I’m late to the podcast game. While technically savvy people have been listening to the format for years, I never quite found a set of shows that compelled me to listen. I could catch This American Life and Radiolab on my local NPR station, and I had only so much space on my phone, and I tend to go on broad musical explorations that wander from female-fronted symphonic metal to contemporary classical to dubstep to the complete works of Mahler to the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording.
Lately, though, I’ve been on a podcast kick. I listen to them in the car on the way to and from work, and I’ve managed to find just the right mix of shows so that I neither fall behind nor run out of content. If the length of my commute ever changes, I’m screwed. In the interest of sharing, here’s that mix, with some comments from me:
This first set of podcasts are ongoing series comprised of self-contained episodes. You can jump in anywhere, listen to them out of order, or skip a few, and you’ll only miss out on the awesomeness of each individual episode.
Manoush Zomorodi is your charmingly eccentric, slightly anxious, incredibly smart friend who’s a blast to hang out with and who always has a great story to share. She also happens to be an excellent journalist who has a podcast about what it means to be human in our increasingly technological world. That podcast is called Note to Self, and it comes from WNYC studios.
If Stephen King wrote Wikipedia articles about folklore and then narrated them in a style characterized by a love of unnecessary pauses rivaled only by Christopher Walken and William Shatner, you’d have the Lore podcast. If the previous sentence appealed to you, you’re probably downloading it now. If not, you might want to move on to other shows in this list.
Starlee Kine was a producer for This American Life. Starlee Kine is charming. This is a show about Starlee Kine being charming whilst solving the mysteries of everyday life. One episode in the far-too-short first season featured Jake Gyllenhall. Another a belt buckle. Would you believe that the belt buckle episode almost made me cry?
Only Human is a show about health told in an easily relatable way, covering everything from the state of the American healthcare system to the search for immortality to people with amazing medical conditions. Their tagline is “…every body has a story.” It’s the second of three shows from WNYC on this list.
If you’re not listening to Radiolab, you’re doing life wrong. Listen to Radiolab. This is the third of the three shows from WNYC on this list.
The Adam who founded the Planet Money podcast and the Adam who directed Anchorman and Taledega Nights spend each episode trying to convince each other that topics that one finds boring (e.g. mold, interest rates, and broccoli) are actually really interesting. Surprisingly entertaining.
David Brancaccio, host of Marketplace Morning Report, examines some of the most popular non-fiction pieces from the Esquire magazine archives. He places each piece in its historical context while talking with other guests about the creation and impact of the piece. It’s a very well produced examination of journalism throughout the twentieth century, in addition to re-telling a series of very interesting stories.
In the same way that the Only Human podcast is about health, Criminal is about crime. Specifically, it examines the effects that crime has on the people who perpetrate it, are victimized by it, and fight it. The host, Phoebe Judge, has one of the best voices in podcast-dom.
The following three podcasts are serialized docu-dramas that have an ongoing storyline. You’ll need to start at the beginning to make sense of them, but each started recently enough that it is still easy to catch up. Just plan to spend a week binge listening.
Host Alex Reagan investigates cases of the paranormal with the assistance of the enigmatic Richard Strand, a noted skeptic, and head of the Strand Institute. The series gets progressively creepy and esoteric as it progresses, but still remains well within the bounds of mainstream paranormal activity. One of the highlights of the show is the Mulder/Scully-esque relationship between Alex and Strand. They just launched season two, so now is the perfect time to binge on season one.
Take the Serial formula (you did listen to Serial, didn’t you) and apply it to the investigation of a mysterious town where every inhabtant disappeared overnight, and you have Limetown. The show manages to dial the creepy up at just the right rate to overcome suspension of disbelief issues and, while it goes slightly astray in the middle of the first season, finishes exceptionally strong. I listened to about half of season one on a flight to LA. I’m looking forward to season two.
I’m hesitant to recommend Tanis. It’s produced by the same production company as The Black Tapes, but it’s overly ambitious, attempting to tie every possible conspiracy theory into one of their own creation. The host, Nic Silver, who is a producer on The Black Tapes, comes across as mostly out of his element in tracking down the mysterious Tanis. What is Tanis? A place, a thing, a force of nature? Nobody knows! Maybe the acerbic-but-charming, near-omniscient, mysterious hacker MirKatnip, who I’m certain has a dragon tattoo, can figure it out for him.
Also, the dialogue is exposition heavy, and mostly written using the following template:
“Blah, blah, blah, important term."
“Yes, blah, blah, blah, second important term.”
“Second important term, you say?”
And so on. Yet, I keep listening. It’s currently in the middle of its first season, and I really hope that sticking with it will pay off in some way.