I’ve loved podcasts for the past decade. I remember the night that I first listened to an episode of This American Life. I was a junior in high school, and the phrases “investigative journalism” and “storytelling” meant nothing to me at that point–but I knew immediately that I was hooked. I burned through episode after episode, and then fell in love with the hilarious antics of CarTalk, too. (My name is Robin, and I’ve been a public radio addict since I was 16.)
I listen to podcasts whenever I need to turn my overactive brain off for a little while–while I’m taking my hour-long strolls around the city during my lunch break, or while I’m cooking my meals for the week on Sunday afternoons. I love to hear raw, honest stories about the lives of people I’ve never met, or crazy scientific findings that change my entire perspective of the world. I listen to podcasts to expand my mind, and I hope the same for you. I can’t wait to hear what you think!
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #1
Radiolab is a show that’s as thought-provoking as it is heartfelt. They explore broad topics like memory, morality, and laughter in a way that’s bound to awaken your curiosity. It’s the perfect mix of journalism, storytelling, science, and philosophy. It’s widely considered one of the most innovative shows of all time, and it has a way of regularly blowing my mind and reinventing my perspective. If you listen to just one podcast on this list, this should be it.
Recommended for: Everyone, really, but especially lovers of science and eye-opening stories. Fans of This American Life, 99% Invisible, TED Radio Hour, The Moth, and Invisibilia.
Favorite episodes: Fu-Go, Juicervose, Oops, The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist, Birthstory, 23 Weeks 6 Days, Watching You, Watching Me, CRISPR, The Primitive Streak, From Tree to Shining Tree, Colors, Lost & Found
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #2
Invisibilia is a podcast about the hidden forces that shape human behavior. It blends social science with storytelling in the most fascinating way. They question whether our personalities are stable throughout our lives; what the emotional significance is of the clothes that we wear; and so much more. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. The only downside is that they take long breaks between seasons, so you can’t listen to it year-round!
Recommended for: Everyone, really, but especially fans of Radiolab and the social sciences.
Favorite episodes: Literally all of it
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #3
99% Invisible examines the hidden intentions and inspirations behind everyday phenomena. It’ll fundamentally change the way that you see the world around you. In the episode U.T.B.A.P.H., you’ll hear the hilarious story of a man whose life’s work is cataloging buildings that used to be Pizza Huts, but which now house churches, police stations, and other unexpected businesses. In Snowflake, you’ll hear about a town in Arizona built specifically for people who experience debilitating symptoms that they believe results from exposure to chemicals and electricity. It’s a fascinating show that I absolutely recommend.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in learning the stories behind ordinary fixtures of our society. Lovers of design, architecture, and “fun facts.” Fans of Surprisingly Awesome, Radiolab, and Invisibilia.
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #4
The Moth Radio Hour
The Moth was launched as a non-profit in 1997 to support the craft of storytelling. It was named for “the feeling of sultry summer evenings in [The Moth’s founder’s] native Georgia, when moths were attracted to the light on the porch where he and his friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales.” They host over 500 live storytelling events each year, where audience members recount their tales on stage; to date, over 18,000 stories have been told. Each episode of Radio Hour contains a handful of stories within a single theme. No two stories are alike; you never know whether they’ll be hilarious, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, or all three at once.
Recommended for: Anyone who loves hearing other people’s deeply personal, vulnerable, raw, poignant stories.
Favorite episodes: People, Problems, Places, Live from Boston, any of the StorySLAM episodes (where storytellers face off against each other, and audience members vote for their favorite; so you’re hearing the best of the best in the StorySLAM episodes)
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #5
Serial grew famous overnight in 2014 for telling a fascinating crime story in the most addictive way. In Season 1, you listened as investigative journalists examined the case of Adnan Syed, a then-high school student convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. You quickly learn, however, that the story is so much more complex than it seems from the surface, full of unexpected twists and turns that unfold in real time as Serial’s reporters learn new information about the case. By the end, you truly don’t know who’s really guilty–is Adnan a sociopath who’s fooled everyone (including the reporters) into feeling empathy for him; or was he the victim of a trial that was botched (at best) or corrupt? Most fascinating of all is the fact that the hype around Serial forced the justice system to reconsider Adnan’s case–so the story isn’t over yet.
Recommended for: Anyone who loves a good mystery with fascinating, complex characters, even if true crime generally isn’t your thing.
Favorite episodes: All of Season 1
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #6
Magic Lessons is a podcast created by author Elizabeth Gilbert as a follow-up to her incredible book on creativity and inspiration, Big Magic. (If you’re a creative of any kind, please read the book and listen to the podcast–it will blow your mind and dramatically change your life for the better.) On each episode, you’ll listen to an incredible conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and a listener facing a creative challenge. For example, on the first episode of Season 2: “Jo has spent years working on her Ph.D. on the Holocaust and fighting for feminist causes, but that work is not where her true passions lie. She wants to fulfill a childhood dream and write comedy and comic novels. Jo wonders: Am I allowed to stop saving the world and make fun art?” After this initial conversation, Liz asks a famous creative in the same area as the listener to impart some wisdom on the situation. It’s the most inspiring, heartwarming podcast out there–artists of all kinds, do yourself a favor and give it a listen.
Recommended for: Anyone who considers themselves creative–whether you’re a professional, or someone who loved some artistic pursuit at some point in your life and are looking for ways to add it back into your life.
Favorite episodes: All of it
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #7
This American Life
This American Life is one of the most famous radio shows of all time, having been on the air since 1995. To date, over 600 episodes have been aired. It’s the common ancestor of all modern radio shows. It’s a combination of journalism and essays–often poignant, sometimes funny, and always fascinating. Each episode is an hour long, usually containing several stories that fit within a given theme, although my favorite episodes tend to be those devoted to a single story.
Recommended for: Lovers of excellent journalism and fascinating stories about how other people live.
Favorite episodes: The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, Dr. Gilmer & Mr. Hyde, Switched at Birth, House on Loon Lake, Same Bed, Different Dreams (just Act 1), Three Miles, Dead Men Tell No Tales, 129 Cars, Use Only As Directed, When Patents Attack! (Parts I & II), The Giant Pool of Money (Parts & II)
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #8
TED Radio Hour
TED Radio Hour pulls the best TED Talks together into hour-long episodes that also include in-depth interviews with each speaker. As with many of my favorite podcasts, it’s an amazing blend of storytelling and scientific research. If you love TED Talks but don’t feel like sitting down to watch each presentation individually, you’ll love this podcast.
Recommended for: People who love TED Talks but would rather listen than watch (perfect for road trips!), or anyone who loves hearing about fascinating scientific break-throughs interspersed with personal stories.
Favorite episodes: I can’t even choose, there are too many good ones!
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #9
How I Built This
How I Built This tells the story of how widely respected companies were founded through in-depth interviews with their founders. It’s fascinating to hear how well-known companies came to be–their successes, failures, and everything in between. Hearing founders’ stories, values, inspirations, and business practices firsthand will make you feel personally connected to some of these companies; and if you’re starting your own business, you’ll definitely hear some familiar struggles and gain valuable wisdom.
Recommended for: Entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, or anyone interested in hearing how famous companies came to be.
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #10
The Freakonomics podcast started as an offshoot of the eponymous book about the intersection of economics and sociology, making these topics interesting and accessible to non-academics for the first time. It actually inspired me to take on a second major in sociology when I was in college. They ask fascinating, amusing questions like “Should tipping be banned?” and “Does your name impact how successful you’ll become?” You don’t have to know a thing about economics–anyone who’s ever questioned society’s most fundamental behaviors and assumptions will find it absolutely fascinating.
Recommended for: Fans of the Freakonomics books. Anyone who’s even remotely interested in the social sciences, whether or not you know anything about them.
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #11
StartUp is a fascinating podcast that digs into what it truly looks like to start a business. In a very “meta” way, Season 1 follows Gimlet Media–the company behind the StartUp podcast itself–as they start their podcast business. In Season 2, they follow another fledgling start-up: a dating app. Season 4 contains some fantastic reporting on Dov Charney, the incredibly controversial founder of American Apparel, as he gets fired from his own company and starts a new business.
Recommended for: Entrepreneurs starting their own businesses, or anyone who’s ever wondered what working for a start-up would really be like.
Favorite episodes: All of Seasons 1 & 2
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #12
Note to Self
Note to Self is a podcast about the human side of technology. They broadcast fantastic conversations about how technological innovations shape our daily lives; as well as how we can rethink and renegotiate our relationships with our phones, social media, and other technologies that we’ve come to rely on. They’ve also done some great investigative pieces on privacy in the modern era that I’ve listed below.
Recommended for: Fans of Reply All. Any human with a smartphone and a Facebook account, whether or not you’re tech-savvy in any capacity.
Favorite episodes: Eye in the Sky, Taking the Lead (Parts I-IV), Apple’s Security Debate is Everyone’s Problem (Including Yours), Is My Phone Eavesdropping on Me?, How to Shake Up Your Echo Chamber, When Your Conspiracy Theory is True
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #13
Reply All is a podcast about the internet and technology–but it’s the opposite of dry. Like all of my favorite podcasts, it’s a blend of awesome reporting and storytelling. You’ll hear stories that examine how our lives are impacted by technology and how strange things on the internet came to be. It’s always interesting and almost always hilarious. My favorite story is On the Inside, a fantastically reported four-part series on a criminal case that fans of Serial and Criminal will adore.
Recommended for: Anyone who loves examining how technology and the internet have shaped our lives. Fans of Note to Self.
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #14
Surprisingly Awesome covers a new topic each week that seems incredibly mundane on the surface, but which turns out to have a fascinating side waiting to be revealed. For example: Pigeons are now considered “rats with wings”–but did you know that they were once considered exotic, beautiful birds that cosmopolitan socialites would flock to parks to visit, observe, and feed? Alternatively, did you know that they originated in rocky areas in the Middle East–and that’s why they’re found in concrete urban environments today?
Recommended for: Anyone who loves knowing fun facts about the objects and concepts that surround us in our daily lives.
Must-Listen Storytelling Podcasts: #15
Criminal isn’t for everyone. I pick and choose the episodes that I listen to and leave others unplayed. However, if you’ve finished binge-listening to Serial and are dying to hear more true crime mysteries, I definitely recommend this podcast. If you love a good mystery but are upset by chilling details (like me), I absolutely recommend the episodes below–the stories are absolutely fascinating and will linger in your mind long after they’re over. If you can stomach more disturbing aspects of crime, delve into the other episodes.
Recommended for: Fans of Serial, true crime, and mysteries.
Did I miss any of your favorite storytelling podcasts? Which podcasts from the list are you most excited to check out? Let me know in the comments–I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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