Whether it’s looking for something different as the new year began or visual entertainment burnout, I’ve noticed an uptick in “I’m new to podcasts, what should I listen to first?” posts going around on social media. The responses to these posts, while well-intentioned, are pretty hit and miss. Podcasts are a medium like any other, and you have to put in the work to discover what you like and what you don’t, and your tastes will rarely perfectly align with those of someone else.
But putting in the work can be pretty fun if you accept from the outset that not everything is for you. There are plenty of podcasts out there that are wildly popular that you won’t like for a variety of reasons, be it the sound of the host’s voice, the production quality, the strength of narrative or reliance on tragedy porn. But knowing a little bit about the trends in podcasting will go a long way to explaining how certain subgenres have sprung up and why the landscape is the way it is today.
What follows are not the best podcasts of all time, but were someone to create a Podcast Hall Of Fame these five would most certainly be put in it. If you like any of these, then follow the “You Might Also Like” rabbit hole down to see what else you might discover.
5. Hardcore History
Dan Carlin is the king of the long listen podcast storytelling. Some episodes of Hardcore History are longer than entire seasons of other podcasts, and when he’s at his best — his “seasons” on the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of Mongols are incredible — very few podcasts can even touch what he does. He’s got a perfect voice for this kind of presentation and what he lacks in telling stories from a purely academic lens he makes up for in crafting compelling narratives that’ll have you wanting to dig up your own research.
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4. My Favorite Murder
True crime and comedy are two of the biggest pillars in podcasting, and no one has found more success bringing the two together than Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. My Favorite Murder has got on like wildfire over the past few years, with Karen and Georgia able to take the show on the show with sharing their and their fans favorite tales of death. If you have anxiety about potentially being murdered, this is the podcast for you. Seriously.
3. Welcome To Night Vale
The podcast world is full of throwbacks to the golden days of radio, and while Welcome To Night Vale wasn’t the first to tread that ground, there are among the most successful and influential. What started as a series of radio broadcasts from a small, weird desert community become an engaging narrative that’s seen the show tour the globe and its creators able to create a small podcast empire. Come for the weirdness, stay for the romance.
2. WTF With Marc Maron
Listen: Marc Maron got President Obama to come to his garage for an interview. That’s insane and amazing and a testament to the strength of the podcast that Marc Maron created. Thanks to his strength as an interviewer, he’s responsible for some of the most engaging audio since 2009, getting stories out of guests few would be able to. And he got to interview a sitting President. In his garage. Outstanding.
Taking what This American Life started to its logical conclusion, Serial was a landmark moment in podcasting. Hell, it even got parodied on Saturday Night Live. It revealed that podcasting is maybe the perfect medium for deep dive, long-form journalism in the modern age. For many, the new episode releases were event listening. The number of similar podcasts has skyrocketed, bringing more incredible stories to the masses that we might never have heard. Whether you agree with how Serial presented its first season or not, you can’t deny the impact that it has had.