Gone are the days of explaining what a podcast is: The arrival of money to the form and a continued increase in listeners has led to another banner year and the premiere of hundreds of shows to suit any listener’s audio preferences. Whether it’s entrepreneurial advice, video game breakdowns, or candid looks at celebrities, if you know what you want, there’s likely a show that offers exactly that. Finding them, though, can be a trial-by-fire enterprise that requires serious listening hours. The following shows don’t require you to love a certain movie or have a particular sense of humor. They don’t force you to become best friends with the host or listen to five episodes before you pick up on the “in” jokes. We’ve chosen the 50 best podcasts of 2016 based on their innovation this year, consistent high quality, excellence within their genre, and of course, entertainment value.
Heavyweight explores the tricky business of redemption and estrangement by starting with the premise that to make something right, you have to first get over the idea that someone is at fault. You also have to laugh, to the point of tears, as much as possible. Each episode finds the host Jonathan Goldstein moderating a fraught moment intensified by years of distance: a time when someone broke a promise, or another person’s heart. The hurt is still there—sometimes for everyone, sometimes for just one person who can’t let something go (like the time a man named Gregor lent the then-unknown musician Moby a collection of CDs that were never returned). As Goldstein presides over these thorny divisions, he injects the narrative with a buddy-cop mania, letting the listeners laugh at how flawed his subjects (himself included) are, without ever being demeaning. Goldstein leads special-ops soul-searching missions, seeking common ground between the aggrieved and the blissfully ignorant. With him as the host, Heavyweight can’t help but try to make amends with everyone it seeks out.
Gateway Episode: “Gregor”
Banner Episode: “Tara”
In a year of widespread polarization, The United States of Anxiety rose up from the cracks, cataloging and responding to a nation’s election fears as they played out in real time. USA premiered during the height of campaign frenzy and, each week, eased people’s fears about “the other side” with a specific kind of medicine: information. By offering historical context (say, stats about the cortisol levels of conservatives versus liberals), explaining how one-time Obama voters found themselves screaming support at Republican rallies, and dignifying the voices of hardcore Trump supporters, the show shrank the frightening chasm of stuff that seemed beyond understanding. The show also produced post-November 8 call-in episodes, which asked people of contradicting creeds to talk it out with podcast darlings like Anna Sale, Brian Lehrer, and Manoush Zomorodi. If USA is the barometer, hope for progress still exists.
Gateway Episode: “How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?”
Banner Episode: “White Like Me”
“We the People of the United States, in order to for a more perfect union ... ” are the opening words of the preamble of the Constitution from which this Radiolab spinoff derives its name. The audio revolutionary Jad Abumrad and his team became interested in the Supreme Court after working on a story about a complex adoption case involving the Indian Child Welfare Act. The story, as does each More Perfect episode, zooms out to reveal how nine justices shape our everyday lives in unexpected—and, in some cases, unintended and alarming—ways. More Perfect offered a useful way to gear up for the intensity of this year’s election cycle and can serve as a nice comedown, too, because it’s not about picking sides. Also: Season two is in the works.
Gateway Episode: “Adoptive Couple Vs. Baby Girl”
Banner Episode: “The Imperfect Plaintiff”
4. Reply All
People live in two nearly indistinguishable worlds now, one made up of flesh and one piped in from broadband lines and cell-phone towers. By making sense of the two, Reply All reveals the source of its greatness—the hosts have old souls, despite only being in their 30s, and they know everything about the young web. The show finds stories buried deep down Reddit rabbit holes and in the weeds of a Craigslist posting. One popular segment has their middle-aged boss asking them the meaning of a tweet riddled with memes and internet shorthand, and they walk him—and the audience—through how to interpret it all: a rare Pepe, Tim Buckley’s “loss.jpg,” or swipes at Harambe, all of which become good fodder for the hosts. Reply All—brilliant, nerdy, and cool—takes the unable-to-wrap-your-mind-around-it internet and crams it into one cozy podcast episode.
Gateway Episode: “The Grand Tapestry of Pepe”
The true-crime genre brings with it some ethical controversy—namely, when its practitioners create entertainment from other people’s pain. Criminal manages to uphold high journalistic standards instead of trafficking in monster stories or gory details. It does fresh reporting and avoids being a sound-bite aggregator, instead shining a light on the bizarre shadowy interplay between the law and outlaws. For instance, a tiger that lives at a truck stop in Louisiana is really a story about activists versus small business (“Tiger”). A prisoner’s body, stolen and harvested, reveals the lengths to which doctors used to go to obtain cadavers, all by way of an infamous escape artist (“One Eyed Joe”). Crime shows don’t have to glorify bad guys in order to satisfy listeners’ desire to examine the underbelly of society. Criminal’s ethos sets the true-crime bar high.
Gateway Episode: “One Eyed Joe”
Banner Episode: “Money Tree”
The average show description for Reveal (say, “life as an au pair isn’t easy”) doesn’t capture how incredible any given episode actually is. The podcast uncovers topics that you didn’t know you knew so little about (wildfires, the Zika virus, welfare) and renders it into the audio version of high-definition color. Where some would-be news sources and opinionators skim the surface, Reveal settles for nothing less than the long game. Its stories—told via episodes that run long enough to feel lived-in—call into question how the U.S. treats its people and demand that listeners engage with injustice. No other show we know of puts this much energy into hard-news podcasting. Reminiscent of the in-depth investigative journalism usually reserved for print, Reveal goes to the disaffected in small towns and farms and metropolises and seeks answers.
Gateway Episode: “The Man Inside: Four Months as a Prison Guard”
Banner Episode: “Glare of the Spotlight”
Though it has the potential to create the same hysteria as Serial or Making a Murderer, Stranglers certainly has its own thing going. The show focuses on guilty parties who may still be on the loose—specifically, the Boston Strangler(s) of the 1960s. And while it sets a serious tone, Stranglers isn’t just blood and guts. Fun production cues (a rotary phone noise signifies a phone call, a typewriter sound indicates an old news clipping) assuage the difficulty of hearing graphic details, as does the excitement of key principals willing to participate (such as police officials and the badass female reporter who covered the crimes in the first place). It says something that amid proliferating true-crime shows, Stranglers is one of the most compelling of the year.
Gateway Episode: “Sisters in Death”
Banner Episode: “Fear in Boston”
Invisibilia seduces listeners with the apparent promise that it will prove or disprove the unseen forces that surround us. But more often than not, the show’s hosts turn the enterprise on its head, leaving listeners to contemplate their own automatic behaviors or notions about basic things, from clothing to personality. Instructive shows don’t have to come in three acts or with hokey production; here, solid audio can take drastic, unexpected turns. In 2016, Invisibilia veered into the hosts’ personal lives—Lulu Miller exploring her family’s struggle with mental illness in “The Problem With the Solution,” for instance—breathing new life into a show already alive and well. Invisibilia’s novel approach is capable of surprising even the most scrupulous among us.
Gateway Episode: “The Personality Myth”
Banner Episode: “The Problem With the Solution”
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl abandoned his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban, and then held hostage for five years, which incited a tremendous manhunt—but that’s about as much as anyone can agree on in Serial’s second season. If mental illness, cowardice, or a valiant effort to expose the misdeeds of his superiors factor into the equation, the case remains unresolved—as does the question of whether Bergdahl will be held responsible for the death of six men in his unit (his court-martial is set for April 2017). Along the way, the show’s 11-part story details torture, escape, and sometimes unflattering portraits of the U.S. Army. Serial’s second season didn’t recreate the cultural moment of its first, but its producer Sarah Koenig’s relentless grappling with the constructs of truth and fact are even more relevant today than when the show initially took off. And despite a drifting plot, Serial is the most daring investigation again this year.
Gateway Episode: “DUSTWUN”
Banner Episode: “DUSTWUN”
10. How to Be a Girl
Perhaps you heard a story once about a distant cousin’s co-worker whose son declared he was a girl and you thought to yourself that three-year-olds don’t know what they are talking about, but isn’t it cute that a child could claim something so grand. After one episode of How To Be a Girl, an irrefutable fact becomes clear: Three-year-olds can and do know themselves in ways some of us never will. Marlo Mack—a pseudonym for the show’s elegant indie producer—puts all doubts to bed through her own examination of her daughter’s happiness before and after she accepted her as trans. The soulful exchanges between them will grow your heart.
Gateway Episode: Start here.
Banner Episode: “Just Maybe”
This American Life is the granddaddy of narrative podcasting. It’s where the construct of three acts that follow a theme emerged, and its success proved that listeners wanted to hear stories about people. But that doesn’t give it an automatic invitation to this list. In its 22nd year, TAL continued to push boundaries, reimagining itself and audio. Standout episodes this year covered a wide variety of topics, including a man explaining what he learned after living his life as a badger—and everything he smelled. A TAL producer, Elna Baker, offers a difficult confession that could very well affect her relationship in “Tell Me I’m Fat.” And TAL’s election coverage gave listeners a rare look into Ira Glass’s personal life when he speaks to his uncle on the phone. Many of its risks pay off; plenty fail. But the fact that TAL is still finding ways to outdo itself and trying new things means it lives up to its reputation of being America’s podcasting sweetheart.
Gateway Episode: “One Last Thing Before I Go”
Banner Episode: “Tell Me I’m Fat”
12. Savage Lovecast
Dan Savage has been giving comprehensive love advice to the gay, the straight, the polyamorous, and the asexual for decades. If you’re a first-time listener to Savage Lovecast, you’ll be surprised at his willingness to go anywhere—he doesn’t shut people down over their kinks, fetishes, or extra-marital affairs. He’ll regularly rant about a homophobic politician, sometimes bring on an expert to help handle the call load, and then set about furnishing your brain with a new way to look at sex. Savage Lovecast will affect the way you love and lust, and it will give you a new vocabulary for talking about relationships, some of which Savage has coined himself: “GGG” means good, giving, and game, in the sack. “Monogamish” means exactly what you think it does. While some new listeners may feel that Savage is unfairly punishing callers—listen closely to people who ask his advice about their terrible decisions to stay with a bad partner—or being too lenient on cheaters, he’s unwavering with his code of ethics, which values kindness and consistency over what happens between the sheets.
Gateway Episode: Start with the newest.
Banner Episode: “519”
13. Snap Judgment
Glance at the logo of Snap Judgment in your podcatcher, and you’ll get a great idea of how the host Glynn Washington envisions his role. He’s part storyteller, part MC, part DJ, part host. He doesn’t shy away from the way in which Ira Glass has influenced him either, co-opting This American Life’s multiple-act structure for Snap. In one segment, you’ll hear from a man who masters the art of speaking in tongues; in another, you’ll find out what it’s like to be captured in Iraq while on a humanitarian mission. Based out of Oakland, California, Snap Judgment lends a crucial voice to the podcast scene and makes space for many points of view. With so many stories vying for airtime, Snap is a show that competes, year in and year out, pound for pound, with the best narrative podcasts.
Gateway Episode: “Full Circle”
Banner Episode: “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”
14. The Heart
The Heart offers sultry, experimental tape centered around everything dealing with, or adjacent to, love and sex. As often as listeners will experience vicarious butterflies or feel titillated by unconventional entanglements, the show will also weigh in on important women’s issues. Complicated lovescapes between friends, women who’ve been victims of sexual assault, and the universal expression of longing through fiction are all fair game. Plenty of podcasts aim to have poetic resonance, but so few approach the art of it in a way that doesn’t go over the listener’s head. The Heart strikes this balance through the show producers’ tastefulness and fluency in audio, employing fresh techniques with each episode while remaining raw and authentic.
Gateway Episode: “Mariya Extended Cut”
Banner Episode: “Silent Evidence (Four Parts)”
In New York City, gentrification takes place a few blocks away, down a flight of stairs from your walk-up, even in your apartment. It’s that close. And There Goes the Neighborhood canvasses the people living in Brooklyn—where displacing the working class with affluence is the norm—and finds out how 90-year-old grandmothers get evicted from their homes, how white renters and buyers feel about gentrifying their blocks, and how aggressive builders, scammers, and speculators prey on the poor. Even for those who aren’t being pushed out or priced out, the neighborhood isn’t the same—one longtime resident talks about how he avoids walking too closely behind a new neighbor so as not to scare her and attract the police. A nine-part series co-produced by The Nation and WNYC Studios, There Goes the Neighborhood spends much of its time in the streets, hearing from the different faces moving in and out of Brooklyn, as well as the ones staying put who can tell you how exactly how everything changed overnight.
Gateway Episode: “Mouth to Ear”
Banner Episode: “Brooklyn, We Go Hard”
16. Hidden Brain
Imagine combining everything you know about human behavior and science in order to interpret why in the world we do the things that we do—like how people plan vacations to relax, but instead end up exhausting themselves organizing their trips. With the help of scholars, experts, and theorizers, Hidden Brain’s host Shankar Vedantam mines for exactly these kinds of answers, ways to extract humanity from dense research, which is why the podcast makes for such a likable listen. Hidden Brain also obsesses over how our minds manipulate us. For instance, in one episode, the guest researcher Dan Gilbert explains to Vedantam that the mind interprets an irrevocable choice on your behalf, which leads to a conversation about how committing to the love of your life will actually stop the indecision and make you happier. Whether discussing a nicotine addiction or billionaires, Vedantam steers the podcast back to compassionate, fertile ground.
Gateway Episode: “Our Politics, Our Parenting”
Banner Episode: “Filthy Rich”
“Terrible, thanks for asking,” is how Nora McInerny wants to respond when asked how she’s doing. Her show asks people to answer that question with honesty—and to show how dishonest the question is in the first place. A couple of years ago, she had a miscarriage and lost both her father and husband to cancer, all within six weeks of each other. That’s heavy. But McInerny is generous with her grief—she’s not asking listeners to cry for her (though, that’s a near-impossibility). She’s simply exploring her own grief through other people’s. She’s good at it, too. Episodes might start with her life (like how her family is coping with the holidays) and then jump to other people’s. She uses simple metaphors to give listeners access to enormous truths about loss—she compares herself to stew and then says, “Have you ever seen stew? It’s disgusting.” But what makes the show exciting is the uncertainty about what her grief brings up in the listener and what she’s driving at with her guests. You can’t predict how you’re going to feel with McInerny at the helm.
Gateway Episode: “Sad Nora and the Secret Baby”
Banner Episode: “Sad Nora and the Secret Baby”
Podcasting is flooded with two things: comedians interviewing notable people, and nonfiction narratives. Tell Me I’m Funny distinguishes itself from all of the above. The host and aspiring stand-up Peter Bresnan recorded his successes and failures as he gave comedy a shot, which meant he had to listen to hours of his own bombs and dissect his thinking on tape for his listeners. It was uncomfortable at times, but not confessional—like when he decided to write all over his body for a bit. It was personal and yet never self-absorbed—like when he described touring the South as a gay man. But like so many shows, Tell Me I’m Funny died on the vine, and Bresnan decided to end the show. Even so, he managed to tie up the series in a satisfying way, which isn’t always possible when a person’s life is the plot.
Gateway Episode: “Who’s Laughing Now”
Banner Episode: “Trim the Fat”
One of the greatest things about podcasting as a medium is its ability to give complicated stories an avenue into our hearts and minds without us having to stop what we’re doing, from driving to cooking. Embedded—whose reporters spend months in Greenland to draw out a story or hours on the street talking to cops and the community they serve—is particularly good for this sort of listening. Often, their reporting takes an unexpected but ultimately revealing turn—like when in the middle of producing a story about a school closing down there happened to be a shooting in the community that directly affected the students in the story. In each of its episodes, Embedded masterfully extends the idea of fieldwork past its usual conclusion, something few shows ever attempt more than once a season. For people who can’t sit still for long-form reading but who crave that level of depth and reflection, Embedded picks up the slack.
Gateway Episode: “The Police”
Banner Episode: “The School”
20. Esquire Classic
Most literary podcasts adopt a familiar highbrow voice, but Esquire Classic makes English lit conversational. Each episode sees the show reexamine one great piece from the magazine, poring over all the insider details: what Susan Orlean was thinking when she profiled a 10-year-old boy, or why Richard Ben Cramer was the perfect foil for Ted Williams. By interweaving readings of the essays with conversations between the host and someone close to the piece (usually a writer or editor), the podcast contextualizes the making of essential literature.
Gateway Episode: “My Father the Bachelor, by Martha Sherrill”
Banner Episode: “What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer”
21. Keepin’ It 1600
If you’re looking for the real-life podcast form of The West Wing, this is it. Keepin’ It 1600 centers around former Democratic advisers talking politics, not dramatized fiction—and it believes that working politicians can still achieve great things. As evidenced by the presidential election this year, experience isn’t everything. But not for Keepin’ It 1600. The hosts—Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor—used to work for President Obama on the campaign trail and in the White House, and for many, this podcast was the voice of this year’s jaw-dropping election season. Arriving right as President-elect Trump locked down the Republican nomination, it dissected the politics of the moment as unapologetic insiders. Keepin’ It 1600 is warm, serious, self-deprecating, funny, and optimistic.
Gateway Episode: “The Latest Episode”
Banner Episode: “The Day After”
This Is Actually Happening, simply put, takes first-person narratives to the extreme. In one episode, an argument with an abusive boyfriend turns into a kidnapping by a totally unrelated party. In another, the story of a man who wants to circumnavigate the world using only motorless transportation becomes a profound meditation about the great outdoors and survival. The show hooks listeners with unique voices and storylines that, at some point, knock the wind out of you. Even though the show makes very clear that this is what it’ll do in every episode, it never fails to to leave you breathless.
Gateway Episode: “What If You Followed a Singular Dream Around the Planet?”
Banner Episode: “What If You Lived Your Life as a Ghost?”
Like the magazine that creates it, The New Yorker Radio Hour draws material from creative and thinker types. Only, instead of creating a periodical, it crafts a variety show, a loosely connected series of segments that mix and match art, conversation, music, performance, and farce. You never know when you’re going to get a Jack Handey reading, George Saunders on the campaign trail, or a show tune. The podcast certainly succeeds because of the massive talent pool that brings it to life. But polish doesn’t get in the way of experimentation. The New Yorker Radio Hour is structured for people who like pageantry; it’s smart but not afraid of cheap thrills. David Remnick hosts, presiding over episodes with such a calm dignity, you’ll mistake him for a swan.
Gateway Episode: “Leonard Cohen’s Last Days Days and Donald Trump’s First Term”
Banner Episode: “Russia Then and Now”
24. Fresh Air
Fresh Air books damn-near all the having-their-moment people right as their art or idea hits the culture at large. And when the greats die, Fresh Air replays past interviews so listeners can say goodbye to David Bowie or Gene Wilder. The host Terry Gross is a preternatural interviewer; it’s why her radio program has lasted decades and continues to thrive as downloadable content. And Fresh Air survives on Gross’s candid curiosity. It’s hard to understand why so many detractors have accused NPR of faux-intellectualism, because Gross’s straight-to-the-point interviews succeed precisely because they aren’t pretentious.
Gateway Episode—“Carrie Fisher”
Banner Episode—“Trevor Noah”
Homecoming is a fictionalized drama and thriller that conjures some of the eerie-movie nostalgia and binge-watchability that made Stranger Things so popular on Netflix. Podcasts that provide Hollywood escapism, especially when paired with tremendous turns from A-list actors, are almost nonexistent. A woman named Heidi Bergman—voice-acted here by Catherine Keener—gets a visit from a suit with a badge. While Bergman must engage the military-industrial complex to keep the plot moving, the best moments of the series are when Keener shares dialogue with David Schwimmer, playing her boss, or Oscar Isaac, starring as a traumatized soldier back from war. The writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg understand how to make characters sound natural, and that people hide their motivations behind everyday speech. The actors—particularly Schwimmer, who shines as an irritable yet somehow likable government cog—give excellent performances, unlike anything you’ve heard in podcasting.
Gateway Episode: “Mandatory”
Banner Episode: “The Whole Six-Part Series”
26. Modern Love
Piggybacking off the New York Times’s beloved column, this show invites actors to make the podcast rounds in a new way: by picking a past “Modern Love” column, reading it aloud, and then discussing why they chose it. But it doesn’t stop there. The Modern Love editor offers broader context about the printed version, and the actual writers give updates about their lives, which is especially satisfying for big fans of the column. The intersection of all of this has Gillian Jacobs promoting her Netflix series Love but, instead of talking about her new character, discussing how much she loves science. It has SNL’s Cecily Strong putting her voice to a more serious script. It even has the host Meghna Chakrabarti sharing her own romantic history. Most podcasts that attempt to repurpose something already in existence instead of creating something new fall short. But with Modern Love, the adaptation is perhaps better than the original.
Gateway Episode: “To Fall in Love, Do This”
Banner Episode: “Marry A Man Who Loves His Mother”
27. Still Processing
This collaboration between the New York Times writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris is, at base, a set of discussions about the big cultural events of the day. But Still Processing is sharp and intellectual, goofy and raw: The two hosts talk to each other and to guests (including RuPaul and Margo Jefferson) about anyone from Colin Kaepernick to Kerry James Marshall; about society and art; about dating and work. For those looking for probing, entertaining conversations about how race and culture intertwine in America, Still Processing is vital, mandatory listening.
Gateway Episode: Start with the most current.
Banner Episode: “The Reckoning”
This year, Anna Sale, the host of Death, Sex & Money, moved to the West Coast and had a baby, which meant fans of the show went along with her. The majority of episodes coalesce around interviews between Sale and a guest—sometimes a celebrity such as Jeff Daniels, sometimes a listener, always polite. The openness and sympathy that define these recorded conversations help to shape how the Death, Sex & Money community talks to each other. Listeners share their favorite short stories. They open up about their sex lives. By encouraging and directly responding to feedback, Sale erases the lines between herself, her fans, and her guests.
Gateway Episode: “Dating Was So Hard, Until It Wasn’t”
Banner Episode: “When I Almost Died”
29. Science Vs
If you see a topic in the Science Vs feed, such as fracking or antidepressants, and roll your eyes, keep in mind that this show works very hard to make sure you have a good time no matter how unsexy the material. The host Wendy Zukerman pits science versus everything, from controversial subjects to subjects you didn’t even know were controversial. Her enthusiasm is as energizing as three cortados—without the headache. In each show, listeners follow Zukerman as she answers the question, “Does the science hold up?” Listeners never really know which way it will turn out, and the results are often surprising, even though the show doesn’t hinge on the tease. As an added bonus, Zukerman just moved to the U.S. from Australia, so her show makes keen observations about Americans from an outside perspective, too.
Gateway Episode: “Hypnosis”
Banner Episode: “The G-Spot”
In 2016, podcasting whet the ambitions of a few big-name talents outside the once-sleepy field. That a writer with Malcom Gladwell’s credentials would turn to podcasting for his next creative project bodes well for the future of the medium. In some ways his podcast operates as a platform for his popular nonfiction writing, continuing his research and obsession into upending conventional wisdom (for example, is giving large sums of money to renowned universities a quixotic misuse of resources?). In other ways, the show is a vehicle for something new, a space where listeners get to hear him brain-crush on the basketball player Rick Barry over his particular free-throw method. The podcast is a contemporary, portable conversation, between Gladwell and the people whose ideas he admires, delivered right to your smartphone.
Gateway Episode: “Hallelujah”
Banner Episode: “Saigon, 1965”
Nathan Brackett, the host of Rolling Stone Music Now, wants to talk to you about music. And since this is Rolling Stone, of course Bruce Springsteen will pop in to promote his book, and yes, Lars Ulrich has 30 minutes for the podcast to talk Metallica. A brand that has devoted this much time to promoting artists delivers the big names. During the first segment of the show, the staff at Rolling Stone kick around what’s trending in music, and the singles and albums they can’t put down—a good time to pull out Spotify. The interviews and big-picture discussions that follow act as the show’s headliner. Rolling Stone Music Now resists the idea that pop art has died or become a monoculture. It’s comforting to be able to listen to a show that harkens back to a time when listening to Casey Kasem’s top 40 program was enough to make you fluent in popular music.
Gateway Episode: “Noel Gallagher’s Life Lessons”
Banner Episode: “Power of Prince”
32. On Being
Krista Tippett is as close to a shaman as audio has in the interview space. She’s a gentle, powerful interviewer with an open mind and a penchant for drawing in A-list spiritual leaders you’ve probably never heard of, poets such as Maya Angelou, and important figures such as the Dalai Lama to discuss mysticism, meditation, and religion. She told the Longform podcast that, to prepare for her show, she reads every book and interview she can about and by the subject. She said she wants to be so submerged in the consciousness of her guests that she asks questions from their point of view, ones that they want to answer or will be inspired by—not ones they get asked all the time or might shy away from. Podcasting continues to have a dearth of shows that embrace faith, so even though On Being has been around for more than a decade, that it continues to push its own boundaries keeps this show in the avant garde.
Gateway Episode: “Rebecca Solnit”
Banner Episode: “Mary Karr”
Anyone enticed by the glamor of Old Hollywood should listen to the indispensable record of the film industry that is You Must Remember This. Once you pull on a pair of headphones and settle down with the host Karina Longworth, however, you’ll discover something larger: the unabridged, unauthorized biography of show biz. This podcast will turn you into a Golden Age completist. For the better part of 2016, in a 16-part mini-series, Longworth tackled the Hollywood blacklist, a time of politics, war, nationalism, and censorship, when the behind-the-scenes backstabbing matched the big-screen drama.
Gateway Episode: “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford Series”
Banner Episode: “Blacklist 16-Part Series”
Internet Explorer interprets everything many people don’t know, and don’t need to know about the internet, which means that sometimes the topics it takes on are raunchy or obscure. The details of outlandish teen party antics and gossipy, pointless political conspiracy theories are all par for the course. For those who don’t understand millennial-speak and are clueless about where memes come from, this master class in internet culture from BuzzFeed is both smart and funny, even if you’re not invested in what they’re exploring. And for those who hear about what’s trending before it’s officially trending, the hosts will, on occasion, still be able to tip you off. Through highly specific commentary about what’s happening online, Internet Explorer shines a light on the way online culture affects people IRL. Word is, it’ll be back in January.
Gateway Episode: “Where Do Memes Go to Die?”
Banner Episode: “Politics Is Out-Weirding the Internet”
Though so many shows are guided by a one-word statement of purpose—crime, sports, interviews, comedy—Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything follows the myriad curiosities of its host. From episode to episode, Walker pursues the topics that interest him, and that drives him crazy. He drinks to better understand beer culture. He rages against hypocrisy and commercialism by immersing himself in the very things that he lampoons. Occasionally he fictionalizes and satirizes events because he wants to. Importantly, personal grievance will not be removed from the narrative for the sake of objectivity. Walker’s got axes to grind. Gone are the NPR voice and the concept of the impartial observer. Conspiracies bubble up. Walker reminds you of Doc Brown from Back to the Future—excitable, sometimes cranky, and full of big dreams and beautiful ideas.
Gateway Episode: “Honeypot”
In the annals of digital-audio history, Marc Maron will be known for mastering the podcast interview, a form that has taken the best ideas from television sit-downs (think Charlie Rose) and removed the cameras. Influenced by comic self-loathing and therapy-enabled self-examination, Maron connects with his interviewees by latching onto their story and blending in his own. When Lorne Michaels sits down with the comedian, Maron brings up his failed interview for Saturday Night Live and asks him to respond to it. The allure of the show, and what separates it from every other interview-style show out there, is precisely in how Maron synthesizes two lives—his own and the person to whom he’s talking. This blueprint not only endures, Maron’s still improving it on air. If you want to know how the WTF sausage gets made, listen to him talking musical theater and singing with Lin-Manuel Miranda—it’s just two guys making sweet music together.
Gateway Episode: “Kristen Wiig”
Banner Episode: “Lin-Manuel Miranda”
37. Love Me
Love Me describes itself as “a show about the messiness of human connection”; it seemingly asks the world to answer why, if all people want is to be loved, they get it wrong so often. It’s a topic guaranteed to capture audience attention. But the show is a true audio original in construct. In its premiere episode, a true story about how Google Translate brought a couple together is sandwiched between a parade of people reciting words that don’t translate into English, and a skit that uses Google Translate to show how a (fictional?) couple fell apart. Listeners find themselves convinced that there’s nothing strange about a man’s love for an orangutan and the orangutan’s jealousy over his girlfriend. A young man going through a series of mom-figure friends seems perfectly natural on this podcast, as does three sisters dissecting their birth order and then acting out a fictive scene. Its mixed-media nature is strange, but because its focus is on love (familial love, romantic love, changing love, misplaced love), it’s allowed more artistic license than many other shows out there.
Gateway Episode: “At a Loss for Words”
Banner Episode: “At a Loss for Words”
Producing a history podcast is a delicate thing. Dramatizing the past when there isn’t anyone left alive to speak their truth means that the written material must be tight. The Memory Palace, a compact piece of entertainment that rarely runs over 20 minutes, manages to thrill and educate you without talking you to death. The creator Nate DiMeo mixes in ambient sounds and quiet pauses so that he can use voice to evoke the bygone eras that consume him. Listen to the The Memory Palace, and you’ll be transported to a ship moored in the Charleston Harbor, just in time to witness the escape of the autodidact and slave named Robert Smalls. DiMeo reads alone on his podcast, and he prefers working in scene, which lends an eerie and nostalgic quality to the material, like he’s haunting the past from the present.
Gateway Episode: “Below, From Above”
Banner Episode: “The Wheel”
39. Love + Radio
Stylistically, Love + Radio resembles almost nothing you’ve heard. The caliber of each episode—the high-quality production, unnerving soundtrack, and meticulous attention to detail in storytelling—never wavers, but the episodes toy with your senses in distinct ways. This is a show that will scar you from time to time. Take the episode most frequently cited as a primer for the series, “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” from several years back—it’s a black-comedy thriller with a big scare. On this year’s standout, “The Man in the Road,” the host Nick van der Kolk goes on a treasure hunt to find out if a man named Melvin Dummar should have inherited exactly one-sixteenth of the billionaire Howard Hughes’s fortune. Love + Radio returns often to this sticky nature of the truth: Are Thunderbolt and Dummar who they say they are, or are they con men? The characters are so good you’ll want to believe every word, but even if they’re lying, Love + Radio still needles for the truth. It’s the podcast version of cinema verité.
Gateway Episode: “The Man in the Road”
Banner Episode: “The Man in the Road”
Home of the Brave is the independent podcast from the auteur Scott Carrier, a lone wolf who calls Salt Lake City home and spends much of his life on the road capturing nature on tape and interviewing hitchhikers, activists, sectarians, prophets, and doomsayers. Carrier records the people and landscapes he encounters exactly as they would sound in real life, and he never goes for the easy interview. (Recently, he traveled to North Dakota to talk to protesters at Standing Rock.) He’s also a hell of a good writer: One of his best pieces, “Prisoner of Zion,” a poetic, personal essay about what it means to live in Utah, unpacks his relationship with Mormonism and the beauty of the West. Carrier can’t help but romanticize the wilderness, which underlines everything in his unique body of work.
Gateway Episode: “Prisoner of Zion”
Sidedoor arrived this winter at the same time that a rash of poorly veiled self-promotional audio entered the already flooded podcast universe. In the case of Sidedoor, however, the show has figured out how to remind listeners that the Smithsonian is an endless well of treasures—through trivia told in fun and even sexy ways. Topics range from the archives of Phyllis Diller’s comedy; the parasite that turns tiny crabs into zombies; and how the museum is preparing an orangutan for parenthood. In one episode, a museum employee explains that after much thought, he has decided that the orchid is the most manipulative species and has duped humans into obsession in order to ensure its future. Another, “Confronting the Past,” describes the horrors of the Tulsa race riot. Sidedoor just premiered, but if its start is any indication, this show is one to watch.
Gateway Episode: “Special Delivery”
Banner Episode: “Confronting the Past”
The host of Millennial, Meghan Tan, pilots listeners through the many kinds of indecisiveness (about career, love, money) that young people tend to grapple with on the way to middle adulthood. When it comes to her feelings on these subjects, Tan is willing to share them all. While the show’s main narrative arc is ostensibly her pursuit of a job in radio, her frank emotional communion with the audience goes beyond fans wanting her to get a big break. She almost always connects with listeners in a way that makes her energy seem transferable—so you can, it feels, warm yourself with her tender, coming-of-age wisdom.
Gateway Episode: “Double Life”
Banner Episode: “You Can’t Go Home Again”
Even people who’ve never listened to Monday Morning Podcast have probably heard the host Bill Burr’s rants about owning a home. Propelled by an inexhaustible amount of scathing, hilarious monologues, Monday Morning Podcast tramples popular culture, the right and the left, athletes, political correctness—everything. It’s a vulgar, irreverent form of egalitarian comedy that never slows down. A YouTube cottage industry has formed around cutting audio from his podcast and mixing it with video from whatever cable show or politician’s speech or Scorsese movie or hockey game he’s getting riled up about. Burr is probably laying waste to some blowhard right now. But just when you think Burr has crossed the line, that he has no compassion, you find out the joke is on you.
Gateway Episode: Start with the newest.
Banner Episode: “Bill Rambles about Thanksgiving, Football, and Isis”
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know takes science and wraps it up in a glittering game-show package. The creator and showrunner Stephen J. Dubner, of Question of the Day and Freakonomics, asks contestants to tell the judges something that they don’t know—like, say, how finding a few pounds of ambergris will make you tens of thousands of dollars richer. In the end, the judges crown a winner based on how much they are awed by the presentation. The show plays out like a happy hour before anyone’s sloppy, with everyone trying to one up each other, except the stakes are that someone goes home with a blue ribbon. When panelists break down in delight from a contestant’s I-bet-you-didn’t-know pitch—such as when an opera singer plays a recording of a man’s voice and then breaks out in song herself—it reminds you of what it was like to be a child gawking at dinosaur bones.
Gateway Episode: Pick any episode.
Banner Episode: “Things That Come out of Your Mouth”
When he shares his ghost stories, Lore’s host Aaron Mahnke prefers a slow burn over splattering blood. Unfolding with campfire solemnity, Lore is a pagan ceremony and religious sacrament all at once. Mahnke adopts silence as his canvas while delivering his monologues, austere readings that linger like no other horror podcast you’ll find. And it’s no wonder that Lore discovered such a large audience: Unlike so much horror that needs over-the-top viscera to scare you, this podcast leans on history—folklore, myth, the stuff people once thought were true—to tell its tales.
Banner Episode: “Brought Back”
Thousands of interview shows exist in the podcasting space, probably because they’re fairly low budget and provide celebs an excuse to have playdates with other celebs. But so few strike the balance that the comedian Pete Holmes does, by sticking rather loosely to an agenda: He finds out how his guests feel about what happens after we die, about religion, meditation, veganism, and multiverses. He makes sure listeners know that his show isn’t funny, because it’s not about doing bits or “being on,” but it can often be the silliest conversation in the podcastsphere. Holmes’ candid efforts (and sometimes failures) to speak fluently with his guests about feminism, race, love, and friendship are the moments to look for. And most episodes conclude with stories about the hardest time the guest ever laughed, which leaves listeners reminiscing about the happy moments they hoard, too.
Gateway Episode: “Johnny Pemberton Returns”
Banner Episode: “Bo Burnham #3”
This ambitious and lovely project was also very simple: It put out a daily profile of someone the producer Austin Mitchell met on the streets of New York City. Each profile ran at one minute and introduced listeners to people of all ages and colors with various jobs, complaints, and exciting news to share. Just 60 seconds of uninterrupted thoughts from a stranger put your own life into perspective in unexpected ways. Mitchell recently started working on a new documentary podcast called Crimetown with the people who created The Jinx, so Profiles:NYC is on hiatus for now. But going to its official website is a good way to lose an hour playing profile roulette, and if you haven’t heard the show, you’ve got about 200 to go.
Gateway Episode: “Kate; January 1, 2016”
Banner Episode: “Nick; May 25, 2016”
Mortified brings hilarious performance art to our ears with recordings of people telling personal stories in front of an audience at a bar somewhere. But unlike other shows with a similar construct, these aren’t crafted and practiced for hours beforehand: People read aloud from their unedited middle-school diaries, for instance, always around a particular theme. The silliness and the laughs will make you regress, in a good way, to a childlike state. The audience in Mortified is a crucial companion; it’s a camaraderie listeners need to ensure that they’re not alone in laughing at the reader’s expense. If nothing else, Mortified illustrates something everyone experiences during adolescence: We all just wanted to be loved—and we were pretty funny in our self-absorption.
Gateway Episode: “Totally Juvenile Election Special”
Banner Episode: “Forbidden Love Parts 1–3”
49. Us & Them
The Us & Them host Trey Kay has been preoccupied with the culture wars for years, but what transfixes him most is where people can wave the white flag. Kay listens. He looks for what’s true and what’s good. Check out “Hello Mary Lou” for an example of his openness to someone with whom he staunchly disagrees; he spins her radical ideas about education in Texas into a Petri dish—and makes the issue not just for the two of them, but something important to all of us. It’s the only time he can’t find common ground with a guest, and he’s unsettled by it. But what listeners hear is that he doesn’t dismiss his guest as dangerous and never loses track of her good intentions. Kay and his show are a valuable model, arguing that cultural divides stem from the unhelpful posture of us versus them. The “&” in the title is no small feat.
Gateway Episode: “Femme Voice”
Banner Episode: “Heroin–N’ganga Dimitri”
LifeAfter is an audio soap opera that captures your attention entirely, even when its dialogue and plot have holes. If you were a fan of last year’s The Message, then you’re already familiar with the flavor of the Panoply and GE Podcast Theater collaboration. This year, we follow a low-level FBI employee as a voicemail-based social media site preserves and (perhaps) resurrects his wife who died eight months ago. He’s been instructed to stay away, but he can’t resist, and even starts taking instruction from the voices he hears when he’s on the site, which may threaten his life and the world at large. The plot sounds heavy, though LifeAfter is anything but. The story isn’t even halfway to its finale, and it’s already pulling out all the sensational stops, giving listeners a wonderful portal through which to escape for a few minutes. LifeAfter is the audio equivalent of a beach read, just in time for winter.
Gateway Episode: “1”
Banner Episode: “3”