In 2015, President Obama visited a comedian’s garage; the sole purpose of his visit was to appear on a podcast.
Google “how to start a podcast” and you’ll get 162 million results.
Most major cultural media outlets have them and those who don’t are scrambling to catch up. Newsletters such as Hot Pod dedicate themselves to the industry, which includes lucrative networks that are disrupting traditional radio.
The sentiment “everyone has a podcast now” has never felt truer.
It’s a democratizing medium; anyone can create and upload one. As with the blogosphere, the Wild West nature of the podcast is paradoxically its biggest asset and weakness. In other words, there’s a lot of crap to wade through. Many know the big players such as Radiolab, The Joe Rogan Experience, and a certain serialized murder-mystery whose 2014 debut continues to haunt the Interwebs. Yet there are so many more worth your time, and they’re popping up every day.
Full disclosure: We love podcasts. There’s an intimacy to hearing actual voices discuss topics previously relegated to the depths of the blogosphere. From the highly scripted and produced to those where people seemingly just shoot the shit, the variety is endless. Fall asleep to them or enjoy the mysterious grins they might induce when riding public transit. Below are 20 podcasts that deserve a listen.
The ones you feel like you *should* listen to in order to stay on top of the cultural conversation.
These conversations with non-fiction writers garner a lot of buzz. Longform feels like a “who’s who” in media, but also humanizes many whose writing drives the greater cultural narrative. Guests range from Molly Crabapple to Ta-Nehisi Coates. Some podcasts’ output ebbs and flows, but Longform is a standout in its consistency and quality. Media nerds love it.
NERDETTE by Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda
Nerdette recently did us all a favor and returned from hiatus. This one’s perfect for the highly curious who like to dabble in everything from astrophysics (they’ve interviewed Neil DeGrasse Tyson) to pop culture. The idea is that “everyone’s a little nerdy about something,” which it honors in both topic choice and sharpness of reporting. Plus, Johnsen and Bobeda bring a sense of humor and levity that is often missing in reporting.
BRET EASTON ELLIS PODCAST
The author would like to offer a disclaimer on this one: Listening to a podcast doesn’t necessarily mean I support the host’s viewpoints, but the discourse and guest choices make it worthwhile. This is the case with Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast. His opening rants can be somewhat insufferable but highly entertaining. B.E.E. has opinions, you know. Guests have ranged from Michael Angelakos (who publicly came out on the Podcast in 2015) to Kim Gordon and Kanye West.
Because grad school is too expensive.
DAN CARLIN’S HARDCORE HISTORY
This one isn’t updated frequently, but when it is there’s a chance you’re getting four hours of Carlin comprehensively discussing a few facts a history book likely glazed over. Seven hours on “The Wrath of the Khans” is about as far down the Genghis Kahn rabbit hole as one can possibly go. His ability to make sprawling arguments and weave engrossing historic narratives is such a feat that you may find yourself enthralled even if history is a big snooze to you. Strengths include his ability to put modern civilization in perspective and calling out those seemingly minute details that completely changed history. Carlin isn’t technically a historian, but the depth of the research gives it cred.
PHILOSOPHIZE THIS by Stephen West
Some people make lives out of thinking. Whose morning commute isn’t improved by contemplating the role of the philosopher? Anyone who was maybe too stoned during Philosophy 101 will appreciate a brush up on Kierkegaard. It’s nice sometimes to step out of the present and remember the thinkers who laid foundations you might take for granted.
Self-aware offerings that might inspire you to be a better person, or at least try.
MONOCYCLE with Leandra Medine
Man Repeller started as a blog chronicling the trends that women adore but hetero men might not find so attractive. It’s since established itself as a go to lifestyle site for hyper self-aware perspectives on feminism, dating, acerbic social commentary, technological woes and more. With Monocycle, founder and native New Yorker Leandra Medine holds forth on everything from self-sabotage to vulnerability. Bringing this into the podcast-sphere elevates the whole femme-Algonquin Table vibe Leandra’s established. Both sexes can appreciate the honesty of these monologues.
THE TIM FERRISS SHOW with Tim Ferriss
Why wouldn’t you listen to something from the brains behind The Four Hour Work Week? This one pulls off being a great motivator without overtly billing itself as a motivational podcast. He espouses a lot of cutting edge tools for hacking yourself. Though many are successful techies, guests are pretty unpredictable, ranging from Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova to B.J. Novak.
THE DUNCAN TRUSSELL FAMILY HOUR with Duncan Trussell
Duncan Trussell’s voice and personality alone make this one worth a listen. The LA-based comedian gets spiritual from time to time, but even at his most earnest he maintains a sense of humor. Guests are also wide-ranging, from Father John Misty to Marc Maron. A self-proclaimed hippie, his POV is nice for shifting perspectives. After listening, you might find yourself referring to humans as sentient energy bodies trapped in sacks of meat.
DEAR SUGAR by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond
Named for the cult advice column on The Rumpus, Dear Sugar leaves no topic unturned. Strayed and Almond are highly empathic and both have been through dark times. This is wise but palatable self-help that might even resonate with people who cringe at the genre. People discuss partners’ weed-habits, guilt as related to income disparity in relationships, and George Saunders makes an appearance to discuss the effects of criticism.
CELEBRATION ROCK with Steven Hyden
Formerly on staff at Grantland (RIP) Hyden currently writes for Pitchfork and has contributed just about everywhere else. It’s only three episodes deep but started strong with Alicia Bognanno (Bully), Matt Berninger (The National) and Chuck Klosterman as guests. Not too shabby…
If you’re going to listen to one music podcast this is the one. Courtney Barnett, Bjork, Joey Bada$$ and more break down their own music, uncovering details that change the way you perceive the music. Quirky fun discoveries inevitably ensue that call to light details about songs you may have heard 100s of times but never have noticed.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
Since your mom isn’t here to read to you.
THE NO SLEEP PODCAST
This podcast has a cult following for its well-produced horror fiction. Host and producer David Cummings is a master storyteller and has also been featured on the Youtube Channel Chilling Tales for Dark Nights. H.P. Lovecraft fans rejoice!
THE NEW YORKER: FICTION
Hosted by The New Yorker’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman, this podcast pays homage to the publication’s vast short story archive. Writers choose a story to read from past contributors, sometimes diving decades deep. It’s like having a reading with Miranda July or Louise Erdrich or Ben Marcus into your apartment. Thanks to a Q & A discussion portion with Treisman one might also file this under “nostalgia for academia.”
EVERYTHING IS STORIES with Garrett Crowe, Mike Martinez, and Tyler Wray
This podcast is on point in its mission to explore unconventional narratives: a performance artist talks physical deformity and an antiques dealer finds a literal treasure chest. Warning, some topics are offbeat enough to beg the question of whether they’re parody.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
Everyone’s doing it.
HOW TO MAKE ME COME by Sylvia
The basic premise behind this is to demystify female orgasm, but it’s really much more. Regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, there’s something hilarious in a podcast that breaks down one woman’s choice to forgo sleeping with “Assholes, Actors and Republicans.” The program also tackles more serious issues, such as cat-calling or when sex feels transactional, without taking itself too seriously.
THE HEART by Kaitlin Prest
Candid discussions about love, sex, intimacy, and all that other stuff that gives you butterflies. The Heart also gets bonus points for production and flow; the team interviews people on such topics as prostate orgasms and the nuances of desire.
SO YOU LIKE THIS AMERICAN LIFE?
Podcasts you will like that aren’t This American Life but might appeal to you if you dig that sort of thing.
ON BEING with Krista Tippett
Where else are you going to hear Mary Oliver talk about foraging for roots and writing poetry? Tippet sometimes recalls Terry Gross, though her own style is the object of much praise and adulation. Her approach makes you “feel good.” Fun fact, Tippet is a graduate of Yale’s Divinity School.
OTHERHOOD by Rupa Shenoy
New and notable, Shenoy is creating much-needed discourse about being an immigrant—or child of immigrants—in the US. If that one episode of Master of None resonates with you, you’ll adore this. For example, an Asian-American discusses how law school was viewed negatively at a time when it was expected they’d go into medicine. These stories are more relevant than ever and should help those unfamiliar relate to the immigrant experience and its attendant pride, shame and pressure.
You know who you are, nerds.
A must listen for any urban dweller. This podcast puts New York City in perspective with examinations of urban planning and environments around the globe. Discussions are wide-ranging, from how acoustics vary and affect our experience of city life to the origins of the department store ( Le Bon Marché, Paris). This is likely to make you want to be more active in both civic participation and how you perceive where you live. Pro-tip Monocle hosts several other thought-provoking podcast series.
TANGENTIALLY SPEAKING with Dr. Christopher Ryan
Hosted by the co-author of Sex at Dawn Christopher Ryan, this podcast can be a bit all over the place, but that’s what makes it endearing. Ryan has lived all over the world and aside from having done fascinating research on human sexuality, is an all-around interesting guy. He does a great job of curating guests: think trans porn star Bailey Jay, alt historian Graham Hancock and journalist/psychedelic activist Amber Lyon. The conversations are insightful without veering into pretentious territory.