At some point in the last five years I started listening to podcasts more than I listen to music. It began with Serial (more on that below), and then I tried a variety of genres before solidifying my subscriptions. There are some I used to listen to that are now defunct (Why Oh Why and A Cast of Kings), and there are some mini-series I’d recommend (S-Town and The Dropout). The list below is narrowed down to ten, but I also subscribe to WTF with Marc Maron, ChallengeMania, and On the Line (they’re good, just not my favorites).
With that out of the way, here are my favorite podcasts, ranked from good to better.
Monsters, ghouls, aliens, they all fascinate me. Start telling a scary story and I’m all ears. Host Aaron Mahnke gleams history to find the most interesting stories to capture and disturb his listeners, and he’s an excellent storyteller. He’s the trusted voice speaking over the campfire assuring you this really happened. And if it didn’t happen, wouldn’t it be crazy cool if it did?
Listen to: “Episode 137: Elusive,” a retelling of the Kelly–Hopkinsville encounter when aliens invaded a farm in 1955 rural America.
With its first season Serial introduced thousands of people to the world of podcasts. The murder of Hae Min Lee revealed cracks in the criminal justice system and launched dozens of true crime podcasts. Seasons two and three didn’t recapture that same magic, but not every hit can be a grand slam. I would like to hear more of Sarah Koenig’s long-form reporting, so hopefully 2021 brings about a new season. At least for now we have Nice White Parents.
Listen to: “Episode 01: The Alibi,” the one that started it all.
Embedded is the wild card of my podcast feed. I never know when a new episode will pop up, and I’m unsure what the topic will be. Kelly McEvers’ NPR podcast drills down on a recent news item and clarifies the “why” and “how” of it all. It’s the opposite of a news headline. Episodes are about a half hour, which makes them long enough to be educational and short enough to not overstay their welcome. Donald Trump, police action, Mitch McConnell, and coal mining have all been covered.
Listen to: “There Is No Playbook,” when a flashflood in Maryland portends the future of calamitous weather.
07. Love + Radio
Years back I googled “best podcasts” and the Love + Radio episode “The Silver Dollar” popped up on a few lists. It’s an amazing episode, and Love + Radio is one of the most interesting listening experiences out there. There are stories of gender bending, Howard Hughes, a guy who loves dolls, dark secrets, and a successful humiliatrix. Now that I write out some of the episode topics, I’m thinking I should have called Love + Radio the wild card of my podcast feed. Unfortunately, I don’t listen to this podcast regularly because it’s behind the Luminary paywall, but I’m glad host Nick van der Kolk is getting paid.
Listen to: “The Living Room,” the story of a voyeur’s affectionate relationship with her young neighbors.
06. The Bill Simmons Podcast
Bill Simmons is one of the pioneers of podcasting, and it shows. His Ringer podcast network is a powerful content machine and Spotify paid big for it. The Bill Simmons Podcast isn’t the best the network has to offer (spoiler alert), but it’s an enjoyable listen. Though high-profile guests include A-list actors and legendary athletes, cousin Sal is my favorite, and it’s fun to hear him and Simmons rant about their kids on “Parent Corner.” With The Bill Simmons Podcast you get sports talk, technology, politics, TV, just a smorgasbord of good listening material.
Listen to: “Matt Damon on Rounders, Good Will Hunting, and ’90s Hollywood,” and hear one of today’s most popular actors talk about the struggle of breaking into the business.
05. Stuff You Missed in History Class
Hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson are doing such good work with Stuff You Missed in History Class. Every week they research and present stories and biographies about everything from medieval battles to feminist icons. Not every episode is a must listen for me, but the podcast delivers some excellent content. The hosts make a deliberate effort to shine light on history that is too often ignored (women and oppressed people included), and Holly and Tracy are empathetic and enthusiastic – two qualities of good teachers. Do you remember the Tulsa race massacre? History books may gloss over it, but Stuff You Missed in History Class doesn’t.
Listen to: “Wendell Scott: Black NASCAR Driver in the Jim Crow Era, Part 1 and Part 2,” and yes I am cheating by recommending two episodes, because Wendell Scott’s story is amazing.
04. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend
This is the only podcast I can say I’ve been listening to since the beginning. Conan is one of my favorite people in Hollywood, so of course I had to give his podcast a try. Similar to Bill Simmons, Conan brings in some A-list guests to interview (like Michelle Obama and Bob Newhart), but the best parts of the episodes are his banter with assistant Sona Movsesian and producer Matt Gourley. They argue like family and it’s funny as hell. Coco is here to conquer the podcast industry like an oil magnate would, and I’m here for it.
Listen to: “A Very Special Self-Quarantine Episode featuring Andy Daly,” ‘cause the coronavirus is a wily trickster only Andy Daly can kill.
03. Planet Money
I performed poorly during my macroeconomics class (or was it micro?), so I’m surprised at how much I like Planet Money. NPR’s economics podcast is smart, funny, short, and easily digestible. Similar to Last Week Tonight, Planet Money regularly reveals issues I’m ignorant of, and once I’m educated I have to wonder how things could go so wrong or so weird. From the economy of rap beats to chicken taxes, there’s no shortage of topics this podcast covers. Money rules the world, and Planet Money sorts out the details.
Listen to: “Small America vs. Big Internet,” because damn the man.
02. This American Life
This radio show has been in operation since the ‘90s. Every week creator/host Ira Glass and a talented stable of journalists present stories based around a central theme. The themes include break-ups, political campaigning, adoption, car salesmen, quarantine stories, and hundreds more. Sometimes one story occupies the entire hour-long episode, and those episodes are often the most impactful. No other podcast I’ve listened to runs the gamut from humorous to educational to heartbreaking. People are fascinating creatures, and This American Life proves it again and again.
Listen to: “Petty Tyrant,” a story of a maintenance man who becomes too powerful.
01. The Rewatchables
The Rewatchables isn’t changing the world or winning awards like some podcasts on this list, but I look forward to this podcast more than any other. Here’s the hook – The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and friends discuss movies they’ve watched, rewatched, and watched again. They break the movies into categories like “Who won the movie?” and the “’She’s got a great ass!’” award for overacting. The movies discussed are not always the greatest movies ever made (some are complete garbage), but the conversations are always fun to listen to, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to join in with my own comments. The Rewatchables hosts take the bad movies seriously, and they illuminate what makes the best movies unforgettable.
Listen to: “Good Will Hunting,” as if you need a reason to rewatch the best movie ever.