Being a great interviewer doesn’t always come naturally. The art of conversation can be tricky. You have to ask good questions, be a great listener, take cues from your subject, add follow up questions and provide relevant thoughts. When that’s done right, it can be revealing, surprising and riveting. Because I’m an interviewer and talent booker I’m constantly weighing in on what’s good and what isn’t. If the podcast host is crappy, I can’t get through five minutes. With these recommendations I promise you’ll never have that problem.
Raz interviews the top business leaders and breaks down how they got started. He gets everyone from cosmetics giant Bobbi Brown to travel guru Rick Steves. How did Chipotle and Kodiak Cakes get started? Who are the brains behind furniture store giant Crate And Barrel? Every episode it’s a new story. You’ll learn all the fun facts, challenges, successes and failures of big business. One of my favorite episodes was with Stacy Brown, founder of fast casual food chain Chicken Salad Chick. Her story brought me to tears. Raz leads guests through intimate conversations that provide raw emotion. That’s why this podcast is so wildly successful. Just like his guests.
The New York Times’ top news podcast captures the moment in current events. Every day it’s about a 30-minute journey into whatever important is happening. It’s hosted by Michael Barbaro who often interviews Times writers and editors and throws in whatever else you need to know today. Other segments are hosted by journalists from all over the world. The production team does an incredible job of really taking you there. No story is too far, from the streets of Haiti after an earthquake to the labor shortage in the hospitality industry. The best part is learning sides of the story you hadn’t thought about. The Daily has prompted me to call friends and family to ask what they thought of the current topic. Great journalism is when you want to keep talking about it. And a lot of these episodes will stick with you for a long time.
Just because you’re a celebrity, it doesn’t always mean you’re the greatest broadcaster or interviewer. Fortunately, that doesn’t apply to Oscar-nominated actress Minnie Driver. The format of the interview is based on the same questions for everyone. Inspired by Vanity Fair’s long-running Proust Questionnaire feature where she asks the guests the following: What quality do you like least about yourself? What relationship—real or fictionalized—defines love for your? What would be your last meal? What person, place or experience has most altered your life? What question would you most like answered? And what in your life has grown out of a personal disaster? The answers are hilarious, touching, inspiring and shocking. But the best part is how Driver is such a great listener. She keys into the answers and provides words of wisdom. The guests seem to love it, challenging them to really think out of the box. Episodes with Viola Davis and Hoda Kotb really stand out.
Have you ever caught yourself listening to someone else’s dinner conversation? Then this is the podcast for you. Media titans and married couple Margo Thomas and Phil Donahue interview famous couples about their lives. It’s also about how they met and the challenges they face. Even though there is some narration and setups, it all feels very natural and relaxed. I loved the episode with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and his wife Rebecca. They’re from totally different worlds but show us how they make it work. They’re honest about their pet peeves and tell hilarious stories on the early days of their relationship. The comfort level of the conversation makes you feel like you’re at the table with them.
“Call and Response” refers to the blues tradition of communal music, making and listening. Singer/songwriter Adia Victoria discusses these topics with other musicians. Victoria gives a voice to the women in the Americana genre who haven’t gotten the full spotlight they deserve. Case in point: Allison Russell, who recently organized a women’s legend night at the Newport Folk Festival. These conversations are navigated through the lens of music with people like the ridiculously talented Brittany Howard, talking about her album Jamie. It’s rare to hear a frank discussion about a black, lesbian love song rooted in the blues. Victoria has a soulful voice, is a brilliant writer and incredible musician in her own right. She focuses on lifting women up after they’ve been marginalized for decades. Call and Response has soul, sass and heart, even when it’s exposing the hard truths.
Full disclosure: I book the talent for this series now in Season 3. Produced by Mailchimp Presents, The Jump asks an artist about the one song that changed the trajectory of their career. Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson asks original and nuanced questions in a fresh, relaxed way. In the most recent season she talks to legends like Patti Smith, David Byrne, Alanis Morissette, Robyn, Rapsody and Run The Jewels. Since the chat is about one song in particular, they can really dissect why it was a pivotal moment in their career. Sometimes Manson’s genuine curiosity throws her subjects off guard. This is what makes it so entertaining. Her charm, infectious laugh and knack for making keen observations will make you want to listen to the entire season in single sitting.
Full disclosure part two: I also book talent for this series. Andy Frasco is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and dance party extraordinaire. During the pandemic he was known for his “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” live streams. He makes jokes (sometimes crass), plays angry messages from his team (you may hear me—they are all real), and talks about being on the road, drugs, relationships, music and his personal mental health struggles. On a recent episode with Hiss Golden Messenger (aka MC Taylor), they talk about the difficulties of being touring musicians locked down throughout the pandemic. It’s rare to hear artists speak this candid about their struggles, but Andy does it effortlessly. Listen in for great chats with artists like Larkin Poe, Stewart Copeland, Billy Strings and Bootsy Collins. And watch Andy on The Paste Happiest Hour below:
Bonus podcast pick:
True crime, old Hollywood and small-town heroes. You’ll get it all in this new series about the heist of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard Of Oz. In August 2005, the Judy Garland museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., housed the legendary pumps, and they were taken in the dead of night. Throughout this podcast you’ll learn about the history of the Wizard Of Oz, Garland’s tragic life and the backstory into the people who collect movie memorabilia. The hosts, Ariel Ramchandani and editor Seyward Darby give so much care into the story by talking to everyone involved. And then there’s the heist. How and why did they do it? How did the police of Grand Rapids get to the bottom of the robbery? The interviews are riveting, folksy and fun. And do they find the slippers? Yes, but what happens next is still an ongoing mystery.
Mara Davis is a media personality based in Atlanta, Ga. In addition to hosting the VoteHer podcast with Senator Jen Jordan, she also is a senior talent booker for various television networks and podcasts.