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.