Podcasting started as a medium full of low quality recordings of bad comedy and has slowly matured into a respectable art form. There are still a ton of weirdly bad shows, but we’re entering a time when good podcasts are beginning to outnumber bad ones, as well as a time when it’s completely understandable that someone would pass up going to the movies or sitting down to prime time TV in order to catch up on their favorite podcasts. That means 2018 was a crazy good year for podcasts and podcasters, and there’s plenty to sort through for someone looking for good stuff to listen to. For us, these were the best podcasts of 2018.
Serial is the program that proved people would consume more hours of true crime podcasts than there are in a day. Season three takes us into the Cleveland courthouse and follows a different case each week. The goal of the season is to give close examination to the day to day cases heard in Cleveland, but in the way that Serial is known for. Any fan of the earlier seasons might be skeptical that diverging from the single story goes against what Serial started as, but you’ll quickly find that even though this season jumps from case to case, it’s really talking about the Cleveland Justice Center as a wholeListen
It’s been going on so long that we tend to forget we have soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. That’s a terrible sentence, but there’s serious reason to think it’s not our fault. Major American conflicts before the War on Terror were usually accompanied by daily coverage in newsreels, newspapers, radio programs, and television reports. From what we can remember, most of the coverage of this century’s conflict comes in the form of a handful of news reports in 2001 and 2003, a documentary every year or two, and books even less frequently.
That’s all a long way of saying we’re thankful for Caliphate. It’s a podcast from The New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi as she tries to answer the question that’s been at the core of the war since the beginning. That is, she wants to know exactly who the U.S. is fighting. Out of that question comes this podcast, where Callimachi focuses on ISIS and the city of Mosul. It’s the closest modern Americans have to daily war reports, which is telling on its own.Listen
The second season of In the Dark takes on the case of Curtis Flowers, a man who’s been kept on death row for decades, despite proving his innocence in appeal after appeal. It’s a situation that doesn’t make any sense according to how the justice system is supposed to work, and it’s exactly that problem that this season attempts to solve. The season investigates the evidence used against Flowers, from eyewitness accounts to the reliability of key witnesses to the simple existence of the murder weapon.Listen
Doctors are among the most trusted members of our society and for good reason. They go to school for years to become knowledgeable in a wide range of health issues. As such, we expect that when we go to the doctor, we’re going to get a reasonable diagnosis and our ailments will go away. Which is what makes it so dangerous when Dr. Christopher Duntsch is allowed to go unchecked. His patients were routinely misdiagnosed and mistreated, and the checks and balances meant to protect them failed to unfathomable degrees.Listen
Y2K isn’t the biggest world crisis we lived through (nothing really even happened), but you wouldn’t have guessed that from the hysteria surrounding it. There were plenty of people convinced that we’d made our world entirely too reliant on computers and hadn’t considered the consequences of that reliance, especially as the doomsday of the Y2K bug approached. This podcast focuses on the people most psychologically affected by the imminent doomsday, from computer programmers to survivalists.
Surviving Y2K is also the direct follow up to Missing Richard Simmons. Not that it continues that story. More that it’s actually the second season of Headlong, Dan Taberski’s close focus podcast. What that means is anyone who liked Missing Richard Simmons will likely enjoy this one as well.Listen
We’re not huge fans of the modern trend of constantly rubbing it in people’s faces that they’re wrong about things, which is exactly what the title of You’re Wrong About… does. At the same time, we’re always up for correcting common misconceptions, which is what the content of this podcast does. As a result, we’ve decided to look past the title and stick with the content. Each episode picks a topic and attempts to correct the way the public thinks about it. Topics are ridiculously wide-ranging, including Roe v Wade, after-school specials, shaking babies, Iran-Contra, Jonestown, and the Exxon Valdez. It may or may not change your mind about some of them, but at least the podcast is offering another take on generally accepted knowledge.Listen
Before It Had a Theme is a podcast about a podcast. The focus of this meta podcast is This American Life, the long running public radio program about all kinds of American stories. Before It Had a Theme hosts Rob McGinley Myers and Britta Greene want to know what works about This American Life, and use their own podcast to pick apart different episodes of the other podcast to nail down why the other podcast is so entertaining and what’s kept it around this long.Listen
Bubble is set in Brooklyn. It takes all of two minutes to confirm this. Sure, there are sci-fi elements like aliens and spaceships and crazy buildings. But we all know it’s Brooklyn. They eat brunch, they complain about diets, they watch too many documentaries, they go on cleanses, and they have no money because they work in the gig economy. Bubble is also the Maximum Fun network’s first scripted comedy, so it’s as much an experiment in podcasting as Brooklyn is in the supersaturation of hipsters.Listen
The true crime genre, while it’s a favorite of ours, is definitely ripe for satire. The runaway success of shows like Serial and Making a Murderer guaranteed that any hip dude with a microphone and a vague sense of how to Google crimes was going to put out his or her own true crime podcast. A Very Fatal Murder is The Onion’s release and it’s exactly what you’d expect from The Onion. It’s weird, very funny, deadpan, falsely serious, and rips apart the tropes of the true crime genre. Where self-important true crime podcasters decided they were the new wave of expert journalists speaking truth to power, The Onion saw them as the egotistical hippies they were, so they made a podcast about it.Listen
This was a productive year for Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. He and Ben (if there is a Ben) managed to release two separate episodes, both of them worthy entries in Dan’s catalogue of expertly researched and delivered subjects. The first, Painfotainment, follows humanity’s obsession with live displays of pain and execution. Listening to it, it becomes clear that modern humans are the historical outliers, since most of us haven’t gathered in the town square to watch someone get their head cut off or their skin peeled back. It’s a rough episode, but it asks the kind of questions Dan’s known for and that make you think deeper about our place in history.
The second episode is no less heavy and is the first in a series that is going to examine how the Japanese came to be the people they were during the Second World War. It was a brutal time to be Japanese or to be anyone fighting the Japanese and it helps contextualize the surprising brutality of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.Listen