You've got that long, horrendous commute, but you're not alone.

Hit play on your smartphone, and it's as if you're sitting down for coffee with your two smart, funny Jewish girlfriends, Katie Halper and Heather Gold. The two longtime friends and comics have a podcast irreverently titled "Morning Jew," during which they riff on topics in news and culture — West Bank politics, nose jobs, the TV show "Transparent," all the time asking, "Is it good for the Jews?"

"Morning Jew" is one of countless options in an expanding podcast universe that allows people to be informed, entertained and enlightened on pretty much any topic: politics, sports, science, cooking. The medium is enjoying a "renaissance," proclaimed.

In 2013, Apple's iTunes had reached 1 billion podcast subscriptions, and its store held 250,000 podcasts in more than 100 languages.

Downloaded or streamed to a computer or mobile device and often available for free, podcasts entered mainstream consciousness last fall when millions around the world became obsessed with "Serial," a 12-part documentary that re-examined a 1999 Baltimore murder case. A spinoff of "This American Life," the podcast launched hundreds of think pieces and Reddit threads, gaining 54 million downloads as of early January.

Podcasts are variously described as radio on demand or a new art form that plays with the boundaries of language, narrative, music and sound. Producers range from global corporations to public radio stations to individuals with basic equipment.

Listeners speak of their favorite podcasts with the devotion of superfans, relishing any opportunity to put on their ear buds and reconnect with favorite hosts who are passionate about what they are sharing. "There is an honesty that I don't always feel comes across in other delivery methods," said Sheldon Goobie, of Brentwood, Calif.

He relies on Dan Carlin's "Hardcover History" podcast, with its in-depth exploration of world history, to help pass the time on two-hour commutes. He also listens on airplanes, while gardening or when he wants to dive into some new hobby or interest.

He rarely listens to the radio. "Podcasts allow me to control what I want to listen to and when I want to listen to it," he said.

For years, podcasts were on the fringes of digital entertainment until smartphones and apps made them easy to access wirelessly.

National Public Radio emerged as a major player with a ready supply of content — shows such as "Fresh Air," "Planet Money," "Ted Radio Hour" — which it began putting online in 2005.

"NPR became one of the dominant forces in podcasts without even realizing it," said Eric Nuzum, vice president for programming. NPR shows are often in the top 20 of iTunes podcasts.

An uptick in listenership in 2013 convinced NPR to launch a new podcast, "Invisibilia," in early January. Co-hosted by "This American Life" and "Radiolab" veterans Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, the show interweaves science and storytelling to illuminate human behavior, emotions and ideas. It hit No. 1 on the chart the week of Jan. 13.

Also debuting is "Dear Sugar," the "radically empathetic" advice podcast co-hosted by author Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed, author of "Wild." They open up about their own lives as they answer listeners' questions about relationships, parenting and other challenges.

The sense of intimacy people find in podcasts in part comes from the solitary way they often listen, alone in a car or out for a walk. "It's this little cocoon and space," said Glynn Washington, the host of NPR's "Snap Judgment." Billed as "storytelling with a beat. Washington said his show tries to update the oral storytelling tradition for the 21st century by blending spoken word, music and sound in ways that are "cinematic."

"Our bread and butter are true-life stories, often told by people who wouldn't go near a stage or ever open up in front of a TV camera, but are comfortable, with an unobtrusively placed microphone, engaging in a conversation with me or a producer," he said.

The idea for "Morning Jew" came from Gold and Halper realizing that "the funniest people we knew were Jewish ladies sitting in the kitchen."

They've been producing "Morning Jew" for several years as a YouTube video but decided to try podcasting because of fan demand. Doing the podcast, Gold said, allows her to experiment with other styles of humor and relate to audiences in new ways:

"Honestly, I'm a middle-aged woman, almost 47, and do I want to be around a bunch of kids smoking pot in a club?"