Looking at the Apple Podcasts top chart is like taking a glance at our national anxieties. On Monday of this week, the number one most popular podcast was "Cults." "Stay Tuned with Preet" with his premiere podcast "The Time President Trump Fired Me" is number 2. Among the Top 20 list are "The Fall Line," a true-crime serial about marginalized communities in Georgia, "The American War," "Pod Save America," and "Zealot." Which is ANOTHER podcast about cults.
I'm all about staying up-to-date on current events. My Twitter feed is full of outraged observations about the latest atrocity committed by our administration -- interspersed with tweets about fun outings, cocktails, and Project Runway.
But the times when I listen to podcasts -- on the road in traffic, at the gym first thing in the god-dang morning, making dinner at the end of a long-long day -- are not the ideal times for me to get fired up about our administration or terrified for the future of my two kids. So below are a list of my favorite podcasts that work as a distraction from the woes, generally thanks to great storytelling, fascinating topics, astonishing research and -- sometimes -- smooth-jazz, tickle-your-ear voices.
C'mon, get happy! Let these podcasts chase all your cares away.
We're Alive (audio drama)
What better to distract you from the actual end of the world than a podcast about the pretend end of the world? A search for entertaining, sweep-me-away audio (when times weren't quite so dank) is what led me to podcasts, and thank God I was searching when this audio drama about a zombie apocalypse was still top of the charts. "We're Alive," created by KC Wayland who recently produced "Bronzeville" with Laurence Fishburne, is a three-season, 48-chapter series that follows a band of survivors in LA after it's hit with zombies. Great writing, sound effects, and acting have you enmeshed in the story from go, and I became as tied to these characters as I am tied to my Games of Thrones loves. My loyalty was rewarded -- "We're Alive" has perhaps the best and most satisfying series finale of any story I've ever engaged in, regardless of the medium ("Dexter" and "True Blood" should have taken notes).
Stuff You Missed in History Class (history)
Two hosts, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, provide entertaining and insightful summations of lesser known historical events. I was drawn to "Missed in History" by their more gruesome history lessons -- they've done episodes on "Lizzie Borden and Her Axe," the "New England Vampire Panic," and "The Case of the Colorado Cannibal" -- but more valuable are their dives into historical events by or affecting women, people of color, or others who didn't write the history books. I learned more about "The Tulsa Race Riot" in their 36-minute episode than I ever did in my six years sitting in Tulsa classrooms.
How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black (interview)
I'm not a fan of "cult-of-personality" interview podcasts -- so often the interviewer just wants to talk to the interviewee about all the times they've worked together. So why do I listen to comedian and actor Michael Ian Black? He makes his interviewees cry. He has this habit of asking these really balls-to-the-walls questions that you assume the subject would never answer -- and yet he asks them in a way that is very caring. Caring in a kind of New York, in-your-face way. And then the subject answers and cries. I was shocked by what Project Runway's Tim Gunn shared with him. I wanted to sit at the feet of Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten and soak up her wisdom after her interview. And I'm pretty sure he made ultimate smart ass Megan Mullally cry, too.
The Adventure Zone (story telling)
I downloaded "The Adventure Zone," a podcast of three adult brothers playing Dungeons & Dragons with their dad, as a gift to my son who was stuck in the car with me as we drove to visit colleges. The decision nearly proved lethal. As we whipped along the always-packed and suicidal I-70, I was laughing so hard I couldn't see. I literally considered pulling onto the shoulder. The McElroy Brothers -- Justin, Travis and Griffin -- gained podcasting fame with the advice show "My Brother, My Brother and Me." "The Adventure Zone" was a whim while they were taking paternity leave. It proved to be a three-year-long love affair with fanciful story telling, dice throwing, and the unique comedy that can come about when four people love each other and can annoy the holy living crap out of each other. Just trust me. Check it out.
I don't know how to categorize this show, which is the highest compliment I can pay it. Calling it "true crime" lumps it in with all the other whodunits, and "Criminal" is soooooo much more than a voyeuristic poke into a family or community's pain. "Criminal" is a subtle-and-curious look into the community of crime -- the people who record it (a courtroom sketch artist), the people who are victimized by it (like this daughter), and the people who sink into tar pits to try to uncover it. My favorite episode, a truly courageous episode by host and co-creator Phoebe Judge, is this one about people who research decomposition. By the way, Phoebe earns my vote for best female podcasting voice. It's like butter.
This new communication beast we call social media changes daily. Hourly. With twice weekly podcasts, the "Social Media Marketing Podcast" helps me keep up. Host and founder Michael Stelzner interviews guests with his listeners in mind -- whenever guests dive down the rabbit hole of their specialty, he pulls them back and asks them to explain it for the rest of us. This podcast serves the place of a university course in social media marketing -- clients, you now know my trick. Please don't fire me.
In the Dark (true crime)
This expertly researched and reported podcast does what so many other true crime podcasts fail to do: provide a larger picture of what it all means. "In the Dark" looks at the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year Minnesota boy who disappeared in the midst of the stranger-danger frenzy of the '80s. But more than just poking at the crime, reporter Madeleine Baran puts together an alarming look at how little oversight there is over our nation's sheriff's departments and how little accountability they have. Jacob Wetterling's murderer came forward just one week before "In the Dark" began -- the true mystery was not how killer Danny Heinrich got away with it for so long, but how the Stearns County Sheriff's department did such a horrible job.
The Bright Sessions (audio drama)
"The Bright Sessions" has everything you could want out of an audio drama: adventure, romance, time travel, and telepathy. But creator Lauren Shippen has added a little something extra to this story line about a group of 20-somethings struggling to live with their special mental abilities, abilities that allow them to read minds or feel other's emotions or coerce people. There's a distinct "femaleness" to the whole presentation, which as an audio-drama lover accustomed to so many male-driven stories, I really appreciate. She nails the personal connections among all the characters.