I listen to a lot of podcasts. I really can’t get enough of them but there are very few really really good ones. By good, I mean that the production is well done, well recorded, well researched, with an engaging voice. I can kind of roll with the chatty ones that are off the cuff if the participants are well informed. But overall, I tend to like the ones that are scripted, planned out in advance, well edited and full of suspense to keep you listening. There are a lot I listen to that aren’t technically podcasts but are still great weekly listens, I will list those at the bottom.
Best Overall Podcasts
- S-Town – Serial is still the champ when it comes to podcasting. They tore down what was there and built their own thing that has set the bar for quality. Their first season was a phenomenon. Their second season I appreciated but it didn’t catch fire like the first. Their most recent season called S-Town is brilliant in its own right. Rather than drip them out week by week – which worked with Season 1 but not so well Season 2, Serial dropped all of the episodes at once. Part of that was because S-Town has a major twist after the second episode and it’s best to really get that out of the way to get on with the story. We visit Shit Town, Alabama where John McLemore has been contemplating the deep questions of human existence. One thing I love about him and this series is that I’ve always believed that if people knew the truth about life, the real truth about who we are and what’s coming next they would either be severely depressed or on the brink of insanity. Our ways of coping include everything from religion to drugs to simple day to day denial. McLemore is too smart for that. He’s too smart for his own good, actually, and in his case his brilliance is the thing that keeps him from living a happy life. Hosted by Brian Reed, S-Town does what Serial does best – it reinvents what podcasts can be.
- You Must Remember This by Karina Longworth. There just isn’t a better podcast for me out there, or any film lover, really. Longworth combines her great writing skill, her knowledge of history and the movies and more importantly, her curiosity about certain stories into an entertaining series of podcasts that do exactly what a podcast should do: entertain, engage and inform. I never want her shows to end. She’s just finishing up the latest series Dead Blondes which blends stories of blondes as myths and goddesses as well as the limitations they, and all women, had during these eras. Longworth never just tells us about their lives, but always fits them both into the context of the time and the long history of the cultural impact of Hollywood. The Charles Manson series steps out a bit of the regular mold of examining old movies and bleeds a bit into the true crime genre. But it doesn’t really matter what subject Longworth is addressing, really, whatever it is she makes it engaging to listen to. The Joan Crawford series is also great, so is the series “Star Wars” about the clashing studio titans. Her episodes on Marilyn Monroe are fantastic, Bette Davis, Howard Hughes, etc. She has a great voice too and I could literally listen to her for like an entire year and never get sick of it. I find the podcasting medium to be among the most exciting new media platforms that exist but only when they reach their potential and this one does it across the board.
- Criminal by Phoebe Judge – I’ve been listening to Criminal for a long time. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it’s too short. I always wish it was longer. But if you start listening your mind will be blown. I promise you that. Each and every time. The last one took us down a road that involved black market babies, falsely accused husbands, and a sleuthing wife. They are all real stories about real people who commit crimes but again, it’s Judge’s own perspective that makes this worthwhile. It’s true crime for sure, but it’s more a thoughtful examination of why people commit or are involved in crimes than it is a salacious telling of awful events. I especially liked the episode about the poor tiger who lived at a gas station until the owner was sued by animal rights activists.
- In the Dark – In the Dark has only had one season but apparently they’re coming back for more. They mostly model themselves, like many do, after Serial – with a journalist investigating a mystery. But this one is just endlessly fascinating all the way through, even if it isn’t a “who done it” so much as an examination of an unforgivable crime unfolding. Like Serial, the host, Madeleine Baran, has a good radio voice which always helps tell a great and engaging story. The series explores the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling from a quiet street on an ordinary night, how the police were so badly thrown off track, and why it took so long to find his killer.
- Pod Save America – this is one of the off the cuff chatty podcasts but it is hosted by the Obama team Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor. Their humor really guides the thing, particularly since they know one another so well. On their website, for instance, Favreau’s bio starts this way, “Jon Favreau served as Barack Obama’s head speechwriter from 2005–2013, a role that was more senior and influential than Jon Lovett’s.” They run down the events of the day but they also serve as a watering hole of sorts for those of us scattered and desperate liberals who can’t believe what just happened. Pod Save has a few franchise podcasts, like Lovett or Leave it, and With Friends like These with Ana Marie Cox. I don’t know about you but I can’t listen to people shit on Hillary Clinton and praise Bernie Sanders – and I can’t really listen to people give equal time to “both sides.” Pod Save gives me just what I need — yes, you can’t really get away from the Bernie thing, not even there, as his supporters will always be the ones writing in, but for the most part this is a safe space for those of us who can barely get out of bed in the morning. They always make me laugh and always teach me something new about government. And just try not getting a crush on Favreau. Just try.
- Generation Why – This is sort of a blend of research based but also off the cuff talk with two hosts that are engaging to listen to, knowledgable of subject and atop the list of most important thing – it’s long. One hour at least. Podcasts should not really be short because if you like them you want them to be long. They call themselves “two friends, Aaron and Justin” and listening to them makes you feel like you’re sitting in their basement with them at midnight telling true crime stories.
- The Savage LoveCast – I recommend paying for the extended broadcast without the ads because it has more of Dan and more of his advice to confused people out there. Also, it helps keep the podcast going, which is always a good thing. Savage might be a divisive figure but I love the man. I love his perspective, his humor, his politics, his point of view. I always learn something from listening to him.
- Generation Anthropocene – this is a pretty new podcast but it’s really worthwhile, especially for young people – millennials, to be specific – because it helps to kind of bring all of the discussions about climate change and the future of us and the planet into one cohesive information center. They talk to scientists, talk about various things like warming and ocean pollution but they do it in an entertaining, non-depressing way that makes it a joy to listen to. It’s a really great idea they had and I hope it gets more popular. They’ve finished Season One and are hard at work on Season 2.
- Stuff You Missed in History Class – all of the stuff you should know podcasts are worth checking out but I tend to gravitate towards this one – but I will occasionally drift over to Stuff You Should Know.
- Food Non-Fiction by Lillian Yang and Fakhri Shafai – this is another one that is way too short. I think in the early days people thought podcasts should be shorter so people could listen quickly. But I think people like me like them longer so we can listen longer. Either way, this is a wonderful podcast by two very smart women who examine food and food products from an historical perspective. It isn’t even so much that what they examine is all that interesting but it’s how they approach the research that I personally find fascinating. And I’ve learned so much from them over this past year.
There are other podcasts that aren’t really podcasts because they’re just actual radio shows. Savage LoveCast might actually be one of those, I don’t know, but the ones I really like and listen to are:
I’ve heard that The Axe Files (David Axelrod) and Alec Baldwin’s Podcasts are very good but I haven’t listened to them yet.
What are some of the podcasts you listen to? Any good ones I should know about?