The Best Podcasts of 2015: A Guide for New Listeners

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StartUp — Season 1 of this show chronicled the launch of Gimlet Media, the podcasting company started by This American Life alum Alex Blumberg. Season 2 is about a different startup. Both seasons offer compelling insights into the travails of startup founders.

The Story Collider — In the style of The Moth Radio Hour, this podcast collects true stories told live on stage, except that they’re all about science.

Song Exploder — An ingenious Radiotopia show in which host Hrishikesh Hirway persuades musicians to explain how they wrote, recorded, and assembled their songs. Guests have included Bjork, Wilco, and the Magnetic Fields.

Studio 360 — The podcast version of the erudite WNYC show on culture and the arts, hosted by writer Kurt Andersen, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Spy magazine.

Talking Machines — An independent podcast about machine learning. While it’s aimed at an audience of specialists, this is a good example of a show that uses interviews to convey the excitement of a important (but niche) subject.

This American Life — No explanation necessary. In the world of nonfiction audio storytelling, this is the show that started it all.

Transistor — A STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) series from PRX, focusing on stories from and about women scientists, produced mainly by new and emerging audio creators.

The Truth — Under the tagline “movies for your ears,” The Truth offers highly produced, 10- to 20-minute fiction stories.

Us & Them — I’ve been listening to this insightful show from West Virginia Public Radio partly because it’s edited by my friend and colleague Ibby Caputo. It’s about cultural divides and how we can bridge them.

Welcome to Night Vale — Hard to describe. Think Twin Peaks meets The X-Files meets A Prairie Home Companion.

Of course, there are hundreds of other shows to choose from. You can probably tell that I have a preference for highly produced podcasts that focus on non-fiction and narrative storytelling, with a bias toward shows about culture, technology, or science. Talk shows and comedy shows don’t usually float my boat.

Obviously, a few of the shows above are produced primarily for terrestrial NPR stations and distributed later as podcasts. On top of the podcasts above, I’ve just subscribed to Science Vs, Surprisingly Awesome, LoreScene on Radio from the Center for Documentary Studies, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, but haven’t had time to listen yet.

How do I have time to track all of these shows, you might ask? Mainly, I listen when I’m on my daily run and when I’m walking to and from work. That adds up to a couple of hours a day of listening time. And I don’t keep up with all of these podcasts religiously—for some shows, there are quite a few unplayed episodes waiting for me. I confess I’m getting to the point where I feel like for every new show I add to my queue, I should probably delete one of the older ones where my interest has waned.

Next on my to-do list, I’m going to go to iTunes and leave ratings for all of these shows. Other than listening and contributing financially, that’s the single most important thing listeners can do to help the boom in great, story-driven, creator-led podcasts continue.

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