If This, Then That: Podcast Fest Picks for Doc Fans

By Pat Mullen

Just about everyone has a podcast these days. It’s often hard to know where to start or what to listen to. Keeping up with the field of podcasts can be overwhelming outside of word of mouth recommendations and fortuitous discoveries.

The third annual Hot Docs Podcast Festival (HDPF) returns this week and brings the best in audio-storytelling to audiences. Live, and sometimes interactive, experiences invite audiences to listen to the hosts of the most popular podcasts cutting through the busy field. Highlights from last year’s festival included chats with Naomi Klein and Desmond Cole on Jeremy Scahill’s The Intercept, humorously juvenile confessions on Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids, and five-alarm fun with snack food on The Fridge Light. The fest is a fun way to turn active listening into a communal experience, and to help audiences navigate the growing (and increasingly cluttered) field of podcasting.

To help readers plan their HDPF line-ups, here are a few recommendations based on documentary tastes:

If you liked Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, then catch LeVar Burton Reads Live
Friday, Nov. 2 at 6:30 PM

If the wonderful return to Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood provided a treat this summer with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, then consider cozying up with a book in the company of LeVar Burton. The actor is well known for his work in Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he might be most familiar to audiences for sharing stories with kids on Reading Rainbow. These days, Burton turns the page with tongue-in-cheek humour by taking his comforting voice to the podcast world as he reads a short story to listeners in each episode with the help of a special guest. Burton enlists the help of a local author for a live reading at HDPF along with musical accompaniment.

If you liked OJ: Made in America, then catch ESPN’s 30 for 30
Saturday, November 3 at 4:00 PM

Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America is arguably one of the best documentaries ever to play Hot Docs. This eight-hour epic from ESPN’s 30 for 30 program inspired a debate as audiences tried to distinguish between television and theatrical formats, but there was no denying that OJ made for great documentary regardless of the form in which one defined it. 30 for 30 leads the field again in pushing the boundaries of documentary form with this podcast that explores stories of the sports world. The ’cast debuted at #1 on the iTunes charts last year and is a go-to option for anyone seeking a new ballgame for water cooler conversation.

If you liked Amanda Knox, then catch Criminal featuring This is Love
Saturday, November at 8:30 PM

If any subset of documentary rivals podcasting as the hottest of the hot, it’s true crime. Great documentaries like OJ, The Imposter, and, more recently, Netflix hit Amanda Knox put audiences inside the minds of potential killers. Whether through the power of the camera or through audio that inspires audiences to imagine the events, true crime docs and podcasts return to the scene of the crime, reconsidering evidence anew while exploring cases in which the justice system often failed. The popular true crime podcast Criminal has a new angle in the spinoff This is Love in which hosts Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer tackle crimes of the heart. Like “Foxy Noxy” and her (alleged) crime of passion, few elements engage a crowd quite as well as sex and violence do.

If you liked I am Not You Negro, then catch Reveal
Sunday, November 4 at 4:30 PM

The words of James Baldwin remain powerfully relevant in the contemporary political climate, as doc fans undoubtedly know if they caught Raoul Peck’s excellent I am Not Your Negro last year. The doc and the writer find a fine echo in Reveal by poet, playwright, and journalist Al Letson. It’s hard to listen to Reveal without being reminder of Baldwin’s reflections on race, systemic inequality, and humanity . The podcast also exemplifies the kind of deep dive into contemporary news stories that are dwindling from far too many outlets and Letson draws upon his own experiences growing up in Florida, engaging with the USA’s increasingly divisive culture from a thoughtful and engaged point of view.

If you like Running from Crazy, then catch Other People’s Problems
Sunday, November 4 at 8:30 PM

Here’s one for all the Barbara Kopple fans who took advantage of Hot Docs’ well-deserved retrospective this spring. One of the festival selections, Kopple’s Running from Crazy, offered a poignant and intimate portrait of actress Muriel Hemingway and her family’s history with mental illness. (Her celebrated grandfather, Ernest, is not the family’s only suicide.) Hemingway’s story shared with audiences a significant account of destigmatizing mental illness and fuelling conversations to get help for friends and family in distress. Hillary McBride takes listeners on a similar journey in Other People’s Problems, a popular podcast that explores different aspects of mental illness with a compassionate ear. The live recording at HDPF features McBride in conversation with a client and several mental health experts as they seek to get people talking about self-care and well-being.

If you liked Design Canada, then catch The Secret Life of Canada
Monday November 5 at 9:00 pm

Canada 150, for better or for worse, inspired passionate conversations of Canadian pride. The sesquicentennial year was painful for many communities, too, and prompted some overdue reflection and who we are as a nation and where we want to go. Leah-Simone Bowen and Falen Johnson’s podcast The Secret Life of Canada takes an approach that might appeal to fans of this summer’s popular doc Design Canada by fuelling conversations of national identity using tidbits of Canadiana as a starting point. The conversations might be unexpected as the hosts dive into lesser-known aspects of history and put unsung heroes into the spotlight.

Bonus podcast!

If all these peas in the pod inspire further listening, there’s a new ’cast in town for doc fans. TVO’s On Docs offers engaging conversations on the documentaries of the day via in-depth interviews with host Colin Ellis. The first episode, launched last week, features What is Democracy? director Astra Taylor gabbing about philosophy and the state of the world. Other recent and upcoming episodes feature many filmmakers that might be of interest to POV readers, like Shasha Nakhai (Take Light); Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky (Anthropocene);Janus Metz and Sine Plambech (Heartbound); Sarah Fodey (The Fruit Machine); Min Sook Lee (Migrant Dreams); and Nadine Pequeneza (The Invisible Heart). On Docs can be found on apple and wherever good podcasts grow.

Happy listening!

The Hot Docs Podcast Festival runs Nov. 1-5.