Exploring a Rapidly Expanding Podcast Universe

The appeal of podcasts is easy to understand—they’re free, easy to sample and subscribe to, and there are now so many that it’s possible to find a show to match any interest and satisfy any reader.

The appeal of podcasts is easy to understand—they’re free, easy to sample and subscribe to, and there are now so many that it’s possible to find a show to match any interest and satisfy any reader.

Podcast listening continues to increase. Edison Research’s 2018 Infinite Dial study reports that 44 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have listened to a podcast, up from 40 percent the previous year. Ease of listening contributes to that trend as music apps incorporate podcast feeds; Google Play Music added podcast support last year, and Spotify just added it this spring. Apple has incorporated podcast downloading as a feature on iTunes for years; its current podcast app is now simply called Apple Podcasts.

Yet with more than 500,000 active podcasts available through Apple Podcasts alone, how can discovery be managed—for librarians or for patrons looking for guidance? First, some general advice for finding great podcasts and then recommendations for readers with particular interests.

Podcast App Discovery Features

The podcast app you or your patrons are already using probably has a built-in discovery feature. Most have directories to make finding new podcasts easier. Some may have personalized recommendations based on current subscriptions, but just about any podcast app will have subject-based categories for convenient browsing. Finding podcasts this way to match book tastes may be easier for nonfiction buffs, as it’s no stretch to map nonfiction genres such as politics, history, and travel onto podcast categories, but don’t overlook the Arts & Entertainment (or similar) category in those apps, as it will probably include both fiction podcasts and podcasts about fiction genres.

NPR has been a longtime leader in popularizing podcasts, and its NPR One app makes it even easier to unearth new programs and episodes of interest. Listeners can follow their favorite shows and mark episodes as “interesting,” and the app will recommend others that they may enjoy based on their listening history. It’s useful when listeners are in the mood for something new but aren’t sure what to try, and it’s surprising that more podcast apps don’t have a similar feature.

Follow the Guests

Listeners of even a few podcasts will realize that most podcasters make guest appearances on other podcasts. If you hear a guest you like, pay attention to the plugs at the end of the episode. If that individual has a podcast, try it out. It’s a simple but effective way to find more shows to follow.

Likewise, many podcasts today are produced by networks such as Earwolf, Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, Gimlet Media, or Nerdist. The hugely popular Welcome to Night Vale has begun this spring to spin off new shows on its budding network. Membership in a network gives podcasts a natural way to build their publicity and income, and typically podcasts on a network will cross-promote other shows. Take note of all the podcasts on the network(s) you or your patrons like; they’ll probably share common elements of style and sensibility.

Online Communities

Whatever your online discussion forum of choice—Facebook groups, Twitter, Subreddits, or forums for particular interests such as fitness, gaming, fanfiction, cooking, or reading—odds are there’s a thread floating around with podcast recommendations. Do a search for the word podcasts or podcasts-plus the genre you’re looking for, or try googling “podcasts like” and a book title. It’s nearly guaranteed that someone has asked for prior recommendations. Podcasts come and go, so if that suggestion thread is more than a year old, start a new one to get some current offerings.

Following your favorite authors on social media is a great tactic to discover their guest appearances on podcasts, and may lead listeners to a new favorite. Authors often do virtual book tours including a round of podcast appearances when they’re promoting a new release. When an author has a new book, pay attention to where they’re guesting. If a podcast features an author you like, check out the next episode as well; you may discover a new regular listen—or a new favorite author.

Best Podcast Lists

Plenty of media and book websites post lists of best podcasts. There’s no single authoritative body issuing a universally recognized award such as the Academy Awards, and no Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes for ratings, so be prepared to poke around the web a little. Here are a few “best of” lists worth checking out.

The A.V. Club’s Podmass column is a weekly roundup of its favorite episodes from the previous week’s podcasts. It’s a great way not only to hear about notable episodes and interviews from well-known podcasts but to get highlights from new and less-well-known programs. As of this writing, the current week’s list includes royal weddings, deep readings of literary short fiction, and fairy-tale versions of notable women from history.

Lifehacker’s subject editors have an interesting and eclectic list of their favorites, covering a wide range of topical ground and a mix of the famous and obscure.

Vulture recommends new podcasts for 2018 featuring something for true crime fans (Atlanta Monster and West Cork) and Marvel comics fans (Wolverine: The Long Night), among others, and suggests checking out the Night Vale Presents productions Adventures in New America (forthcoming), set in an alternate New York City inhabited by space vampires, and Pounded in the Butt by My Own Podcast, which features celebrity readers narrating author Chuck Tingle’s surreal gay erotica.

The New Yorker’s Best Podcasts of 2017 list includes less common recommendations such as Uncivil, which spotlights lesser-known stories from the Civil War; Ear Hustle, about domestic life in prison and is produced by inmates at San Quentin State Prison; Nocturne, “a podcast about the night” featuring recordings of night sounds, stories about terrifying and remarkable nighttime events, and explorations of dreams; and The Nod, which offers deep dives into African American culture.

Book Riot’s 15 Outstanding Podcasts for Book Lovers list has listening recommendations for readers: author interviews on Beth’s Bookshelf and Penguin Random House’s Beaks & Geeks; The Brit List Podcast for Anglophiles; Banging Book Club for sex-related book talk with a strong dose of issues of representation and feminism; Backlisted, “giving new life to old books”; and The Secret Library Podcast about the publishing industry, among others.

Book podcasts

There are, of course, many podcasts specifically devoted to books and reading. NPR’s All About Books interviews best-selling and award-winning novelists; it recently featured an interview with librarian and readers’ advisory expert Becky Spratford. The hosts have talked to writers in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres.

Reading Glasses features discussions on book culture, author interviews, and the reading lifestyle. Hosts Brea Grant and Mallory O’Meara interview authors, librarians, and publishers; review “bookish technology” such as reading lights and ereader accessories; and hold animated discussions about how to get more out of your reading life: breaking up with a bad book, consolidating your book collection with your partner’s, or using your ereader in the bath.

BookRiot produces a dizzying array of book-related podcasts—some general-interest like Book Riot the Podcast and All the Books, and some specific to particular genres such as For Real (all things nonfiction-related), Read or Dead (mystery/thriller), SFF Yeah (sf/fantasy), and When in Romance.

Anglophiles may want to try The Guardian Books Podcast, which features in-depth author interviews and thematic investigations into literary trends.

Unladylike is an Australian podcast about women and writing. Hosts Adele Walsh and Kelly Gardiner’s manifesto states that they “talk with women and nonbinary people about writing and reading and particularly about process: the thinking, planning, plotting (or not), research, drafting, and editing that writers do.” Guests have included mystery author Kerry Greenwood, romance novelists Anna Campbell and Kylie Scott, and Bandjalang illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft.

Listener’s Advisory

Podcasts are a great way for fiction readers to sample short works or discover new authors. Fiction podcasts often fit an audiobook-style mold, with a single narrator reading a story, but some programs (as well as some audiobooks) go beyond that with fully produced dramatic presentations in the style of a radio drama, with music, sound effects, and a cast of actors.

NPR’s Selected Shorts features a rotating cast of guest hosts including Jane Curtin, Jane Kaczmarek, and Robert Sean Leonard, presenting stories by well-known and emerging writers, read by such celebrity narrators as Tony Hale, John Lithgow, and Parker Posey.

Radiotopia’s The Truth presents original dramatized short stories in a format called “movies for your ears,” with full sound design and music, produced by a team of screenwriters and actors.

Bronzeville is an episodic scripted audio drama by Oscar and BAFTA nominee Josh Olson, starring Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, and Tika Sumpter in a story about characters playing and running an underground lottery.

For a different kind of fiction, try Dead Pilots Society, readings of TV comedy pilot scripts that never got produced. Episodes have featured writers like Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, and John Hodgman and comic performers Jason Ritter, Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt, and Cedric Yarbrough, among others.

THE GENRE LANDSCAPE

The podcast landscape for genre enthusiasts is particularly rich.

True Crime

Fans of true crime such as Michelle McNamara’s new posthumous best seller I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer are truly living in a golden age of podcasts. It’s hard to open a podcast app without tripping over a recommendation for true crime.

West Cork is Audible’s original true crime podcast. Creators Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey follow the case of a French filmmaker murdered outside a small Irish town. Audible provides online supplemental material, including maps and time lines, for enthusiastic sleuths to follow.

My Favorite Murder, hosted by comedians Karen ­Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, has taken off in popularity since its launch in 2016. Hardstark and Kilgariff each research a different weekly case and relate the details in a conversational format full of passionate digressions and life advice (like “stay out of the forest”).

Criminal is a different kind of “true crime” podcast. While the label technically fits—it’s about crime and it’s all true—this show is rarely interested in gory murders. Rather, it’s an examination of a different encounter with a different kind of crime every episode, interviewing perpetrators, victims, and families touched by crime in some way.

The Grift by Maria Konnikova (The Confidence Game) is a fascinating limited-run series with ten episodes about con artists, both living and historical, whose crimes range from art fraud to gambling swindles to claims of psychic powers.

In the Dark’s first season covered the case of abducted child Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota, examining how police mishandled the case and its effect on national fear of danger to children and the development of sex offender registries. Its second season started May 1 and chronicles Curtis Flowers, a man on death row in Mississippi whose case has had two mistrials and three convictions overturned on appeal; he’s been tried six times for the same crime.

Crimetown digs into the crime culture of a variety of American cities. The excellent first season concerned Providence and the influence of organized crime on law enforcement and local politics at all levels in a story with few purely good or bad characters. The topic for Season 2 has yet to be announced, but Season 1 includes a generous handful of bonus episodes to satisfy listeners.

Fantasy & SF

Sf and fantasy (sf/f) readers are well covered in the podcast world. Readers who like John Scalzi’s upcoming Head On or N.K. Jemisin’s recently concluded “Broken Earth” trilogy may want to check out some of these ­podcasts:

Sword & Laser is a long-running literary sf/f podcast hosted by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt. They not only highlight current reading picks but also present a very active companion discussion forum on Goodreads and run an ongoing sf/f book club alternating between the two genres. (Belmont also cohosts the Vaginal Fantasy book club with Felicia Day featuring romance novels by female authors.) Bonus: learn what the hosts are drinking each episode.

Escape Pod and PodCastle are sibling fiction podcasts (sf and fantasy, respectively) that have been running audio short fiction for well over a decade (they also produce PseudoPod for horror and Cast of Wonders for YA fiction). They’ve featured authors from the unknown to the famous (and some that went from the former to the latter) with a rotating cast of narrators.

StarShipSofa is another long-running sf podcast. It has featured fiction by genre giants like Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and China Mieville and is the first podcast to win a Hugo Award for best fanzine for its audio adaptations.

io9.com editors and sf authors Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders have just launched Our Opinions Are Correct. The first episodes covered themes of hope and dread in the new series Star Trek: Discovery and a discussion of how propaganda and mind control in sf relates to recent revelations about the ways Facebook data is used by outside entities. A promising new entry.

Horror

Horror readers have plenty to choose from, whether they’re interested in true tales of the weird or dramatized fiction.

The Noir and Bizarre is a nonfiction podcast about the dark and strange side of Baltimore. Episodes focus on such topics as the city as Edgar Allan Poe knew it and the Baltimore man who popularized and commercialized the Ouija board.

Archive 81 is as of this writing on hiatus between seasons, but fans of Lovecraftian weird fiction will enjoy this audio drama about Dan Powell, who disappeared after being hired to archive a series of strange and disturbing audiotapes.

Welcome to Night Vale is a little harder to classify—it’s a surreal, creepy, and very funny audio drama featuring local radio from a small desert town in which every conspiracy theory is true. Night Vale has thus far spawned two novels, the aforementioned new podcast network, and a wildly enthusiastic fan base.

Lore, recently adapted into a TV miniseries by Amazon and a new series of books, digs into the darker side of history to look at people, places, and things more terrifying than fiction. Recent episodes have featured the horrors of disease, abandoned places, and the secret history of Southern cities.

Romance

Romance readers may be interested in Girl, Have You Read…?, which focuses on fiction, especially romance, with African American protagonists. Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is hosted by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books’ Sarah Wendell and Dear Author’s Jane Litte. They interview authors, for instance Alisha Rai and Jasmine Guillory, and cover such topics such plots twists and book covers.

The Lonely Hearts Romance Comics Podcast explores romance comics and romance in comics, and Book Thingo is an Australian podcast for romance readers, featuring, among other delights, an episode called Readers Are the New Gatekeepers, with librarian Wendy Crutcher.

There’s a wide range of podcasts for any interest that readers might have, and since most podcasts are free, it’s easy to explore and sample the range. Podcasts are a great way for patrons to take a deeper dive in a favorite genre, discover something new, or just listen to fellow readers and fans share their enthusiasm.

Jason Puckett is Online Learning Librarian, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta

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