Images courtesy of Radiotopia and Gimlet
Design by Emily Blevins
Driving on the open road is the perfect time to catch up on your podcasts.
The podcasts to listen to on your next long drive, whether you’re a history nerd or a true-crime aficionado
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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. 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 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. Now that you’ve planned your adventure, 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.
Gimlet Media is a giant of the podcasting world, and of its bingeworthy offerings, one that I couldn’t stop listening to was The Habitat. When it dropped, a friend and I were entranced for our entire drive during a weekend getaway. 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.
Ear Hustle, now in its fifth season, is a nonfiction podcast from Radiotopia about life inside the prison system and what happens once people leave it. 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. Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams (both formerly incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison) cofounded the podcast with Bay Area visual artist Nigel Poor. This year, Ear Hustle was a finalist for the inaugural Pulitzer Prize in Audio Reporting.
Yes, AFAR has a podcast! Join us each week as we dig into stories from people who took a trip—and came home transformed. Travel Tales by AFAR, a 10-episode series, brings some of our favorite AFAR journeys to life. Take a ride through a slice of the United States we call Amtrakistan. Find out how a blind man on safari learns to track a rhino. And discover what happens when a pregnant, Muslim, stand-up comic from New York takes a spontaneous trip to America's Heartland. Though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, our podcast is your ticket to the world—no passport required.
Adventurers yearning to learn about epic rescues, endurance athletes, and what it’s really like to be on Naked and Afraid should tune into this weekly podcast from the team at Outside magazine. The “Science of Survival” episodes from 2016 and 2017 are standouts.
Angela Kinsey and Jenna Fischer played coworkers Angela and Pam on NBC’s popular sitcom, The Office. Now, the IRL best friends are taking Office fans on the ultimate series rewatch ride. Starting with the series pilot, Fischer and Kinsey are working their way chronologically through the entire TV show. Listen to never-before-shared anecdotes about filming each episode (Jim’s teapot note to Pam, revealed!) and hear from special guests who were part of the cast and crew, including showrunner Greg Daniels. This podcast is best binged for folks who have seen The Office, available streaming on Netflix until 2021.
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. This year, Running from COPS is a Peabody Award nominee.
Here, “unexpected” translates to the realm of ideas. For an hour every week, host Manoush Zomorodi 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.
Alumni of comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade created and perform in this improvised, sometimes NSFW sci-fi sitcom set in space, now in its fourth season. Join Ambassador Pleck Decksetter and his ragtag team as they explore the Zyxx Quadrant on their diplomatic missions. The first episode made me laugh out loud in the first five minutes, and it’s my go-to whenever I need a bit of comic relief.
Listeners familiar with Phoebe Judge’s first podcast, Criminal, know that her soothing voice can guide fans through even the darkest of stories. In her latest show, she reads a chapter per episode from iconic literary mysteries like Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
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 sixth 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’re done listening, check out Amazon Prime’s TV adaptation of the story. The first season, starring Julia Roberts, follows the general arc of the podcast; Janelle Monáe leads the cast for another mystery in season two, coming out for Memorial Day weekend.
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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.
BingeMode isn’t exactly an interview podcast, but rather, two people in conversation. Their subject? Pop culture phenomena—especially entire-season deep dives into hugely influential franchises. Run by the Ringer’s Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion, the podcast has most notably tackled the HBO series Game of Thrones and, in 2019, wrapped up an epic 70-episode discussion of the entire Harry Potter franchise.
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.
In fall 2018, 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.
What if homelessness were #Solvable? Or the gender gap in tech? In this 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. They’re worth listening to for the innovative thinking and—most of all—a sense of hope.
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 multiple episodes of It’s Been a Minute a week. 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 (guests include Alycia Keys, Katie Couric, Van Hunt, and Judd Apatow, 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.
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.
Even super-famous historical thinkers were kids once—yep, even Ben Franklin. That’s the premise of this historical fictional podcast, which follows a 14-year-old version of the Founding Father as he and his buddies get into hijinks and go head-to-head against Massachusetts’s British governor.
Soon after city girl Chloe Lovejoy arrives in California to live with her garden-loving Grandma Ivy, she discovers Ivy isn’t any regular grandmother. In fact, Ivy is really Mother Nature herself—and her environmental responsibilities are inherited. In this 10-part season—the first in the “Natureverse” saga—Chloe learns a lot about the environment and the power of heritage. Watch for the long-awaited second season, expected this summer.
When the Anders family finds an 11-year-old girl called Holiday floating in icy Alaskan waters with no memory of who she is, things get a little crazy. Superpowers, robots, and remote islands—all the makings of a family-friendly action-adventure mystery—feature in the fast-paced narrative. Episodes are short (between 6 to 10 minutes, hence the name), ideal for limited attention spans.
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 two seasons of adventures The Two Princes present.
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.
The series concluded last spring, so kids won’t be left hanging as to how the mystery resolves. 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 60 days are free right now with code “Pinna4kids”).
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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.
In a 1978 episode of the TV game show The Dating Game, host Jim Lange cited Bachelor Number One’s hobbies as skydiving, motorcycling, and photography. But Bachelor Number One, who went on to win the episode (and a date), was more than an active outdoors enthusiast: He was a serial murderer. This six-part podcast from Wondery tells the true crime story of Rodney Alcala, who was in the middle of an 11-year, cross-country killing spree when he was a guest on the show.
In this 10-episode series, award-winning science journalist Laura Beil reports a story about a Dallas neurosurgeon who promised his patients pain relief—and the health-care system that failed to protect them when his treatments went very, very wrong. (Although the series doesn’t have the gore of a traditional serial killer narrative, it remains one of the most chilling podcasts I’ve listened to.) The series is also now available to listen to in eight languages, including German, Portuguese, and Korean.
Aspiring gumshoes will want to check out this new podcast, which started in late 2019 and puts listeners in the role of detective. Listeners learn the facts of each case and suspects’ motivations through scenes and interrogations. At the end of each episode, the narrator reveals the real culprit and what crime the story was loosely inspired by. Will you be able to solve the whodunit?
This Peabody Award–winning 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 is currently airing a limited-run series about life in the Mississippi Delta during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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. In 2019 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. 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. Season two explored the cryptic path of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized Northern California in the late 1960s and ’70s and has never been identified; season three, about the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002, recently wrapped.
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 journalist Christopher Goffard. It was adapted for TV in 2018 and earned Connie Britton a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Newell.
In the first narrative audio endeavor from The Atlantic, reporter Vann R. Newkirk II tackles recent history: Hurricane Katrina. But the eight-episode story, researched for more than a year and released in March, goes beyond rehashing what happened in 2005 when the levees broke in New Orleans. Rather, Newkirk aims to highlight lesser-known events from the aftermath and dig into the long-standing effect of Katrina, sharing perspectives from survivors and officials 15 years after the hurricane took place. It’s a very human story about a natural disaster made worse at the hands of humankind.
Hindsight may be 20/20, and in the year 2020, it’s particularly interesting to revisit the events and public figures of the past with a bit of perspective. That’s how journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall approach their weekly podcast, which reconsiders topics like the Terry Schiavo case, Yoko Ono and the Beatles, and those exploding Ford Pintos. Even if you don’t always agree with their assessments, the episodes are thought provoking, and there are plenty of banter-y digressions.
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.
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 and May 20, 2020 to include current information.
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