I’m a fiend for podcasts. So much so that I’ve almost stopped listening to normal music altogether while I drive to work. I figure I can either listen to phat beats on Spotify, or listen to something that will inform me about some niche-y aspect of the world and likely elicit some emotions.
I began my foray into the podcasting world about five years ago, and, like a lot of people I talk to, I started with NPR’s This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass. The way that those stories grip and consume you is addicting and sometimes a little scary. Most of the time, I’ll get out of my car after listening to a portion of that show and not even remember driving.
Ira’s show became a fix for me, and I burned through the previous few years’ worth of podcasts in a few months. I needed new stuff.
Good podcasts are weirdly hard to find, though. The top-ranked ones on iTunes don’t always cater to that Ira Glass brand of storytelling that I crave. So, I decided to put together a good list of alternatives for anyone else who shares my taste: quirky storytelling unrelated to sports or “how-to” themes.
Radiolab — WNYC
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich host Radiolab, one of my favorite shows out there. Its dynamic style — constant cutting between the hosts’ and interviewees’ voices — forces you to pay attention. Radiolab also produces its own sound effects and musical accompaniments that make every show, even one about mitochondria in cells, seem packed with drama.
More Perfect — WNYC
This is Radiolab’s first spinoff. This seems to be a thing that a lot of established podcasts are doing these days, starting with This American Life’s Serial (detailed below). I feared maybe the spinoffs would be like movie sequels which usually stink, but I’ve seen no reduction in quality. More Perfect tries to answer the question: “How does an elite group of nine people shape everything from marriage and money, to safety and sex for an entire nation?” (referring to the United States Supreme Court). It delves deep on specific cases that shape day-to-day life in the U.S.
You may be thinking “uh, boring!”, but More Perfect tells these stories in the classic Radiolab manner that turns even the driest legal opinions from the court into juicy tales.
Reply All — Gimlet Media
I recently concluded producer Sruthiri Pinnamaneni’s four part series on Paul Modrowski, who was imprisoned for a gruesome murder in 1992. Sruthiri delves into his case after learning that Modrowski had been publishing blog posts for years by sending handwritten letters to his mother, who would then transcribe them to the Blogspot account “On the Inside”. It’s fascinating, chilling, and leaves you perplexed.
More generally, Reply All is a show about the internet. But much of the time, Reply All details stories tangentially related to the web, such as a report on an ex-orthodox Jew from New York, who was cast out of his religious community after becoming enraptured by AOL chat rooms in the ’90s (another one by Sruthiri).
Startup — Gimlet Media
If you’re like me and have the fantasy of one day starting your own business, or if you own your own business already, this show is a must-listen. The first season details Alex Blumberg (ex-producer of This American Life and NPR’s Planet Money) and, later, his business partner Matt Lieber’s struggle to get “Gimlet Media” off the ground. The show documents investor pitches and the challenges of hiring, dividing up founder equity, and raising funds (along with the not-commonly-seen family life challenges for founders) that come with creating a business.
The second and third seasons turn outward and take a look at other businesses — failures and success stories alike.
Mystery Show — Gimlet Media
Journalist Starlee Kine solves mysteries. Not conventional mysteries though, like whether a god exists. More like getting to the bottom of what odd vanity plates mean, like in episode 4, “Vanity Plate,” where Starlet spots a woman who drives a car with a license plate that reads “ILUV911.” Is this an appalling reference to the events of September 11, 2001? Or an expression of love for emergency 9–1–1 dispatchers? We don’t know, but Starlee figures it out.
NPR Politics Podcast — NPR
This one is a regular for me. They do short “quick takes” for important updates in politics, such as Hillary Clinton clinching the democratic nomination, and longer, hour-long round-ups toward the end of the week. The hosts are a roundtable of seasoned NPR correspondents: Sam Sanders, Asma Khalid, Scott Detro, Domenico Montanaro, and others who study the news and interview political figures all week to bring you a concise series of things you need to know.
Hidden Brain — NPR
Host Shankar Vedantam takes a look at what subtle, unseen forces motivate or manipulate human behavior. The show offers an in-depth sociological view of a whole bunch of phenomenon, like how Google finds talent, the placebo effect, or how Uber pricing affects whether or not people will request a ride.
Love + Radio — Radiotopia
I have to be careful with this one. Love and Radio, produced by Radiotopia’s Nick van der Kolk, typically deals with emotionally-intense stories. You have to be in the right frame of mind to hear these. I recall one instance where I was driving back from California, bawling while listening to the Greetings from Coney Island episode. And I’m not one easily brought to tears. L+R isn’t afraid to speak with convicted murderers or people who’ve experienced horrific or dramatic things. Though always intense in one way or another, Love + Radio is consistently great.
Serial — NPR
I had to throw this in here, though many people reading this article are likely already aware of this show. Sarah Koenig is simply my favorite journalist. She takes on complex and extremely nuanced criminal cases like that of Adnan Sayed, a man convicted of murdering his high-school ex-girlfriend, whom the first season is about. In the second season, Koenig turns to the bizarre tale of Bowe Bergdahl, who was at first hailed as a war hero upon his rescue from Taliban captivity (which lasted five years) in 2014, but later excoriated by critics as a traitor. I find that Sarah’s work is so valuable precisely because it doesn’t make things easy for you. She doesn’t paint Bowe as an innocent victim, but neither does she portray him as an America-hating deserter, as some would like you to believe. So, it’s hard to think of Bowe as anything other than a complex human being, like everyone else. And that is the beauty of the way that Sarah tells her stories.
Code Switch — NPR
Code Switch is brand new to NPR as of just a couple weeks ago and covers race, debuting with its episode “Can We Talk About Whiteness?”. What I find compelling about Code Switch and its hosts Gene Demby, Shereen Marisol Meraji and others, is that they talk about race in an inclusive way. The team brings on speakers from a variety of backgrounds, white and black, professors and journalists, to discuss race and diversity, and what it means to be a conscientious member of a multi-ethnic society. They illuminate lesser-known impacts of “whiteness”, from workplace micro-aggressions to why U.S. National Parks’ visitors and staff are approximately 80% Caucasian.
Let me know if you have other great ones
Seriously, I would love to hear your suggestions that follow this same vein of storytelling (feel reach out to me on Twitter or wherever). Podcast curation is one of those things I haven’t found a good solution to, though there are some great attempts out there (see “Sampler” from Gimlet Media). The issue for me comes down to taste and finding podcasts that address that my growing need for gripping, relatable stories.
I may just try to make an app that addresses this. Stay tuned.