In an era when the odds are good that you personally know multiple people who host their own podcast, it can be hard to remember those hazy days when it seemed like there weren’t actually that many podcasts to listen to at all. So we all flocked to This American Life, Radiolab, and, eventually, Serial, which sparked a boom in podcast listening that has yet to level off.
In 2023, there are literally millions of shows to choose from, seeking to serve the (sometimes incredibly niche) interests of nearly half a billion listeners—but let’s never forget those groundbreaking shows that marched into the frontier of audio, defining the sounds and styles that have bled into nearly everything that has followed. Here are a dozen podcasts that defined (or redefined) the medium. What shows would you add?
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Ira Glass’ This American Life is the weekly radio program-turned-podcast that started it all—not in the sense that it was the first podcast, but that it was the first to reach a truly wide audience, and in doing so, defined a now ubiquitous storytelling format, iterating on the low-key vibes of public radio reporting and featuring a mix of personal anecdotes, short fiction, and researched stories covering a wide range of topics. Through a signature blending of humor, emotion, and deep reporting it became (and remains) one of the most popular and influential podcasts of all time, and it is often cited as a defining examples of what a podcast should strive to be. (Many have tried to replicate its formula; few have succeeded.) This American Life’s influences are far reaching, from the weekly thematic format, to Glass’ iconic style, to the gravelly vocal fry of its presenters, which triggered discussions of sexism in journalism. With so many new podcasts sprouting up all the time, it’s easy to forget that This American Life is still here and still pumping out episodes—but it’s been telling stories since 1995.
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Today, we often talk about podcasts pre- and post-Serial, and for good reason. The show, a spinoff of This American Life hosted by Sarah Koenig, became a cultural phenomenon as it turned the cold case investigation of a theretofore little known murder into the template for thousands of true crime podcasts that followed. With a mix of great reporting chops and expert showmanship, Koenig investigated the murder of Hae Min Lee and the questionable circumstances that put Adnan Syed behind bars for it. The listener response was swift and unlike anything the medium had seen before—and the industry has been wondering if we’ll ever see another show capture the zeitgeist that way again. There has been much criticism of Koenig’s reporting in the years since the show wrapped, and especially since Adnan was exonerated in 2022. You can hear all about that in Undisclosed, a podcast about the podcast, hosted by Rabia O’Chaudrey, who led the movement to get Adnan out of jail, and who is truly responsible for his freedom today. (Start listening to that here.) Regardless of the journalistic ethics involved, the story captured the attention of millions—even its sponsor Mailchimp’s ad campaign changed things, supercharging the audio advertising market and becoming a meme in its own right. (“Mailcimp?”)
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Limetown is a fictional podcast series that was first released in 2015, created by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie. The series is presented as an investigation into the mysterious disappearance of the entire population of the titular town, and it quickly gained a large following for its compelling story and the quality of its production.The podcast is notable for its immersive storytelling, serialized format (which is now common, but at the time was somewhat unique), and for how it blurs the line between fiction and reality. Confused listeners engaged in spirited debates about where on the fact/fiction spectrum Limetown sat, which generated even more buzz and interest in the show. It was one of the first podcasts to garner mainstream attention—not to mention novel and TV adaptations—and helped to pave the way for other fiction podcasts to gain popularity.
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99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars, focuses on design and architecture, and was a pioneer in its mix of storytelling and informational content. Mars is known for his ability to take seemingly mundane or obscure topics and turn them into compelling stories that are both educational and entertaining. The host has a knack for creating a sense of intimacy and connection with his listeners, which has helped to build a dedicated fanbase for the show. It’s where Avery Trufelman got her start; her popular show Articles of Interest was launched on the 99% feed. Roman is also an audio tastemaker, and often introduces his listeners to a new show that fits within the ethos of the flagship podcast.
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Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes started You’re Wrong About with a simple idea—to give attention to stories from history that the media (and thus, millions of us) got wrong. The first few episodes focused on explosive topics like Monica Lewinsky, crack babies, and the the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, but the content has since deepened to include evetns as disparate as Tom Cruise on Oprah’s Couch and the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident. You’re Wrong About came to define a genre of smart conversational shows in which two people inform one another about a subject, poking holes into the mythologies tht have become accepted history, and stripping bare the false ideas strongly held by society at large. The DNA of You’re Wrong About has since metastasized into countless history, culture, true-crime, and pop culture shows, even as original co-host Michael Hobbes has left to spin out two ultra successful podcasts in the same vein, Maintenance Phase with Aubrey Gordon, and If Books Could Kill with Peter Shamshiri. Sarah Marshall has her own spinoff podcast, You Are Good, co-hosted with Alex Steed—a “feelings podcast about movies.”
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Radiolab, which debuted in 2002, is a podcast focused on science and philosophy that uses a distinctive storytelling style to make complex subjects more accessible and engaging to a wide audience. The show’s creators, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, are known for their use of sound effects, music, and other audio elements to create a sense of atmosphere and immersion. They also often use multiple voices and perspectives to explore a single topic, which can help to make the material more relatable and engaging. There are traces of Radiolab’s immersive soundscapes in many highly produced podcasts we hear today.
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Welcome to Night Vale, which debuted in 2012, is a fiction podcast presented in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events. Its offbeat humor, surreal and often disturbing storylines, as well as its ability to blend elements of horror, science fiction, and comedy, garnered it a cult following that grew into mainstream success.Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor were able to create a rich world full of distinctive sound effects, music, and narrative style, that is both familiar and strange, completely drawing listeners in. The show’s success led to multiple spin-offs and adaptations, and alongside Limetown, it has been credited with popularizing fiction podcasting and inspiring other creators to experiment with imaginative and unconventional storytelling.
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Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show, which ran for six episodes in 2015, offered listeners a new way to consume audio storytelling by letting them join Kine in her investigation into real-life mysteries, from trying to figure out the height of a celebrity to discovering the identity of a lost pen pal. Part storytelling, part investigation, part comedic personal diary, it received widespread critical acclaim (it was even spoofed!) and attracted a fanbase that was crushed when it was canceled—perhaps proving that the format, while entertaining, wasn’t sustainable at the time. But give Mystery Show credit for paving the way for other, more ultimately successful investigative shows like Serial and S-Town.
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Starring the voices of Catherine Keener and David Schwimmer, Homecoming is a psychological thriller that tells the story of a secret government facility that uses therapy to help soldiers transition back to civilian life. Another standout in the fiction genre, it paved the way for other companies and creators to produce their own fiction podcasts featuring familiar celebrity talent. Homecoming is also the show that established Gimlet Media—which was founded by a former producer on, you guessed it, This American Life—as a major player in the podcasting industry; the company was later acquired by Spotify for $230 million. Homecoming was also one of the earliest examples of a podcast being turned into a TV series; the adaptation debuted on Nov. 2, 2018 on Amazon Prime with no less massive a star than Julia Roberts taking over Keener’s role.
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In the Dark, known for its in-depth reporting and storytelling and its use of audio recordings, interviews, and other audio elements, dug into a different true crime case in each season—its second standing out for its role in freeing Curtis Flowers, a man tried six times for the same crime. Host Madeleine Baran led an investigation that uncovered evidence that helped get Flowers’ case dismissed more than 23 years after his arrest. Season one covered the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling, one of the most notorious child abductions in the country; more recently, the show dropped a limited-run series following people living through the COVID-19 pandemic in the Mississippi Delta, called “Coronavirus in the Delta.”
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Sex advice columnist and LGBT rights activist Dan Savage launched Savage Lovecast in 2006 as an extension of his syndicated sex advice column, and the podcast has come to eclipse the print version. The show features Savage answering listener questions about sex, relationships, kink, porn, and absolutely everything in between with a complete lack of shame. Its frank and open discussions, paired with Savage’s humorous and relatable approach, have helped break down taboos, opened minds, and even influenced politics (if you haven’t heard about Rick Santorum’s so-called “google problem,” well…maybe don’t google it at work). For many people, Savage Lovecast serves as something of a supplement for the inadequate sex-ed they received in school, allowing them to get help with issues they might be embarrassed to ask anyone about in person. Many sex and dating podcasts have followed in the show’s wake, but none has been able to match its impact on both linguistics (Savage is credited with coining the term “pegging,” among others), and the podcasting industry as a whole.
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Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History has been credited with popularizing the format of long-form, narrative-style podcasting. Prior to Hardcore History, most podcasts were short, typically less than an hour, and focused on a specific topic or theme. Hardcore History often runs for several hours and tells a story or historical narrative over many episodes in a way that is as compelling as it is easy to follow. It was a risk to see if listeners would stick for such a long time, but they did, and still do. Now, you’ll regularly see podcasts stretching well beyond the hour mark, particularly as more and more longform YouTubers diversify their content creation. Carlin has also been praised for his meticulous research and attention to historical detail, which set a high bar for other history-related podcasts.
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The ongoing renaissance of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop games is often traced back to the 2016 debut of Netflix’s Stranger Things, but two years earlier, a podcast helped pave the way for the mainstream popularity of the formerly all-too-geeky basement past-time. The Adventure Zone, from the McElroy brothers (Travis, Griffin, and Justin), who were already relatively well known for their jokey advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me, was launched as a lark: What if the boys roped in their dad, veteran radio broadcaster Clint McElroy, for a game of D&D and recorded the results? Though not the first “actual play” gaming podcast, TAZ, as it came to be known, popularized the format, its offbeat mix of humor and solid storytelling attracting legions of devoted fans who soon began showing up at conventions in elaborate cosplay and propelled the show’s graphic novel adaptations to the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list three years in a row. Another actual play show, Critical Role, has since surpassed TAZ in popularity, launching a massive Kickstarter that kicked off an animated adaptation on Prime Video, but the McElroys paved the way.
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