With the viral success of “Serial,” I think it’s safe to say podcasts are a thing. But podcasts have been around for over a decade, so why are they becoming so popular now? The short answer: Podcasts have gotten really good lately. While the most popular shows on iTunes -- "This American Life," "Radiolab," "Fresh Air" -- are still produced by radio stations, new networks like Maximum Fun, Smodcast, Feral Audio and Radiotopia are stepping up their game.
As a longtime podcast fan, I'm beyond excited that “Serial” is doing so well. People are calling this the “golden age of radio,”a “great podcast renaissance,” but honestly, I’m just thrilled to have an excuse to gush over my favorite podcasts.
So here they are: 162 amazing podcasts hand-picked and personally recommended for your listening pleasure. Descriptions and recommendations have been provided for my favorites as well as the classics.
The flagship of new podcasting network Radiotopia, Roman Mars produces "tiny" weekly shows on design -- though "99% Invisible" is about much more than just design. Mars explores everything from architecture and urban design to the sound design of the Olympics to what goes into that "click" your iPhone makes. He reveals how the Chicago River was reversed, what happens to people who hold out on selling their land, and what becomes of buildings that used to be Pizza Huts (U.T.B.A.P.H.s).
The very successful Kickstarter last year for "99% Invisible" fueled Radiotopia's launch, an Mars is now two weeks into a second Kickstarter campaign, already at more than $400,000.
Mars’ delight in the design decisions that build our world is infectious, and if this were a ranked list (which it’s not, because of time constraints), I'd put "99% Invisible" in the top spot.
If you've listened to the radio on the weekend during the past 40 years, you've heard Garrison Keillor tell the news from Lake Wobegon.
Each week, comedians Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann answer listeners' questions. It’s a simple format, but even the ever-changing theme song is hilarious. Helen and Olly just celebrated their 300th episode.
BONUS: Thanks to the Radiotopia Kickstarter stretch goal, Helen Zaltzman will be starting a new podcast on language and etymology.
One of the best-researched history podcasts on the list, "Backstory" tells, well, the backstory to American history. Topics include marriage, being a teenager, and Daylight Saving Time. The multipart series on the Civil War is a great place to start.
The tagline for Benjamen Walker’s podcast is “Connect the dots. All of them.” For years Walker hosted a popular show on WFMU called “Too Much Information.” Now, as part of Radiotopia, Walker continues his excellent storytelling with Theory of Everything. As an iTunes reviewer says, “Benjamen Walker curate[s] current stories about the strange paradoxes of our modern world and mixes them with fun disinformation, all set to music that changes your head-space.” It’s hard to explain, so I suggest you just take an hour and listen to his episode on 1984 (the year, not the book).
Is there Jesse Thorn hasn't interviewed? In just the past few months, he’s talked with George Takei, DJ Quik, Lewis Black, Daryl Hall, Chuck Klosterman, Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. If you like being able to say you heard about something first, you should definitely be paying attention to his recommendations. My personal-favorite section may be “The Outshot,” Thorn's notes at the end of each episode.
FUN FACTS: * I have been doing my show for fourteen years! * I've conducted over a thousand interviews! * Everyone gets old and dies!
— Jesse Thorn (@JesseThorn) October 31, 2014
If you’re hooked by the intrigue of “Serial,” “Criminal” is absolutely worth checking out. Each episode is a crime thriller in under 20 minutes. The theft of tens of thousands of Venus flytraps, the guilt of a former counterfeiter, a murder that the police never wanted to solve... each gripping show is unlike any crime reporting you’ve heard before.
Dan Carlin is so engaging in his telling of history that I missed my subway stop while listening to the lesson on the fall of the Roman Empire. Yeah, he’s that good.
Paul F. Tompkins, as H.G. Wells, talks with other literary giants at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles. The unscripted live show is a promotion for the literacy tutoring program 826 National, but it's more comedy than literature. Dead Authors have been played by Andy Richter, Maya Rudolph, Matt Gourley, Jen Kirkman and Andy Daly.
Want to know what Wyatt Cenac was like in high school? How about Kyle Kinane or Matt Dwyer? John Roy interviews comedians, actors and the vaguely famous on what they were like in high school. Some of the stories can be cringe-worthy but they’re all funny.
Halfway into my first episode of “Everything Is Stories,” I had to check to confirm that what I was listening to was actually true. Produced independently by Garrett Crowe, Mike Martinez and Tyler Wray, "EIS" “explores unconventional narratives of the past and present to preserve the eccentric, the authentic, and the personal.” There've only been a few episodes so far, but I have a feeling the characters and stories will stay with me for a long time.
Terry Gross is the reigning queen of the interview, clocking years of fascinating talks with world leaders, artists, activists, Nobel laureates. The Peabody Award-winning show has nearly 4.5 million weekly listeners, making it one of, if not the, most popular radio shows.
If you ask anyone who works in radio who the most influential producer team from the past 35 years is, they'll say the Kitchen Sisters. Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva have been working together since the early 1980s and have produced well over 200 stories for NPR. In their new show, Fugitive Waves, they pull in found audio, lost recordings and masterful storytelling.
Full disclosure: I know absolutely nothing about sports, but I felt I needed to include a few sports podcasts on this list. Luckily Complex put together a "Best Of" list in 2013. so I trusted their editorial judgment.
The weekly podcast from Dan Harmon, the “Community” writer best known for saying inappropriate things and getting into fights with Chevy Chase, is taped live in the back of a comic book store in L.A. Harmon acts as the “Mayor” of Harmontown with Jeff Davis as his comptroller. He's joined on stage with fiancée Erin McGathy, his assistant Spencer Crittenden (whom he met during a "Harmontown" episode), and friend Kumail Nanjiani. The hilarity of Harmontown often comes from the characters who attend the show every week, who tend to be drunk and rambling. In 2013, after Harmon was fired from “Community” but before he was re-hired, Harmon & Co. went on a nationwide tour. A documentary about Harmon and the tour was released at this year’s SXSW. Oh, and he ends each episode by drunkenly playing Dungeons and Dragons.
I was crushed when, a few weeks ago, the long-running NSFW podcast Audio Smut announced its last show. Kaitlin Prest ended the show’s run with episodes on kissing -- an emotional, physical exploration into the act of kissing. The show is about “your body, your heart and your junk” and it straddles the line between raunchy and profound. Luckily, Audio Smut is being reformed as part of Radiotopia. The new show, called “Heart,” will be hosted by Prest, and it will probably still make you blush.
Started in 2012 with a fellowship grant from SoundCloud, "Here Be Monsters" bills itself as “the podcast about the unknown.” The unknown, as host Jeff Emtman sees it, can be anything from Juggalos to spirits to dying.
So, longtime WNYC host Bob Garfield and Slate’s Mike Vuolo discuss etymology and language in this casual (and occasionally profane) podcast from Slate. Topics include how to document and define slang, the reasons people uptalk, and why we start sentences with “so.”
Nick van der Kolk’s "Love + Radio" is probably my favorite show, and yet I don’t quite know how to explain it. It’s more sublime than “99% Invisible,” seedier than “This American Life” and more nuanced than “Everything Is Stories.” Miranda Sawyer of the Guardian said, “My very favorite of the many U.S. ‘real life’ podcasts. It doesn’t try to teach you anything; it just presents you with a story that unfolds as you listen. [...] The show always feels out of time and space, in and of its own world. A world full of intriguing characters who aren’t quite who you think they are when you first meet them.”
I don’t know how they do it, but in one hour, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield manage to fully unpack a week’s worth of media criticism and news. They've done specials on games and gaming, privacy, censorship and press freedoms. Their ongoing coverage of the “present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry” even has a catchy jingle.
Putting it simply, “Pitch” is a documentary radio show about music. Except it's more than that. Alex Kapelman and Whitney Jones have produced shows on how it is often illegal to dance in New York City (really), the reason the iPhone text message ping reminds you of the Beach Boys, and the evils (or blessings) of backtracking during live shows.
One time "Planet Money" reporters bought a toxic asset. Another time they followed the production of 20,000 T-shirts from the cotton fields, across oceans, through factories and to listeners’ doors. In another episode, they figured out what different college majors will earn people over their lifetime. "Planet Money" actually makes financial reporting interesting.
Sixteen years ago Radio Diaries' Joe Richman gave people around New York City tape recorders and told them to record everything. Now, as part of Radiotopia, he has gone back to those same people to do it all again.
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have a knack for explaining science and the world in unexpected, curious and beautiful ways. I almost feel like the WNYC show doesn’t need a writeup, but if you’ve never listened, I suggest you start with Colors (they use a choir to explain how we see colors) or my favorite, Parasites.
“Re:Sound” is the podcast from Third Coast International Audio Festival. They collect the best audio stories from around the world (Australia has great public radio, BTW), and package them into neat themes. Many of the hosts and producers on this list have been featured on "Re:Sound." Odds are many of them will also be at the Third Coast festival, “the Sundance of radio,” next week in Chicago.
“Risk!” is a combination of live storytelling and produced pieces that are seriously raunchy and seriously funny. People tell “true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public,” and host Kevin Allison is hilariously and totally NSFW.
In case you’ve been living in an audio bubble for the past six weeks -- in which case, how did you find this list? -- “Serial” is a true-crime spinoff from “This American Life.” Sarah Koenig brings us along as she investigates the 15-year-old murder of Hae Min Lee by Adnan Syed. She has outlined the evidence, re-interviewed witnesses and walked us through every detail of the trial. But Koenig, probably, isn’t just pulling us along; she actually doesn’t know the result of this investigation, and that suspense has only fueled fans’ obsession.
Glenn Washington’s “Snap Judgement” follows the multiple acts on a theme format. As one IBTimes reporter described it: “It’s like 'This American Life' but cooler. It’s storytelling with a beat!”
Each episode Hrishikesh Hirway sits down with a musician and breaks down exactly how and why they made their songs the way they did. It is a simple recipe that results in some truly fascinating backstories and will entirely change how you listen to songs.
Startup is a podcast about starting a podcast company. Alex Blumberg, from "Planet Money" and "This American Life," brings us along as he and his partner start Gimlet Media. If the show notes are anything indication, Gimlet will soon bring in some other ex-WNYC podcasters. Like “Serial,” “Startup” is telling a narrative as it unfolds so the listener is in on the ground floor.
Al Letson is on a mission to tell America’s story, one city or community at a time. Go ahead and find your community in his archives. I guarantee you’ll learn something surprising.
There is something incredibly personal about Lea Thau’s “Strangers.” Perhaps it's the energy she puts into telling her subjects' stories or the way she ties their experiences back to her own. In recent episodes she has even turned the tape recorder on herself, looking at why she hasn’t found love. The series was aptly named "Love Hurts" and it is a great place to start if you’re new to the show.
“The Bugle” is just as smart as John Oliver’s new HBO show, only just a bit less researched. Oliver and co-host Andy Zaltzman have been “powerhosing premium-calibre satirical hogwash over planet earth since 2007” and despite them spewing utter nonsense I still find myself more informed after listening to this show.
— DinnerPartyDownload (@dinnerpartydnld) October 31, 2014
Like the history-obsessed younger sibling of “99% Invisible,” “Memory Palace” tells the simple stories of forgotten moments and people. The first elevator rides, a slave who shipped himself to freedom, whaling or prohibition. Nate diMeo’s quiet storytelling leaves you wishing each episode was about six times longer.
True stories told live without notes -- hey, it’s not my fault their tagline is so spot-on.
Classic radiodrama meets improv meets Radiotopia. Directed by Jonathan Mitchell, “The Truth” acts out short stories that are often dark and a little too real.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's "This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show: ‘OMG HAVE YOU SRSLY NEVER HEARD THIS AMERICAN LIFE?’. We've arrived at Act 2 of our show."
NPR invites musicians to perform in a tiny office. The stripped-down performances often reveal drastically different sounds than the artist is known for. Recently auto-tune maverick T-Pain blew everyone away by not using auto-tune during his Tiny Desk Concert.
"TL;DR" (from the Internet’s Too Long; Didn’t Read) is a spinoff from "On the Media." Covering basically anything about the nternet, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman explored everything from Slender Man to Twitter bots and Internet hoaxes. The show is currently in transition, however, as the hosts move on to other projects. They haven’t announced where they’re headed yet, but whatever they end up doing, it will still be Internet-themed (*cough* see #102). "TL;DR" will continue on with new hosts.
“Welcome to Night Vale” is probably the strangest show on this list and one of the best. Produced in the style of community radio from a surreal desert town, "Night Vale" is a serialized fiction that is blissfully dark and strange. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have dreamed up the absurd world of Cecil, The Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your Home, station intern-turned-mayor Dana, the Angels Who Do Not Exist, Cecil’s boyfriend Carlos, the Sheriff’s Secret Police and Koshekh the cat who lives four feet off the ground in the men’s room of the Night Vale Community Radio Station.
I told you it was weird.
It's been described as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King.” They’re currently touring a live show of the radiodrama, performed sold-out shows at Comic Con, and did a crossover episode with “The Thrilling Adventure Hour” (another radiodrama and #142 on this list).
Now that you know what to listen to, Ira Glass and his friend Mary Ahearn will show you how to listen to a podcast:The Definitive List Of Amazing PodcastsBest podcasts, top podcasts, serial podcast, this american life, ira glass, best podcasts 2014, radiotopia, npr podcasts, best new podcasts, podcasts like serialYesatIBTimes'Serial' Recap: Adnan Syed, Jay, Hae Min Lee, And The Whole Case So Far Explained In One Interactive Infographic Welcome To The Million-Dollar Podcast: A Niche Medium Grows Up A Bit And Advertisers Start To Notice