The category of “interview podcasts” is broad. Maybe as broad as Joe Rogan’s forehead. Which is to say they don’t all involve ex-MMA commentators complaining about big government. No, some are actually interesting. From comedy to grief to basketball, the scope in this category is endless.
Interview podcasts like to claim that they are speaking to today’s brightest luminaries. But no matter how big the name, there’s always the risk of a dull interview. With most celebs sleepwalking through hundreds of conversations, it takes a great interviewer to ask them a question that makes them stop and think. The shows on this list have a knack for creating those profound moments we look forward to, crafting a balance between honesty and insight that makes for a brilliant conversation.
When it comes to interviewing big names with humor and intention, few people have mastered it better than Marc Maron. From Anthony Bourdain to Michelle Yeoh, he has seemingly interviewed everyone in the business. Maron introduces each episode of WTF with a diary entry-like monologue that you can imagine being recorded in a murky motel room. He often sounds downtrodden and world-weary; long-time followers will know he’s dealt with addiction and loss. The Atlantic’s James Parker puts it well: “There’s a grinding, a gnawing, in his delivery, something slightly serrated that tells of terrible nights in toilet clubs, of jokes ceasing to be jokes and entire sets going south.”
Maron has honed his interview style down to a sharp point. He knows what makes interesting conversation and what doesn’t. Sometimes, like in an episode with Robert Siegel, you can almost hear the cogs whirring in Maron’s head as his guest begins to bore him. His questioning can be abrasive, his guests pressured to deliver interesting content or risk interruption. Nonetheless, Maron is a master. He has no time for spiels or soliloquies. He is very much on-stage with his guests, chewing the fat about where they grew up, duking it out for the benefit of the audience, and bouncing off each other for impromptu comedy routines. Maron doesn’t force poignance where there isn’t any but occasionally you hear one of those gob-smacking WTF moments where both Marc and his guest realise something for the first time as they are recording. It’s worth tuning in for.
Terry Gross, the longtime host of NPR’s Fresh Air, has been interviewing guests for over forty years. Her interview style might be the opposite of Marc Maron’s abrasive questioning. She is incisive and unobtrusive, with a process that is direct and frank. She has an uncanny knack for giving her interviewees the confidence to say exactly what they’d always wanted to reveal. It makes for compelling listening. The show also takes full advantage of its impressive interview archive. When former guests die, the show pulls together interview clips to offer a retrospective of the guests’ lives. Conversations thirty years old suddenly seem haunting and prescient. No wonder the show is Peabody Award-winning.
When listening to retired NBA pros Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles interview current and former NBA players, you can’t help feeling a bit better about your day. These are conversations between peers, a world away from the terse dynamic between journalists and players in post-match press conferences. When their guests talk about their iron-clad mentalities, realizing they’re in another stratosphere from other high schoolers or the grief of mid-30s retirement, the hosts feel like they’ve been there, too, and can share the experience. Prior knowledge and a love of basketball might be helpful when listening to Knuckleheads, but this is by no means an insiders-only show. Knuckleheads is ultimately about human stories, told with humor and compassion. Listen to this podcast to see what sporting excellence looks like from the inside.
Our own Alice Florence Orr once wrote that The Ezra Klein Show is your “bi-weekly invitation to meaningful conversation,” but what did she mean? Since moving from Vox to The New York Times, writer and journalist Ezra Klein has reinvented his show as one of the most politically relevant podcasts available. Klein’s methodology is simple: use quality guests to challenge, question and refine the ideas that he writes about in his column. He draws connections between key political issues while developing a serious, sustained conversation on contemporary life.
When Klein is away, his show’s producer takes the interviewer chair, with the same keen attention and inquisitive manner. You realise that behind Ezra is a whole team working away, which gives the rest of us some relief when wondering how to match the man’s incredible work ethic. The research that goes into each episode makes it a cut above any other show discussing politics and social science. If you’re not tuning in, you’re missing essential conversations about our world and the way we live.
Listening to musicians talk about their work is fascinating. It gives you the opportunity to understand not just how technically complicated their craft is, but how professionally savvy you need to be to make it. Then again, avid music listeners already know all of this, so why keep listening to a music interview podcast like Broken Record? One thing is the mysticism. “Why did you make this album?” the show’s hosts might ask. “I had a good vibe and I just went with it,” often comes the reply. It might sound faintly ridiculous stuff, like a visionary or soothsayer in the wrong era, but the proof is in the outcome: the music is incredible. In these in-depth interviews, we are listening in to creatives whose inspiration is rarely easy to put into words.
Interviews are taken by one of the four hosts: Rick Rubin, Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Headlam, and Justin Richmond. Each is effective in a different way, though my pick is music producer veteran Rubin, who often conducts his interviews as if he were the guest’s family member, supportive and deeply understanding. Just like us, he is fascinated by the mystery of music-making. And despite the name, it never becomes repetitive.
In an interview with Billboard, comedian Cameron Esposito complained that comedy was becoming predictable. The problem? Representation. So much of comedy was being funnelled through “the lens of being a straight white cis male.” It had become stale. Esposito wanted to find a way to do comedy without the cliché.
No surprise, then, that in Esposito’s interview podcast, Queery, the guests explore queerness in all its myriad forms. But what does “exploring queerness” mean in an interview context? For Esposito, it means inviting guests to articulate themselves in all their idiosyncrasies. It is more than who you’re attracted to or even how you identify, although these are both important. It is about a way of looking at the world and existing in it; about throwing off the straitjacket and discussing things that are uniquely personal and urgently important to the guests. Esposito is a sensitive host, constantly searching for moments to connect her experience with her guests. She interviews fearlessly and listens with care.
Will Arnett, Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes are all well-established actors and friends, and in this show they mine their network of Hollywood connections to interview a host of actors and directors. Each episode, one host reveals their mystery guest to the other two. This results in off-the-cuff interviews, where the host’s enthusiasm replaces preparation.
Are they good interviewers? Do they know how to ask a searching question? Not really. They giggle like nervous schoolboys. And when they admire their guests, they gasp earnestly in unison at their magnanimity and wisdom. But these interviews all have an endearing quality to them, and make it on this list for that reason.
On Griefcast, Cariad Lloyd welcomes guests who have had a bereavement to talk about loss and the strange process that we call “grief.” This might not be the podcast for you when you’re jetting off to the Bahamas, but it would be wrong to say that this show is about misery. Lloyd states she doesn’t want listeners to come away feeling worse. Instead, she strives for connectedness. Grief is deeply private, but it need not be isolating. Lloyd offers warm support to guests, sharing anecdotes, stories, and passing on advice she’s been given on this inevitable but not always talked-about part of the human experience. Sadly, we’ll all experience grief one day – this is an essential show to have in your back pocket.
This is one for the poet at heart. Interviews often show participants at their shining best. The conversations are smooth. Both host and guest are gracious, thoughtful listeners. But in Commonplace, host Rachel Zucker’s insistent and sprawling approach to interviewing makes for a completely different listening experience.
Zucker teaches poetry at NYU and interviews esteemed guests within the poetry world. But what’s so unique about this podcast is how raw and open Zucker is as a host. This is a new school of “confessional” interviewing, sharing vivid details about her divorce, her grief, and her disillusion from her work as a teacher. These aren’t merely past experiences resolved, learned and moved on from. In these interviews, Zucker lays bare the problems that are on her mind. These are often big, sometimes existential worries; they instil a profound tension into Zucker’s interview style. She’s not just asking questions for the benefit of her guests or entertaining her audience – you get the sense she is staking her life on the answer to these questions. Episodes are intense and messy and sometimes frustrating to listen to. But that is all part of the poetic experience.
Matthew Seaton is a writer based in Glasgow. His work has appeared in Erato Magazine and The Dillydoun Review and he is a founding editor of the event-zine chewgulpspit. You can contact him at [email protected]