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The best podcasts of 2017

Recode Radio Producer Eric Johnson shares his favorite episodes from Recode’s shows — and everyone else — in 2017.

People on their phones while wearing earbuds on the London Underground Waring Abbott / Getty

As the producer of Recode Radio, I have had the unique privilege of being a fly on the wall for hundreds of riveting interviews on our weekly audio shows: Recode Decode, Recode Media and Too Embarrassed to Ask.

If you were to ask me which ones you should listen to, my first instinct would be to say “all of them.” But literally no one* is going to binge-listen through all 191 podcasts Recode released in 2017. So, here’s a best-of list.

The Recode shows

In this category, I picked one favorite podcast from each of our weekly shows, along with some honorable mentions. Click on the name of each show to be taken to its Apple Podcasts page, where you can subscribe and find more.

Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher

The first appearance of NYU Professor and “The Four” author Scott Galloway on Recode Decode, which we taped in mid-May and aired a month later, attracted some notoriety for Galloway’s seemingly psychic prediction that Amazon would buy Whole Foods. But it’s a fun, enlightening, provocative discussion throughout and it gave me the opportunity to write my favorite podcast title of the year: “Google is God, Facebook is love and Amazon will be worth $1 trillion.”

Honorable mentions: Sheryl Sandberg; Maggie Haberman and David Fahrenthold; Tina Brown

Recode Media with Peter Kafka

The second half of 2017 will be remembered for the (long overdue) ousting of several predatory politicians, executives and celebrities from their respective positions of power. And arguably, none of it would have happened if not for rigorous journalists who convinced these harassers’ victims to talk on the record about what happened. Peter Kafka’s interview with Hollywood Reporter Editor at Large Kim Masters is a must-hear look behind the curtain of how reporters like Masters do their jobs.

Honorable mentions: Ken Burns; Michael Barbaro; Sarah Lacy

Too Embarrassed to Ask

It is extremely tempting to pick one of the episodes of Too Embarrassed to Ask that made me laugh the most this year (see the honorable mentions, below). But the one that made me think the most was Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode’s interview of CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince and the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cindy Cohn. Conducted in the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., it’s a passionate but civil debate over “free speech” and the growing power of tech companies to reach beyond our screens.

Honorable mentions: Walt Mossberg; Louie Swisher and Casey Newton; Anne Wojcicki

The non-Recode shows

An informal requirement of my job is being plugged in to the wider world of podcasts. Luckily, I happen to enjoy listening to many (too many) non-Recode shows, and 2017 was a great year for new favorites. I was able to tune in to some fantastic new series that were released this year, including S-Town, The Daily and Dirty John.

However, one of the best parts of being a podcast fan is following a show over a long period of time. Sometimes, a podcast you subscribed to years ago will knock you off your feet with a truly exceptional episode. Here are some individual episode highlights from this year:

5) The Truth: “The Decider”

Although it has been around for five years now, The Truth is one of my favorite shows I started listening to in 2017. Each episode is a short story performed by actors, a la an old-school radio serial, and most of the episodes have a weird, darkly comic “Twilight Zone”-esque twist to them. A great episode to start with is “The Decider,” about a new gadget that tells users exactly how happy they will be with every decision they make.

4) Crimetown: “Power Street”

Listened to as a whole story, Crimetown tells several deeply-reported stories about organized crime and politics in Providence, Rhode Island. But one of the first season’s most memorable figures is the city’s notorious two-time mayor (and one-time federal prisoner), Buddy Cianci; the episode about how Cianci’s first mayoral administration began to implode, “Power Street,” is a master class in audio storytelling.

3) Radiolab: “Nukes”

Like so many great episodes of the iconic WNYC show, the “Nukes” episode of Radiolab centers on a big question: Can one person prevent nuclear armageddon? It’s a question whose answer countless historians, politicians and journalists have reached for before, but the end result here is a perfect encapsulation of what makes podcasts different from other forms of media. Listening to “Nukes” alone took my breath away and even though it may seem like a heavy topic, I can’t recommend it enough.

2) This American Life: “White Haze”

Speaking of heavy topics: After the aforementioned protest in Charlottesville, Va., that left one counterprotestor dead and many more injured, a lot of news outlets tried to explain for their audiences where this racially motivated movement came from. Few did it as well as the team at This American Life did in “White Haze,” which illuminates the nuances and contradictions of right-wing hatred.

1) Reply All: “Long Distance,” Parts 1 and 2

It may feel like a cheat to put two episodes in the top spot, but I guarantee that once you finish Part 1 of “Long Distance,” you will want to hear Part 2 immediately. Without giving away any spoilers, the episodes are led by Reply All co-host Alex Goldman, who gets a phone call from a tech support scammer — and then decides to figure out who that scammer is and why he does what he does. What Goldman discovers is jaw-dropping in the most delightful way.

Those are my picks for the best podcasts of the year. But this is by no means an exhaustive list — I only have so many hours in the car and at the gym every week. If there’s a show you love that’s MIA here, tweet it to me! I’m always looking for new suggestions.

* If you are new to Recode Radio and wind up bingeing our back catalog as a result of this post, hit me up on Twitter. I’ll send you a funny gif or something as a token of my appreciation.

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