In Paul Mazursky’s puzzlingly half-forgotten comedy Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Robin Williams, playing a Russian defector accustomed to the bare shelves and mingy options of his homeland, gets his first sight of all the brands of coffee available in an American grocery store—and faints. It’s too much for him to take in: the consumer-choice overload frizzes his synapses. No one, American or foreign, swoons anymore at the shiny crush of products competing for our attention. We’ve adjusted to this constant hyper-mode of overwhelmingness. And a good thing, too, because our heads would be hitting the desk or rolling off our shoulders every time we checked into the podcast emporium on iTunes.

Podcasting, like streaming television, has reached a supernova stage of content explosion. Where Netflix, with its black background, suggests Borg-cube colonization with all of those sliding carousels of gritty, grimy, gun-wielding crime shows and edgy, transgressive comedies, with a few family-friendlies flecked in like candy corn, the podcast arcade at iTunes, with its white background and airy spacing, couldn’t look more peppy and bright. Even with its collection of true-crime sagas about psycho dudes and con artists, it exudes poptimism and Oprah-esque uplift. And with that comes our old friend FOMO—fear of missing out. So many goodies, so little time. Which shows should I be listening to, where to start, and how many chortling introductions can I take?

Podcasting, like streaming television, has reached a supernova stage of content explosion.

Keeping up with everything is impossible, but, trust me, together we can get through this. From this humble outpost I shall strive to be your scout and curator through the cacophonous super-mall of podcasting. One way I avoid the vertigo effect of too many choices is by relying on podcasts that I consider core holdings, familiar standbys that withstand passing fashions.

FT News Briefing. A daily encapsulating of world financial developments done with the crisp professionalism that is the trademark of the Financial Times. Even dire news sounds less dire when delivered with reassuring keep-calm-and-carry-on diction.

Saturday Review. A weekly roundup of arts coverage from BBC Radio 4 featuring a rotating panel of writers, critics, and practitioners dishing the latest plays, movies, books, TV events, and museum exhibitions in and around London. If you want to hear sparky, intelligent gab about David Mamet’s Harvey Weinstein play or ITV’s new costume drama Beecham House, this is the podcast to tickle your lobes. NPR offers nothing comparable in variety and sophistication. And since what originates in London is often exported across the Atlantic, Saturday Review often serves as a cultural preview of coming attractions.

Everyone’s Favorite Cranky Misanthrope

Marc Maron’s WTF. Everyone’s favorite cranky misanthrope, the stand-up comic and former Air America radio host is podcasting’s grizzled pioneer, traveling by covered wagon across many an interstate and setting up camp in California’s Highland Park, where, from a ramshackle studio in his garage, he rejuvenated his career and kick-started an audio revolution with the WTF podcast. (His two-part interview with Louis CK in 2010 remains a podcasting landmark, and, oh, what any of us would give for a post-lapsarian follow-up.) Maron has gotten nearly all of the best “gets” there are—Barack Obama, Keith Richards, and, ho ho ho, snow-bearded poppa David Letterman—and his acting career is busier than ever with the Season Three return of Glow (Netflix), where he plays the dyspeptic but menschy manager-promoter of a Spandex troupe of female wrestlers, and his forthcoming appearances in Sword of Trust and the Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie. Yet he still keeps leaning into the mike and drawing out his guests, and we are better for it.

The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast. A mighty unpopular man in many parts, the notorious provocateur of both fiction (American Psycho) and non- (White), Bret Easton Ellis—BEE for short—conducts a podcast that, like Maron’s, opens with a discursive monologue (in BEE’s case, usually about the latest Zeitgeist-y movie or series eating up everyone’s attention) and proceeds to an extensive dialogue with whichever guest has teleported in. That’s a long sentence, but if you got through it unscathed you should have no trouble with Ellis’s show. Just as Maron is often at his best with fellow comics, swapping war stories about the dumps they’ve played, BEE excels with fellow print purveyors: Michael Tolkin (The Player), former Literary Brat Pack night bird Jay McInerney, and his pal, and ours, journalist Lili Anolik (Hollywood’s Eve). The conversations have the tart flavor of shrewd insiders trading shoptalk without any of the sticky pieties that have turned so much cultural discourse into chapel services.

The Treatment, hosted by Elvis Mitchell. Full disclosure: I have known Elvis since our starring days as the Crockett and Tubbs of downtown 80s criticism. But friendship doesn’t fog my critical bifocals and I can state with utter disinterested assurance that he is the most knowledgeable and sympatico interviewer of actors, directors, fashion editors, and writers in any recording studio today. He makes Inside the Actors Studio look like it’s slinging hash. The recent sit-downs with Ian McShane, Titus Welliver (Bosch), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) are models of solid preparation masquerading as casual chat, where the questions float with the deceptive ease of smoke rings. Each episode of The Treatment lasts a tidy, concentrated half-hour, the podcast equivalent to a pocket edition for on-the-go culture bunnies.

Identity, Poise, and Bona Fides

Making a Killing. Don’t get your gory hopes up: The killings being made here are in the financial markets, the pools of blood at the crime scene nothing more than red ink. A former investment-banking analyst at vampire squid Goldman Sachs, host Bethany McLean made her bones as an investigative reporter at Fortune magazine unearthing the megasaurus accounting fraud perpetrated by the Enron Corporation before it went kablooey. (McLean co-authored, with Fortune colleague Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, a best-seller later adapted into a documentary directed by Alex Gibney and inspiring Lucy Prebble’s play Enron.) With Making a Killing, McLean continues her inquiries into the financialization of everything that moves, getting a quick lowdown on the sex-biz metrics of Nevada’s Bunny Ranch from Allison Schrager, author of An Economist Walks into a Brothel, and a damage assessment on fracking’s environmental and societal toll from poet and journalist Eliza Griswold, whose Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2019. A newcomer to the podcast scene, Making a Killing had already established its voice, identity, poise, and bona fides and made a smooth entry.

Along with these regular listen-ins, I make room for the sort of long-form documentary inquiry made addictive by NPR’s Serial, such as The Last Days of August, one of the major podcasts of 2019. It’s tempting to dip into lurid exploitation when unraveling a tabloid death, and it’s to the credit of journalist Jon Ronson and his producer Lina Misitzis that this burrowing postmortem emerges at the other end, having done justice to its subject with tact and grace. The Last Days of August is not about the end of a month but the end of a life: the suicide of adult-film star August Ames, in December 2017, at the age of 23. Her body was discovered hanging from a tree in a public park not far from her home, in Camarillo, California. Wildfires in the area lent an apocalyptic tapestry to her last hours. A few days before, Ames, a popular performer who had appeared in more than 250 films in a short span, had ignited a social-media frenzy by stating her refusal to work with an actor who had done gay porn (a “crossover” performer), and the backlash was swift, nasty, and loud. Ames was accused of homophobia by fans, adult-film colleagues, and Twitter vigilantes, her protestations (“I CHOOSE who I have inside my body. No hate”) and clarifications (“Most girls I know DON’T work with crossovers!”) failing to quell the furystorm. Her husband, Kevin Moore, a real piece of work, claimed that Ames was driven to suicide by this cyberbullying, leveling much of the blame (unjustly, it transpires) upon porn star Jessica Drake, whose testimonies here carry the anguish of a collateral-damage victim.

With the methodical diligence lightly camouflaged by nerdy self-consciousness that was the trademark of their previous exploration of the porn world, The Butterfly Effect, Ronson and Misitzis peel off the onion layers of accusation, self-exoneration, porn-industry scuttlebutt, social-media posing, and standard-issue psychobabble to reveal an unnurtured life laid siege by pressures, traumas, drug use, and the meat-grinder milieu of the porn industry with a hollow of loneliness at the core. Ames’s suicide was not singular but symptomatic—four other porn actresses died within the same few months from suicide, overdoses, unexplained causes. But hers is the hardest to shake because it seems the most sacrificial and ideogrammatic, a tarot card for our times.

Hanging up the headphones for now. Next column asks the Godzilla question, “Who’s afraid of Joe Rogan?”

James Wolcott was a longtime contributor to Vanity Fair and is the author of the memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York and the essay collection Critical Mass.