Since I’ve spent the last three years doing a deep dive on audio storytelling (narrative nonfiction radio and podcasts), the last two and a half of which I’ve been in France (where practically no one has heard of this stuff, not even This American Life) this moment of vast cultural freakout about how awesome podcasts are (hello, Serial!) feels super-strange to me. I mean, good-strange, like, hey, maybe I’m not crazy for drawing a 200-page comic about how they make this stuff! I might need a new tagline for it, though.
“Coming in August 2015: Out on the Wire, a 200-page comic about how one makes audio that’s sort of like Serial.”
Anyway, I noticed there are a ton of top-10 podcast lists out there, and what-to-listen-to-after-Serial lists, and, I thought, maybe I have something to offer in that vein. So here’s a list of shows that have inspired me as I have been working on my book.
That said, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a “top ten” exactly. What I do have is kind of groups of shows that I like to listen to when I’m in a certain kind of mood.
Mixed in this list are the shows I feature in the book. Even though the research phase of my book is long past, I still listen to all of these basically as soon as I’ve got a minute. But there’s still a “what do I feel like” component in the order of things. I’ve asterisked* those shows that are featured in OOTW, in case you’re interested.
There’s nothing on this list that will come as a complete surprise to any committed podcast listener, but take a look, who knows. I usually find one or two new things on each list I read. If you are this person, however, already an expert and hungry for more, make sure you’re also subscribing to Hot Pod, a new newsletter on podcasts that gets into much more detail than I can even digest.
Where possible, I’ve picked a good story or episode on SoundCloud to share here. Where there’s no embeddable player available (that I could find), there’s a link. FYI to podcasters and writers about podcasts, SoundCloud is a great way to share audio files!
Shows for when you want to feel connected to other people’s lives.
Snap Judgment*. Dramatic, propulsive storytelling, with a lot more music and sound than almost any other show. Snap is one of the few shows that dares to use hiphop and music with a beat to soundtrack radio stories, and they do it right. Upbeat, energetic. Not a good choice for when I’m tired or need a sense of calm equilibrium.
The Moth*. The Moth is by far the most “live” of anything I listen to regularly, in that it’s very minimally edited versions of autobiographical stories as told live on a stage. But the stories are developed intensively before telling, which creates a lovely frisson between the risk-taking of live performance and well-thought-out structure. And each story is around 10 minutes, so even if I’m listening to a Moth Radio Hour, I can stop between stories if need be.
Radio Diaries*. Consistently excellent, deep, empathetic stories that emerge out of real life. The pieces are not overly long, but somehow let you feel like you’ve fallen straight into the life of someone else. Quiet, inward-feeling
Strangers is akin to Radio Diaries, in that it’s deeply interested in and empathetic to other people. Lea Thau’s stated ambition with the show is to make us “strangers no more”. Her recent autobiographical series on her history of love was wrenching and great. You can listen to the series via Patreon!
This American Life*. The grandaddy of them all, yet still so consistently brilliant, it’s startling. If you used to listen but stopped, try it again. If you never started, it seems obvious to suggest that if you like Serial, you’ll like the source from which it directly sprang.
Shows to listen to when you’re feeling off-kilter and inward.
Everything is Stories is intense, mysterious, even a bit creepy, and infrequent. I keep telling people about Practices of Enfreakment.
Theory of Everything is the punkest of the shows I listen to. Benjamen Walker talks with this kind of insistent drone, and heedlessly mixes fact, fiction, and opinion into little nuggets of unrest.
Love and Radio is also mysterious. You plunge right into stories and are way under water before you figure out what, or who, they’re even about.
Shows for when you feel like learning something.
StartUp. A show about starting a podcast business. I’m learning a ton about what it means to start a company and seek venture capital and so on, but Alex is the warmest, fuzziest entrepreneur I’ve ever heard, which makes me actually want to hear how he’s doing what he’s doing. Also, Nazanin, his wife, is a star in the making. This is a serial (not Serial, but serialized), so start from ep 1.
Decode DC. An extremely humanistic show about…politics. Never thought I’d string those words together. In fact, I think they’d say of themselves that the show is not about politics, but governing. Which is even better. Learn about Washington ye peons, and vote.
Radio Ambulante. RA is more in the first category “stories about humans,” than “learning” except that it’s in Spanish (though they have English episodes too, that they produce for the World), and from the POV of Latin Americans, so I stretch my language skills and my understanding of the Americas each time I listen. But really, its approach is more TAL than Spanish class. (But then, in the end, every show on this list is more “stories about humans” than anything else. If there’s one thing that defines my interest in audio narrative, it’s “stories about humans.”)
Here’s one in English. Check the site or podcast stream for Spanish episodes.
99% Invisible*. The podcast upstart about design and the built world that incidentally altered the playing field in terms of audience building and crowdfunding. (All the shows on the new Radiotopia collective 99pi host Roman Mars helped found are completely worth a listen.)
A History of the World in 100 Objects. This show is an outlier. A series of 100 episodes that were originally broadcast in 2010, each features an object in the British Museum, and then investigates how this object reveals some stage of human history. The series ranges all over the world, and over 10,000 years. It is highly scripted, and marvelously structured over so many episodes, and it’s so well written and clear, clever and funny. Each episode is just around 15 minutes, though I’s happily listen for twice as long.
If anyone knows of some other show like this one, please let me know! (Here’s the best link to images of the objects. FYI: You’re better off searching for this one from within your fave podcast app, rather than using a link here for audio download.)
Radiolab*. Radiolab attacks some of the most challenging and complex ideas of any show I listen to, and thus requires a high level of attention, not to say concentration. But the rewards are equally great. The key to Radiolab is not banter or the fancy sound, though both are obviously important, it’s their steel-trap storytelling and ability to break down ideas so that we can understand that really sets them apart.
Planet Money*. The experience of PM is like going out for a beer with a couple of really smart friends who are into something totally odd and specific, that, when they explain it to you in regular-person language, somehow ends up having resonance with your own life on a much broader scale than you’d ever imagined. The episodes are also on the short side, between 15 and 25 minutes usually, so I can fit a bit of rewarding brain activity into little slots of available time.
Shows to catch up with kids today
New Tech City. Manoush Zomorodi is my generation (that is, X), is smart, has small kids, and lives in Brooklyn (where I did, too, until recently). She’s curious, up to date, and in touch, but unafraid to be a baffled newbie when it comes to deep tech subjects. She’s me, essentially, with a much better public-radio name (Musical, but tough to spell!).
TLDR used to be the guys who now do Reply All (see below). Now, it’s got a new host, Meredith Haggerty, a young woman I haven’t yet got a handle on as far as her interests and POV. But I loved her first episode, which took on how shitty the world of tech is for many women, and did it in a very uncompromising and funny way. I feel like this version of TLDR may turn out to be more akin to its parent (On the Media, which I also listen to quite a bit) in terms of asking the hard questions than the previous iteration was.
Reply All is the new show from the guys who used to do TLDR, and it feels like a similar project: they dive into all kinds of interesting, sometimes creepy, dark corners of the internet, with a particular interest in social media, and how the internet changes human interactions.
Shows about radio
How Sound*. How Sound is a show with a pedagogical mission. Host Rob Rosenthal is the teacher of the Transom Story Workshop (and thus a character in my book), and in each episode he listens to a story or show, and then talks about some element of how it works or was made or is structured. Which means that most of the shows on this list have been featured on How Sound. It’s a must-listen for anyone who wants to learn more about radio storytelling.
Re:Sound. Really much more a “show about humans” than a “show about radio”, this is the Third Coast International Audio Festival‘s show (and TCAIF is kind of like the Oscars + TED for this kind of radio). The good and the bad of this show is that you never know what will be on; the mission is to discover the best from radio around the world, which means sometimes you’ll hear pieces you just heard on another show, and sometimes things you’d never choose, but usually pieces you’d simply never find, but are much happier for having heard. The “about radio” designation is for this—getting a picture of what creative producers are doing all over.
Shows that are my “comfort food.”
…meaning I can listen to them basically whenever.
Le Show. I discovered Harry Shearer’s weekly hour of commentary, comedy, and snark, in the late 90s, and then I kind of forgot about it for like 10 years, and then I recently started listening again, and it’s exactly the same and still really good.
Good Food. This is the best food show I’ve heard on radio, but it’s based in LA, which will leave you bitterly wishing for their food trucks and California weather to show up where you are, and to have access to their amazing farmer’s markets. Still, tons of “national” content there. I could be happy never again to hear Evan Kleiman tell a guest that she’s “really hungry” after an interview, though.
Studio 360. An arts show that makes me slightly wistful for the New York I never really lived in. Wide ranging and interested in everything, which means I’m interested in about 60-80% of content. I’ve been on there twice, though, so they’ve got impeccable taste in some areas!
Finally, congratulations, podcasters, on having an even-worse name for your medium than “comics”. Welcome to the club!