Soon after my husband and I moved to our new condo in Kingman Park three years ago, I found that I was a little tired of listening to the same music on my phone that I’ve been listening to for a decade. I also realized there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the world around me. Ever since I stopped driving, I found I was lacking the satisfaction of knowing what was going on in current events while simultaneously learning new, random things. I didn’t really know much about the podcast medium except that there was a dedicated app for listening to them on my phone, but I felt that the right ones might help fill the void in my life that NPR once did. On a whim one day, I decided to grab my earbuds on my way out the door and give it a try.
I underestimated how much of an effect it would have on my life by simply listening to podcasts on a daily basis. Not only have I been exposed to topics and stories that I had never even heard about before, I’ve also been led to examine issues that I thought I already understood from different angles. Even more, I get to keep up on the latest with all the topics I’m interested in. I believe it is up to us as humans to learn as much as possible and to always be improving ourselves. If you have a 30-minute commute, there are worse things you can do with your spare time than choosing a podcast that might interest you and tuning in for an episode.
Here are the podcasts I feel are the best in class, separated by type:
If you just want something short and sweet that will inform you on the most newsworthy events of the morning, you can’t go wrong with Up First, produced by the good folks at NPR. Each episode is only around 15 minutes, but within that time, the reporters give all the pertinent details of the major stories so that you can keep current without devoting much time.
The Daily is produced by The New York Times and focuses on just one big story. Context is key to understanding and to that end, they dive deep into one issue each episode to report on all the details. They usually lean heavy on the political topics, whatever the big story is for that day, and help listeners figure out why the story should matter to them.
Very similar in premise to the previous entry on this list, Today, Explained also spends the length of an episode diving deep into one subject. The difference here is that, while sometimes they cover the big stories coming out of Washington, they tend to focus on issues that aren’t purely political or that take place in other areas.
Serial is one of the OGs on this list, one of the several podcasts that helped exemplify what the medium could be. Each season takes a case (or in season 3, multiple cases) and examines the details, dissecting people’s motivations and showing the listener that even in the most open-and-shut cases there can be room for doubt. It can be easy for people looking in from the outside to forget that there are actual humans involved and this podcast helps remind us of that.
I have mixed feelings about S-Town. While I don’t know if I could personally work on a podcast like this and be able to sleep at night, I think there are many topics embedded in this self-contained story that starts with a man who reaches out to complain about a rumored crime that was committed and never investigated. In the end, not only does it pose questions about human nature but it also honors a misunderstood individual.
I almost didn’t include Crimetown as it was difficult for me to follow at times. But honestly, I think that’s my own problem because I had the same problem with The Wire, to which the podcast has been compared favorably. Each season examines the culture of crime in a particular city with the first season’s focus having been Providence, RI, the Patriarca crime family, and former Mayor Buddy Cianci. Season 2 started October 1 and will revolve around Detroit.
Most people don’t understand how design affects them because good design is largely invisible. This is the impetus behind 99% Invisible, what I can only describe as one of the most perfect podcasts for everyone, no matter your walk of life. They manage to encapsulate one self-contained, detailed story about some random little-known object, event, or person that ends up being so interesting, you will be transfixed until the credits roll.
It is easy to look at a group of people and overlook them as just a statistic. It’s also easy to read a news story about an individual and rush to judgement about them, seeing them as a hero or a villain. In order to understand the full scope, we have to listen to these people and hear the story from their point of view. This American Life seeks to do that by interviewing real Americans and reporting on their lives.
Isn’t it funny how TED Talks have become common-place in our culture? They help expose people to interesting topics in technology, entertainment, and design (yes that’s what TED stands for). But I, along with most people, am much too busy to listen to multiple long-form conferences, interesting as they may be. The TED Radio Hour helps by taking one big idea and stringing together 3 different experts who each have a different take on it, interspersed with excepts from their Talk.
Radiolab is the other OG of the podcast medium on this list as it has been around in some shape or form since the mid-00s. The podcast form has been its most popular for about a decade. Because they’ve been around so long, it can be tough to describe exactly what their niche is, but it could be loosely defined as a show about scientific and philosophical investigation.
I’ve only recently subscribed to Hidden Brain, but because the material is so interesting, it has quickly become one of my favorites. You could describe this as a podcast about how the human mind is designed to work. It helps reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices, and direct our relationships.
My final piece of advice here is to download a new app for listening to podcasts. The default app included with iOS used to be adequate enough to get the job done, but Apple then tried to fix what wasn’t broken, making it practically unusable. Overcast has been my go-to podcast app since then. It lets you create custom playlists that automatically populate when new episodes are released. While the downside is you have to open the app in order to start downloads, it makes up for that by allowing increased control over the speed. And believe me, once you start listening to a lot of podcasts, you will want to bump it up to at least 1.5x speed.