I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a declaration. 2016 was the year podcasts became a serious thing. Of course the roots of podcasting date back to the 1980’s and podcasts really took off in the mid-2000’s, but I really feel like it was in 2016 when podcasts became mainstream.
Podcasts are great for commuters, great for people on treadmills, great for people on long car rides with their family, great for people who can somehow work while listening to a conversation about the current state of the New York Knicks, a recapping of the latest episode of Game of Thrones or some differing opinions on Drake. Any serious fan of podcasts has a stable of podcasts that they rely on and follow. Like with anything, it’s subjective. Your tomato might be my potato and vice versa. If we don’t have our opinions about art, who are we really?
Probably a dolphin.
Here’s my list of my ten favorite podcasts of the year.
10.) The Tony Kornheiser Show
Kornheiser was doing a daily radio show in Washington D.C. for years until it wrapped up in late spring/early summer. He returned a few months later with a more condensed version of his show, now in the shape of a podcast. Only a hour long, it’s like hanging out with your mildly eccentric uncle and his random group of friends, including, but not limited to, the basketball expert, the politics dude, the wise, female sports journalist, the movie critic and the other politics dude. The show can be a little heavy on D.C. sports, but overall, it’s a good fall back listen.
9.) WTF with Marc Maron
A podcast first-ballot hall of famer, Maron’s podcast is a wildly entertaining and enjoyable longform, interview show. I don’t know anyone who listens to the show who doesn’t skip the first ten minutes, also known as the stretch that consists of Maron ranting, but there’s no denying Maron’s a great interviewer. Highlights this year were his shows with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kristen Wiig, John C. Reilly and Seth Meyers. Of course, his high water mark was his 2015 interview with President Obama, something he references frequently. But it’s cool, because so do the guests.
8.) Slate’s Political Gabfest
The grown-ups political podcast. I really enjoy the chemistry of the three hosts: John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon and David Plotz. Each one seems to play a certain role. Dickerson is the professor, Bazelon is the over-achiever in the front of the class and Plotz is the sarcastic wild card.
7.) The Watch
Ranking The Watch seventh seems low, but I think it’s mostly due to the competition it had this year. The pop-culture catch-all pod on The Ringer Podcast Network is consistent and anchored by the report between it’s hosts, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald. I do think it suffered some during Game of Thrones time, as the hosts also anchored a Thrones after show on HBO and as a result, reserved most of their conversations about the show for that. Even still though, they strike a good balance between fandom, geeking out and criticism.
A podcast belonging to Gimlet, Undone does deep dives on historical events, breaking down how there could be more there than meets the eye and more than what history has chosen to remember. Case in point, did you know that there were racial undertones to Disco Demolition Night in Chicago back in 1979 or that there was a group of African American men in the 1960’s called the Deacons for Defense and Justice who defended their brothers and sisters from Klan violence? Yeah, I didn’t. But guess what? Now I do.
5.) The Bill Simmons Podcast
Simmons’ podcast took a little hit when he was doing his HBO show Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons because it took his time and attention away from it. Instead of two or three episodes a week, we were only getting one. Two at the most. Now with his show being cancelled, Simmons has re-dedicated himself to the pod, bouncing back and forth between sports talk and interviews with everyone from Andy Cohen to Gucci Mane. His Monday NFL shows with Cousin Sal remain one of my favorites even if I have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to gambling.
4.) Revisionist History
It’s actually kind of surprising that it took Malcom Gladwell so long to get into podcasting. Yet it concurrently makes sense that Gladwell would finally enter the medium with well-thought out, well-reported and researched episodes exploring very Gladwellian topics like the genesis of genius, the issues with satire and the power of reputation in the art community. “Hallelujah,” an exploration into the way genius presents itself framed around Leonard Cohen’s long odyssey writing “Hallelujah” is especially entertaining.
3.) Keepin’ it 1600
Whereas Slate’s Political Gabfest is the adult’s political podcast, Keepin’ it 1600, part of the Ringer network, is for the young folks. Initially just a once a week pod hosted by former Obamaheads Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer, it expanded as the election got closer to include a second episode each week, one where Favreau is joined by Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett. Naturally there are different dynamics and tones that separate the two episodes. The early week, three-man pod is more jovial and sarcastic, but still incredibly informative thanks to Vietor. Later in the week, Favs and Pfeiffer are more serious and pointed with their analysis and criticism. Leading up to the election, there was a lot of calming the nervous Dems down and immediately following the election, a lot of trying to make sense out of things. Now they are in full eff you mode and moving forward. It’s become very therapeutic.
Another Gimlet offering, Crimetown sets out to explore the history of crime in a different American city each season. The first season centers around Providence, Rhode Island – a hotbed of mob activity. The podcast most likely to become a television show, it features amazingly colorful characters, fantastic accents, stories about robbing vaults hidden in fur coat stores and a mayor named Buddy. I can’t get enough of it.
1.) In the Dark
2016 featured a boom of true crime podcast, an inevitability thanks to the success of Serial. The best of the bunch was In the Dark, which looked back at the abduction of Jacob Wetterling almost thirty years ago. The revelation of Wetterling’s kidnapper and murderer just before the series premiered didn’t do anythign to dull the impact of the series and if anything, helped shine an incredibly bright light on the raging ineptitude of the Sterns Country Sheriff’s Department, who botched the investigation at nearly every single turn. No really. They’re terrible. But thankfully the podcast isn’t!