If you’re not much of a podcast listener and you have a sense that you’re missing out on a lot of great content, you’re absolutely right. But now is a good time to fix that, thanks to a new profusion of listening options. And to get you started, I have a few shows to suggest. Fifty of them, in fact.
I’ve always been a big fan of podcasts—and I mean always, back to the days of the very first podcasts around 2004. So when Xconomy asked me last December to list my favorite podcasts of 2015, I had no difficulty coming up with a list of 38 shows.
Since then, I’ve stopped listening to a few of those shows, and have added a bunch of new ones, which brings this year’s list to 50.
Some of these are classic shows that would make anyone’s list of top podcasts. Others are quirky or niche finds. It’s fine if you don’t subscribe to all of them. But when there are more than 300,000 podcasts to choose from, everyone could use a little help getting started.
There’s a good reason I’m listening to more podcasts than ever: I’m now in the podcasting business myself, and I want to track (and learn from) the competition. My own show, Soonish, is about the future and how it will be shaped by the choices we’re making about technology today. I published a short teaser this week, and the first full episode will come out January 13. I hope you’ll subscribe.
Before I list my favorite shows, I want to tell you about a few new ways to get podcasts. Until recently, finding a show and subscribing to it meant using one of the big, established podcast distribution hubs—either Apple’s iTunes Store and the iOS Podcasts app (still the conduit for about half of all podcast downloads), or Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher, or Spotify. But lately, innovators have been experimenting with new apps that offer more simplicity, curation, or ease of use.
Here are five of the most notable apps:
60dB — This iOS-only app isn’t just about podcasts; it streams a variety of short audio stories drawn from both the radio world and the podcasting universe. You just open it and it starts playing. If a selection doesn’t appeal, you can swipe left, Tinder style, and hear something else. Over time the app learns what you like and plays more stuff like that. Segments are no more than a few minutes long and are drawn from a library of top shows and networks. 60dB (pronounced sixty-dee-bee) is from a Silicon Valley startup called Tiny Garage, co-founded by former NPR reporter Steve Henn. According to Henn, 60dB’s mission is to rescue all the “truly awesome” short-form stories that would otherwise “go unheard by those listeners who would really, really love to hear them.”
Castro 2 — Podcasts can feel a little like e-mail: new episodes just keep piling up, and your list of unplayed episodes can get so large that it starts to stress you out (and chews up a lot of storage). Triage is the big innovation in Castro 2, which is from a tiny indie partnership called Supertop. New episodes land in your “inbox.” You can review the episode descriptions, move the ones that sound interesting into your queue, and archive the rest. Only queued episodes get downloaded.
NPR One — Like 60dB, this isn’t a podcast management app per se. Rather, it’s a convenient portal to the oodles of great content that National Public Radio and its member stations and partners publish every day. It’s a streaming app, so you can just start it going, and it will pick a variety of segments for you, starting with the top-of-the-hour news updates from NPR itself and your local NPR station.
Overcast — This minimalist podcast app for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch is from Marco Arment, creator of the Instapaper read-it-later app. It’s focused on simplicity and convenience. That said, it also has a few unique tech features. It syncs your progress between devices, so if you start listening to a podcast on your phone and you switch to your tablet, the app knows where you left off. “Smart Speed” speeds up talk-based shows by cutting out the silence between words. And “Voice Boost” normalizes volume across shows. (I find those last two features alarming, since pacing, silence, and volume contrast are important tools of audio storytelling. Then again, I know people who listen to every podcast at 1.5x or 2x speed, which is even more horrifying.)
RadioPublic — This app was built with the concerns of podcast creators in mind, and it focuses on solving the discovery problem. With most podcast directories and apps, it’s really hard for listeners to find new shows they’ll like. (Hence articles like this one.) RadioPublic’s home page shows a series of cards that lead to new episodes of your favorite shows, as well as new recommendations based on your listening habits. There’s an “Explore” section featuring curated episode lists from invited tastemakers like Radiotopia executive director Julie Shapiro. There’s even an experimental “Ask the Librarian” page that will put you in touch with a live human. The app is the creation of RadioPublic PBC, a recent spinoff of the Cambridge, MA-based audio distribution network PRX (which, not coincidentally, is home to Radiotopia).
On top of all these new apps, you can get podcasts directly from new voice-based hardware platforms like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. The great thing about the proliferation of podcast distribution points is that most of them are designed to be user-friendly, bypassing some of the old clunkiness that went into subscribing to a podcast. The worrying thing is that with such a mess of options, listeners still won’t know where to start.
Inevitably, the market will converge on a few standouts. To be honest, I still get most of my podcasts through the good old iOS Podcasts app.
Now, on to my list of 50 favorite podcasts from 2016. Shows with an asterisk are new to the list this year:
99% Invisible — Roman Mars’s show about architecture, design, and the human decisions embedded in the built environment and the objects we use. Still my favorite podcast of all time.
*Archive 81 — One of a new crop of audio dramas that feature immersive, compelling sound design and voice acting. This one describes itself as a “found footage horror podcast about cities, stories, and old gods.” The show is written and produced by Marc Sollinger and Dan Powell.
Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything — Reliably quirky and provocative, this show is about anything that interests its host, independent producer Benjamen Walker. That means everything from the gig economy to cybersecurity.
Criminal — An extremely artful show about real-life crime stories and the imprint crime leaves on victims and perpetrators, from Phoebe Judge, Loren Spohrer, and Eric Mennel.
Ctrl-Walt-Delete — Banter on the latest computers and media gadgets from Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel at The Verge. Mossberg knew Steve Jobs well, and most episodes focus on Apple.
Esquire Classic Podcast — Esquire Magazine has long been a showcase for great narrative nonfiction. This show revisits the best articles from the archives, and includes interviews with the authors or related experts, as well as … Next Page »