Shared and Strange, and Sometimes the Same: How My Favorite Podcasts are Handling COVID

When our isolation started in mid-march, I couldn’t listen to podcasts at all. I was decentered and the days were too surreal. I played Fiona Apple and Waxahatchee and all my dad’s old favorite songs and my own old favorite teenage emo songs on repeat when I ran two and a half miles on my new running route, zig-zagging across the streets to avoid being near anyone, trying to find a way to escape my worried, racing mind. The pockets of time where I used to listen to podcasts, alone in my house doing chores, in the car on the way to pick up kids or do errands, running on my old busier, crowded trail, had all been suddenly shut down. I had no interest in listening to any voice recorded before March 12.  That was another epoch, another era, a foreign country where I didn’t understand the language anymore.

 I wish I could share the formula for how you find your way back to things you love, a little at a time. But one day in April,  it just felt ok to hit play on a podcast, even though nothing else had changed. I don’t know which day it was or exactly which one I listened to first. I was almost definitely interrupted often by a kid telling me about her imaginary friend’s birthday party (she’s inventing things to look forward to and celebrate).

I started with my old favorites. By April, their hosts were all at home just like me, acknowledging the weirdness of recording in their closets and then turning away from that just enough, sailing close enough to the shore of our isolation while staring off at the horizon just often enough. 

Here’s a quick list of how my favorite podcasts are handling all this, and how their voices, familiar and also just a little different-sounding from wherever they are, might help you too:

Heavyweight is doing a great “Check-in” series, where the hosts all talk with each other about how they’re doing, in all the honest and sad and lonely ways we all do with our closest people. I forget which episode it was, but they also talk to a 10-year-old kid who’s home all day alone in one because his parents are at work, and he plays his recorder for them, and talks about when his dad comes home for lunch and how happy he is then, and I hate the recorder just like any other sane human would and I loved this so much.

Unlocking Us is therapist/TED-talk-famous/lady-book-club favorite Brene Brown’s brand new podcast, which ironically began JUST as the pandemic took hold. She talks to experts in grief, resilience, and apologies, as well as some famous guests. I did a longer review of it here for LA Review of Books, but the short version is that it’s perfect if you want to engage with any kind of making meaning of how this is changing us, how to cope with the pain and loneliness of it all, in real time, with experts. 

Anna Sale at Death, Sex & Money is doing some of the best interviews of her entire career during COVID. A few recent favorites: Jason Isbell at home, reflecting on live music and love; humor writer Samantha Irby, somehow blending talking about caring for a dying parent when she was a teenager with the humor of her current situation living with teenagers now  in the midst of a pandemic, and Madeleine Albright on her own ambition and her feelings of obsolescence as a new mother and as someone in her eighties during a pandemic. All memorable and so thoughtful, steeped in the current moment and imparting perspective beyond it.

Sugar Calling is a new favorite, where Cheryl Strayed calls famous writers over 60 to talk about their perspectives on writing and crisis. Each one is a deep dive with a literary patron saint, and they will leave you absolved of any silly sins you think you may have committed in the middle of this dystopic nightmare, lucky to share the planet with these writers for even a little while, less caught up in your own bullshit, humbled, and a little calmer. Or at least that’s how I feel. Judy Fucking Blume and Amy Motherfucking Tan and Margaret Atwood on her roof with a squirrel are my favorites so far, but literally any of them will help you write/feel/understand other people, I promise.

I’ve only done one of Esther Perel’s “Couples Under Lockdown” episodes so far–the New York one, about a divorcing couple who is forced to still live together because of lockdown, and it was INTENSE. BUT I 10/10 recommend. You will always, always get perfectly-formed-gem moments when she says, “let me stop you right there” to these severely sad and hating on each other couples that you can put right in your back pocket for your hopefully-less-intense next heated discussion about whose turn it is to help with the homeschooling worksheet.

Fresh Air: Look, we have absolutely no sane leaders to look to in our government who are not actively trying to kill us, but we do have Terry to look to as the platinum standard for how to interview other human beings amidst the scariest time in our collective history. I loved Zoe Kazan, talking about both her part in The Plot Against America and about being back at her parents’ house during quarantine with her baby. I loved “The Hilarious World of Depression” host John Moe talking about the irony of his brain being ready for this time forever. In summary: TERRY IS STILL HERE FOR US, drink water, try and get some sleep and socially responsible sunshine, and inject her into your veins, she is the ‘my constant’ episode of Lost, she is cheaper than a therapist if you pretend to talk to her in the shower, she is fucking killing it over there like always, she feels pretty much the same because radio is not TV, unlike Colbert in his little library in Montclair NJ, go listen like always, she’s there for you!!! 

Pop Culture Happy Hour is also, as always here for you, always giving you permission to binge a Movies of 2000 or six seasons of Schitt’s Creek and THESE-TIMES specific things making the panelists happy each week. Please, if you’re a parent, listen to NPR books contributor and mom to little kids Barrie Hardymon tell you to go easy on yourself, and then do, go easy on yourself. 

I loved the episode of It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders on TV, Movies, and the Coronavirus. He interviews writer and comedian Jenny Yang and camera operator for Netflix’s Stranger Things Jessica Hershatter, and it was the perfect peek into a world I’m curious about but know nothing about combined with a conversation about uncertainty I know too well. It felt like eavesdropping on two friends taking their best guesses at what will happen to this one corner of the world when I can’t see any of my real friends.

Each day it becomes clearer that we will have to stay careful and alone for so much longer than we had ever imagined. With each socially-isolated episode they produce, so many of my favorite shows are tapping into something necessary and connected, reinvented and familiar.

They’re all at their best when they put our shared, strange experience front and center in every episode, when they echo their audience’s emotions and make meaning out of them in real time in a way no other medium can.

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