Starter episode: “The Real Thing”
Picture this: you rent a video from a video store, back when those were a thing. The following day, you go to return the video only to discover that the store is gone. You’re not lost or confused — the store has genuinely vanished. This “Twilight Zone”-esque experience is just one of the real life mysteries that Starlee Kine investigates in “The Mystery Show,” an early hit from Gimlet Media. After the murder mystery “Serial” changed podcasting forever in 2014, there was an onslaught of copycat shows trying to cash in on the same formula by re-examining cold cases. Kine, though, focuses on low-stakes puzzles that involve no true crimes, but are nonetheless utterly captivating.
Starter episode: “Case #1: Video Store”
Blending the old-school pleasures of a radio play with a distinctly modern premise, ‘Passenger List’ is one of the best fictional podcasts of recent years. After a flight from London to New York disappears without a trace somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, the twin sister of one of the doomed passengers (played by Kelly Marie Tran) sets out to uncover the truth about what really happened. Playing on timely anxieties surrounding events like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370, the show from PRX’s “Radiotopia” is both an addictive popcorn thriller for your ears, and now an unexpectedly nostalgic treat for those missing air travel.
Starter episode: “Traffic”
You don’t have to be into country music in general, or Dolly Parton in particular, to be pulled in by this Peabody-winning exploration of how the multifaceted star became such an enduring icon. Although much of the show from WNYC Studios is taken up with conversations about just how beloved Parton is by everybody who knows her, “Dolly Parton’s America” avoids hagiography by taking its title seriously, exploring the Dollyverse against a broader national backdrop. The host, Jad Abumrad (“Radiolab”), begins the series by explaining his own connection to the star — he hails from Tennessee just like Parton — and the moment in 2016 that made him see her as a unifying force in an otherwise divided nation. Featuring interviews with musicians, historians, fans and with Parton herself, this is the kind of nuanced and intimate profile that audio does best.
Starter episode: “Sad Ass Songs”
Last year saw the release of two buzzy rival documentaries about the sex trafficking cult Nxivm, whose leader, Keith Raniere, was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison. But long before either show, CBC Radio was the first to delve into the horrifying and deeply peculiar world of Nxivm, whose members famously included the “Smallville” actress Allison Mack and the liquor heiress Clare Bronfman. In “Escaping Nxivm,”, the first season of CBC’s ongoing “Uncover” podcast series, the journalist Josh Bloch interviews Sarah Edmondson, a former key member of Nxivm who has now become its most famous whistle-blower. An actress by trade, Edmonson makes for a compelling central figure, her voice vividly emotional as she recalls the nightmarish ways Raniere and his chosen leaders gradually chipped away at her sense of self. A tough listen that showcases the unique intimacy of podcasting.
Starter episode: “The Branding”
Many podcasts have found success by re-examining well-known political scandals through a fresh lens (most notably Slate’s “Slow Burn”), but this gem from MSNBC pulls off the same trick with a scandal that almost nobody remembers. That’s because Watergate was dominating headlines at the time, but in “Bag Man,” Rachel Maddow pulls back the curtain on an adjacent 1973 investigation that saw vice president Spiro Agnew accused of brazen political corruption. Maddow does not hesitate to point out what she sees as parallels to President Trump — Agnew angrily dismissed the investigation as a “witch hunt” in one example — and for anyone missing the juicy palace intrigue stories that came out of the Trump White House, this is a must-listen.