The Best And Most Influential Podcasts Of The Decade
The last ten years have been all about podcasts.
Over the past decade, a good indicator that someone had their life in control was whether they had a podcast or not.
I’m sorry, but if you didn’t start a podcast in the past decade you’ve failed at life.
But there was good news for the human garbage (like me) who didn’t have a podcast because there were so many shows.
The format isn’t new but there was a significant explosion in the number of podcasts produced since 2010. Media companies, brands and self-starters grabbed a USB microphone, three of their best mates, and started talking.
I have heard ‘podcast’ used as the collective noun for straight white men. I’m in to it.
— Maddie Palmer (@maddiepalmer) September 4, 2019
There is a podcast for everything. A podcast about a guy’s dad who wrote a porno, tick. A podcast that reviews pens, tick. There are even podcasts about podcasts. There’s a good chance you’ll find a podcast about something you’re into with the ease of building a website with SquareSpace.
The podcast boom would not have happened if it wasn’t for the significant shows that drew huge audiences to the format. Once hooked by a great podcast, you’d seek out others and chase that audio high.
Podcasts became like trading cards and we began to swap our favourites with each other. Podcasts are now being adapted into film and TV shows (see: Homecoming, Dirty John, Pod Save America, Lore). Life feels incomplete without podcasts.
Here’s a guide to the podcasts from the past decade you must add to your playlist.
Okay, let’s start with the big one. Serial is a podcasting phenomenon. The show boosted the profile of podcasts while generating an interest in true crime stories.
Again, and this is a common yarn with podcasting: none of this was new at the time. Host Sarah Koenig and the team behind This American Life investigated the murder of Hae Min Lee. Koenig had access to Adnan Syed, the former boyfriend of Lee who was convicted of her murder and their phone conversations became the show’s centrepiece.
Serial is like eavesdropping on Koenig investigating the case like an amateur private investigator, but it uses clever audio tricks to keep the show dynamic: Koenig’s narration is set to a beat, phone conversations are thrilling, and each episode leaves you wanting more.
It’s also one of the rare podcasts that captivated millions of people on a weekly basis and became an entry point for people who’d never downloaded a podcast before. Serial hooked the world on podcasts.
Pop Culture Happy Hour
On the Pop Culture Happy (PCHH) website it describes the show as: “… a fun and freewheeling chat about the latest movies, television, books, and music.”
The word ‘freewheeling’ is what sets PCHH apart from the millions of podcasts dedicated to pop culture — it’s a show that feels loose but they never ramble.
The clever, insightful and witty hosts Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, and Glen Weldon always make their point without going on tangents. The team always have the right experts as guests when they’re talking about a specific topic, and their conversations are intelligent and light without getting combative.
Even when I disagree with their opinion, I somehow love them more and their recommendations for the segment ‘what’s making us happy this week’ are always awesome. The best happy hour you can have without a drink in your hand.
WTF With Marc Maron
There are lots of podcasts dedicated to interviews, but not many people can get their guests to speak openly like Marc Maron.
Love or hate Maron, he’s an incredible interviewer. In the publicity cycle it’s now a given that someone will go on WTF, cut the bullshit and talk about their life.
WTF is where the late Robin Williams spoke about his struggle with depression. Mandy Moore spoke about her marriage to Ryan Adams and the emotional abusive she’d suffered. Even President Barack Obama went on the show, which became a story about how the most powerful person in the world decided to record a podcast in a garage.
There are running stories about Maron’s failed audition for Saturday Night Live, which always popped up when a cast member was on the show. When Maron interviewed Lorne Michaels, it closed off one of the long-running podcast narratives. You don’t have to listen to every single episode but pick a guest you like and there’s a good chance they won’t BS you.
Maron doesn’t suffer any fools.
You can’t listen to this podcast now because it’s temporarily unavailable in Australia, pending Chris Dawson’s trial for the murder of his wife, Lyn.
Teacher’s Pet is a rarity in the true crime podcasting space because it uncovered evidence that led to the arrest of Dawson decades after the disappearance of his wife. Teacher’s Pet combines investigative journalism with podcasting, written and narrated by Hedley Thomas, and it’s unmatched in delivering what it sets out to achieve.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
What’s up, hot dog? Heynongman. New no-nos.
If these nonsensical words make no sense to you now, they will after you listen to Comedy Bang! Bang! (CBB). If they do, hello.
CBB is where comedians go to play, and the list of notable guests and crazy characters is insanely long. Holding it all together is host Scott Aukerman, the closest the show gets to the straight man in this comedy improv wonderland.
Aukerman has an incredible ability to keep the show’s energy high and moving along while setting up his guests for jokes. There are running jokes and recurring guests, but you are always in on the joke, which is why CBB excels as the definitive comedy podcast.
This American Life
Look, it’s pretty much a legal requirement to have this on here. This American Life is the gold standard for podcasting and 2.5 million downloads a week can’t be wrong! Ira Glass’ show is having its episodes adapted into films (The Farewell), TV (Netflix’s Unbelievable) and live shows.
How Did This Get Made?
The best film criticism you’ll ever hear is on a podcast where comedians talk about ‘bad’ films.
Hosted by Paul Sheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas, How Did This Get Made? (HDTGM) is a loving exploration of the wild side of filmmaking. HDTGM isn’t completely mean spirited towards the films they discuss, and the team tries to come to terms with the insane decisions that went into making multi-million-dollar movies.
The core trio and their guests debate the merits of films like Street Fighter, Drop Dead Fred (one of fieriest episodes) and Hackers. The live shows are crazy fun and the audience participation usually results in mind blowing observations.
There’s an art to enjoyably bad films and HDTGM gives these movies the respect they deserve.
True crime has been a big part of the podcast boom, but many have tried too hard to replicate Serial’s success.
Each week it felt like someone claimed to have found the next big true crime podcast, but it was a fizzer. One of the only podcasts that came close was Snowball. In fact, the comparison is a tough one because the subject matter is so different, but both shows use similar elements to tell a story.
Host Ollie Wards details his brother’s whirlwind romance with a Californian con woman who scams his family out of their life savings. Wards interviews everyone involved and then sets off on a global investigation to track down his brother’s ex-wife.
Snowball is one of those stories that’s too good to be true – but it is. Behind all the shocking revelations of a long con and the global hunt for a scammer is a story about a family whose love for each other is stronger after a rough time. Wards’ podcast gets closure for his family and that’s a beautiful thing.
People are usually brought to tears eating chilis, not listening to podcasts about people eating chilis. Marc Fennell’s It Burns investigates the race to grow the world’s hottest chili and it has all the intrigue of an awesome political thriller.
Fennell travels the world attending chilli-eating competitions, interviewing ‘chilli-heads’ and meeting with people responsible for growing the world’s hottest chills. Along the way Fennell gets personal with his relationship with food and what chilis mean to him.
It Burns is a touching exploration of food and fandom.
The only podcast with a legit claim to be a cult.
Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) began recording a live show he did in Los Angeles at the beginning of the decade. The show picked up heat after Harmon got fired from Community and the podcast became a record of the aftermath.
The show is a mix of improv comedy and a live therapy session. Harmon talks openly about his life and occasionally gets into to trouble for playing private phone messages from Chevy Chase. But Harmon is a jerk and he’s an open book about it.
The true stars of the show are co-hosts Jeff B. Davis, Spencer Crittenden and Rob Schrab who humble Harmon at every opportunity. Harmontown also lucks into turning crowd members into fascinating guests and the show takes on a communal vibe. Sometimes a guest can destroy the whole show but the chaos is part of the appeal of Harmontown.
U Talkin’ U2 To Me?
A podcast that pokes fun at niche podcasts while also being serious about being a niche podcast.
Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang! Bang!) are huge U2 fans and they discuss an album per episode with genuine love for the band. But like a lot of shows they digress, a lot, and a series of podcasts within a podcast begin such as ‘I Love Films’, ‘Staind Glass’, ‘Blue Turtlin’ and ‘Talkin’ ’bout Money’.
U Talking U2 To Me? Is a hilarious display of U2 fandom but it gets better once the band hear about the show. I don’t want to spoil anything (podcast spoilers are a thing now) but dreams come true.
My Favourite Murder
When true crime went mainstream it became a lot easier for fans to admit they were fascinated by murder.
My Favourite Murder is the ultimate true crime fan confessional. Hosts Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff bonded in real life over their obsession with the grisly details of murder cases and started a podcast. Turns out Hardstark and Kilgariff weren’t alone and the show amassed a huge fanbase known as ‘murderinos’.
My Favourite Murder treads a very fine line with its humorous discussion about murder, but the show is an example about what happens when taboo subjects are discussed openly. From the beginning Hardstark and Kilgariff have said the show is about facing fear and highlighting issues around women’s safety.
There’s something freeing about My Favourite Murder if you’ve ever shared the same morbid fascination with true crime.
You Must Remember This
Older films are becoming increasingly harder to find on streaming services as platforms cap their libraries at 1980.
You Must Remember This pushes back against the shortening memory of Hollywood history. Producer, writer and narrator Karina Longworth explores the forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century and it’s one of the most beautifully composed podcasts. An essential listen for film buffs or if you’ve got a fascination with old school Hollywood.
Comedians and film geeks Alexei Toliopoulos and Cameron James attempt to locate the author of a book about Ivan Drago that’s an unofficial tie-in to the film Rocky IV.
Wait, what? I know it sounds like the nerdiest podcast ever but once the team start their investigation it goes to truly wild places that include Toliopoulos wearing a wire into a library, mysterious men appearing in the night to hand out books, and the most intense interrogations over Skype you’ll ever hear on a podcast.
Toliopoulos and James are two best mates on a ridiculous adventure, but they get results! One of the most satisfying podcasts ever made.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.