Podcasts for Commuters

7 Podcast Miniseries That Are Better Than Netflix

As someone who spends an hour a day commuting, I’ve found that podcasts can really help to pass the time.

News and comedy series have their place, but if you know where to look, there are some incredibly engaging podcast miniseries out there that will have you pulling over to the side of the road to give them your full attention.

I’ve compiled a list of seven of the best podcast series that are on par with, if not better than, TV-based documentaries.

This list will appeal more to those who are in to crime, history, disaster, and conflict documentaries.

13 Minutes to the Moon Podcast Series

13 Minutes to the Moon

If you’re a fan of movies like Apollo 13 or the excellent miniseries, Challenger: The Final Flight, then the 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast series by the BBC is an essential listen.

This is a very professional production, brilliantly hosted by Kevin Fong, with interviews of key players in the Apollo 11 mission, a large suite of original audio from the moon landing itself, and theme music by Hans Zimmer and Christian Lundberg.

The first season features 12 episodes of around 45 minutes in length, except for – quite significantly – the twelfth episode itself which is the actual, uninterrupted, final 13 minutes of radio conversation as the moon lander makes its final descent.

Season two is also worth a listen and is about the near disaster of Apollo 13, while a third season – ‘the space shuttle’ is also in the works.

Find out more on the BBC website or listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube.

Chernobyl Podcast Series

Chernobyl, the Podcast

I’m cheating a little here as Chernobyl was an excellent HBO series and Emmy award winner. However, the Chernobyl podcast series is also very much worthy of your attention.

This official podcast accompanies the HBO series but can be enjoyed on its own.

Join host Peter Sagal and series creator, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin as they discuss the true stories that shaped the scenes, themes and characters behind the episodes. Named one of Apple Podcasts “Best Listens of 2019.”

As Peter and Craig elude to early on, there was a lot that was left out of the HBO series as it just felt too unbelievable. These additions are included in the podcast.

There are six episodes, each around 45 minutes in length.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube.

544 Days Podcast Series

544 Days

Jason Rezaian is a slightly colourful journalist who likes to tell it like it is. And he has a right to, given he was held in an Iranian prison for 544 days without trial.

Back home, his family and his newspaper – the Washington Post – were doing everything they could to raise the alarm about his detention. Little did he know that his release was closely tied to nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S.

For 544 days, Jason Rezaian was held hostage in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Interrogated. Sealed off from the outside world. He was accused of being an American spy, though his formal title was Washington Post Tehran Correspondent.

This is a story about government and family and journalism, and what it took to free an innocent man… all while navigating the high-stakes world of nuclear diplomacy.

There are nine episodes, each around 45 minutes in length.

Jason’s podcast is well produced by Gimlet, Crooked Media, and A24, and makes for great listening. 544 Days is a Spotify exclusive.

I'm Not a Monster Podcast Series

I’m Not a Monster

I’m not a Monster is a collaboration between BBC Panorama and Frontline PBS and features two series, each telling the story of women that have found themselves in trouble overseas.

The first series is the better one for me, although the second, the Shamima Begum Story, is perhaps more well known given the press attention that Shamima Begum received in the UK at the time.

Season 1: An American mother living in the heart of the ISIS caliphate. Her husband an ISIS sniper. Her 10-year-old son forced to threaten the U.S. president in a propaganda video shown around the world. She claims she was tricked into taking her young children to war-torn Syria, but where does her account end and the truth begin?

Over four years journalist Josh Baker unravels a dangerous story where nothing is as it seems. From the depths of Raqqa’s infamous torture prison to an elk hunt in Idaho, he uncovers secrets, lies and the lasting consequences.

“I’m Not A Monster” is the story of one family’s journey from Indiana to the Islamic State group and back.

There are 32 episodes across each of these series, with episodes varying from 20 to 50 minutes.

I’m Not a Monster is a BBC and Frontline PBS production, also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Caliphate Podcast Series


This one’s a slightly controversial one. Caliphate is a podcast miniseries by New York Times reporter, Rukmini Callimachi. Rukmini is very easy to listen to as you follow her on the ground, following the path of US troops as they push ISIS back, and then later on back in the US as she finds herself interviewing a US citizen who admits to having signed-up to fight with the so-called Islamic State.

However… after the podcast was released, it came to light that the US citizen’s story wasn’t quite as reliable as initially believed. This lead to the New York Times adding a prologue with an ‘editor’s note’. I think the podcast still makes for an enjoyable listen all the same.

In the war on terror, who is it that we’re really fighting? “Caliphate” follows Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism for The New York Times, on her quest to understand ISIS.

There are 10 original episodes of around 30 minutes each, plus two additional episodes by the New York Times in regards to information that came to light following the initial launch.

Caliphate was produced for the New York Times and is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Black Hands Podcast

Black Hands

Perhaps the most hard-hitting podcast on this list, and a very ‘New Zealand’ story. The name David Bain is well known in New Zealand, but the story of why this name is so famous will be fading amongst younger generations given that it took place twenty years ago in June 1994.

David Bain was accused of murdering his family and imprisoned in 1995. He was then acquitted in a retrial in 2009, and finally in 2015 a second review concluded that David was not innocent on the balance of probabilities (more details in Wikipedia).

When I moved to New Zealand in 2001, I became aware of the story but never felt comfortable asking for the full details. Black Hands, an 11-part podcast, really hammered home those details.

There were two suspects. One lay dead from a single bullet to the head. The other was the only survivor: David Bain. Since then the country has asked: who killed the Bain family? David or his father Robin? In this podcast, Martin van Beynen explores the case from start to finish, picking through evidence, the mysteries and motives, and interviewing never-before-spoken-to witnesses. He seeks to finally answer the question: Who was the killer?

By the end of the podcast, it’s quite clear that Martin has made up his mind as to who the killer is.

Black Hands is by Stuff and Tandem Studios (that article is worth a read and includes photos as well as a layout of the house) and is also available on Apple Podcasts, YouTube, and Spotify.

White Silence Podcast

White Silence

Another podcast about a significant dark moment in New Zealand’s history, White Silence tells the story of the Air New Zealand Mt Erebus disaster.

Like David Bain, Mt Erebus was another story that New Zealanders would mention in hushed tones when I first settled here, with few giving many details.

Listening to this podcast, you’ll soon learn exactly what happened in the Mt Erebus disaster, and also why there’s controversy surrounding the story and Air New Zealand itself, otherwise one of New Zealand’s great commercial brands.

On November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand jet took off from Auckland Airport on a sightseeing trip to Antarctica. There were 257 people on board. Hours later everyone was dead.

Somehow, the plane had flown directly into the Erebus volcano. This was a disaster that shattered a country’s psyche.

In the decades since, grief gave way to blame, anger and recrimination. Who was responsible for so many deaths? Was there a cover-up? How could a plane just fly into a mountain?

To mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster, Michael Wright and Katy Gosset explore why New Zealand’s deadliest disaster was also its most controversial; why a nation was incapable of moving on; and how it was captured by one famous phrase: ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’.

Not just for locals, this Stuff/RNZ podcast produced by Michael Wright and Katy Gosset is multi-international award winning. It’s also available on Apple Podcasts, YouTube, and Spotify.

Bonus Best Single and Two-part Podcast Episodes

While the above podcast miniseries will keep you busy, I can’t create a list of the best podcasts without featuring some of my favourite single and two-part episodes.

The Guardian Today in Focus Podcast

The Post Office Scandal, Part 1 and 2, The Guardian

Recently made into a TV drama series, Mr Bates vs The Post Office (available in New Zealand on TVNZ+), this two-part series is focused around an interview with Janet Skinner, a subpostmaster who ended up in prison, by The Guardian’s Anushka Asthana.

When a computer system installed by the Post Office went haywire, it led to the convictions of scores of subpostmasters for theft and false accounting. Lives were wrecked. But after a devastating ruling by the court of appeal, the full truth can now be finally told about the extent of the great Post Office scandal.

Listen on The Guardian, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.

A Bit of Optimism Podcast

Extreme Listening with Deeyah Khan, A Bit of Optimism

Simon Sinek is an excellent leadership consultant and publisher. His podcast, A Bit of Optimism, features interviews with a series of inspirational people who share their stories and advice for today’s aspiring leaders.

Deeyah Khan’s episode is pretty special. Deeyah is a black, Muslim woman who decided that responding to white supremacists with anger – while deserved – rarely has a positive outcome, so she took a different approach.

Extreme listening are two words that don’t usually go together. But there is no other way to describe what Deeyah Khan does. A Muslim woman, she made a documentary, White Right: Meeting the Enemy, about spending time with white supremacists. Her results were so profound, it raises the question, what if we all had the capacity for extreme listening?

Listen on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

I hope you manage to find something you’ll like in this list. Enjoy!

Photo credit: Man on phone by Tima Miroshnichenko.

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