The Year’s 8 Best Podcast Episodes That Raised the Bar for Storytelling

Plus a wide range of our readers' recommendations

The explosion of podcast quantity has thankfully been matched by increasing quality and constant innovation.
Getty Images

They have become the modern water-cooler moments. The ones you discuss in a hushed whisper to avoid spoilers. They are the podcast episodes that, even amid a consistently excellent series, are simply unforgettable.

In 2017, podcasting exploded into a seemingly bottomless ocean of content that Edison Research dubbed “the Infinite Dial,” with an estimated 15 percent of Americans listening to podcasts each week. The podcasting explosion created an embarrassment of riches, making it hard to keep up with even the best shows, much less discover new content.

Today, Adweek looks back at some of the podcast episodes that stuck with us for weeks or even months after the first listen. While each is quite different, together they highlight some of the year’s most defining trends—true crime and political debate, for example—while also showing that just when you think you know what to expect from podcasting, it always has a new surprise in store.

Here are our picks, followed by some recommendations from our readers:

Podcast: S-Town
Episode: “Chapter 2: Has Anyone Called You?”

Downloaded more than 50 million times, S-Town was an unprecedented podcasting phenomenon that pioneered the concept of “binge listening” by releasing all seven episodes at once. Created by the teams at Serial and This American Life, the show documents the small-town life of an intelligent, semireclusive man named John B. McLemore. But the show’s premise as a murder mystery quickly morphs into something very different, and it all begins with a shocking revelation in Episode 2.

Podcast: Gastropod
Episode: “Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar”

Gastropod is one of the best food podcasts around, and co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley always manage to find a tone that satisfies food nerds and cooking-averse food lovers alike. For the unforgettable vinegar episode, they traveled to Italy and, for better or worse, got listeners obsessed with trying REAL balsamic vinegar on everything from cheese to ice cream (yes, ice cream). Check out our interview with Twilley and Graber to learn more about how they’ve baked up their independent podcast from scratch.

Podcast: Uncivil
Episode: “The Raid”

Gimlet’s podcast about the Civil War, co-hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, tells forgotten stories from both sides of the conflict, viewing it all through the lens of how our divided nation remains divided 150 years later. The opening episode, telling the dramatic story of an armed Union raid to free slaves, stars a surprising hero from the era who’s more often remembered for her subtler, clandestine efforts. It set the tone that Uncivil would be a show of high drama and insightful revelations.

Podcast: Reply All
Episode: “Long Distance, Part 1 and Part 2″

The lengths to which co-hosts P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman will go for an episode of their show about internet culture has always been impressive, but they raised the bar to a mind-blowing level with this two-part series, which begins with Goldman fielding an attempted phone scam and ends up spanning the globe. While it’s not quite as practical in terms of advice as other 2017 episodes like “The Russian Passenger,” a cautionary tale of password theft, “Long Distance” truly sets a new gold standard for the effort that can—and sometimes clearly should—go into podcasting.

Podcast: 30 for 30
Episode: “No Rules: The Birth of the UFC”

Sports leagues—and definitely the sports themselves—usually have legacies that can be traced back generations, making them feel like timeless institutions. But the UFC is a stunning exception, a sport and league created within the lifetime of most of its top competitors. ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast, an extension of the sports network’s acclaimed documentary series, tackled the history of the UFC in a way that will keep you glued to the story until the end, regardless of whether you actually care one whit about competitive fighting. While it might lack the emotional gravity of other fantastic 2017 episodes like “Hoodies Up,” about the Miami Heat’s response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, “No Rules” is a perfect example of how to tell the history of a business idea that overcame countless obstacles to become a global sensation. The music and tempo make it feel less like a corporate documentary and more like Ocean’s 11.

Podcast: Code Switch
Episode: “A Year Of Love And Struggle In A New High School”

Hundreds of hours of reporting went into Raising Kings, a three-part audio series that kicked off with this episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast. The show, which tackles issues of race and diversity in America, broke format to launch this series helmed by NPR’s Cory Turner and Education Week’s Kavitha Cardoza. They tell the story of a new public high school in Washington, D.C., aimed at better serving the district’s young black men, only 15 percent of whom read at grade level. Powerful and deeply personal, this project goes beyond today’s rhetoric of issues like race and crime to get at the complexity and difficulty of solving seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Podcast: Dirty John
Episode: “Part 6: Terra”

The true-crime genre has had a digital renaissance thanks to narrative journalism podcasts like Serial, and in 2017, there was no shortage of grisly options for the fan of blood-chilling tales. But one of the best was the Los Angeles Times’ Dirty John, a six-part series about a mysterious man who comes into the life of a grandmother and (suspiciously quickly) becomes her husband. While it has much of what you’d expect from such a story—the early hints at hidden motives, the exposed secrets and the victim’s reluctance to admit that something was seriously amiss—its conclusion in Part 6 feels like it could go in any direction. The only certainty, you feel going into it, is that there will be blood.

Podcast: More Perfect
Episode: “The Gun Show”

Considering what a central role guns play in America’s political and cultural ideologies, one might think that the Second Amendment has always been a polarizing piece of U.S. law. But in reality, gun control and the zeal for gun ownership are relatively new priorities on the political stage, driven in part by the NRA’s shift from a group for sportsmen to a conservative lobbying juggernaut. More Perfect, a Radiolab/WNYC podcast about the history and personalities of the Supreme Court, tackled this weighty issue in a one-hour episode about a 2008 case challenging the District of Columbia’s handgun restrictions. In the process, the show highlights the surprising evolution of guns in American culture through the lens of the people and groups who were on the front lines of the emerging debate.

So what were some of your favorite episodes this year? Let me know by tagging @Griner on Twitter. (Quick plug: Adweek also has a weekly podcast that you might want to check out.)

We asked our readers and industry peers to share their recommendations, and—in case you had any doubts about the range of podcast options out there—we were absolutely flooded with responses.

Here are just a few of the recommendations we heard:

Sam Sanders, co-host of the It’s Been a Minute podcast for NPR:  “I’d say The Nod, for their episode ‘Chitlins and Bergdorfs.’ Here’s why: Britany Luse and Eric Eddings have such amazing chemistry and charisma, I’d honestly listen to a podcast of the two of them just reading the phone book or narrating their commutes. But with The Nod, especially this episode, they pair all that personality with top-notch, sound-rich, deep reporting. The result is a rarity: a documentary-style podcast episode—with a SOUL”

Outbrain