The Podcast Episodes That Sustained Us in 2020

The Podcast Episodes That Sustained Us in 2020
Graphic: CHIARI VFX, Shutterstock

Podcasts used to define my commute. But now that I don’t have a commute anymore, I have to fit them in where I can. This means I have sadly been forced to ditch many of the shows I used to listen to regularly and focus on only the best of them — the ones I simply can’t miss.

And that’s what we’re focusing on today: the very best podcast episodes the Lifehacker staff listened this year. (Not mentioned: Any episodes of our own podcast, The Upgrade — modesty forbids, even though we won a Webby in 2020). Peruse our favourites, add a few to your download queue, and share your own picks in the comments. Because someday, we’ll all be commuting again.

It’s Time to Cull Your Podcast Subscriptions

The podcast revolution has led to many of us subscribing to dozens of podcasts — and if you’re anything like me, you found yourself with a buffet problem: You’ve put way too much on your plate. More than you could possibly consume. Our feeds are bloated with series we no...

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Hit Parade — “One and Done”

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Growing up, I was obsessed with VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders. I taped the five-hour special on VHS and watched it over and over. Which is why this episode of Lifehacker favourite Hit Parade, focused on why the VH1 list is complete BS, is my favourite podcast episode of the year. I knew the story of every one-hit wonder (or mislabeled as such…turns out Spandau Ballet had three top 40 hits, and three different versions of the Macarena made it onto the charts), and loved it so much I literally teared up during the discussion of “Come on Eileen.” — Joel Kahn, senior video producer

The Rialto Report — “The Murder of Kathy Harcourt: England’s First American Adult Film Star”

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I don’t want to give too much away here, but the story of Kathy Harcourt and the mystery around her death is absolutely engrossing, if a little NSFW. In general, The Rialto Report does a great job telling sex workers’ stories in an engaging, interesting way, without being gawky or gross, and this episode is no exception. — Claire Lower, senior food editor

You’re Wrong About — “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study”

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I thought I knew the Tuskegee syphilis study, but this two-part episode really lays bare the horrors that result when systemic racism is combined with allegedly good intentions and bureaucratic inertia. This is the story of forty-plus years of people convincing themselves they’re doing the right thing while lying to people and allowing them to die. Every couple minutes the hosts drop another jaw-dropping fact that is usually left out of the usual footnote-length retellings of this story — like the conceit that withholding treatment was a temporary situation due to funding (the study continued for 40 years after that) or the way investigators had to pull strings to keep subjects out of military service (since they would get syphilis tests and the jig would be up).

Somehow Mike and Sarah can tell any story with true compassion for the characters in it while never pulling a single punch. This pair of episodes is riveting listening and important history, and it provides absolutely essential context for understanding so many things about our world today. — Beth Skwarecki, senior health editor

My Year in Mensa — “IQ and the Average Girl”

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This entire limited series is such a gem. Jamie Loftus’s sharp-witted narration of her journey into the weird world of Mensa International (the “High IQ Society”), is so hilarious and delightful that it will leave you hoping that she will find more bizarre cult-like clubs to infiltrate and tell us about. It’s both informative and truly fun, and I highly recommend.  — Micaela Heck, podcast producer

99% Invisible — “Take a Walk”

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During the pandemic, I’ve missed few things more than walking around Manhattan. It’s something I used to do every day, but now that I’m not commuting to work, the Hudson River might as well be the Grand Canyon for my likelihood of crossing it. That’s why I so much enjoyed 99% Invisible’s recent ode to the walk — whether through a crowded city or the Australian outback.

Produced by the performance art group Pop-Up Magazine, which used to create a “live magazine” on stage before theatres shut down, this episode follows dozens of people on their own walks, from authors, to a NASA astronaut, to a trans woman performing ballroom, to actor Jenny Slate. — Joel Cunningham, managing editor

Two Bears, One Cave — “Episode 36”

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Having just become a fan of the jeans this year, I’ve had such a delightful time learning what a psychopathically unhealthy person comedian Bert Kreischer can be. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a genuine guy, and he can absolutely outrun me, but his quirks related to health, diet, and Kool-Aid consumption are unforgettable.

Every person I send this episode to says it has changed their lives in some way. For me, it made me realise just how hard it is to drink 3,401.94 g of anything, let alone the most sugary substance you can possibly buy. When I ponder his glucose levels, the only phrase that comes to mind is “high and tight.” The fun starts around 15 minutes in; I’ve never watched someone nearly vomit from laughing before, and I am so happy to have that opportunity. — David Murphy, senior technology editor

Jill on Money — “Ben & Jerry’s”

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I enjoy the no-nonsense Jill on Money financial advice podcast, hosted by Jill Schlesinger, a business analyst for CBS News and a certified financial planner. The episodes are slickly produced, bite-sized (less than 20 minutes), and usually deal with questions (“Should I pay down my mortgage or invest?”) submitted by listeners who often appear on the show. Schlesinger is a gifted interviewer, and the best episodes are special guest interviews, like her two-part chat from September with ice cream magnates Ben and Jerry. — Mike Winters, personal finance writer

Nice White Parents — “The Book of Statuses”

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This year has put many of the features of racism that are well known to non-white people closer to the forefront for white people. One of them is the prominent role that white parents play in public education, and how their good intentions are often disparate from their deeds, to detrimental effect.

From the premiere episode, which cleanly sets up the 5-part run, Nice White Parents highlights some truly cringeworthy moments from white parents, their children, and the attitudes they have about their contribution to public education. Their mere presence is believed to increase the quality of schools, enough that districts bend over backwards to accommodate their needs and seduce them into enrolling their children. If you’ve ever wondered about the history of race in our education system and the state of segregation after Brown v Board of Education, Nice White Parents is an insightful and challenging listen. — Jordan Calhoun, deputy editor

Reply All — “The Case of the Missing Hit”

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Impossibly, this episode of internet ephemera podcast Reply All was released in March, and briefly went viral before… all the Bad Things happened. (There’s even a Vulture article delving into the phenomenon.)

It’s worth rediscovering. A fascinating exploration of memory, it follows one man’s search for a half-remembered song that matches the loop of music and lyrics repeating in his brain. Despite his best efforts, filmmaker Tyler Gillett can’t figure out what song they came from, or if they are from a real song at all — maybe his subconscious mashed together a few existing hits into something that simply seems like a ‘90s pop hit? Gillett’s quest — which drives him to interview a neuroscientist about earworms and chat with one of the Barenaked Ladies before he heads into a recording studio to try to recreate the song from memory — is endlessly thrilling, and the ending truly satisfies. — Joel Cunningham

Dead Eyes — “He’s Having Second Thoughts”

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You should listen to the podcast Dead Eyes in its entirety, but I’ll single out the first episode for how well it sets up the premise. A decade ago, actor/comedian Connor Ratliff was hired as a small player in the HBO series Band of Brothers and then swiftly fired, the reason being that Tom Hanks — executive producer of Band of Brothers and America’s Sweetheart — had seen his audition tape and thought Connor had “dead eyes.”

Connor is vulnerable, sweet and very, very funny as he dives into the days and weeks surrounding the incident — the highs of getting the part and telling his friends and family, the worry and confusion when they asked him to re-audition for Hanks, the shame and disappointment when he was let go. He and his friends (including guests like Jon Hamm and Bobby Moynihan) discuss the vagaries of professional acting and, of course, explore the most important question: What even are “dead eyes”? — Alice Bradley, editor-in-chief

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