A recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that less than half of Americans have ever heard of podcasts, and of those, 17 percent only listen to one show. That’s a shame, because in the wake of the success of creative standard-bearers like Serial and WTF With Marc Maron, there has been an explosion in the number of podcasts. Now, some of the best, brightest, funniest, and most fascinating voices around can only be heard on podcasts.
The flip side to the growth in podcasts, of course, is that the sheer number of options can make it daunting to dive in and find the show that’s right for you. It’s a podcasting jungle out there—so let this serve as your guide.
Aisha Tyler may be best known for her work on TV—she plays Lana on Archer, hosts The Talk, and has been seen on Criminal Minds, Friends, 24, and CSI—but she also has some serious interview chops that she showcases on her podcast, Girl on Guy. Tyler started out in show business as a stand-up comic and she uses her quick wit and stage-honed reflexes as she interviews the actors, comics, chefs, writers, and Hollywood coworkers who stop by the show to talk about their passions, their lives, and their ideas of fun. Whether she’s hanging in a gaming lounge, kicking it at Comic Con, or throwing back whiskey with her fascinating guests, Tyler is engaging and entertaining.
Each episode of the podcast Memory Palace goes deep on an historical event or person of interest. Host Nate DiMeo’s hypnotic voice guides listeners through history’s back alleys, ephemera, and stranger corners, frequently ending up in completely unexpected places. A recent episode started with a young girl working in a cotton mill and ended with inventor Margaret Knight, alone in a house paid for by her many, many patents. Under DiMeo’s careful curation, the stories unfurl and history comes alive. Most episodes clock in under ten minutes, so it’s easy to take a quick visit to the more obscure corners of history.
Much of the current podcast boom is thanks to Serial, whose entire first season investigated the murder of a Baltimore teenager and the man jailed for the crime. The popularity of that podcast spurred a landslide of many other true crime shows, but one of the best (and one that actually pre-dated Serial) is Criminal. Created by Phoebe Judge, Eric Mennel, and Lauren Spohrer, the show covers the gamut of criminal behavior from white-collar fraud to hate crimes to a ring of Venus flytrap thieves. They’ve explored historical acts of violence, talked to a police dog trainer and mother-daughter coroners, interviewed convicted bank robbers and amateur sleuths, and helped victims of crimes tell their tales. The episodes are compelling and skillfully produced, making for highly addictive listening.
It’s hard to compete with This American Life. The juggernaut of podcasting is one of the most popular shows around—and for good reason as it consistently puts out fascinating episodes. But the world is a much bigger place than just America, and it is filled with stories. One of the best places to find them is Home of the Brave, produced by Peabody Award-winning producer (and occasional This American Life contributor) Scott Carrier. Whether exploring India or suburbia or immigrants moving to suburbia, Carrier’s stories offer a window into interesting areas of the globe. A recent episode was recorded at a refugee camp on the border of Macedonia and Greece; it is a fascinating, sad, and infuriating story that is hard to turn off.
Listening to Bodega Boys is like hanging out with your two best friends—if your two best friends were incredibly funny, raunchy, and tried to get Kanye West to take a selfie with them at the VMAs. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero rose to fame on the previous iteration of their podcast, Desus vs. Mero, as well as on the MTV2 show Uncommon Sense. Now let loose on a new podcast, the two friends fill the air riffing on the news, whatever is floating around on the Internet, and what’s happening in their personal lives, from Bronx barbecues to almost getting beaten up on the red carpet at the VMAs. Be forewarned: It’s too laugh-out-loud funny to listen to in the library.
No show comes close to weaving together hard science and the human experience in a textural and sound-rich format like WNYC’s Radiolab (they don’t give MacArthur awards to just anyone, after all). While no one can beat Radiolab on style or substance, Professor Blastoff does bring the laughs. It's hosted by three comedians who also love science—David Huntsberger, Kyle Dunnigan, and Tig Notaro. The show features conversations with special guests about scientific (and pseudo-scientific) topics ranging from gravity to the Big Bang to talking about psychological projection with guest Amy Schumer. The conversations are funny, interesting, and informative. Sadly, they are no longer making new episodes, but luckily, there are 217 episodes in the show’s back catalog to keep listeners busy.
It’s easy to spot a Throwing Shade fan in the wild, because they pepper conversation with phrases like "feminasty" and "homosensual," which are the chosen adjectives of hosts Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi. The show tackles serious political issues, especially those that affect women and the LGBT community, but the conversations are anything but serious. Whether they are discussing the latest in pop culture, Supreme Court cases, or racial profiling, Gibson and Safi make it feel like you’re up late, giggling at a slumber party. Sorry, Bill Maher, but there has never been a raunchier or funnier current affairs program.
Can you imagine anything more humiliating than getting on stage and reading your middle school diary entries to a packed audience? It’s the stuff of nightmares, yet each week people volunteer for the opportunity to do just that for Mortified. The show is laugh-out-loud funny, touching, eye opening, and, yes, occasionally excruciating. The more stories you listen to, the more you realize it’s possible to be embarrassed on the behalf of complete strangers. The best part about the podcast, though, is realizing that your letters home from camp and the songs you wrote in sixth grade aren’t the most embarrassing items in the universe.