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
In the Dark
This podcast, expertly reported by Madeleine Baran and a crew from American Public Media, doesn’t just delve into the tawdry details of a crime. It inspects how law enforcement impacts national narratives of something like child abduction (as in season one, which investigates the mishandling of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling’s 1989 disappearance) or whether a justice system is really working if the same man is tried six different times for the same crime (as in season two). In the Dark earned a 2016 Peabody Award.
My Favorite Murder
One of the internet’s favorite podcasts since its debut in 2016, My Favorite Murder is a true-crime podcast—that manages to be funny. Comedians and lifelong true-crime fans Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discuss murders, true-crime tales, and survivors’ accounts, managing to bring levity to otherwise grisly topics. Listen for the stories but mostly for Kilgariff and Hardstark’s banter. Episodes also include their live shows, which sell out worldwide; as of now there are still tickets available for their 2019 U.K. fall tour. This year they also released their memoir, Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered.
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 (will it ever?). Instead of daydreaming about telling Sarah Koenig your theory about Hae Min Lee’s murder, download one of the Monster seasons. In 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.
The latest season explores the cryptic path of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized Northern California in the late 1960s and ’70s and has never been identified.
Man in the Window
And any true-crime geek who uses Twitter already knows about the 2018 arrest of Joe De Angelo, the alleged Golden State Killer, a serial rapist, burglar, and murderer who was active in California between 1974 and 1986. In Man in the Window, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Paige St. John revisits the GSK’s harrowing crimes and uncovers new details about his past.
When divorcee Debra Newell meets John Meehan, she falls head over heels. But her family doesn’t like the manipulative doctor, and they soon become embroiled in a messy—and dangerous—scenario. You won’t be able to stop listening to this roller coaster of a true story reported by Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard, which was adapted for TV last year and earned Connie Britton a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Newell.
If you like fiction
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 fourth season. Every week, he selects a short story he loves and reads it. Need we say more?
I couldn’t help but binge Gimlet’s addictive scripted podcast Homecoming, a thriller about a therapist working in a mysterious experimental facility for veterans and the aftermath of her time there. Familiar voices lead the cast, including Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, and Oscar Isaac; when you get home from your road trip, check out Amazon Prime’s TV adaptation of the story, starring Julia Roberts.
Alice Isn’t Dead
Anyone with a penchant for moody, serialized fiction podcasts—otherwise known as fans of Welcome to Night Vale, which details the quirky events in the fictional town of 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.
If you like interviews
What if homelessness were #Solvable? Or the gender gap in tech? In this new weekly podcast, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of an initiative tackling pressing global issues, world innovators and policy makers discuss solutions to complex problems. Although there aren’t many episodes yet, they’re worth listening to for the innovative thinking, host Maeve Higgins’s charming episode intros, and—most of all—a sense of hope.
Latina to Latina
Bustle contributing editor and host Alicia Menendez welcomes Latinas like comedian Cristela Alonzo, actor Gina Rodriguez, and UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces to talk about life, challenges, and successes while navigating the world as women of color. Latina to Latina’s weekly half-hour episodes have been running since April 2018 so there are plenty to choose from.
Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend
Last fall Team Coco and the crew at Earwolf began a quest to collect some real friends for Conan. How, you ask? By inviting people he enjoys talking to onto his new podcast, aptly titled Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, during which he talks to them some more (usually for about 45 to 60 minutes). What do his guests think about this ploy? David Sedaris feels apprehensive, Lisa Kudrow feels tired, Michelle Obama feels cautiously optimistic, and Lin-Manuel Miranda feels great. To find out how the rest feel, tune in.
It’s Been a Minute
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.
Actor Dax Shepard’s breakout podcast launched in February 2018 and quickly gained a devoted following of “Armcherries.” 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 series’s first episode with his wife Kristen Bell, 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.
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 this one fits the bill. From Tinkercast, and supported by NPR, Wow in the World is 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.
The Two Princes
When Prince Rupert goes on a quest to save his kingdom from an encroaching magical forest, he doesn’t expect to team up with his royal rival Prince Amir to defeat a mystical curse—and neither anticipated falling in love with each other in the process. With a playful and tightly written script, and a voice cast that includes actors like Noah Galvin (Dear Evan Hansen), Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale), and Christine Baranski (The Good Wife), listeners of middle grades and above will want to go along on the seven-episode adventure The Two Princes presents.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
More for middle grade listeners: The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. The Peabody Award–winning mystery from Gen-Z Media revolves 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. What is very cool is that the voice actors themselves are also kids.
Season three was released this spring. The first couple of episodes are available wherever you do your regular listening, but to catch the whole thing, subscribe to Pinna, a podcasting service specifically for kid listeners (the first 30 days are free).
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
Though the title says “for Rebel Girls,” don’t be fooled. These 20-minute-ish episodes featuring narration about the lives of inspiring women are a good listen for kids ages six and up and for grown-ups, too. This self-described “fairy tale podcast” shares the histories of figures like Frida Kahlo, Harriet Tubman, and Celia Cruz. There are also three-minute “minisodes” where the credit readers (i.e., kiddos) interview the readers, who give advice about tackling challenges and how to be a successful rebel girl.
If you like going to unexpected places
Gimlet Media is a giant of the podcasting world, and of its bingeworthy offerings, the one that I couldn’t stop listening to was The Habitat. The entire season dropped last year, 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 to better understand what might happen if (when?) humans ever get there. 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.
The Peabody-nominated Ear Hustle, now in its fourth season, is a nonfiction podcast from Radiotopia about life inside the prison system and what happens once people leave it. Earlonne Woods (formerly incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison) and Antwan Williams, who is currently incarcerated, cofounded the podcast with Bay Area visual artist Nigel Poor. Each 30-minute episode of Ear Hustle tells stories that are intimate and funny, as well as heartrending and difficult. Above all, their stories are human.
Running From COPS
Dan Taberski, the man who brought us Missing Richard Simmons, is back with season three of Headlong. In Running From COPS, he dives deep into a longtime fandom of his: the reality TV show COPS. But it’s more than interviews with the show’s producers or discussion of favorite episodes; rather, Taberski delves into the show’s cultural impact on how the public perceives policing in America.
TED Radio Hour
Here, “unexpected” translates to the realm of ideas. For an hour every week, host Guy Raz narrates some of the big ideas TED speakers explore, with snippets from thought-leaders who are tackling digital manipulation, creativity, altruism, or humane city planning. With well over 100 episodes to spark conversation among car passengers, TED Radio Hour is a surefire way to pass the time.
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 listeners 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.
Stuff You Missed in History Class
The title says it all. In Stuff You Missed in History Class, hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey share all the stories about, well, stuff you missed in history class. (OK, fine, maybe it just wasn’t on the test.) Care to learn about the gutsy women who helped with war efforts during the Battle of Gettysburg? The largest workers’ strike in Canadian history? Even the history of doughnuts? Download a batch for the road and you’ll be set for miles.
This story originally published online on May 22, 2018; it was updated in July 2019 to include current information.