20 podcasts that will make you smarter

(Pete Souza/White House)

President Barack Obama speaks with Marc Maron in Maron’s garage for an episode of the “WTF” podcast.

The past couple years have been huge for podcasts.

Episodes of true crime series “Serial” were downloaded more than 80 million times, President Barack Obama visited comedian Marc Maron’s garage for his “WTF” podcast, and leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had a candid chat with “Another Round” hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton.

With new series coming out each week, it can be difficult to determine which are actually worth your time, but we’ve got you covered if you’re looking to learn something new.

Here are our top picks for stretching your brain during your next commute, workout, or laundry run.

“This American Life” has become a byword for oral storytelling.

Beyond being a place for moving and hilarious stories, “This American Life” does staggering levels of reporting; few outlets made the financial crisis as human and understandable as Ira Glass and the gang.

It lives up to the hype.

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You probably use the internet every day, but Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt will give you more insight into its effects on our culture than you were ever aware of.

They’ve covered great stories like the ways ISIS uses social media and how an Orthodox Jew ultimately left his family behind because of the world he discovered online.

And Goldman and Vogt’s goofy rapport will keep you hooked episode to episode.

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NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross has been on the air for more than four decades, and her interviewing skills have earned her accolades like the Peabody award, the Columbia Journalism Award, and a spot in the National Radio Hall of Fame.

Gross may have a smooth, relaxed speaking style, but the way she digs deep into her interview subjects will keep you engaged throughout the conversation, whether it’s about Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting process or what a writer learned from covering Mexican drug cartels.

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This campaign season has been easily the wildest, least predictable one in recent memory, and it’s brought in record numbers of primary season voters. For something so important to history, the average American knows little of the evolution of the United States’ unusual and fierce campaign process.

John Dickerson, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” takes listeners through the game-changing presidential campaigns throughout American history through engaging storytelling punctuated by Dickerson’s signature goofy jokes.

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Rather than being an inside-baseball discussion about journalism, “On the Media” is a guide to consuming the news.

Journalists Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield will help you understand why pundits have been so wrong about the 2016 presidential campaign, why journalists so often make mistakes when reporting on the Supreme Court, and just how close Best Picture “Spotlight” was to real life.

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Few things can be more instructive than a life story, and comedian-turned-broadcaster Marc Maron draws the ups and downs of life out of people with a certain raucous grace.

Some especially intellectual episodes include his interviews with comedian Wanda Sykes, actor Vince Vaughn, the late Robin Williams, and, most impressively, President Obama.

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The Washington Post’s Leadership Editor Lillian Cunningham is dedicating a full episode to each of America’s 44 presidents, all the way up to the election of the 45th.

With the help of historians like David McCullough and journalists like Bob Woodward, Cunningham breaks down each of the president’s personalities and leadership styles so that by the end of the episode you’ve got a grasp of what these men were actually like as people.

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NPR’s “Planet Money” team describes its show as: “Imagine you could call up a friend and say, ‘Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.’ Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening. That’s what we’re going for at Planet Money.”

Twice a week, you’ll get an entertaining, well-reported look at issues like the Greek economic crisis that will leave you satisfied with a foundational understanding of the subject, all in just 15 minutes.

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“Another Round” is the only time you’ll hear a couple of F-bombs dropped in an interview with Hillary Clinton.

BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton fearlessly — and hilariously — explore race, sexuality, and pop culture with guests ranging from Clinton to “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, all over a couple drinks. 

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WNYC’s “Radiolab” — the brainchild of topflight journos Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich — investigates everyday oddities with a blend of science, philosophy, and music.

The duo is able to make high-level science remarkably accessible, practical, and fun.

You probably want to start with the “Colors” episode, where you can learn about a sea creature with so many colors the human eye can’t even process them all.

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“99% Invisible” is probably the coolest design podcast on earth.

Roman Mars’ show uses design as a lens to look at the thought behind the many structures in our lives, from prehistoric hand axes to airport layouts and high heels. After listening, you’ll have an appreciation for the minds and tastes these objects sprang from.

Not only that, but the podcasts are snack-sized, clocking in at about 15 minutes.

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Tim Ferriss puts the life into life hacking. His “4-Hour Workweek,” “4-Hour Body,” and “4-Hour Chef” books have all become bestsellers for the way he combines insight with irreverence.

His podcast carries that rascally inquisitiveness into long-form interviews, with subjects ranging from billionaire investor Peter Thiel to Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull and neuroscientist Sam Harriss.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson is the public face of astronomy right now — and his voice is just as magnetizing.

Dig into his podcast to learn about space tourism, comets, and the basics of astrophysics, to name a few.

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Investor and author Barry Ritholtz sits down each week with a power player from the business world for his podcast produced by Bloomberg.

With his unmistakable Long Island accent, Ritholtz discusses his subjects’ careers and research, whether it’s “Bond King” Jeffrey Gundlach, renowned economist Richard Thaler, or even celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

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Journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt became sensations when their book “Freakonomics” was published in 2005.

In 2010, Dubner launched a podcast with the same mission as their bestselling books: ferreting out connections between seemingly unrelated things.

Unsurprisingly, the shows tend toward the intellectually provocative, with the biggest hits having titles like “Is College Really Worth It?” and “How Much Does the President of the US Really Matter?

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Radiolab spun off “Invisibilia,” whose name is Latin for all the invisible things.

It’s a podcast about the unseen, unconscious forces that guide our lives: biases, dreams, and quirks of perception.

The first episode tells the story of a boy who couldn’t communicate for 12 years. His only company was his thoughts — until, one day, it wasn’t.

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Every weeknight host Kai Ryssdal guides you through the day’s top business news on the podcast version of American Public Radio’s “Marketplace.”

Besides a rundown of top stories, you’ll also be able to hear exclusive interviews with the likes of Twitter cofounder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey and even President Barack Obama.

You may also hear Business Insider senior finance editor and “Marketplace” contributor Linette Lopez weigh in with some commentary.

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Dan Carlin always mentions that he’s not a historian; think of him more as an aggregator of history, weaving together various accounts into one engaging story.

If you listen, you’ll probably find yourself amazed that you spent over four hours listening to a guy talk about the Mongol khans or World War I, but Carlin has a gift for illuminating some of the most interesting yet least talked about moments in history.

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Ever wonder how babies learn language, how the mythos of Santa Claus developed, or where the word “filibuster” came from?

“The Allusionist” host Helen Zaltzman spends each episode investigating the fascinating development of the English language, and you’ll pick up a few new words you can drop in your next email.

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NPR veteran Alex Blumberg wanted to make a podcast startup. So he made a podcast about it.

Since Season 1, Blumberg’s company, Gimlet Media, has started two other popular shows (including “Reply All,” also on this list) and continues to grow.

Season 2 follows the dating site Dating Ring through all of its trials and tribulations as a young company, setting the template for each new season of “Start Up” being about a new business.

Find it here »

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