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In a tough year for podcasts, these 3 stood above the rest

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Critic Nick Quah is going to take a look back at the year in podcasts. He talks about the challenging year the industry has had, and highlights three shows from this year that he says are among the best.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: 2023 was tough for the podcast world. Like the rest of the media business, it was adversely impacted by the uncertain economic picture that kicked off the year, and the downturn brought severe consequences. There were layoffs, retrenchment and cancellations, including of some beloved shows. Podcasting today confronts a somewhat uncertain future, but some things remain the same. Listeners want more podcasts, and talented people want to make more podcasts. So the only question is how to realize an industry that effectively takes advantage of both things.

For now, though, it's time to celebrate a number of fantastic podcasts that came out this year, despite how hard it's been. One great example, which I'm pretty sure we'll be around for quite some time, is a relatively new independent podcast called "If Books Could Kill." Hosted by Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri, this show is perhaps best described as really long form media criticism. The project sees the duo - one a journalist, one a former lawyer - critically digging into popular bestsellers that have, for better or worse, influenced mainstream wisdom despite harboring ideas that deserve more scrutiny. Like, for example, the productivity bestseller known as "The 4-Hour Workweek."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IF BOOKS COULD KILL")

PETER SHAMSHIRI: So yes. many people do choose unhappiness over instability. I agree with that. But that's because the risks of instability for many people are extremely high. How many fake gurus are there - out there advising people to, like, leave the rat race and pursue whatever makes you happy, right? Move to Costa Rica and give surfing lessons, right?

MICHAEL HOBBES: Yeah.

SHAMSHIRI: Now, Ferriss is giving that same advice but without the trade-off where, like, you abandon your dream of material wealth....

QUAH: Hobbes and Shamshiri are often cutting, and their targets are expensive. The past year has seen them tackle anything from Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" to self-improvement tomes like "Atomic Habits" and "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." At the heart of the duo's enterprise is a simple animating spirit. In an era when doing your own research can often mean selective ignorance, they model for what actually happens when one does the research in an intellectually vigorous and honest way.

Another outstanding podcast is "You Didn't See Nothin," led by the artist and writer Yohance Lacour. The series is part investigative journalism, part memoir. And not unlike "If Books Could Kill," it's also, in part, an effort to interrogate established narratives. The event that kicks off the story is a hate crime that took place in Chicago's South Side in 1987, when a Black boy, Lenard Clark, was beaten into a coma by a group of older white teens simply for being in the wrong place. At the time, Lacour, who lived in the neighborhood, started working with a local paper to investigate the incident. But he would grow disillusioned when the attack was ultimately transformed, with the cooperation of Black leaders and the attacker's family. Into a kind of racial reconciliation fairy tale. That didn't sit well with Lacour, who returns to the story decades later to process what happened. "You Didn't See Nothin" can be a bracing listen, but it's also thoroughly a joy to take in, due to the strength of Lacour's writing and hosting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "YOU DIDN'T SEE NOTHIN")

YOHANCE LACOUR: From as early as I can remember, I've always had a foot in a couple of different worlds. I grew up in Chicago, a neighborhood called Hyde Park. It's in the middle of the South Side, but it's different, almost like a suburb in the inner city, like gangbanging meets Ivy League-ish academia. It's something else.

QUAH: Often surprising and always compelling, "You Didn't See Nothin" is unmissable.

Unmissable also describes my pick for the best podcast of the year, "The Retrievals," though the subject matter can be prohibitively challenging. Led by Susan Burton, a veteran producer at This American Life, the series explores a medical horror that took place at the Yale Fertility Center a few years ago, when a nurse was found to have routinely swapped out painkilling solution with saline. This meant that many women who underwent egg retrievals at the clinic were left to face excruciating pain. But when they tried to draw attention to what they were going through, they were often ignored. Under the spotlight in "The Retrievals" is a prominent and persistent inequity - the systematic dismissal of women's pain. Burton traces the story through its discovery to the conclusion of the nurse's trial, but along the way, she maintains a strong emphasis on the patients' collective experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE RETRIEVALS")

SUSAN BURTON: Outcomes of fertility treatment are typically measured by the numbers. The CDC collects data. You can go online and look up a clinic and find out what percentage of egg retrievals result in live births. But the outcomes here can't be expressed by existing options on a dropdown menu. Some of these outcomes are not concrete. And just like the initial experience of pain, some of the outcomes are questioned. Really, what are their damages, one fertility doctor, someone not from Yale, said to me about the patients in the lawsuit. What are the harms done? What are the regrettable harms?

QUAH: In the hands of another team, "The Retrievals" may well have just lingered on the procedural side of the case. But Burton is particularly interested in the thornier layers of the story. She pays close attention to how that dismissal of women's pain recognizes no class or institutional distinction, and how the women themselves sometimes even dismissed their own experiences. The thorniest layer, though, is a tension that can exist between womens' bodily autonomy and motherhood itself, how one gets prioritized over the other. "The Retrievals" is riveting, and in many ways, it represents some of the heights achievable within podcasting. It might have been a rough year for the podcast world, but as long as it's capable of producing works like these, it will always stand a fighting chance.

MOSLEY: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. His end-of-the-year piece can be found at our website, freshair.npr.org. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. And for a look behind the scenes of FRESH AIR, subscribe to our newsletter. This week, the FRESH AIR staff is sharing even more of our favorite interviews from the year. Check it out, and subscribe at whyy.org/freshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nick Quah