11 Podcasts to Fill Your Serial Void
After a dozen ear-tingling episodes, Serial—the most popular and talked-about podcast of all time—just ended its first season.
Serial captured listeners’ attention from the start with its mesmerizing blend of true crime, investigative reporting, and compelling interviewees. Even though podcasting has been around for a decade, for many listeners, Serial offered an accessible, water cooler-friendly entry to the medium.
While Serial is between seasons, I hope fans will take this opportunity to explore the vast, vibrant podcasting landscape. Below are 11 of my suggestions for excellent places to kickoff your podcast tour. (I figured most folks are familiar with Serial’s big sister, This American Life; but if not, start there.)
Why it’s like Serial: Two words: True crime. Each episode of Criminal delves into a real-life crime story you probably haven’t heard—or, if you have, you’ve never heard it from this angle. My favorite episode might be the first, which updates the murder case featured in the riveting documentary series The Staircase. (And if you haven’t seen that, you must!)
Why it’s not: Episodes of Criminal are standalone, so it doesn’t string you along from week to week. At about 15 minutes each, they’re also short and sweet.
Why it’s like Serial: StartUp also tells one story, piece by piece. In this case, it’s the saga of how Alex Blumberg, a former This American Life producer, decided to start his own podcasting company despite a lack of business experience.
Why it’s not: Obviously, the stakes are lower here—no one is in prison—and it doesn’t invite much controversy. But still, there are stakes, and Blumberg is a talented editor who knows how to share his story in a concise and creative way.
Why it’s like Serial: Produced by the Kitchen Sisters and featured under the excellent Radiotopia umbrella, Fugitive Waves takes full advantage of the power of audio. Each episode includes “lost recordings and shards of sound” that will leave you saying, “Whoa, I had no idea.”
Why it’s like Serial: Night Vale is also a serial podcast … only it’s a fictional serial structured as a radio show about life in a strange small town. Night Vale has a devoted following; I describe it as something between Twin Peaks and A Prairie Home Companion.
Why it’s not: Like I said, it isn’t real. Or is it?
5. The Moth
Why it’s like Serial: Storytelling has been The Moth’s forte for years. In each episode, we hear folks—some famous like Ethan Hawke and Molly Ringwald, some not—share stories of love, heartache, triumph, grief, and every note in between. Several episodes have made my eyes water.
Why it’s not: The stories aren’t necessarily ones you want to immediately discuss with others, but they will linger in your head.
Why it’s like Serial: I feel like most people are familiar with Radiolab, but I’m including it because it was one of the first podcasts I became absolutely addicted to hearing. It’s like the Serial of science, with each ep offering a precise, insightful take on an oft-overlooked facet of our world.
Why it’s not: Like many shows on this list, episodes are self-contained. The show also thrives on banter between its two curious hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.
Why it’s like Serial: If you prefer tough topics to the lighter stuff, Death, Sex & Money might be up your (dark) alley. As the title suggests, and like Serial, it addresses “the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.”
Why it’s not: This show may sound like a downer, but some episodes have lighter moments, and a few even have happy endings. It also throws in the occasional celebrity interview, though they’re usually with particularly interesting and articulate people (like Ellen Burstyn).
Why it’s like Serial: Like Serial host Sarah Koenig, Karina Longworth is a talented investigator—only, her specialty is old Hollywood. Each week, Longworth unwraps tales of legendary figures like Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Marlon Brando. And actually, true crime factors into a chunk of them.
Why it’s not: Not surprisingly, YMRT moves at a more languid pace, but that doesn’t make it less listenable. The soundtracks are as lustrous as the stories, and Longworth lists all featured songs on her site.
Why it’s like Serial: The first time I heard this podcast from Nashville singer-songwriter Otis Gibbs, I fell in love. Gibbs is a master storyteller and uses his show to share lesser-known stories about the music industry and life on the road. Like Serial, I’ve binge-listened to this show and shared links with friends in hopes of passing along what I learned.
Why it’s not: There isn’t much fast-paced drama involved in Otis’ conversations with veteran country artists, but the entertainment value is high. (And actually, he has featured a crime story: “Stringbean’s Last Song” sheds light on a heartbreaking and grisly crime from the past.)
Why it’s like Serial: Nate DiMeo’s podcast excels at creating a vivid snapshot in time and, like This American Life, Radiolab and, yes, Serial, it’s lovingly produced. Installments are often less than 10 minutes and are ideal for those who don’t have hours to devote to podcasts but want to learn something from them.
Why it’s not: The Memory Palace is fantastic, but new episodes aren’t produced regularly, which makes it a hard addiction to feed.
Why it’s like Serial: It’s a podcast with an engaging host. Beyond that, though, the two have little in common.
Why it’s not: Each episode features Baldwin’s one-on-one conversations with artists and celebrities. The one quality that unites them is Baldwin’s admiration, be it for the late Elaine Stritch (my favorite show), musician Thom Yorke, or rare interviewees like David Letterman and Lorne Michaels. I’m including it here because it’s just a dang good show, and the new season started a few weeks ago.