At the end of a year filled with more podcast debuts than ever, it’s sometimes easy to overlook returning shows just as worthy of your time. If you haven’t given them a try yet, there are plenty of past episodes for your ears to indulge during holiday travels. Below are some recent podcasts that came back for new seasons, followed by a few newcomers to check out.
Dan Weissmann kicked off his podcast last year by likening health care costs to water, arguing that Americans (the fish in this metaphor) are so surrounded by it that we can’t see how it changes everyone’s lives in very real, very painful ways. So each episode of “An Arm and a Leg” sets out to show you the water, examining a different person’s battle to pay for the care they need. Weissmann’s charming, empathetic and occasionally expletive-laden approach makes for an entertaining but sobering bottom line: Our health care system is broken, and everyone is suffering for it. Season 3 opens with Stephanie Wittels-Wachs — the sister of Harris Wittels and the creator of “Last Day,” the new podcast that begins with his death. But her episode isn’t about addiction or opioids. This is about the battle she pursued to convince the Texas state legislature to cover her daughter’s hearing aids.
The show’s exploration of the hidden traumas within families will undoubtedly convince you that yours isn’t the only one with skeletons in its closet. While the first two seasons focused on individuals, Season 3 begins with a three-episode arc unpacking America’s own “family ghost.” Set in Mobile, Ala., this mini-series focuses on the descendants of the enslaved people aboard the last known slave ship to arrive illegally (50 years after importing humans was banned) on U.S. shores. The ship, the Clotilda, was dismissed by the white residents of Mobile as fantasy, and the descendants living in Africatown have fought for centuries to be believed about their origin story.
How do you make British palaces — and their bygone occupants — come alive without a trip to the U.K.? You listen to “Outliers — Stories From the Edge of History.” Kings and queens are not the focus here. Instead, each episode is devoted to someone the history books rarely if ever mention: Katherine of Aragon’s African lady-in-waiting, King George I’s Turkish valet, the mistress-turned-wife of the Duke of Gloucester (who happened to be a convicted sorceress). Following each episode is a must-listen interview with the given episode’s writer, who explains the choice of narrator to reveal history’s forgotten moments.
The first season of this James Beard Award-winning podcast took a deep dive into the exclusionary traditions around gender, identity and femininity in the kitchens of fine-dining restaurants. Katy Osuna, the host and former chef de partie in the three-Michelin-starred Manresa restaurant, is back with a second season that again questions the unspoken rules that keep restaurant work in a vice grip. The new season, “Overhead,” employs the same storytelling by professional restaurant workers to demonstrate how badly the economics of restaurant labor need disrupting.
The Metropolitan Opera’s podcast is back for a second season, all about one thing: desire. Hosted by the Grammy Award winner Rhiannon Giddens, each episode features a different aria, exploring how the performance embodies opera’s most enduring and universal theme. Guests include opera singers like Roberto Alagna, Diana Damrau and Sondra Radvanovsky, as well as fans like Dan Savage, Anna Chlumsky and Dame Judi Dench. Even for a philistine like me, who fell asleep when a date took her to the opera, “Aria Code” presents a mesmerizing appreciation of these powerful solo performances brimming with universal feelings.
The creators of “Making Oprah” and “Making Obama” are back for a third season, and this time they’ve left Chicago city limits. The new host, Jill Hopkins, a local radio personality, singer, storyteller and self-proclaimed Beyoncé superfan, takes us on a deep dive into pre-Destiny’s Child Beyoncé. Hopkins focuses on the rigorous training that Beyoncé’s original group, Girls Tyme, endured to try to make it big as a preteen band with adult-grade performances. Really what “Making Beyoncé” provides is the vision of Beyoncé’s father, Matthew Knowles, as a salesman who channeled his ambition through his daughter’s extraordinary talent, and the insane competitiveness, pain and professionalism the young girls had to shoulder as they tried to make their (and their parents’) dreams come true.
“Earhustle” isn’t the only show made within the walls of San Quentin State Prison. Thanks to the California Arts in Corrections Program and audio classes from KALW, incarcerated men at San Quentin and Solano State Prison have joined forces to produce this moving new show. They take turns interviewing each other — stories run the gamut from forgiving abusive fathers to finding peace through yoga. Then following each story is a collective reflection on it, as the men challenge each other’s ideas of masculinity and offer reassurances that their childhood traumas are not their fault.
In this new podcast, the religion reporter Michael O’Loughlin complicates the conventional wisdom that views the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s as a clash between a community dying from an epidemic and the religious institution that turned its back. With survivor testimony and interviews with religious leaders, O’Loughlin, himself a gay Catholic man, shares the stories of those who found God in their care for the sick.
If you love hearing authors read their own work, and appreciate well-written prose enhanced with moving soundscapes, you’ll enjoy this new podcast from Lit Hub, the literary website. Writers like Matt Gallagher, Lidia Yuknavitch and Caitlin Doughty read original works that explore ideas of family, history and the power of a good story. Each episode matches a different sound designer and composer with a writer, and the result is a private reading just for you. The first episode, with Mitch Albom reading from his forthcoming memoir, “Finding Chika,” is a moving story of adopted fatherhood.