The podcast I’ve thought about the most over the past year is Dying Rose (The Advertiser), the culmination of a two-year investigation into the deaths of six Aboriginal women. Though badged as true crime, it skirts sensationalism even as it tells jaw-dropping stories of police inaction and official apathy. Dying Rose won The Advertiser its first Walkley Award in 13 years and sparked new interest from the New South Wales coroner into the case of Barkindji woman Lasonya Dutton, whose decomposed body was found being eaten by dogs in her family’s backyard.
Hosted by different journalists, including Kokatha and Mirning man Douglas Smith, the podcast is ambitious – sometimes overly so. But its scope exposes the patterns of institutionalised racism and police negligence that have created a vacuum into which these women’s lives and deaths have disappeared. “I was the only person that reported on Lasonya Dutton before this,” Smith says. “Not even the local media picked up that.” Dying Rose seeks to reverse that by centring the families and communities of the women. It makes the podcast both hard to hear and required listening.
Two fictional podcasts revolving around missing women were so gripping that I bought subscriptions to binge-listen. People Who Knew Me (BBC) and The Missed (Audible/Envelope Audio) are both riveting thrillers with big casts and pacy sound design. The former is an all-star spectacular produced by Sharon Horgan and starring Rosamund Pike as a woman who used 9/11 to fake her own death, backed by Hugh Laurie as a surprisingly convincing hunky ol’ American love interest. The latter, sharply written by Sami Shah and recorded in Perth, features a two-dozen strong cast headed by Australia’s own Bollywood star, Pallavi Sharda. Telling the story of a Pakistani refugee family whose daughter goes missing, it’s brought alive by top-notch acting and a spiky soundtrack that conjures smalltown outback life.
A new addition to my listening is The Economist’s new China podcast, Drum Tower, which is consistently excellent. It’s hosted by two correspondents – Alice Su in Taipei and David Rennie in Beijing – whose gentle chatter about bicycling and summer fruits is as enjoyable as their geopolitical analysis. One standout episode, “Long Gowns and Short Jackets”, zeroed in on the sudden popularity of a short story, “Kong Yiji” by novelist Lu Xun, published in 1919, which has been heavily memed by young graduates unable to find work. Its combination of on-the-ground observation and trenchant analysis makes engaging listening, though Drum Tower was placed behind a paywall late this year in what seems to be a global trend.
It’s worth listening to Ghost Story (Wondery/Pineapple Street Studios) for the climactic seance with a softly spoken psychic, whose words brought me out in goosebumps. This spooky tale brings together a faceless phantom, a grisly family scandal and a real-life Hollywood star – Hugh Dancy, who plays Jack Barber in the film Downton Abbey: A New Era. It’s hosted by Al Jazeera journalist Tristan Redman, who claims not to believe in ghosts, though his childhood bedroom did have a resident poltergeist. An extraordinary coincidence decades later led him to investigate that ghost, as well as reopening the century-old murder of his wife’s great-grandmother. As Redman works his way through eight detectives and a stack of archival material, he begins to suspect a family hero of the murder – and suddenly his fun podcast project looks like it might threaten his marriage.
This year cannot end without mentioning the viral podcast that cheerfully violated every ethical boundary: the unashamedly scatological Who Shat on the Floor at My Wedding? At Karen and Helen’s wedding reception on a barge in Amsterdam, someone left a turd “just like a poo emoji” on the toilet floor. The two brides rope in their unhinged Kiwi friend-turned-amateur-detective to get to the bottom of this locked-room mystery. The shit hits the fan straight from the start of this poo-dunnit, as the trio haul in their wedding guests for bad interrogations and shonky lie detector tests. Before they know it, the three are building a Bristol Stool Chart out of chocolate, demanding wedding guests hand over their underwear and consulting a lawyer about acceptable torture techniques. Frequently very silly, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, and its real joy is hearing the unabashed glee of the trio as they unspool improbable conspiracies and questionable methods. Born out of lockdown boredom and made by three podcast novices, it’s a reminder the best podcasting doesn’t require big budgets or famous names: just obsessive cranks on an unlikely mission, bringing their listeners along wherever that wild ride takes them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "The year in reviews".
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