Winter is coming, and I’m excited.
Being Minnesotan and admitting you like winter is like being Amish and admitting you like zippers. But I DO like winter, darn it (and I’ll bet there are some closeted Amish zipper lovers out there too). I love seeing Uptown turn starry with Christmas lights. I love watching snowflakes float through the glow of street lamps. I love making snow angels in Como Park, then wandering into the Conservatory to melt the ice crystals off my hair. I love tramping around at night when it’s so quiet you can hear your heart beating and so cold your eyelashes freeze over.
And I love that the cold and darkness are a great excuse for spending nights curled up in a blanket, consuming both cookies and media with the voracity of a bear preparing to hibernate.
Podcasts are perfect for nights like those. You can actually be productive while listening to them, which is a plus. And because This American Life has indelibly associated podcasts with NPR and smart people who wear attractive glasses, you can also bask in a sense of intellectual superiority. It’s a win/win situation.
Here are my favorite podcasts, some well-known, some not. Not all of will leave you smarter, but I can guarantee they will all leave you entertained.
Here’s Your Long List of Podcasts!
Summary: Starlee Kine solves small mysteries, one per episode. In one, she tracks down a Swiss chef and returns his long-lost trophy belt buckle, dropped in a gutter over twenty years ago. In another, she helps a struggling author figure out who slipped her book to Britney Spears.
These aren’t epic mysteries on the level of Serial, but they have enough “whodunnit” to keep you interested. And there’s something immensely satisfying about hearing mundane, everyday puzzles get unteased.
Limetown is a (fictional) radio documentary about the truth behind the Limetown Tragedy, in which three hundred people vanished overnight from top-secret medical research facility.
It’s so well-produced that I didn’t realize it was fiction until I was a couple episodes in. Sometimes the acting gets a little overwrought, but every episode is exciting. “Keeps you on the edge of your seat” is a cliche, but it applies here.
Howell Creek is produced by one of my favorite local bloggers, Joel Dueck. The short episodes focus on his observations on his everyday life in Minnesota. Slow-moving, but philosophical and interesting. And the local references are fun Easter eggs!
A classic, at this point. I’ve mentioned how much I love Marc Maron a couple times before, and my adoration still stands. His long interviews with comedians, actors, actors, musicians and producers range both wide and deep. He’s unabashedly vulnerable, and this allows him access to parts of his guests other interviewers don’t reach.
Marc is on his 613th podcast at this point, so, with a little digging, you’re bound to find an interview with someone who interests you. Ones that stand out to me: Jack White, Lena Dunham, Debbie Reynolds, President Obama, Jason Segel and Weird Al Yankovic.
Your holdover till the next season of Serial comes out. Actually, though Criminal is also a true-crime podcast, it has little in common with Serial. Each Criminal episode is a stand-alone review of some story connected with crime or the legal system.
Most of the early Criminal episodes were reviews of interesting old murder cases, but they’ve since branched out into topics that are only tangentially related to crime. The most recent episodes include the story of a transgender woman’s time in prison and an adventure in K9 law enforcement. I’m excited to see where the show goes in the future.
Tom and Lorenzo are the most adorable couple in the world (they’ve been together nineteen years!) and their Pop Culture Opinion Fest offers fashion, celebrity and TV commentary that’s smart and snarkalicious by turns.
Honestly, I really just want to be friends with these guys. They’re so smart, and their snark is never mean-spirited, just funny as heck.
Everybody already knows about Radiolab, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it here. For you cave barbarians who have NOT yet heard of Radiolab, it’s a long-running podcast where each stand-alone episode addresses a particular topic — love, or fear, or missed chances, or parasites. Everything under the sun, really.
While the show shares format with This American Life, Radiolab episodes feel faster-paced and more tightly written. I find they have a much higher interest-to-syllable ratio than Life.
8. Love + Radio
If you are easily offended, this is not the podcast for you. L + R burrows deep into the illicit underside of society, digging up interviews with everyone from brothel owners to dominatrices.
Many of the episodes are too explicit for my taste, but among those, you find some true gems that are WELL worth the listen. Try “Bride of the Sea,” an interview with an Irish soldier who played a key role in the 2011 Libyan uprising against Gadaffi. It’s a wild ride of a story.
9. 48 Hours
This is literally just the audio from episodes of 48 Hours on TV. I’m super embarrassed to admit I listen to this, but I do… It’s true-crime bread and butter, what can I say?
This one tells the backstories of Hollywood celebrities of the Golden Age, covering everyone from Clark Gable to Charles Manson. It’s a combination of scripted reenactments and narrative, beautifully produced. Try the one about Hedy Lamarr — the episode quickly proves she was as fascinating as she was beautiful.
I’ve just started listening to Longform, but I’m very, very into it. It’s all in-depth interviews with journalists, talking about their work and how they go about it. You probably have to be interested in writing and journalism to enjoy it, but — if you are, you will. 😉
Long, rambling episodes recapping unsolved mysteries and strange stories. Thinking Sideways doesn’t have the research or tight pacing of Criminal, but the episode topics are usually new to me, and there are lots of them. I also appreciate that it’s hosted by a woman and two men. It’s pretty rare to see a podcast co-hosted by both genders.
So, this is a new podcast, with only two episodes out so far. It’s still finding its feet, but I have high hopes for it. Serious Eats is my go-to website for top-quality food journalism, and I expect the podcast to become my favorite audio version of that.
14. The Message
Another docudrama in the same vein as Limetown. The Message tells the story of a group of researchers trying to reverse a global outbreak of fatal lung problems caused by a message sent to Earth by aliens.
As you may have surmised, plotting isn’t this podcast’s strong point. What makes the Message worth listening to, though, is its vivid cast of characters. They feel like real people (hilarious people, sometimes!) and their quick-shifting relationships with each other will hold your attention.