The road trip is a quintessential American pastime. You load up your buddies, stock up on road food, and set out for adventure on the open highway. Taking in the sights and yucking it up with your crew can go a long way, but there comes a point in every road trip where you’re just. so. tired. of being. in. the car. That’s when it’s time to bust out your phone and crank up some audio to turn the miles from mind-numbingly boring to wildly entertaining. Add these podcasts to your road trip essentials list and you just might find yourself taking the long way to squeeze in a little extra listening time.
Radiolab is almost as tough to describe as it is rewarding to listen to. Equal parts science, philosophy, politics, history, and humanity, the show is incredibly wide in scope and rich in heart. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich employ investigative journalism and a warm narrative style to bring you all the scoop on topics that include plant intelligence, driverless cars, medical triage, the U.S. nuclear chain of command, and the history of football. Episodes are sometimes comprised entirely of one subject’s fascinating personal story, like that of a man who decided to start recording every moment of his life or a young woman who, on paper, can’t prove she exists. The hosts’ passion for every topic they cover is palpable and infectious. Because of the sheer vastness of the show’s topic pool, you can start pretty much anywhere you like, although truth be told, it only takes a couple of episodes before you find yourself scrolling back to the beginning for a complete listening. If you want a driving soundtrack that’s sure to spark conversation and will have you lost in an endless array of worlds you didn’t even know existed, Radiolab is a must-download.
Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine
If you’ve ever spent more time than you’d care to admit watching those wild emergency room shows, Sawbones might be right up your alley. While it’s not filled with strange modern-day medical cases, it does take a deep dive into the annals of medical history, which is even weirder and more entertaining. Hosted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband, Justin, the show is addictively fascinating, quirkily entertaining, and bursting with personality. Every week, Dr. Sydnee lays out the strange and/or unsettling history of a medical procedure, condition, or phenomenon, while Justin acts as an irrepressible comedic foil pretending to understand science. The couple’s lighthearted ribbing of each other and early medical professionals — who came up with such wacky ideas as the four humors and drinking plague poo (you know, for science) — will have you wishing you could become best friends with them, travel back in time together, and put the show’s patron saint Pliny the Elder on blast. For all its silly overtones, the show is also impeccably researched and genuinely educational. The usual episode format is occasionally broken up by shows where Dr. Sydnee discusses pervasive medical myths and answers questions that you’ve almost certainly been afraid to ask your own family doc at some point. Start at the first episode and before you know it you’ll be a full addict.
Risk! is a podcast where people from all walks of life take on the gut-flipping task of telling real-life stories they never thought they’d share anywhere, much less on stage in front of a live audience. Stories run the gamut from embarrassing moments to wacky sexcapades to deeply emotional personal accounts of the darkest times in people’s lives. Past guests have included Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman, Marc Maron, and Tim Heidecker, whose recounting of literally being stabbed in the back is a riveting word journey. The show is hosted by storytelling coach Kevin Allison, who frequently shares his own risky personal stories to get the audience warmed up. Risk! often shines brightest when the storytellers are regular folk: first-timers simultaneously honing their speaking skills and experiencing the catharses that can only come from regaling a room full of strangers with their most closely-held personal anecdotes. The show will have you reeling between fits of laughter and stretched heartstrings so intensely that you’ll forget you’re not sitting in the audience yourself. So far, Risk! has released over 900 episodes (with a run time of 1 to 1.5 hours each), so even if your upcoming trip is cross-country, you won’t run out of content.
My Brother, My Brother and Me
Sometimes the best cure for road trip boredom is pure, childlike giggling, which is exactly why we’re including My Brother, My Brother and Me on this list. Hosted by your eldest brother Justin McElroy, your middlest brother Travis McElroy, and your sweet little baby brother Griffin McElroy, the show is a wild ride into the goof-filled minds of three siblings who spend “roughly five-sixths of an hour each week” doling out advice they have absolutely no business giving. The format of the show is simple: They cull questions from the existential dumpster fire that is Yahoo Answers, mix in some listener questions submitted via email, and spend the next 50 or so minutes turning it all into a sweet brew of totally inactionable advice. The real charm of the show, though, is the wild tangents the three go on as their responses inevitably morph into rants, oversharing, parody songs, and displays of pop-culture-reference one-upmanship. You absolutely should start this show at the beginning, as the ever-evolving canon of ridiculous characters, scenarios, and reflections on Scott Bakula are too rich to miss any second of. Past episodes have included such wonders as a Lin-Manuel Miranda visit that culminates in a three-part harmony performance of “Fugue for Brotherhorns” (a parody song written by Miranda and set to the tune of Guys and Dolls’ “Fugue for Tinhorns”), “The McElroy Family Fun Hour Brought to You by Totino’s” (in which Griffin’s plan for a “pizza roll power hour” goes as well as you’d expect), and one episode where they give up on advice altogether and engage in an hour-long sharing sesh. The show just passed its 400th episode, so buckle in for a long, beautiful journey. You might not get any actual advice from this advice-cast, but we promise you’ll be a better person for listening.
The NoSleep Podcast
Another surefire cure for road boredom is the sheer terror that accompanies listening to scary stories on a desolate highway in the middle of the night. The NoSleep Podcast is the perfect elixir of spookiness for anyone for whom horror stories are a guaranteed way to ward off sleepiness. The show is hosted by David Cummings, whose dulcet tones are the only source of comfort in an otherwise unsettling experience. He’s joined by a pool of voice-acting talent that turns every tale into a mini audio-drama, complete with eerie music and atmospheric sound effects. Stories are pulled from the popular subreddit of the same name, along with direct submissions from amateur and seasoned horror writers. While creepiness is a constant theme, subjects range from paranormal events to monsters to tales of stalkers and shadowy figures. Each episode consists of five stories written, performed, and produced with a focus on sending shivers down your spine. The show is currently in its tenth season, so there’s plenty of content to make you regret that choice to drive through the night.
Stuff You Missed in History Class
A solid history-based podcast can make drive time fly by, and Stuff You Missed in History Class fits the bill. Currently hosted by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, the show highlights lesser-known historical events like the real-life Moby Dick, rumors of a female pope, the self-declared Emperor of the United States, and the time all of Boston was flooded with molasses. Episodes come in 20- to 40-minute easily digestible nuggets that feel more like succinct storytelling than history lectures. For topics that pique your interest, you can visit the show’s website to dive deeper into the team’s research resources for each of the show’s 800-plus episodes. With such a massive catalog comprised mostly of standalone episodes, you can dive in wherever you like and jump around as much as you want. The hosts’ empathetic style and impeccable veracity make for a tangible, captivating journey through time, and the fast-paced format makes it perfect for binge-listening. The Listener Mail segment of the show often finds fans sharing information and memorabilia from historical landmarks, locations, and museums that could easily become impromptu stops on your journey. You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this show, but you may be surprised to find yourself feeling like one after a few episodes.
True crime is an overwhelmingly popular podcast topic, and there is such a wide range of well-done shows in the genre that it’s next to impossible to crown a leader of the pack. Since its premiere in 2014, Criminal has garnered tons of praise for its unique perspective on crime as something that is complex and layered with intricacies that go far beyond just determining guilt or innocence. The show is hosted by Phoebe Judge, who is the show’s co-creator along with Lauren Spohrer. Each episode delves into one specific case. Bolstered by thorough research that includes interviews with victims, witnesses, perpetrators, and investigators, the show focuses less on a whodunnit-style mystery format and more on exploring what motivates crime and how it affects everyone it touches. Episodes are expertly produced, with gentle narration and perfectly placed clips that offer insights into the very nature of crime and criminal investigation. Cases are widely varied, including everything from identity theft to horse thievery to serial killer profiles. Episodes typically run about 20 minutes, so the format easily lends itself to quick trips as well as binge-listening.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour
Although the show officially ended in 2015, The Thrilling Adventure Hour is still worth your listening time. The show was a monthly live event in Hollywood that blended live theater and old-time radio by having actors perform stories on stage with script in hand and in full costume. What began as the simple brain-child of writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker grew into a massive hit and ultimately became its own mini-universe filled with recurring characters, spin-offs, crossovers, and celebrity guest stars. The show consists of several “segments” (which can essentially be translated as series), including a Space-Western, detective stories, drunken paranormal investigations, the adventures of a British time-traveler, and so much more. Some of the segments connect with one another, while others are entirely standalone, so the best way to tackle the show is to start at the beginning and let the mosaic of narratives lead you. One of the wonderful things about the live performance format and Hollywood-locale was the ability it gave The Thrilling Adventure Hour to welcome a massive list of guest stars over the years. Some guests, like Scott Aukerman, Alison Brie, and Keegan-Michael Key, had one-off roles, while others (including Nathan Fillion as both a Nazi-fighting super soldier known as Jefferson Reid: Ace American and a Martian Frontiersman named Cactoid Jim) had recurring roles. The regular cast was loaded with its share of familiar talent too, including Paul F. Tompkins, Danny Strong, and the voice of Bender himself, John DiMaggio. Dive into this epic as soon as you leave home and turn your road trip into an unforgettable, multi-layered adventure.
Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!
This weekly pod from radio masters NPR and WBEZ Chicago is a raucous, interactive show that mixes current events news with game-show style trivia. The show is staged and recorded in front of a live audience every week, and features a rotating panel of commentators and listeners who take on the role of contestants vying to become the week’s champion. In true game-show fashion, there are a variety of trivia challenges, including Bluff the Listener (in which contestants listen to three stories and choose which one is fake), Not My Job (in which celebrity guests are quizzed on subjects that are nowhere near their field of professional expertise), and, of course, a final Lightning round. Woven into the trivia games are genuine (but often hilarious) discussions of the week’s news, along with panel predictions on how news stories will eventually conclude. Panelists and guests range from journalists and authors to comedians and performers, including Drew Carey, Mike Birbiglia, Salmon Rushdie, Madeleine Albright, Neko Case, Hannibal Buress, and so many more. If you’re looking for a car-friendly game to replace worn-out standards like Punch Buggy and I Spy, Wait Wait is a perfect way to liven up a long haul.
You Must Remember This
You Must Remember This is another history podcast, this time with a focus on “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” Written and hosted by film critic, author, researcher, and all-around cinema buff Karina Longworth, the show takes a behind-the-scenes look at some of early Hollywood’s most famous personalities, including Charlie Chaplin, Boris Karloff, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, and Bruce Lee. Seasons are typically built around a central theme, and past seasons have focused on such irresistible topics as Charles Manson’s Hollywood, the trials and tribulations of MGM Studios, the infamous Hollywood Blacklist of the McCarthy era, and Dead Blondes, a retrospective on the tragic ends of many of Tinseltown’s earliest starlets. The show is well-researched and incredibly thorough, as Longworth combs through rumors, interviews, official accounts, and Hollywood spin to reveal the not-so-squeaky-clean truth behind the silver screen’s beginnings. The show’s historical narratives are peppered with Longworth’s personal reflections on the stars and films she references, and voice-acted drops often find their way in to further pull you into the story. Episodes run from about 30 minutes to just over an hour, and the themed format makes it easy to get completely absorbed in a full season.
If you burn through all of these, you should check out the most entertaining fiction podcasts, our top overall picks for 2018, some spooky horror podcasts, a few educational history podcasts, these productive podcasts to help get your life together, or The Manual’s own podcast. Need more suggestions? Here are some of our favorites for men’s fashion, craft beer, and true crime.
Article originally published April 27, 2018.