So after having had to do without my primary computer for a few weeks, I managed to switch it on last night for a while and the first thing I did was to open iTunes and download the most recent episodes of all the Podcasts I was subscribed to. As I saw the number of episodes that were being downloaded climb from one to ten to (in the end) 72, I was moved to contemplate the space I accord to podcasts in my daily life. So I decided to offer a few recommendations. I am subscribed to way too many different podcasts but I will recommend a small handful that will not take up too much of your time, but that WILL provide a nice distraction on your car ride or during a work out. I primarily use podcasts so I don’t have to hear my own thoughts, but even for normal people, podcasts are a nice thing to have.
1. So the first thing to know that if you want variety, the best bet is one of the millions of interview based podcasts. All 3 of the podcasts that I’m going to list are very uneven depending on their guest, but they do have very specific strengths that come out almost always.
- WTF with Marc Maron. Maron is basically the prototype of the bitter comedian. His podcast is among the most popular and that’s a well deserved popularity because as it turns out, he’s an amazing interviewer. Especially when it comes to other comedians. If you’re interested in a comedian, check whether that comedian has done an episode of WTF. Invariably, that’s going to be the best interview with that comedian you’re likely to find. Recently, he’s been interviewing well known Rock musicians and those interviews are almost as good. Maron is good in general, but with those two kinds of guests? Unbelievable. You have to pay to access older episodes, but there’s a high likelihood someone uploaded them to Youtube. Like this classic episode with Louis CK, or this one with Conan O’Brien.
- The Nerdist Podcast. Three self-described nerds, led by Chris Hardwick, interview various pop culture guests. I find their tone grating after a while, but with the right guests, they prodice very entertaining episodes. Unlike Maron, who tends to go through his guests’ careers chronologically, The Nerdist Podcast is more of a randomised affair, where, while the three hosts play some game of nerdy one-upmanship, you sometimes won’t hear much of the guest for up to 15 minutes. If this show is edited I can’t imagine what they cut. With the right guests though, this is magic. The Harrison Ford episode is amazing.
- The Axe Files with David Axelrod. This is probably the best thing 0n this list. A very recent entry, this is David Axelrod interviewing various political figures (although he also interviewed Joakim Noah at one point). Axelrod is a political insider and this podcast is the politics version of WTF. It is very biased politically, but asks interesting, sharp questions. Most of the guests work very well, if they are willing to go beyond formulas. The first episode is probably also the best, featuring Bernie Sanders.
2. The second group of recommendations is just one Podcast collective. That collective is Radiotopia. Every single Radiotopia podcast is excellent. Excellent. Eminently worth your time. The thing that unites all of them is a mostly short runtime of roughly 20 minutes, a creator/host who is deeply invested in the format, and high quality content. Their best podcast is 99% Invisible, a design-based podcast by Roman Mars who’s also the driving force behind the whole Radiotopia enterprise. There is no other podcast that I have linked so many times to people. Like this episode about nuclear waste, or this episode about the criminalization of jaywalking, or this episode about the strange rebuilding of Warsaw. If you came to this blog post looking for recommendations, trust me on this. Other podcasts are Song Exploder, which is the podcast with the shortest episodes on this list. Every episode looks at the creation of a specific song. There’s no banter, no need to fill minutes. There’s about 5-10 Minutes of the band or artist or producer discussing various parts of the song and at the end, you can hear the song. It’s short, inspired and absolutely lovely. Trust me. You want to add this. Criminal is a podcast to scratch your Serial/Making a Murderer itch. Listen to the extraordinary and mildly disturbing recent episode The Agreement for a taste. There is The Heart, a podcast about sex and love, Fugitive Waves, a fantastic podcast about…everything? Really, they are all good. Listen to one or two episodes from all Radiotopia podcasts and see which ones you particularly enjoy. I can vouch for all of them except Mortified which sounds too much like other podcasts I have not enjoyed all that much despite their fame (like The Moth). To sum up: Radiotopia in general and 99% Invisible in particular. Go forth and listen.
3. The third group are what I call the science podcasts. Given that so-called nerds and geeks have seized the medium of the podcast it’s no wonder that science based ones rank among the most popular and generally excellent varieties. I’m subscribed to about ten of these but I’ll recommend 3 here.
- Radiolab. That’s probably the most famous one, with one of its hosts having appeared on Colbert and the other having been awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. They tackle various topics. They are always, ALWAYS excellent. It’s a mixture of reporting and banter, which is both enlightening and entertaining. I don’t have a favorite episode, but here is someone else’s list of favorites. It gives you a bit of an idea about the show, as well.
- Invisibilia. This podcast is currently on hiatus, but you can still listen to the full first season, and there’s just nothing to be said here: high production values, very smart, and in general follows the Radiolab template. All the first season episodes are equally good. I can’t wait for ‘season 2’. My favorite episode and one that I have recommended numerous times, is the one called “Batman” about how people’s expectations can limit what we can do and achieve. One of its segments has blind people do echolocation. ECHOLOCATION, people.
- Reasonably Sound with Mike Rugnetta. You might (or you might not) know Mike Rugnetta from Youtube where he does science education for PBS. Snappy edits, quick monologues, the works. As nice as these videos are, this podcast is better. It’s a sound centered podcast, on various sound related topics. There’s no segments. it’s just Rugnetta himself, one topic per week – if you are at all interested in the world of music and sound, you should add this to your list. The topics range from subliminal messages, to the sounds of space, misophonia and the drop in dance music. I don’t know where Mike Rugnetta gets his skills, cleverness and composure. But this podcast thing? He’s very good at it.
4. And the fourth and final group are odds and ends. I’ll mention 6-8 of my favorite podcasts from various networks and on various topics.
- Welcome to Night Vale. This is one of the best things. Period. I am a huge fan of this. This is more than a podcast. My relationship to this podcast is comparable to my relationship to favorite TV shows. There are now, in the wake of the success of Night Vale, a whole range of fiction podcasts with mysterious stories. I have no patience for any of them. Welcome to Night Vale is a fake local radio broadcast from a town that is unlike any other town. You HAVE to listen to this one in order, starting with the first episode. It gets better and better as we explore the various characters and the town. Have a quote:
Notice: there is no digital, static-y hum coming from the Dog Park, Mayor Pamela Winchell announced today. The mayor stressed repeatedly in her 90 second impromptu press conference that there is no unbearable, soul-tearing sound that rips at the sinews of your very being coming from the Dog Park. Mayor Winchell continued with a plea for all Night Vale residents to understand that there could not possibly be a deeply coded message emanating from a small, fenced-in patch of municipal grass and dirt. Citizens are not even supposed to be consciously aware of the Dog Park, so they could not possibly be receiving a menacing and unearthly voice instructing listeners to bring precious metals and toddlers to the Dog Park. “Dog Park,” she repeated. “That could never, ever be real,” the mayor shouted, pounding the podium with her bleeding fists.
and another one
Thursday night, the City Council is voting on a new measure that would prohibit breathing as an involuntary muscular action. Historically, the human body has been able to control breathing without the brain having to continuously activate the diaphragm. Under the new rule, all residents of Night Vale would be required to make the physical choice of whether or not, and when to breathe. The City Council said that we have too long taken the receipt of oxygen for granted and that this sense of entitlement must cease.
- A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment is a podcast hosted by the authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. It’s mostly about writing. Sometimes they have guests. Why should you listen to it? Because Sherman Alexie is a Great Writer and listening to Great Writers talk about writing is one of the best things, at least for me.
- The Mental Illness Happy Hour is, well, what is it? It’s a podcast about depression and mental illness. Its host, comedian Paul Gilmartin, is open about his own struggles with depression, which makes him a very believable and reliable person to discuss this issue (I have complained about other people discussing this issue in this review). Most episodes run past the 2 hour mark, and that’s because Gilmartin appears to have no need for editorial self discipline. The main part of most episodes is an interview with a more or less well known person about their struggles with mental illness or difficult childhoods or both. On the website for the show you can anonymously submit answers to a questionnaire that Gilmartin then reads on air. The experience of listening to this podcast is like nothing else. If you have never experienced mental illness, maybe it’s a bit much for you, but even then, the interviews are certainly worth a listen. I don’t have a favorite episode but here is an interview at the AV Club where Gilmartin details 3 of HIS favorite episodes. It also gives you a good idea what the podcast is about.
- You Must Remember This is a lovely podcast with stories from the early era of Hollywood. Stories about Meyer, about Lana Turner, Irving Thalberg, Buter Keaton. If, like me, you loved “Hollywood Babylon” or the Hollywood noir comics of Matt Fraction, you’ll love this. Well narrated, based on solid research, this is comfort food for people who like that sort of story. It is right up my alley, so this podcast hits my pleasure center straight up. Similarly comfort foody is another history podcast. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. It appears to be similarly well researched, but that is not necessarily quite enough. It’s stories on WWII are lacking in accuracy now and then, but the narration is great, and in areas where I am not as knowledgeable, it’s great fun. The episodes are long, so it’s a bit of a commitment, but go ahead and listen to the “Wrath of the Khans” episodes.
- Speaking of comfort food. There are two nice cooking related podcasts that are also highly recommended. One is Burnt Toast, a podcast made by cooks and cooking book writers. It’s a bit inside baseball, but really fun. A really good episode to sample is “Man vs. Meatload” which features the fantastic (FANTASTIC) Kenji López-Alt, who has just published a cookbook that I crave with all my heart (and that you should crave, as well!). Part interview, part cooking a recipe from his book. The other podcast is Gravy, a podcast less about recipe and everyday cooking and more about food culture, particularly the food culture of the American South. Every episode is enjoyable.
- This American Life is a classic by now. There’s almost no point explaining it except to say that you cannot go wrong with this. Hosted by Ira Glass, a notoriously hardworking man of broad tastes, each one hour episode consists of various segments touching on all kinds of issues. Most episodes are centered around a certain theme. As for the segments: An American Life is famously picky, which makes for remarkably consistent quality. Along with the aforementioned 99% Invisible, this is the most consistently excellent podcast on an episode by episode basis. I don’t have a favorite episode. They are all good.
Bonus: Bookbabble. How are you not listening to that yet? Shame on you. Mend your ways and subscribe.
There are whole swathes of podcasts I have not added. There’s languages: I listen to a very reasonable German podcast (Kulturjournal), a very good French one (La Fabrique de l’Histoire) and a lovely Russian one (Ночной дневник) but I would honestly welcome recommendationa in all three of those languages. And there’s sports. Among my most frequently updated podcasts are at least 10 that deal with my ungodly obsession for various sports. If you want recommendations for those, ask me in the comments or on Twitter. Meanwhile, I’m off drowning out my thoughts again.