Starter episode: “Roselle and Michael”
This year has been full of grief in different forms: for those who have died of the coronavirus, for the industries that have been decimated, and for life as we know it. For anyone grappling with loss, “Griefcast” is a cathartic listen. The host, Cariad Lloyd, lost her father to pancreatic cancer at 15, and for many years was unable to express the impact it had on her. That experience inspired her to create a show that’s all about speaking the unspeakable. Lloyd sits down with fellow comedians and performers to “talk, share, and laugh about the weirdness of grief and death.” Blending gallows humor and searing compassion, the show cuts through the isolating haze that often makes grief unbearable.
Starter episode: “Aisling Bea”
‘Stuff You Should Know’
There’s no shortage of “explainer” podcasts that play like a kind of audio encyclopedia, delivering 101 summaries on a variety of topics. But the appeal of “Stuff You Should Know,” one of many shows from the prolific HowStuffWorks brand, lies mainly in the amiable and genuine rapport between the co-hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. Each week, the duo delve into the inner workings of subjects as varied as sneezing, Black cowboys and the Bay of Pigs disaster, peppering their curious conversations with pop culture references, life anecdotes and the odd dad joke. Even in episodes that explore unsolved mysteries like the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 or the Dyatlov Pass incident, the tone is always level headed. A down-to-earth treat that’ll also teach you something.
Starter episode: “The Disappearance of Flight MH370”
Laughter is a scientifically backed antidote to the stress and anxiety, and with live comedy still out of reach for the foreseeable future, listening to this long-running podcast can prove a helpful coping mechanism. Having started life as a radio show in 2009, “Comedy Bang Bang” has evolved into a podcasting institution whose enduring appeal is rooted in its deliberately unpredictable format. Each week, Scott Aukerman welcomes comedians and celebrities for what are ostensibly interviews, but quickly descend into a surreal blend of character skits and improv segments. Regular guests include Paul F. Tompkins, Jason Mantzoukas and Lauren Lapkus, whose longstanding rapport with Aukerman helps the show feel grounded, even in its most absurdist moments.
Starter episode: “Small Claims Cyborg”
This beloved titan of audio journalism celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and marked the occasion by rebroadcasting some of its most memorable episodes. The reruns were a reminder of just how timeless the show is, illuminating different nooks and crannies of the American experience and drawing unexpected lines between them. Anchored by Ira Glass’s inimitable wry, halting voice, each episode — usually a prologue and three acts — introduces a central theme that is explored through different types of nonfiction storytelling, including reportage, monologue and verse. “This American Life” (which now has a “creative and strategic” relationship with The New York Times) is not a news show, but it excels at taking a timely story and boiling it down to an essential theme. One recent example was the election-themed episode “Personal Recount,” which explored different scenarios in which people changed their minds.
Starter episode: “129 Cars”
It’s no secret that bad news travels faster (and further) than good news, and as its title suggests, this show from Boston-based WBUR is all about redressing the balance. Each episode of “Kind World” focuses on an instance of human decency — an act of charity, a chance encounter that sparks a connection, somebody going above and beyond for their community. As lockdowns descended in the spring, the show ran a series of bite-sized episodes titled “A Moment of Kindness,” in which listeners nationwide called in to share their own memories of everyday empathy. The podcast officially wrapped up in the summer, but the back catalog has enough life-affirming gems to keep your faith in humanity strong for months.