Many years ago, I briefly ran a podcast as part of my job. This was during the early days of Web 2.0 when podcasting was a new thing that one sort of just had to try if they were doing my sort of job for a Web 2.0 company. I was pretty terrible at it, and I never much cared for listening to podcasts until the last year or two. I’ve long sort of disdained nonfiction stuff and tended to want to absorb fiction more slowly, via books. For anything newsy or simply informative (if I must consume it), I’ve tended to prefer reading, which lets me skim quickly for the important info without spending a lot of time with the material. I shake my fist at news sites that try to show me a video reporting something I can read in a fraction of the time.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself in the car a lot more. Although I still work from home, I drive kids to and from school, I do some of my grocery shopping across town, and I more routinely venture out of the house for social or sporty events. Car time has always felt like wasted time to me. I can’t read during car time! But I can listen to things and make that time entertaining or useful. So I’ve tried a number of podcasts over the last couple of years. Here are some that I’m currently enjoying or enjoy dipping into occasionally, in no particular order.

The Memory Palace. Nate DiMeo offers lyrical dispatches about little snippets of history. I like this one for its lyricism and brevity. I can listen to an episode on a short grocery run and enjoy not only its content but also the poetry of DiMeo’s writing. I was a poetry person many years ago, and this one sounds like a poetry reading for better or for worse. To me, it’s soothing and puts me in a little different mental state than usual, though my wife listened to an episode once and immediately had a “that guy sounds like he really thinks a lot of himself, how annoying” sort of reaction, which is fair of this sort of artificial, almost “posed” reading. I listen to this one not super regularly, but I like to have it on my phone for when I’m in the mood or have just the right amount of time for a quick listen.

RadioLab. My wife turned me on to this one, and I really enjoy it. You’ve likely heard of it. The stories, whose topics vary a lot across disciplines as distinct from one another as sports, politics, science, art, technology, history, and memoir, are well researched and well reported. I like the hosts a lot, and I almost always learn something fascinating or feel enriched.

99% Invisible. I’ve always thought of this one as Radiolab-lite. It focuses loosely on the designed world, but that’s a much more reductive description than the actual scope of the podcast. As with RadioLab, topics are varied, and I almost always find the show enriching, funny, or educational. It’s usually a little shorter than RadioLab, so it’s easier to finish one in a single trip to and from an errand across town.

Still Processing. This one really stands out as a favorite. A couple of culture writers from the New York Times chat weekly about topics generally pertaining to race and culture. Rather than mostly giving me information or entertaining me, this one makes me think hard about my place in a racist society (but also gives me information and entertains me). The show went quiet for a few months over the Fall and I felt bereft. It’s back up and running now with a couple of great new episodes, and I was so relieved to learn that they were on a break and not canceled.

Anthropocene Reviewed. I like John Green as a purveyor of thought and culture. I’ve offered mixed personal reviews of some of his books, but John Green as a human in the world I feel very positive about. In this podcast, he shares starred reviews of often oddly juxtaposed things that have emerged in the human-dominated era of history. He has reviewed things like pineapple pizza, Googling yourself, Tetris, and the Piggly Wiggly. The stars he awards are really an afterthought; the substance here is in the brief histories he shares and the meditations on the human experience. Episodes are brief, funny, informative, and sometimes profound. I could imagine that Green’s writing or delivery might be annoying to some, but I’m a fan. I give Anthropocene Reviewed five stars.

The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry. A scientist and a mathematician expand upon their BBC Radio show to offer a little more information and more laughs as they try to find answers to science questions listeners send in. The investigations tend to be a little cursory and unsatisfying, but I like the hosts’ dynamic and often find that I learn a little something and enjoy giggling at their schtick.

Nerdette. I’ve listened to only a few of these so far, but I’m enjoying them. The hosts talk about issues that impact women — e.g. the ongoing wage gap and a fight to narrow it — and so far I’ve found the show entertaining and informative. I like that it offers me a view of issues and perspectives I might not be very plugged into otherwise.

I’ve got a number of other podcasts on my phone that I listen to only sporadically, that were limited runs, or that I’ve found tempting but haven’t dipped into yet. I’ve listened to a couple of the Serial podcasts, for example, and another single-season show called Bundyville that I found really great and then learned that some of my colleagues had worked on. I occasionally listen to episodes of Chris Hayes’s Why is This Happening, for a while I was listening to Ear Hustle, and I’ve got Bookworm, The Read, Pod Save the People, and The Trouble, and Reply All lined up for a listen someday, but I’ve got only so much time in the car, and I spend most of my other free time with my nose stuck in a book.

7 thoughts on “Podcasts

  1. I think I might have mentioned The Read as one of my faves, but I actually think you’ll hate it. For example, it’s often just the two of them ranting for 90 minutes about, like, Cardi B. You would probably like The Allusionist, and it’s short, too. Also, I couldn’t suggest this at work, but the first season of My Dad Wrote a Porno was so hilarious I repeatedly embarrassed myself laughing on planes while I was listening to it (obviously not kid friendly).

    Also, did you know you can speed up podcasts? I listen to all of mine at 1.5 time. This is key.

  2. I do like a good rant, but mostly if it’s like an eloquent rant. I’ll keep The Read on my list but maybe won’t prioritize it. I’ve listened to some of The Allusionist before and find something really irritating about the host’s delivery. I want to like this show but feel like I’ll fall asleep driving or die of boredom between the pauses between her words or something. I also started My Dad Wrote a Porno but found the first part of the first one annoyingly chatty. If it gets less chirpy and has less of a “we are being funny talking to one another” vibe (which I like in the science one, though, so I’m inconsistent!), I do like a good laugh. Maybe the 1.5x trick would make The Allusionist palatable to me. Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. C H says:

    90% of what I listen to would nauseate or bore you. There might be an edge case in RadioLab. … Dang it. I just scanned and you already covered it.
    99% Invisible is usually quite compelling, but they’ve been outsourcing a lot lately. Yay for amplifying other voices, boo for less compelling content.
    95% of the science-y nerdish “have you read the Voynitch Manuscript” type podcasts I used to enjoy have gone way downhill and are off my list, and are therefore irrelevant to you. Wish I could be of more use.
    2% of my communications to you begin every line with a hyperbolic number meant to do the work that words should.
    50% of my spoken word listening is pods, and 50% is books. I speed them all up, because life is too short.
    150% speed is very impressive, @Elizabeth. I listen at 125% because I get dizzy if podcasters talk as quickly as I do. 🙂

  4. I’ve liked some of the things that 99%I has outsourced. Some of the Articles of Interest stories were neat (not sure if that was outsourcing really or just a series by one of the producers that they offered as a subset of the show itself), and I liked the recent one on Magic the Gathering, which I don’t play but which is adjacent to D&D, which I have been playing, so I’ve now looked into the source show for that one. I also really liked the series on conversion therapy, which I think was also outsourced.

    I think I may need to look for a different podcasting app. I like mine (Pocket Casts — I’m on Android), but it doesn’t seem to offer sped-up playback. On the other hand, some of the shows I like I like in part because of how they’re presented, and turning them into Alvin and the Chipmunks with faster playback might reduce my enjoyment some (I would for sure speed up something dry I was listening to just because I had to).

  5. I use Overcast, and the speed doesn’t make people sound funny. They still sound the same, just not so freaking slow. But with podcasts where the hosts already talk Sorkin-style, I keep it at the usual speed.

  6. Have you tried _Hidden Brain_ or Radiolab’s spin-off, _More Perfect_? My favorite _Hidden Brain_ episodes include one about what it means to be a man (“Man Up”) and “Red brain, Blue Brain”, and _More Perfect_ is about Supreme Court cases, with an excellent “Sex Appeal” episode about Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “In this episode, we look at how a key battle for gender equality was won with frat boys and beer.”

  7. I’ve listened to Hidden Brain a little, but it doesn’t grab me enough to make me a consistent listener. I had heard about More Perfect but felt meh about politics stuff; but then I think it was Radiolab recently played the “Sex Appeal” episode, which I liked a lot. So maybe I’ll rethink that one.

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