Podcasts aren’t a bubble, they’re a boom
—and that boom is only getting louder.
—Miranda Katz, Wired
No matter what the outfit, when I’m on the go — taking my dog out, shopping, heading to dinner — I’m wearing my earbuds. Often I’m listening to music (and no, it’s not always Ryan Adams), but more recently, I’ve been binging on podcasts.
I first got into the medium with This American Life, the weekly radio program from WBEZ that’s been around since the mid ’90s. But I didn’t become an addict until 2014 when This American Life developed the investigative series that had everyone talking: Serial. You know the story… or maybe you don’t. If you still haven’t heard the first season of Serial, I suggest you stop reading this blog right now and get on Stitcher, iTunes, Spotify, etc. to start listening.
Anyway, after Serial season 1, I was hooked. I really did become like a podcast addict, looking for another series to give me that same feeling I had when listening to Serial for the first time — the feeling that I wanted to cancel all plans just to listen to one episode after another.
Since then, on that quest, I’ve listened to some duds. But I’ve also listened to some series and some episodes that had me thinking deeply, laughing out loud, crying, discussing them with friends, sharing them with family. There’s so much great content out there. According to Fast Company, in April of this year, there were more than 525,000 active shows and more than 18.5 million episodes! (For more podcast statistics, check out the cool infographic from podcastinsights.com at the bottom of this very long post.)
I’d love to know what your favorite podcasts are. Please share with me! But first, here’s some of the better (in my opinion) shows I’ve listened to in the past four years:
- Reply All is billed as a “podcast about the internet,” which basically means it’s a podcast about anything and everything, but always with some kind of online association. Plain and simple, it’s my favorite series. And with more than 100 episodes currently, once you get started (and hooked like I did), you’ll have lots of options to choose from. Most episodes are standalone, although there are a few stories that spanned multiple episodes (like two of my favorites, below).
- Ep. 64-67: “On the Inside” — Paul Modrowski has been a blogger for years. But he’s not like this blogger. Case in point: he’s never even seen the internet. Why? Because Paul has been writing his blog from inside a maximum security prison. And oh yeah, he’s in there for a murder he claims he didn’t commit.
- Ep. 102, parts 1 & 2: “Long Distance” — A telephone scammer calls Reply All host Alex Goldman. Goldman pushes back, Goldman researches, Goldman travels all the way to India to investigate. It’s equal parts interesting and hilarious.
- Ep. 109: “Is Facebook spying on you?” — If you’re like me, and quite a few other Reply All listeners, you’ve had this same conversation with your friends about Facebook (or Instagram or Twitter). Some of the anecdotes in this episode reallyyyy sound like convincing evidence that, in fact, Facebook is spying on you. But of course, that’s not enough for the hosts of this podcast. They set out to investigate this question in true journalistic fashion.
- Leave it to Serial and This American Life to create another series that had me hooked: S-Town. I don’t want to give too much away, but what started with a letter sent to a producer at This American Life (with the subject line ‘John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama’) turned into a search for truth, for treasure, for justice, and for understanding. I know there were critics who thought some of the reporting was too invasive, but I found this to be a beautiful tribute to a man’s life.
- Mystery Show unfortunately lasted just six episodes, which was a mystery to me considering it was soooo good; even iTunes voted it the best new podcast of the year in 2015. The host, Starlee Kline, was let go in 2016 by Gimlet Media, the network that had been producing the show. According to a post from Kline, there’s still a chance that the show will go on somewhere else… eventually. But two years later, it doesn’t look good. All that being said, the gist of the podcast was that someone would come to Kline with a minor mystery, and she would attempt to solve one per episode.
- Ep. 3: “Belt Buckle” — The Atlantic ranked this as #1 on its list of the top 50 podcast episodes of 2015. I can see why. Rather than me summarizing it (because, to be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve listened to it), I’ll just leave you with what The Atlantic said about it: “the episode is unrelenting in its playfulness and joy, but a sense of profundity lies just beneath the surface, bobbing up in the final minutes, when you won’t be sure whether to grin or weep.” (Spoiler: I weeped.)
- So far, I’ve actually only listened to one episode of Criminal, but I know there’s at least one more episode of theirs in my future. That’s because the one I listened to is a two-parter, and the second part was just released yesterday; they only come out twice a month, so the wait was pretty excruciating. As you might imagine, it’s a true crime podcast. I can’t say much more about it than that because I’m new to it, but I will introduce you to the episode that first attracted me to the show (and the one I’m listening to as soon as I post this blog). Descriptions from the Criminal website:
- Ep. 100: “Ten Thousand Feet in the Air” — On the afternoon of June 23rd, 1972, Martin McNally walked into the St. Louis airport with a wig, a sawed-off rifle, and a plan.
- Ep. 101: “The Fox” — When Martin McNally met another plane hijacker in prison, they started coming up with a plan to escape… using the very thing that got them there in the first place.
- This Is Love is from the creators of Criminal, but instead of investigating crime, host Phoebe Judge investigates love in its various forms. There were only six episodes in the first season, but the second season starts next month on Nov. 14.
- Ep. 2: “Something Large and Wild” — This episode is described as “an unconventional love story about a teenager, the Pacific Ocean, and an encounter with something wild.” I don’t want to spoil it, so that’s all I’m going to say. But if you only listen to one episode from this show, make it ep. 2.
- It’s probably becoming clear that I have a thing for investigative podcasts. Maybe it’s the former magazine journalist in me who wanted to spend my time doing in-depth reporting and probing interviews in order to fully immerse myself in a story. With Dirty John, I got to follow along as L.A. Times reporter Christopher Goffard did just that. Dirty John tells the true story of Debra Newell, a successful interior designer in Newport Beach, Calif. (shoutout to my former stomping grounds!), and John Meehan, the boyfriend she meets through an over-50 dating website. The story has also been covered by Dateline NBC and is being made into a Bravo TV series set to premiere Nov. 25.
- Invisibilia, Latin for the invisible things, is a podcast about the “unseeable forces [that] control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.” What I love about this podcast is that it combines fascinating personal stories with psychological and neurological sciences. It’s a deeply interesting investigation into why we think, feel and act the way that we do. Honestly, if you’re going to give it a listen, just start at the beginning, ep. 1: “The Secret History of Thoughts.”
I could keep going on and on with podcast recommendations, but I do have clothes to put away. It makes me think of that scene from P.S. I Love You where Hilary Swank’s character says “I should get my shoes. They’re all over the place. They’re gonna think I don’t love them.”
So, I’ll wrap up this post for now with a few honorable mentions:
- Atlanta Monster
- The Live Canary (Hey, I’m actually an occasional host of this podcast!)
- Serial, season 3
- Someone Knows Something
- Up and Vanished
Let me know what you think, and don’t forget to let me know what you’re listening to!