“Did you listen to this week’s Serial?” That’s been the question on everyone’s lips the past three months. The podcast, which reexamined the 1999 murder case of a Baltimore teenager, become morning Gchat convo—and launched a thousand think pieces declaring 2014 “The Golden Age of Podcasts.”
While individual podcasts have previously broken through the cultural consciousness—like comedian Marc Maron’s WTF in 2009—the genre has generally been a niche interest since it hit iTunes in 2005. That year, there were only about 3,000 podcasts up and running. A decade later, that number has mushroomed to more than 285,000 podcasts, created in over 100 languages. The DIY radio of the Internet is now a bona fide medium, heard by an estimated 39 million Americans a month.
To celebrate the format’s true coming of age—it is indeed “golden”—our very own obsessive pod people are telling you what you must hear in the new year.
Jump into Dan Carlin’s history-made-real series with episode 50, the first of many devoted to World War I. Over the course of three hours, not a shot will be fired, but you’ll be blown away: His knack for braiding strands of history together into an edge-of-your-seat narrative is unparalleled. Whether he’s chronicling the fall of the Roman Empire or the rise of the bloodiest despot, Genghis Khan, or diving into the minutiae of one of the most decisive battles in naval history, Carlin’s work is nothing less than cinematic, his delivery nothing short of hyperbolic—in the best way possible.
—Matt Bean, Editor
I’m a process nerd. I love hearing the details of people’s jobs, how they got there, and how they spend their days. Former Slate EIC David Plotz’s interviews scratch my itch to know what it’s like to be a flight paramedic, a screenwriter, or Stephen Colbert. If you liked Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, you’ll like this—there’s way less poop involved. Well, so far.
—Dennis Huynh, Senior Associate Art Director
“Music podcast” brings to mind a group of critics who enjoy hearing themselves talk, but hosts Whitney Jones and Alex Kapelman deliver something far more human with Pitch. With a This American Life-style structure, it transcends in-the-moment chatter to tell us stories about how music shapes who we are.
—Emily Blake, Staff Editor
The 2005 best-seller by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner has become a brand unto itself, spawning sequels, a film, and this weekly podcast hosted by Dubner. Pop-friendly investigations into “the hidden side of everything” include the implications of an undead economy (vampires buying blood!) and how to save $1 billion (pro tip: Start by downloading this episode).
—Amy Wilkinson, Staff Editor
Host Roman Mars devotes full episodes to subtly life-defining topics such as the history of Wonder Bread, the social impact of cul-de-sacs, or where our phones’ clicking noises come from. It’ll up your cocktail-party game 100 percent.
—Eric Renner Brown, Intern
The concept is simple: BookRiot.com’s Jeff O’Neal spends an hour chatting with an interesting person about the books they love. It’s a premise that depends on finding the right subjects—which O’Neal has a knack for doing; past episodes have featured literary up-and-comers including Andy Weir and Mallory Ortberg.
—Hillary Busis, Staff Editor
Problem: You hate reading about politics but don’t want to sound dumb. Solution: Subscribe to this 40-minute weekly cheat sheet, packed with high-profile interviews and insightful commentary by the polymathic CNN anchor.
—Adam Markovitz, Senior Editor
Filmmaker Brian Koppelman’s breezy, friendly podcast is like eavesdropping on a profanity-sanctioned Hollywood bull session. Where else are you going to hear in-the-trenches tales from the likes of Ray Liotta, Cary Elwes, and a rivetingly frank Ellen Barkin?
—Jason Clark, Senior Reporter
Hosts Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam conduct an upbeat survey of pop cultural current events under the rubric of a dinner party. Each episode offers such a wealth of features—whether it’s interviews with notable figures or cocktails inspired by historical trivia—that it’s never boring. Listen to the whole thing straight through, or cherry-pick the segments that interest you.
—Stephanie Schomer, Senior Editor
Actor and comedian Andy Daly is a gifted improviser, and his podcast plays to that skill: Each episode is a pilot for a different character. The setup perfectly suits Daly’s abilities, making for one of the funniest podcasts out there.
—Bill Keith, Senior Editor
Each week Scott Aukerman interviews a celebrity guest, only to get derailed by one or more characters (played by a murderers’ row of comedians and improvisers). Five years in, Comedy Bang! Bang! remains required listening for comedy nerds.
—Kyle Ryan, EW.com Editor
Do you like serious podcasts that use words like gestalt or Rimbaud? Comedians Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter can do that too. Each 30-minute episode of this mock podcast features the pair discussing “80 percent of a given topic”—”Gender,” for example, or “Snow”—in their trademark Wet Hot American Summer-y style of parody. There’s even a gathering: Topicon. Suck it, TED.
—Ray Rahman, Staff Writer
A pair of well-read long-distance pals catch up on ladycentric pop culture and give real-talk life advice. The highlight of each show is the newsy “Week in Menstruation” segment. I’ve got brutal friend crushes on both.
—Molly Simms, Staff Editor
Profane, hilarious, and proudly un-PC, the banter between Bronx-based Twitter sensations the Kid Mero and Desus Nice makes hamburger of pop culture’s sacred cows. Shot through with streetwise know-it-all-ness, theirs is a Talk Soup of New York snark.
—Chris Lee, Writer at Large
To “throw shade” is commonly understood as “the act of publicly denouncing a friend or acquaintance.” But for Funny or Die favorites Erin “feminasty” Gibson and Bryan “homosensual” Safi, the denouncing on Throwing Shade comes from a place of love. The pair offer rat-a-tat-tat conversation swerves from entertainment (“Do you think Cake is an actual movie or just a poster?”) to gender politics to casual sex with no hands on the wheel. The result? Hoda and Kathie Lee, even wasted-er.
—Jason Sheeler, Features Editor
I may not be a business-school grad (sorry, Mom!), but my economics acumen is definitely up to par thanks to former This American Life producer Alex Blumberg, whose storytelling about launching his own media start-up is entertaining and educational.
—Nina Terrero, Correspondent
Every week a pair of Englishmen living in America crack open a Guinness and detail the intricacies of soccer’s English Premier League in a way that even “football” neophytes will get. Hosts Rog and Davo’s obvious enjoyment of sports, each other, and meandering tangents makes you feel like you’re chatting over a beer with friends, instead of listening alone on the train.
—Kat Ward, Assistant Editor
Film directors Adam Green (Hatchet) and Joe Lynch (this year’s Salma Hayek-starring Everly) offer an inside look at the Hollywood machine. A must-listen for folks trying to break into the biz, horror movie nuts, and/or fans of expletive-strewn bickering.
—Clark Collis, Senior Writer
The X-Men are among the most beloved characters in comics, but they have one of the most convoluted histories in the medium. Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes tackle that history from the beginning with wit and charm—it’s impossible to listen without becoming a fan yourself.
—Joshua Rivera, EW.com Writer
I listen to a lot of videogame podcasts, but the one I anticipate most each week is DLC. Affable friends/cohosts/nemeses Jeff Cannata and Christian Spicer (and a guest) discuss the week’s gaming news with charm and enthusiasm. Guys, if you ever need a third chair, let’s (Google) hangout!
—Aaron Morales, Senior Associate Art Director
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Jan. 9 issue.