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Nearly five years have passed since I last listed the podcasts I listen to regularly, and the reasons I listen to them, back on my long-abandoned tumblr. My tastes and my subscriptions have surely changed a lot since then. Let’s revisit them!
I generate this list by opening Downcast on my phone and reading down the list of the podcasts I find there. I’ll also name episodes from each, where applicable, that seem like good places for a new listener to start.
Further preface: I enjoy several podcasts besides these, but this blog post has become too long, so I’ll tie it off here and list some more when I next feel like it.
Disasterpiece Theatre. On alternating episodes, Alex White, Stephen Grenade and Kelsey Prater either present mature and intelligent reviews of new films, or get into character as slimy, coke-fueled Hollywood producers pitching cynically targeted films based on “what’s hot this week”. When I started listening years ago they’d mix both styles together into every episode, and I like their evolved take of teasing them apart into two different but equally entertaining sub-shows.
Clash of the Type-Ins. Jenni Polodna and Ryan Veeder play and discuss text-adventure computer games (to use Ryan’s terminology), otherwise known as parser-driven interactive fiction. Typically they invite an IF author on to narrate their own work as the hosts suggest moves, and then they often follow up by playing through a work from Ryan’s own extensive ouevre.
This represents the only game-related podcast I listen to, and the only traditionally amateur, self-published, non-commercial one as well. (Disasterpiece Theatre comes close, but it employs two producers as well as two hosts, so I don’t count it.)
Unavoidably, I would draw your attention to the most recent episode, where guest Jason McIntosh joins Ryan and Jenni to play Winter Storm Draco.
Freakonomics Radio. An informal (and now years-long) extension of the principles of Freakonomics, featuring and produced by the authors of the eponymous books. I have loved this show a long time, and I wonder why it wasn’t on my 2011 list. I’m not always in the mood for it today, but I have no plans to drop it from my list.
If you listen to no other episode of this, listen to “The Upside of Quitting” from late 2011. It had a profound effect on my career directions at the time, and I have listened again in full every time the podcast has re-aired it.
Judge John Hodgman. All I have to add here since the 2011 post is my surprise and admiration at how long this show has aired. Somehow, it still feels new to me — perhaps because I still think of Hodgman as primarily a written humorist and occasional TV personality, for whom a relationship-advice podcast dressed as a Judge Judy parody sounds like a silly side-gig. After all this time, though, I suspect Judge John Hodgman represents his most true public vocation. After hundreds of cases, his caring for this role, for which he spends enormous time and attention and collects no direct reward, clearly has not waned.
Among the best recent episodes: “Trial by Kombat”, where Hodgman advises a (very) young couple on a dispute over the objective responsibility of either party to stay current and practiced with new Mortal Kombat video games. This blossoms into an amazing discourse on the mutual responsibilities and compromises of a long-term romantic relationship. (I advise ignoring that link’s unfortunate comments left by disappointed and pedantic gamers.)
This American Life. As much a staple for me today as five years ago — and indeed, as nearly twenty years ago, when I first discovered it via terrestrial radio, driving around in Maine, fresh out of school. I suppose I haven’t thought of it this way before, but it surely qualifies as the regularly published episodic work I have enjoyed for the longest time. The range and scope of the stories it shares has expanded so much since those early days, and I have learned so much from it. I hope this continues indefinitely.
Start anywhere. Just grab the most recent episode and go.
Radiolab. Another holdover from the 2011 list. I love it now as much as then, and for the same reasons. I’ve heard it described by others as less focused on science now than before, and I’m not sure I agree — science is broad! Jad and Robert and the gang continue to find great stories and introduce us to people doing amazing things, show after show.
Another “start anywhere” series, but the show’s producers did publish a compilation of its most popular stories at the end of 2015, so there you go.
Serial. This American Life’s unexpectedly famous spinoff show, hosted by investigative reporter Sarah Koenig. If you heard about its first season but felt turned off by its content — a deep-dive examination of a young woman’s brutal murder in the 1990s, including hours of intense conversation with her convicted killer, who maintains his innocence — then I would urge you to give its very different second season a try.
The new episodes instead focus on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who made confused headlines in 2014 when he returned from years of captivity by the Taliban in a prisoner trade, only to be excoriated by conservative politicians and then largely forgotten. His story, and all the stories tangled up in it, are amazing and amazingly reported. Start at the beginning.
For the record, I enjoyed the first season, too — the second season has simply outdone itself. This is currently my favorite podcast.
You Must Remember This. Karina Longworth tells true stories from behind-the-scenes 20th century Hollywood. I began listening to this after several people on my Twitter feed became very excited about its twelve-episode series on the Manson Family murders, studying not just the well-known event and its aftermath, but exploring Hollywood’s complex social, political, and business networks that Manson moved through in late 1960s, and how the murders both stemmed from and ultimately shook them. I loved it, and I stayed to listen to the subsequent shows about the wheelings, dealings, scandals, and abuses of movie-land in its infancy.
I would caution that the subject matter gets uncomfortable in nearly every episode. With the latter-century American civil rights and gender equality movements often decades away in these stories’ futures, they can turn bleak very quickly, especially for its female players. But this is the sort of show one subscribes to with an appetite for the dirt-caked “real stories” behind the glamourous Hollywood façade — and there’s also the detail that I showed up expressly to hear well over a dozen hours about a horrifying mass murder committed by tortured mind-controlled teenagers, so I really can’t complain.
You Must Remember This is a one-woman show, written, produced, edited, and narrated entirely by its host, who is amazing at all these things. I would probably not stop to read a written article on any of her topics, were I to happen across one on the web, but I will always make the time (or at least schedule a long walk or dishwashing break) to hear a new slice of Longworth’s work.
The Memory Palace. I inevitably think of this as the broader but more minimalist cousin to You Must Remember This, which I happened to discover at around the same time. Where Longworth deep-mines sordid show-business history and tells it straight, Nate DiMeo presents short, highly lyrical word-dioramas of diverse Americana.
(Adding to the wonderful confusion, DiMeo guested on the first episodes I heard of Longworth’s podcast, lending his voice to all of Charlie Manson’s direct quotes.)
I believe I started listening with “The Pirate Queen”, which I enjoyed very much, and perhaps you would too.
Roderick on the Line John Roderick and Merlin Mann talk about stuff. For my money, the best-case scenario for a two-white-guys-talkin-about-stuff podcast. One-time indie rocker John continues to lead an extremely colorful life, and I strongly suspect that some of his stories might actually be true.
The recent “Here Comes Nacho” makes for a great starting point, featuring the epic tale of John and his family and a broken RV and a good guy named Nacho. (Its immediate predecessor, “House Trotter”, quickly became a fan favorite but I suspect its energy a little too manic for first-time listeners.)
This is the only podcast on this list that my wife enjoys as much as I do. It often goes up on the ol’ Bluetooth when we take a car trip together.
On the Media. This year marks my tenth as a listener of this podcast by Bob Garfield, Brooke Gladstone, and their talented staff at WNYC. Still a favorite, even as it’s developed over time as less strictly commentary about the media and more commentary about all the highlights of the past week’s news — just consciously considering the medium as much as the message.
Entirely timely and topical, so start with the most recent episode.
Lexicon Valley. Bob Garfield (of On the Media) and Mike Vuolo talk about language. Mostly the English language, but English’s rapacious appetite and checkered past lets the hosts visit a number of its neighbors and ancestors as well. The format alternates between looking at some interesting facet of English usage from the news — a public speaker’s remarkable dialect, say, or the shifting application of certain pronouns — and a sub-show called Linguaphile, where lexicographer Ben Zimmer leads the hosts through a discussion about the etymology of a single word or phrase.
I have found myself invoking its past studies of “orange”, “seersucker”, and “lagniappe” in recent conversations with friends, but I’d feel free to start listening to the show with any recent episode.
The Gist. The timeliest and most frequent podcast on my list, published every weekday, minus American holidays. Mike Pesca’s always-active facility with rhyme, patter and wordplay makes this show about contemporary events a treat, when I’m in the mood for it. The episodes have a form similar to a late-night talk show: a brief, punchy monologue from the host, an interview with a guest, and then a more organized “spiel” by Pesca about some topic in the news.
His reading ads for razors or mattresses in between the segments completes Pesca’s image as a modern-day Paul Harvey, and this delights me.
I listen to maybe half of the Gist episodes that pass through my phone, maybe less. (I have Downcast set to only hold two episodes, at most, of any single feed.) The show came recommended to me when I asked Twitter specifically for something as smart as On the Media but more frequent than weekly-minus-reruns. Twitter did well for me here, and much as I read Twitter, I just let The Gist flow through my phone freely, dipping into it when I feel like a hit of current commentary, and otherwise just letting it flow on by.
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