Podcast recommendationS

Every month or so the topic of which podcasts to listen to comes up, and it’ll just be easier if I can direct people to this post rather than having to re-type this every time. All of the following podcasts are available for free on iTunes. Recommendations (in mostly alphabetical order):

99% Invisible is a show about design made by Radiotopia. I found it on one of those best 100 podcasts you should be listening to right now type of lists. The first episode I listened to was about the basketball shot clock. Now if you don’t know anything about me, you may not know that I don’t really care one way or another about sports (lolsports as the saying goes). However, I was pulled in to the story quickly. It was interesting, and engaging, and made me think about the sport in a new light. That’s pretty much all I needed. If you can get me to care about the basketball shot clock, I’m definitely on board for everything from the episode about Vexillologists (people who study flags), and the Octothorpe (#Octothorpe you’ll get it). Roman Mars is an independent radio producer who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter to be able to provide his team with full time work and benefits. He created Radiotopia which produces a tons of shows. I haven't listened to most of them, but I expect them all to be high quality. They're pretty niche topics, so you may have to grab a bunch and just give them a shot.

It’s a true crime story about Providence, Rhode Island. It features some really colorful characters (and voices). Within the first minute of the first episode, it made me go “wait, what? I gotta hear this.” Just know that they use recreated sounds. Somebody might say “so I cocked my shotgun,” and then you’ll hear a gun being cocked, or “the door squeaked,” and then you’ll hear a squeaky door. It’s mostly fine, although at times I did find it distracting. You just have to surrender to the notion that that’s the kind of universe they built to tell this story. Personally, I felt like some of the episodes were stretched a little too long and could’ve been tightened up, but I realize that they have to tell the story in a way that factors in an audience that’s doing the dishes or only mostly paying attention to what’s playing through their speakers.

I’m breaking alphabetical order and grouping these two together, because Radiolab and This American Life are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to story telling and audio production. This American Life ranges from fiction story (which I pretty much skip over) to in depth reporting. These episodes blew me away: Trends with Benefits, Harper High School part 1 and part 2, and Tarred and Feathered. There really is an array of stories, most of which are non-fiction. Radiolab... I’m not even going to try and describe. Here is how they bill themselves: “Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” Episodes you can start with: Detective Stories, Speedy Beet, Sleep, 60 Words, Nukes, Neither Confirm Nor Deny, Bliss, In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt (which I’m pretty sure they updated in their Truth Warriors episode, but I wouldn’t necessarily start there). Clearly, I could go on. Radiolab episodes resonate with me.

As you probably guessed from the title, it’s a Radiolab spinoff (created by Jad Abumrad). It’s a show about the Supreme Court. Did you know that the current reading of the second amendment starts with the Black Panthers? Curious about the history of the Supreme Court and how it ruled in the past on issues including freedom of speech, jury selection, and Gerrymandering? This is the podcast for you.

In the first season, a reporter gets an email from someone who says a friend of hers was wrongly convicted of killing his girlfriend. Then the reporter investigates. The first season is absolutely phenomenal. Cannot recommend it enough. The story is compelling, and is told in a great way. It makes the minutia of in depth reporting riveting. That’s no small feat. Really, check out the first season. The second season... Well... It’s about Bowe Bergdahl. The reporting is still very good -- although she didn’t get to interview Bergdahl herself and the material from Bergdahl comes from a less than optimal-y recorded speaker phone -- and I made it all the way through the season, but it certainly did not hold my interest. That’s probably because that the case was widely reported on by national outlets, and while Sarah Koenig digs deep into Bergdahl and what happens to him when he was in captivity, it doesn’t change the basic premise already in print, and that she lays out in the first episode. In short, its main problem is that it lacks the built-in “did-he / didn’t-he” tension of the first season.

A reporter gets a tip about somebody bragging to have committed a murder in Alabama. He investigates (yes, much like Serial this is a This American Life spin-off). As the story unfolds, the reporter finds himself navigating amongst the colorful cast of characters that inhabit Shit-Town. One of the things that I liked about it, is that along the way the reporter is faced with ethical dilemmas and the audience gets to eavesdrop on how he wrestles with those.


Worth checking out:

Created by people who used to work for Radiolab and This American Life, the show bills itself as being “about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” I liked the first and second seasons. They both had some highlight episodes like How to Become Batman, Flip the Script, and The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes. For the third season they did a “concept album.” I forget exactly what they said they wanted it to be about. For the most part I remember that they opened every episode with a little vignette to introduce a topic with more or less success, and then the vignette would either disappear entirely or awkwardly be referenced 45 minutes later “and that’s exactly what we were talking about with this person we told you about that has not been relevant at all until just this sentence... awesome, no?” And it was getting preachy. I don’t think I’ll be stick around for Season 4.

If you’re into Hip Hop, you’re going to like this podcast. Chris Lighty represented acts like A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, Uncle Murda and 50 Cent. The cameos from people like Warren G., Russell Simmons, and Fat Joe alone are worth taking the time to download this one.

It’s a podcast about the economy. I know, it sounds really dry and awful, but they usually pick a story that doesn’t necessarily appear related to economics, and then explain it through that lens. They had a series where they followed the manufacture of a T-shirt from raw cotton to delivered product, and another where they bought something like $10,000 worth of oil and followed it from well to refinery. They publish two episodes a week. One is new, the other is a re-run.

It’s similar to This American Life in that they tell compelling stories. They bill themselves as “storytelling with a beat.” The stories are shorter, so there are more per episodes. I stopped listening because on weeks when they didn’t have new episodes to share, they recycled the same five episodes that have their strongest stories. After hearing the same story for the 4th time, and not realizing it until about halfway through I came to the conclusion that it was pretty much emotional tourism. I usually had strong reaction when I listened to their stories, but intellectually they didn’t stick with me (case in point, I quickly rattled off 8 Radiolab episode recommendations that I knew by name or was able to find within seconds based on the themes of the episode, there are only two or three Snap episodes that come to mind, and I wouldn’t really know how to search for them). It’s not like the podcast would come up in conversations, whereas I somewhat frequently say things like “oh, this reminds me of a story I heard on Radiolab or This American Life.” Oh, and once you start listening to Serial, you are going to want to get all your friends to listen to it to, because you’re going to want to talk about it.

Phish fans only. This is Tom Marshall’s podcast. I started listening to it because Relix (or Jambase, or Jambands) mentioned that he had Trey on talking about how they build set lists. He also touches on song lyrics, and how they came about, which is always interesting. He interviews people that go from really close to Phish to the periphery of the scene. Musicians like Holly Bowling, and Jake Huffman have been on. The show is not without its problems, but as far as style and presentation Marshall seems to be making better decisions as he goes. So that’s good. My main problem with it is that Marshall sometimes forget to explain things to the audience. I mean, I get it. It’s a podcast for Phish fans, so you can assume a fair amount of knowledge, but sometimes the conversation goes on, and I’m left there like... I have no idea what these two are talking about.

  • You Must Remember Manson

These episodes about Charles Mason were originally created as part of You Must Remember This, and they were re-released as a stand alone podcast after Manson’s death. Vox calls it One of the best examinations of Charles Manson (which is how I found out about this podcast in the first place). It’s important to know that this series was created as part of another entity so that you don’t go in there with erroneous expectations. YMRT is a podcast about the “secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century,” so the Manson story is told through that lens, which means you end up with long sidebars about the career and love life of Doris Day for what seems like no good reason. I’m only about halfway through as of this writing. I do have some criticisms. It’s presented in a pretty sterile way. It appears very well researched, but unlike Serial the audience is not included in the reporting so we don’t know where the information comes from. The podcast also doesn’t use a lot of sound. I mean, there’s music in the background, but for the most part it’s just the host lecturing, and then they occasionally throw in a short soundbite from a voice actor as Charles Manson.


Stopped listening to:

Backstory with the American History Guys: It's a history podcast. I listened to it a bunch, and it's informative, but production-wise it's just not as good as others. They explain current events through the lens of the past.

The Brian Lehrer Show: I started listening to stay up to date on local politics and current events (from NYC up to tri-state area). Along the way I came to realize the Brian Lehrer is a great interviewer and could get me interested in topics I really wouldn’t have considered. It’s a two hour show five days a week, so there’s no lack of content. I stopped listening sometime around the 2016 election when it became all Trump all the time.

Decode DC: it's a podcast by a former NPR Congressional Correspondent. She really knows her stuff. She quit her job and started the podcast because she got tired of how Congress is covered in the media, so she digs in deeper. I stopped listening around the time that the show was picked up by a new distributor and they re-released every episodes on a one episode per week basis.

The Drum: it's people reading fiction stories. I don't even like when This American Life inserts fiction stories, and those are usually pretty good.

Hidden Brain: It sounded interesting, but... I stopped listening to it pretty quickly. It describes itself as “Hidden Brain helps curious people understand the world – and themselves. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.” If that sounds pretentious, that’s because it kind of is. The set ups take too long, and the story telling is clunky, and I frankly don't care for the cutesy musical wrap-up.

Marketplace from APM: I listened to it to stay current on business and economic news. Then I started working nights when there’s not so many business interviews to conduct.

The Moth: it's real people telling a real story about themselves in front of an audience. They have moth tapings throughout the country. At every event a winner is declared and that person goes on to tell that story or another at a higher lever of the competition until they get to the grand slam (or whatever they're called) and then you only have really solid story tellers left. If you go to a taping near you, most of the stories may suck. The Moth Radio Hour is curated, so it's only the best stories.

The Nerdist: Chris Hardwick (host of Talking Dead) publishes three podcasts a week. It's him and two of his friends interviewing people (Tom Hanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dave Grohl, Mel Brooks) and then once a week it's just him and his two friends talking (funny) shit for an hour.

The New Yorker: just came out with a weekly podcast. I liked the content but I thought the host sucked. They also had a lot of ad inserts.

On Being: Did. Not. Like. This. At. All.

TED Radio Hour: It's interesting in that TED Talks cover a wide range of topics, but it's a guy interviewing the TED talker about their TED Talks and then playing clips from it. TED Talks are like 20 minutes long... This stretches it to an hour. Now I can't remember if they only do one talk per episode or three... In any case... Seems to me like you could just play the damn TED talks...

Science Friday: It's a weekly show on NPR. They cover interesting topics, but at the end of the day it's pretty dry because it's a talk show about science. Unlike Radiolab or Invisibilia that pull you into the story, it's just people having a conversation about a scientific topic, so it's not as engaging.

StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson: It's an interesting podcast about science and space. They also have a lot of ads. It's usually NdT a comic, and a scientist talking about random science stuff and then they insert clips from interviews NdT has done with prominent people (Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton) and then NdT's guests talk about what that person said. Format's a little wonky, but it's pretty fun.

Surprisingly Awesome: I first heard about it when part of an episode they were working on ran on another Gimlet Media show that was recommended to me by a friend of mine. As part of.. I think it was StartUp they discussed audio editing and story building, and as part of it they ran audio from pitch meetings they were having for an episode of Surprisingly Awesome. And it was an interesting episode, so I started listening to it, but a few episodes in I started feeling like they were trying too hard.

WTF! hosted by Marc Maron: It’s pretty much one of the pioneers when it comes to interview podcasts. I never gave it too much a chance. To give you an idea of how popular it is, he's had Obama on (when Obama was a sitting president).