Whether you’re killing time before class, working out at the gym, or commuting to and from school, there’s a podcast (or 2 or 10 … ) for you. If you’re already an audiophile, you know the anticipation of plugging in the headphones (or popping in the ear buds) and immersing yourself in other people’s stories. If you’re a newbie, what you might not know is that podcasts are more than just digital sound bites; they’re complete, multifaceted audio experiences that launch you into new worlds: travel to true crime, pop culture to political satire, self-help to celebrity hosts.
Want to catch up on current events? Nerd out on weird science? There’s a podcast to take you anywhere your curious mind wants to go. With so much to choose from, where do you even start?
We’re here to help! We’ve compiled our guide to the best new podcasts, all launched in 2018. Some will make you laugh out loud. Other will open your eyes. And one will forever change the way you interact with your Amazon Alexa.
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1. Endless Thread
Picture combing through the curious, intriguing content on Reddit and then turning it into a podcast. That’s exactly what hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson do on Endless Thread: tap into the 330 million users and more than 140,000 communities to mine them for all kinds of compelling, and occasionally jaw-dropping, stories. One recent episode takes on the tale of the last king of Hawaii, a man who was said to be a traveler and a dreamer—or was it a gambler and a drinker? Another explores that super-weird feeling you get when you peer over a ledge. If you feel like you want to jump, you’re not alone.
Co-produced by WBUR and Reddit.
2. Personal Best
A show for people who don’t like self-improvement shows, this quirky podcast aims to provide genuine moments of self-discovery in the lives of the people it’s trying to help. For instance, one episode of Personal Best features a woman who just wants to be able to wake up with her alarm clock (without hitting the snooze button a zillion times); in another, a man wants to land a Jackie Chan–style back flip. Hosts Rob Norman and Andrew Norton are earnest and engaging as they come up with some genius, surprising, and harebrained schemes and solutions and help listeners turn tiny goals into epic adventures.
Produced by the CBC.
3. Bad Science
Each week host Ethan Edenburg sits down with a comedian and a scientist to put the science behind a popular movie under the microscope. Tackling a variety of cult favorites, from Star Wars to The Matrix to Jurassic Park, Bad Science asks a simple question: The real thing, or junk science? In the debut episode, which takes on Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Reggie Watts (from The Late Late Show with James Corden) goes head-to-head with a NASA systems engineer to deconstruct gas giants like Bespin, the body warmth of dead Tauntauns, and communicating at the speed of light. Beware of spoilers!
Produced by Seeker.
4. Don’t @ Me with Justin Simien
Justin Simien, creator of the critically acclaimed film Dear White People and an online provocateur, has built a safe space for unfiltered conversations on race, sex, and gender in this timely podcast. And while he claims Don’t @ Me may make you a better thinker—and hopefully a better tweeter—you’ll also get a kick out of listening in on topical and imaginative conversations with the trendsetters—and troublemakers—who are shaping our culture.
Produced by KCRW.
5. Today, Explained
Morning isn’t the best time to catch up on (and digest) the news, especially if you’re sprinting to class. So it’s great that this funny, knowing, and energetic “daily explainer” drops in the afternoon, after yet another day of world events and mayhem. Host Sean Rameswaram, one of public radio’s rising talents, is sharp, curious, and unafraid to use some salty language as he breaks down the most important stories of the day, all in the roughly 20 minutes it might take you to amble back to your dorm room, or to your next class. Recent episodes have revolved around the film Crazy Rich Asians, the Twitter suspension of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and how democracy can “die in daylight.” A thoughtful, youthful alternative to The Nightly News.
Produced by Vox; distributed by Stitcher.
6. The Habitat
Six astronauts (scientists and engineers) volunteer to spend a year living together in a sealed dome situated on the rocky terrain of a Hawaiian volcano. This research experiment, designed by NASA, will simulate life on Mars, in preparation for the day when a crew is dispatched to the Red Planet IRL. The Habitat’s host, Lynn Levy, receives regular audio dispatches of the group’s frustrations and triumphs, and an incisive picture of life in space. Each episode of this true story unfolds like a serialized documentary, going where no podcast has gone before. Think MTV’s Real World under a dome, but without the cool digs.
Produced by Gimlet Media.
Bold and unsettling, this serialized podcast follows Rukmini Callimachi, The Times’s foreign correspondent and terrorism expert, and Radiolab alum Andy Mills as they seek to explore the ineffable horror behind ISIS and try to understand exactly who it is we are fighting. Caliphate’s opening sequence is a shocker, as a former recruit explains how ISIS trained him to kill people, and we learn the psychology behind how members are recruited. The production, including sound design, musical scoring, and use of real-news audio, is top notch, making for a thoroughly immersive (and slightly terrifying) listening experience.
Produced by The New York Times.
8. Keep It
Host Ira Madison III (along with sidekicks Kara Brown and Louis Virtel) have frank, hilarious discussions about stories and issues that land at the intersection of pop culture and politics. Come for the laughs but stay for the thoughtful discourse on everything from the NFL to the “cult of GOOP” to Omarosa’s controversial book tour. In the words of the podcast: Movies! Music! Terrible tweets by celebrities trying to seem engaged while bragging about their latest project! Keep It has it all.
Produced by Crooked Media.
9. Aaron Mahnke’s Cabinet of Curiosities
“Our world is full of the unexplainable,” says host Aaron Mahnke in his opening. And he would know. Over the years he’s been gathering tales and tidbits about mysterious events, with the intention to share, delight, and intrigue. Episodes are bite-sized—just about 10 minutes each—and feature the kinds of stories that make great conversation starters. Did you know, for example, that the first run of airmail stamps was printed upside down? And in a truly bizarre coincidence, the small plane carrying the first load of airmail letters took off from Washington, DC, and flew in the wrong direction, crash-landing in a cornfield—upside down. If it’s an unexplainable moment, a forgotten bit of history, or a weird coincidence you didn’t even know you were curious about, you’ll find it in Cabinet.
Produced by How Stuff Works.
10. Late Night Whenever
From the producers of 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys, this podcast takes the format of traditional late-night television and tips it sideways. Recorded before a live audience (with a couch, celebrity guests, and a musical sidekick), Late Night Whenever is a TV “talk show for your ears.” Hosted by comedian Michelle Buteau, it’s an entertaining and mostly lighthearted romp through both the trivial (travel wardrobes, Twitter trolls, and hotel amenities) and the topical (racism, sex, body positivity, and the Time’s Up movement). The season finale was July 24, but after lots of 5-star reviews, listeners are anticipating a new season sometime soon.
Produced by WNYC Radio.
11. This Is Love
If you want to be reminded about the power of love, look no further. Hosted by Phoebe Judge and co-created with Lauren Spohrer (both are co-creators of the popular true-crime podcast Criminal), these heartwarming stories chronicle love in its many forms, not just the romantic kind. Though the first episode tells the sweet tale of David and Jessie and how they met (it would never happen this way today) and what happens in their life, the second episode chronicles the kind of love that compels a swimmer to protect a baby whale who’s lost its mother. As Judge told usatoday.com, “We thought it was a time for stories to make you feel good.”
Produced by Radiotopia.
In this fictional, futuristic series, Sandra, a smart-speaker virtual assistant, is powered not by AI technology but by human employees of the company Orbital Teledynamics. Helen (voiced by Alia Shawkat), a human who’s married to a n’er-do-well, applies for and gets a job in “Birds”—meaning she’s assigned to answer customer queries about our feathered friends. While struggling to keep her boss (Ethan Hawke) off her back, Helen, aka Sandra, aka Alexa (but not really), discovers that something isn’t right in this strange world of Big Brother-esque technology. Kristen Wiig is the voice of Sandra—and Sandra may leave you longing for the days when a speaker was just a thing that made music louder.
Produced by Gimlet Media.
13. Night Call
Listening to Night Call is a bit like eavesdropping at a party, moving in and out of conversations on everything from conspiracy theories to the pros and cons of Black Mirror to Instagram vacations. Its fun, chatty, “free jazz” format is hosted by Molly Lambert, Tess Lynch, and Emily Yoshida. If you’ve been looking for company in the wee hours, or you need to unwind from the day’s stressors, this virtual late-night call-in radio show may be just the thing.
Produced by Audioboom.
A reporter from (the fictional) American Public Radio revisits the unexplained disappearance of the inhabitants—about 300 men, women, and children—of a small town in Tennessee. The residents of Limetown are never heard from again. So what happened to this community built around a mysterious science research facility? In this Stranger Things-meets-X-Files fiction serial, the plot is riveting, the characters compelling, and the production quality so damn good that you may find yourself actually believing what you hear. This one isn’t new, but catch up on the first season because Season 2 drops on Halloween, after a long hiatus.
Produced by Two Up Productions.
One final note: If you’re new to pods, we’d be remiss not to point you to a few Course Hero favorites (that also top many other best-of lists). Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me is NPR’s hilarious game show romp through the day’s headlines: You figure out what’s real and what they’ve made up; in Revisionist History, best-selling author and influencer Malcolm Gladwell takes a second look at an event, a person, or an idea (don’t miss Season 2, Episode 3: “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”); and Serial Season One, the podcast that not only sparked a new trend in true-crime storytelling but also a new trial for an accused killer.