I’ve spent enough time immersed in the 2019 news cycle to start feeling a little like the world is ending. Maybe that’s why I’m always plugged into podcasts—and not necessarily for mindless escapism. Instead of news broadcasts and current events, I prefer to fill my ears with nerdy knowledge and stories of scientific research. By year’s end, I was surprised to find myself with five terrific series, all new this year, to recommend to anybody else in a similar situation.
So if 2019 was spent searching for news-cycle relief and hope, let’s begin with a docu-series about another time the world seemed to be on the brink of destruction.
Spacebridge, a four-part miniseries from Radiotopia’s Showcase, tells the story of a collaboration between an American astronaut, a researcher of psychic phenomena, and a Russian utopian activist who tried to end the Cold War in the mid-1980s. The titular Spacebridges were satellite video calls between television studios in the United States and Soviet Union designed to allow ordinary people to become “citizen diplomats” and make peace simply by learning to care about each other’s lives.
The process did not go smoothly. Spacebridge is careful to explain for younger listeners (read: myself) how an entire generation felt living in the shadow of the Cold War and how little Spacebridge really affected international politics. The calls were plagued by technical failures, and when they did go through, popular disaster movies and careless remarks by President Ronald Reagan kept people on both sides wary of engaging with the enemy. Even at the best of times, mutual culture shock between American and Soviet Spacebridge participants created chaos and threatened plans for future calls.
So Spacebridge didn’t bring about world peace all by itself. But it did lead to some transcendent moments, like the performance of a musical written to account for broadcast delay over the satellite link, as well as a hilarious Muppets special featuring a call-in from a famous Soviet television puppet. The successes of Spacebridge, intermittent though they were, reminded everyone involved—including me, listening to recordings decades later—that world peace is possible.
David Tennant Does a Podcast With…
At the extreme other end of the excellent-podcast spectrum, sometimes I just like to listen to people talking about things they enjoy. And while we’re at it, why not listen to one of my favorite actors talk with some of his favorite actors about things they enjoy.
In David Tennant Does a Podcast With…, the titular Scottish actor (Doctor Who, Harry Potter) interviews other actors about their careers. Tennant brings wonderful enthusiasm to the show, especially when interviewing people he’s worked with or who he admires, but he also does a great job of making space for interviewees to tell their stories, and asking questions that get to the emotional cores of their most famous roles.
You don’t have to like celebrity gossip to enjoy Tennant’s podcast. The show is full of great moments in film and television history, as well as autobiographical deep dives into the careers of some wonderful people. If you love Doctor Who, start with the episodes featuring Catherine Tate, Jodie Whittaker, and James Corden. If you like Lord of the Rings, start with Ian McKellen. If you like comedy news, start with Samantha Bee. And if you’re not sure where to start, I recommend the fun- and chemistry-filled episode with Whoopi Goldberg.