The Best Podcasts of 2015: A Guide for New Listeners

Xconomy National — 

The percentage of Americans who say they’ve never listened to a podcast is steadily shrinking, but it’s still pretty large — 67 percent, according to a 2015 survey by Edison Research and Triton Digital. I’m going to assume for a minute that you’re in this uninitiated group. You know what podcasts are, and you’re vaguely aware that everyone’s been talking about a show called Serial. But you’ve never had time to figure out how to listen to podcasts, and you don’t know what’s out there to listen to.

This article is for you.

First off: if you don’t know how to download and listen to a podcast, just watch this amusing video from Ira Glass and his neighbor Mary. It’s only three minutes long.

Okay, now you’re ready to go. But finding good stuff to listen to is a little harder. That’s mainly because the world of audio programming is still being roiled by technological change and a burst of new talent and formats. There’s been little or no decline in the audience for terrestrial radio (that’s just a retronym for standard AM or FM broadcasts). But since 2005, when Apple added podcasts to iTunes and the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcasting” as the word of the year, audio creators have been launching hundreds of new podcast-only shows each year, in genres ranging from talk to longform narrative storytelling to comedy. That means there’s a show for every niche and interest.

I’ve been expanding my own podcast listening diet lately, so I thought it might be fun and useful to share my current list with Xconomy readers. If there’s time in your day that you usually fill with music or terrestrial radio—say, when you’re commuting, exercising, cooking, or doing housework—then consider trying one of these shows instead.

I made one of these lists once before, back in 2014. Some of the shows I listed then are still among my favorites. But there are also a bunch of new additions, mainly because of what one analyst has called the Serial Effect. The blockbuster success of the This American Life spinoff has cleared the way for the emergence of commercial and non-profit podcasting networks like RadiotopiaGimlet MediaPanoply, and Earwolf. We’re truly in the midst of a golden age for audio creators and listeners.

The list below includes every podcast to which I’m currently subscribed. I mainly listen using the Podcasts app baked into Apple’s iOS. There are plenty of other good ways to get podcasts on your iOS or Android device, including StitcherOvercast, and soon, Google Play Music.

99% Invisible — Roman Mars’ awesome show about architecture and design. My favorite podcast of all time.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything — Reliably quirky and provocative.

Criminal — Phoebe Judge’s extremely artful show about real-life crime stories and the imprint crime leaves on victims and perpetrators.

Ctrl-Walt-Delete — Banter on the latest computers and media gadgets from Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel at The Verge.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History — Super-long and rambling but fascinating lecture/essays about history.

DecodeDC — Everything you always wanted to know about our dysfunctional Congress, from former NPR Capitol Hill reporter Andrea Seabrook.

Esquire Classic Podcast — A great new show that explores (and recreates) famous longform articles from Esquire. Start with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

Gastropod — A bewitching show about food, science, and history from veteran journalists Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley.

Imaginary Worlds — Delightful trips into the worlds created by fantasy and sci-fi authors and filmmakers, from public radio producer Eric Molinsky.

Inquiring Minds — From Climate Desk and Mother Jones, an interview show focused on science topics in the news. I was a guest back in July.

Invisibilia — The first season of this NPR show about “the invisible forces that control human behavior” was all too short. Waiting impatiently for Season 2.

Limetown — Haunting serial drama about the disappearance of a town full of people who were involved in a secretive mind-control experiment. This show, The Message, Welcome to Night Vale, and Radiotopia’s The Truth are the four best fiction podcasts I’ve heard.

Longform — Interviews with famous authors and journalists by the guys behind the Longform reading-recommendations app and the Atavist magazine.

The Message — The first eight-episode season of this science fiction serial from General Electric and Panoply had amazingly good writing and high production values.

The Memory Palace — Host Nate Demeo reads what are, in effect, prose poems shining light on forgotten people and episodes in history.

Mystery Show — A Gimlet show in which This American Life alum Starlee Kine uses her storytelling and detective instincts to get to the bottom of everyday mysteries. It’s like Serial without the crime.

The New Yorker: Politics and More — Weekly discussions of politics with staff writers from The New Yorker.

The New Yorker Radio Hour — Co-produced by The New Yorker and WNYC and hosted by The New Yorker editor David Remnick, this new variety show is exactly what you’d think The New Yorker would sound like, if it were a radio show.

Note to Self — A funny, engaging, highly relatable show about technology and our personal lives, from WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi. Formerly known as New Tech City.

On Being — Krista Tippett’s trademark deep interviews with thinkers, artists, and scientists who can help shed light on spirituality and “the big questions of meaning.”

On the Media — Can’t-miss weekly show from WNYC rounding up the latest hijinx on the part of the mainstream press or the people they’re trying to cover.

Out on the Wire — A companion podcast to Jessica Abel’s new book Out on the Wire, a graphic documentary/how-to book for storytellers of all stripes. I’m learning a ton from this show and from the accompanying working group on Google+.

Planet Money — Born from the financial crisis of 2008, Planet Money is still the best podcast on business, economics, fiscal policy, and the wacky human behavior driven by money.

Radio Diaries — A non-narrated show, expertly carved together from audio diaries recorded by regular people. I suggest starting with the episode on prison guards.

Radiolab — The epitome of the highly produced, sonically sophisticated storytelling show, with an emphasis on science.

Reply All — A fun show from Gimlet about the bizarre situations people get into with help from the Internet.

Serial — Now in its second season, this is the show that introduced tens of millions of people to the podcasting phenomenon. It stretches a single non-fiction story over a whole season; this time around it’s about Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who went AWOL in Afghanistan.

Signal — A great podcast about the precarious business of biotech and drug development, from Xconomy alum Luke Timmerman and CNBC reporter Meg Tirrell.

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.