Updated: November 26, 2019
I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I listen to them all the time–in the shower, on the subway, when I’m walking around New York City and, of course, when I’m traveling. I do most of my listening during trips in transit: long-haul flights, lengthy drives. On a recent trip through Québec, listening to podcasts kept me entertained while driving from one adorable small town to another on long mind-numbing stretches of highway.
Best Podcasts: News and Information
Overheard at National Geographic (National Geographic)
This excellent podcast by National Geographic takes you backstage to meet the explorers, photographers, and researchers who bring us all the extraordinary stories for which the publication is known. From underwater pyramids and an Egyptian murder plots to the Zombie Mice of Marion Island and the truth about women and the early NASA programs, each story is fascinating, look at this crazy world of ours.
The Daily (New York Times)
Hosted by New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro, The Daily is my every morning go-to podcast at home and on the road. Topics focus on a single important story of the day and include one-on-one interviews with Barbaro’s colleagues who byline the coverage. Episodes give listeners with a behind-the-scenes look at the journalistic process, history of the topic, and context of major issues facing the world. Many episodes feature real people affected by the news. Don’t expect an audio version of a nightly newscast, The Daily is far more intimate and heartfelt.
The New Yorker Radio Hour (The New Yorker / WNYC )
For those who love the magazine, the podcast is a wonderful complement to the brilliant writing and journalistic pros. For those who don’t, and perhaps a bit intimidated by the 7,000-word articles, the podcast is a great way to dip your toe in. Editor David Remnick conducts the majority of insightful interviews and covers a wide mix of topics from politics and the #MeToo movement to Hollywood and world news.
Host Guy Raz talks to entrepreneurs who’ve created products or businesses that have become a phenomenon. Think Bobbi Brown the cosmetics titan, Maureen and Tony Wheeler who started Lonely Planet, Barbara Corcoran the real-estate mogul, Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal from Warby Parker, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger from Instagram and many others. The interviews take listeners from the original spark of an idea and moves through the brilliant and dreadful decisions, market challenges, as well as the triumphs and failures that led to eventual mega-success.
Recode Media (Recode)
Journalist Peter Kafka has covered the intersection of Media and technology for years and has a friendly but no-nonsense interview style. He’s not antagonistic but if he wants to know something he’ll keep asking until the person stops side-stepping. His guests range from editors of major news organizations (I loved his interviews with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Radhika Jones of Vanity Fair, Michael Barbaro of The Daily)) and platforms (Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey), to entertainment figures (Billions producer Brian Koppelman, Get Out producer Jason Blum, Godless co-creators Steven Soderbergh and Scott Frank ) to those you might not expect (Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer, The Martian and Artemis author, Andy Weir, documentarian Ken Burns).
Full disclosure: Peter is a friend of mine from my days in media as a Communications and PR executive at Condé Nast.
Fresh Air (NPR)
Whenever I swap favorite podcasts with friends it’s rare that Fresh Air doesn’t come up.
Host Terry Gross is a consummate pro and has talked to the biggest names in politics, entertainment, science, society, literature… I could go on and on. Her interviews are always interesting and thoughtful and while some people she has on don’t interest me, that is the exception, not the rule. (A surprising bit of trivia: She conducts most of her interviews remotely. I’m shocked because the conversations feel so intimate I always assumed her guests were sitting next to her.)
Pop Culture Happy Hour (NPR)
A lighthearted conversation among four devotees of music, movies, TV, and books is what you’ll find on this Wednesday and Friday podcast. NPR’s Linda Holmes who edits the website’s pop culture/entertainment blog is the “official” host but is always accompanied by three other colleagues. Via a roundtable discussion, they each offer their opinions about the subject in a casual, fun and humorous way. You can tell from their interaction they are all good friends and they often crack each other up which makes me smile. To be honest, I don’t agree with a lot of their likes and dislikes (they hated Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri. I mean….), but no matter, I enjoy listening to the banter, and their observations are often spot on. Glen Weldon, a regular, is hysterical—I rarely see his take on things coming which makes his humor even more agreeable.
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Recode Decode (Recode)
Host Kara Swisher is probably the country’s top technology business writer/editor /commentator, a co-founder of Recode, a contributing writer to The New York Times, and a ball-buster. She’ll take on CEO’s, politicians, technologists, celebrities, you name it. She speaks her mind, especially if she believes people aren’t taking responsibility for their actions (yeah, you Mark Zuckerberg). Swisher has extensive knowledge of the industry after covering Silicon Valley for years and listeners benefit from her decades-worth of contextual expertise. Highly respected yet feared, Swisher somehow maintains genuine positive relationships with those she’s taken to task. It’s not an easy line to walk. Did I mention she’s funny too?
The Longform Podcast (Longform)
If you’re into great journalism, Longform hosts Aaron Lammer, Max Linsky, and Evan Ratliff. interview outstanding non-fiction writers from publications such as The New Yorker and the New York Times about their lives, how they got their starts, big stories they’ve worked on and how they approach their reporting. Two particularly interesting episodes are with Maggie Haberman and Rukmini Callimachi from the New York Times. Also worth a listen is Tina Brown (Vanity Fair and Talk Magazines), Kara Swisher (Recode) and Hillary Clinton.
Best Podcasts: Stories
Bad Batch (Wondery) — New
From Wondery and Laura Bell, the creators of Dr. Death comes Bad Batch, another true tale about the medical industry. Patients looking for a cure-all become violently ill after being injected with a new “miracle cure” created from stem cells. Were the vials tainted? Do stem cell treatments even work? Bell investigates the snake-oil promises of a multi-million dollar company selling its cure-all to doctors nationwide. It’s a fascinating yet frightening podcast detailing a scam on the level of Theranos.
The Mysterious Mr. Epstein (Wondery) –New
A detailed look into the life and crimes of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein from a poor college dropout to private school teacher to Wall Street wiz and billionaire pedophile. The episodes include poignant interviews with some of the women caught in Epstein’s twisted web.
The Shrink Next Door (Wondery)
This story is beyond tragic. It’s the tale of esteemed psychiatrist Isaac Herschkopf, shrink to A-listers and celebrities, who insinuated himself into his patients’ lives then systematically destroyed them. One such patient, Marty Markowitz, lived next-door to veteran journalist Joe Nocera, a columnist for Bloomberg and the host of the podcast. Over time, as Nocera gets to know Markowitz, he unravels a web of deceit, manipulation, and malpractice that kept Markowitz emotionally imprisoned for over 30 years. What’s worse is Herschkopf is still practicing.
The Ballad of Billy Balls (Crime Town)
What do you get when you mix a young woman’s personal quest for answers; a murder-mystery; 1980s punk culture on the lower east side of new york; child neglect; addiction; soul-searching; the fragility and strength of familial bonds, and personal reflection? The Ballad of Billy Balls. Narrator / creator Io Tillet Wright is uncommonly honest and compelling in this telling of a family history mangled by the loss of a passionate love, the domino effect of repercussions, and the questions around a murder she’s determined to solve.
Packed with twist and turns and crazy, unexpected surprises, you’ll find it hard to believe this six-episode podcast is true. But it is. I can’t begin to write a summary that will do this podcast justice but I’ll give it a go.
Half sisters Rasha Pecoraro and Yvette Gentile host a podcast that delves into the mysterious and often bizarre life story of their mother, Fauna Hodel.
To begin with, Fauna’s biological mother, Tamar, gave her up after meeting Jesse Lee, an African American woman in a casino bathroom. She told Jesse Lee Fauna’s father was black and her family wouldn’t except the baby, yet that wasn’t the truth. It took years for Fauna to unravel the true story and in doing so discovered secrets about Tamar and the fact her grandfather, a locally renowned surgeon, was a prime suspect in the famous Black Dahlia murder. (Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia, was tortured, killed, exsanguinated, mutilated, cut in half and left posed in an empty neighborhood vacant lot in 1947.) And if all that wasn’t enough, the Hodel family saga also includes domestic violence, incest, orgies, courtroom drama, addiction, singer/songwriter Michelle Phillips, and Salvadore Dahli. It’s a fascinating listen.
The Dropout (ABC News)
The Dropout proves the smartest people on the planet can be duped. Just ask the professional journalists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, tenured professors, a major drugstore chain, and the politicians who fell for what is one of the biggest frauds in history.
At 19, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to launch Theranos, a tech company promising a device that would provide low-cost diagnostics for hundreds of conditions using only a pinprick and a drop of blood. She said she would revolutionize the healthcare industry. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, though she raised well over a billion dollars and promised the moon to her investors and business partners, her technology didn’t work. But heaven forbid she’d tell anyone. ABC News chief business, technology and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, unpacks this engrossing tale from Theranos’ lauded beginnings to its current infamous present.
I’m not a sports person. That said, stories having to do with sports figures or issues associated with sports I like. In fact, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO is one of my favorite shows. It’s all about good storytelling. Gladiator appealed to me for this reason.
This documentary podcast examines the life, incarceration, and death of Aaron Hernandez, a New England Patriots super-bowl star turned murderer. The Boston Globe Spotlight team (made famous by the movie of the same name) is the journalistic engine behind the show which means the reporting is first-rate. Questions they investigate are: whether Hernandez’s violent behaviors stemmed from brain injuries he sustained during his career; if he had conflicting sexuality issues that caused him turmoil, and if the team’s management looked the other way so he could keep playing.
Interviews, audiotapes of Hernandez, and the shocking results of his brain autopsy supplement this intriguing eight-episode podcast.
Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History (Panolpy)
Gladwell, best-known for his best-selling book The Tipping Point, has created an engrossing 10-episode podcast (now in its third season) that per the show notes “re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, or even a song—and asks whether we got it right. “
Gladwell is an amazing story-teller and always weaves a narrative that is surprising, interesting and well researched. He’ll explain how people came to believe one thing but why that belief is askew or downright false plus the greed, ignorance, societal or political factors that influenced perceptions. Set time aside for this one, you won’t want to miss anything.
Caliphate (New York Times)
New York Times Terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi takes listeners along on her quest to better understand ISIS. They recorded this ten-part series over a year, giving listeners a fly-on-the-wall perspective of her investigation. She records a series of interviews with a former ISIS member about his indoctrination from a Muslim idealist, about his days as a soldier, and his eventual desertion. I was surprised to learn how methodical and strategic ISIS is in its recruitment. I almost understand how the escalating baby steps approach they use could seduce men into doing things they never imagined. When she travels to Mosul to seek tangible evidence of ISIS members and practices, it’s an eye-opener. I also learned a lot about the reporting process including her concerns about manipulative sources; being lied to and how she navigated the investigation to eventually confirm the details she uncovered. (FYI–This show not for everyone. There is strong language and descriptions of violence.)
Outside Podcast (Outside Magazine)
As you might expect, there is a variety of interesting stories about adventure on this podcast from Outside Magazine. The “Science of Survival” are my favorite episodes. As the title suggests, these incredible stories discuss how people in harrowing circumstances managed to stay alive. Ice storms, boat wrecks, plane crashes, mountain climbing, hypothermia, pretty much anything you can imagine out in the wild someone has faced it and, surprisingly, lived to tell about it.
S- Town (From the Creators of Serial and This American Life)
When this podcast first came out it was downloaded 10-million times in four days. I started listening on day three. This is not an easy podcast to describe, it has so many twists and turns it’s difficult not to give something away, but I will try.
The story begins with Brian Reed, a producer at This American Life, receiving an unsolicited email from John B. Macklemore, a man living in Woodstock, Alabama. Macklemore the people in his hometown are ignoring claims a murder. Intrigued but not convinced there’s a story, Reed emails with Macklemore over several months and becomes drawn in by his eccentric personality and wild beliefs. Eventually, Reed accepts Macklemore’s invitation to visit his home and subsequently pulled into an engrossing, unimaginable rabbit hole. I promise, no matter what you imagine will happen along the way, this story will keep you riveted and guessing. (P.S. Once you’ve listened (and not before, there are too many spoilers) check out an interview on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing podcast where he discusses the making of the S-Town. It reveals a lot of really interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits.)
Best Podcasts: True Crime
Dateline NBC ( NBC News ) — New
It’s funny, I haven’t watched Dateline in years, but as a podcast, I really dig it. Great storytelling and high production value. You’ll find Current and classic episodes, of the show’s compelling true-crime mysteries, documentaries, and in-depth investigations.
Gangster Capitalism (C13Originals)
If you were intrigued by this year’s infamous college admissions scandals, you’ll want to listen to this podcast. Andrew Jenks, an award-winning documentarian, goes deep into the case with exclusive interviews, telephone recordings of the parents, and a breakdown of all the players from the celebs to the c-suite executives who perpetrated the scams.
The Murder Squad (Exactly Right)
Each week retired cold case investigator Paul Holes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, examine an unsolved murder, kidnapping, or missing person. In discussing the details, they hope listeners, and the amplification powers of podcasts and associated social media will be able to help them track down the criminals responsible. It’s an interesting and entertaining premise. I especially enjoy it when Holes details the behind the scenes efforts that go into solving capital crimes.
The Man in the Window (LA Times)
This is the story of home invasions, rapes, and murders committed in several multiple neighborhoods in different regions of California in the 70s and 80s. The press dubbed the “criminals” by different monikers: The Cordova Cat, the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Creek Killer, the Diamond Knot Killer, the original Night Stalker and most famously, the Golden State Killer. It took 40 years for the police to realize it was one man: Joseph James DeAngelo.
This six-episode, tightly-crafted podcast includes conversations with victims, police, and investigators. It examines DeAngelo’s past, and the hysteria he caused while he waged war against the world. A recording of DeAngelo harassing one of his victims made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
To Live and Die in LA (Tenderfoot TV & Cadence 13)
New York Times best-selling author and contributing editor, Neil Strauss, takes the listener along on a real-time investigation into the disappearance of model/actress Adea Shabani. Strauss along with a private investigator hired by Shabani’s family, sift through suspects, conduct interviews, and zero in on aspects of the case the police missed. It’s interesting to hear how they breakdown a lot of the clues and pull together a theory based on incomplete information. I can’t say too much without including spoilers but I enjoyed it.
Dr. Death (Wondery)
First, I have to say the following. If you have a hospital stay on the horizon don’t listen because it will freak you out.
Laura Beil, an award-winning health and science writer, tells a horrifying story about Dr. Christopher Dunsch, a Texas neurosurgeon. Throughout his career, Dunsch botched surgery after surgery leaving patients who trusted him paralyzed, in excruciating pain or worse. Beil includes commentary from doctors, patients, and friends of Dunsch. If you’re like me, you’ll be shocked and appalled to learn why he was able to get away with destroying so many lives before being brought to justice.
Sword & Scale (Wondery)
I am morbidly fascinated by true crime stories, murder, and serial killers, and Sword & Scale is my crack. Host Mike Boudet brings his bi-weekly, hour-long episodes to life with interviews, 911 recordings, court testimony, police interrogations, and other media to give listeners a full accounting of a crime and the justice system’s response. Some of these stories are absolutely mind-boggling and gruesome. People are crazy! To give you a sense of what I am talking about, the podcast’s companion website categorizes episodes by the following headings: Single Murder, Mass Murder, Torture, Manslaughter, Sexual assaults, Mobsters, Court Cases, Heists and Bizarre. Sword & Scale is the audio equivalent of a car crash and I can’t stop listening. WARNING: This podcast is not for the faint of heart. (I know, I know. I must be pretty twisted to love this but I own it.)
Hell and Gone (How Stuff Works)
This is a podcast by a friend of mine Catherine Townsend. When she lived in New York and I knew her she was a journalist. Today, she’s also a private investigator and kicks ass. Catherine’s story focuses on a murder she obsessed over for years. A young woman named Rebekah Gould, and a close friend of Catherine’s sister, was brutally murdered 14-years ago and left by the side of the road. The crime took place in the Arkansas Ozarks where Catherine grew up and the mystery still occupies locals to this day. Catherine, determined to solve the murders, moves back to her hometown and takes listeners with her. Follow along as she goes over the facts, fables, half-truths and rumors and interviews with friends and family.
What podcasts are you listening to?
I’d love to hear what podcast(s), you recommend and why. Please let me know in the comments below.
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