I've been an enthusiastic podcast listener for many years, but several months ago I noticed myself falling way behind on my queue. Part of it was that I had accumulated too many podcast subscriptions. But my subscription list had grown a bit stale as well. I find that I can "like" a podcast, but still accumulate a backlog of unplayed episodes for subconscious reasons. And more backlogs are the last thing I need in my life.
It was time to shake things up.
So I let some old favorites go and injected a bunch of new shows. They weren't all winners, but I did find some new favorites that I now devour as soon as they pop up in my queue.
Podcasts from traditional media companies often feel like half-assed side projects. The Daily, a new podcast from The New York Times, is something different. It's a 15-minute show that runs five days a week. Host Michael Barbaro covers the top stories of the day, pulling in Times journalists from various specialized beats to dive deeper into specific topics.
I've tried the "here's what you need to know today" genre in the past, and it's never stuck. It's hard to find a balance between too high level to be useful or so in the weeds that it gets too tedious to keep up with daily. The Daily nails this balance perfectly and packages everything up with great pacing and sound design. It never feels like too little or too much.
My favorite episode so far: Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 (today!)
Crimetown from Gimlet Media is a fresh take on the true crime genre that sets itself apart from the crowd of Serial wannabes. The show devotes a full season to the crime culture of a single city.
Season 1 focuses on Providence, R.I., which has a colorful history of organized crime and political corruption. As someone who grew up just over the Massachusetts border from Rhode Island during during the heyday of Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, I was going to devour this no matter what. But it's extremely well done, and I will continue to listen even when the show moves on to other cities that are less near and dear to me.
Hosts Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier are accomplished documentarians and do a stellar job at blending narration, first-person interviews, and archival audio into a tight and engaging format. They've also partnered with the local newspaper of record, The Providence Journal, to make a rich set of archival photos and documents available on their website as a companion to each episode.
My favorite episode so far: The Making of a Mayor.
Pod Save the World
I was in early on Keepin' It 1600, The Ringer's breakout political podcast featuring former Obama adminstration staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Dan Pfeiffer. Following the election, Favreau, Vietor, and Lovett parted ways with The Ringer and launched their own company, Crooked Media, with a more overtly activist mission.
Pod Save America, their debut podcast, rebooted the Keepin' It 1600 format of banter about the latest Trump administration antics and short interviews with journalists and political figures. It was quickly followed by a second show, Pod Save the World, with Vietor, Obama's former national security spokesman, doing one-on-one interviews with foreign policy experts.
I've really enjoyed Pod Save the World's more focused format and the opportunity to hear in-depth perspectives from key players from the Obama administration who are now free to speak more candidly about thorny policy topics like Benghazi and the Iran nuclear deal. It's less of a show about politics than it is a behind the scenes look at how our government conducts itself internationally.
My favorite episode so far: Secret Iran Talks with Jake Sullivan.
How I Built This
How I Built This is an NPR podcast that features interviews with entrepreneurs about the ups and downs of creating something. This format is harder than it sounds to pull off, since it's easy for successful entrepreneurs to come across with a smug "here's how I was smarter than everyone else" tone. How I Build This has managed to avoid this so far.
Host Guy Raz has turned the microphone on a diverse set of entrepreneurs, ranging from larger than life personalities like Richard Branson and Mark Cuban, founders of quintessential Silicon Valley startups like Instagram, Airbnb, and Lyft, and less conventional success stories like Angie's List and Melissa and Doug. An aspect that I've found very inspiring is the guests' candor about the challenges and setbacks they encountered along the way. It's easy to think of every successful company as an overnight success, but it's surprising how many faced near death experiences along the way.
My favorite episode so far: Airbnb: Joe Gebbia.