There are all sorts of podcasts out there: comedy, sports, drama, niche interest… there’s something on just about every subject you can imagine. But what I love are narrative podcasts, stories that are told by a narrator, clips from interviews, music, natural sound, and archival tape, all masterfully edited together to create a richly layered listening experience. These types of stories are difficult to make but the product (at least to me) is the gold standard of podcast formats.
If you’ve never listened to narrative podcasts before, or never listened to a podcast period, here’s where to start.
Let’s begin with the obvious. This American Life from WBEZ Chicago and hosted by the Public Radio super-star Ira Glass has been on the air since 1995. (On early episodes Ira tells listeners they can order cassette tapes of the show to be delivered by snail mail!) As of August 2017, the show has produced over 622 hour-long episodes and two spin-off shows, Serial and S-Town.
Each episode of This American Life has a theme, generally two or three producers will report stories related to that theme, all tied together by Ira Glass’s narration. Occasionally a whole hour will be devoted to a single story, I usually really enjoy these episodes as the producers of the show know when a story really can hold it’s own for an entire hour. Another notable exception to the format was the 20 Acts in 60 Minutes episode, which as the title suggests was a 20-part show made up of quick little stand-alone pieces. This American Life often experiments with new formats, from interviews to radio-theater to short stories. Check their website for the short list of episodes to start with, but pretty much any episode you choose will be enjoyable. Their name has come to mean gold-standard in production quality.
With over 2.5 million people downloading the podcast weekly, I don’t think I need to sell the show much here. Even the most casual of podcast listeners have generally heard of this banner show.
One of my favorite episodes: Testosterone (broadcast August 30, 2002)
This might be my very favorite podcast of the last five years. When people ask me where to start listening, I invariably point them to 99% Invisible. Hosted by Roman Mars, it’s a show about architecture, design, and the invisible back stories of all the ordinary and extraordinary things in our lives.
When I first started listening to the show it was just Roman and his protege producer Sam Greenspan. Over the years the show grew to a half-dozen producers and staff, and became the flagship program in the podcast collective Radiotopia.
99% Invisible is notable for it’s creative use of music and layering of tape and voices. Almost every episode surprises me with some unknown fact or anecdote. And after years and years of listening (and re-listening) to him, Roman Mars has come to feel like a friend. Unlike other narrative podcasts, his voice is present throughout the entire program, jumping in to explain and comment. Even if you never thought of architecture and design as favorite topics, I guarantee you’ll find something to love on this show.
One of my favorite episodes: Home on Lagrange (broadcast June 21, 2016)
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get down to the the things “we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” Anna Sale brings humor and humility to her interviews with both the famous and the unknown, diving into the core issues we all deal with: Death, Sex & Money. Asking questions rarely posed in other interviews, she makes movie stars, convicts, politicians, morticians, artists, and people from every walk of life relatable.
What I love about Anna Sale’s interviewing style is that she asks deeply personal questions, but in a way that is curious and compassionate rather than voyeuristic. She regularly dives into her guests’ bankruptcy, salaries, sex lives, marriages, illnesses and the passing of loved ones. Anna opens up a bit to her audience as well, during thr course of the show she’s gotten married and had her first child. I love keeping up with her even off the podcast, the show’s newsletter is one of the few I’m subscribed to and actually read.
One of my favorite episodes: Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival (broadcast Oct. 22, 2014)
Radio Diaries has been on the air since the late 1990’s, originally as a program on NPR, now as a Radiotopia podcast. Early episodes were “teenage diaries” that revealed the lives of ordinary teenagers and their daily struggles. Radio Diaries still dives into people’s lives, relying heavily on archival tape, personal audio diaries, and interviews. Host Joe Richman won a Peabody Award for his work on the show.
What I love about the show is a unique take on historical figures and events, many that I had paid little attention to until illuminated by Radio Diaries. Great episodes include diaries like that of Claressa Shields, a champion teen boxer; an account of the teacher-placement centers called “rubber rooms“; and the hidden history behind the famous “segregation forever” speech.
One of my favorite episodes: The prison years (part of the Mandela project)