The Casties: Quartz’s awards for the best podcasts of 2015

The staggering growth of podcasts is great for those of us that love them. With all of these new options, it’s really tough to know which are actually worth listening to. There are great podcasts of many types: expertly produced narrative storytelling, short fiction, a couple of people chatting for a while.

Allow Quartz to help you navigate the treacherous audio waves with—the Quartz Podcast Awards, or Casties.

We have many dedicated podcast listeners at Quartz. We even produce our own podcast, Actuality, in partnership with Marketplace (which was excluded from the awards). So we have decided to give praise to the best of the best in 2015, selecting for outstanding episodes, podcasting technology, and overall podcasts. Our selections include podcasts that were regularly updated throughout the year, excluding the likes of season two of Serial, which only started in December, and Hardcore History, which only releases a couple very long episodes each year.

With that out of the way, we present: The 2015 Quartz Casties.

Excellence in Podcasting (Episode)

🌒 Best episode, new podcast
Podcast: Another Round
Episode: Hillary Clinton

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton’s October interview in Iowa with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was one of the year’s underrated pieces of political journalism. It’s an accessible, humanizing discussion that doesn’t shy away from challenging questions, such as the long-term consequences of the Clinton administration’s policies of mass incarceration. Also, what kind of deodorant keeps Mrs. Clinton sweat-free (“solid”).

💬 Best, some people talking
Podcast: John Gruber’s The Talk Show
Episode: Phil Schiller

The Talk Show—the Apple- and tech-focused podcast hosted by John Gruber—epitomizes the “some people talking” genre: No theme music, no intro, minimal editing, unstructured commentary. But this past summer offered a treat: The week of Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, in front of a live audience in San Francisco, the surprise guest was long-time Apple executive Phil Schiller. The conversation ranged from Apple’s subtle role as a photography leader to how it thinks about product design. It was a bit more of an interview than usual, but was an excellent chat, and a fine moment for semi-pro podcasting.

💸 Best business/economics
Podcast: Conversations with Tyler
Episode: Jeffrey Sachs

Smart economist Tyler Cowen interviews smart economist Jeffrey Sachs in the new and infrequently released series Conversations with Tyler. The conversation is wide-ranging—they discuss China, anthropologists, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and more—but centers around Sachs’ belief that well-intentioned humans can solve even the most difficult problems. Sachs offers:”So I pulled an all-nighter, and I wrote a plan for transforming Poland from a communist, central-planned economy to a market economy.” Arguably, this is the best single podcast episode to listen to if you want to be smarter about economics.

🎨 Best culture
Podcast: Song Exploder
Episode: Ramin Djawadi – Game of Thrones

In terms of recognizability, the Game of Thrones theme song is up there with The Simpsons and Seinfeld. How does the composition so perfectly capture the dark, complicated, medieval journey of the show? And what is that weird dulcimer-harp thing at the end? Song Exploder gets composer Ramin Djawadi to break down the theme one instrument at a time, explaining how the show influenced his composition to create one of television’s most memorable opening sequences. Djawadi also discusses the many covers of the theme, like the guitar version, the 8-bit version, and the Peter Dinklage version.

⌛️ Best history
Podcast: Backstory
Episode: Islam and the United States

Current American politics is preoccupied with Islam, but the United States’ history with the world’s fastest-growing major religion started well before 9/11. The superb American history podcast Backstory talks to several historians with insight into America’s relationship with Islam, starting with the staggering estimate that 15% of African slaves were Muslim.

🔍 Best interview
Podcast: WTF with Marc Maron
Episode: Barack Obama

Politicians often talk about the need to get “beyond politics,” but in Marc Maron’s garage studio, President Barack Obama shows what that might actually look like, if only for an hour. In the wake of the Charleston church shooting, Obama and Maron talk about the legacy of racism in the US, early childhood education, and a commitment to the idea that “what happens to those kids matters to me, even if I never meet them,” Obama says in the interview. They discuss relationships—“It’s never about the thing you’re fighting about; it’s always about something else”—how to avoid passing your craziness along to your kids, compartmentalizing when you’re always on stage, and the real benefit of age. Plus, they call each other “man.”

🔬 Best science
Podcast: Story Collider
Episode: Alan Guth – Stumbling to Inflation

Physicist Alan Guth relates the story of how his physics research project unexpectedly led him to the theory of “cosmic inflation,” which says that the universe expanded exponentially in moments after the Big Bang and continues to expand today. Humble and quick to credit his collaborators, Guth reminds us that scientific discovery is as much about luck as it is about the insights of any one person. And how often do you get to hear a physicist credit a fortune cookie with career advice?

⚽️ Best sports
Podcast: Grantland NFL podcast
Episode: Week 7 Recap (the final episode)

Pour one out for Grantland, the departed sports site for smart people. Its NFL podcast, hosted by Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays, was a must-listen for football fans seeking insight from hosts whose charm transcended the insane man-children typically gifted with sports-talk roles. This was the last episode as the site fell apart, with departing writer Rembert Brown joining the hosts for a thinly-veiled goodbye to an institution apparently too good for this world, or at least ESPN.

🔌 Best technology
Podcast: Radiolab
Episode: Darkode

Radiolab‘s “Darkode” tells the story of a woman who had thousands of personal files taken hostage by cybercriminals, and her frantic quest to pay a bitcoin ransom before losing them forever. In a year marked by the Office of Personnel Management breach, the Ashley Madison leak, and continued fallout from the Sony hack, “Darkode” is a disquieting reminder of how easily cybercrime can overturn the lives of the most ordinary people—and send them scrambling to a bitcoin ATM in Brooklyn.

📖 Best storytelling
Podcast: The Truth/Planet Money
Episode: The Last Job

Over the summer, NPR’s Planet Money did a six-part series on whether robots will take all of our jobs. To explore further what an automated future might look like, the show turned to science fiction. Produced in collaboration with The Truth—an episodic radio drama on Radiotopia—”The Last Job” follows society’s last employed person, responsible for repairing robots. The premise could so easily have been overdone, but the writing is subtle and nuanced. The episode features top-notch voice acting, immersive sound design, and a plot that warrants multiple revisits.

🌟 Best Episode of 2015
Podcast: This American Life
Episode: The Problem We All Live With

It’s easy to forget that This American Life, perhaps too often a chronicle of white-people problems, also produces the occasional vital and stunning piece of journalism. “The Problem We All Live With,” their two-parter on school integration and the show’s best episode in years, rewrites the history you thought you knew about American segregation. In its most unforgettable moment, white suburban parents gather at a town meeting and rail against an integration plan they’re convinced will bring drugs and gangs to their town. It’s a bracing reminder that real live racism doesn’t usually look like the n-word or the burning cross; rather, it lives in the misguided stories we tell ourselves about crime, “forced busing,” and “good schools.”

Excellence in Podcast Technology

📱 Best software (iOS)
Winner: Overcast

This award could really have gone to any app other than Apple’s own podcast player, which has improved but remains difficult to use. Overcast, by contrast, manages to be both easy to use and fully featured at the same time. It also now supports streaming episodes instead of downloading them, which is handy for trying out new podcasts. Best of all, toward the end of this year Overcast made all of its advanced features free, opting instead for a pay-what-you-want model.

📱 Best software (Android)
Winner: Pocket Casts

Only recently available on iOS, Pocket Casts has for a couple years been far and away the strongest podcasting app on Android. The interface is slick and customizable, it syncs your subscriptions and listening position across devices, and allows streaming as well as automatic downloads. There are also little touches that make the listening experience so much better, like smooth playback speed adjustments and a “voice boost” mode that makes voices sound louder.

💻 Best software (Desktop)

NPR’s project calls itself “your friendly guide to great podcasts.” Part of its bet is not on podcasts overall, however, but on individual episodes, because even the best shows have hits as well as misses. Hand-picked episodes get surfaced on Earbud, based on the kind of thing you’re looking for, like “Brighten My Day” and “Huh! Gee whiz.” And it’s a great way to discover your new favorite podcast.

🎧 Best podcast production
Winner: Song Exploder

Song Exploder may have the highest time-to-interesting-stuff ratio of any podcast. After introducing each episode, host and producer Hrishikesh Hirway’s voice is almost never heard. He weaves guests’ comments into a short, coherent narrative documenting the process behind a single song, adding relevant audio material whenever needed. The result is a unique but never boring look into the minds of artists.

Excellence in Podcasting (Overall)

🌒 Best new podcast
Winner: Another Round

Since launching in March, Buzzfeed writers Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton have reliably delivered sharp, smart, funny discussions on race, gender, pop culture, and (yes) squirrels. From thought-provoking interviews with guests like Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, to Clayton’s killer Steve Harvey impression during their end-of-year Kwanzaa Spectacular, Another Round is an unfailing original.

🌏 Best in a language other than English
Winner: Radio Ambulante

Often called This American Life in Spanish, Radio Ambulante began in 2012 and started sharing “uniquely Latin American” stories with the world. With each episode, the show unveils and personalizes the stories of Spanish speakers (including those in the US) living in a world that so often treats them as a unified whole.

💬 Best, some people talking
Winner: Call Your Girlfriend

The podcast world is filled with people—usually men—simply having conversations. In Call Your Girlfriend, we listen in on the conversations of two women. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow review, discuss, and sometimes rant about everything from Kimye to menstruation to RGB to casual racism and sexism in their “podcast for long distance besties everywhere.” It’s insightful and hilarious.

💸 Best business/economics
Winner: EconTalk

EconTalk is, on the surface, a couple of economists talking about economics for an hour. But it’s much more. The host, Russ Roberts, manages to have conversations with his guests, even though he may disagree with them on everything from ideology to methodology. His deep skepticism is applied to all of his guests and even, quite often, his own libertarian view of the world. The best episodes are those with guests who either disagree with Roberts or who are not economists.

😂 Best comedy
Winner: The Flop House

On paper The Flop House probably sounds unlistenable: three dudes talking about a bad movie, which by now is an entire genre. But the show has been going since 2007. It hits the sweet spot between making fun of a bad movie and seriously considering why (and whether) it’s actually bad. It’s hosted by current Daily Show writer Dan McCoy, the former head writer on that same show, Elliott Kalan, and their goofball pal Stuart Wellington. As with most comedy podcasts, you’ll either hate it or love it. But get into it, and you have hundreds of hours of happiness to look forward to.

🎨 Best culture
Winner: Switched On Pop

“It’s no fun not to like pop” is the name of a song by jazz guitarist Wayne Krantz. That must mean that it’s a lot of fun to love pop, and nobody loves it more than the hosts of Switched On Pop, a podcast in which a musicologist and songwriter analyze very deeply the latest trends in ubiquitous music. There are episodes on the philosophical underpinnings of Justin Beiber’s new singles, the sonic evolution of Taylor Swift, and the dramatic resurgence of the saxophone. Guilty pleasures have never been so educational.

⌛️ Best history
Winner: Revolutions

Practice has made perfect for Revolutions podcast host Mike Duncan. After recording the entire History of Rome, he began to tell the story of the world’s revolutions in 2013. This year, he completed his lucid, entertaining and insightful account of the French revolution, a must-listen for anyone who gets their brumaires and fremaires confused. The podcast is now beginning to dig into the under-appreciated but deeply fascinating Haitian revolution.

🔍 Best interview
Winner: WTF with Marc Maron

Marc Maron’s strength as an interviewer is his raw honesty and vulnerability—often in regards to his own anxiety—which in turn makes his guests similarly open. Guests talk about their careers and tell funny stories about other famous people, but also get into the anguish of producing good work, addiction and recovery, relationships and sex. They remind us that successful creators are just semi-neurotic, working stiffs like the rest of us, working through their issues as they try to become better, happier, more productive people.

🔬 Best science
Winner: Omega Tau

Omega Tau is not the kind of “popular science” ruled by cool and quirky new findings. It dives into the nitty gritty of actually doing science, talking at length to scientists, engineers, and computer programmers about the work they do. Erudite host Markus Völter has conversations with experts working on race car design, space shuttle mission control, shipping containers, self-driving cars, quantum computers, and much more. The episodes can run over two hours, but they’re worth the time.

⚽️ Best sports
Winner: Men in Blazers

You might have expected Michael Davies and Roger Bennett to peak in 2014 with the World Cup that brought them to mainstream fame (at least for soccer personalities in the United States). Yet the duo—who talk everything soccer, from the Premiere League to US national teams to FIFA scandals—showed their staying power (despite an off-year for US soccer) with consistently entertaining coverage. It’s the only podcast where the poetry of Philip Larkin mingles with match recaps and ’80s pop. Bennet’s incisive and humane interviews with star athletes set him apart from the run of sports writers.

🔌 Best technology
Winner: Reply All

Reply All, produced by Gimlet Media, features deeply reported and well-told stories about the internet. This year’s shows ranged from a story on how a reporter communicates with ISIL online to another about tracking down the origin of some distinctive hold music. It also introduced the delightful segment “Yes Yes No,” in which a baffled Alex Blumberg, the founder of Gimlet, tries to understand something he discovered on the internet. While excellent, we do hope the show remains dedicated to its focus on the internet in 2016—eschewing episodes about taking LSD or walking aimlessly through New York.

📖 Best storytelling
Winner: Mystery Show

“Why is there time? Why is there space?” begins the dreamy intro of Mystery Show—produced by podcasting startup Gimlet Media—in which host Starlee Kine solves mysteries with old fashioned, non-internet investigation methods. Pretty lofty considering that the cases she takes on are usually more like: “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?” or “Who made this weird belt buckle?” Yet the questions are earned in this charming show that’s at times lough-aloud funny, at times poignant enough to draw tears.

🌟 Best Podcast 2015
Winner: Song Exploder

Switched On Pop may be tops at cultural analysis, but Song Exploder is the better podcast. It is possibly the most perfect podcast, really. Hosted and produced by Hrishikesh Hirway, Song Exploder invites a songwriter or composer to explain the process behind one of their creations. It is about more than just culture: The show offers rare and intimate insight into how creativity happens. It is also just a lot of fun to listen to.

The episodes are relatively short at about 12 minutes each. But they are just the right length, where most other shows either try to do too much in too little time or waver aimlessly for long stretches. This is partly because Song Exploder has so successfully chosen a topic—individual songs—that is easy enough to understand quickly, but offers unlimited sonic material. The show wastes no time with formalities or show-offy hosting: The editing usually removes Hirway altogether, aside from a brief introduction, leaving only the guest talking to you directly, taking you through the journey of song creation. It has also been wonderful this year to see the range of exploded songs expand beyond primarily “indie” and into film and even video game scores, like the themes of The Martian and Game of Thrones. (We’d love to hear more from other genres in 2016.)

The brevity and specificity of Song Exploder is something of a departure from the narrative storytelling of This American Life or Gimlet Media productions like Reply All. More than these, though, it feels truly at home on the internet, short enough to be consumed quickly but so good that you want to tell all of your friends about it.

* * *

Congratulations to all of our winners. None of these choices were easy, and of course, we don’t claim to have listened to every podcast on earth. But we’re pretty happy with this list.

Nikhil Sonnad oversaw these awards. Several Quartz reporters and staff contributed descriptions, nominations, and discussion.

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