives Gretchen Miller and Judy Rapley.

5. Rupert, The Last Mogul

Our very own podcast version of Succession, Rupert, The Last Mogul, may not have the snarling Brian Cox and his codependent kids, but host Paddy Manning of Schwartz Media convincingly traces the evolution of Rupert Murdoch from rebel to ruthless autocrat via insightful interviews and chilling archival evidence of his geopolitical manoeuvrings.

6. The Kids of Rutherford County

The Kids of Rutherford County by Serial Productions and the New York Times investigates the shocking incarceration of mostly black children in Tennessee, some kept in solitary confinement for trivial misdemeanours due to the crusading arrogance of a white judge.

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The judge is taken on by a likeable, shambolic lawyer, Wes, in a classic underdog battle narrated by Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio in what has become Serial Productions’ trademark host-heavy style.

7. The Retrievals

That style is also evident in The Retrievals, a jarring exploration of malpractice at a fertility clinic at Yale, linked to opiate addiction. Host Susan Burton eschews the chatty trope established by Sarah Koenig in the original Serial, opting for a more clinically detached tone that foregrounds patients.

The exposition can be dense, such as an 18-minute monologue in episode four when Burton recounts observations by staffers and others who won’t go on tape. Despite such obstacles, the series builds a shattering picture of how women’s suffering is downplayed, even by educated, privileged women such as those undergoing egg retrievals at this elite institution.

8. The Girlfriends

The Girlfriends begins frivolously with a bunch of women reminiscing about their ill-fated romance with the same rich, charming and seemingly eligible bachelor, Bob.

It shifts gears to unpack a psychopath and his coercive control of first his wife and, after her suspicious death, these women: the eponymous girlfriends. One of them, a psychologist called Carole, narrates with real heft.

The storytelling is elevated by well-crafted production by UK network Novel, which includes a moving choral tribute to victims of domestic violence.

9. You Didn’t See Nothin

From the opening 20 seconds, where we hear Obama embracing victory in 2008 while host Yohance Lacour listens from jail, You Didn’t See Nothin is special. A Chicago playwright who did ten years for selling weed, Lacour revisits the bashing of a black boy in the city’s South Side in 1997 and interrogates racism, power and his own life story with a particular poetry and presence.

10. The best quick listens

For seasonal fun, Ghost Story is narrated with panache by British journalist Tristan Redman, whose wife’s great-grandmother may have been murdered in the house next door to where he grew up.

For an unsettling twist, try Ghost Industrial Complex, a mini-episode of This American Life by Chenjerai Kumanyika, hip-hop artist, academic and host of award-winning podcast Uncivil, a Black rewriting of the US civil war. It sees Georgia ghosts through historically questioning eyes.

Staying with departed souls, in a year where we have lost, far too soon, two sublime poet-musicians, Shane MacGowan and Sinéad O’Connor, marvel at one who is left. McCartney: a Life in Lyrics is an accidental podcast made by the Beatle with Irish poet Paul Muldoon that captures the sheer wonder that still drives this musical genius, now into his 80s.

Siobhan McHugh, Honorary Associate Professor, Journalism, Consulting Producer, The Greatest Menace, Walkley-winning podcast, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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