A Little Nuts about Podcasts, Part 1

I have to admit that the bulk of the time and attention I used to devote to books have lately been encroached by podcasts. It’s not necessarily a new medium–for years I’ve listened to staples such as Radiolab and Pop Culture Happy Hour but my fixation has become much, much more intense in the last three months or so. The thing with podcasts is that they often end up referencing other podcasts that I end up trying as well.

Though I inevitably spike shows that I don’t find particularly engaging, the list of podcasts that I follow is still distressingly long. Here is the list of the ones I truly enjoy, conveniently grouped into categories.

I. Roundtable-type Discussions

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour (iTunes)

This is legitimately my favorite podcast of all time. It’s a delightfully casual but still incisive discussion of pop culture and the breadth that it encompasses. The panelists are Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Trey Graham, and Glen Weldon, all of whom are connected in some way with NPR. Topics that they’ve tackled include comic book movie adaptations, The Bachelor Pad, John Updike, movie musicals, muppets, and roadtrip movies.

Over time you will learn that each have a respective predilection (Trey, for example, is a German art song enthusiast while Linda is a noted reality television aficionado) which the rest of the panel would lovingly mock. Their list of guest panelists, like Barrie Hardymon and podcast producer Mike Katzif, are also delightful.

Though they often discuss current events in pop culture, I think it’s perfectly easy to jump into the pool and listen to older episodes. Here are some that I particularly enjoy:

Scott Pilgrim And Our Great Big Blind Spots (August 2010)
The Art Of The Memoir And What We’ll Have On The Side (Nov. 2011)
On Endings And Road Trips (May 2012)

Stuff You Should Know (iTunes)

How Stuff Works has a vast network of informative blogs and podcasts, but I particularly enjoy that topics that Stuff You Should Know‘s treatment of diverse topics. Hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant keep the conversation flowing smoothly and they never come off as too esoteric about any topic. Some of my favorite episodes include:

How Delta Force Works
Did the CIA test LSD on unsuspecting Americans?
How the Black Death Worked

(Small quibble: The podcast archive is difficult to navigate, which is why I linked to the RSS feed. They also don’t bundle the podcast episode with the relevant blog post so I can’t link to them. Boo.)

Writing Excuses (iTunes)

I haven’t kept up with this podcast in a while but I remember plowing through episodes that pick apart various aspects of the writing process. The panelists focus on writing Science Fiction and Fantasy but their insights about craft apply pretty well to any writing endeavor. They also often use pop culture products to talk about elements such as plot, character, and theme. Despite being genre-heavy I don’t find their discussion niche-y at all.

With this podcast, I suggest starting from the very beginning, since their first few episodes lay down the groundwork of the craft. The episodes are under 30 minutes, so they’re not an overwhelming time investment.

Slate’s Audio Book Club (iTunes)

Slate’s Audio Book Club’s archive is a rich treasure trove of discussions of specific books. I tend to listen to titles that I’ve already finished since their discussions tend to be pretty spoilery and specific. I don’t always agree with their opinion on certain books but they always give the audience a lot to think about. Their newest episode is about Fifty Shades of Grey, however, and I’m guessing I’ll much prefer listening to them rather than reading the actual book.

I’ve particularly enjoyed their episodes about:

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

II. Magazine-Type Podcasts

Radiolab (iTunes)

This, I think, is one of them most innovative shows I’ve ever encountered in any medium. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich mine the various areas of science, academics, and life itself in order to dissect various concepts and themes. The highlight of the show is the dazzling way these stories are stitched together through sound. I’ve read someone characterize each episode as a self-contained symphony and that is so spot-on.

Abumrad and Krulwich also suffuse the dialogue with their own viewpoints. They don’t always agree, and that tension adds to the dynamism of every episode. I’ve found myself completely moved by particular episodes, even to the point of tears. I suggest listening to every episode (I’m not through with Season 10 yet!) but here are some of my favorites:

Pop Music
War of the Worlds
The Ring and I (Wagner’s The Ring Cycle)

99% Invisible (iTunes)

I’m relatively new to this podcast but I’m enthralled by it. Roman Mars crafts aural gems in each episode, examining various aspects of architecture, urban planning, product design, and more. It’s a testament to his skill that such dry and even esoteric subjects come alive in his episodes. It has the same sonic experimentation that Radiolab has (I first heard of it from a Radiolab podcast) but Mars injects it with his own unique warmth and insight.

Some of my favorite episodes so far are:

The Sound of the Artificial World
The Speed of Light for Building Pyramids
Queue Theory and Design

Guardian’s The Big Ideas (iTunes)

The back catalog is not extensive for this podcast but I find The Big Ideas to be a thoroughly engaging exercise in situating philosophical and cultural ideas in their proper historical contexts. I haven’t delved much deeper than the first four episodes but all of them are grand. Controversial topics such as Nazi trials and the deregulation of capitalism are handled fairly, in my opinion.

Favorite episodes so far:

Marshall Macluhan’s The Medium is the Message
Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil
Adam Smith’s Invisble Hand

New Yorker Out Loud (iTunes)

The New Yorker magazine has a pretty formidable cultural pedigree, so I really appreciate how they’re engaging technology. Case in point, a podcast that gives listeners a rundown of various pieces that exist within their covers and allowing the writers themselves to expound on them. Two of the writers online that I enjoy the most Emily Nussbaum and Elif Batuman so it’s a great pleasure to hear their voices here.

Favorites include:

Beloved Beşiktaş
What Should Kids Watch?
Better Than Brainstorming

Lapham’s Quarterly: The Podcast (iTunes)

It’s one of my life’s goal one day justify subscribing to Lapham’s Quarterly but listening to their podcast is pretty damn good in the meantime. I’m just recently delved into their archives. The podcast is a supplement to their quarterly conversations, and also includes intelligent interviews that Lewis Lapham does for Bloomberg. The formal podcast recently changed their format into a news magazine rather than an in-depth interview, a change that is very welcome for me.

I highly encourage you to listen to:

Invented Languages
Dictionary of Regional English (DARE)

Many of the shows I linked here have blogs that are equally engaging, so reading them is a good idea. I still have a few more podcasts to recommend so I’m afraid there’s going to be more posts for this series. There are even podcasts that focus on books! I apologize in advance but when I get obsessed, it turns quite ugly.


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