10 Non-Fiction Podcasts Worth Your Time

A conversation between a couple of friends over drinks the other night led to a list of podcasts to keep you engaged, entertained, and in the know.

The Daily – The New York Times podcast, hosted by the brilliant Michael Barbaro, tackles one news story in depth with interviews, clips, and audio. It’s informative (in 23 minutes or less you will know a whole lot more than you did before), but it can also be surprisingly emotional (the story of a Guatemalan mother reunited with her kids had me happy crying). It delivers by 6 a.m EST Monday to Friday and is the perfect thing to listen to while making your morning coffee.

Radiolab – This is some of the most amazing journalistic storytelling you will ever hear. Really. But, with hundreds of episodes it can feel a little overwhelming, so here are a few suggestions to start:

Playing God - When people are dying and you can only save some, how do you choose? Maybe you save the youngest. Or the sickest. Maybe you even just put all the names in a hat and pick at random. Would your answer change if a sick person was standing right in front of you? New York Times reporter Sheri Fink searches for the answer.  

How to be a Hero - What are people thinking when they risk their lives for someone else? Are they making complicated calculations of risk or diving in without a second thought? Is heroism an act of sympathy or empathy?

The Border Trilogy (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) – A look at the Border Patrol Policy called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” that started in the 90s, around the same time the number of migrant deaths shot up dramatically. A particularly poignant podcast for today.

Serial - This is the original longform, binge-worthy, nonfiction storytelling podcast and is hosted by the quintessential voice, Sarah Koenig. It follows the case of convicted killer Adan Syed in the death of Hae Min Lee. Serial Season One delivered what it promised: One story, told week-by-week. But you can binge the whole thing in a day or two (and you will want to).

Crimetown – Crimetown is my favourite podcast: an engaging story, great sound design, unbelieveable characters and it’s all true. It tells the story of life in Providence, Rhode Island and of organized crime – where you’ll find yourself cheering for some of the bad guys and wondering who the good guys are. Brought to you by the same two guys that brought you the television documentary, The Jinx.  

More Perfect – More Perfect will tell you everything you didn’t know that you wanted to know about the American Supreme Court. Seriously and you’ll like learning it. It’s that interesting. Also, you’ll finally understand that friend of yours that keeps humming a weird mnemonic about Kittens and a Giggly Blue Robot (Season 1, Episode 5). It’s by the Radiolab people.

Caliphate – The New York Times (who is behind this podcast) website says Caliphate is an audio series following Rukmini Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul. This does not do it justice. Rukmini actually goes into Mosul with the Iraqi forces to try and collect documents before they are destroyed. She knows and shares the stories of Yazidi women freed from slavery under ISIS. She talks to fighters who joined ISIS, then returned home to their country of origin. It is an amazing body of work and Rukmini is very kick ass.

Dirty John – Another crime-based podcast. This one is about the story of one man, John, who seems to be the best boyfriend ever and how he nearly destroyed a family. And the woman who loved him? She didn’t even see it coming. It’s created by the Los Angeles Times.

Threshold – An excellent podcast for the science and nature geeks out there (like me). The first season of Threshold looks at the political battle around the American Bison, where these animals are allowed to live and roam free in Yellowstone National Park, but if they step over the invisible line they will be killed.

Ear Hustle – Ear Hustle takes listeners into life behind bars at San Quentin State Prison in California. It’s a collaboration between Nigel Poor, an artist in San Fransisco, and inmates Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams. If you were even remotely curious about what life is like on the inside, this podcast will satisfy. It doesn’t get into the crimes that have been committed, but talks about how cellmates are found, unwritten race rules, the impact of solitary confinement, dealing with aging and death and more.

The Habitat – Scientists and researches want to know how being stuck in a small space with only a few other people for a year would affect any plans to explore Mars. So, they made a test space on a remote volcano in Hawaii. Just before the six volunteers enter their imitation Mars Habitat, Host Lynn Levy gives them a recorder and asks them to record their diaries.