Escapism is fine in small doses, especially when reality is so damn difficult.
The Great Depression in the 1930s saw an explosion of pulp novels and magazines, movies, and radio dramas for exactly this reason: people wanted to spend an hour somewhere else – anywhere else, as long as it wasn’t here.
While internet, gaming, and prestige TV may appear vastly different from the pulp fiction of nearly a hundred years ago, it’s basically the same thing. People don’t watch GOT for the dragons; it’s to be transported to a place where dragons are possible – at least for 50 minutes.
And let’s not forget about podcasts.
The great thing about podcasts is you can spend anywhere from 20 minutes to 12 hours immersed in another world … for free.
So instead of adding another streaming bundle to your monthly budget, give your eyes a rest and tune into one of these deeply reported, story-driven podcasts that will draw you in and refuse to let you go.
This is the best-of-the-best – personally enjoyed and approved by Primer staff. Whether your thing is spies, whodunits, or history, we’ve got you covered.
1. Wind of Change
Did a rock song bring down the Berlin wall and end decades of cold war between the US and the Soviet Union? And was that song written not by a German hair metal group … but by the CIA?
This is the question that propels Wind Of Change through the twisted history of the cold war spy games, the birth of MTV, and even scenes of an insecure Tommy Lee (of Motley Crue) harassing innocent Russians on the streets of Moscow.
A series from the producers of The Jinx that was years in the making, Crimetown chronicles the rise and fall of old-school organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island.
The thread running throughout the show is Providence’s long-serving, charismatic, and utterly corrupt mayor Buddy Cianci – a figure so above the law that he once tortured a local contractor for three hours with a smouldering fire place log … in front of a police officer and a sitting judge.
With dozens of memorable wise guys and classic heists, season 1 of Crimetown is a masterwork in the sweeping genre of The Wire. It’s a gem, too. Season 2 doesn’t carry the torch, in our opinion.
3. Dolly Parton’s America
Out of left field from the producers of the long-running science podcast Radiolab comes a sweeping cultural history of American icon and genuinely nice human being Dolly Parton.
Ok, we admit this series does stray into politics – a bit – but in such a curious and genuinely heartfelt way that you won’t mind. You’ll discover Dolly Parton’s journey from second fiddle to a powerful male performer to being the head of a business and cultural empire that stretches around the world … and hear some darn good music along the way.
4. Who The Hell Is Hamish?
Hamish Watson, Hamish Earle McLaren, Hamish Maxwell, Max Tavita … how can so many identities spring from just one man? It’s easy when you’re a globe-trotting scammer with a shark-like ability to charm and financially dismember innocent people.
This deeply researched investigative series tries to unwind the many seductions and crimes of Hamish, Australia’s most prolific con artist. It’s a genuine shock – and pleasure – to watch a master swindler at work … and uncover how he gets his comeuppance.
5. Serial, season 2
For a time, Serial was the podcast – the breakout series that took traditional media by storm with it’s twist-and-turn investigation of the murder of a Baltimore high school student.
Less well known (and unfairly maligned) is Serial season 2, which takes on the Herculean task of figuring out what happened on the night of June 30, 2009 when Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl walked off his post in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban, setting off a political firestorm and the largest rescue search ever mounted by the US military.
By turns harrowing and heart-wrenching, Bergdahl’s story is far more complex – and interesting – than the media coverage at the time would have you believe.
6. S Town
For podcast fans, S Town is like … Gone With The Wind, a mighty, problematic classic that uses – and perhaps distorts – southern culture for its own artistic gains.
The fact remains, however, that it’s one of the most compelling whodunits in non-fiction audio and basically pioneered the format of laying a breadcrumb trail for listeners to follow, one clue at a time.
Plus, all the scenes of people just … hanging out? It’s strange and wonderful in the age of COVID.
7. Deep Cover
At the height of the 1980s drug wars, an FBI agent goes undercover posing as a motorcycle gang member and follows weed, money, and corruption all the way to the top of the cartel – and an infamous central American dictator. It reads like a b-movie plot … but it’s not. It actually happened, and journalist Jake Halpern talks to both the good guys and the bad guys – and in the end, you won’t be sure who you’re rooting for.
8. The Other Latif
The Other Latif runs on a simple premise: can a person ever truly be who they say they are?
This gripping investigative journey follows reporter Latif Nasser as he tries to discover the true identity of Gitmo detainee Abdul Latif Nasser – the titular “other” Latif. In many ways, the two men share a lot – faith and a bookish, nerdy background. In other ways, they couldn’t be more different. Reporter Latif spent two years trying to figure out who his doppelganger really is … a deadly Al Qaeda explosives expert? Or a lost soul in the wrong place at the wrong time?
9. I Spy
While technically not a series with a single investigative arc, I Spy is – without question – the best spy podcast so far. Produced by Foreign Policy magazine, it features real spies and special operators telling their stories first person and uncensored.
Follow a CIA pilot who crashes deep in enemy territory and relies on the mercy of Congolese tribesmen to escape certain death. Or a rare book dealer who takes down a Russian spy ring in New Jersey. Or the heart-stopping overland escape of a CIA analyst from Libya in the wake of the deadly Benghazi attacks.