It’s been a strange year for podcasts. Serial, the original 2014 blockbuster from the United States, was back in the news when its protagonist, Adnan Syed, had historic murder charges against him “vacated”. But Serial’s update episode glossed over the flaws in their original reporting, gaps instead plugged by the rival lawyer-hosted podcast Undisclosed.
In Australia, The Teacher’s Pet gave oxygen to the cold case of Lynette Dawson, but what a judge called its “prejudicial, sensationalist and inflammatory” style could have caused the eventually convicted murderer, Chris Dawson, to escape prosecution.
It was a reminder that podcasts can be most powerful when they tap into deeply personal material – but this raises high ethical stakes. My picks for 2022 handle sensitive content with care and flair.
This series delivers a satisfyingly 3D profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping, arguably the most powerful man in the world.
In one gobsmacking clip from 1993, his wife, Peng Liyuan, reassures a TV presenter that her husband contentedly plays second fiddle to her, a celebrated pop singer.
Engagingly hosted by Australian-Chinese journalist, Sue-Lin Wong, the series is anchored by strong archival tape and solid interview talent, but it is the structure that shines. Unlike the many rambling, self-indulgent podcasts out there, each episode addresses a clearly delineated theme, with tight scripting and deft production helping to weave an illuminating picture of Xi’s unwavering journey from minor official to autocratic leader.
Companion: The King of Kowloon
This podcast by Louisa Lim (who grew up in Hong Kong) and a team at ABC Radio National, starts slowly but builds to a stirring portrait of a subversive Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, and the struggle by Hong Kongers to avoid being subsumed by the totalitarian forces of Xi’s China.
SPOILER: in one electrifying moment, Lim crosses the line from journalist to activist. I cheered.
This extraordinary series by Australian-Hungarian filmmaker Laura Nagy is partly an exploration of an internet community that’s into ASMR (Automated Sensory Mediated Response, a tingling feeling of wellbeing that can come from whispered voices and sounds). It’s also a #MeToo reclamation, and most searingly, unsparing memoir, as Nagy details her excoriating relationship with her ex-boyfriend, the repulsive Caleb.
Made through the lockdown years, Pillow Talk captures the sweet digital intimacy that ASMR devotees co-create via audio messages to assuage loneliness and mental health issues – material masterfully crafted to swirl around Nagy’s at times playful, at times harrowing, but ultimately uplifting true story.
Companion: Lights Out, intriguing, creative, sound-rich “documentary adventures” from the brilliant indie UK production house, Falling Tree. The Saigon Tapes episode is a marvel of montage.
The ultimate family history of the 1970s US radical movement known as The Weather Underground, this podcast is beautifully written by host Zayd Dohrn, whose parents declared war on the US government and tried to build a social revolution.
Zayd’s mother, Bernardine Dohrn, went from law student to what the FBI termed “the most wanted woman in America”. His father, Bill Ayres, moved from being a teacher to gearing up to build bombs and brawl with police.
Now a successful playwright and creative writing academic, Zayd does not shy away from challenging his parents on how they thought they could combine being on the run with raising a child (him). Excellent use of archive and candid interviews make for a compelling investigation – though oddly, the emotional register remains mostly low.
Companion: Who Was Michael X is a fascinating portrait of a West Indian-British activist in the United Kingdom in the same period, who took his name from his US hero, Malcolm X.
Scottish journalist Audrey Gillan (Tara and George, On The Ground) shows her trademark combination of Glasgow grit, empathy and tenacious burrowing for the deeper story in this reappraisal of a murder investigation she had worked on as a young reporter in the 1990s.
“Bible John” was a serial killer who preyed on working-class women who frequented a Glasgow dance hall in the 1960s. Working with close colleagues including the writer Andrew O’Hagan, Gillan teases out the nuances of the victims’ lives, overturning the patronising and misogynistic framing by contemporary police and press, and restoring the women’s full human dignity.
Companion: Bloodguilt examines the chilling story of Richard Burroughs, a former Navy sailor who committed suicide in Perth in 2014. A posthumous message stated he had killed three people, with scant legal consequences.
With a finely balanced mix of determination and delicacy, hosts Dan Box (Bowraville) and Kate Wild (Code of Silence) expose the racial, class and other prejudices around the victims, which prevented their cases receiving justice.
This slickly produced podcast investigates the suspicious death in New York in 1985 of US-Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta, who fell from the 34th floor of the apartment she shared with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre.
Hosted by prominent curator, Helen Molesworth, the podcast interrogates themes of power, race and gender in the moneyed and overwhelmingly white art world, then and now. (Episode 6 is the narrative climax: the following episode charts worthy but unsurprising data on the art world’s lack of diversity, better delivered as website notes.)
Companion: For Who is Daniel Johns, host Kaitlyn Sawrey had rare access to the eponymous former Silverchair frontman. She and co-creators Amelia Chappelow and Frank Lopez piece together a revealing and at times touching portrait of a troubled artist who found fame too young and has been struggling to cope since.