Strange that it has only been two years since my precipitous entry into the world of podcasting, first behind the mic and then shortly thereafter between the earbuds. In the past couple of years podcasts have become an integral part of my life. I listen to them while cycling, while walking my dog, while making dinner. I am guessing I average at least an hour of podcast listening per day, and some days it is at least twice that. I am even active in an online podcast club (like a book club, but for podcasts). And I have by now tried out enough different types of podcasts that I pretty much know what I like.
For example, I am not crazy about fiction podcasts. I have tried the New Yorker’s fiction podcast and the one where Levar Burton (from Reading Rainbow) reads short stories, and a handful of fictional dramas written especially for the podcast format, but they are just generally not what I want to hear when I am in the podcast mood. Kind of like (but opposite to) how I never feel like watching documentaries on Netflix, only dramas. This may have to do with the fact that I listen to podcasts almost exclusively in the daytime and watch Netflix almost exclusively in the evening. Apparently my active, awake brain wants nonfiction, and my trying-to-relax brain wants fiction.
One variety of podcast I do listen to a lot is in-depth news. For instance, I listen to almost every episode of The Daily, in which New York Times reporters spend 20+ minutes exploring a timely topic like “The Chinese Surveillance State” or “The Moral Complexities of Working with Julian Assange”. The Global News Podcast from the BBC isn’t so in-depth, but I listen to probably every other episode, and it’s a solid 30 minutes of political, social, scientific and other news from around the world. Talking Politics is affiliated with the London Review of Books, and as you might expect, it’s a collection of Cambridge professors talking intelligently but at great length, mostly about the inanity of Brexit and the hopelessness of climate change. They also bring in all sorts of fascinating and erudite guests, from historians to philosophers to novelists, and the stuff they say regularly blows my mind. For some reason I think of it as a sort of guilty pleasure, but it is basically equal parts intellectual stimulation and emotional masochism. Basically, the world is ending, so we are going to sit around comparing late capitalism to the Roman empire in our posh British accents.
History podcasts are sort of a thing unto themselves. There is in fact a lively community of amateur historian podcasters who do sequential podcasts. They almost turn out being like a sort of university history lecture on a specific historical time period and place, like The History of Rome or the Unification of Italy. I like the idea of these podcasts, but for some reason in practice they don’t really hold my interest. I do, however, love podcasts like Ask Historians (outgrowth of the eponymous Reddit), which interviews academic historians about their latest book or research, as well as delving into historiographic methods or issues in academia. Ottoman History Podcast is similar in concept, but focusses on researchers (often historians, but also sociologists, economists, literary scholars, etc.) who study the geographical area covered by the Ottoman Empire at its height. So geographically it includes everything from North Africa to most of the Middle East to Eastern Europe, but during any time period, not just the Ottoman period.
Current Events, History & Culture
Then there is a subset of podcasts that use history as a lens to examine current events, like Past Present, and NPR’s new Throughline, both of which I listen to religiously. They are unfortunately both geared towards U.S. politics and culture, so I am actively looking for similar podcasts that cover Europe and other places. Somewhat similar in concept are the podcasts that look at current events through the lens of other cultures. I would put NPR’s Code Switch and Rough Translation both in this category. Code Switch is a lively look at how it feels to dissect politics and American culture as a person of colour. Rough Translation goes on location to other countries to explore hot topics in the United States and how similar issues play out in different places. Somewhat similar in method, if not in concept, is The World in Words, a sort of pop linguistics podcast that goes around the world to research interesting topics having to do with language. Unlike more current events-focussed podcasts, which tend to be fairly time-sensitive, this one goes back a few years and old episodes are still very listenable.
Oldies but Goodies
In the category of Oldies but Goodies is, of course, Fresh Air, which I used to listen to on the radio as a kid while my mom was cooking dinner. Terry Gross has still got it; I think she is one of the very best interviewers around. She brings on writers, actors, musicians, and other creative people to talk about their work. I have read numerous books I first heard about on her show. Although she does cover contemporary issues and politics, Fresh Air has an inherent lean towards arts and culture. Similarly, I still listen to the venerable This American Life, although not every episode anymore. Ira Glass is fantastic at what he does, but lately I feel that there is a bit of a formulaic quality to the storytelling here. But hey, if it works, why change it. Maybe I am just bored by too many stories of everyday life. However, I can still be utterly riveted by particular episodes that really speak to me. For example, producer Elna Baker did a fantastic segment recently on her experience growing up as a Mormon woman. Obviously, I related.
Limited or Sporadic Podcasts
There are a lot of other podcasts I listen to sporadically or whenever they happen to post. For example, There Goes the Neighbourhood is a wonderful exploration of gentrification in New York (season 1) and Los Angeles (season 2). I am not big into crime podcasts, but I did get hooked on Death in Ice Valley, a limited series detailing the fascinating reopened investigation into a 47-year-old murder in a remote valley in Norway. When Doctor Who is on, I listen to Verity! to get their take on each episode, and be reminded each week that no matter how nerdy people think you are, there is always someone 500 times nerdier. And whenever Serial does something new, of course I am all over that.
The One and Only Roman Mars
My ultimate model of the perfectly produced podcast is the immortal 99% Invisible. Not only am I infatuated with the lusciously mellifluous voice of Roman Mars, but his polished scripts, on-point music, impeccable research, and quirky storytelling (and yes, that particular way he always says at the end “Beautiful. Downtown. Oakland, California”) render this podcast a work of both art and genius. Often imitated, never surpassed. I also love the way he is such a generous mentor to aspiring podcasters. Strangely, although I have sampled several other podcasts under his umbrella of Radiotopia, I haven’t found another that I listen to regularly. Really, maybe there is just something about his voice.
I am always on the lookout for a new podcast, or a new genre of podcasts to try. I feel like I have a hard time teasing out exactly what it is that makes me keep coming back to a podcast, which is partly why I wrote all this down–to give myself a chance to figure out common elements that all these podcasts I love share. Even reading back, I am not altogether sure why these podcasts make the cut and others that seem similar on the surface do not. I do think that enjoying the voice of the podcaster helps, and liking the structure of the podcast. As well as, of course, being interested in the subject matter. I like learning new things on podcasts, and new ways to think. And I like them long, but not too long. 45 minutes is about perfect for my taste.
What about you dear reader? Which podcasts do you love, and why do you love them?