Podcasts are just a different media beast. Unlike other topics currently being apprised in end-of-the-decade lists (the best movies/TV/books/interpretations of Met Gala themes), podcasting hardly existed in its current form at the dawn of the 2010s. And thanks to its journey from fledgling medium to an entrenched facet of American culture, by 2019, podcasting both reflects and assists in shaping the media landscape around it.
Below are the podcasts that we believe defined each year of the 2010s. Some of them were famous, at least by the more paltry standards of the time, and some continue to be. But whether or not each one contributed to the odd phenomenon of podcasters getting recognized on the street by fans, they’re inarguably all a part of the podcast canon, a body of work that continues to grow with series that surprise or challenge us, labors of love that creators fought to make in what was arguably the most visual, text-based era in all of history. They saw our internet and raised us a radio.
To call Hardcore History a podcast is to supply a technical answer but miss the broader point; the show is so unlike anything else that such categorization is almost an erasure. Whatever Hardcore History is, by 2010 it had four years of broadcasts in the books, and host Dan Carlin had fully developed his sprawling, singular, macabre lookbacks on the great maelstroms of civilization. But nothing in Carlin’s back catalog matched the scale of what began in June of 2010: Taking nearly a full calendar year to release six episodes, he concluded his “Death Throes Of The Republic” series with a five-and-half-hour marathon. The man could not stop himself. Alone at the mic, Carlin often pushes toward the runtimes of shows hosted by two or three people. He’s not exactly alone, though: He channels, and in some cases argues with, the giants of historical scholarship, even as he’s the first to admit they’re the experts and he’s but a fan of history. No one exploits an un-credentialed outsider status better, fearlessly leaping into rabbit holes that academics seldom touch. It’s a fandom that rivals that of any genre of fiction, a breathless, impassioned artistic howl that’s gripped listeners again and again. And again and again. [Zach Brooke]
When comedian Marc Maron transformed the garage of his Los Angeles home into a podcasting studio, he wasn’t expecting it to be a confessional for the comedy elite. “I’m not looking for people to divulge anything,” he said in 2013. And yet Maron became known for having engrossing, honest on-air convos with his stand-up colleagues that were more than just funny people shooting the shit. He forced them to drop both pretense and artifice to reveal the intimate, neurotic, occasionally painful details of their lives. By 2011, WTF was less than two years old and Maron already mended fences with former best friend Louis CK, invited Robin Williams to open up about his struggles with addiction, and confronted both Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia on their reputations as joke thieves—memorably emotional episodes that caught the attention of both listeners and the New York Times. He basically laid out the longform interview template that many comics-turned-podcasters (Joe Rogan, Pete Holmes, Conan O’Brien) still follow. Now over a thousand episodes deep, Maron has interviewed everyone from movie stars to rock legends to the President of the United States. But he’ll always be a master at discovering what brings on the tears of a clown. [Craig D. Lindsey]
2012 might seem like an arbitrary year to highlight from the life of this remarkably consistent podcast, which has served as a proving ground for young comedians and a playground for seasoned veterans for more than a decade. But 2012 was an important transitional period for CBB. Host Scott Aukerman launched the show in 2009 as a promotional tool for his long-running weekly variety show in Los Angeles, which, in late 2012, he announced would be ending. By then, however, the podcast had taken on a life of its own. It was this year that the CBB universe of characters really started to solidify, forming its intricate web of never-ending bits. Aukerman stopped using comedy songs to break up segments, instead allowing improvisers to stretch out and experiment. Episodes that would soon be considered canonical—“Time Bobby,” “Wipeout,” “Finger Guns,” and “Farts And Procreation Part 2”—started to rack up. Importantly, this is also the year Lauren Lapkus made her first appearance, completing the triumvirate—along with Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins—that is now synonymous with comedy podcasting. [Dan Neilan]
The voice of Cecil, raspy and deep and curious, on the radio of a weird Southwestern town in the middle of nowhere marks a defining moment in the history of podcasting and fairly directly led to the meteoric rise in production of independent fiction podcasts. In 2012, Welcome To Night Vale featured the voice of a queer man hosting a local news radio show in his strange town, and put front and center the developing relationship between him and Carlos, a Latinx scientist. The combination of weird fiction, occult plotlines, a positive and uplifting gay relationship, and innovation within the medium gave Night Vale niche popularity on social media sites like Tumblr within a year of its release. The size of its fandom only exploded outward from there, culminating in live shows, multiple books, a worldwide tour, and a production banner under which are housed many other popular fiction podcasts. Night Vale continues to produce weekly episodes and inspire creators, especially since their original setup was a single narrator, a Blue Snowball microphone, and Audacity open source software. If you’re looking for an escape into the desert, Night Vale is waiting—and probably watching you. [Elena Fernández Collins]
From a criminal justice perspective, the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Adnan Syed is depressingly unremarkable. All the familiar elements are there: a frustratingly unconfirmed alibi, an ambiguous collection of evidence, and a man sitting behind bars who may or may not be guilty of taking a young woman’s life. Over the course of 12 episodes in late 2014, however, Sarah Koenig and the team behind Serial turned this case into something that’s pretty rare in the digital age: It was appointment listening, a show you simply had to consume the day it came out or risk being completely left out of the water cooler conversation. It was a gripping investigation with all the production bells and whistles of This American Life, and it strung you along from one episode to the next in a time when the medium of podcasting was purposefully more open-ended and structurally formless. It was lightning in a bottle that countless shows attempted to recapture, including Serial itself in its less enthusiastically received second and third seasons. Still, it was many people’s first podcast and unlikely anybody’s last. [Dan Neilan]
Never before 2015 has audio psychology been so easily digestible. Hosted by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller (and later, Hanna Rosin), Invisibilia explains the invisible forces that affect human behavior—anxieties, impulses, ideas, emotions—through compelling yet very sweet storytelling. The show casually introduces heady psychology by posing simple questions like “Do my thoughts reveal who I really am?” or “What would happen to us if we somehow disappeared our fear?” and introduces real people as support for a single episode’s case study. These mind matters are often complex, but Spiegel, Rosin, and Miller do everything they can to display the humanity in their show’s subjects while comparing their behaviors to significant cultural and scientific studies in layman’s terms. From a blind man who taught himself how to ride a bike without accident through sheer expectation, to a husband who overcame impulsive thoughts about murdering his wife, Invisibilia excels at convincing the listener that our thoughts and ideas—good or bad—have their place within the human mind. And in 2019, it’s still that kind of reassurance that makes Invisibilia feel like absolute comfort to hear. [Kevin Cortez]
Any way you slice it, 2016 was a weird year. Not only did the UK vote “yes” on Brexit and the United States elect Donald Trump, but the Chicago Cubs won the damn World Series. Through it all, no other podcast captured the zeitgeist of that batshit year quite like Bodega Boys. Hosted by the now ubiquitous comedians Desus Nice and The Kid Mero, the podcast is a hilarious work of authentic cultural commentary, filtering the events of the day through the duo’s warped Bronx worldview and generating some of the most riotously funny tangents the medium has ever heard. In a year that felt as though society’s slouch toward oblivion had been given a boost of nitrous oxide, the potent comedy and observations of Desus and Mero proved to be a grounding force, providing clarity through levity. Equally, the show’s early run stands as a testament to the power of comic growth and how it needn’t dull the material. Listeners witness Desus and Mero actively working to root out ableist language, showcasing an awareness that one doesn’t generally find in other “envelope-pushing” comedy podcasts. It is little wonder that the pair have gone on to such massive success. [Ben Cannon]
After 40 years of teaching fitness classes, Richard Simmons just stopped. Then he stopped being seen in public entirely. Fueled by curiosity and genuine concern, filmmaker Dan Taberski started investigating his friend’s disappearance. Throughout the series, countless students, friends, and fans discussed how Simmons impacted their lives in deeply personal ways. These connections that Simmons forged made many feel owed an explanation for his disappearance. Over six episodes, it is suggested that Simmons might have been lonelier than the world knew and perhaps the depth of his relations was misunderstood. It was an invasive look into Simmons’ emotional state, and the discussion about his obligation to the outside world took place without him present, which made many listeners and critics feel this entire project was problematic as it aired. Missing Richard Simmons is now the first season of a series called Headlong, which looks into people and events society might have gotten wrong. Season three, Running From Cops, has been met with much more acclaim, but for all the criticism of the first season’s ethics, 2017 was without a doubt the year of Missing Richard Simmons. [Nichole Williams]
In 2018, Radiotopia took one of its weirdest risks yet: a kind of fictional, kind of nonfiction interview show with inanimate objects. Everything Is Alive is hosted by Ian Chillag of How To Do Everything, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, and the retired but still underrated NPR feature “Sandwich Monday.” In each episode, Chillag interviews a particular object, as played by an actor or comedian. The podcast is funny, but it also often isn’t; it weaves between humor and existentialism, catharsis, intimacy, regret, and rumination on mortality. The interviews are interspersed with nonfiction calls to experts on the object and the strange stories behind them, contextualizing their histories and cultural impact outside of the interview itself. But what Everything Is Alive solidified in 2018 is the appeal of both the fictional and the weird. It helped open up a new audience to the exciting world of fiction podcasts, but it also pushed the idea of what creators can get away with in podcasting. Surreal storytelling is no longer just for the indie podcast scene; it’s for renowned networks like Radiotopia, too. [Wil Williams]
The crashing waves and seagull cries that introduce the first episode of this series act as an undercurrent to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ harrowing narration, a monologue that parts the waters to look back 400 years into America’s history. Part of a much larger project from the New York Times, 1619 examines the origins of slavery in America and the reverberating effects that a ship arriving at the British colony of Virginia with enslaved Africans would have on this land centuries later. Through archival news clips, personal insights, and a masterful blend of sound and musical cues, each installment tackles the contradictions of the land of the free and the home of the brave, digging deeper into the plight of a people seeking democracy while being seen only as a commodity. From the scarred backs of slaves that mark this nation’s roots in capitalism, to battles over black land ownership, to the continual appropriation of black music and culture, plain and harsh truths are inescapable. This podcast is a powerful example of what can happen when the historically disenfranchised are able to control the narrative and reframe the past to explore their legacies as well as themselves—something we ought to see more of in the next decade of the medium. [Jason Randall Smith]