Summer road trips are good for a lot of things: watching scenic landscapes as you wander between states, belting along to epic playlists, and eating roadside fast food (guilt free). They’re also good for binge-listening to some of the imaginative and thought-provoking podcasts that are being produced across the country.
A big plus of podcasts is that they represent a true democratization of the storytelling space—anyone with a smartphone or voice recorder (and an internet connection) can make one. But that freedom is a double-edged sword: There is a lot to sift through to get to the quality shows, and no semblance of a rating system exists, so it can be difficult to determine what is audience appropriate if you’re listening in a group.
Never fear—we’ve done the work for you. Here are some of the best podcasts out there (including some family-friendly podcasts!), all perfect for your next long road trip, whether you love a good murder mystery or want a behind-the-scenes look at a fake mission to Mars.
If you like true crime
So you solve Law & Order cases in your sleep and are waiting with bated breath for the next season of the hit Crimetown to drop. Instead of daydreaming about telling Sarah Koenig your theory about Hae Min Lee’s murder, download Atlanta Monster. Host Payne Lindsey (creator of the successful podcast Up and Vanished) delves into the Atlanta Child Murders that took place between 1979 and 1981 and resulted in the deaths of more than 25 people. Over the course of 10 episodes (plus a pair of bonus episodes answering listeners’ questions), Lindsey speaks to family members, law enforcement officers, and even the alleged culprit himself.
I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK
And any true crime geek who uses Twitter already knows about the recent capture of the alleged Golden State Killer, a serial rapist, burglar, and murderer who was active in California between 1974 and 1986. The late writer Michelle McNamara spent the last few years of her life investigating the killer; although she died suddenly before the book was finished, her husband Patton Oswalt, writer Paul Haynes, and journalist Billy Jensen completed the project. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was published in February of this year. The accompanying podcast, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: The Podcast, goes behind the scenes of the book, including interviews with McNamara before her passing.
If you like fiction
ALICE ISN’T DEAD
Anyone with a penchant for moody, serialized fiction podcasts—otherwise known as fans of Welcome to Night Vale—will be intrigued by Alice Isn’t Dead, a thriller developed by Night Vale Presents. The first episode of season one begins almost immediately with the narrator, a truck driver, saying, “This is not a story. It’s a road trip.” The longer she searches the country for her missing wife Alice, the clearer it becomes that things are not what they seem. The show’s third and final season began in April, so there’s plenty to catch up on for those long stretches of road. You’ll have more to look forward to when you finish: a novel based on the podcast will come out this fall, and a TV show on USA Network is already in development.
LEVAR BURTON READS
Lovers of short fiction should check out LeVar Burton Reads. Yes, THE LeVar Burton, of Reading Rainbow, Roots, and Star Trek fame, whose velvety warm voice encouraged youngster millennials and gen-Zers to embrace their love of literacy. Now, download that same wonderful voice and listen to his podcast, in its second season. Every week, he selects a short story he loves and reads it. Need we say more?
If you like interviews (especially smart ones)
IT’S BEEN A MINUTE
Terri Gross will forever be the queen of the radio show interview, but if I had to pick someone spearheading the next generation of NPR talent who manages to tackle complex conversations at the intersection of news and pop culture, Sam Sanders would be it. Formerly a cohost of NPR’s Politics podcast, the charming Sanders drops two episodes of It’s Been A Minute a week—a deep dive on Tuesdays with one guest, and a more wide-ranging conversation with two people on Fridays. Episodes are fun and laid-back (like a segment that airs real listeners calling in about the best thing that happened to them that week) while still being thought-provoking and timely. And FWIW, he’s also great on Twitter.
In @RBGmovie, @Betsywest and @FilmmakerJulie chronicle the life and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (with a little help from @NPR's own @NinaTotenberg). Listen: https://t.co/hYWsnVA7zX pic.twitter.com/qeSuX6KAg6— It's Been A Minute (@NPRItsBeenAMin) May 15, 2018
If you like traveling with the fam
WOW IN THE WORLD
The podcasting space still has a lot of gaps to fill when it comes to younger listeners, but these two fit the bill. From Tinkercast, and supported by NPR, is Wow in the World, an educational kids’ show cohosted by media veterans Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas. Learn about black holes, supergerms, AI, and more in every episode, which hits the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of the day’s theme. I suspect Ms. Frizzle would approve of this podcast, which seems best suited for elementary grades.
For the slightly older listeners (think middle school), check out The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. The Peabody Award–winning scripted mystery from Gen-Z Media is entertaining for both kids and their adults, and what is very cool is that the voice actors themselves are also kids. Season three is still in the works, so you have time to catch up on the first two seasons, which revolve around Mars Patel’s quest, along with his loyal friends, to find two of their buddies who have gone missing. Maybe they won’t even be found on Earth.
If you like being the hero
The Walk podcast released in January technically was designed for going on, you guessed it, walks (much like Zombies, Run! was built as a smartphone fitness game to motivate runners). But the action-based story could be fun if you’re in the car, too. You, dear listener, are the main character of the narrative—you’ve been mistakenly identified in Inverness, Scotland, as a courier to deliver an important package to Edinburgh. Just as you’re about to board the train, an electromagnetic pulse goes off, disabling transportation. Walking it is—and you’ll meet other characters with their own motives along the way. Episodes run for about 20 minutes, a nice duration for some bite-sized storytelling on the road or if you want to take a stretch break. Be warned: Some of the noises, like explosions or simulated gunshots, can be a little startling if you’re listening in public.
If you like going behind the scenes to hard-to-access places
Gimlet Media is a giant of the podcasting world, and of its latest offerings, the one that I couldn’t stop listening to was The Habitat. The entire season dropped in April, and a friend and I were entranced for a round-trip three-hour drive. The nonfiction series comes mostly in the form of audio diaries by the six individuals chosen by NASA to simulate life on Mars. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live in an imitation Mars habitat in Hawaii for a year with five colleagues, this is the binge for you. Host Lynn Levy, who is in touch via email with the team, frames the year-long arc.
Ear Hustle, now in its second season, is a nonfiction podcast from Radiotopia about life inside the prison system. Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, both currently incarcerated at San Quentin Prison, cofounded the podcast with Bay Area visual artist Nigel Poor. Each 30-ish-minute episode of Ear Hustle tells stories that are intimate and funny, as well as heartrending and difficult. Above all, their stories are human.
If you’re a history buff
With a collection of more than 154 million artifacts to inspire episodes, the Smithsonian’s teaching possibilities are endless. And what’s better than insider access to the world’s largest museum complex? Insider access in your pocket. The Smithsonian’s podcast Sidedoor lets readers in on topics ranging from the world’s oldest winery to the life of hip-hop artist J Dilla to an ingenious machine that harvests algae and converts it to biomass that could one day power your iPhone. Biologists, archaeologists, astrophysicists, and other experts weigh in. Another plus? It’s family friendly.
If you like listening to celebrities talking to other celebrities
The actor Dax Shepard might be best known to many as the husband of Kristin Bell (of Frozen and, earlier, Veronica Mars fame), or even as That Guy Always Mistaken For Zach Braff, but he has been active on big and small screens for some time. His latest venture, which began in February, comes in the form of a podcast. In Armchair Expert, Shepard invites friends and fellow celebs (Ellen DeGeneres, Katie Couric, Van Hunt, and Seth Green, to name a few) to talk about the messiness of being human. Each episode is long (the first episode with his wife, which got me hooked, clocked in at two hours), so depending on where you’re driving, one episode might be all you need. Frank (and explicit) discussions of sex, mental illness, and failure make for honest—if not kid-friendly—listening.