The 20 Best Culture Podcasts

We’ve already rounded up the best comedy podcasts around, but as fall approaches and the onslaught of new series, books, and awards-buzzy films begins, we wanted to direct your attention to the podcasts that help us keep up with all that culture.

From pop music breakdowns to roundtable discussions to literary readings, here’s a guide to the most entertaining and informative podcasts that pertain to film, television, music, books, and the intersections between them. Those that made our comedy list are excluded (though How Did This Get Made and Who Charted? are still perennial favorites), but we’d like to think it’s an otherwise comprehensive roundup of your ideal commute soundtrack.

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You Must Remember This

Karina Longworth’s exploration of “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century” garnered well-deserved acclaim for its 12-episode deep dive into the connections between Charles Manson, the murders he and his cult committed, and Hollywood in the late 1960s. Before the Manson series, Longworth touched on subjects from Howard Hughes to Raquel Welch; after, she’s turned her attention to archetypal classical-era studio MGM. Longworth’s narration — and occasional impressions — have remained hypnotic throughout.

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Pitch

Music podcasts are a bit of a tough sell; why would someone want to hear about music when they could simply hear music? Pitch, from Whitney Jones and Alex Kapelman, justifies itself handily, using its hosts’ background in public radio to create well-honed segments that explore rapper conspiracy theories, covers, and the fine art of product placement. Like You Must Remember This, Pitch is a fine example of podcasting’s graduation from an “intimate” (read: lo-fi) medium to one with production quality that rivals even the best-established radio. Speaking of…

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Pop Culture Happy Hour

What’s that? One of the best-loved, best-executed pop culture podcasts around is from… NPR? Gasp! 

Even though PCHH‘s heritage may be unsurprising, it’s still a delightful listen, combining an accessible generalism with affable chemistry between its panelists. Anchored by Linda Holmes, Television Without Pity alumna and current editor of NPR’s Monkey See, along with regulars Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, and other members of the NPR extended family (Audie Cornish is my personal favorite occasional co-panelist), PCHH combines discussion of current cultural events (summer movies, fall TV), riffs on themes (great TV title sequences), and the panelists’ favorite segment, a roundup of “what’s making us happy this week.”

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Song Exploder

Over 50 episodes in nearly two years, host Hrishikesh Hirway has exploded and reconstituted a dizzying array of songs, sitting down with their original composers to figure out what makes them work. Hirway’s guests run towards the indie, like Tune-Yards or YACHT, but he’s also broken down movie scores with Alexandre Desplat and even the Bob’s Burgers theme song with creator Loren Bouchard. Insider talk is the foundation of an entire genre of comedy podcasts, and Hirway demonstrates how effective, and overdue, an approach it is to other art forms.

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The Catapult

Most literary podcasts take the form of interviews with authors about their work, but The Catapult takes a slightly different approach. Every other week, host Jaime Green has fiction, poetry, and nonfiction writers actually read their work on air, making the reading accessible to those who can’t make it to New York bookstores several times a week and allowing authors to connect directly with readers. Recent guests include novelists Rebecca Dinerstein and Edan Lepucki, plus Jami Attenberg, Anna North, and Mira Jacob. 

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Extra Hot Great

Given the popularity of recaps and their ability to translate the feeling of water-cooler conversations about TV into critical discourse, it’s little surprise that TV critic podcasts make for such a solid subgenre. There’s the relatively new Vulture TV podcast, the recently wrapped Firewall and Iceberg, Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan… and Extra Hot Great, from Tara Ariano, Joe Reid, and Dave Cole. Ariano and Cole are co-founders of Television without Pity; Reid is an Atlantic Wire alum and longtime entertainment writer. In short, it’s the cream of the post-Internet TV critic crop, delivering their opinions to your inbox each and every week.

Update: A reader notes that while Reid is still a frequent guest, he’s no longer an official co-host. Cole, Ariano, and Sarah D. Bunting, another TWoP cofounder, make up EHG‘s current hosting lineup.

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Longform

All three co-hosts of the nonfiction recommendation app’s namesake podcast — Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer of Longform, plus Evan Ratliff of Atavist — sound deliriously, infectiously excited to be in the room with their guests, and with good reason. Their career-spanning conversations with various nonfiction writers have included reporters, essayists, and memoirists from George Saunders to BuzzFeed journalist Katie Baker to Ta-Nehisi Coates (twice!). Sometimes the guests talk about process, sometimes they talk about their work itself, sometimes they go on a different tangent entirely. The result is always an engaging listen.

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By the Way

Jeff Garlin, once of Curb Your Enthusiasm, now of The Goldbergs, is a busy guy, so his live interview show doesn’t have anything that resembles a regular schedule. Generally, however, the results are worth the wait, offering uncensored conversations with the likes of Amy Poehler, Andrew Bird, and Larry David himself. The idea — Garlin talks to his friends in the industry about show business — is a simple one, but Garlin’s gregarious presence and omnivorous tastes help the podcast stand out.

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Maltin on Movies

It’s pretty great to see a critic like Maltin, whose legendary annual movie guides came to a close this year, take to a new medium and connect to a new audience. Maltin plays a prominent role as the basis for several games on Doug Loves Movies, where he’s also an occasional guest, but his Earwolf podcast, co-hosted with comedian Baron Vaughn, allows him to sound off on his favorite films from week to week.

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A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment

Sherman Alexie’s been in the news lately for his involvement in the Michael Derrick Hudson/”Yi-Fen Chou” disaster, but for a reminder of why he’s so beloved in the first place, check out this podcast co-hosted with fellow author and friend Jess Walter. It’s not a “literary podcast” per se, but A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment frequently touches on issues related to writing and publishing (speculative memoir, translation, audiobooks, Go Set a Watchman), and guests are often fellow writers, like Marlon James and Richard Russo, plus the occasional Molly Ringwald and Neko Case. 

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Turned Out a Punk

Hosted by Damian Abraham of Fucked Up, the guests on Turned Out a Punk range from exactly who you’d expect to see on a podcast dedicated to interviews with people influenced by punk — not that that’s a bad thing — to more surprising picks. From Meredith Graves to J Mascis to Antwon to Mish Way, Turned Out a Punk is a lovably enthusiastic discussion of artistic influence.

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Rerun

With just five episodes to date, the most recent addition to BuzzFeed’s growing stable of podcasts is still in its infancy. But with such a simple, adaptable premise — host Doree Shafrir and guests discuss a single, “iconic” episode of a TV show — and a compact running time of half an hour tops, Rerun is already proving a biweekly must-listen. Guests include intelligent teen Tavi Gevinson on intelligent teen show Freaks and Geeks, as well as Anna Holmes on the complicated legacy of The Cosby Show and Call Your Girlfriend co-host Aminatou Sow on Daria. 

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U Talkin’ U2 To Me?

The ranks of hyper-specific fan podcasts are legion, but this limited run from “Adam Scott Aukerman” might be the best (though The X-Files Files deserves a shoutout for landing Kumail Nanjiani a bit part in the upcoming revival). Most of its 22 episodes to date were broadcast in the spring of 2014, leading up to the release of Songs of Innocence, the album best know as, “What’s this thing taking up space on my iPhone?” Though Scott and Aukerman’s love for the band is sincere, the podcast doubles as a parody of a certain kind of podcast, a project only someone with Aukerman’s clout and both men’s charisma could pull off.

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Reading Lives

Think of it as the New York Times’ “By the Book Feature,” but out loud instead of in print and from Book Riot instead of the New York Times. It’s writers talking about the books they love, with guests that skew towards the young and diverse: think Mallory Ortberg, Celeste Ng, and Alvina Ling, the young adult book editor who’s one of the loudest voices pushing for better representation in the industry. 

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We Hate Movies

The film podcast with an archive so deep and a fanbase so dedicated it’s got its very own page on TV Tropes. Featuring New York comedians Andrew Jupin, Stephen Sajdak, Eric Szyszka, and Chris Cabin, We Hate Movies prefers older films to current releases and comedic discussions to critical analysis (although analysis is very much a part of the We Hate Movies project). After taking the back half of the summer off, they’re finally back to airing new episodes this month.

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Grantland Pop Culture

ESPN’s prestige site actually has quite a few podcasts that fall under the umbrella of “culture”; there are interviews from writer Molly Lambert and TV critic Andy Greenwald, plus discussion-style shows and mini dispatches on food news and reality television. Conveniently, they’re all grouped under the umbrella of “Grantland Pop Culture” for subscription purposes (also conveniently filtering out the sports coverage for the nerds among us who still don’t know the rules to football — not that I’m writing from personal experience), translating the humor, knowledge, and analysis Grantland’s known for from your screen to your earbuds.

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New York Times Popcast

The Grey Lady’s only recently begun to show television the institutional respect it deserves, but historically, it’s actually done a great job covering pop music, this podcast included. Now over a half decade old, the Popcast features the NYT‘s impressive lineup of critics, including Jons Caramanica and Pareles, in a discussion of contemporary pop music. Fingers crossed that Wesley Morris will also make appearances once he makes the transition from Grantland.
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Mystery Show

As the name suggests, Mystery Show isn’t technically a culture podcast; host Starlee Kine has given herself the rather broad mandate of exploring mysteries, wherever she may find them. But in six episodes over four months, many of Kine’s “cases” have ended up relating to pop culture anyway, whether she’s investigating a Welcome Back, Kotter lunch box or Jake Gyllenhaal’s height. And it’s a ridiculously compelling listen, so there’s that.

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Filmspotting (SVU)

Now co-hosted by co-founder Adam Kempenaar and relative newcomer Josh Larsen, Filmspotting might be the OG film discussion podcast, beginning production in 2005 and earning an eventual pickup from Chicago’s WBEZ a short while later. Filmspotting SVU — the SV is for “streaming video,” not “special victims” — is a former competitor (not really, but similar concept) turned cousin featuring BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore and ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer, formerly of IFC, where the podcast originated. Together, the two offer some of the most engaging critical discussion of movies, both current and classic, around.

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Nerdist Writers’ Panel

Moderated by Ben Blacker, already well-known to podcast fans as co-creator of Thrilling Adventure Hour, Nerdist Writers’ Panel is nearly as omnivorous in its selection of guests as its namesake. From Golden Age showrunners to comic book writers to novelists, anyone who’s written anything is qualified to serve as a panelist. Sometimes individual writers go over work with Blacker; sometimes panels discuss themes or a specific project as a group. Collectively, Nerdist Writers’ Panel adds up to an impressively comprehensive back catalog — over 300 episodes! — of creative shop talk.