By Sara Jane Hess and David Grabowski
What’s up, fellow humans? 2021 is off to a . . . start. It’s happening. It’s here. It’s also a great time to hole up with some podcasts—a golden age of podcast-holing-up, really. To help you wade through the avalanche of listenable offerings out there, we decided to share some suggestions, as well as an update on the competition between Apple Podcasts vs Spotify.
You might be wondering who we are. We’re the SPI Podcasts Team: Sara Jane Hess (Senior Producer) and David Grabowski (Producer). We manage all of Pat’s shows and are working on some sit-on-our-hands–exciting stuff at SPI that we can’t tell you about just yet (but we will when we can, we promise!).
Anyway, let’s start out with four podcasts we think you should try on for size.
Add These Podcasts to Your Queue!
Inspired by the TED Ideas blog of the same name, How to Be a Better Human is like a little half hour of self-improvement every week. Calling itself not “just another self-improvement podcast,” each episode features a conversation between host/comedian Chris Duffy and past TED speakers or special guests, covering big-picture topics like finding emotional support, cultivating resilience, and challenging conventional wisdom. The show’s only three episodes deep (it launched in January), but we highly recommend subscribing so you can catch the next episode drop.
Recommended Episode: “How to challenge conventional wisdom — and change any industry (with Franklin Leonard)”
Let’s be real: this is a really challenging time to be healthy. That’s why podcasts like Condé Nast’s Checking In are more important now than ever. What’s especially cool about the show is what kinds of health and wellness questions it covers—personal, specific, and sometimes seemingly bizarre ones. Host Carolyn Kylstra (SELF magazine’s Editor in Chief) consults experts to answer real questions from regular people about everything from healthy drinking habits to the shame one caller feels about their CPAP machine. As the show description states, “no topic is off limits,” and that makes for some pretty compelling listening.
Recommended Episode: “End the Doom Scroll”
Podcast network leviathan Wondery has molded a niche for itself by being an “audio-first” company. Many of its shows are as immersive as a podcast can get—musical cues and sound effects heighten the drama of every episode. Business Movers is no different, and if you’re looking for the most dramatized version of huge stories like how Walt Disney opened Disney World, or the epic failure of New Coke … you’ve found your outlet. Listen to these episodes in stereo—they’re gripping stuff, to be sure.
Recommended Episode: “Walt Disney: Building a Better Theme Park | Secrets and Spies”
We all know that the internet is changing everything, but how deeply are most of us thinking about what that means? Kevin Roose (Tech columnist for the Times) is following the breadcrumbs so that we can explore this question under the guise of entertainment, and Rabbit Hole is the result. The show has eight episodes and kicks off with a three-part segment on Caleb, a young man who gets sucked into the YouTube vortex. But there’s hope, too—a conversation with women trying to change YouTube, a one-on-one with famed YouTuber PewDiePie, and a timely exploration of the world of QAnon and where the internet is headed. Sometimes you listen to a podcast for pure entertainment, and sometimes you listen to get informed. The former is like eating a doughnut, while the latter is like eating your salad. Eat your salad.
Recommended Episode: “START HERE”
Start at the beginning and follow the episodes down the … rabbit hole.
Apple Podcasts vs Spotify—the Competition Heats Up
It's hard to believe it's been almost sixteen years since Apple made podcasts easily accessible by integrating them into iTunes 4.9. At the time Steve Jobs said, “Podcasting is the next generation of radio, and users can now subscribe to over three thousand free podcasts and have each new episode automatically delivered over the internet to their computer and iPod.” Three thousand podcasts sounds downright adorable at this point, with the number of shows on Apple Podcasts topping 1.68 million in December 2020. With Jobs hailing podcasting as the next big thing, one would assume Apple would have invested heavily in the medium and become the main champion of all things podcasts. But Apple had different priorities, and its podcast efforts stagnated.
Spotify launched the first podcast on its platform in 2015, with an eye even then to exclusive content. Since then it’s expanded its catalog of exclusive and big-name shows through strategic partnerships with brands and big names like Barack and Michelle Obama, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and, of course, Joe Rogan. It seems like every other week brings a new announcement that Spotify has made a deal or brought another celebrity into the fray (like January’s exclusive partnership with Ava DuVernay), while Apple has been mostly mum.
Most recently, a new audiobook offering from Spotify quietly popped up, featuring a series of classic novels read by well-known celebrities. Titles include Frankenstein, narrated by David Dobrik; The Awakening, narrated by Hillary Swank; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, narrated by Forrest Whitaker; as well as Jane Eyre, Persuasion, Great Expectations, and more. Spotify also launched an accompanying podcast called Sitting with the Classics that breaks down the story and themes of one of the novels in each episode. With plenty of other copyright-free books out there, we’re sure there will be many more episodes to come.
Meanwhile, it looks as though Apple is finally making moves in the podcast realm, with a rumored podcasting subscription of its own to compete with Spotify. Last week, we glimpsed what Apple may have in store in the way of exclusive content with its release of Time to Walk, an “audio walking experience” available only to Apple Watch for Fitness+ subscribers. According to Apple, each weekly podcast episode “is shaped by the guest’s personal, life-shaping moments and includes lessons learned, meaningful memories, thoughts on purpose and gratitude, moments of levity, and other thought-provoking topics, recorded while walking outside or in locations that are meaningful to them.” So far, Time to Walk has five episodes with guests including country music star Dolly Parton, NBA player Draymond Green, musician Shawn Mendes, Emmy Award winner Uzo Aduba, and author Ibram X. Kendi.
In the future, we’d expect to see Apple-exclusive podcasts that support its Apple TV+ offerings, which seems like a no-brainer, especially considering HBO has already paved the way. It should be exciting to see what else Apple has up its sleeves. Here’s hoping they move at a faster pace in the future.
As for Spotify, in January it received a patent that allows it to use recordings of Spotify users' speech and background noise to recommend personalized audio experiences to them. This is bound to raise red flags for privacy-sensitive consumers, but we'll have to wait to see what Spotify does with it.
All this said, expect podcasts on Spotify and Apple to keep growing, getting more creative, and bringing in more familiar voices. There is much more ahead.