We love to talk about podcasts as their own little economy: there are podcast rushes and bubbles and forecasting. Likewise, I’ve found that the appeal of podcasts can appreciate and depreciate in my heart, based on how many mindless chores I’m doing or my overall desire to keep up with the fire hose of news and cultural offerings on any given day. Toward the end of the year, my personal podcast bubble had burst, as I found them most useful as background noise for staring into the void while brushing my teeth. A new batch of podcasts for 2021, however, have held my attention and increased the value of podcast stocks in my life. Giving these shows a try may freshen up your library and teach you something about science, history, and human nature, too. Priceless!
The Modern West
Ghost towns are more often known for their lively pasts, but in the second season of Wyoming Public Radio’s The Modern West podcast, their present and future are equally fascinating. The season’s name, “Ghost Town(ing),” refers to a general trend of shrinking small towns throughout the West. They’re often struggling to survive the boom-and-bust roller coaster of extractive industries and the increasing consolidation of resources in more populated areas. Host Melodie Edwards grew up in one such town—Walden, Colorado—and the show benefits from her personal perspective on the loss of these rural communities. But she also gets ambitious in scope, with each episode focusing on bigger issues like food deserts, immigration, environmentalism, and, on more than one occasion, the misguided hubris of the ultra wealthy. It’s a fascinating look at how ghost towns aren’t just dusty relics but can in fact teach us a thing or two about what a vibrant community could be in the 21st century.
Being smart about fitness and wellness often involves thinking critically about statistics—but wait, in a fun way! In Maintenance Phase, hosts Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes declutter the scientific, historical, and cultural B.S. that’s led to America’s troubled relationship with bodies. If you’re familiar with Gordon’s writing under the name Your Fat Friend or Hobbes’s reconsidering-history podcast You’re Wrong About, you’ll have a decent idea of what you’re getting: whip-smart banter that manages to provide surprising insights on phenomena that have shaped our culture. Topics range from Halo Top ice cream’s appeal to biohackers to how the Presidential Physical Fitness Test completely fumbled the opportunity to make us all better V-sitters and instead made a lot of kids feel bad. It’s satisfying to hear just how much of the diet and fitness culture that convinces us to hate our bodies is based on bogus science (or misinterpretations of perfectly fine science).
If the name of this got a chuckle out of you, it’s very likely you’re the target demographic of this podcast, which promises, simply, to review and rate trees. Not yet a tree fan? Hosts Casey Clapp (a self-identified tree zealot) and Alex Crowson (a tree agnostic) may convince you otherwise. Each 30-ish-minute episode spotlights a different tree (Oregon white oak, Douglas fir, black walnut), with attendant facts about its natural history and ecological impact. Clapp is a dendrologist—he studies wooded plants—and Crowson is a skeptical bystander armed with fun tree anecdotes. All are delivered with contagious enthusiasm, and each tree is lovingly rated on a scale of one to ten “golden cones of honor.” There’s not much more rhyme or reason than that, but Completely Arbortrary appeals for the same reason we all love plant-identification apps now: it just feels nice to have more awareness of what’s going on around us when we step outside.
Greetings from Somewhere
When Zach Mack decided to create a podcast in 2018, there weren’t many popular travel ones, and he had just spent a lot of time on a road trip interviewing strangers. By the time Greetings from Somewhere premiered in November 2020, both of those concepts certainly felt like relics of the past. But even though the show now has plenty of competition and exists in a travel environment completely changed by a global pandemic, it manages to stand out as a thoughtful new contribution. It explores how travel affects us and how our traveling affects the places we visit, asking listeners to think a little more deeply about travel trends like vanlife, favorite destinations such as Mount Rushmore, or what it’s like to travel with a wheelchair. Every episode is impeccably made—Mack is a senior producer at Vox Media, though he’s producing this podcast independently—and somehow the show manages to discuss travel in a way that’s perfect for these COVID days but doesn’t feel like a retrofit, even if Mack had been working on it long before the pandemic. Some episodes, like those about road trips, elicit nostalgia and offer a history lesson for a bit of armchair traveling. Others, about people still went to Disney World during the pandemic or traveled to Black Rock Desert even while Burning Man took place virtually in 2020, prompt something more like morbid fascination but provide interesting insights on destination-based fandoms in the time of coronavirus.
In Strange Woods
I was delighted to read the description of this show, because it sounds absolutely kooky and like no other outdoors-adjacent podcast I have ever encountered. The documentary-style musical (yes, I know) tells a familiar kind of story about a teen who disappears within the fictional Whitetail National Forest. His sister, Peregrine Wells, wants to find out what happened. It all sounds very convincing at the outset, narrated by Brett Ryback, who sounds like a reporter in the podcast but is an actor in real life. “There are no official statistics on how many people vanish each year on federal lands, but some theorists believe that nearly 1,600 people currently remain unaccounted for to this day,” he says in the first episode. (This is true!) He introduces friends and family who share their theories about what happened, and then suddenly they are singing about it. Later on, Peregrine and her classmates are learning survival skills in the woods, and suddenly they are singing about it. Truthfully, you may have to be someone who enjoys musical theater in order to get absorbed in this conceit. I was totally taken aback anytime people burst into song, because I am no fun, but I genuinely admire the creativity on display here. We need more out-there concepts like this in the outdoorsy podcast world.