What follows isn’t a list of the very best podcasts (although there’s an argument that every one of these titles could be featured on such a list), but rather ones that do the best job of showing what is possible with the format.
Black List Table Reads
If I met somebody had never heard a podcast, and I had to pick a single show to demonstrate what is possible with the format, I’d pick Black List Table Reads. The premise: Take a great unproduced screenplay, and turn it into an “ear movie,” with top-notch actors, narration, and sound effects. The result is simply awesome, with remarkably good production quality that does a great job of understanding what sounds are needed to fill in a story, and actors (many of whom are recognizable names) that really do bring their characters to life. Although almost every episode is worth listening to, and the show drifts between genres that range from sci-fi noir to Jane Austen homages, I suggest starting with the screwball hard-R comedy Balls Out. And with individual episodes now covering entire movies, single installments of Black List Table Reads count as some of the meatiest pieces of podcast out there.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
It’s hard not to use words like “epic” when describing a podcast that recently concluded a six-part, 24-hour-long series (or perhaps “cycle” would be a better word) on World War I. And while the show has gotten plenty of attention for host Dan Carlin’s ability to make multi-hour monologues addictive and downright interesting, the real reason this show earns a spot on this list is for its ability to succeed despite tossing aside virtually every rule that governs what a successful podcast should be. Episodes come out so rarely (it’s not unusual to wait many months between installations), that seeing a new one pop up is a cause for legitimate excitement. Podcasts are supposed to be regular, predictable, dependable. This show is anything but, and its ability to survive and thrive marks it as one the podcast format’s only true pieces of event programming.
How Did This Get Made?
The premise is simple, and not entirely original (remember MST3K?): Each episode, a panel of comedians (anchored by hosts Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas) gets together to dissect a so-bad-it’s-good-movie. What makes How Did This Get Made? a legitimately great podcast—other than the frequent belly laughs and inventive fan theories that the hosts posit—is the way it fosters a cohesive community of listeners. An active online forum, raucous audience-participation-heavy live shows, and an open invitation for listeners to submit theme songs to the show’s segments make listeners feel like they are a part of the product.
Love + Radio
What makes Love + Radio a great show is how much trust it places in its audience. Solid audio documentaries with no introductions, no banter, and absolutely no fluff. Each episode simply has somebody tell their own story, virtually uninterrupted, over a sonic collage of sound effects that further immerses the audience in often-difficult worlds that provide insight into what it’s like to be a registered sex offender, a drug addict, or a balloon-popping fetish model. This show doesn’t tell you what to think, and lack of context or narration drive you remarkably close to empathy (and even sympathy) with folks on the fringes.