I’m a big fan of podcasts– they keep my mind busy and informed when I’m commuting to work or walking around Zürich– and since I don’t have much time for TV these days, they also keep me entertained.
Here are a bunch of podcasts I am happy to recommend. For each, I’m sharing the average episode length (you’ll notice I don’t do a lot of super-long podcasts; my commute isn’t that long!) and the type. “Sequential episodes” means you should listen to the episodes in order. “Non-sequential” means the episodes stand alone and you can scan the titles and pick the ones that sound most interesting to you.
- Type: reporting, 40+ non-sequential episodes
- Average episode length: 45 minutes
- Sample episode: E3: “Heaven’s Gate” – Marshall Applewhite & Bonnie Nettles
I’ve always been fascinated by cults and this show is a fairly straight reporting about them. Some of the episodes hold zero appeal to me, but others, like episode 7, “The Family (Anne Hamilton Byrne),” taught me something new and they’re dark and spooky. I am not thrilled with the style of the podcasters; their presentation can be a bit stilted, but they still deliver the goods.
Dexter Guff is Smarter Than You and You Can Be Too
- Type: comedy, 10 sequential episodes
- Average episode length: 25 minutes
- Sample episode: just start at the top with episode 1, You Don’t Exist Without a Personal Brand
“Dexter Guff is Smarter Than You is a satirical show about a thought leader at the top, and then the bottom, of his game. The 10 episode first season features guests Jesse Eisenberg, George Basil, Lauren Ash, Katie Crown, Gary Anthony Williams and more. Enter the Thought Palace with Dexter Guff to fill your ears with his delicious Thought Dogs.”
If you are familiar with Gary Vee, Tony Robbins, or Tim Ferriss, then you will totally get the joke… and even if not, it’s pretty great. This is one of those shows where you can listen to 5 minutes of the first episode and you will get its style immediately. I could not stop laughing; I think it’s pretty spot-on satire.
Strange Success with Jane Wells
How I Built This with Guy Raz
- Type: business origin and success stories, dozens of non-sequential episodes
- Average length: 25 minutes for Jane Wells; 45 minutes for Guy Raz
- Sample episode: Squatty Potty (Jane Wells), Atari & Chuck E. Cheese’s: Nolan Bushnell (Guy Raz)
Both of these podcasts are similar: they interview founders and talk to them about how they created and built their well-known businesses. If you are a fan of the TV shows Shark Tank, Dragon’s Den, or The Profit, you will probably like these.
The Organist Encores
- Type: pipe organ music, 235+ non-sequential episodes (!!!)
- Average length: 30 minutes
- Sample episode: 225 – Pizza & Pipes
And now for something completely different… a podcast featuring pipe organs. Each episode features lots of pipe organ music, both contemporary and from as early as the 1930s. For some reason I think this is a great podcast to just veg out to, but I understand if I am the only one that really loves this sort of thing. 🙂
Insider Trader Joe’s
- Type: “corporate” official podcast from Trader Joe’s, just 5 episodes
- Average length: 15 minutes
- Sample episode: each episode feels identical to me, so just start with the first, It’s All About the Products
If you aren’t familiar with Trader Joe’s, they are a beloved Southern-California based “chain of neighborhood grocery stores.” It’s hard to explain the cult-like following they enjoy but they are unlike any other grocery store. (They never have sales or coupons, over 50% of their inventory is produced for them as private-label products, they are known for their famous $2 bottle of wine called “Two-Buck Chuck,” the overall quality and prices of their products are incredible etc.) This short podcast series takes you inside their headquarters and talks about various facets of the business. It is extremely slickly produced… in fact, I think maybe a little too slick… though they are always professional and the production values are top-notch, sometimes the sound effects and pace don’t quite gel for me. I would love if they would do another “season” of this show but make more of a story and spend a little more time on each segment. Regardless, I enjoyed listening to this a lot, and I appreciate the bite-sized episodes. Just like I appreciate a tub of Trader Joe’s bite-sized chocolate chip cookies.
The Way I Heard It With Mike Rowe
- Type: short non-fiction stories, 100 non-sequential episodes
- Average length: 8 minutes
- Sample episode: A Full Figured Gal
Mike is a former TV host and super likeable guy who has a great podcast format: he tells brief (true) stories with a little twist at the end. The style is 100% Paul Harvey (“and now… the rest of the story”). Each episode is a short, sweet nugget of entertainment.
- Type: stories about items in the Smithsonian collection, 30 non-sequential episodes
- Average length: 25 minutes
- Sample episode: Painting Michelle Obama
The official podcast of The Smithsonian Institution (the group of national museums in Washington, D.C.). Each episode focuses on objects in the Smithsonian’s collection, old or new. Scan the titles and see what appeals to you.
Oh No Ross and Carrie
- Type: Ross and Carrie explore religion and pseudo-science; dozens of episodes
- Average length: 1 hour 20 minutes; many topics are covered in a 3-4 episode series. Their Scientology episodes are actually a 10-parter, which is a lot for this show but they are also probably the best shows in the entire series.
- Sample episode: Audit Scientology (part 1): Going Preclear
This is one of my absolute favorite podcasts and I am surprised by that… usually I like my podcasts shorter than an hour, and I am not a huge fan of the “two hosts shooting the shit” style (which is usually just interminable and boring as hell). But Ross and Carrie are both super interesting and their whole M.O. is brilliant: the tagline of the show is “we show up so you don’t have to,” and what this means is, they actually participate in all the weird stuff they are reporting on. To pick just one example, instead of just talking about Scientology, they both joined the church, read Dianetics, and took many courses to truly understand it. Another time, the two of them attended several meetups for people who believe the Earth is flat. Both hosts are interesting and devoted to keeping and fair and open mind for their reporting; they also have great chemistry and keep the show moving.
Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine
- Type: comedy and medical information, 200 non-sequential episodes
- Average length: 45 minutes
- Sample episode: The Royal Fistula Fad
Ever wondered about the medical history of tickling? Leeches? Amputation? The Purification Rundown? Earwax? Crystal Healing? In this completely charming podcast, a husband and wife team (she’s a doctor, he is an improv comedian) explore every bizarre topic you can imagine. Like all good podcasts, they keep things funny and they keep the show moving– their close relationship comes through clearly, as does the fact that they have done so many episodes.
- Type: interesting stories from history and linear-thinking puzzles; 200+ well-produced non-sequential episodes
- Average length: almost every episode is 34 minutes on the nose
- Sample episode: 199-The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering
Another show produced by a husband-wife team, almost every episode of this podcast follows exactly the same format: about 25 minutes telling an interesting and little-known story from history, a few minutes responding to reader messages, and then closing out the episode with a “lateral thinking puzzle.” (It’s hard to explain what those are, but every now and then, they do a special episode that is just all lateral-thinking puzzles, so you could listen to one of those. I love them.) You can really tell when a podcast has so much experience: the show is very well produced and always fun to listen to.
- Type: how-they-happened stories about 2 of the most famous Americans; Oprah is 5 episodes and Obama is 7 episodes
- Average length: 45-60 minutes
- Typical episode: start with either episode 1 of Making Oprah or episode 1 of Making Obama.
These two podcasts, both produced by WBEZ in Chicago, follow the same path: telling the story about how these incredibly successful and famous people came to become who they are. Both series interview not only their main subjects (Oprah and Obama) but also many, many others. These shows are produced by a public-radio veteran and it shows; the production values are perfect and they let all their interview subjects tell the stories. I also like that they are devoted to telling the story of how the person was “made”… for example, they tell Obama’s story up until he becomes President, and that’s where it ends. Extremely, extremely well made and interesting.
(both Oprah and Obama episodes are in the same show)
- Type: 11 in-depth episodes with Hillary Clinton, following her up until the election and then a few episodes after
- Average length: 20 minutes
- Sample episode: “Hi, Hillary”
When Trump was elected, nobody expected it– least of all, Hillary and her podcast host, Max Linsky. What I think makes this show so interesting is the assumption in the early episodes that she will win, and the last two episodes (titled “What Happened?”) that were recorded after her loss. Hillary comes across very warm and approachable, and she is a pleasure to listen to… even if you already know how the story will end.
Twenty Thousand Hertz
- Type: “The stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.” 43 non-sequential episodes
- Average length: 25 minutes
- Sample episode: #16, The Wilhelm Scream
Finally, I have saved my absolute favorite podcasts for last. This show is exactly what it says on the tin: stories about the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. I fell in love with the show from the second episode, about the NBC chimes… and have listened to every episode since. Since a professional sound-design company produces the episode, as you might imagine, they’re extremely well made. To me, this podcast is a perfect fit between subject matter, medium and storytelling.
Everything is Alive
- Type: Interviews with inanimate objects. Absurd, interesting, charming, thought-provoking.
- Average length: 22 minutes
- Sample episode: Louis, Can of Cola
Ever wanted to have a nice chat with a can of cola? Or a pillow? Or a lamppost? Actually, it doesn’t matter if you have wanted to or not– you’ll like what you hear in this podcast. Each episode is an interview with an inanimate object. Sometimes strange, often funny, and occasionally very touching and emotional, producer Ian Chillag (NPR) has created something quite special. No question one of the best new podcasts of 2018.
Bonus: Best iOS Podcast Player
I believe the best iPhone podcast player is Overcast. If you are using Apple’s default podcast player, check out Overcast and upgrade your experience…