Even if you don’t listen to podcasts, you can probably identify some of the evolving industry’s juggernauts, the shows that made household names (and A+ “BoJack Horseman” jokes) out of Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig.
As podcasting still searches for an overall identity, it seems that many of the best shows revolve around storytelling. There are plenty of well-listened feeds that don’t rely on telling stories for their popularity. For every “The Moth Radio Hour,” there’s a high-charting sports talk show, word game contest or product review segment. But as we look back at the year in TV and film, it’s also worth noting that some of the year’s best stories are playing out in audio form.
So, once you’ve finished your backlogged episodes of “Radiolab,” consider these other shows as a next step in finding the best that podcasts have to offer. For each of our top picks, we’ve also given a solid starting point if you want to listen to the show for the first time.
10. Reading Aloud
A blend of Nate Corddry’s regular UCB live reading series, interviews with notable authors and the host’s brief in-studio musings, “Reading Aloud” is a sweet ode to the power of great writing. Corddry makes for a pleasant, well-read everyman who tackles all the disparate elements of his show with a real sincerity. Much of each episode is given over to performing work from McSweeney’s, short story collections and beyond, all done by Corddry himself or a revolving cast of recognizable guest stars. Periodic installments of the Reading Aloud Book Club gather some of the most interesting people in the comedy world to discuss new literary classics. (If that doesn’t sound even remotely interesting to you, I don’t think we can be friends.) More than anything, Corddry’s genuine love of books stands out, making it an inspiring listen for those who don’t read as much as they’d like to.
Where to Start: “2 Kevin Awakuni, Jason Mantzoukas, Rob Corddry”
9. Black List Table Reads
Reading a script can be an acquired skill. Even industry veterans have difficulty conceptualizing written words on brad-fastened pages as something that eventually might resemble a movie. For those inclined to audio versions of these scripts, Franklin Leonard has fashioned “Black List Table Reads.” On the strength of his wildly successful annual Black List, this series brings an impressive array of performers to read through some of the past few years’ best unproduced scripts. On top of what Leonard frequently calls “ear movies,” the podcast also devotes a significant amount of time to interviews with the writers that provided the show’s raw materials. For aspiring screenwriters and film enthusiasts alike, the show offers a window into the process from page to screen by pausing and thriving in a new region that’s somewhere in between.
Where to Start: “301 Terrible Parents Pt. 1”
8. The Message
A handful of podcasts this year took stabs at creating a scripted “Serial,” but none of them derived as much entertainment from being such a perfect stylistic facsimile as “”he Message.” From the interview stammers to the rustle of microphones to the varying levels of audio quality, the creative team behind “The Message” clearly understands how to recreate the standard sound of longform audio journalism. (Until I discovered a disclaimer nested deep within the show’s website, I wasn’t 100% convinced this was purely a work of fiction.) Annapurna Sriram, as the show-within-a-show host Nicky Tomalin, gives one of the best performances of the year, regardless of format. The rest of the ensemble (including notable turns by Gideon Glick and Gene Jones) fashion a vivid upper echelon of cryptographers searching to decode a declassified extraterrestrial signal.
Beyond its story, “The Message” might be most significant for what it lacks: Ads. Presented in part by GE Podcast Theater, the lack of three minutes of wraparound sponsor copy helps preserve the ethereal, lost sci-fi nature of its premise. If other corporate partnerships can allow similar podcast series to exist with this subtle branding approach, sign me up.
Where to Start: “Episode 1”
7. The Memory Palace
For over seven years, Nate DiMeo has been serving up bite-sized treasures of forgotten American history. From underdiscussed chapters in the life of Ben Franklin to would-be 19th century conquistadors, DiMeo mines drama from tales great and small. What makes the series most satisfying is the way that these stories nimbly move back and forth between the private lives of textbook mainstays and the unassuming individuals swept up by the undiscerning whirlpool of history. While some episodes are tantalizingly short, they’re all impressively self-contained. In five minutes, DiMeo can deliver the emotional wallop that most filmmakers struggle to find within a feature-length runtime.
Where to Start: “46 – After Party”
6. The Dollop
For a somewhat less reverent approach to arcane Americana, enter LA comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds. Each installment sees the former co-host bringing in a researched slice of overlooked history with the latter blissfully unaware of the topic. The brilliantly simple premise (that’s stayed largely unchanged since the show’s initial episodes last year) lets the pair’s chemistry and gift for banter come blazing through. Like the other history-derived shows on this list, this show finds as much material in looking at how these ridiculous incidents were documented in their day as in the events themselves. The interplay between Anthony’s delivery of the facts and Reynolds’ various levels of disbelieving responses make for some of the biggest laughs you’ll find anywhere.
Where to Start: “51 – Michael Malloy” (Quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever heard)
Listening to “Whistlestop,” it’s hard to tell if the show is incredibly well edited or if host John Dickerson (also of “Face the Nation” and the Slate Political Gabfest) is just the smartest, most articulate man in politics. These biweekly peeks back into the history of American presidential campaigns have the thorough, comprehensive form of a college lecture. But Dickerson delivers it in such a thoughtful and relatable way that it never feels labored or didactic. Democrats and Republicans are all fair game, with stories of legend-minting anecdotes and dream-killing missteps from both sides of the political aisle. As the long march to November 2016 continues, these tales from elections past prove that iconic moments often come from the least expected of places and that it can only take a few seconds to define a life, much less a career.
Where to Start: “One of the Great Train Wrecks of All Time”
4. Fighting in the War Room’s Quarter Quells
“Fighting in the War Room” has long been one of the better stops on the podcast charts for thoughtful, entertaining film reviews. Despite changes in the name and the various outside jobs of its hosts, one of the foundational aspects of the show has been their slight format change for every 25th episode. Taking its moniker from “The Hunger Games,” their Quarter Quells offer the chance for Katey Rich, Matt Patches, David Ehrlich and Da7e Gonzales to step back from discussions of culture at large to focus instead on deeply personal topics. Whether these special episodes revolve around the individuals that influenced their love of film or the movies that best capture their current place in life, the FitWR gang shows an affection for each other and their audience that’s refreshingly sincere. These Quells give their other weekly roundups of pop culture a richer context without ever feeling overly self-indulgent. They’re also a pleasant reminder that good criticism doesn’t have to be calculating and emotionless artform.
Where to Start: “025 – The Filmmaking Quarter Quell”
3. You Must Remember This
If you’re both a cinephile and a fan of podcasts, odds are good that Karina Longworth’s show about 20th century Hollywood is already firmly in the center of your personal Venn diagram. This year saw Longworth take the show’s format into evolved territory: A trio of story arcs centered around Hollywood’s relationship to World War II, the history of MGM and an overview of the Charles Manson saga. Much of what makes “You Must Remember This” a captivating listen is its comprehensive, singular feel. Longworth writes, edits and records all episodes herself, which lets both her literal and figurative voices become the show’s strong foundation. Meticulously planned and thoughtfully told, perhaps its greatest service is leaving listeners with an ever-expanding list of film recommendations and a richer understanding of what makes them worth revisiting decades and decades later.
Where to Start: “Star Wars Episode II: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable”
2. No Such Thing as a Fish
Any show hosted by the research team behind British panel TV series “QI” is bound to be overflowing with juicy tidbits from across the knowledge spectrum. But the quartet of regular hosts (or “elves,” in “QI” parlance) bring a liveliness and wit along with their weekly trivia bounty that makes for breezy listening. Each episode uses four central facts as starting points for brainy riffing, so this is much closer to co-workers swapping stories at a pub quiz night than in a university symposium. (If you want proof, their live shows are just as good as the ones they record in their Covent Garden studios.) Add an impressive intellectual breadth to a killer knack for callback jokes and you have one of the most consistently entertaining podcasts on any continent.
Where to Start: “56 – No Such Thing as a Killer Tomato”
1. Gimlet Media
A little bit of a cheat, considering that this burgeoning podcast network may be able to field a top ten list of its own before too long. But not only are they offering up some of the most well-produced tales in the business, they began it all with “Start-Up,” a transparent look at how they got the whole endeavor off the ground.
After detailing the company’s origin story, they’ve found equally compelling material elsewhere. “Reply All,” a “show about the Internet” is constantly redefining our perceptions of the way that technology is affecting everyday life. “Mystery Show” is a gleeful glorification of amateur sleuthing and the answers you can find if you’re willing to ask enough questions. “Surprisingly Awesome,” their newest offering, is a testament to the idea that big ideas and high culture does not have exclusive hold on compelling storylines.
As a guiding principle of one of podcasting’s strongest brands, Gimlet has harnessed one of the vital secrets of the medium: For as much as audiences enjoy hearing stories, what they really crave is the feeling that comes from discovering them.
Where to Start: Start-Up, “Origin Story (S2 Ep1)”; Reply All, “#3 We Know What You Did”; Mystery Show, “Case #4 Vanity Plate”; Surprisingly Awesome, “#4 Tubthumping”