As the producers of Fresh Air‘s web stories, we keep an eye on the pages that get the most traction throughout the year— and sometimes there are surprises.
In 2021, the top pages reflect Fresh Air‘s strength as a place where artists, authors and journalists speak to the moment. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic remained at the forefront. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s February 2021 conversation with Terry Gross about the likelihood that the virus would mutate proved eerily prescient 10 months later.
“We live in a global community,” Fauci said. “Unless we get the rest of the world adequately vaccinated and unless we don’t [give the virus] the opportunity … to mutate in a place that doesn’t have access to vaccines, we will always be threatened.”
Other guests had warnings of their own. Former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill cautioned that U.S. democracy is being threatened from within, while Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg theorized that QAnon believers might become even more extreme now that President Trump is out of office.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Pop culture figures like Sacha Baron Cohen and Fran Lebowitz brought much needed levity. And the most clicked-on story of the year looked back — waaaay back — as paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman debunked myths about exercise and explained why our ancient ancestors didn’t feel the need to hit the gym.
You’ll find that conversation, and many more, in this list of the 10 most popular Fresh Air interviews of 2021:
1. Just move: Scientist author debunks myths about exercise and sleep: Paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman says the concept of “getting exercise” is relatively new. His new book, Exercised, examines why we run, lift and walk for a workout when our ancestors didn’t.
2. Sacha Baron Cohen on Borat ethics and why his disguise days are over: Baron Cohen has been chased, sued and nearly arrested while in character. A scary experience with a gun rights rally while filming Borat 2 solidified his decision: “At some point, your luck runs out.”
3. Former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill warns the U.S. is on a path to autocracy: Fiona Hill was a key witness at Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearing. Now she’s warning about the threat to American democracy that comes from within. Her memoir is There Is Nothing for You Here.
4. Dr. Fauci reflects on vaccinations and Biden’s “refreshing” approach to COVID-19: The administration is in its early days, but the infectious disease expert says he’s encouraged by the new president’s attitude about the pandemic. Science, Fauci says, is “going to rule.”
5. Without their “messiah,” QAnon believers confront a post-Trump world: With former President Donald Trump out of office, Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg suggests some who believe in the baseless conspiracy theory will become even more extreme.
6. Trees talk to each other. This Mother Tree ecologist hears lessons for people: Ecologist Suzanne Simard says trees are “social creatures” that communicate with each other in remarkable ways — such as warning each other of danger and sharing nutrients at critical times.
7. Andie MacDowell draws from the chaos and darkness of her childhood for Maid: MacDowell grew up with a mother who was mentally ill and addicted to alcohol. “Understanding the complexity of mental illness was something that I’m versed in,” she says.
8. Fran Lebowitz’s Pretend it’s a City is the NYC trip you can’t take right now: The show features the humorist’s conversations with Martin Scorsese on many topics — Manhattan in particular. “If I dropped the Hope Diamond on the floor of a subway car, I’d leave it there,” she says.
9. After growing up in a cult, Lauren Hough freed herself by writing the truth: Hough was 15 when her family left the Children of God cult. Afterward, she struggled to face the trauma of her past. Her new collection of personal essays is Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.
10. Historian Carol Anderson uncovers the racist roots of the 2nd Amendment: Anderson says the Second Amendment was designed to ensure slave owners could quickly crush any rebellion or resistance from those they’d enslaved. Her new book is The Second.