As a reward for hitting two Patreon goals in one day, here are my all-time favorite podcast episodes. The first four episodes on this list are the only episodes that have ever gotten an A+ from me, and the rest are the episodes I revisit and think about the most often. All of these episodes changed my perception of what audio could be in some way, told a story that genuinely moved me, or, most often, a combination of both. As a note, episodes that can be heard without prior context will be linked, but mid-story serialized audio dramas will be linked to their websites instead; you should listen to those podcasts in full.
Hitting our $20/month goal and then our $50/month goal means that I’ll be able to see an upcoming live show of a podcast and my ticket to Podcast Movement will be covered over the course of a year. I write these reviews for free while also working full-time, so all of this support has very genuinely moved me. I’m consistently humbled and honored by it.
If you’d like to help support me and my writings–and in exchange get your recommendations in the newsletter, curated podcast mixtapes based on your tastes, or the ability to request reviews for shows you love–you can find more information here. More support means more rewards like this list!
When I think of the most beautiful pieces of podcasting, the episodes that show exactly how the medium can and should be used, I always think of Wolf 359‘s “Memoria.” Wolf 359 is an audio drama, and the tension building up to “Memoria” is fundamental to understanding its impact–but at the root of the story, “Memoria” is about someone having a reckoning with their trauma, and the episode is set within their mind. The episode’s sound design is not only gorgeous, but also gives character-important reason for a piece of common editing work throughout the show; essentially, it gives heartbreaking explanation for a character’s audio quirk, but it never feels like it’s just trying to give explanation where there wasn’t one prior. The writing is moving on a level that I didn’t realize audio drama could hit when the episode debuted. The acting is so genuine and emotional without edging into being broad or overstated. “Memoria” is also a stirringly honest, genuine depiction of what it feels like to live with anxiety, self-loathing, self-doubt, or the after-effects of abuse. It takes the age-old philosophical question about what sentience and what humanity is and digs so much deeper.
Radiolab‘s “Colors” is similar to Wolf 359‘s “Memoria” in that it opened my eyes to what audio could do, but long before I’d heard of Wolf 359. Radiolab is a nonfiction podcast produced by WNYC that has admittedly, in recent year, fallen from grace at times (read this magnificent article by Erik Jones for more on that), but in its recent years, it was one of the most innovative, exciting podcasts around. In “Colors,” hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich try to explain how other animals see more or fewer colors than humans do. Conveying something so visual over audio obviously has its specific hurdles, and Radiolab gets around these in the most brilliant way: it has each color an animal can see represented by a voice in a choir, and then uses the chords they produce to contrast the different rainbows each animal would see. Hearing a chord that represents what colors a dog can see up against what a mantis shrimp could see conveys the information so effortlessly, even though it’s something most podcast producers would have thought impossible.
And yes, I did listen to the recent update. And no, I do not care. I am still Team Mantis Shrimp.
You can read my full review of “50 – Rose” here, but suffice to say there is not a single moment in this special musical episode of The Bright Sessions (an audio drama about people with supernatural abilities going to therapy) that is wasted. The sound design is flawless, the acting is flawless, the songs are flawless. This is the episode fans of The Bright Sessions have always wanted, in so many ways, and it’s still better than we ever could have expected.
While “Memoria” and “50 – Rose” are practices in high-concept, highly-produced audio drama episodes, The Big Loop‘s “Goodbye Mr. Adams” is a testament to minimalism. The Big Loop is a science fiction/magical realism anthology audio drama, meaning it isn’t serialized; instead, each episode is its own self-contained story. “Goodbye Mr. Adams” is essentially an extended monologue about a gay teen learning to protect himself from his teacher, Mr. Adams. The protagonist is played by Briggon Snow, whose performance in this episode is the single most beautiful performance I’ve heard from any actor in any audio drama–a performance that’s more beautiful than most I’ve seen in other mediums as well. I’ve said that my biggest regret of 2017 is leaving Briggon Snow off of my Best Performances list, and while this episode came out in 2018, it’s what made me realize how much I’d taken Snow’s talents in The Bright Sessions for granted. The writing in “Dear Mr. Adams” is a beautiful reevaluation of masculinity, a story about fear and perseverance–a story with dark twists, quick emotional pivots, deep ambivalence, and gray morality. It’s haunting episode that has lasts with listeners well after they’ve finished the episode.
Limetown was the audio drama that got me into audio dramas, and it’s a show I still revisit at least twice a year. Limetown is a science fiction/light horror audio drama in the style of Serial or other investigative journalism podcasts, in which the protagonist is trying to solve the mystery behind a town where everyone went missing. While the work as a whole is impeccable, the writing and performance for the eccentric scientist Max Finlayson as always stuck out as a high point. Finlayson is written as jaunty and cocky, the sort of self-assured Neil deGrasse Tyson type who would be killer on interviews but a horror to be around. As the episode goes on, the listener finds other sides of him that are always surprising. Much of this is conveyed through Daniel Damiano’s performance, which somehow manages to be both authentic and performative in exactly the way a character like Finlayson would be. Between Finlayson’s crass jokes and perfectly-timed piano chords, it would feel over-written if not for Damiano’s infectiously, believably charismatic acting. The writing in the episode, though, is also what still makes Limetown (which is returning with a second season and a prequel novel) so stunning: it’s a large-scale, intense story, as told using small-scale but intricate character arcs. “Episode 4: DDoS” isn’t just about this ominous town: it’s about this ominous town, as seen through the lens of a man with a vision, with ambitions, with fears, with regrets, and with pride.
Invisibilia‘s season two episode, “The New Norm,” was so impeccably made that it has genuinely ruined the rest of Invisibilia for me. Invisibilia is a nonfiction podcast in the style of This American Life or Radiolab–it brings together several stories on a theme. How “The New Norm” goes about this, though, is masterful. The three stories it discusses are that of the first McDonald’s in Russia, men working on an oil rig, and an elderly French woman who believed you could believe a tumor away. The way these three extremely different stories tie together in a neat, lovely, perfect bow still shocks me–but the episode doesn’t just stop there. What Invisibilia does at its best is use these stories to explain something about the human condition, and “The New Norm” discusses emotional intelligence, masculinity, and the power of belief.
My initial reviews of 36 Questions (which you can read with or without spoilers) was ambivalent. The divisive ending had me torn on whether it made me appreciate the show as a whole less. Instead, time has shown that it only made me love 36 Questions. This audio drama musical about a separated husband and wife trying–or, aggressively not trying–to reconnect packs a tremendous amount of character into just about three hours worth of audio. The sound design is gorgeous, and the songs are incredible. It’s a podcast that I find myself listening to over and over, and not just in the form of the soundtrack. I’m taken by these performances, by these songs, by these characters, and by their story. It’s something I love analyzing and debating with myself about just as much as I love singing along to.
Song Exploder is a nonfiction deep-dive podcast that breaks songs apart with its creators, taking stem by stem and demo by demo to show how that song was made. Song Exploder is, of course, absolute ear candy for people who love audio, but it’s also an incredible method of storytelling. Because music is usually so deeply personal, hearing the stories of what lead to making these songs is essentially an incredibly specific way of interviewing an artist about themself. Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, breaks down his beautiful rock ballad “Slip Away” in this episode, right down to what microphone he used to create the feelings of three-dimensional audio. He also tells the story about growing up queer, and being told his love and existence were something repulsive and unnatural. “Slip Away” is beautifully produced, but it’s also a triumphant, emphatic rebellion in the form of a love song.
I am of the belief that if audio drama keeps on its beautiful, exciting trajectory, What’s the Frequency is our best look into the medium’s future. This strange, unnerving, uncomfortable, hilarious, beautiful, completely innovative psychedelic noir is one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard, and I could not be more grateful for it. While I was tempted to use its first episode as my favorite just because of the sheer gratitude I have for it, “6. Books Containing Words” is just stunning. The production and design work in this episode by Alexander Danner is made up of so many completely different, disparate pieces that still sound cohesive. Writer and creator James Oliva’s balance between tone, aesthetic, character, plot, drama, suspense, terror, and humor sounds effortless. The performances, likewise, are equally dedicated and absurd. What’s the Frequency continually sets the bar for the strange things I want to see audio drama keep doing.
I’ll never forget the first time I listened to Point Mystic. It was a horror podcast, but it also wasn’t traditionally horror. It was audio drama, but it didn’t seem scripted at all–or maybe it was, and the performances were really just that authentic? Like The Once and Future Nerd, it’s one of the most underrated podcasts I’ve ever heard. It’s been doing some of the most impressive, innovative, groundbreaking work in audio drama for years now, but it’s still a podcast I see so few people discuss. Its world is so fully formed, so immersive, and so believable while still being bizarre. I never know where the episodes are going to take me, but I know it’s going to be somewhere phenomenal.
What are your favorite podcast episodes and why? Please leave a comment down below! I’d love to discuss with you. If you’d like to see more posts like these, please consider supporting me on Patreon!