A beginner’s guide to amazing podcasts

Do you know what it feels like to float in outer space? To win an Oscar? To play in the Super Bowl? I do! OK, I haven’t personally had these experiences. . . yet. (Never say never, you know?) I’ve heard nuanced accounts that sent my brain whirling into overdrive. You might ask: did you eat a handful of hallucinogenic mushrooms? Dear reader, I did not. . . I just listen to podcasts.

Deeper than an interview, more accessible than a book or movie, podcasts are the creative outlet du jour. Chances are that even if you don’t listen to them, you’ve heard about them. The podcast business is booming; The Washington Post recently reported on the rise of ad dollars for the medium, citing that Apple’s podcasts tout 1 billion subscriptions. And since they’re relatively easy to produce, it seems every aspiring comic or journalist with a Twitter account is cranking one out. So with iTunes virtually overflowing with the most innovative, most unfiltered form of media, it can be hard to know where to start.

Fear not! To help you navigate the waters of podcastopia, I’ve compiled the top five on the market.

5. “You made it weird” with Pete Holmes

Who is Pete Holmes?

Pete’s a comedian (and star of TBS’s recently departed Pete Holmes Show). If you took the enthusiasm of a cartoon sidekick (think, like, the Snowman from Frozenand injected it into an adult man, you’d have Pete Holmes. While initially, his energy and Hyena-like nightmare-cackle seem grating, eventually he’ll wear you down; both personality-wise. . . and literally, via your eardrum.

What’s the show like?

Picture a clown conducting interviews about capital-‘S‘ serious things like love, sex, politics, and religion. . . the show’s title is an apt one. Weirdness aside, Pete is razor-sharp. The conversations are always illuminating, perhaps more so because old Petey came up with today’s most renowned and influential comedians–including Nick Kroll (Kroll Show), Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), TJ Miller, and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), just to name a few. No matter who the guest is, Pete is genuinely curious and insightful; it’s infectious. Give it a listen and your heart will thank me. . . but your eardrums won’t because again, that laugh.

Where should I start?

Comedian Tig Notaro’s dry delivery and Pete’s giddy delight perfectly complement each other while they discuss the elation of falling in love.

4. Radiolab from WNYC

Who makes that?

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are Peabody Award-winning broadcasters, storytellers and scientists exploring hypotheses. They’re in the business of asking questions.

What’s the show like?

Radiolab is a look into the “whys” of a wondrous universe. The program digs into the curiosities of the modern world with childlike enthusiasm coupled with the scientific chops of your favorite college professor. Radiolab takes big concepts like numbers, dating, time, and sleep, and breaks them apart to understand how and why they matter in our world. Week after week, it’s an education on nuances of humanity.

Where should I start?

Animal lovers and skeptics alike can appreciate this “Animal Minds” episode, which includes a whale of a tale. . . literally.

3. NPR’s “This American Life”

Who makes that?

Host Ira Glass. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s become a celebrity in his own right, leveraging his fame to make movies (like Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me) and most recently, to produce a live dance show!

What’s the show like?

“This American Life” is an hour of really excellent stories. It takes a variety of stories; from investigative journalism to political issues to high school drama to hospice care–and illustrates why it matters to YOU. Glass guides listeners with gravitas, forging an emotional connection one insightful three-act episode at a time.

Where should I start?

There are hundreds and hundreds of episodes to pick from, but I recommend this old gem: “Americans in Paris” which was recently re-aired. Also, frequent contributor David Sedaris makes a cameo.

2. NPR’s “Fresh Air”

Who makes that?

Terry Gross is a journalist who pushes the medium to new levels of brilliance with her one-on-one conversational interviews. In short: Bow down, bitches.

What’s the show like?

“Fresh Air” didn’t start as a podcast, just like Terry Gross didn’t start as a national treasure. But here we are. The NPR show is a long-form interview that asks artists about their creative process. Gross is a media vet with a voice as soothing as audible Xanax. She has the emotional intelligence of a therapist with the chops of a journalism vet. The marriage of her unique talents is a show unlike anything else in the landscape–it examines some of the most interesting TV shows, films, and music around and proves that intelligence is interesting.

Where should I start?

This interview with astronaut Chris Hadfield is enough to knock the socks off even the most jaded of New Yorkers. I sent it to everyone I know (Exhibit A).

1. “WTF” with Marc Maron

Who is Marc Maron?

A middle-aged radio host turned successful, renewed comic, interviews guests about what matters to them, all while squashing decade-old comedy beefs.

What’s the show like?

Marc Maron is the godfather of podcasting, and “WTF” is the flagship enterprise for the medium. Which is why he’s earned his own TV series, is headlining stand-up shows and was on the cover of EW magazine. The hype is real. Maron is the best type of interviewer–he’s smart and insightful–but he’s also uninhibited. His own unconventional career trajectory, which pre-podcasting was characterized mainly by disappointment, has erased any qualms about what’s off-limits. Marc asks the tough questions–but not like a reporter. He approaches all of his conversations like he’s just a dude at a diner chatting over a cigarette and coffee. His forthcoming confessions about sex, sobriety, drugs, and depression open the door for guests to share their own secrets. There’s a reason why critics call it a joint therapy session. It’s why Hannibal Buress can discuss being homeless in New York, Lena Dunham can detail past emotionally abusive relationships, and Louis CK can tearfully open up about his friendship with Maron.

The most interesting thing about Maron’s podcast is that as the show has evolved over the years, so has Marc. He’s no longer argumentative or bitter. He’s–mostly!–creatively and emotionally fulfilled. His show is not a rose-colored promotional machine we’re accustomed to. It is, however, relentlessly and even uncomfortably honest. It subverts assumptions and challenges both the guest and the listener to consider what art means to them. There’s plenty of content out there to make you laugh or cry–but “WTF” will always make you think. Whether you like it or not.

Where should I start?

In the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death, Maron rereleased this episode originally recorded in 2010. Like most “WTF” episodes, this one isn’t afraid to show both the dark and the light, thus illuminating a human picture of a brilliant, creative mind.

Katie M. Lucas is a writer based in Brooklyn, via Ohio, who spends her days as a glutton for all things entertainment. She created the TV blog Character Grades and thinks about Game of Thrones more than is probably healthy, but in exchange she gets paid AND–one time!–an Emmy Award (which she should process any day now). When she’s not watching TV, she’s curating a Spotify playlist, keeping up on an absurd amount of podcasts or getting way too emotionally invested in novels. . . which may cause her to cry on the subway. She is not ashamed. You should probably follow her on Twitter: @KtLuWho.

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