Last year, as audiences shifted from traditional commuting routines to work-from-home realities, podcasters might have understandably had some doubts about the near future of their industry.
But 2021 put all those doubts to rest, as a litany of exciting new podcasts exploded onto the scene, shows of all genres offered much-needed escapes, and substantial investments flooded into the social-audio space.
As Adweek announces its third-annual Podcast of the Year Awards—selected by a jury of industry professionals from hundreds of entries representing podcasts of all sizes—a few common themes are obvious: Building unique communities, being willing to confront today’s cultural challenges and conflicts, and having the tenacity to create compelling content.
Below are all the honorees in this year’s Adweek Podcast of the Year Awards:
Best Agency-Hosted Podcast
Created by: Grey
Host: John Patroulis
After establishing itself as a creative powerhouse for over 100 years, global agency Grey felt compelled to use its voice to share the magic behind creative ideas with a new audience. This year saw a major evolution for the podcast as it focused on bringing more awareness to women founders and creators, hip-hop in Brooklyn, and discussing issues that hit close to home such as voter misinformation and connection in quarantine.
Best Branded Podcast
Created by: Turner Classic Movies, Campside Media
Hosts: Ben Mankiewicz, Julie Salamon
After already establishing a creative process around interviews, including one pivotal 15-hour conversation that became the foundation of their season, The Plot Thickens team shifted their entire show format to overcome the challenges presented by Covid-19. With the decision to rely on the archival audio of some of the most famous films at their disposal, they were able to focus on telling stories by harnessing rare production footage and unreleased interview tapes which haven’t been heard in decades.
Best Comedy Podcast
Created by: QCODE
Hosts: Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen
Making it to No. 1 in the Apple Podcasts fiction chart is no easy feat for a scripted podcast that chose to emphasize fast-paced humor in a genre that’s primarily dominated by drama or action-thriller shows. Stars Lamorne Morris and Billy Magnussen, known on the show as slackers Ben and Grant, bring all the fun of a buddy-adventure film to a modern podcast format, thanks in large part to the show’s commitment to hiring a diverse writing and production staff.
Best Creativity Podcast
Created and hosted by: Hrishikesh Hirway
Now adapted into a Netflix original series, Song Exploder’s ability to track the creative process behind some of music’s biggest artists such as Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa and Imagine Dragons allowed the already popular Radiotopia show to see a 21% increase in downloads in just the first six months of the year. The show has become gold standard for the format breaking a work down into its component parts to help fans learn how their favorite works came together.
Best Diversity and Inclusion Podcast
Two podcasts were honored in this category:
Created by: Pushkin Industries
Host: Ibram X. Kendi
From author to podcast host, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi gives audiences entry into an imagined society that is antiracist while providing them the tools and techniques to help make such an equitable world a reality. Kendi and his guests challenge the traditional paradigm created by systemic racism while maintaining a focus on finding solutions.
Created by: Bloomberg
Hosts: Rebecca Greenfield and Jackie Simmons
Elevating the voices of marginalized groups while giving them the space to tell their own stories as not just fringe realities but woven into the greater story of American History has been a hallmark of The Pay Check podcast, this year in its third season. Having launched with a focus on the gender pay gap, the show’s newest season tackled the complex and highly nuanced conversations around the U.S. racial wealth gap. The Pay Check brings a level of informed context rarely seen by mainstream publishers covering issues as polarizing as reparations and the effectiveness of affirmative action.
This show was also honored as Adweek’s overall Podcast of the Year for 2021.
Best Entrepreneurship Podcast
Created and hosted by: Debra Chen
Each episode of this true crime-inspired business podcast guides its audience through a suspense-filled mystery to discover the culprits behind some of the biggest scandals and failures of the business world. Blending entertainment, education and advice, The Great Fail—also honored in Adweek’s 2020 Podcast of the Year Awards—this year tackled the collapse of businesses including HQ Trivia, Pier One, Trump Shuttle and MoviePass.
Best Innovation Podcast
Created by: Defacto Sound
Host: Dallas Taylor
While every podcast uses sound as a medium, Twenty Thousand Hertz also tackles audio as its subject matter. Aimed at elevating audiences’ understanding of the sounds all around them—from appliance buzzers to movie sound effects—Twenty Thousand Hertz attracts the ear of the audio-curious while being especially enlightening for those who work in marketing. The show’s episode on McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle and two-part series on HBO’s sonic branding are master classes in the role of audio in brand building.
Best Interview Podcast
Created by: Freakonomics Radio Network & Renbud Radio
Host: Steven Levitt
Every episode of People I (Mostly) Admire delivers unorthodox and compelling conversations with a wide variety of guests such as YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, WNBA champion Sue Bird, Operation Warp Speed chief Moncef Slaoui and neuroscientist/actress Mayim Bialik. Freakonomics co-author and podcast host Steven Levitt’s determination to grow the show’s touchpoints through listener questions has led to a 40% growth in his audience in 2021.
Best Marketing Podcast
Created by: Clio Awards/Muse by Clio
Host: Tim Nudd
Clio Awards editor in chief and former Adweek creative editor Tim Nudd takes Tagline’s audience through the stories behind groundbreaking ad campaigns by interviewing the talent that concepted, pitched and produced each one. Mirroring the ESPN 30 for 30 approach of multi-layered storytelling, Tagline has looked at memorable campaigns including “Got Milk?”, Motel 6’s “We’ll Leave a Light on For You” and Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Best New Podcast
Created by: NBC News
Hosts: Antonia Hylton and Mike Hixenbaugh
Tackling the national debate around critical race theory and launching at the beginning of an already controversial 2021-22 school year, NBC News’ Southlake took on the challenge of telling the story of Southlake, Texas, a quiet town that became the focal point of contention between entrenched racist views and the obstacles facing those who demanded change. The podcast’s ambitious attempt to give insight into these racial and cultural experiences placed it at No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts, receiving more than 1 million downloads as of October.
Best Podcast Hosted by a Publisher
Two podcasts were honored in this category:
Created by: Barron’s
Host: Jack Hough
Making sense of meme stocks, investment themes, future industries and NFTs can be a tall task for any podcast, but Barron’s Streetwise’s use of wit, insight and topical conversations makes it seem all too easy. With a strategy that brings together top CEOs and industry experts, this podcast has grown its audience of everyday investors through interviews that break down what is driving the market and what investors need to know.
Created by: Vox
Hosts: Jamil Smith and Sean Illing
What started in January as just an experiment in impromptu discussions between a new host and experts in their fields quickly became a compelling case for conversations being the catalyst of current cultural change. The show saw so much success early on that the publisher re-invested in Vox Conversations, doubling its episodes per week and switching its format to anchor its current hosts as core perspectives to drive the experiences for the audience.
Best Podcast Site or Host
Created by: Apple
Making a home for your podcast streaming platform on some of the most sought-after devices in the world is one of many competitive edges enjoyed by the winner of this category. As of spring 2021, Apple increased its investment into podcasts through its Apple Podcasts Subscriptions program, a premium subscription offering for individual shows and networks that helped creators reach and monetize audiences speaking more than 100 languages across the app’s 170 countries.
Best Pop Culture Podcast
Created by: Glass Podcasts
Hosts: Andrea Gunning and Ben Fetterman
What began as a recipe for successfully dating through the pressures of the pandemic bloomed into a relationship podcast that covers all aspects of modern dating, including new tools and ways people are engaging socially. As two best friends hosted conversations giving shine to those still navigating the single life, their target audience began to expand, reaching from the college student end of the spectrum to adults looking to give their sex lives a boost.
Best Sports Podcast
Two podcasts were honored in this category:
Created by: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and SiriusXM
Host: Bob Kendrick
Dedicating each episode to highlighting unsung heroes of baseball, Black Diamonds guides its audience and guests through the rich history of one of the most important eras of the game while explaining the significant role the Negro Leagues played in bringing the sport to today’s heights. Pairing the thoughts and opinions of current major athletes such as Patrick Mahomes and Josh Bell with Bob Kendrick’s expertise brings to life the stories of those who “overcame tremendous social adversity to play ball.”
Created by: USG Audio, a division of Universal Studio Group and Transmitter Media
Host: Kareem Maddoxx
On the surface, the Olympics might seem to be just another competitive event to prove who’s the best, but through host Kareem Maddoxx, audiences of The Greatness are shown how it quickly becomes the stage of geopolitical and personal struggles felt across the world. By celebrating and analyzing this history, including talking to actual Olympians to uncover new stories behind the games, the podcast has made a strong contribution to the dialogue around one of the world’s most high-profile events.
Best Storytelling Podcast
Four podcasts were honored in this category:
Created by: The Intercept, Topic Studios and Western Sound
Host: Trevor Aaronson
American ISIS brings a uniquely shocking new story to the issue of global terrorism through its eight-episode limited run based on the audio journals of a white American who joined ISIS after converting to Islam. This work of collective professional journalism brings the audience into what it describes as a “hidden world few Americans have witnessed” filled with FBI agents, payoffs, bombings, secret identities and more.
Created by: QCODE & Crooked Media
Host: Rosamund Pike
Rosamund Pike brings life to a woman some historians believe to be the first female acting president of the United States: first lady Edith Wison. In a limited comedic series released in June of this year, QCODE & Crooked Media helped to challenge the way scripted fiction has been received in the podcast space with a form of political satire that landed “Edith!” at the top of podcasts lists and earned more than 1.4 million downloads.
Created by: Pacific Content and Atlassian
Host: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Dedicating each season to nuanced aspects of the values that come with being on a team, Pacific Content’s Teamistry podcast for project management software brand Atlassian encourages audiences to embrace the multifaceted nature of team building, teamwork and the chemistry necessary to bring the goal to fruition as one. The show’s mission to inspire audiences through stories of industry revolution and seemingly insurmountable challenges led to record downloads for the first episode of its latest season.
Created by: Dreamville Studios, Awfully Nice and Spotify
Host: Abbas “Bas” Hamad
What happens when you embrace podcasting’s freedom to tell stories that speak to audiences on a deeper level? You get The Messenger, an eight-part documentary podcast about Ugangan artist Bobi Wine and his decision to overthrow the country’s corrupt revolutionary leader, told through the lens of Dreamville artist Abbas “Bas” Hamad. The Messenger tells this tale of a people’s bravery while also addressing the caution necessary for the audience as it “draws parallels between our own U.S. elections and other ‘free’ nations.”
Best Technology Podcast
Created by: Bloomberg
Host: Shelly Banjo
The world of technology and the industries that depend on it come with a different degree of drama, demands and detail that the journalists at Bloomberg Technology know all too well. The controversial nature of TikTok as a platform and as a company made for an exciting season of Foundering, which in turn lead to a record-breaking first episode, 400% audience growth on Apple Podcasts, 2,000% growth on Spotify and a spot in the Top 30 on Apple Podcasts.
Best Thought Leadership Podcast
Created by: T Brand Studio, Accenture and UM
Hosts: Elise Hu and Josh Klein
Launching in just April of this year, Built for Change has grown to more than 80,000 listeners, all of who tune in to learn from the business challenges and experiences that not even the most established professionals were able to anticipate. The Accenture-branded podcast maintains its credibility through its access to some of the notable guests from Fortune 500 companies, startups, thought leaders and brands that have reached a multi-national scale.
Best Travel Podcast
Created by: TED Conferences
Host: Saleem Reshamwala
Building on its reputation as the world’s biggest speaker-based platform for thought leadership and education, TED Conferences brought forth Far Flung with Saleem Reshamwala, a podcast that brings audiences to often-overlooked countries in an ambitious effort to discover some of the world’s most surprising and imaginative ideas. Where most travel shows highlight the aesthetic nature of a destination, this podcast puts the lens on the people, the cultures and the customs that drive views of creativity.
Best True Crime Podcast
Three podcasts were honored in this category:
Created by: USG Audio, a division of Universal Studio Group, and Antica Productions
Host: Ben Lewis
If you took the time to deep dive into the fine-art world you’ll see that behind some of the most iconic pieces lie some of the most sinister plots and devious crimes that go often overlooked, unnoticed and under-prosecuted. The Art Bust podcast uncovers the scandalous nature of inequality, exploitation, embezzlement and present-day challenges that hide behind museum exhibits, gallery walls, and the private salesrooms inside of auction houses.
Created by: Glass Podcasts and Wondery
Host: Amy Over
With a focus on raw accounts and the journey to healing, the second season of Confronting addresses one of the most devastating and horrific tragedies in American History through the voice of host Amy Over—a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Audiences have been drawn into the podcast through Over’s raw, candid and highly personal accounts of what happened that day while giving important context for people looking to help change the trajectory of gun violence in the American school system today.
Created by: Pushkin Industries and Western Sound
Host: Dana Goodyear
One of Pushkin Industries’ most popular shows, Lost Hills tells the tale of a shocking Malibu mystery involving a police coverup, a brutal murder and a murder that impacted an entire community. Through meticulous reporting and a sound design that places the audience right on the coast, Lost Hills’ attention to detail earned a No. 1 spot on Apple Podcasts’ charts for multiple weeks in a row.
Best TV and Streaming Podcast
Two podcasts were honored in this category:
Created by: Audio Up
Host: Jaleel White
Reflecting on a career shaped by his portrayal of the iconic 1990s Family Matters sitcom character Steve Urkel, Jaleel White brings a first-hand account to the journey child stars often experience as they grow through the industry. Joined by fellow childhood actors, he breaks down the entertainment industry’s known and not-so-televised secrets through the lens of those who have literally grown up in it.
Created by: Warner Media / HBO
Hosts: Ashley C. Ford and Shannon Houston
HBO’s Emmy-nominated original series Lovecraft Country took the world by storm as it fascinatingly blended the horror genre and the history of Black culture in America through stories inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft (an unapologetic racist, as the show readily admits). The Lovecraft Country Radio podcast gave audiences a new touchpoint to experience what went on behind their favorite scenes as hosts Ashley C. Ford and Lovecraft Country writer Shannon Houston unpacked themes and brought to light the greater contemporary conversations raised by the show.
Podcast Episode of the Year
Created by: Vice Media Group and iHeartRadio
Host: Arielle Duhaime Ross, with reporting by Adizah Eghan and editing by James T. Green
After noticing the trend of people flocking to Tulum, Mexico, for fun in the sun, Vice Media producer Adizah Eghan keyed in on the way various Black visitors looked to the city of Tulum to discover what they hoped would be a community uninterrupted by racist structures and ideologies.
Podcast Executive of the Year
Company: Meet Cute
With a career that included trading at Goldman Sachs and studying both human biology and mechanical engineering at Stanford, Naomi Shah used her eye for new opportunities to create the first scripted romantic comedy studio on the podcast market through her VC-backed company Meet Cute. In less than two years, Naomi led her team through 350 scripted romantic comedy podcasts via a democratized approach to creation that sees all spectrums of love represented through authentic portrayals and experiences.
Podcast Editor of the Year
Company: Pushkin Industries
Shows edited: Revisionist History, Against the Rules, Cautionary Tales, Fauci audiobook and Lost Hills
Now Pushkin’s executive editor, Julia Barton has taken her two decades of experience writing for print, radio and web and leveraged it as a tool to be the bridge for writers as she guides them into finding their podcast voice. Colleagues praised her for keenly understanding the ways different types of storytelling affect listeners and factoring that resonance into how content is edited for maximum clarity and impact.
Podcast Host of the Year
Company: MSNBC / NBC News
Podcast hosted: Into America
What do you get when your host is not only able to successfully adapt to address any topic that comes their way, but is also able to show up consistently as their authentic self in an intentional refusal to code-switch? You get a successful podcast and a team of appreciative colleagues. Trymaine Lee’s unique ability to connect with people while giving them a safe place to shine their experiences has earned him recognition both among his peers and with a global audience.
Podcast Innovator of the Year
Title: Executive Producer, film and TV podcasts, Pineapple Street Studios
Podcasts developed: HBO’s The Chernobyl Podcast, Netflix’s Behind The Scenes and HBO’s Lovecraft Country Radio
Several of Hollywood’s most popular platforms and production studios such as Netflix, HBO and Hulu can attribute a good portion of their success in the world of podcasting to Podcast Innovator of the Year Bari Finkel and her team at Pineapple Street’s film and TV department. Finkel was early to the trend of creating companion podcasts, seeing it as the modern equivalent of DVD commentary extras to some of the most successful streaming series.
Podcast Network of the Year
The success of Pushkin Industries co-founders Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell in the podcasting space can be attributed to the network’s ability to challenge its audience to be curious while being joyful about learn something new. Its approach to curating audio experiences has led to successful partnerships that range from making custom audio projects for IBM and iHeartMedia to working with Western Sound on shows that added several No. 1 rankings to their list of achievements. In this year’s Adweek Podcast of the Year Awards, Pushkin tallied wins in the categories Best Diversity and Inclusion Podcast (Be Antiracist with Ibram X. Kendi), Best True Crime Podcast (Lost Hills) and Podcast Editor of the Year (Julia Barton).
Podcast Producer of the Year
Three honorees were selected in this category:
Company: Southern California Public Radio
Podcasts produced: Norco ’80, WILD, Anything for Selena and Latino USA
From producing media that broke down the cultural impact of the Minions to producing “Anything for Selena,” which shows one woman’s intimate connection to the legendary artist, Antonia Cereijido has established herself as an award-winning leader and producer in the market. Her versatility and devotion to celebrating all aspects of culture across its many representations have brought degrees of depth to the projects she’s a part of as a producer and even a host on the award-winning true crime podcast Norco ’80.
Podcast produced: The Great Fail
Refusing to be a prisoner of tradition, Debra Chen brings layers of insight, curiosity, and imagination to the work she produces without sacrificing high standards and captivating storytelling through the experiences of former CEOs who aim to help the audience of The Great Fail, a two-time winner in the Adweek Podcast of the Year Awards thanks to the true crime-inspired approach Chen brings to each episode of the business podcast.
Company: Dustlight Productions
Podcasts Produced: Renegades: Born in the USA and Hello, Nature
Prioritizing both diverse representation and high ethical standards in storytelling has propelled Elizabeth Nakano in a career spanning shows like Hello, Nature and Renegades: Born in the USA. She also won both regional and national Edward R. Murrow Awards for the documentary she co-produced, “Two Years: Diaries of a Divided Nation.” Colleagues praised her as an artist who can craft compelling audio through almost any source material while also pushing her team to always do the right thing.
Podcast of the Year
Created by: Bloomberg
Hosts: Rebecca Greenfield and Jackie Simmons
Now entering its third season, The Pay Check has captivated audiences with its ability to tackle some of the most challenging issues facing America today while giving a voice and platform to the people who have been often left out of discussions intended to provide solutions. Dedicating its newest season to America’s racial wealth gap—and the myriad of issues behind it—the show was also honored in this year’s Best Diversity and Inclusion Podcast category.