Binging on streaming content has become one of the most common household rituals of our time. Most people do this with friends and family around videos on services like Netflix and Hulu. Another form of media binge can actually aid productivity: podcast binging.
The podcast binge is great for doing the dishes or exercising. It’s perfect for late-night Ubering when, inexplicably, nobody needs a ride, or for cleaning the garage. It can aid relaxation while you’re smoking a cigar on the patio.
Podcast binges are also a perfect entertainment for long car trips, with or without family. Whatever you’re doing, if you have a smartphone you have numerous delicious pod options on which to indulge. Here are some places to start.
‘Business Wars’ from Wondery, hosted by David Brown
This whole list could’ve been made of shows from Wondery. They are setting the standard for scripted productions. Every month it seems like they premiere another amazing show. For this list I limited myself to only two from their amazing retinue.
The premise of “Business Wars” is to pit two giants of an industry against each other and tell the story of how one triumphed. It’s essentially mixed martial arts set in the free market. Remember Blockbuster? The first season of this addictive show chronicles the fall of Blockbuster and the rise of Netflix. The second season is Nike versus Adidas. The third is Marvel versus DC. And there will be more to come.
So far, I think the first season has been the best. The ins and outs of how Netflix attained their virtually unchallenged position at the top of the streaming pyramid is very interesting because it’s really a story about all of us just as much as about the CEOs. Our world changed because of this rivalry, and the first season makes every step of that communal journey very clear.
The Wondery model of audio storytelling is really interesting because it isn’t a radio documentary. It isn’t dependent on interviews. They’re script-based, but usually the host performs different parts accompanied by music and sound effects. This formula is clearly working very well for them, and I hope they keep it up for years to come.
‘Detective,’ from Panoply
This show is really interesting because each season they sit down with a different detective and just give him time to discuss his experiences. The second season is about Detective Garry McFadden, who is black and worked in Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of race-motivated violence that captured national attention in 2017. He’s such an interesting personality that he’s also the star of a thematically similar TV show. In one episode he gives an amazingly brutal critique of Black Lives Matter.
Each of the seasons has been fantastic, and it’s probably best to just start at the beginning. The content can be grisly, so it’s not for everybody, but it’s always enlightening about humanity’s dark and light sides.
The Inside Series, from Mark Ramsey Media and Wondery
Technically this is two separate series: “Inside Psycho” and “Inside The Exorcist,” but they are clearly part of one ongoing project that the amazing Ramsey is creating. The third season is about “Jaws.” So far each has focused on a classic horror film from an acclaimed director that was based on a bestselling novel inspired by a true story.
The show is formatted almost identically to “Business Wars.” It is well-scripted, with audio enhancements to create mood and tension. This show really does go inside its subject matter. Ramsey tries to reveal these subjects from a different angle than previous docs and books have. He attempts to tell the complete story from each angle of these subjects.
The shows jump back and forth between the actual event, the novel, and the film. The emphasis is on the film, but there’s a great deal of interchange between all three. The format is ambitious, but Ramsey makes it seem effortless. This show brings something special to the podcast world.
‘Made in Sweden,’ by Anton Svensson
“Made in Sweden” is a documentary of the content covered in “The Father,” by Anton Svensson. This is a chilling true story of how a father created a small crime family. It’s very dark, but very interesting. Each episode is essentially an interview with Svensson, who was a member of this crime family. It’s tragic and horrific, but no one is painted as an outright monster.
This is an important story for our times because it’s essentially about a mini-fascist regime. With the fascist tendencies growing within the American left and alt-white movements, it serves as an important reminder that a free society isn’t based on violence and power. Freedom can’t be attained by the strong man, but rather is a precious and fragile thing that can only be sustained by a virtuous populace. Tyranny is the easy broad path that leads to destruction.
The Making Of _____ Series, by WBEZ
This show could easily be called “The Making of Highly Influential Black Chicagoans,” because so far its first two seasons have been about Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. These are two of my least favorite Americans. I’ve always found them to be profoundly sanctimonious people whose worldviews have made the world a dumber, less tolerant place.
That actually speaks well of the considerable quality of this program. I did not want to like this show. But it only took me a few minutes to realize that not only is it a very good show, but I absolutely love every second of it.
They bring in multiple people for interviews to tell the story of Oprah and Obama’s rises to prominence. It is riveting. I still find them to be annoying people, but I understand them in a way I never thought I would even want to. This show is an excellent resource for future generations to understand these complicated, historic people.
‘Missing Richard Simmons,’ from Pineapple Street Media and Dan Taberski
So at some point Richard Simmons disappeared. I wasn’t even sure that he had been still alive when I came across this podcast. But he was, and for some reason the poor guy just took up and left public life like a not-so-crazy version of Howard Hughes.
Simmons hadn’t been much of a public figure for a while, but his gym Slimmins in Beverly Hills had a very dedicated local following. Needless to say, these people noticed the rambunctious curly-haired workout fanatic was gone, and no one really knew why.
Dan Taberski was a Slimmins regular, and decided to investigate. In the process, he created a wonderful portrait of a delightfully eccentric man who used to be ubiquitous in pop culture. This charming tale portrays Richard from every angle. Even if you’re too young to remember Simmons, I think you’ll still enjoy this odd tale.
‘Serial,’ from the Creators of ‘This American Life,’ Hosted by Sarah Koenig
This is the “Citizen Kane” of binge podcasts. The second season wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first, but the first really seems like a cultural touchpoint. Of course podcasts existed way before “Serial” came along, but you could almost define podcast history as AS (Ante Serial) and PS (Post Serial).
Since then, “Serial” has been often imitated but never matched. The most pathetic attempt at capturing the magic of the first season is KPCC’s recent show “Repeat.” It copies “Serial” in every single way, from the way the host talks to the sound editing. And it’s extremely boring. Skip the imitators and go back to the original.
If you haven’t checked it out yet, this show really is as good as everyone said it was. It’s absolutely essential binge material.
‘You Must Remember This,’ from Karina Longworth and Panoply Media
Besides shows for news and intellectual engagement, “You Must Remember This” is my favorite podcast. This is the podcast that got me into podcasts. I love movies, and I love stories about movies as much or more than the movies themselves, and this show is just chock full of classic Hollywood tales.
Karina Longworth does a great job producing these stories. It’s riveting. She really knows how to spin a good yarn. She covers all sorts of stories and issues related to Hollywood, like the Manson murders. The stories are well-researched and educational.
This is also one of the few podcasts that I’ve listened to multiple times. The episodes are so strong that they are worth revisiting. A personal favorite is “Episode 28: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.” Karina tells this heartbreaking story with considerable empathy, despite Gable’s philandering flaws. But this is also the most infuriating podcast on this list, because Longworth is unbearably “woke” sometimes. She clearly thinks that morons like Jane Fonda are feminist heroes. In keeping with this leftism, she is willfully ignorant of most religious, political, and economic realities, preferring instead the childish worldview of media elites.
Also she will inexplicably wabble between infantilizing and demonizing women, then turn around and do the same thing to men. This is most likely due to the fact that she always tells the story from her emotional perspective, which also is probably what makes the show so engaging. It feels like an encounter with her as much as with history.
Karina puts a considerable amount of effort into each episode. They can move you to tears and make you laugh out loud, just like the movies do—and real life.