The 13 podcasts of 2016 you should listen to
The struggle of Peak TV is real, but the struggle of Peak Podcast is no less pressing. With reliably high-quality content from WNYC, NPR, Chicago Public Media, and Earwolf dropping weekly (not to mention dozens of new ventures from lesser-known players), it takes some discipline—and ideally a long daily commute—to keep up to date.
Here are the 13 essential podcasts you need to hear from 2016, including established classics, new breakouts, and hidden gems you might have missed in previous years.
1. 2 Dope Queens
This Brooklyn-based comedy show was one of the most important and consistently delightful additions to the podcast landscape in 2016. Hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams in front of a live audience, 2 Dope Queens combines frank conversations about sex, race, and New York life with stand-up segments from comedians. A majority are comedians of colour and female comedians in a conscious effort to correct the "too-many-white-dudes-in-comedy" problem. The stand-up is consistently hilarious, but it's the deadpan chemistry between BFFs Robinson and Williams that anchors the show, as the pair get real about stereotypical black roles in pop culture and what they'd do as dudes for a day.
Twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Andes was found murdered in her Ohio apartment a few days after her college graduation in December of 1978. This gripping new podcast from the Cincinnati Enquirer delves into the murder, its investigation, and the reasons why, within hours of Andes' body being discovered, police had categorized this as an open-and-shut case. Serial successors were a dime a dozen in 2016—there's another one further down this list—but if that show's legacy is a spike in true crime journalism of this depth and quality, it's hard to see a downside.
3. Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People
Hosted by Chris Gethard, Earwolf's thrilling new experimental show launched this year and is built around three simple rules: anyone can call Gethard anonymously, the phone line will close after an hour, and Gethard can't be the first to hang up. Sometimes, the callers have an agenda; other times, they call with nothing in particular to say, but in every case Gethard demonstrates just how good he is at drawing people out, and at finding the extraordinary details in ordinary conversation.
4. Death, Sex & Money
This is not your average interview show. Each week, creator and host Anna Sale sits down for an intimate conversation about "The Big Stuff" with a different person—some of them famous, some of them not, but the beauty of the format is that it scarcely matters. There is no small talk, no sound bites, and no self-promotion, and every subject is disarmingly honest about the struggles and questions that unite us all. As evidenced by that last sentence, there's no way to talk about Death, Sex & Money without sounding hokey, and yet the show itself is anything but.
5. How I Built This
The newest show from US's National Public Radio (NPR) sees host Guy Raz (also of TED Radio Hour) speaking to entrepreneurs about the businesses they built from scratch and the obstacles they faced along the way. Since the show's launch last month, its subjects have included the creators of Instagram, Vice, Spanx and Clifbar, all of whom are fascinating to hear regardless of whether you have any interest in starting a business.
6. In the Dark
Another spiritual successor to Serial, this smartly structured investigative podcast focuses on the 1989 disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, whose case had remained unsolved until last month. Led by Peabody-winning reporter Madeleine Baran, In the Dark underwent some last-minute re-edits after Wetterling's killer confessed to police at the beginning of September–but the changes were minimal because the podcast is focused more on the investigation than the crime, and specifically on the bewildering failures of local law enforcement that left the killer at large for 27 years. The result is addictive, harrowing listening.
Not true crime, but true horror. Since its debut last year, Aaron Mahnke's dark history podcast has rapidly become an acclaimed phenomenon, with an Amazon series now in the works. Each episode focuses on a different piece of dark American folklore, examining a real historical event or documented story in meticulous detail, and wringing horror from the facts alone. Narrated by Mahnke in a style that evokes spooky campfire stories, Lore is a history lesson like no other.
8. Mental Illness Happy Hour
Comedian Paul Gilmartin's weekly "hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads" is a vital, compassionate gem that fills a desperate and under-addressed need in our society. Gilmartin conducts frank, unfiltered interviews with a variety of guest—some of them artists and writers, some of them therapists, some of them podcast listeners–about their experiences of mental illness, and also invites listeners to share their own struggles via anonymous surveys. The Mental Illness Happy Hour is a compelling antidote to the myth that mental illness is rare, or that suffering from it means that you're alone.
Narrowing this list down to just 13 was a challenge, so this is our cheat pick along the lines of "If I had a wish, I'd wish for three more wishes." Gimlet Media's Sampler is a tasting platter for the world of podcasts, featuring "bite-size tastes" from a variety of shows, alongside interviews with hosts and producers.
10. Revisionist History
How it took Malcolm Gladwell this long to get his own podcast is a mystery. Launched in June by Slate's Panoply network, Revisionist History was an idea Gladwell originally envisioned as a book, aiming to re-address historical events that have been overlooked or misinterpreted. Though heavy on historical fact, the stories are made easily digestible by Gladwell's thoughtful, human-driven approach.
Whether you're an aspiring screenwriter or a plain old movie fan, Scriptnotes offers a unique insider's perspective into the business. Hosts John August (Big Fish, Go, Frankenweenie) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, Identity Thief) are a hugely likable duo, and their chemistry elevates weekly discussions which cover everything from the basics of writing and outlining, to selling a screenplay, to the realities of movie production. The show also features guest interviews with writers, producers and actors, and a regular "Three-Page Challenge" segment in which listeners submit a portion of their screenplay for critique.
12. Sleep With Me
Being described as "a great cure for insomnia" would not be considered a win for most podcasts. But this innovative nightly show really is like Ambien in sound wave form, offering up "a lulling, droning, boring bedtime story to distract your racing mind." That description actually undersells what's so brilliant about Drew Ackerman's stories—they are deliberately surreal and semi-nonsensical, his sentences labyrinthine and full of tangents, mirroring the way your brain works in a hypnagogic state.
13. This American Life
No essential podcasts list would be complete without it, and there's a reason why it's such a perennially obvious choice. TAL's weekly blend of reportage, storytelling, and monologues across different formats, and in service of wildly varied stories, is consistently innovative and illuminating. One of this year's standouts was February episode "Anatomy Of Doubt," a stirring spinoff from The Marshall Project's award-winning article about a rape victim who was disbelieved by everyone, from the police to her own family and friends.