Stop me if you've heard this one: podcasts are big! From the recent near-mainstream success of Serial (a new show from the creators of This American Life), to the founding of new podcast networks, lineup expansions for existing ones, and major fundraising efforts for both, the medium has experienced a huge boost in the latter half of 2014. There's even a newsletter, because emerging industry. Let's assume you are new to the genre, intrigued by the possibilities (or consumed by fear of missing out), yet you are not quite sure where to begin. Certainly you can start with the top of the iTunes and you'll undoubtedly find some excellent audio storytelling. But hey, anyone can do that. You're different. You're a bit savvy. You like to dig through the stacks for the best mix tapes. Okay, let's drop the pretense: I'm going to recommend some of my favorite shows. Which means you've come to the right place!
Here are five podcasts currently at the top of their game, in no particular order:
1) The Cracked Podcast comes from the editors of the website of the same name (minus "The" and "Podcast"). Although categorized as a comedy show, it's more interesting to say that it's about the unexpected ways our modern (and ever more postmodern) society is shaped by natural, historical and cultural phenomena that we don't usually think about.
Two episodes to consider starting with: the most recent, its 2014 "Year in Review in Review"; or an early episode, "Millennal Panic!”, exploring inter-generational mistrust and changing attitudes toward work amid prevailing economic trends. Lest you think that sounds like a drag, I should probably also mention that it's funny, and the personalities are strong. Especially executive editor Jason Pargin, who sounds a bit like Mr. Plinkett's less-deranged younger brother, and makes good points, too.
2) Next, let's consider a comedy podcast that is unambiguously that: My Brother, My Brother and Me, referring to real-life brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, who purport to be doing an advice show, but really spend each episode riffing on the news and culture a bit, but mostly whatever strange thoughts pop into their brains. Oftentimes these thoughts relate to horses. It's intentionally NSFW except for one episode per year, their annual non-cursing "Candlenights" show. (The one from 2012 gets especially insistent thumbs-up from yours truly.) Also, most of the questions are sent in by listeners, originating on Yahoo! Answers, which means finally Yahoo! Answers is good for something.
3) Let's get a little bit niche here with Accidental Tech Podcast. Just a few years ago, tech podcasts ruled the iTunes charts, reflecting the interests of the medium's early adopters. While comedy and culture shows have bigger downloads today, tech remains a major category. This one is kind of a "supergroup", featuring a trio of hosts well-known in technology circles: for popular iOSapps created, intensely-followed previous podcasts hosted, and being friends with the first and second guy.
Fair warning: it can be a bit much for the non-technical, and even I'll zone out occasionally when they start debating the merits of different programming languages, or file systems. But even when I have no grasp of what John Siracusa is criticizing, it's still pretty compelling. You'll want to be aware that the show has something of an Apple bias, but then, reality is known to have an Apple bias. And keep in mind that, when the (almost too catchy) theme song starts, and the show seems to be over—it may just be getting started.
4) Another popular niche in podcast-land is sports, and my favorite in this genre for several years running is The Solid Verbal, which does two shows per week about college football—even in the offseason. You probably do have to care at least something about the sport in order to become a "Verballer", but it's worth a shot based on the strength of the chemistry and camaraderie of its hosts, Dan and Ty.
There's a lot more they do right, including a variety of recurring audio cues, recurring jokes (which often restart each season, so you're never too far out of the loop) and audience-interaction bits. A great example of the latter is the "secret verbal", in which they instruct the show's fans to prank other sports journalists by swarming them with very specific oddball questions on Twitter, until the target finally figures it out.
5) I have to begin my final recommendation with a major conflict of interest notice: KubrickCast is co-hosted by yours truly. We started in the spring of 2014 with the organizing principle of doing one episode for each Stanley Kubrick film. But then Dr. Strangelove stretched to two episodes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey stretched to five, and right now we're in the middle of a trilogy about The Shining. So will we be done after Eyes Wide Shut? Probably not! Stay tuned, and see what we've got planned in 2015.
If you give some or all (really, I mean all) of these a listen, let me know! In six months time, when you're at a party, and someone's talking to you about this amazing show called Serial—have you heard of it?—you'll be ready to drop a pod knowledge bomb on them. You can thank me in advance—by reviewing and rating my podcast on iTunes, of course.