I was sort of late to the podcast game. I listened to Serial back when it first aired and was swept up with the rest of the world in the show’s mystery, but my other attempts to pick up a podcast habit didn’t stick. Then, a couple of years ago, a close friend of mine recommended a podcast that got me hooked.
She told me that she loved Call Your Girlfriend and I had to give it a try. I listened to a then-recent CYG episode, albeit with a healthy dose of skepticism, and to my surprise became instantaneously addicted. I found myself impatiently awaiting the arrival of a new episode each Friday and I even dug deep into the CYG episode archive, listening to the very first show and working my way forward. I was, finally, a devoted podcast-listener.
Now I tune in to a handful of news-related podcasts (shout out to NPR’s Hourly New Summary, which I listen to as I get dressed every morning), but I still take in most world news the modern-day ol’ fashioned way, via online newspaper articles. What I’ve found instead is that my absolute favorite podcasts are the ones that cover topics I never would have expected myself necessarily to set out to explore on my own. Whether it’s because of their hosts, their subject matter, or all of the above, these six podcasts take a close look at the world today in their own unique ways, connecting faraway listeners with strangers’ diverse voices and stories. For these reasons, and many more, here are some of my favorites:
Call Your Girlfriend
Hosted by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
As mentioned, Call Your Girlfriend was the first podcast that got me into the habit of tuning in on a weekly basis, indefinitely. I found myself falling in friendship with Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, two intelligent, funny, feminist ladies who use their podcast time to talk about contemporary politics, culture, feminism, and more. They’re generally cool ladies, but what makes them so much cooler than other friend-hosted podcasts is how different their perspectives and voices are. Aminatou is full of zingers that’ll have you stifling giggles, but she’s also full of insights into how she feels as an immigrant in this country and a woman working in tech. Ann is a witty, Midwest-born journalist whose work you’ve probably read in NY Mag.
I find myself laughing most of the time I listen to the show, which is pretty impressive considering that they usually talk about serious things. But that’s what makes this podcast so easy to listen to: The hosts prove that two smart women can find the humor in a complex history and landscape (even if it’s just humor as coping mechanism), and simultaneously propose ideas of how to support fellow women and combat prejudice of all kinds, in its many forms. Aminatou and Ann constantly remind listeners to continue to develop as a feminist person and they encourage us in specific, actionable ways to reject passive observation, to act, to be the change.
Plus, their monthly newsletter is called “The Bleed,” which is undeniably brilliant.
In the Dark
Hosted by Madeleine Baran
In the Dark was an emotional roller coaster of a ride for me. I was obsessed with this show for the two weeks that it took to make my way through the entire series, which follows the story of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction in the 1980s and the ensuing highly publicized case that eventually led to the creation of national sex-offender registries. It’s less about the mystery of the crime—we know, in fact, who committed it—but about exploring what went wrong in the investigation and taking a close look at the law enforcement’s role in the case. It’s the kind of podcast that makes you feel so incredibly frustrated because, in retrospect, you can see many of the objectively bad decisions that people made throughout the search for Jacob.
But a lot of In the Dark is also about grief, how our reactions to trauma can be so varied, and how we learn to eventually work through it. Some episodes, particularly the ones that focus on Jacob’s parents’ heartbreaking experience and where they stand on national issues related to sex-offender registries today, will have you grabbing for a tissue and marveling at their strength.
Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period
Hosted by Kevin Avery and W. Kamau Bell
This is just the most delightful podcast and its title is as straightforward as it gets: It’s simply all about the greatness that is Denzel Washington. Comedians and hosts W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery, alongside a rotating cast of special guests, use each episode to talk about a specific movie featuring “the greatest actor,” and discuss the film’s themes and their personal watching experiences.
I’ve always been a fan of Denzel, but I don’t think I really knew how much I appreciated him until I started listening to Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period. Once you start listening to this niche podcast, you’ll start to see connections to Denzel and his work everywhere—and you’ll begin to realize how ridiculously cool he is, if you hadn’t already. I may not always agree with Kamau and Kevin (I didn’t enjoy Magnificent Seven and they did), but my own Denzel appreciation has surely been stoked by Bell’s and Avery’s fandom. I’m so glad that this silly, enthusiastic show was recommended to me because it brings a smile to my face every time I tune in.
Death, Sex & Money
Hosted by Anna Sale
Death, Sex & Money is my #1 favorite podcast at the moment. Anna Sale is one of the most talented interviewers I’ve ever heard, ever. She has such a compassionate and engaging voice and, true to the podcast’s name, she’s a host who’s not afraid to ask people about topics that have traditionally been kept behind closed doors. She poses prying questions, but she does so in such a respectful, patient, and supportive way that, as listeners, you’ll hear people opening up, divulging their secrets, and owning their fears. The interview subjects cover a wide range of backgrounds, from celebrities to more “regular” folk with fascinating stories to tell. I oftentimes catch myself thinking about past episodes (like this episode on “Siblinghood,” which made me weep, a lot) and it’s always a treat when Anna loops back and re-interviews people who’ve previously been on the show, particularly if there has been major shifts in their lives or thinking.
Anna Sale is the kind of person you want to know. She’s the kind of person you want to befriend—because you just know she’d understand, always.
2 Dope Queens
Hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams
2 Dope Queens? Yas, queen, yas. There isn’t much more to say other than that Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams are talented comedians on their own, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with. The format of the show is fairly simple: Phoebe and Jessica tell funny stories for a few minutes, then invite three or so comedians to the stage to do stand-up sets. Occasionally they’ll have a non-comedian special guest (hi there, Jon Hamm), but typically it’s very comedian-focused.
2DQ has grown a rabid following that I think is encouraged by Jessica and Phoebe’s rapport. They’ve developed some fun lingo and often do call-backs to inside jokes from previous episodes, so long-time listeners will feel like they’re part of an “in” podcast crowd. The hosts also appear to make a concerted effort to highlight comedians of color and, of course, women in particular. I’m happy to report that I’ve learned about a whole slew of comedians after hearing them for the first time on 2DQ, some of whom I probably should have known already. But, well, now I do.
The Handsome Rambler
Hosted by Hannibal Buress
First things first: Handsome Rambler is ridiculous. But I love it. Listening to Hannibal Buress, you’ll start to get an understanding of how he’s been so successful—he is, without a doubt, a very funny guy. This pared-down podcast features Hannibal rambling about his life, alongside his trusty DJ-slash-friend Tony Trimm and other special guests from the entertainment industry. Luckily for listeners, his life is simultaneously relatable (most of us have either missed or almost missed a flight) and ridiculously not (most of us have not taken a very expensive four-hour Uber ride from NYC to Boston after missing said flight). Handsome Rambler feels effortless, and Hannibal sure does make it seem like he’s not trying … but, deep down, I suspect he is.
Hannibal purposefully steers conversations away from current international headlines and politics, but I appreciate that he isn’t afraid to lead his chats with Tony, et al., in more serious directions (for example, more often than not, race in America comes up in some way or another). This one’s a refreshing departure from more rigid podcasts and, while he lives a wholly different life from mine, Hannibal manages to make me laugh at least once per episode.