For observers of the deeper rhythms of media and popular culture, the ascent of the podcast in recent years has been a crazy thing to witness.
Some statistics: Around 42 million Americans now tune into at least one podcast weekly, according to recent market reports by Edison Research. That’s about five times more than the rate people go to the movies. The average podcast fan listens to five shows per week and subscribes to at least six different series.
For a once-obscure media format that’s barely a decade old, these numbers are what statisticians like to call “bananas.” The success of shows like “Serial,” an investigate series from public radio’s “This American Life,” and “WTF with Marc Maron,” an interview show conducted by the comedian, has ushered podcasts squarely into the mainstream of American media.
Personally, I’m flat-out fascinated with podcasts and the incredible range of listening experiences out there.
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If you’re just catching onto the trend, or you’re fan and seek new podcasts to listen to, here are my five nominations for the best podcasts of the past year. You can find many of them on popular podcast players, or on the below websites.
Like any list, these picks are personal. But the shows are also broadly popular and generally acknowledged to be top-of-the-line in their respective genres.
How to listen: nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily
These picks are in no particular order, but if there’s a first among equals in the podcasts of 2017, it’s “The Daily,” the news roundup posted early each morning by the intrepid staff of The New York Times. These people are genuinely heroic, posting each episode by 6 a.m. Eastern, five days a week.
At that hour, putting together a coherent 20 minutes of anything is admirable. But host Michael Barbaro and his rotating cast of contributors and correspondents deliver a daily 20-minute news show that’s remarkably efficient and approachable. Episodes typically explore the one or two lead stories of the day from the paper, getting behind-the-scene details from NYT reporters themselves. It feels like getting a personal daily briefing from all of your smartest friends.
The quickest way to get to the show is via a quick online search for “NYT Daily” on your computer or smart phone. You’ll want to select the subscription option so that each day’s episode downloads automatically when it’s posted. For serious news junkies, NPR’s “Up First” podcast is another good daily news fix.
Best Starter Episode: Since “The Daily” is, yes, a daily news podcast, the best starter episode is always the most recent installment. Also, I highly recommend doubling back to the Dec. 18 episode concerning the Times’ exclusive investigation into the government’s secret UFO program. Really.
How to listen: stownpodcast.org
The podcast series, created by producers of the public radio show “This American Life,” is a seven-part narrative that starts out as a murder mystery, then ends up somewhere else entirely.
Investigative journalist Brian Reed assembled the program over the course of several years, as he developed a friendship with John McLemore, a reclusive eccentric in the small town of Woodstock, Ala. McLemore is one of the most intriguing people you’ll ever meet, in any storytelling format, but the audio approach gives the tale a startling intimacy. The voices of Reed and McLemore are in your head – quite literally, if you use earbuds – and the story develops into a kind of nonfiction Southern Gothic tragedy.
Best Starter Episode: “S-Town” is a serial narrative, so you’ll want to start at the beginning. Be prepared to lose a few days of discretionary time.
“Love and Radio”
How to listen: loveandradio.org
A true indie success story, “Love and Radio” started out in 2005 as a DIY audio art project by creator and host Nick van der Kolk. Twelve years later, “L+R” remains on the cutting edge of audio innovation and is one of the flagship programs of the podcast network Radiotopia – also home to Durham’s “Criminal” series. (That one can be found at thisiscriminal.com).
Each installment of “L+R” is a kind of adventure. The series specializes in a storytelling approach where the listener is dropped into the middle of a narrative. You’re not sure what’s happening, but you’re instantly hooked.
Topically, the stories are all over the map, but they often focus on people haunting the edges of society. Strange people doing strange things. Most episodes are nonfiction, some are fiction, and many are somewhere in between. Adult themes are common, so listen up for any discretion warnings in the intro.
Best Starter Episode: Try the July 2017 episode titled “Suitcase of Love and Shame.” Is it fiction? Is it real? You won’t know until the end, and maybe not even then.
How to listen: revisionisthistory.com
Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”) is a natural-born storyteller, and he has a real gift for parsing and explaining complex topics. His singular talent is on display throughout Season Two of “Revisionist History,” released in the summer of 2017.
As its title suggests, Gladwell’s series is dedicated to looking back at history from a different point of view. Each of the 10 episodes explores a different historical event, person or idea. Gladwell’s endless and infectious curiosity powers the series, and each individual installment is like a little masterclass on how to structure a podcast. All 10 episodes are now available online, and you might as well go digging back through Season One as well.
Best Starter Episode: Any episode will do the trick, really, but I’d suggest starting with the Aug. 2 installment titled “McDonald’s Broke My Heart,” an improbably riveting investigation into the essential awesomeness of the french fry.
[Your Current Obsession]
[Your Current Obsession] isn’t actually a real podcast – though it’s a pretty good name. Instead, this last nominee represents any of the thousands of podcasts out there dedicated to a particular TV show, film franchise, book series or video game you’re passionate about.
Possibly the single most appealing element of the podcast format is that you can find a program on anything. No matter how obscure your particular obsession – horror stories from the 1930s, say – you can likely find a podcast on the subject.
The format is particularly well-suited for that intense fandom phenomenon that tends to gather around certain television shows.
“The West Wing Weekly,” which debuted in March 2016, is one of the most popular podcasts out there. The podcast is dedicated to “The West Wing,” a show that’s been off the air for 10 years. It’s hosts are Joshua Malina, who played Will Bailey on the show, and Hrishikesh Hirway of Song Exploder. As it looks back at every episode each week, it often features actors reflecting on their time with the award-winning show.
I personally went nuts on “Game of Thrones” podcasts in 2017 and spent hundreds of delirious hours examining the excruciating minutia of that groundbreaking show.
Dedicated podcast lovers can tell you that the best podcast in the world, at any given time, is the one you’re geeking out on now.
Glenn McDonald is a Chapel Hill-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennmcdonald1.