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9 Storytelling Podcasts You Need to Hear

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, money & life

storytelling podcasts

Photo: Sascha Kohlman via Flickr

As we learned from Vanessa Van Edwards in her class, Master Your People Skills, storytelling is like a special treat for the brain, activating it with endorphins and generally giving listeners a good feeling. Great stories satisfy our curiosity, tap into our empathy, and entertain us. Which could explain the success of storytelling podcasts, a medium that has been rapidly gaining steam with the increased access to streaming media. Storytelling podcasts range from personal narratives to smarty-told and reported pieces about other peoples’ lives and experiences. But with new ones rolling out every day, which ones should you add to your Stitcher queue?

First, it’s important to decide which kind of story you’d like to hear. Do you want to hear someone talk about their own experiences, or are you more interested in something that sounds a little bit more like a traditional radio broadcast, which features narration, spliced with interview clips and other audio? Maybe you’re not sure, and you’d like to try out one of the more experimental hybrids.

Here are a few of your choices, broken up into categories.

Personal stories.

  • The Moth Since 1997, the Moth has promised one thing: true stories, told live. Storytellers are permitted no notes, and, at the Moth’s wildly popular story slams, they may not even know if/when they’ll be performing. The goal? Authenticity. Storytellers come from a wide range of backgrounds and speak on a wide range of subjects, which has lead to the overwhelmingly positive response of this non-profit. The podcast version includes extras, interviews, and the occasional short story, in addition to the radio broadcast, the Moth Radio Hour.
  • Risk! Host and founder Kevin Allison has often touted Risk! as the thing that saved his life. Once a member of the sketch-comedy troupe the State, Kevin had always struggled with what he wanted to do, and who he wanted to be. But it wasn’t until he performed an ill-received, fictional one-man show that he realized — with the help of comedian Michael Ian Black, that it was true stories which carried the most currency. Presenting the stories that speakers “never thought they’d dare to share,” Risk! trades in the shocking, the intensely personal, and the extremely vulnerable.
  • StoryCorps Have you ever seen an Airstream trailer in the middle of your city? It might have been StoryCorps, a production of NPR which records intimate, first-person stories from people around the country from two mobile studios. The stories are often aired on Morning Edition and other shows, but the podcast contains all of them. Once told, the stories are also filed in the Library of Congress.

Third-person stories.

  • This American Life The mother of all public radio storytelling programs, This American Life is looked to as the most successful podcast ever. Bringing a variety of stories on a weekly theme, guided by host Ira Glass and his staff of ultra-capable reporters and producers, This American Life is the perfect balance between investigative journalism and personal storytelling.
  • Serial TAL’s first spin-off, Serial was just launched this year by veteran producer Sarah Koenig. Unlike a lot of other podcasts, which follow multiple stories, Serial is the intense, intimate telling of just one true crime.

Hybrid.

  • Snap Judgement Hosted by Glynn Washington, Snap Judgement is unlike anything else on public radio. Combining music and first-person stories, Snap Judgement is an aural treat that dives into deep questions about being a person.
  • Love + Radio Love + Radio blends intimate storytelling with additional questions and conversation, making it a very compelling listen. Featuring in-depth interviews with host Nick van der Kolk, L+R allows the storytellers to share their experience, but also prompts them to go deeper than they would if they were just speaking on a stage.
  • Song Exploder If you’re usually the kind of person who listens to music, rather than podcasting, Song Exploder might be your best bet. Featuring the stories behind popular songs — the first episode explores the Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” just for an example of what kind of music Hrishi Hirway gets into — Song Exploder examines every element, from the conception to the recording to the production of a song. It’s pretty inside, which is what musicians and music fans love about it.
  • StartUp When Alex Blumberg created StartUp, he did so with the express goal to tell the business origin story that he, as a reporter for Planet Money and This American Life, had never heard. Instead of the mythology of the garage, he would tell the story of his own new business — a podcasting company. Admittedly meta, StartUp came out of the gate as a vulnerable, realistic look at what it means to start a business, hunt for funding, and try to find an audience. Part personal story, part reported experience, StartUp is a story within a story — and it’s super-compelling.

Which would you add?

You can learn more about StartUp and storytelling with Alex Blumberg in his CreativeLive class, Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.