Stop us if you've heard this before — the podcast industry is booming. Sometime around 2014, podcasts went from niche to mainstream overnight thanks in no small part to Sarah Koenig and her unfathomably popular true crime podcast, Serial. While podcasting had, in theory, been around since the 1980s and in its more current form since early in the millennia, it wasn't until the global success of Serial that the medium became a mainstream form of entertainment.
Today, podcasts are almost as ubiquitous as social media. While we're a few years too late for the, "have you heard of these things called podcasts" article, it's never too late for a good old-fashioned list. Whether you're a bona fide podcast fiend or a reluctant late adopter, you're sure to find at least one new and binge-worthy show among our 15 recommendations.
The following is a list of tried and true staples of the industry, some standouts with cult followings, a handful of recent hits, and a bit of local flavor to kick off your new podcast habit in 2019.
Stuff You Should Know: Josh Clark and Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant are pioneers of podcasting. The pair of writers turned podcasters have been hosting their twice weekly podcast, Stuff You Should Know, since 2008 as part of the HowStuffWorks webiste. Both Clark and Bryant were writers for the popular website before starting their show and have since become major podcasting celebrities. The show's premise is self-explanatory; they teach you the stuff you should know. Each episode is a deep dive into an interesting topic in science, history, art, culture, or literally anything. The family friendly hosts have endeared themselves to millions of listeners around the world, becoming educators on every imaginable topic over the last decade and consistently appearing in iTunes' Top 10. SYSK spawned a whole network of widely downloaded shows by other HowStuffWorks writers and editors including Stuff They Don't Want You to Know, Tech Stuff, and Stuff You Missed in History Class.
WTF: in 2010 Marc Maron was a bitter, twice-divorced, washed up, mildly suicidal comedian. His career a series of meager successes and major disappointments. As he watched his peers achieve commercial success and become household names, he considered ending it all. Instead, he started a podcast in his garage. Eight years later, Marc's show WTF is considered the quintessential interview show; a masterpiece of intimate storytelling known for drawing authentic moments from the world's biggest celebrities. In 2016 the show reached its peak zeitgeist moment as Marc welcomed President Barack Obama into his garage as a guest. WTF is not only one of the biggest podcasts in the world, it also catapulted Marc to a level of fame he consistently struggles to come to terms with. This is a true standard bearer in the podcast community and an industry giant all podcast nerds should be familiar with.
Comedy Bang Bang: Like Marc Maron, Scott Aukerman enjoyed a long and mostly obscure career in comedy before becoming a founding father of podcasting. His show Comedy Bang Bang, formerly Comedy Death Ray, has been a favorite among improv comedy fans since its early days on L.A.'s Indie 105 in 2009. The decade old comedy show features a constantly rotating roster of celebrity guests and comic friends of Aukerman including Paul F. Tompkins, Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Daly, Andy Samberg and Amy Poehler. The show has launched the comedy careers of improvisers such as Lauren Lapkus, John Gabrus and Mary Holland. It also helped launch, Earwolf, the comedy podcast network co-owned by Aukerman through which his show and over 30 others are distributed.
Welcome to Night Vale: For our weirder readers, allow us to introduce you to your newest obsession. Welcome to Night Vale is a bi-weekly podcast from the bizarre and fictional town of Night Vale. Presented in the form of a community radio show, the series follows the creepy citizens and strange occurrences in the Lovecraftian town after which it is named. Created in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the show is a beautifully written narrative hosted by Night Vale's beloved radio host, Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin). Since its inception, Welcome to Night Vale has amassed a devoted and hardcore fan base that has made it one of the most consistently listened to shows on the web. Its success has spawned the Night Vale Presents network which produces several other creative and equally weird shows. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have also leveraged the success of their first show to write a series of accompanying novels and organize Night Vale tours across the country.
Hello From the Magic Tavern: Possibly the most unique and creative acquisition by Scott Aukerman's Earwolf network, Hello From the Magic Tavern is part improv comedy, part mystical fantasy narrative, part docuseries. The show follows host Arnie Niekamp on his (mostly idle) adventures through the magical land of Foon. Niekamp, the show's host, is a fictionalized version of the real Arnie Niekamp who fell through a magical portal into the fantastical land of Foon. There he meets Chunt, a talking badger and shape-shifter, and Usidor, a powerful wizard. The trio host a podcast from their usual table at the titular magic tavern, a dive bar called the Vermilion Minotaur. Hello From the Magic Tavern enjoys a cult nerd following and rose from the ranks of obscure Chicago improv troupes to become one of the most popular shows on the Earwolf network.
Last Podcast on the Left: This is the show to satisfy your most twisted curiosities. The hosts of Last Podcast on the Left share a mutual fascination for the strange and unexplained, as well as the horrific and downright unsavory. The show's topics range from thoroughly researched histories of serial killers to UFO conspiracies, horror film lore, and Satanic rituals. Their two-part series on the Donner Party is a particularly popular set of episodes and a surprisingly in depth explanation of the grisly story. Hosts Marcus Parks, comedian Ben Kissel, and comedian and actor Henry Zebrowski have been lifelong friends and owe their success to their hilarious rapport and intense passion for the show's subject matter.
The Habitat: Gimlet Media, the podcast network created by rock star radio producer Alex Blumberg (famous for This American Life and Planet Money), is considered by many to be the peak of the podcasting business. Its shows are critically acclaimed and set the standard for professional podcasting. Gimlet's biggest hit of 2018 was a show called The Habitat — a seven-part series about the 4th crew of the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI_SEAS) project. As part of the scientific research necessary to one day sent humans to Mars, the crew lived in a 1,200 foot bubble on the island of Hawaii for one year in order to simulate living conditions on the red planet. Producer and host Lynn Levy had crew members record audio diaries while in the habitat and used them to piece together a beautiful series about science, humanity, and the future of space exploration.
Unobscured: Fans of podcasts and horror literature will likely know the name Aaron Mahnke. In 2015 the struggling horror writer took a series of typed out stories originally intended to be sent to readers via PDF attachments and transposed them to audio. He envisioned the clips as companion pieces to the stories he sold his readers; historical context to the folklore he referenced in his novels and short stories. On the suggestion of a friend, he reluctantly turned the recordings into a podcast called Lore. Four years later, Lore is one of the most popular podcasts in the world and has been spun off into an Amazon original series. Unobscured is Mahnke’s latest project, a sister podcast to Lore covering a topic he deemed to complex and convoluted for just one or even two episodes – the Salam Witch Trials. This 12-part series finished releasing episodes in December, but as of this week is still releasing bonus episodes and full interviews with historians and experts.
Gladiator: From the Spotlight investigative department of the Boston Globe, known around the world for their 2001 reporting of widespread sexual assault by Catholic priests, comes Gladiator. This journalistic podcast looks deep into the life of former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez and how football may have played a role in his mental unraveling, homicidal behavior, and eventual suicide. Though only three months old, the seven-part series is a smash hit and widely considered one of the best podcasts of 2018. The Spotlight team goes to extreme lengths in their investigation to paint a complete and previously unrevealed picture of Hernandez. The show details how a troubled childhood, violent behavior, potential sexuality secrets, and both the culture and physical trauma of football may have all played a role in the corruption and downfall of Aaron Hernandez, a modern day Gladiator.
Believed: Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio have reported extensively on Larry Nassar and the sexual abuse scandal that shattered USA Gymnastics over the past two years. So they were natural choices to host NPR's investigative series, Believed, which tells the story of how Nassar came to power within USAG and how a group of young women came forward to finally end his reign of terror. Believed is a difficult show to listen to, with detailed survivor accounts and years of evidence showing exactly how Nassar's actions were brushed under the rug or ignored by the scores of adults who failed his hundreds of child victims. It is also an incredible feat of journalism and a powerful outlet for survivors to tell their stories to the world.
Chapo: Vice Media is probably the most appropriate outlet in the world to make an investigative series about the life and capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The drug lord and leader of the Sinaloa Cartel was the world's most infamous and wanted criminal before his 2016 capture and extradition to the United States. Vice reporters spent a year travelling to Sinaloa, researching and recording a podcast that details the untold stories of El Chapo's rise and fall. The show premiered in 2018 before the start of Guzman's ongoing trial in New York and features Vice's signature method of front line reporting, putting the hosts in very real danger as they interview Chapo's family, associates, independent drug dealers, Mexican reporters and more.
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Honey I Shrunk the Binge: From the Mocking Bird Network, a Houston-based podcast network currently producing 20 shows, comes Honey I Shrunk the Binge. This hilarious and original concept answers one of the most crucial questions of our modern age, "should I binge this show?" Hosts Ned Gayle and Cody Dale watch the first and last episode of a completely finished TV series then review the show, telling their listeners whether the entire series is worthy of binge watching. Gayle and Dale are old friends and both involved in Houston's comedy and art scenes. The show's primary appeal is the duo's natural rapport and hilarious banter. It also gets brownie points for being an original concept in a world where 99 percent of podcasts are little more than unsolicited opinions on current events. This is a Houston podcast we can all be proud of.
Moda Spira Podcast: Luke Brawner's Houston-based podcast network, Milieu Media Group, has spawned nine extremely well produced shows. From his Houston based story telling series, The H, to his music-based show, Hymnistry, which examines both contemporary and classic Christian music. In 2018, the network added the Moda Spira Podcast to its lineup. This limited series is a companion piece to the album, Divorce, by the show's titular star, Latifah Alattas (Moda Spira). The album is an artistic account of her journey through divorce and grief and the podcast is a moving track-by-track exploration of the artist's intentions as she retells the story of the hardest year of her life. The 12-part series can be binged in one day, but be sure to grab a box of tissues.
Houston, We Have a Podcast: If we hated this show we would still give it props for having the best name ever. But we don't hate it, we love it. Houston, We Have a Podcast is the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center and an extremely entertaining weekly show hosted by NASA public affairs officer Gary Jordan. The show often features astronauts telling their best space travel stories, as well as insight into NASA's ongoing projects and past missions. An episode from 2018 titled, "A Ride in Orion", takes listeners into the Orion (a capsule which will eventually take astronauts into deep space) during a launch to hear exactly what it's like to be inside a spaceship during takeoff. There's a joke here somewhere about small steps for podcasting, but we'll save you the eye-roll and just tell you to check it out.
Stories From the Storm: The Houston Press' pick for best Houston podcast of 2018 is of course going to make this list. Stories From the Storm by Houston Public Media is a series of personal stories from during and after Hurricane Harvey. Each episode of the series features a pair of Houston residents retelling their Harvey experience. The brilliance of this show is in its simplicity. Rather than having a host interview guests, each episode includes a brief introduction then cuts to the episode's subjects having a conversation with each other about their shared experience. Guests include Mayor Sylvester Turner with Judge Ed Emmett, Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale with his store manager Anthony Lebedzinski, and regular Houstonians like Karen Walrond and daughter Alexis Jennings. This is a powerful work of human story telling and a creative way to archive a critical moment in Houston history.