Traveling the world for the past seven months has allowed me to become somewhat of a Podcast connoisseur. To prepare for the frequent days spent in planes, trains, and busses, I’ve scoured ‘Top 10’ podcast lists on the internet, scrolled through what’s most popular on itunes, and enlisted the help of my friends on Facebook. The result has been several months of sampling a long and eclectic list of podcasts. So, what are the best podcasts out there? Here, in no particular order, are my 5 favorite:
1) This American Life, RadioLab, Serial
OK, ok… I know it’s cheating to put three podcasts in one slot but I didn’t want to clutter up a Top 5 list with three super obvious choices. You probably already know about these three anyway. If not, here’s a quick overview.
This American Life is the godfather of all that we know in the podcast realm. For a good 15 years Ira Glass and company held the torch of interesting radio programming nearly all by themselves. And they’re still producing stories that surpass nearly anything else in the podcast world. Their two part series last year on segregation in education, for instance, may have been the most important Ed reporting I saw in 2015. They have a collection of some of their favorites on the website.
RadioLab is just brilliant. There’s a reason Jad, the creator and co-host, received a MacArthur fellowship. The show is dedicated to curiosity in a playfully rigorous kind of way. The journey is the destination here. They’re comfortable with investigation without the burden of conclusion. Give them a shot and you will be too.
Serial. Well, I’m guessing you’ve heard about Serial. It’s great.
2) Love + Radio
Love + Radio is unlike any other podcast. Each episode opens with a voice, someone who has a story to tell or who has just lived a crazy or unique life. Then you’re with that voice for essentially the entire show with almost zero setup or narrating. It takes a little work from the listener, like reading a really great but kind of heavy novel, but it pays off in the end. People say that great art gives us opportunities to empathize more deeply with other people. Love + Radio is an example of what that can look like.
There are a lot of interview-format podcasts, but this newish one by Jamil Smith of The New Republic is easily my favorite. It’s built on the quickly rising concept of intersectionality: the idea that race and gender, and all our various identities, are inextricably wrapped up in each other. Jamil’s mind is wicked sharp. In an age of headline-rigor conversations, knee-jerk liberalism, and identity politics, Jamil’s questions push listeners to explore the many beautiful layers of the people interviewed, and he’s not afraid to wade into the complexities of the greater world. There’s a casual poignancy to his tone. The empathy piece I mentioned before? That happens here too.
This is ostensibly a show about the internet, and its hosts can be a bit – well, ‘geeky.’ Especially PJ. But the show is pretty brilliant and most of it is only loosely ‘about the internet.’ For instance, they played the story of a grandmother who organized a protest that led to the resignation of a country’s vice-president. It’s ‘about the internet’ because it started with a Facebook event. Although, they do have a couple tech-specific recurring segments that have taught me a lot about the twitterverse. Overall just super interesting stories, and the theme song from The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder gets you hooked from the start of each episode.
5) The Message
Has the military really declassified a message that could possibly be from aliens? Is it true that the people who have studied it have all died mysterious deaths? I don’t know. Why don’t you check out The Message? The episodes are super short and there aren’t that many of them.
Alright. I hope some of this is useful. I have episodes of all of these (except The Message) cued up for my 50 hours of transit over the next 2 weeks. With so much quality entertainment lined up, I’m almost looking forward to the journeys.
Please feel free to comment with your own recommended Podcasts below.
Oh! If you speak Spanish, or want to brush up in a serious way, check out Radio Ambulante. It’s like This American Life, but a bit more intense and focused on Latin America.