Back in the day, I used to watch The Learning Channel (back when it had real content, not loads and loads of “reality TV”) and then the Discovery and Science Channels. Since I cut the cable a couple years ago, a new medium has filled that void: podcasts. I consume podcasts voraciously.
My friend Jon introduced me to podcasts with an episode of Radiolab a couple years ago and I’ve been addicted ever since. I wanted to share my love of podcasts with you to spread the word about programs I love. Or, if you haven’t gotten into podcasts, you can learn about some of the great things you are missing out on.
I’m sure most of you know what podcasts are and how to listen to them, but just in case, I’ll give you this video from Ira Glass and his old friend explaining it.
Ira references the Apple Podcasts app for iPhone and Stitcher for Android (which is also available for iOS), both of which are free. My personal preferences are Downcast for iOS/Mac and DoggCatcher for Android. They cost a few bucks, but offer more features that I like. I have been meaning to try out Pocket Casts, which is cross platform and gets good reviews, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
Some of My Favorite Podcasts
Radiolab is a radio show produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. They cover pretty much anything that intrigues them, often science-related. I love Radiolab mainly because it is the most well-produced radio show I have ever heard. Jad is an absolute master of putting together sounds to convey the story crisply, wonderfully and uniquely. My favorite episode is Apocalyptical because it features dinosaurs. You can see a video recording of Apocalyptical from one of their tour stops at that link, as well.
Hardcore History is a podcast about, duh, history. Dan Carlin has a unique style all his own. He is a compelling storyteller that takes an unflinching look at every aspect of the events and puts you in the mindset of those participating in the events. He has some one-off episodes, but most of his episodes are multi-part, multi-hour series covering major events in humanity’s history: the Mongol Invasions, the end of the Roman Republic and beginning of the Roman Empire, and, currently, World War One.
This American Life
If you listen to public radio at all, you have probably heard of This American Life. Ira Glass’s show is the juggernaut of public broadcasting and of podcasts. They cover everything from the mundane, like two days at a highway rest stop or stories about babysitting, to ground-breaking journalism detailing the controversial inner workings of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and its uncomfortable coziness with the bankers it is supposed to regulate. This podcast also happens to be Maria’s favorite, though she and I like it for completely different reasons. Maria loves This American Life for the personal stories, while I like it for its journalism, especially the co-productions they do with the next podcasters on my list. This American Life has done two live shows, which were simultaneously beamed to theaters around the country. Return to the Scene of the Crime tells stories about criminals returning to the scene of the crime (obvi) and Invisible Made Visible is a bit more of a variety show with stories about things unseen or normally behind the scenes. Not only did This American Life do those two live shows, they also had a TV show on Showtime that aired for two seasons.
Planet Money started as a co-production between This American Life and NPR. Their very first episode was scheduled to first be released in September of 2008. And then … the Great Recession happened. Adam Davidson, one of the producers of Planet Money, had to scrap all the work they had done, and record a whole new episode on his laptop at home. And they went on to explain the Great Recession, its causes and ramifications, in plain English. Listening to this podcast from the beginning is almost like reliving the recession all over again. Now that the recession is (technically) over, they have moved on to other topics and are still going strong. If you have any interest in how our economy works, this is a fantastic way to learn about it. The Planet Money and This American Life co-produced episodes about the Great Recession are astounding works that explain why the recession happened in a human and understandable way.
Roman Mars (what a name) created this wonderful podcast all about design. You would not believe the amount of design that goes into the world around you; hence, the name of the podcast. The stories often have an architectural bent, but there are plenty of other topics, including sound design in sports on television, cow tunnels (you’ll just have to hear it to get it), and the parentheses around area codes in a phone number (a design choice with a shocking amount of thought behind it).
Stuff You Should Know
Stuff You Should Know is another very popular podcast. The hosts give you a basic rundown of how the topic for the episode works. This show is one of my staples because of the chemistry of the hosts. Josh and Chuck feel like friends having a normal conversation about random stuff (which also happens to be informational). They cover all kinds of topics, like How Redheads Work, Capgras Syndrome (a rare psychological condition where you think your loved ones have been replaced with imposters) and Who Owns the Oceans?
Stuff You Missed in History Class
Stuff You Missed in History Class is a sister-show of SYSK. The show has had a number of hosts over the years, but the current hosts are Holly and Tracy and they have been around for quite a while now. As the title of the show implies, Stuff You Missed in History Class covers interesting stories from history that, while not important enough to often make it into history books, are still extraordinarily interesting. From mentally-ill royalty to serial killer H.H. Holmes and the Murder Castle in Chicago to loads of shipwrecks to Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who posed a very real threat to the Roman Empire, there is a LOT of history out there that you may not have heard.
Freakonomics Radio started as a book by an economist and a reporter, who wanted to use economics to look at unexpected aspects of everyday life. Like, does a daycare center charging a fee for picking up children late actually increase late pick-ups? Or, does your name affect how well you do in life? The podcast is an extension of that theme. They have episodes on whether expensive wine tastes better than cheap wine, whether tipping in restaurants should be banned, and whether college is actually worth its cost.
The History of Rome
This podcast is the most self-explanatory of the bunch. Host Mike Duncan starts from the mythical founding of Rome and runs through right up until the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He covers everything: the civil war between Marius and Sulla, Julius Caesar, Augustus, all of the Emperors, the division of the Empire, and, of course, its fall. The audio quality starts off a little rough, but Mike got better equipment about ten episodes in and the audio quality jumped up dramatically. Since the story is linear, I recommend starting at the beginning. If you like the podcast, you can continue on to hear about the History of Byzantium (AKA, the Eastern Roman Empire), which picks up where Mike left off. Mike also started a new podcast called Revolutions where he reviews various revolutions throughout history, including the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.
The Infinite Monkey Cage
This is a podcast I only became aware of in the past couple years. Brian Cox should be fairly recognizable as the host of the Wonders of … series from the BBC. Robin Ince is a British stand-up comedian. The two of them host a panel of scientists and B-list celebrities to discuss a particular topic in science. The conversation is almost always highly entertaining; I particularly love the ongoing debate of at what point a strawberry can actually be considered dead.