Podcasts are finally coming into their own these days as a busy and vibrant mass media format. With the massive success last year of “Serial” – the nonfiction podcast from the creative team behind NPR’s “This American Life” – the format finally broke out of its niche status and into mainstream pop culture.
Still, if you don’t know your way around, the really good podcasts can be hard to find. Numbers are difficult to come by, but estimates suggest that upwards of 250,000 podcasts are now being produced worldwide. Here are five highly recommended podcasts for the discerning listener. You can find these online or via your mobile device with a quick search for the title. (A note for those who may listen in the presence of young ears: watch for an “Explicit” warning when downloading individual episodes.)
Amateur historian and recovering broadcaster Dan Carlin is the undisputed king of the long-form podcast. Individual episodes of “Hardcore History” run upwards of three hours each, as Carlin digs into historical topics ranging from the Roman Empire to World War I to Genghis Khan. When Carlin gets really interested, a topic can span five or six episodes in a series.
Carlin’s style blends heavy-duty research with instinctive storytelling panache. He’s said that he prefers to have about 25-35 sources on a topic before he even begins recording. As such, episodes of “Hardcore History” can take several months to produce, but they’re worth the wait.
Welcome to Night Vale
The go-to description for “Welcome to Night Vale,” one of podcasting’s biggest success stories, is that it’s Stephen King meets Garrison Keillor. The show’s premise: We’re listening to public radio dispatches from the mysterious town of Night Vale, where the paranormal is entirely normal, and every conspiracy theory is true.
Released twice per month, “Night Vale” is very funny, frequently spooky, and one of the very best showcases of speculative fiction writing you’ll find in any arena. Series creator Joseph Fink mines that particular patch of Lovecraftian real estate where sci-fi, horror and grim humor collide. Recurring characters include mad scientists, shadowy government officials and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home.
ESPN’s Baseball Tonight
For serious fans of America’s Pastime, ESPN’s Baseball Tonight podcast is an invaluable daily dose of insider baseball news, analysis and commentary. Hosted by veteran sportswriter and broadcaster Buster Olney, the podcast is crisp and efficient, relative to the usual sports-shouting style of similar radio shows and podcasts.
A typical episode begins with a run-down of the previous day’s big news and big games, followed by analysis with other ESPN personalities including Karl Ravech, Jayson Stark and Tim Kurkjian. These guys are alpha baseball nerds, so expect to get more insider perspective than you can possibly assimilate in a 24-hour period. Olney also spotlights a moment in baseball history with each episode.
Locally produced in Durham, “Criminal” is a relatively new entrant in the podcast world but has already found a good deal of success. WUNC host Phoebe Judge hosts the monthly show, which focuses on stories of true crime and the concept of criminality in history and culture. Previous episodes – now at 19 and counting – have featured stories on police profiling, lie detectors, teenage hackers, an 1889 murder and crime writer Raymond Chandler.
“Criminal” has a fast and lean storytelling style – episodes usually clock in at between 15 and 25 minutes. The stories are often approached from interesting angles so that we get perspectives from victims, law enforcement, activists, historians and scientists as well as the “criminals” themselves – sometimes wrongly accused, sometimes not. “Criminal” was recently picked up by the podcast network Radiotopia, and plans are afoot to ramp up production of more episodes per year.
WTF with Marc Maron
It’s funny to think that comic Marc Maron is now something of an elder statesman in podcasting, even though his signature show is less than six years old. “WTF” – which stands for what you think it stands for – was among the first podcasts to break through into wider pop culture recognition.
Maron’s simple format hasn’t changed much. He brings guests into his garage studio and talks with them for an hour or two. Initially, the twice-weekly podcast focused on Maron’s fellow comics, but in recent years has expanded to include writers, actors, musicians, film directors and visual artists. Maron is funny, articulate and an ace interviewer and he usually manages to get surprisingly candid responses from his guests. If you end up digging through the archives, look for the Maron’s epic two-parter with Louis C.K.