I’m a big NPR nerd. No question. Have been for a while.
(Yes, I realize that “NPR nerd” is redundant.)
NPR-listening, as with all gateway drugs, inevitably led me into that crooked psychotropic world of podcast addiction. Once you start listening to something while performing an otherwise inane and mind-numbing task, it becomes habit. You can’t stop. Your listening queue grows longer, as do your bandoliers of meaningless trivia, and the number of times per day you begin a sentence with, “Did you know…”
This is not to say that all podcasts are created equally, of course. Like the classic black and white film montages of goggle-eyed men attempting to pilot zany flying contraptions, many podcasts crash more often than they fly. Some of podcasts start off poorly, then find their sweet spot, while others begin with a good running start, but plummet like red bull FlugTagonauts after the first few episodes.
(Enough with the metaphor and simile.)
So, like any decent drug dealer, I’d like to give you a sample of some of the podcasts I’ve found particularly enjoyable of late.
Good Funny / General – Interest Podcasts
Less a podcast than an NPR show, and less an NPR show than a force of nature. It takes a satirical look at the week’s news, poking fun with a panel of comedians and a faux-game show aesthetic. This show is really funny, and is mandatory listening to anyone who loves Publicly (Wealthy Patrons, Foundations, & Lumber Liquidator) Supported National Public Radio.
This is a real podcast. It says so in the title. Mike and Ian are producers on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and have spun off their dry humor into a show all their own. Each (brief) program consists of them asking a celebrity guest to deal with an annoying real world problem. Such as, what size shirt would the largest dinosaur ever discovered wear? Or. How many Lego would it take to construct the Sears Tower?
There is a lot that I enjoy about this podcast. First, it posts in GMT. So, when I sit down with my oatmeal bowl in the morning these guys have been at work all night polishing their stories like little news elves. Second, as you’d expect from the former de facto rulers of the planet, the show has a strong emphasis on international events, something sorely lacking from even the best US news coverage. Thirdly, I love their journalism style. They aren’t afraid to push back against politicians parroting the party line.
These guys are veterans of the podcasting world. They’ve been around for a while. The show is topical and conversational, summarizing a smattering of articles to describe things like “How Do Medieval Torture Devices Work?” or “How Do Muppets Work?” etc. Light on technicality, heavy on 80s movie references, and tangential banter. Not a bad way to spend a half hour.
Hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson (your “personal astrophysicist”) this show talks about astrophysics, space exploration, black holes, and other general sciencey stuff. The podcast is smartly produced with an audio sommelier whose only job is pairing the discussion with a relevant song, and Tyson cohosts his episodes with a rotating stable of comedians to keep things entertaining and intelligible enough for the general public.
Radio par excellence in my opinion. What makes this show fun is the snappy editing, conversational debates between the hosts, and the deep, intriguing, narratively-compelling subject matter. Hate me for nerding out if you want, but they did an episode on Botflies YEARS ago that still creeps me out today. Really, really, good stuff (the show, not the Bot flies –Bot flies are reprehensible).
Good Podcasts for Writers / Readers
Hosted by two real-deal Hollywood screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August, this podcast is easily one of the best writing podcasts you can find. While naturally directed toward screenwriters, the tips and tricks they offer are useful for anyone trying to lay down a healthy narrative. Their backstage experience working on real movies with big budgets sets them apart from the army of wannabe self-appointed “experts” that shovel out snake oil advice about the film industry.
This monthly podcast has an author read a fiction story from the back issues of the New Yorker Magazine. These stories tend to have about a 30% hit rate with me. 1/3 of the time I think, “Wow, that story was amazing, I have so much to learn from this new author I’ve found.” 1/3 is, “Meh, that was alright, I’m a little bored, but still standing upright.” And 1/3 is “Holy crap, I think this podcast just shoved radioactive bat guano into my ear, that story was so terrible I think I might die.” Just so you know.
To older NPR junkies having Garrison Keillor read the phonebook in his grandfatherly baritone might be soothing all on its own. In this case he takes 5 minutes to read about a significant event in literary/world history and closes the show with a short, pleasant poem. It’s a nice window into authors’ lives you might not know well, and a decent (mercifully) quick exposure to a poet you might like.
This podcast generally consists of an author interview, discussions of recent news in the publishing sphere, and a survey of the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s an interesting examination of the writing/publishing world as an industry, and more than once I’ve found authors through the show that I’ve gone on to read and follow.
This podcast, hosted by fiction author K.M. Weiland, pops the hood on the writing process and digs deep into the gears of story structure and character development. She uses lots of references to popular literature and movies to illustrate her points, and supports her premises through well thought-out arguments and explanations. Good stuff, particularly if you want to bulk up on your theoretical understanding of story.
Did you see what I did here? Sticking this uber-popular radio show/podcast in with the writing section? Heh? Good, right? I personally think this show is one of the best in the audio world. Not every episode, not every contributor, but on the whole, in aggregate, after 500 episodes, I give it a solid two and a half thumbs up. I’ve learned a lot about writing from how this show is structured and delivered.
Good History Podcasts
These gals are related to the boys over at the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast (c.f. above). For my money, though, Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey seem to take their due diligence a little more seriously in the research department than Josh and Chuck. This is, perhaps, because there is no one more anal or pretentious than an audience with strong opinions about a historical person/event. In any case, an enjoyable listen, mostly because they constantly come up with topics I have never heard of before.
This podcast gets points for its unique angle. The entire show is devoted to covering famous revolutions throughout history. The host, Mike Duncan, does a great job of writing and presenting each show in an engaging and illuminating way without compromising historical detail or getting lost in the sheer girth of world history. So far the show has covered the American and English revolutions, and is currently creeping toward decapitating Marie Antoinette.
This show is EXHAUSTIVE. And, curiously, hosted by a Brit with an American accent. Literally anything you will ever want to know about the history of Britain has or will be covered by this podcast. 150 episodes in, and he’s only made it to 700CE. Good quality info, don’t get me wrong, but very well endowed with data and in no rush for William to Conquer.
Podcasts En Español
No hay mucho podcasts en Español para escoger. Ojala que puedo encontrar más en el futuro solo para mejorar mi capacidad de entender, y saber las noticias de America Latina. Noticeros Televisa es una podcast buena que anuncia toda las noticias del día en cinco minutos. Desde el Distrito Federal de México este podcast habla muy rápidamente y cubierta noticias mundiales, nacionales, y locales. También anuncia el clima de México.
Si Usted habla Inglés como su idioma primera y está buscando a una manera muy fácil a desarrollar su vocabulario Español este es el podcast que quiere. Si ya habla Español y quiere saber más de la cultura de los Hispanos viviendo en Los Estados Unidos este es el podcast que quiere. Radio Ambulante cubierta cultura, artes, y literatura en el estilo como programas en NPR. Me encanta mucho.
Good Philosophy Podcasts
Unlike the counter example below, this podcast takes a topical approach to the discipline, addressing philosophical concepts as they would occur in real life. Think of it as “applied philosophy.” It definitely makes a good case for the study of philosophy and its usefulness in the modern world.
Much like the History of Britain above, this podcast wants to be an exhaustive survey of all philosophers of all time. This is quite an undertaking to be sure, but he’s already to Aquinas, so that’s something. Also, it’s exactly what I was looking for as someone who didn’t study Philosophy in school and felt like I was missing out.
My thoughts on the super duper popular “Serial” Podcast are complicated. I have a whole post dedicated to the series over here.
Just as all podcasts are not equal, so too, all podcast platforms and/or apps. Stitcher is by far the best out there. Don’t bother with iTunes or other lesser podcast apps, they will just make you want to hurt yourself. Stitcher’s design is slick and intuitive, allowing you to browse for and subscribe to the stuff you like quickly and easily. You don’t need to understand RSS feeds or codes of any kind. Just turn it on, listen to one 10 second Jaguar ad, and you’re good to go.
What podcasts are YOU into at the moment? Tell me in the comments. THANKS!