Whenever I meet someone and tell them I'm producing a podcast, they inevitably ask what I've been listening to and what podcasts I recommend. It's hard to choose because there are so many, but here are some of my favorites. For those of you listening on smartphones, you can find most of these in the Apple podcast app / iTunes store or in Overcast, Stitcher, or other podcatcher apps.
Hands-down one of the best podcasts out there, it consistently ranks near the top of the iTunes charts for number of downloads, and it's easy to hear why. In each episode, host Roman Mars and his co-producers look at a different element of everyday life that most of us take for granted but that someone at some point cleverly designed behind the scenes. For example, you know how phone numbers in the U.S., Canada, and much of the Caribbean begin with the area code in parentheses, followed by three digits, then a dash, and then the remaining four digits? Someone had to come up with that. Other episodes have explored the history of public water fountains, pneumatic tubes at banks, and the fascinating creation story of those inflatable, dancing men that often sway back and forth in front of car dealers. Highly recommended!
The American History Guys -- a trio of historians each specializing in a different century -- draw connections between the past and the present with thematic shows looking at topics like the histories of advertising, censorship, and illegal drugs in America. In an archival episode about the history of domesticated animals, I learned that people in the 19th century often kept squirrels as pets. And a program about the changing role of children in society included a discussion about how in the 1800s there were beauty pageants at 4H fairs where -- along with judging cattle and hogs -- people would give awards for the prettiest babies!
The Biggest Story in the World
Alan Rusbridger -- the departing editor of the British newspaper The Guardian -- wanted to make a big splash in his final six months on the job, so he came up with a plan to engage readers in a new way on the topic of climate change through an in-depth, multi-faceted series of articles and editorials, along with a campaign urging some of the largest charitable foundations in the world to divest of their fossil fuel holdings. The podcast series is only a dozen episodes long (it's now concluded), but it's extremely compelling and well-produced.
Ever wonder what it's like as an American living abroad? The Bittersweet Life features childhood friends Katy Sewall and Tiffany Parks having conversations about various aspects of expat life in Rome and all the little ways things are different from back home.
An 8-part audio documentary about how global trade has transformed the economy and ourselves. Host Alexis Madrigal leads listeners through the world of ships and sailors, technology and tugboats, warehouses and cranes. At a time when Donald Trump is threatening to toss out the global economic order, Containers provides an illuminating, deep, and weird look at how capitalism actually works now.
In June 2017, Bill Cosby faces a jury that will determine whether he’s guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting one of more than 60 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. Cosby Unraveled, produced by public radio station WHYY, explores Cosby’s beginnings in the projects of North Philadelphia, the heights of his influence, and the causes of his downfall.
Fans of the first season of Serial (see below) or television crime dramas like Law and Order will love this podcast, which features real-life "stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle."
The best of BBC World Service documentaries from the Beeb's worldwide network of correspondents. Style and subject matter can vary wildly, so not everything may be of interest to you, but you're sure to find something you like.
Gimlet -- the podcast company behind such great shows as StartUp, Reply All, and Surprisingly Awesome -- has formed a division called Gimlet Creative, which works in partnership with corporate clients to produce branded content. In their first show called "Open for Business," they teamed up with Ebay to document what it's like to build a business from the ground up. Their latest podcast partners with Tinder for a series about defining relationships in the digital age. If you're at all interested in online dating, it'll make for a fascinating (though at times NSFW) listen.
Reading news headlines often left reporter Kelly McEvers with all sorts of questions, so she figured the only way to get answers and satisfy her curiosity was to go to the scene and spend some time with the people at the heart of the story. In each episode of her podcast, she and her colleagues at NPR apply the concept of being an embedded reporter -- which usually means attaching yourself to the military in a war -- to other sorts of stories, like investigating an HIV outbreak among drug users in Indiana or speaking to rival biker gangs involved in last year's deadly shootout in Texas.
Esquire Classic Podcast
Esquire Magazine digs into its archives and pulls out highlights of some of the best narrative journalism from the past 80 years, from writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron, and Gay Talese. Be sure to check out the first episode, about Tom Junod's article about the iconic image of the falling man on September 11th, 2001.
Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva -- collectively know as the Kitchen Sisters -- present lost recordings and shards of sound, along with new tales from remarkable people around the world: people with a mission, a purpose, and a story to tell. Stories from the flip side of history.
Global reporting on the front lines of the planet’s most urgent issue, from terrorism to global warming to income inequality. Veteran correspondent and GroundTruth Project founder Charles Sennott partners with the next generation of international reporters to tell stories that will change the way you see the world and the journalists who cover it.
Formerly called "Audio Smut," The Heart bills itself as "an audio art project and podcast about intimacy + humanity." Given the subject matter, much of it is definitely NSFW, but it's extremely well-produced and does a great job of exploring "the triumphs and the terrors of human intimacy, the bliss and banality of being in love, and the wild diversity of the human heart."
Here's the Thing
Actor and host Alec Baldwin clearly likes to hear himself talk, and his tendency to interrupt people sometimes gets a bit annoying to my ears, but he's still a great interviewer, and his style gets people to open up in a way that few interviewers manage to do. I especially enjoyed his conversations with Penn Jillette, Gay Talese, and Dick Cavett, but my absolute favorite was Billy Joel.
How to Be a Girl
A single mom raising a young, transgender daughter documents her and her child's experience. New episodes don't come out very often, but when they do, they often contain compelling, jaw-dropping material. Episode VI where she interviews her daughter is especially amazing.
Much of what I know about being a radio reporter and documentarian was taught to me by my instructor Rob Rosenthal and my fellow classmates at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Alas, Rob has moved on to the Transom Story Workshop, but if you're an aspiring audio producer or just a listener interested in the craft, you can download his podcast HowSound to hear how good radio / audio is made.
A podcast from NPR about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia interweaves narrative storytelling with scientific research that will ultimately make you see your own life differently.
IRE Radio Podcast
Ever wondered how gumshoe journalists go about their work? This great podcast produced by the group Investigative Reporters and Editors pulls back to curtain as award-winning reporters, editors, and producers discuss the methods they used and the challenges they faced to break incredible stories.
Each highly-produced podcast features two people recounting the life-changing encounters that led them to meet and connect to create friendships, rivalries, romances, and adventures.
Life of the Law
A bi-weekly investigative series on American law that actually makes legal matters interesting and easy to understand.
The Memory Palace
If Paul Harvey were on public radio, this is what he might have sounded like. Host Nate DiMeo's well-researched historical vignettes often play out like a compelling work of fiction, but they're entirely true. Even if you don't think of yourself as someone who's interested in history, The Memory Palace is sure to capture your attention and draw you in.
Missing Richard Simmons
On February 15, 2014, fitness guru Richard Simmons disappeared. He stopped teaching his regular exercise classes at his Beverly Hills studio, cut off his closest friends, and removed himself from the public eye after decades as one of the most accessible celebrities in the world. Nobody has heard from him - and no one knows why he left. Filmmaker Dan Taberski -- a friend of Richard’s who exercised with him regularly -- embarks on a mission to find out what happened.
The Mortified Podcast
Adults on stage sharing their most embarrassing childhood artifacts (journals, letters, poems, lyrics, plays, home movies, art) with others, in order to reveal stories about their lives. Much of the material is hilariously cringe-worthy and NSFW.
There are a bunch of live storytelling podcasts out there, but none that I've heard come close to the consistent quality of The Moth. Stories are sometimes hilarious, occasionally sad, but usually compelling, and you'll never know what to expect.
There are a bunch of LGBTQ focused podcasts out there, but I think this is one of the few that's actually really well produced. Even if you don't identify as part of the gay community, it will still make for an interesting and entertaining listen. Note that some of the content is NSFW.
PRX and Honolulu Civil Beat present an immersive storytelling podcast about a Hawaii most tourists never see.
On the Media
One of the few programs I reliably listen to every week for intelligent, nuanced, witty (and sometimes snarky) conversations about media and transparency issues. I always come away feeling like I've gained new insights. The show's producers have also created a series of invaluable Breaking News Consumer's Handbooks that you should consult in the immediate aftermath of any major news event.
This recent addition from the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and the editors of Outside Magazine aims to apply the magazine’s long-standing literary storytelling methods to the audio realm. The podcast’s first series delves into the science of survival in some of nature’s most extreme environments, including an absolutely compelling reenactment of what happens to your body when you freeze to death and an episode about what it's like to be struck by lightning.
The producers of this NPR podcast describe it much better than I can, so I'll let them speak for themselves:
"Imagine you could call up a friend and say, 'Meet me at the bar and tell me what's going on with the economy.' Now imagine that's actually a fun evening. That's what we're going for at Planet Money," they say. I think that's pretty accurate.
Whether you work in public media or you're just a big fan, you'll want to check out this great podcast from public radio and television's trade newspaper Current to hear about all the latest behind-these-scenes news and developments in the industry. Adam Ragusea is an excellent host who tends to be spot-on with his analyses, and his show always makes me think.
For years, producer Joe Richman has been handing audio recorders to all sorts of people to let them document their own lives. There's a certain sort of intimacy that comes when people are recording themselves, without the presence of a reporter. My favorite episodes are ones that provide glimpses into previously unknown or long-forgotten parts of history, like the time in 1945 when a U.S. Army bomber -- lost in the fog -- crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building or the New York City bus driver who snapped one day in 1947 and decided to drive his bus to Florida.
Radiolab bills itself as "a show about curiosity where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience," but it's hard to capture what it is in a single sentence, so you really just have to listen yourself. Jad and Robert -- the co-hosts -- have a way of making weighty subjects incredibly fascinating, so if you're like me, you'll probably be hooked.
One of my absolute favorite new programs, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting features groundbreaking coverage of important topics that in their words, "holds the powerful accountable and reveals government fraud and waste of taxpayer funds, human rights violations, environmental degradation and threats to public safety." Episodes have looked into everything from the sexual assault of female janitors working the night shift to the over-prescription of opiates to returning veterans.
A podcast about technology and the internet, as told through interesting, quirky, and gripping human stories.
From the producers of Serial and This American Life, S-Town is a 7-part series about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks reporter Brian Reed to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, and the search for the truth leads to a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.
The enormous attention Serial drew in its first season is the only reason many listeners even know what podcasts are. Drawing on the old tradition of serialized radio dramas, host Sarah Koenig focuses on a single story each season and explores that topic in-depth, week after week (so you'll need to start at the beginning in order for it to make sense). Season one looked at the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student and the sentencing of her ex-boyfriend -- who continues to claim his innocence. Season two examined the desertion trial of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who left his army base and was imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years before being eventually released.
Side Hustle School
Most of the podcasts I listen to are highly produced, public radio storytelling style productions. Side Hustle School, by comparison, fits more in the stereotypical podcast mold of a guy in a room behind a mic. Not everyone will find it interesting, but it might provide some inspiration if you're looking for ideas of how to generate extra income beyond your day job. It's hosted by Chris Guillebeau, The New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Non-Conformity and several other books. During a lifetime of self-employment, he visited all 193 countries in the world before his 35th birthday, and he believes that everyone should have a side hustle. Each day he gives a different case study of an individual who began a business on the side, and he reviews the lessons learned to help listeners follow in similar footsteps.
A podcast about the work we don't think about and the people who do it. Listen in and go behind the scenes with sidewalk canvassers, zoo animal chefs, and people who scare birds away from airport runways.
Pursuit Magazine presents a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the real lives of investigators – from P.I.s to spies, from Magnum P.I. to Jason Bourne to anyone out there searching for the truth.
In season one, former This American Life and Planet Money producer Alex Blumberg documented his decision to leave public radio and seek venture capital money to create a new podcast production company called Gimlet. The second season looked at Dating Ring, a matchmaking dating service, while the third season followed controversial, ousted American Apparel founder Dov Charney as he attempts to launch a new company. Listen in to hear well-crafted, behind-the-scenes stories of all the challenges and complications involved with starting a successful business, and what happens when things don't work out quite the way you had planned.
Would you believe there's actually anything interesting at all about mold, concrete, broccoli, or interest rates? Probably not. Adam Davidson -- a co-founder of NPR's Planet Money podcast -- teams up with Hollywood writer / director / producer Adam McKay to prove you wrong.
This American Life
If you're a total podcast and public radio newbie and have never listened to This American Life, you have some serious catching up to do! It's difficult to describe the show in its entirety, since theme-based episodes run the gamut from serious, investigative journalism (which tend to be my favorite) to interviews, fiction and personal essays. T.A.L. is actually a radio program, but its foray into podcasting has nearly doubled its audience, and the content keeps getting better, year after year! If you're just starting out, I suggest you explore this list the show staff has prepared of some of the highlights.
Movies for your ears. If your only perception of audio drama is War of the Worlds or old episodes of The Shadow heard over a crackly transistor radio, you're in for a treat. The Truth features modern-day short stories recorded on-location that are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, and always intriguing. Each story is different, and usually 10 to 20 minutes long. I definitely recommend listening in a quiet place with headphones! Among my favorite episodes (both pretty dark) are "That's Democracy" and "Do You Have a Minute for Equality?"
The Uncertain Hour
The public radio show Marketplace's Wealth & Poverty Desk is behind this new podcast that takes employs compelling storytelling to a deep dive into "origin stories of our economy in unexpected and provocative ways."
They say we're one big family. This podcast from Gimlet sets out to prove it. On each episode, host A.J. Jacobs sits down with a noteworthy guest and tells them about interesting members of their extended family, sometimes going back hundreds of years and dozens of steps away. At the end of the show, they're introduced to an unexpected mystery relative, live in the studio. The first show with sex advice columnist Dan Savage is not to be missed!
A project of KCRW's Independent Producer Project, UnFictional provides a venue for some of the best examples of documentary production and storytelling.
Gimlet's series that revisits big stories from history that we thought were over but were actually the beginning of something else. I especially liked the first episode about the summer night in 1979 when disco music is said to have died.
Bonus: Not a podcast, but if you're looking for something interesting to listen to right now, Radio Garden is my new favorite website!