By 2020, the podcast will be a whopping 17-or-so years old; the Apple Podcasts catalogue contains more than 700,000 unique offerings, not counting episodes. With such an abundance from which to choose, Smithsonian magazine turned to scholars and podcast fiends across the Smithsonian Institution for guidance. From a critical look at Disney tales to poetry to a podcast that’ll get the kids in the carpool group interested in science, here’s a curated list of the podcasts that’ll make perfect earbud fodder for 2020.
“Sidedoor”: This Smithsonian podcast delves into the stories behind some of the 154 million objects in the Institution’s collections. It’s subject-omnivorous; episodes explore vaccine science, Adam Rippon’s boundary-breaking figure skating and dueling paleontologists. For a plane-flight listen, host Lizzie Peabody suggests an episode from their current season, “The Worst Video Game Ever?” which takes listeners back to the 1980s, when a truly abominable E.T. spinoff video game managed to tank the industry.
“Uncivil”: The version of the Civil War taught in classrooms is often an incomplete history, and this podcast seeks to correct that by spotlighting lesser-known stories about the Union-Confederacy conflict. Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, says, “I enjoy [“Uncivil” episodes] because they help to explain the nuances of history and the multitude of players and events beyond a single batter or a single heroic figure.”
“Her STEM Story”: Carol O’Donnell, the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, says, “I like “Her STEM Story,” which is a weekly podcast about extraordinary stories of real women in the STEM fields…It covers the amazing work of women across the globe who work in different STEM and STEM-related fields. Students (and others) who listen to the podcast learn about what motivates women in STEM, what struggles they overcame, and how we can close the gender gap in male-dominated fields.”
“VS”: This bi-weekly podcast from the Poetry Foundation sees hosts Danez Smith and Frannie Choi dig deep in conversations with fellow poets. Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, a curator for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), describes it as “a beautiful, hilarious, deeply felt mash-up of poetry and racial and queer justice.” The most recent season features an episode recorded live at the APAC’s Asian American Literature Festival.
“The Museum of Lost Objects”: This BBC podcast comes with a recommendation from Nora Lockshin, a senior conservator at Smithsonian Archives. She’s a fan of the podcast, which tracks lost, stolen or destroyed objects—from the items turned to ash by Brazil’s National Museum fire to a stolen Nobel Prize medal. It’s an “incredibly poignant, cross-cultural and sensitive examination,” says Lockshin, that offers “reflections on the values of people, museums and collected objects.”
“Time Sensitive”: The thoughtful conversations with luminaries like architect Liz Diller and designer Stefan Sagmeister about “culture, nature and the future” (plus the slick logo and branding from a National Design Award-winning firm) keep Caroline Baumann, director of design-focused museum Cooper Hewitt, tuning in. “In keeping with its name, each episode is one hour long and focuses on curious and courageous people who have a distinct perspective on time,” says Baumann.
“The Right Time with Bomani Jones”: “In an era in which many sports fans implore commentators to ‘stick to sports,’ host Bomani Jones is not afraid to address how race shapes the sporting contests we consume. A former academic turned sportswriter, Jones has a way of breaking down and analyzing social issues within sports and pop culture that is desperately needed in a sports media environment often devoid of intellectually stimulating conversation about such issues,” says National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Justin Hudson, the assistant curator of sports, of why this ESPN podcast ranks among his favorites.
“You Must Remember This”: The latest season of this pop-culture-time-machine podcast dives into the Disney canon from long before Moana, Elsa and Merida to scrutinize the legacy of the 1946 movie Song of the South. “From the casual Disney fan to the classic film historian, there's something in this podcast for everyone,” says National Museum of American History museum specialist Bethanee Bemis. “My work investigates the relationship of the public with Disney, so I found host Karina Longworth's deep dives into how the film and its products have been received at different points in time based on the cultural and political moment in America particularly relevant.”
“Yale Climate Connections”: This daily podcast keeps it short—as in, each episode clocks in at 90 seconds. But those one-and-a-half minutes pack in a lot of learning about climate change and the environment, with recent episodes spanning carbon removal technology and climate change’s influence on immigration. This appetizer of a podcast came recommended by not one but two Smithsonian scholars—Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s forest researcher Kristina Anderson-Texeira and Earth Optimism communications manager Cat Kutz.
“This Land”: In its next term, the Supreme Court will hear a case—McGirt v. Oklahoma—that on its face is about who can prosecute a criminal. But the real question at hand is about treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. Journalist Rebecca Nagle (Cherokee) examines the history that undergirds McGirt’s sister case (Sharp v. Murphy, decision still pending) and its lingering effects. Alexandra Harris, an editor for National Museum of the American Indian’s magazine, recommends a listen.
“Heavyweight”: Lizzie Peabody is a podcast person; she hosts Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor” podcast, after all. Of all the podcasts on her radar, “Heavyweight,” hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, stands out as “absolutely one-of-a-kind.” Why? “In each episode, Goldstein steps into someone else’s life and helps them confront a moment in their past that they haven’t been able to let go of,” she says. “Usually this involves making contact with long-lost relatives, friends, or even acquaintances, and as an audience member you get to enjoy that ever-elusive (in our own lives anyway) sensation of closing the circle, answering a long unanswered question. It’s voyeurism, therapy, humor, and generosity all in one show. Each week I count the days until Thursday.”
“Radio Ambulante”: NPR is an audio storytelling titan, and their Spanish-language podcast “Radio Ambulante” is predictably top-notch. Sojin Kim, a curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, recommends it for “the production quality, the range of topics, and the accessibility of the content—including for people like me, who are Spanish-language learners. I like that stories pull from communities in the U.S. and Latin America—the podcast offers a transnational space and glimpse into the ways that experiences and issues connect and are relevant across communities and geographies.”
“with out meaning”: Think D.C. is all about politics? Adriel Luis, curator of digital & emerging media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, likes this podcast because it shines a floodlight on another dimension of the nation’s capital city, offering “a refreshing source of local perspectives” on art, culture and gentrification. “I also love that the podcast takes on experimental and unconventional formatting and sound design that reminds me of 'This American Life,' 'Mr. Robot,' and Parliament Funkadelic all at the same time,” he says. For a good starter episode, give its second installment a listen.
“Still Processing”: This production from the New York Times also received multiple nominations for its incisive pop culture coverage. “Each episode is a thoughtful examination of our cultural landscape, as told through the unflinching critical eyes and compelling personal insights of two people [hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris] on a perpetual quest to get to the heart of the matter,” says Anne Showalter, a digital interpretation specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Future of X”: As an exhibition designer for the National Museum of American History, Isabella Bruno spends a lot of time mulling over the past. But, she told Smithsonian magazine, it’s also critical for her as a museum staffer to keep her eyes trained on the future. Last season, the show asked what the 21st century might have in store for health and healthcare; now, host Fay Schlesinger has turned her attention to the modern workplace.
“Portraits”: The National Portrait Gallery’s new podcast is, naturally, a favorite of curator Taína Caragol. But this podcast doesn’t paint by the numbers; it uses portraiture as a way to understand how these works of art capture big historical currents just as clearly as they depict the details of someone’s dimples. A recent episode, for example, looked at (literally and figuratively) a portrait of Pocahontas and, she says, “brought forward her place as a foundational figure of American history, but also one that has been really mythologized to different ends, either deployed by white Americans to signify their national authenticity as her descendants, or simply painted in a sweeter light in order to illustrate the ‘happy’ assimilation of Native Americans.”
“Brains On!”: This kid-geared science podcast, says Cat Kutz, is one her first-grader eagerly listens to. With a Bill Nye the Science Guy approach to making science accessible, the show is downright fun. As the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism summit communications manager, Kutz says she is “really hopeful and optimistic that youth are the future and youth are our climate leaders.” So if a podcast teaching about narwhals and the inner workings of pianos can get Gen Z invigorated about science, weather and the climate, that gives Kutz hope (and her son some carpool entertainment).
“Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness”: This podcast has been a passion project since before JVN became a household name as the hair and grooming guru on “Queer Eye.” Van Ness’ over-the-top earnest enthusiasm and genuine curiosity are near-propulsive forces that carry the listener through questions like “How Are Turtles Doing These Days and Are They the Same Thing As Tortoises?” or “What Do District Attorneys Do?” David Coronado, the senior communications officer for the Smithsonian Latino Center, endorses the episode “Why Don’t We Know Enough About Ancient Latin American History?” which sees JVN interviewing the Latino Center’s own Ranald Woodaman.
The Podcast Shortlist (also recommended)
"Lab Out Loud"
"The C Word – The Conservators’ Podcast"
"Disney History Institute Podcast"
"I’m in the Band"
"How Did This Get Made?"
"Native Lights Podcast"
"How to Survive the End of the World"
"All My Relations"