18 fascinating nonfiction podcasts (that aren’t true crime)

Big news: The coronavirus pandemic sucks. As life continues with wide swaths of the world shut down, we’re all looking for ways to be social and stay optimistic amid the darkness. One method: listening to podcasts that take us away from reality, if only for a while.

Podcasts are keeping people company while they do other tasks, and many podcasters have responded to their increased time at home by producing more content. Some shows are updating at an increased clip, releasing bonus episodes alongside their regular output; some hosts are branching out from their usual podcast mode. There are also more “pop-up podcasts” that serve as short, easily digestible miniseries. Recommendation lists abound online for podcasts that “make you smarter,” individual episodes to keep you distracted, and even shows that, perhaps, will keep you from feeling emptiness and solitude during social distancing.

To that end, Vox writers recommended their favorite podcasts, from which we put together this quarantine listening guide. The idea is to represent series that appeal to a broad range of impulses and needs you might have while trying to endure the pandemic, rather than simply offer up selections by subject.

From the top, we should mention that this list is devoid of true crime and news shows. There’s a reason for that. We know they’re two huge sectors in podcasting, but we also know many of you are probably feeling burned out on dire stories — we certainly are.

We’ve instead decided to highlight shows that don’t remind us of what is our unpredictable reality right now. Below, we’ve included educational podcasts, engrossing real-life thrillers to grab your attention, cultural deep dives, and shows to hopefully help you stay motivated when the news is diverting your focus on a constant basis.

Shows that broaden your historical knowledge

The Allusionist

The Allusionist is a podcast about language, but really a podcast about how language reflects sociocultural evolution. It canvasses large, sweeping cultural change while telescoping into the minutia of how individual words, dialects, and expressions get passed around between communities, cultures, and historical periods. Take “East/West,” a look at lost languages of postwar East Berlin, and “Joins,” a revelatory episode in which transgender and nonbinary listeners discuss the difficulty of finding the proper language to express gender identity.

The Constant

If you paid basically any attention in school, very little about The Constant: A History of Getting Things Wrong will surprise you. But there’s something refreshing about hearing all of history’s blatant mistakes, trials, errors, and retrials laid out over the course of this series. Through episodes that touch on everything from surprise submarines to made-up philosophy to that terrifying moment when all beauty products contained radiation, The Constant reminds us that the human race has no idea what it’s doing, and that no matter how far science progresses, a state of blissful ignorance is usually our default.

Distillations

This podcast from the Science History Institute is an often gleeful retelling of America’s brushes with science, from great moments like the victory over the ozone hole to much odder stories, like the strange hype war between butter and margarine. Like The Allusionist, Distillations uses stories of the minor and eccentric to form gateways into larger stories about science and culture, with an emphasis on applying what we’ve learned to the here and now. And many episodes — like an examination of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire — feel like a crash course in understanding the systemic response to the coronavirus.

Outside/In

Environmental reporter Sam Evans-Brown travels the outdoors in this nature podcast, but it’s not all soothing ASMR nature sounds. Instead, Evans-Brown takes a frank look at the trials and challenges of environmental decay, climate change, habitat destruction, and the myths we tell ourselves about them all. Like Distillations, nearly every episode of Outside/In seems eerily prescient as a perspective on Covid-19, from the tale of a volcanic eruption that upended cultural practices worldwide to the study of epidemiology as shown through Lyme disease patients. If you’re up for something a little less dire but still relevant, try “Cold, Dark, and Sharky,” which uses the myth of shark attacks to probe mass hysteria and the way we deal with fear.

Revolutions

Feel like storming a castle or two? You’re not alone. Revolutions host Mike Duncan tackles populist uprisings from Jacobites to communism with flair, wit, and tremendous depth. The current exploration of the Russian Revolution has been ongoing since May 2019, with 40 half-hour-ish episodes and counting. Revolutions is now in its seventh year and its 10th season, a testament to Duncan’s careful excavation of history — or maybe to how much humans love rebelling against things. For a sampler, try “Citizen Genet,” a short look at George Washington’s political squabbles against die-hard Jefferson fanboys.

Sidedoor

This podcast from the Smithsonian showcases the museum’s massive trove of historical artifacts, while doubling as a chance to shore up your knowledge for pub trivia nights. Alternately fun and sobering, Sidedoor sweeps through the minor and major arcana of American culture, from Olympic medalist Adam Rippon’s figure-skating costume to a close and personal look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Sidedoor is acutely aware that the personal is always political, and so are the many artifacts in its collection — sometimes with repercussions that are as hilarious as they are dramatic. If you’re going to start anywhere with this podcast, start with a story that’s unique to the Smithsonian’s area of expertise: “The Dinosaur War.”

Thrilling, real-life (but not true crime!) tales

Reply All

Gimlet’s long-running internet culture podcast is no stranger to best-of podcast lists. Hosts P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman have only gotten better over the years, as they explore the extremities and startling real-world connecting points of our modern online lives.

Six years in, there are too many brilliant episodes of the series to count. But in these times of confinement and social distancing, the 2015 episode “Today’s the Day” — in which P.J. and Alex drop their investigation du jour and spend the day outside, joyously adventuring around New York — remains a warmhearted, poignant reminder that none of our online connections matter much if they don’t ultimately bring us closer to the real world around us.

Scam Goddess

We may be well past the summer of scam, but nobody told the scammers, who are still going strong. Each week, Scam Goddess host Laci Mosley sits down with a different comedian and brings you hilarious, often jaw-dropping tales of fraud happening all around you. The recent episode “First Date Scammer” is a fun representative hodgepodge, quarantine-flavored, of scams, from a group of Wu-Tang impersonators to a date that included a bank robbery. Scam Goddess is a great way to feel grateful you’re stuck indoors while being suspicious of every internet stranger you meet. A win-win!

This Is Love

Criminal host Phoebe Judge turns to happier topics here, presenting a wide range of relationships, from wolves protecting each other in the wilderness to a late-blooming cross-cultural romance. These are the kinds of hopeful stories you might be craving at the moment. But This Is Love is also a podcast about communities sharing faith and values. The episode about citizens of Cremona, Italy, holding a day of complete silence for a very special reason encompasses that beautifully — and feels especially relevant for the current moment when many cities are trying to enforce similar collective social contracts.

Welcome to LA

Each half-hour episode of LA public radio station KCRW’s Welcome to LA feels like a sliver of a James Ellroy novel. Deadpan host David Weinberg treats us to a rotating cast of zany characters thirsting for fame and success and then never lets you forget that these are the kinds of personalities driving the entire Hollywood machine.

Especially memorable is “The Case of the Missing Sprinkles,” which unravels the story behind the creation of The People’s Court and Judge Judy, along with an excellent apocryphal detour featuring Cesar Romero. By following the dramatic world of petty lawsuits into the world of daytime television, the episode ties the allure of courtroom drama to the allure of fantasy itself. Popcorn.gif.

Deep dives into pop culture

Binge Mode

The Ringer’s podcast about marathoning pop culture made a splash when it debuted in 2017 with a giant 60-episode season dedicated to analyzing all six seasons of Game of Thrones. As we saw in the recent debate over subtitles, a lot of people want to consume their media, even visual media, while they’re doing other things. Binge Mode is great at making you feel like you’ve accomplished a series rewatch or a book read-through without actually having to sit down and consume it. Until more shows produce audio drama adaptations, Binge Mode might be your best bet for marathoning in multitask mode.

Decoder Ring

Slate’s culture podcast Decoder Ring is a must-listen, and not just for the episode in which I dropped by to discuss Benedict Cumberbatch conspiracists. Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, is a remarkable host with a knack for uncovering layer upon layer of insight into trends and stories you vaguely thought you knew about. One recent episode is a particular favorite of mine: “The Shop Around the Corner” uses the classic Nora Ephron rom-com You’ve Got Mail to explore both New York in a very particular moment and the broader eclipsing of mom-and-pop bookstores by corporate behemoth Barnes & Noble. That, of course, presaged the even larger demise of brick-and-mortar retail stores by the internet. It’s a typically deep dive tinged with the nostalgia I, for one, am swimming in right now.

Dolly Parton’s America

One of last year’s most acclaimed podcasts, Dolly Parton’s America became a favorite of culture critics longing for creative ways to explore the fracturing of America’s psyche following the 2016 election. In many ways, the music and persona of Dolly Parton both embody that complexity, even as they continue to bring us together.

Radiolab host Jad Abumrad is the perfect foil for Parton in many ways — a native Tennesseean who grew up going to Dollywood, yet whose status as an Arab American from a family of immigrants pushes him to the margins of traditionally conservative country music fandom. His study of Parton’s music, and the limits and depths of Parton’s persona, becomes as much about the way we mold and shape our beloved idols into a reflection of our values as it is about America’s political divide.

While you’re at it, check out Abumrad’s turn on Vox’s Switched on Pop for a glimpse into his favorite moments from Parton’s discography.

The Organist

Part cultural cornucopia, part geekgasm for anyone who’s really into art and aesthetics, KCRW’s The Organist covers a broad swath of sociocultural topics through the lenses of art, music, poetry, literature, and occasionally cute animals. Nearly every topic is clickbait in audio form: the brutalist aesthetic of the Ramones, an annual New Orleans competition to see who can scream “STELLA!” the best, high-fiving bears. Perhaps start with this reminder of bygone road trips — or you could just start with dogs.

You Must Remember This

Vox has lots of love for Karina Longworth’s spellbinding podcast about old Hollywood, which thoroughly explores a single topic over a season, from dead blondes to iconic identity makeovers. For instance, its season on Charles Manson and Hollywood was so popular that after Manson’s death in 2017, the show separated it into its own 12-episode podcast, called You Must Remember Manson.

Like You Must Remember Manson, the show’s excellent Song of the South season is an illuminating dive into the making of Disney’s notorious animated adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories, including its cringey depictions of gender, race, and sexuality.

Practical life tips

Ask a Clean Person

If you’re stuck in quarantine, you might need a push to feel productive — or maybe you just need to know you’re not alone in battling clothing stains and kitchen gunk. Although it went on hiatus at the end of last year, Ask a Clean Person is still the perfect go-to for anything unexpected you might encounter while trapped at home for a while — whether it’s tackling cat hair or cleaning your feet. Advice columnist (and Vox contributor) Jolie Kerr shares tips on everything from makeup removal to sex toy cleaning. There’s even a two-part episode dedicated to mental health. Why not start there?

Organize Mindfully

There are many more upscale podcasts about organization and productivity out there, most notably The Minimalists. But there’s something about the calm lo-fi tones of Mark Dillon’s podcast on mental productivity and physical space-wrangling that I prefer. Dillon’s approach is simultaneously soothing and motivating, a little like the audio equivalent of watching Bob Ross transform small paint blobs into spectacular clouds. Try the episodes on decluttering first, and then move into deeper dives on things like list-making, goal-setting, and changing your thought processes to embrace organization. This early interview with professional chef turned organizer Julie Ulmer is a nice intro:

The Upgrade by Lifehacker

Hosted by Lifehacker’s editor-in-chief and deputy editor, The Upgrade is an imminently practical guide to productivity on all life fronts. These range from health to work, from finance to friendships. The best part? Its weekly interviews are chatty, upbeat, and short.

Of course, we can’t promise that any of these podcasts will increase your productivity, and this is only the smallest sampling of what the wide world of podcasts has to offer. But we hope that at the very least, a few of these shows will keep you feeling connected to the world outside your door — whether quarantine is upon us or not.


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