The road trip: A quintessential American undertaking. You stock up on road food, pile into the car with your friends or family (or your dog and your thoughts), and set out for an adventure on the open road. Taking in the sights and yucking it up with your carmates goes long way, but there’s that point in every road trip where you’re just. so. tired. of being. in. the car. That’s when it’s time to turn on some audio capable of turning the mood from “OMG are we there yet?” to “keep driving, I gotta hear this!” 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.
The Memory Palace
If you want a thorough, even meticulous history-type podcast that will, say, take you through the whole of Ancient Rome or the entire tale of the Aztec Empire, then this is not your podcast. If, on the other hand, you want to dive into unexpected places like the dining room at Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, the life of Shipwreck Kelly, who claimed to have survived multiple ships sinking, or the summer of 1816, the so-called Year Without a Summer due to ash sent into the air by a Pacific volcano, you’re in the right place. Host and producer Nate DiMeo digs into little-discussed but fascinating pockets of history and crafts short vignettes that bring them back to life.
As gripping as it is enlightening, Sincerely, X is a Luminary-exclusive TED podcast that plunges into the hidden stories that surround us. Each week, host Sarah Kay guides listeners through stories that are “too risky, painful, or controversial” to be shared openly, told by the anonymous people who lived them. From the woman who shares the details of her life in and after a cult to the ex-con who used the pain of his prison experience to lend a helping hand to other inmates, the stories shared on Sincerely, X are raw, powerful, and deeply personal in a way that can only be achieved through anonymity. Kay handles the series beautifully, probing deeper into the details of each story without losing the show’s deep sense of respect for its storytellers and their anonymity. The show is currently in its second season, so combine the newest episodes with the show’s 10-episode first season run and you’ll have plenty of miles worth of listening.
The Only One in the Room
In 2018, Laura Cathcart Robbins attended a popular retreat with hundreds of other writers, only to find herself surprisingly alone when she arrived. As the only Black person at the retreat, Robbins felt unexpectedly isolated, and the experience prompted her to share her story on The Huffington Post. When people from all walks of life responded by sending her their own stories of feeling “othered,” Robbins realized the connections that can be uncovered by daring to share the stories of our loneliest moments. Episodes begin with guests completing the phrase, “I was the only one in the room who…” and delicately settle their way into stories of pain, loneliness, altered perspectives, and self-realization. On its surface, The Only One in the Room is a podcast about feeling excluded, isolated, and “othered.” What it ultimately becomes, however, is an exercise in human empathy and a beautifully aching reminder of the common ground that lies between us all. Once you start an episode, you won’t want to stop, making the show perfect for whiling away long hours on lonely roads.
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 and one of the best science podcasts. 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. 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 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 cracks jokes and pretends to understand science. The couple’s lighthearted ribbing of each other and early medical practitioners (who came up with ideas like 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 impeccably researched and genuinely educational. Start at the first episode and before you know it, you’ll be a full addict.
Another podcast giving ear-time to hidden stories is Ear Hustle, from Radiotopia. Hosted by visual artist Nigel Poor and former inmate-turned-full-time producer, Earlonne Woods, the podcast explores the realities of daily life in prison and affords inmates in San Quentin the opportunity to share their stories themselves. The show, which is now in its third season, has explored everything from lockdowns, falling in love behind bars, death row, and parenting from prison, all while remaining vigilantly focused on the humanity we too often fail to acknowledge in people who are incarcerated. Ear Hustle is not a rubbernecker’s delight, but rather a poignant, haunting, inspiring, and enlightening view of a world so often ignored by those untouched by it. If you’d like to open your mind out on the open road, this show is beyond worthy of a listen.
My Brother, My Brother and Me
Sometimes the only cure for road boredom is childlike euphoria, which is why we’re including MBMBaM 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 unactionable 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. Starting this trip anywhere but the beginning would be a full sin, as the ever-evolving canon of characters, scenarios, and reflections on Scott Bakula are too rich to miss even one precious second of. Past episodes have included such wonders as the three brothers being completely pwned by Al Roker at the premier of Jimmy Buffet’s musical, “The McElroy Family Fun Hour Brought to You by Totino’s,” and so many Lin-Manual Miranda-related delights to list. The show has over 400 episodes, 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 comes from 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 ticket to sleeplessness. 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. 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.
A Very Fatal Murder
True Crime will, ironically, probably never die, but its recent spike in popularity on every medium from TV to podcasts may have you feeling a little disenchanted with the genre. Next time you hit the open road, queue up A Very Fatal Murder, from The Onion. As you might imagine, The Onion’s take on the genre is a rib-tickling one, and the podcast’s mocking of the genre is exquisite down to the tiniest detail. Narrator and “OPR” reporter David Pascall (voiced by writer David Sidorov) delivers lines like “Haley was a high achiever, a debate champion, a prom queen, a doting girlfriend. But Haley also excelled at being murdered,” in a manner that so perfectly mimics his IRL counterparts that at times you will almost-but-not-quite miss the absurdity. Even with its increasingly ridiculous (and hilarious) narrative, the show is exceptionally produced, with a soundtrack that is as richly layered as the likes of Serial or Dirty John. If you and your road trip companions are aching for an irresistible crime story without the forced realization that the world is a cruel, hopeless mess, well, then this one’s for you.
Aside from having a name that kinda makes you feel like you know science or something when you say it out loud, Anthem: Homunculus is a truly unique musical podcast from the mind of John Cameron Mitchell, the award-winning author of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The series tells the story of Ceann, a failed artist who now finds himself crowdfunding for his life as he attempts to raise enough money to remove the tumor from his brain. As the series unfolds, you’ll find yourself absorbed in a constantly twisting musical mindfreak that will spit you out on the other side with an entirely new view of podcast theatre. Wavering just as rapidly as unexpectedly from stream-of-consciousness narrative to trippy art rock to devastatingly tangible musings on modern culture, Anthem: Homunculus is part podcast, part musical theater, part surrealist performance art, part social commentary, and all unapologetically eccentric. Oh yeah, did we mention it also features the vocal talents of stars like Glenn Close and Patti LuPone?
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 and features a rotating panel of commentators and listeners who take on the role of contestants. 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.
Updated December, 2020
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