Podcasting is home to a free-flowing and ever-growing number of practitioners, shows, genres, and communities. This fact isn’t lost on me, and it especially comes to mind whenever I sit down to make my year-end list of the best podcasts, which reflects my own subjective interpretation of the best offerings from each vibrant year. Now, I love writing up that list, but this time we also wondered: Wouldn’t it be cool to formally capture what the rest of the podcast world has been listening to and believes to be the best?
So this year, we’re kicking off a new project: a big, industrywide survey that aims to find out which shows most captured the attention of the people who are actively shaping the podcast world.
Let’s talk methodology. To begin with, we reached out to a few hundred people all over the podcast community — producers, hosts, independent creators, executives, agents, sound designers, composers, and so on — and asked them to send us what they felt were the three best podcasts from the year. They were told that the votes would be anonymous. We tried our best to cut across as wide a cross-section of the podcast landscape as possible. Those polled for this survey were given only two major limitations: They can’t pick a show that they worked on, and their selections (whether new or existing shows) had to be actively publishing this calendar year. Personal observations, arguments, and comments were not mandatory, but many respondents gave them anyway, some of which we printed in the results below. (Everyone named provided us the permission to do so. The rest were left anonymous.)
Our outreach yielded over 150 responses from various corners of the podcast world, from independent creators to Spotify to NPR to Apple to SiriusXM. A few more things to note here: Firstly, to account for the fact that some podcast people work at large publishers with sprawling portfolios, we gave respondents the option to nominate one show from their company as long as they didn’t directly work on that production. Secondly, a few respondents qualified their picks along the lines of: “Well, my personal top three is so-and-so, but professionally, I’d say my top three is so-and-so.” In those instances, we prioritized the respondent’s personal picks over what they think they should be highlighting. Finally, here’s something that caught my eye: About a dozen people declined to participate, saying something like, “I didn’t listen to any podcasts this year as I was too busy working on my own.” An understandable predicament.
Finally, the results. We tallied up the counts, and in this list we present the 15 shows with the most votes in descending order. For cases in which a few shows brought in the same number of votes, we ordered them alphabetically. Finally, we also decided to include a few more picks with much smaller vote tallies but that came accompanied with fun, interesting comments.
Okay, so without further ado, here’s the list.
Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger’s guide to Whos, Thems, and the vast universe of celebrities in between remains a favorite among industry insiders. And why wouldn’t it? The world of Whos has never been bigger, and the podcast never been more of a fun, funny hang.
“This year, for obvious reasons, I needed to listen to light, goofy, semi-meaningless stuff,” said Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of Pineapple Street. “Who? Weekly is the only podcast that makes me genuinely laugh out loud.”
Which Publishers Had the Most Shows Voters Liked?
Jamie Loftus’s vociferous defense of “Cathy,” the famous comic strip by Cathy Guisewite half-remembered these days as a punchline, was one of the more intriguing projects to come out this year, most notably for the anarchic nature of its sounds. We named Aack Cast the best podcast of 2021, and the project was a favorite among those in the comedy-podcast scene.
“Jamie Loftus is better than anyone at finding an under-explored quirk of modern life or piece of pop-culture minutiae and finding a whole world within it,” said Josh Richmond, senior producer at Earwolf. “Aack Cast spins the least hip comic in the funny pages into a complete treatise on 20th-century womanhood; it’s exceptional.”
The actor Connor Ratliff’s quest to figure out why Tom Hanks fired him from a small role in Band of Brothers 20 years ago because of his “dead eyes” stood out from its very first installment for its capacity to use its shaggy dog concept as a platform to explore ideas of art, failure, and building a life against constant disappointment in the entertainment business.
Now in its third season, Dead Eyes continues to draw admiration. “One would think that Connor Ratliff’s endless quest might get old … but it doesn’t, somehow,” said Julie Shapiro, VP of editorial at PRX and Radiotopia. “He’s a great interviewer, very funny person, brings on wonderful guests, and is hyper-aware of the simultaneously mundane and existentially vast nature of his quest. Just pretty much delightful.”
The Just Enough Family
Hosted by New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy and produced by Melinda Shopsin, The Just Enough Family is a profoundly strange project in many ways, but the way it provided a vivid window into the rise and fall of an extremely wealthy family resonated with some voters.
“I liked how the narrative structure was cyclical instead of linear, which mirrored the cyclical nature of family conflicts,” said Callie Hitchcock, a reporter at Campside Media. “It also felt very spare and intimate; Levy has the trust of the people she is interviewing and it allowed for more idiosyncratic and deeper insights.”
The Ezra Klein Show
As Apple Podcasts noted, The Ezra Klein Show was among the ten most popular new podcasts on the platform this year. Our voters agreed: The deep-dive interview podcast was also roundly praised in the survey.
“He approaches each discussion with curiosity and compassion that elicits the same in his guests, making for a thoughtful and satisfying listen,” said one respondent who works for a big platform.
“This show has given me hope that there are brilliant, empathetic people out there trying to solve some of our most intractable problems,” said Jody Avirgan, host of This Day in Esoteric Political History. “It’s also reaffirmed for me that the building blocks of a great podcast — chemistry, curiosity — still really matter.”
The Most Represented Genres in the Survey
Anything for Selena
Maria Garcia’s memoir-documentary hybrid produced by WBUR and Futuro Studios about the culture- and identity-shaping legacy of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the late Tejano music legend, struck a chord with many podcast folks, particularly those who saw themselves in Garcia’s story.
“I’m a Latina who’s always felt like an outsider — never Latina enough but also not American enough,” said one senior producer. “Hearing Anything For Selena examine all of that along with how Selena and our culture has shaped so much of our world today was truly revolutionary. It rang so true to me. It is a work of art.”
Specific praise, as well, was directed at how the show approached bilingual production. “Love that Futuro did both English and Spanish versions of the podcast that aren’t direct translations — so good,” said JoAnn DeLuna, a producer at Transmitter Media.
The Midnight Miracle
The trippy, rambling, and shape-defying audio show by Dave Chappelle with Talib Kweli and yasiin bey — mostly available as an exclusive on Luminary, which is still around, with limited accessibility everywhere else — brought in a solid haul of votes in the survey with many lauding its experimental, free-form take on the celebrity chat-cast. Said one respondent from one of the big companies, “Game-changer approach to the genre.”
There were, however, some reservations among those who voted for the show owing to the growing controversies Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, The Closer, which has been heavily criticized for its transphobic content along with Chappelle’s subsequent response to the backlash. “Too bad Chappelle’s a self-unaware narcissist,” said one exec from a well-respected podcast studio. “Because that first episode was chef’s kiss” — though, that exec went on to say, not enough to convince them to purchase a Luminary subscription.
The Line might have earned fewer votes than Dan Taberski’s other big project (see No. 3 on this list), but the documentary series, which investigates the possible war crimes of the American Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher during a 2017 deployment to Iraq, was widely viewed as an achievement with a much higher degree of difficulty.
“He makes it look so easy,” said Brendan Francis Newnam, vice president and executive producer of special projects at Pushkin Industries. “Yet there was nothing easy about the people he talked to and the story he covered here.”
“What always impresses me about Dan Taberski’s writing is his ability to elicit a multitude of emotions simultaneously,” said another podcast studio exec. “In The Line, I was often horrified and laughing and crying and sighing with a deep empathy. It was easily the best writing I consumed (since I heard it) this year.”
The Podcast That Comedy People Liked the Most
Jonathan Goldstein’s ode to regret, breakthroughs, and dealing with the rest of your life was a clear favorite among producers who work in the narrative genres. Currently in its fifth year, the Gimlet Media production is described as only getting finer with age. “When Heavyweight first launched, I loved it, but was worried the format would grow stale over time,” said Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful. “Fortunately, I think it has managed to evolve just enough to stay great.”
That said, a few respondents — mostly among the executive class at competing companies — grumbled about Spotify’s recent decision to make the show exclusive to its platform. “I do have to reiterate: putting episodes of Heavyweight ONLY on Spotify is BULLLSHITTT,” texted one exec at a competing platform who voted for the show. But even that couldn’t shake their admiration for Goldstein, his team, and their knack for unearthing catharsis.
“I mean, what can Dan Taberski not do these days?”
That’s how Shara Morris, executive producer at Neon Hum Media, put it, which more or less captures what many other people felt this year. Taberski, who first exploded into the scene with 2017’s Missing Richard Simmons, was at the front of two audio projects released this year (see The Line above). His more popular one was an essayistic series on the long shadow of the September 11 attacks with Pineapple Street, Wondery, and Amazon Music.
“It’s maybe the most impressive achievement yet in Taberski’s increasingly compelling, impressively ambitious body of work,” said Will Di Novi, special programs curator at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Marlon Bishop, VP of content at Futuro Studios, also heaped praise on the project: “Dan managed to make a 9/11 podcast that was very thoughtful and often funny, with some amazing gets, and wonderful music and sound design.”
Seth Rogen’s story-exploder podcast turned more than a few heads for its highly technical approach and light, fuzzy fun. “It’s a big accomplishment,” said one producer from one of the bigger companies. “Because a lot of the time, there isn’t even that much to the story.”
One of the more amusing themes in the responses is a general sense of surprise that the show ranked so highly for them in the first place. “I’m really glad these [picks] are anonymous,” wrote an independent creator. “Because I cannot believe I’m recommending a podcast by a white male comedian.”
Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes’s biweekly podcast interrogating suspect health fads was, by far, the podcast that earned the most votes in the survey. This doesn’t really come as a surprise. Since launching in October 2020, Maintenance Phase quickly carved out a strong and noticeable following for its smart, thoughtful interrogation of the health and wellness world.
“Aubrey and Michael are so great together and this show could not be coming out at a more perfect time,” said Beth Anne Macaluso, head of podcast development at iHeartMedia. “It feels complementary to the other conversations happening right now about how messed up everything actually was in the ’90s and early aughts.”
“[They] do a great job diving deep into wellness trends and unpacking them — both their often sketchy origins and the dangers that they can lead to,” said Lauren Shippen, CEO of Atypical Artists. “But it also isn’t a full tear-down of wellness completely. The hosts are always fair about ‘if you like this thing you can still have it, it just isn’t going to make you immortal’ around the products and trends that aren’t harmful. I’ve learned so much and it’s helped me understand the complexity of wellness, body positivity, fatphobia, and the health industry.”
What makes Maintenance Phase’s place at the top of this survey so much more interesting is the fact that it’s a proudly independent production, showing that, even as the podcast world has rapidly consolidated around a handful of huge players, there’s still plenty enough room for indie creators to carve out a strong place for themselves.
Some More Interesting Picks
There were a few shows with smaller vote tallies that respondents made intriguing arguments for, and so we thought it would be interesting to run a few of those highlights here:
The popular hip-hop podcast by N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN (published by iHeartMedia’s The Black Effect network) came up as a pick among music aficionados polled for this survey. Of particular interest was the recent episode featuring Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), which drove a torrent of headlines last month.
“This isn’t a show that is in my weekly rotation, but their Kanye West interview provided so much content for music podcasters, journalists, and fans,” said Jazmine Henley-Brown, executive producer at Stitcher’s More Sauce label. “It might go down as one of the most significant music interviews this year, with Rory & Mal’s ‘Black Album’ deep-dive with Hip Hop & Guru up there as well.”
The podcast deconstructing (or decentering, if you’d prefer that term) the curious subject of heterosexual culture, by the gay comedians George Civeris and Sam Taggert, drew recent acclaim here in Vulture, and it came up as a favorite among the more comedy-centric crowd polled for this survey.
“George Civeris and Sam Taggart manage to deliver on a premise countless other shows screw up — the perfect amount of ironic distance from their subject of straight culture, from the Cheesecake Factory to the MCU, with a level of genuine love for their guests and each other,” said Jamie Loftus, creator of Aack Cast. “It is soup for me, unless you hate soup in which case it’s cake? Yes.”
60 Songs That Explain the ’90s
One of the Spotify-operated shows created, in part, to show off its experimental (but seemingly under-marketed) “Music + Talk” format, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s also happened to resonate with those who dealt heavily in cultural history.
“60 Songs That Explain the ’90s completely refreshed my idea of what a podcast about pop culture can do or be,” said Karina Longworth, creator of You Must Remember This. “I always enjoy the interview portions, but the real gold lies in Rob Harvilla’s not-always-hinged, highly digressive monologues. His cultural-criticism-as-personal-storytelling is a revelation.”
This survey includes responses from the following entities: Amazon, Apple, Atypical Artists, Audacy, Broccoli Content, CAA, Campside Media, Futuro Media, Headgum, ICM, iHeartMedia, Lantigua Williams & Co., Lemonada Media, Magnificent Noise, Neon Hum Media, Netflix, New York Times Audio, The New Yorker, NPR, Pushkin Industries, Radiotopia, Rococo Punch, SiriuxXM, Slate, Spotify, Team Coco, The Atlantic, This American Life, Transmitter Media, Vox Media, and various independent artists and podcasters.