It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the podcasts that are available on the Internet. Finding content that is anti-oppressive, critical, and diverse can be extremely labour-intensive. While the web is home to some radical and safe communities, those can be difficult to find and navigate. In 2018, it was estimated that around 550,000 podcasts were actively being produced — and that figure does not account for the thousands that have been archived.
Each of the podcasts on our list finds its own way to dismantle popular ideas about gender, sexuality, race, and class. These podcasts help to undermine structures of power that rely on fixed normative definitions. By challenging these definitions, creators undermine power dynamics, and create engaging alternative media content.
This podcast was a monthly comedy special before it was picked up by WNYC Studios. It’s hosted by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, two Black women based in New York, who have made it their mandate to represent comedians of colour and comedians with queer identities. This show explores the lived experience that comes with racialization and homophobia in a way that is both laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly thought-provoking. The podcast defines itself as focusing on “race, gender, sex, and other stuff,” and they often do venture out of “race, gender, and sex” in their comedy. Although the show is made by, for, and about women of colour, a lot of white guys also come on the show to do their standup. If that’s not for you, they have a spinoff show, aptly titled Sooo Many White Guys. This spinoff gets its title from the ridiculous amount of white men in comedy, and instead focuses on people who are underrepresented in the comedy world. The inaugural episode has Roxanne Gay on it. Though on surface level, its content is meant to make you laugh, the show’s very theme song asserts “how much whiteness is all over the place,” subverting the patriarchal white supremacist format that comedy often takes.
Serial’s first season has been criticized for sensationalizing the criminal justice system. The first season was about potential miscarriages of justice, and yet it did not highlight the systemic oppression of marginalized groups in the justice system. This criticism did not go unnoticed by Serial’s creator Sarah Koenig. In the third season of the show, she examines not the spectacular but the banal. During a full year of reporting, Sarah went to Cleveland, Ohio, took notes and listened in at the city’s courthouses; the third season of the podcast is the product of that year’s research. It covers police corruption, violence, and brutalization, and explores the ways in which a judge’s racial prejudice can affect sentencing. The mundane practices of the law that lead to the systematic marginalization of racialized people are brought to the surface here. Each episode of Serial requires mental energy to unpack, but the storytelling is thoughtful and engaging. The podcast brings the implicit racism in the criminal justice system to the forefront of the conversation. The work is not about the large scale systems of oppression, but rather it focuses on the minutiae of courtroom life that lead to reiterations of abusive power relationships. As the season progresses, I hope that Koenig will tie together the smaller-scale power dynamics with the larger systems these power relationships have created. This is something she has yet to do, and without it, the work feels incomplete.
Canadaland is an alternative media company that was started by McGill Alumni Jesse Brown. The work that the Canadaland team produces has helped subdue fears about the positive role of critical journalism. Canadaland, as a larger project, serves as a Canadian watchdog for big media companies and for the government, and also participates in cultural commentary and criticism. Two particularly engaging shows of theirs are Thunder Bay and The Imposter.
Thunder Bay is Canadaland’s long term investigative project, crowdfunded by their listeners. Since its release, it has become the number one podcast in Canada. The show is hosted by Ryan McMahon, Anishinaabe writer, media creator, and community activist from Winnipeg. The true-crime podcast deals with the high murder rates of Indigenous peoples as well as with local government corruption, both of which are consistently under-reported on by mainstream news sources. In the first episode, they discuss the death of Barbara Kentner, an Indigenous woman murdered in a hate crime by a group of white men. The investigative work of the show is important and sheds light on the institutionalized abuse of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Larger media conglomerates chronically ignore this reality, and often do not spend the time or money necessary to properly research a story, instead turning to “clickbait journalism.” Thunder Bay does the work of uncovering and pointing to specific cases in which racism against Indigenous peoples is glaringly obvious.
The Imposter is a show about “weird” Canadian art hosted by Aliya Pabani. It focuses on novels, music, comics, and movies, weaving a narrative that links the different art forms together. The show’s episode on Drake, for example, covers underpaid dance hall performers, a cellist’s experience in the studio with Drake, and an artist’s representation of the singer through fan art. The show is articulated with style, and the cultural criticism at its core is done with care. In Pabani’s interview with dancer Esie Mensah, the two women talk about positive representations of dance hall culture, and the unfair wages paid to dancers on music video sets. Mensah talks about her mixed emotions about working for 12 hours on set for the music video for “Work” by Rihanna and Drake and only being paid $200. This coverage presents an alternative to the popular perceptions of the song. Pabani highlights those elements of popular culture that are often overlooked by mainstream media.
On this show, Nia King, a queer mixed-race artist and activist, interviews politically-active trans and queer artists and artists of colour. King asks questions about what it means to be a radical and socially-aware artist. This podcast addresses the contradictions that arise when you make art in order to make money. The show’s purpose is not to relay a radical ideology; instead, it explores what intersectional identities mean in the art world, and how the lived experience of queer and trans artists and artists of colour is “radical” by virtue of being lived. The podcast’s honesty make the world of art and politics seem less perfectly curated and more like a work in progress. In the latest episode, Nia interviewed Arielle Twist, a member of the Cree nation, two-spirited, trans femme poet based out of Halifax. They talk about Twist’s upcoming poetry book, Disintegrate // Disassociate and the importance of queer Indigenous art. In their discussion of art criticism, they talked about how the art world is associated with overcomplicated academic language. They proposed that poetry, being effective and accessible, can be a tool to dismantle the classism implicit in art criticism.