Some families watch football together. Others have a special cranberry sauce they make every year. But here at WPLN, our annual Thanksgiving tradition is a little nerdier: We give you a list of our favorite podcast episodes of the year, because we can't keep all of this audio storytelling joy to ourselves.
Got a long drive or plane ride ahead of you this holiday weekend? Download some of these bad boys and feel your travel frustrations decline. Want to ignore a contentious political discussion 'round the dinner table? Discreetly pop in your earbuds and press play. (Editor's note: We don't actually recommend doing this. Instead, stay informed by listening to news on 90.3 FM so you can engage in conversation.)
Whatever the occasion, there's an episode in our staff picks list below. And more great podcasts, we humbly recommend heading over to podcasts.wpln.org. Happy listening!
How to listen: Podcasts are completely free to listen to, just like public radio. Below, we provide the links to each episode's website and to Apple Podcasts, which is the standard app that comes on an iPhone. If you have an Android, you can search for the episode on Google Play Music. And if you want a third-party app that works on either phone, we recommend Stitcher.
The podcast episode that stopped me in my tracks this year was "Ministry of Presence." The show is typically about documentary films and often interviews the directors. But this one is about a chaplain who witnessed more than 90 executions in a Texas prison — and who recorded personal testimonials after each one. This episode is built off of 30 hours of the chaplain’s recordings, and it is haunting and insightful. — Tony Gonzalez
A listener asked us a fairly straightforward question: What happens to all the construction waste in Nashville? To answer that, WPLN's Meribah Knight followed a single home in Inglewood as it got demolished and carted off to a landfill, and then she goes back to find the family who lived in it. (Fun fact: This is the same episode that we adapted into a puppet show at Podcast Party in May.)
I tune in to Sound Opinions frequently for gems like this episode. The hour includes appreciations of Fats Domino and Gord Downie — two musicians I didn’t know enough about — and a fascinating conversation about artists who put out albums (or at least tried to) under aliases. Some of these were projects I’d half-forgotten: "Chris Gaines," a.k.a. Garth Brooks; "The Dukes of Stratosphear," a.k.a. XTC; and the full story of "Buster Poindexter." Others, I was completely unaware of. Prince created a persona named Camille? Sonic Youth did a tribute to Madonna? Paul McCartney dabbled in electronica? Who knew? — Chas Sisk
Ear Hustle from PRX and Radiotopia has been one of my top podcasts in 2017. It takes you deep inside San Quentin State Prison in California — the series is produced in partnership with two inmates serving long sentences there. I love how this podcast captures the life of an incarcerated person, while linking it to the universal truths we all live with. This episode "Looking Out" is a collection of stories about inmates' need to nurture. As an animal lover and crazy cat lady, I loved learning about inmates who find a way to care for animals, even on the inside. — Meribah Knight
If your idea of a good time is taking a trip down to Latin America to explore the region, people and politics, then Radio Ambulante’s got your back (minus the airfare!). Though the podcast’s captivating longform storytelling is mostly in Spanish, their “unscripted” episodes in English go behind some of those stories. Give a listen to the interview with reporter Nadja Prost, who reported on armed groups fighting for control of a gold mine in a "lawless" town in Colombia after exporting drugs became too difficult. Bonus: If you’re working on your Spanish skills, head on over to the non-English episodes. Their website offers transcripts in both languages to help you follow along. — Julieta Martinelli
A little girl named Hannah has a genetic disorder so rare and remarkable that it almost sounds made up: She stops breathing when she goes to sleep. That constant awareness of a basic human function has changed the way her parents approach life. We recommend having tissues handy.
I know what you're thinking. A public radio reporter is recommending a journalism podcast about a public radio interviewer? Can you be more of a caricature of yourself? While it's true that I adore Terry Gross and have listened to this 80-minute episode twice, and then subsequently checked out her book from the library, I recommend it even to the everyday Fresh Air fan who simply wants to pull back the curtain. My favorite part is when she describes the ground rules she lays out for each guest — it's almost feels like you're on her show. — Emily Siner
And a reason why we love Terry Gross so much: This interview with John Hodgman is so good. Their discussion about his atheist mom saying the Lord's Prayer as she died is standstill listening. It's like a driveway moment for podcasts, where you stop everything you're doing. — Blake Farmer
Our newest addition to the Nashville Public Radio family is Versify, a show in which everyday folks in the community tell a story to a writer, who then turns it into poetry. Don't be scared off by the P-word if you're not already a literary fan — these stories and the resulting poems are powerful, especially this personal account of a mother who survived the Rwandan genocide.
Ways of Hearing, a six-part special series from Radiotopia, explores the transition from the analog world of the past to the digital world of the now with host and musician Damon Krukoswsi. At first glance, that might seem like wonkish subject matter, tailored to audiophiles and studio engineers. But the show gets into the very basics of how people communicate with each other. The first episode, called "Time," explores how we've evolved away from shared experiences happening in real time and toward isolated, time-shifted ones that happen on-demand. It will change the way you think about a lot of things. — Mack Linebaugh
Revisionist History — "Miss Buchanan's Period of Adjustment"
Malcom Gladwell's Revisionist History is one of those rare podcasts whose season drop date warrants a reminder on my Google Calendar. I binged the whole first season last year while driving to a family reunion in West Tennessee, and then spent the remainder of the weekend proselytizing to family members about why they should listen too. In the show, Gladwell takes listeners back in time to examine something from the past that's been overlooked or misunderstood. Here, he challenges the widely held belief that black students in segregated southern schools received an "inferior education" and grapples with the complicated legacy of school integration and its unintended consequences. — Joshua Moore
Sincerely, X is the latest creation from TED, the gift that keeps on giving. Co-produced with Audible, the talks here are anonymous because they’re "too sensitive, painful or potentially damaging to share publicly." I haven’t listened to the entire first season, but the most powerful episodes I’ve heard so far are “Dr. Burnout,” by a physician who committed a fatal error, and “Gifted Kid,” about a teacher who works with gifted city kids living in poverty, which is what she herself once was. Producers advise not trying to figure out who the people are, but to “suspend judgment and just listen.” I agree: the anonymity makes the stories all the more universal, and all the more moving. — Natasha Senjanovic
Tiana Clark is kind of a poetry rock star. Her writing was recently featured in The New Yorker, her readings are always standing-room only, and she's not afraid to speak her mind. In this interview, Emily Siner asks her some bold questions about sexuality, religion and race, and Tiana responds with a refreshing amount of honesty.
This first episode in a 14-part series poses the question: What is whiteness, and where did the idea come from? The host and producer, a white male, has a 30-year public radio career in which he's told a lot of stories about race, but never about this thing known as the "white" race. He struggles with that concept openly as he charts the entire idea of race through ancient Greece to the founding of America. In most episodes, he includes a friend of his who is black — Chenjerai Kumanyika, who is a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and host of another podcast called Uncivil. — Jakob Lewis
Podcasts are exceptionally good at pulling fascinating stories out of real life. But if you need a break from reality, this is the best fictional podcast I've heard. Featuring Catherine Keener as the clueless protagonist and David Schwimmer as her morally ambiguous boss, it's a modern take on the radio dramas that captivated America before TV came along. Ironically, Homecoming is being adapted into a TV show on Amazon starring Julia Roberts. But you know what they say: The TV show is never as good as the podcast. — Emily Siner