The struggle of Peak TV is real, but the struggle of Peak Podcast is no less pressing. With reliably high-quality content from WNYC, NPR, Chicago Public Media, and Earwolf dropping weekly (not to mention dozens of new ventures from lesser-known players), it takes some discipline-and ideally a long daily commute-to keep up to date.
Here are the 25 essential podcasts you need to hear from 2016, including established classics, new breakouts, and hidden gems you might have missed in previous years.
This Brooklyn-based comedy show was one of the most important and consistently delightful additions to the podcast landscape in 2016. Hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams in front of a live audience, 2 Dope Queens combines frank conversations about sex, race, and New York life with stand-up segments from comedians. A majority are comedians of color, female comedians, and/or LGBT comedians in a conscious effort to correct the "too-many-white-dudes-in-comedy" problem. The stand-up is consistently hilarious, but it's the deadpan chemistry between BFFs Robinson and Williams that anchors the show, as the pair get real about stereotypical black roles in pop culture, what they'd do as dudes for a day, and why butt sex is like halibut.
Twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Andes was found murdered in her Ohio apartment a few days after her college graduation in December of 1978. This gripping new podcast from the Cincinnati Enquirer delves into the murder, its investigation, and the reasons why, within hours of Andes' body being discovered, police had categorized this as an open-and-shut case. Serial successors were a dime a dozen in 2016-there's another one further down this list-but if that show's legacy is a spike in true crime journalism of this depth and quality, it's hard to see a downside.
Hosted by Chris Gethard, Earwolf's thrilling new experimental show launched this year and is built around three simple rules: anyone can call Gethard anonymously, the phone line will close after an hour, and Gethard can't be the first to hang up. Sometimes, the callers have an agenda; other times, they call with nothing in particular to say, but in every case Gethard demonstrates just how good he is at drawing people out, and at finding the extraordinary details in ordinary conversation.
This is not your average interview show. Each week, creator and host Anna Sale sits down for an intimate conversation about "The Big Stuff" with a different person-some of them famous, some of them not, but the beauty of the format is that it scarcely matters. There is no small talk, no sound bites, and no self-promotion, and every subject is disarmingly honest about the struggles and questions that unite us all. As evidenced by that last sentence, there's no way to talk about Death, Sex & Money without sounding hokey, and yet the show itself is anything but.
NPR's newest show sees host Guy Raz (also of TED Radio Hour) speaking to entrepreneurs about the businesses they built from scratch and the obstacles they faced along the way. Since the show's launch last month, its subjects have included the creators of Instagram, Vice, Spanx and Clifbar, all of whom are fascinating to hear regardless of whether you have any interest in starting a business.
6. In the Dark
Another spiritual successor to Serial, this smartly structured investigative podcast focuses on the 1989 disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, whose case had remained unsolved until last month. Led by Peabody-winning reporter Madeleine Baran, In the Dark underwent some last-minute re-edits after Wetterling's killer confessed to police at the beginning of September–but the changes were minimal because the podcast is focused more on the investigation than the crime, and specifically on the bewildering failures of local law enforcement that left the killer at large for 27 years. The result is addictive, harrowing listening.
In an election cycle so bizarre that it's threatening to put the writers of Veep out of business, it's been more valuable than ever to hear the weekly perspective of two Washington insiders. Jon Favreau (no, not that one) and Dan Pfeiffer are both former Obama staffers with passion, insight, and endless White House anecdotes to share. In the run-up to the election, the pair have upped their output to two episodes per week and added two more co-hosts: Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett. There's very literally no time like the present to get caught up.
Not true crime, but true horror. Since its debut last year, Aaron Mahnke's dark history podcast has rapidly become an acclaimed phenomenon, with an Amazon series now in the works. Each episode focuses on a different piece of dark American folklore, examining a real historical event or documented story in meticulous detail, and wringing horror from the facts alone. Narrated by Mahnke in a style that evokes spooky campfire stories, Lore is a history lesson like no other.
Comedian Paul Gilmartin's weekly "hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads" is a vital, compassionate gem that fills a desperate and under-addressed need in our society. Gilmartin conducts frank, unfiltered interviews with a variety of guest-some of them artists and writers, some of them therapists, some of them podcast listeners–about their experiences of mental illness, and also invites listeners to share their own struggles via anonymous surveys. The Mental Illness Happy Hour is a compelling antidote to the myth that mental illness is rare, or that suffering from it means that you're alone.
One of the few comforting certainties throughout the 2016 election cycle has been the NPR Politics crew, who offer in-depth commentary on the week's political news. The rotating cast of political reporters strike a tone that's both rich in expertise and endearingly irreverent–it's like listening to your friends talk at the bar, only if your friends were all spectacularly well-informed political journalists with first-hand experience on the campaign trail. Though the show is weekly, additional ad-hoc "quick take" episodes have been coming thick and fast in the past few months. No matter what bombshell comes next, you can trust the NPR crew to show up in your feed and make sense of it for you.
11. Only Human
The struggles of a clinic for transgender children in the South. One man's campaign against deadly water contamination. A patient-therapist relationship gone awry. These are just a few of the diverse topics covered recently by NPR's health podcast, which tells the stories of patients, physicians, and other people impacted by modern healthcare. "A show about health that we can all relate to–because every body has a story," goes the show's tagline, which sums up its even-handed tone and its emphasis on the individual over the system.
12. Pardon My Take
"In a world of lukewarm takes, one podcast feeds you all the hottest takes the stomach of your brain can handle," promises the intro for Barstool Sports' Pardon My Take, which launched this February and has been ranking consistently near the top of iTunes' Sports category ever since. Hosted by internet-famous duo PFT Commenter and Dan "Big Cat" Katz, the show is a blend of sports analysis, guest interviews, and satire–both hosts have described it as a comedy show using sports to get a point across.
Audio documentary Radiolab is itself a staple of the ideal podcast diet, and the show launched its first ever spinoff series this year. More Perfect chronicles the untold stories of the Supreme Court–what goes on inside those walls, and how the decisions made there shape lives across the country. Educational without being preachy, the series debuted in June with an episode about the death penalty's legal history and remained fascinating throughout the five episodes that followed.
14. Reply All
Gimlet Media's flagship show has had a stellar sophomore year. Having established itself since its 2014 debut as a charming and unpredictable weekly dive into stories about the internet, the show went outside of its comfort zone this summer to tell a true-crime story in which the internet played only a peripheral role. Four-part series "On The Inside" centered on Paul Modrowski, who's serving a life sentence in maximum security prison for a murder he claims he didn't commit. The gamble paid off, producing an imperfect but compelling mini-arc which looks set to be the first of many experiments.
How it took Malcolm Gladwell this long to get his own podcast is a mystery. Launched in June by Slate's Panoply network, Revisionist History was an idea Gladwell originally envisioned as a book, aiming to re-address historical events that have been overlooked or misinterpreted. Though heavy on historical fact, the stories are made easily digestible by Gladwell's thoughtful, human-driven approach.
16. The Run-Up
The New York Times' contribution to the political podcast arena is less focused on week-to-week events than most, instead using the current election to jump-start broader political discussions around both parties. Recent episodes have delved into the history of presidential candidates' medical records, the art of the campaign ad, and whether the first female presidential candidate always had to be Hillary Clinton. More recently, the podcast offered behind-the-scenes insight into one of the election cycle's major bombshells, after the Times uncovered Trump's tax returns.
Narrowing this list down to just 25 was a challenge, so this is our cheat pick along the lines of "If I had a wish, I'd wish for three more wishes." Gimlet Media's Sampler is a tasting platter for the world of podcasts, featuring "bite-size tastes" from a variety of shows, alongside interviews with hosts and producers.
Whether you're an aspiring screenwriter or a plain old movie fan, Scriptnotes offers a unique insider's perspective into the business. Hosts John August (Big Fish, Go, Frankenweenie) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, Identity Thief) are a hugely likable duo, and their chemistry elevates weekly discussions which cover everything from the basics of writing and outlining, to selling a screenplay, to the realities of movie production. The show also features guest interviews with writers, producers and actors, and a regular "Three-Page Challenge" segment in which listeners submit a portion of their screenplay for critique.
19. Sleep With Me
Being described as "a great cure for insomnia" would not be considered a win for most podcasts. But this innovative nightly show really is like Ambien in sound wave form, offering up "a lulling, droning, boring bedtime story to distract your racing mind." That description actually undersells what's so brilliant about Drew Ackerman's stories-they are deliberately surreal and semi-nonsensical, his sentences labyrinthine and full of tangents, mirroring the way your brain works in a hypnagogic state.
A direct descendent of The Moth-host Lea Thau was formerly director of that podcast staple-Strangers is a non-fiction storytelling show focused on finding common ground in unexpected places, or the true stories that make us "strangers no more." This year's standout was a series of episodes titled "Elizabeth and Mary," which chronicled a woman's decision to give her kidney to a stranger. After the series proved unexpectedly provocative, Thau incorporated her listeners' responses into the show, trying with characteristic empathy to find the humanity behind the backlash.
No essential podcasts list would be complete without it, and there's a reason why it's such a perennially obvious choice. TAL's weekly blend of reportage, storytelling, and monologues across different formats, and in service of wildly varied stories, is consistently innovative and illuminating. One of this year's standouts was February episode "Anatomy Of Doubt," a stirring spinoff from The Marshall Project's award-winning article about a rape victim who was disbelieved by everyone, from the police to her own family and friends.
Serial was just the beginning. There were a lot of reasons to be skeptical of Undisclosed when it first premiered last year, promising to examine the death of Hae Min Lee and the murder conviction of Adnan Syed in greater depth-the main one being that the show, like its host Rabia Chaudry, is openly biased towards Syed's innocence. But Chaudry and her co-hosts, lawyer Susan Simpson and legal professor Colin Miller, present a compelling examination of the case from beginning to end, poring over evidence that Serial missed and providing commentary on the appeal process that ultimately led to Syed's conviction being overturned this year. Now in its second season, Undisclosed has expanded its horizons beyond Syed's case and will explore a different "wrongful conviction" in each new season.
Pick any TV show you love, past or present, and odds are there's already a weekly podcast dedicated to it. Most of those podcasts don't have the benefit of being co-hosted by an actor from the show in question, though, and Joshua Malina (who played Will Bailey for four seasons) has a lot more to offer than star power. His deadpan wit and rapport with co-host Hrishikesh Hirway makes this show a delight even for the most casual West Wing fan, as the pair re-examine Aaron Sorkin's political drama episode by episode, encompassing light analysis, insider stories from Malina, and cast and crew interviews.
24. Who? Weekly
Celebrity news and podcasts don't necessarily go hand in hand, but Who? Weekly takes an entertainingly off-kilter approach by focusing their conversation on "everything you need to know about the celebrities you don't." Hosted by Jezebel's Bobby Finger and former Vulture staffer Lindsey Weber, the show focuses on a particular kind of D-list celebrity: the ones you maybe kind of recognize, but still reliably make you say, "Who?" Recent subjects have included Billy Bush, Piper Perabo, and Naya Rivera. There's nothing mean-spirited about the show, which is a good-natured, irreverent delight with smart things to say about celebrity culture.
There's no shortage of movie podcasts or history podcasts on offer, but Karina Longworth's mesmerizing deep-dive into "the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century" is in a league of its own, looking below the surface of silver screen legends that most of us know only superficially. Last year's twelve-part series on the Charles Manson murders (and their wider Hollywood context) was a tough act to follow. But Longworth has matched it in 2016 with an exhaustive exploration of the Hollywood Blacklist, dedicating sixteen episodes to the period in which several of the industry's biggest stars were ruined by accusations of communism. This podcast will change the way you think about movies.
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