As a child, I remember sitting on my living room floor with my dog as a pillow, listening to Garrison Keillor on the radio. Lake Wobegon became the soundtrack to some beautiful moments alone with my mother, sitting in silence, yet inexplicably connected. Since then, I have developed an insatiable thirst for podcasts, with over 200 programs currently in my library. I fall asleep to them many nights to distract myself from those uncontrollable thoughts that wander to the next day’s to-do list. More often, I queue up a list of podcasts during my commute, on flights, during lab work, and while working out. They seem to have a meditative quality that allows me to focus on the story at hand, rather than the tireless thoughts that often plague me (flight anxiety, workout anxiety, sleepless nights anxiety – you get the idea). Podcasts can miraculously transport me to another place while also teaching me about other’s perspectives in a deeply personal way. Something about the microphone’s connection with my imagination makes me feel like I am in the producer’s pocket, anticipating where they are taking me next.
In our excessively stimulated lives, it’s important to savor time with our eyes closed and mind focused.
As my friends know, most of my sentences start with, “so I just heard on this podcast that…,” and I’ve actually come to terms with it (although writing this makes me realize how nerdy I must sound). I guarantee that you will be recounting a story from one of these podcasts over drinks next week if you pick off this list. As part of a podcast series I will be writing, this list is nowhere near exhaustive, but a great start for those who are new to the podcast world or those who are curious about what to add to their own weekly essential podcast roundup.
Note: If you are like many of my friends and refuse to own Apple products and/or have no idea where to find a podcast, check out this cheat sheet.
This American Life is the radio show that has shaped modern storytelling in broadcast media. That is precisely why it has been the top ranking podcast on the iTunes charts since I downloaded my first episode over 10 years ago. Each episode is centered around a theme – think Transformers, Tribes, Doppelgängers – with the show’s long time host and producer, Ira Glass, typically opening the show in an awkwardly adorable, bookish manner. Each hour is broken up into smaller segments addressing the theme in some creative way or another (although every once in a while the program will devote an entire episode or series of episodes to one story). To spare you my blabbering on about the best of TAL episodes here, I will instead be devoting an entire list to it soon. Episodes stream Mondays or air Saturdays, live on your local NPR station.
First listen: No Coincidence, No Story!
Serial is another game changer. A spin-off produced by the This American Life team, Serial serves as the first real-time, real-crime podcast. When the podcast launched in 2014, Sarah Koenig, the program’s producer and host, had already thoroughly researched the case of Adnan Masud Syed, who was convicted of murdering Hae Min Lee as a high-schooler in Baltimore, Maryland 15 years prior. Each week, she sought out new evidence as she tried to discover whether or not Adnan is guilty of the crime for which he is currently serving time. Sarah, herself, found the case confusing: talking to charming Adnan in prison convinced her he was innocent, while conflicting stories forced her to question her own judgements. Serial is critical to this list since it inspired a whole genre of true crime podcasts (Criminal and Dirty John are among my favorites). Even though you won’t be listening in real time anymore, you will be anxious to hear about what is happening to Adnan now (the podcast inspired a retrial for Adnan) and Sarah’s personal reaction to the case’s verdict. Season 3 is set to debut in 2018.
First listen: Episode 01: The Alibi
The second (and last) This American Life spin-off on this list is S-Town– also known as Shit Town. S-Town follows producer Brian Reed’s journey as he investigates a string of exceptional emails to Woodstock, Alabama. There he befriends a brilliantly-eccentric clockmaker, John B. McLemore, who adamantly despises the town in which he was born and raised. To avoid any spoilers, I will not detail what exactly Brian is looking for (or finds, duh) but will instead applaud the show for providing a tribute to rural southern culture and the deeply-complicated yet deeply-relatable character that is John B. McLemore. Just listen to the first episode. PLEASE. Sadly, I don’t expect there will be a season 2 given the ending.
First listen: Chapter I
As a scientist and advocate for science education, Radio Lab is a particular thrill to talk about (and to listen to). The show features an ongoing dialogue between the two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, while transitioning back and forth between interviewee thoughts and ambient noise from relevant laboratories and field sites. Robert serves as the stand-in science novice (even though he clearly knows his stuff), providing us all with the context we need to understand often-complex storylines. Jad instead plays pseudo-scientist, highlighting extraordinary science storylines that have frequently been overlooked. There are some truly memorable episodes and guests (like Lin Manuel-Miranda in Hard Knock Life). The show is also brilliant at using old-timey radio sounds to transplant you into an experiment (or space, or wherever they so please). Episodes air sporadically, roughly three times each month.
First listen: Colors (which features a full choir singing about Mantis shrimp)
Ok, this one needs a warning clause. Don’t play it aloud at work unless you are freakishly familiar with your colleagues. More importantly, turn away now if you don’t consider yourself liberal-minded. Savage Lovecast is a typical caller radio advice show, except the show’s atypical host, Dan Savage, only answers topics related to relationships (and mostly sex). What I love about this show – besides it allowing me to hear the lurid nosy details of other’s sex lives – is that it has provided me with a moral compass to understand sexual health. Although I never took the course at University, I’m pretty sure Savage Lovecast can sufficiently cover Gender and Women Studies 101 with enough listens. Dan does not judge (well, mostly) but empathizes with his callers and offers thoughtfully constructed advice on how to approach any type of relationship (abusive, friend, asexual – you name it). Episodes air Tuesdays.
Another warning: I often skip the first 5-15 minutes of the show and go straight to the first caller. Dan is brilliant, but most days I can’t stand to hear his (or anybody’s) rants on current events.
First listen: Episode #545: Who’s Happier Monogamous or Open Couples?
Oh, Terry! If only we were on a first name basis. Terry Gross is the host of one of NPR’s longest running interview programs, Fresh Air, which just celebrated its 30th birthday this past year. Hardly an episode goes by when a guest doesn’t reply with “that’s a really good question, Terry,” which pretty much sums up the host’s badass interviewing skills. Guests include academics, journalists, Hollywood types, politicians – the list goes on – and guests are often summoned for their inside perspective on current events. New episodes daily on weekdays (plus a weekend edition).
First listen: The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea
Freakonomics Radio is the spinoff podcast of the hit book series, hosted by former New York Times editor Stephen J. Dubner. The show bridges the gap between economics and human-interest pieces by highlighting stories relevant to our everyday lives but told through interviews with renowned economists. As a result, these highly-produced stories are both fascinating and informative, much like the books that inspired the radio offshoot. New episodes released on Thursdays and Sundays.
If you like on-stage storytelling (think The Moth Radio Hour) but feel that the stories are often overly produced (or not quite vulgar enough for your liking), you will love Risk!. And we should all love Risk!. Each storyteller has perfectly crafted their stories – mostly told in front of a live audience – without sounding as if they are reading their narratives off a page. The intensely-animated host, Kevin Allison, has a way of engaging the audience through his authenticity, vulnerability, and humor, which you will either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It took me a few months to realize that the intonations in his voice are natural and not merely an act, but even less time for me to fall in love with the passion he emits about his job. Although some of the stories are intensely somber, most are not (at least not at the surface level) and I would advise against playing it out loud unless you are very familiar with anyone overhearing. New episodes stream Mondays.
First listen: True Romance
From the creators of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Re:sound podcast showcases the best of radio from around the world. Each episode is carefully curated to include stories the producers gathered from other programs: those that you were unlikely to hear unless you live in that particular small town in Australia (for example). The content is loosely formed around a theme with each new episode. They often features stories, which were submitted to various audio contests, including Third Coast Festivals own competitions. Some stories are humorous, some solemn, some long, some short; that’s what I love most about this podcast, it’s eclectic but skillfully hand-picked.
First listen: #221 The Writing Out of Trouble Show (warning: this episode is heartbreaking, but one of the most moving shows I have ever heard)
Reply All was one of Gimlet Media‘s first podcasts and still remains one of the audio production company’s most popular. The two hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, have an unusual dynamic for radio personalities; they are friendly but not necessarily close friends. They help us navigate through the Internet’s intriguing sub-culture by bringing to life skillfully-produced pieces from an angle you rarely give yourself a moment to contemplate. They often take listener’s cues and turn bizarre tech issues into human interest stories. The show also features a recurring segment called ‘Yes Yes No,’ where Gimlet’s CEO and co-founder, Alex Blumberg, presents a tweet he doesn’t understand and PJ and Alex attempt to explain it. It doesn’t sound very interesting, but it is. Side note: I adore PJ’s laugh. I promise you will either love it too or find it difficult to listen to the show as a result.
First Listen: #79 Boy in Photo