Best of Impactful Podcasts 2023 (So Far)
Sounds Like Impact's version of a "Best Of" 🏅
I am so excited to share the start of the first annual “Best of” list curated by #SoundsLikeImpact. The point of this list is to celebrate podcasts that highlight a societal issue–or issues–in a meaningful, thoughtful and compelling way. I look for shows that tell stories that are solutions-oriented, or that have the potential to inspire social change.
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The basic qualifying criteria are as follows:
Narrative (story driven)
Launched in 2023
Finite: A mini series / a complete season / limited series
All episodes available (before this list published)
This current list is 10 shows and the overall “Best of” list will be available by the end of the year (cut off for review will be end of November). If you have a show you want to put on my radar, make sure to leave a comment. Alright, let’s jump right in!
Navigating this list:
Trailers are embedded when available, and should play regardless of whether you have a Spotify account.
You can get the playlist of all the shows’ episodes on Spotify only. However, each of the podcast titles link to Pod.link, so you can choose the podcast player of your choice.
The hyperlinked “About” text links to the show website, when available, and the text that follows is the show description, aka not my words.
“Best of” List Contents
There are more goodies at the end, but you’ll just have to read or scroll. 😉
If your show is featured on this list, let me know! Also, if your show appeared on any other “Best of” lists not mentioned, or won any awards, don’t hesitate to get in touch and I’d be happy to update.
🌟 The List
Released: January 2023
Issue Area: Racial Injustice | Content warning: Juvenile abuse
Format: Limited series, 8 episodes
Other “Best of” lists: Vulture, Esquire
About: In 1968, police arrested five Black girls dressed in oversized military fatigues in Montgomery. The girls were runaways, escaping from a state-run reform school called the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama. The girls were determined to tell someone about the abuse they’d suffered there: physical and sexual violence, unlivable facilities, and grueling labor in the fields surrounding the school. It was, as several former students called it, a slave camp. UNREFORMED is the story of how this reform school derailed the lives of thousands of Black children in Alabama for decades and what happened after those five girls found someone willing to blow the whistle. Host Josie Duffy Rice investigates the history of the school at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama and speaks to former students who are still haunted by their experience but had the will to survive.
It is no secret that Black people are disproportionately impacted by abuse within the criminal legal system. UNREFORMED reinforces the narrative about America’s criminal “justice” system: entrenched racism since the era of slavery is what got us to the biased system we have today. It is only through acknowledgement of this ugly reality and willful attempts to redress harm done that will we move forward.
If WNYC’s Caught shares first-person perspectives of life inside this decade’s juvenile reform system, UNREFORMED amplifies the stories of youth—now adults—whose pain and trauma laid the groundwork for the unjust treatment witnessed today. Some people may only be familiar with the juvenile reform systems through dramatization–like in the book or movie adaptation of Holes; or through the arguably problematic, but now off-air, reality TV show Beyond Scared Straight. I can tell you that it hits different to hear adults who lived through these horrific experiences speak on how such treatment—played for entertainment in the former examples—sticks to them like the stench of a skunk encounter gone awry.
Host Josie Duffy Rice has a gift for handling such traumatic storytelling with the care it merits; but make no mistake, if her previous work on Justice in America tells us anything, she is a tireless crusader for reform who is not afraid to press for the facts.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Stolen: Surviving St. Michaels
Released: February 2023
Issue Area: Racial Injustice | Content warning: violence
Format: Limited series, 7 episodes
Publisher: USG Audio, Invisible Institute
Other “Best of” lists: Vulture
About: Part investigation and part memoir, “You Didn't See Nothin” follows Yohance Lacour as he revisits the story that introduced him to the world of investigative journalism, and examines how its ripple effects have shaped his life over the past quarter-century.
In 1997, Lenard Clark was beaten into a coma by a gang of older white teens simply for being Black in a white neighborhood. One of Lenard’s attackers was from a powerful Chicago family, with connections to the mob dating back to Al Capone. The media quickly turned towards stories of reconciliation and racial healing, enabled by Black leaders seemingly in thrall to the attacker’s family.
Yohance wasn’t having any of it. At the time of the attack, he was in his early 20s, writing plays, selling weed, and living at his dad’s house on the South Side of Chicago. Unable to stand by silently, he began working with a neighborhood newspaper to investigate the vicious hate crime. Reporting on the incident led him to grow increasingly disillusioned with journalism.
From USG Audio and the Invisible Institute – creators of the 2020 Pulitzer Finalist podcast “Somebody” – “You Didn't See Nothin” finds Yohance back in Chicago after a 10-year prison sentence, tracking down key players to examine how this story connects to our present moment.
When many outside of podcasting think of podcasts, they think of stuffy, buttoned-up journalists reporting “objectively” and putting on their best “public radio voice.” Yohance Lacour is not that tired avatar, nor does he try to be. You Didn’t See Nothin is both a deeply personal story and a strong piece of investigative journalism into the fallout of an act of racial terror.
Why must Black people always be asked for calm? to forgive? These are the questions that Lacour asks, and it’s his exploration of this reconciliation narrative following Lenard Clark’s victimization that is most unique in the world of true crime investigations.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Say Their Name
Released: February 2023
Issue Area: Environmental
Format: Limited series, 4 episodes
Publisher: Lemonada Media
About: This is the story of a modern-day Erin Brockovich, set on the Mississippi River in an area known as “Cancer Alley.” Her name is Sharon Lavigne, her community is St. James Parish in Louisiana, and her fight is to keep out one of the largest plastic manufacturing companies in the world.
In this investigative four-part series, hosted by Emmy award-winning journalist Gloria Riviera, we discover how our plastic world came to be. Because plastic is everywhere – it has advanced our world, but it has damaged our environment and our health. So what do we do? We look at what’s next for all of us, and how we can learn from communities like St. James to make a difference in our own backyards.
I previously wrote about Discarded (linked below), but I’ll add this: Black women are the canaries in the coal mine. When a Black woman is “singing” about the problems affecting her community, be warned that this is a problem coming for everyone. Unfortunately, she may have to start this work alone, or with the support of a few; but she will do so with dignity.
The story of Sharon Lavigne, The Descendants Project and the coalition she built with Rise St. James—also Black-women led—is certainly worth telling. And so is one side of how Cancer Alley came to be (no, not the racism; that side is obvious). The other side: the story of plastic. Throughout this short, but impactful series, host Gloria Riviera successfully guides us through this tale of environmental injustice, misguided calls for consumer convenience and industry malpractice.
I also want to commend Lemonada Media for partnering with environmental nonprofit Only One to develop a resource guide with calls-to-action that you can take.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Broken Ground
Released: March 2023
Issue Area: Education / Economic Inequality
Format: Limited series, 6 episodes
Publisher: LWC Studios, The Counter
About: Left Over is a six-part investigative series from LWC Studios looking at the systemic shortcomings of the National School Lunch program, from those at the bottom of the food pyramid, to those at the top. Left Over’s reporter, award-winning journalist Jessica Terrell, travels to school districts across the country for a closer look at why and how corporations and politicians are undermining and exploiting the American public school lunch system. Each episode of Left Over dives into the experiences of lunch workers, students, families, caretakers, and community organizers while examining how the problematic views surrounding poverty and unchecked racial inequality are fueling the country’s largest anti-hunger programs.
One does not need to have school-aged children, or even be interested in having children at all, to be concerned about what is happening with the school lunch system in the U.S. Left Over makes clear over a 6-episode arc that the story of school lunch is tied to economic inequality, gender inequality, food sovereignty, political priorities (and politicking) and climate change. Oh, and mass incarceration too? But don’t just take my word for it, listen. Listen to the workers. The students. The parents. The activists. All have a voice on Left Over, and all will be essential to us figuring out how we reimagine a system so fundamentally broken, but not above repair when we all come together.
LWC Studios also put together resource guides for each of the episodes. There are infographics; additional materials to go deeper into this complex web, including other audio, books, articles; and organizations working to address related issues.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Sold a Story
Released: March 2023
Issue Area: Environmental
Format: Season (2nd), 6 episodes
Publisher: Foreign Policy
About: On this season of The Catch, we head to the Upper Gulf of California, to see what a porpoise, a fish whose bladder fetches tens of thousands of dollars on the black market, and the highly desirable—and delicious—colossal shrimp tell us about the complicated world of fishing. This spring, Foreign Policy is partnering with the Walton Family Foundation for season two of The Catch, hosted by Ruxandra Guidi. We’ll hear how local fishermen are caught between providing for their families and protecting marine habitats. And how governments, importers, and consumers all have a role in returning balance to the Upper Gulf of California. Follow and listen to The Catch in Spanish and English wherever you get your podcasts.
What does it really mean to “vote with your wallet”? This is a question you will ask yourself as you delve into season two of The Catch. Host Ruxandra Guidi (who I interviewed previously) continues to takes us on a journey of the seafood supply chain–literally. The show, while not overly sound designed, can make you feel that you are out to sea. The Catch is rich with the natural sounds that accompany field recording: boat engines, sea gulls, the sloshing sounds the water in motion.
Also, all supply chain stakeholders are present, if not through interview then through archival tape. Consumers, activist organizations, government officials, fishery managers, fisherman, and even the vaquita! However, it’s Guidi’s interviews with fisherman where she really shines. There is no judgment in her interactions and I’d even argue that there is empathy for the (mostly) men who are trying to support their families, but they are caught in a web of cartel acting with impunity, market demand, international pressure, and government inaction. After all, as said during the season, fisherman are an “easy scapegoat for a broken supply chain”.
This podcast is also available in Spanish, which producing a season at least twice is no small feat.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Go back and listen to season 1
P.S. Some recent good news about the vaquita.
“The Covid Tracking Project” | Reveal
[No trailer available]
Released: April 2023
Issue Area: Public Health
Format: Mini-series, 3 episodes
About: This three-part series exposes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s bungled response to COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic and takes listeners inside the massive volunteer effort to collect data about tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S.
The United States has 4% of the world’s population, but 16% of COVID-19 deaths. This series investigates the failures that led to over 1 million Americans dying from COVID-19 and what that tells us about the nation’s ability to respond to the next pandemic. This three-part series was reported by Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler and hosted by infectious disease expert Jessica Malaty Rivera.
We are almost two months out from the end of the U.S. COVID pandemic emergency response, but how did we get here and was this even the right choice? Reveal’s mini-series won’t necessarily answer the latter question, but as to the “how did we get here?”, The COVID Tracking Project critically lays out a response.
In three episodes we learn the origins of the tracking project, thanks in large part to a few journalists at The Atlantic sounding the alarm about how our nation was falling short in preparing a COVID response because of lack of robust and coordinated data. Never was it so evident to the public that we should care about the how, when and what of public health data collection than the arrival of COVID-19. The COVID Tracking Project mini-series is the retrospective that we need to remind us of the mistakes made so that we can plot a path forward.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Half-Vaxxed: The Rise and Fall of Philly Fighting COVID
“Coming of Age During the 1970s” | Making Gay History
Released: April 2023
Issue Area: LGBTQ+ | Content warning: references to suicide throughout season
Format: Mini-series, 6 episodes
Publisher: Eric Marcus (Indie)
About: The decade between Stonewall and the 1979 March on Washington lives in the shadow of the AIDS crisis and all that came after. In this six-part season, Eric Marcus explores the heady years of gay liberation and the backlash that followed against the backdrop of his own coming of age as a gay teen.
There seems to be a trend this year with hosts that are weaving themselves into the narrative they are guiding us through; essentially, they are a character in the story. Samantha Hodder wrote a bit about this in “Welcome to the Era of Me Journalism” and to be clear, it is not necessarily a critique. In fact, in the case of this mini-series “Coming of Age During the 1970s,” host Eric Marcus’ personal story is essential.
What can often happen with history podcasts is this sense that the events were a point in time, and an episode or series can confine that time into a neat box without touching on how the past is always present. By sharing his queer coming-of-age experience and interlacing it with the events that marked the beginning of the LGBTQ+ civil rights revolution, Eric is making a statement that he cannot exist without those events. Frankly, many of us cannot exist without those events.
“Coming of Age During the 1970s” is living history in audio form. There is sound design that transports you to Fire Island, guests that recount their experience in such vivid detail, a play-style reenactment of an anecdote, snippets of what I am certain is hours and hours of archival tape rooting listeners firmly in the 1970s. This history podcast is truly extraordinary.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Anything for Selena
Special note: An exception has been made to include this podcast in my list despite not meeting the completion before publication criterion; it was a misunderstanding on my part. The final episode published on June 29th (the day after publication).
“Buffalo Extreme” | Embedded
Released: May 2023
Issue Area: Mental Health | Content warning: Gun violence & racial trauma
Format: Mini-series, 3 episodes
About: What happens after a racist mass shooting in your neighborhood? On May 14, 2022, the world changed for residents of Buffalo, New York, when a white man approached the Jefferson Street Tops supermarket and started shooting. He murdered ten and injured three people, almost all Black. That same day, teenagers and children — members of a Black cheer team called BASE — were at their gym around the corner. "Buffalo Extreme" is their story: a 3-part series where NPR hands the mic to the girls, their moms and coaches as they navigate the complicated path to recovery in the year after.
Embedded producers made the right call to pass the mic to the young women of BASE so they could tell their story. “Buffalo Extreme” is a reminder of how audio storytelling can be a tool for democratization done the right way. In a few interviews I’ve done for Sounds Like Impact there have been discussions about the importance of avoiding the “parachuting in” trope, whereby a journalist comes into a community to quickly report on what happened to the community, collecting the soundbites they want along the way, and then vanishing. This often leaves little room for nuance and ignores that the enduring impact of what on its face is a singular event. It ignores that often after a traumatic event, folks have not begun to process what has happened.
The mini-series “Buffalo Extreme” negates this trope and we are the better for it. To be sure, this is a tough listen. You are hearing from young Black women–and their families–who have experience an unspeakable act of mass violence and racial terror in their hometown. I commend Na’kya McCann, a first-time host and our guide for this series, for sharing her story and the stories of her fellow community members.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Grown, a podcast from The Moth
Released: May 2023
Issue Area: Environmental
Format: Limited series, 5 episodes
Publisher: Wave Maker Media
About: On the night of the Woolsey Fire, no one could have imagined where they’d be today–they couldn't think much past survival. It was life or death. But in the days and years that followed what this unlikely band of surfers pioneered could have global consequences. When emergency first responders were overwhelmed by LA county’s most destructive fire, these neighbors and friends stepped up to defend their home turf in Point Dume, Malibu. Their devotion to home drove them to show up for their community in ways no one expected- not even them.
Sandcastles is a podcast about home, how we create it, and why we fight so hard for it.
I talked quite in-depth already about Sandcastles in my interview with founder and host Adriana Cargill (linked below). However, I want to expand on a point Adriana made in our conversation when I asked her why there wasn’t much explicit talk about climate change in the podcast.
One of the best ways to get people to care is not by citing statistics and facts; sometimes it’s about pulling at the threads that connect of all us. In this case, a desire for belonging. The tagline of Sandcastles alludes to this desire through emphasizing that the show is about home: the space that we construct in our heart, our mind, and maybe on the physical plane. I believe that the narrative that Cargill and her team have put together can serve as a blueprint for how we should do climate storytelling going forward.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Good Fire
Released: May 2023
Issue Area: Mental Health, Environmental
Format: Limited series, 6 episodes
Publisher: Pippa Johnstone (Indie)
Other “Best of” lists: Amazon Music
About: Expectant is a six-part audio series that muddies fiction and non-fiction as a woman faces the prospect of becoming a parent during the climate crisis.
Through conversations with climate researchers, parents, mental health experts and childfree families, she grapples with grief, hope, and the biggest decision of her life: should she bring a child into this world?
I told Pippa when I interviewed her (linked below) that I didn’t really listen to fiction podcasts; she told me that I was not the first person to tell her that. Expectant manages to achieve a masterful mashup of what makes fictional storytelling captivating, and how nonfiction grounds us in reality.
An interesting tidbit about Expectant is that it was initially conceived as a play. The podcast does in fact have the intimacy of a one-woman show, but it also presents listeners with different experts and the people in Johnstone’s life that are thinking about climate change’s impact on their decision-making too.
The last thing I’ll say is this: you don’t have to be thinking about children to listen to Expectant. The podcast introduced me to this notion of “climate legacy.” In the conversations with, and the personal thoughts shared by, Johnstone on the podcast, you begin to reflect on what it means to be human, and how we should think about the ripple effects of our actions on not only the planet, but also the next generations.
Similarly themed work to listen to: Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question
I only chose 10 for the main list, but here are some other podcasts worth knowing about that I’ve mentioned on this newsletter before, and that have also been listed on some other “Best of” lists:
Louder Than A Riot, also listed on Vulture, Time
“How to Get Free” | Truth Be Told, also listed on Mashable
Okay, so there’s more.
Ever the archivist, I couldn’t leave without still bringing your attention to narrative shows that are out there that I haven’t had the chance to finish yet, either because it’s on me or the show hasn’t finished publishing as of my write-up. Either way, I hope you’ll give these a listen, and if you already have, please share your thoughts!
And if there is a narrative social issue podcast that released this year that you don’t see here, let me know. As much as my mother thinks I believe, I am not all knowing.
Narrative shows or mini-series that have come out but I haven’t had time for yet.
Violation | Criminal Legal System
City of Tents: Veterans Row | Economic Inequality
Systemic | Education
Thirst Gap: Learning to Live with Less on the Colorado River | Environmental
Holy Week | Racial Injustice
The Last Ride | Racial Injustice
Wait For It! (If you want to binge)
Narrative shows that have recently come out but haven’t finished yet (as of 6/27).
Free From Desire: Asexual in the City of Love | LGBTQIA (Learn more)
After Broad and Market | Racial Injustice
Cover Up: The Pill Plot | Reproductive Rights
Big Sugar | Human Rights
Freeway Phantom | Racial Injustice
Parched | Environmental
Resurrection | LGBTQIA
I Am Story
Man(Corrected 7/7/23) | Racial Injustice
The 13th Step | Public Health, Human Rights
Looking for more narrative podcasts to discover and reviews to guide you through?