My most recent job involved a 90+ minute commute. Each way. That gave me plenty of time to listen to podcasts, and I’m often asked for recommendations. My tastes involve non-fictional storytelling about why people are the way they are (if you’re a big fan of true crime — and gosh, I tried a lot of those — this list may not be for you). Any of these are terrific stand-alone listens: You don’t need to know what aired before it, and except for the two two-part episodes named below, you don’t need to listen to whatever comes after. Just 30-60 minutes (though I recommend all ten).
Revisionist History: Free Brian Williams (play online) – My all-time favorite episode from my all-time favorite series. If you know the story about the news anchor who publicly and falsely claimed he was on a helicopter shot down in Iraq, then you can’t imagine how someone could say such a thing. This episode will help you imagine how he — and you — might say such a thing. It’s mind-blowing.
Reply All: Long Distance (play online; this is a two-parter) – I typically suggest this episode as an introduction to the excellent Reply All podcast, because it’s physically impossible to listen to part one and not want to hear part two. The hosts and producers are great storytellers and personalities, and this may be their most gripping story.
Heavyweight: #24 Jimmy and Mark (play online) – Listing this one high up because host Jonathan Goldstein is a fantastic dry wit and storyteller, and his entire series — featuring stories of finding closure after years and years — is a big favorite. This Season 4 opener is a compelling story from the get-go, ending in a place I didn’t really expect.
Reply All: The Snapchat Thief (play online) – If you listened to the Reply All episode above, then you know host Adam Goldman isn’t afraid to take risks. Even so, I was gasping during this episode, scared for him as much as I was scared for me. I have never told my wife about this episode because she worries enough as it is. Should I even be telling you?
Invisible Brain: Eyes Wide Open (play online; this is a two-parter) – I’m writing this while I’m off work for a week, during the kids’ spring break, when all of us are on home confinement due to COVID-19. We’ve never been less disciplined, especially with sleep schedules. This episode tells of a teenager who set a world record messing with his sleep schedule, which is interesting enough; the second part is an interview with a neurologist who will really make you think twice about your sleep habits.
Revisionist History: Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis (play online) – Again, my all-time favorite series, so I have to list at least a second entry. This one dives into emotions and songwriting … and while an appreciation for Elvis Presley isn’t at all required, you may appreciate this on an additional level.
99% Invisible: Billboard Boys: The Greatest Radio Contest of All Time (play online) – This podcast series finds joy and stories in the design and architecture all around us. This episode almost felt like an outlier to me, but 1) still has a compelling story, 2) speaks to human nature exceeding reason or expectations, and 3) involves a radio promotion which will undoubtedly be of interest to some of my friends.
Reply All: The Case of the Phantom Caller (play online) – Yes, a third Reply All episode. When they’re good, they are GREAT. This one is fascinating, and holds a special place in my heart because within a week of hearing it, it happened to us at work.
Against the Rules with Michael Lewis: The Magic Shoebox (play online) – The first season of this new podcast is about referees – in sports, but also in newsrooms, courtrooms, and, in this season finale, financial markets. Your mind will boggle at an unbelievably small quirk that proved to be worth more money than I will see in my lifetime.
Invisibilia: The Fifth Vital Sign (play online) – Monica LaBelle pointed out this particular episode to me. A few years ago, pain was added to pulse, respiration rate, temperature and blood pressure on the list of stats medical professionals ask us. Our attention to “how much does it hurt?” can have impacts we’d never have guessed.
P.S. I did not list any episodes of Ear Hustle, a podcast which tells of life inside and outside prison, which I absolutely adore. While that podcast is episodic – you can listen to any one episode and hear a stand-alone, compelling story – I think it’s best if you listen to that series sequentially. The podcast is magical in how it connects all of us as people, so it definitely adds to your listening experience if you get to know the hosts and the people they talk about from the first episode forward. While I say Revisionist History is my favorite podcast, I loyally follow Ear Hustle on social media (I’m occasionally a ‘Top Fan’ on their Facebook Page) and even in person.