I just appreciate a good historical podcast done by a smart journalist. My podcast listening habits veer from the gruesome murder, cult, serial killer variety to this list. Ever since the pandemic, I’ve been walking and binge-listening podcasts and here are my top journalistic picks. If pure crime, blood, guts and murder is your game, that list can be found here.
My Favorite Historical and Journalistic Podcasts
Wonder what happens when well-meaning white parents start meddling, (all with the best of intentions of course), in schools for black and brown children? Yeah, that story. This episode is a graduate level course in race and if you are a nice white parent, listening to it will make you squirm. This five part series is hosted by Chana Joffe-Walt a veteran of “This American Life” and a nice white parent herself. It features terrific reporting, scanning decades and focuses on the efforts of nice white parents to transform one school in Brooklyn. This is a New York Times podcast that has an excellent discussion guide.
The very name “Bundy” deserves to be a noun.
Bun.dy: /bun-dē/. A unique breed of ranchers, outlaws and other Amurrikans who bump up against the federal government over land rights.
In the case of the Bundy’s, that clash ended in gunfire and a series of standoffs at their Ranch in Oregon. This seven- part series by journalist Leah Sottile and Oregon Public Broadcasting covers all the details of the Bundy drama including stand-offs, court appearances and she even delves into the story of their Mormon ancestors, who fled to the West to escape persecution. If you want to know why some Amurrikans are ready to go to war with our government, this is a good place to start.
Let me be clear, I have a lot of Mormon friends and I’m sensitive to Mormon hysteria. It’s a religion people. They believe Joseph Smith is a prophet who found these golden plates in Western New York state, all of which furthered our understanding of Christianity. I don’t buy the golden plates thing, but do like the similarity to Moses. I hate it when people insist on telling “crazy Mormon stories,” like all Mormons practice polygamy and don’t drink Coca-Cola. Fact: Polygamy was outlawed by the church well over a century ago and there’s nothing in the Mormon doctrine specifically related to our national beverage. Soooo, just because I’m sharing two podcasts about extremist, crazy Mormon families does not mean I have anything against Mormons. Okay, phew. Got that off my chest.
Short Creek, the podcast is rich and full of heart and heart breaking. Two women, Ash Sanders and Sarah Ventre, spent four years researching and reporting on this Mormon community and the sensitivity with which they approach the story is real. Now, I presume you’ve heard of Warren Jeffs? He’s the cult leader who married a boatload of teenage girls and is now serving a life sentence for sex crimes. He figures prominently in the podcast.. But so do many earnest men and women who wanted to carve out a better life and religious community for their family. When this communal haven goes off the rails, the podcast goes with it.
The Atlanta Child Murders, which took place in the late seventies and early eighties, still haunt Atlanta and paint a picture of how race comes into play when the missing children are brown and black. Podcast host, Payne Lindsey, covers this story with sensitivity and compassion. Payne is one of my all-time podcast host heroes. I love his voice, his curious streak, his vulnerability when he hits stumbling blocks and most of all his tenacity. He’s like a dog with a bone, trying to uncover the real story of what happened to the nearly 30 kids who went missing in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. I didn’t live in Atlanta then, but have many friends who grew up in the neighborhood where the murders took place and they describe the absolute terror they and their parents experienced at the time. Our own Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was just a young girl at the time and talks about the impact it had on her and her family. (By the way, she recently vowed to reopen the case and find the murderer once and for all. You can’t talk about the Atlanta child murders without talking about Wayne Williams. He’s serving time in jail right now for two of the murders but stalwartly claims his innocence. This podcast goes deep with Wayne.
I love me a good cult story and can binge watch anything having to do with the Moonies or Jonestown with the best of them. The mass suicide of 39 seemingly smart, sci-fi loving, early internet visionaries living in San Diego in 1997 fascinated me. First off, they were all wearing matching tracksuits, the same brand of Nike shoes and identical haircuts. Their leaders, adorably named Do and Ti, convinced them that their private UFO was ready to beam them up to Heavenly bliss. In fact, their UFO was right there, trailing the Hale-Bopp comet and all they had to do was exit their earthly bodies and hop on board. Their exit meal of choice consisted of applesauce blended with barbiturates along with a chaser of vodka.
Who were Do, Ti and their followers and how did they get them to buy into this black hole of apocalyptic nonsense? Well, you’ll just have to give this 12-episode podcast by Stitcher a listen.
Crooked Media, who produced this eight- part podcast, describe it this way: “Spies. Secrets. Soviets. And tight leather pants.” Add a little rock-n-roll Hoochie Coo and that about sums it up. The podcast premise starts with a song, by German heavy metal band, The Scorpions. That song? The Wind of Change. If you grew up anywhere in eastern Europe in the early nineties, this was your revolution anthem. Wind of Change, (not nearly as popular in America), is in fact, one of the best-selling singles of all time. Which leads to the question I’m sure you’d never think to ask? Could the CIA Have planted heavy metal propaganda during the Cold War? And, did the CIA in fact write the song and get the Scorpions to sing it? Seem implausible? Agreed, that is until you listen to this podcast.
So many of my favorite podcasts are done by journalists. Spoiler alert, I’m married to a journalist so I evidently appreciate stories narrated by the species.
You know Jad Abumrad, that nerdy co-host of WNYC’s RadioLab? Doesn’t matter. You know Dolly Parton, right? Well, beyond the supersized boobs, the acrylic nails, and the mane of bombshell blonde hair, haven’t you always wondered, what is the significance of Dolly to America? Let’s go even further and ask, what’s the significance of Dolly to the world? If I told you this podcast takes you back to Jad Abumrad’s family village in Lebanon, you’d be like, wha? “What does a small town in Lebanon have to do with Dolly Parton?”
Aha, that is the secret and the essence of this 9-part podcast. Don’t get confused. This Is not a historical romp through Dolly’s impoverished childhood in the Tennessee mountains and her rise to fame (although we do get those stories). This is more an exploration of the Dolly gestalt and why she is such a significant figure in our midst. As Dolly always says, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” In the case of this podcast, it took a lot of curious and unexpected discovery for Jad to tell this Dolly story.
So these are just a few of my favorite historical journalistic podcasts. If you like this list and want to check out my favorite murder and crime podcasts, look nor further than here.