You probably have that friend that seems to have their headphones glued to their ears. The only time you see them take their headphones out is to give you a recommendation to a podcast you absolutely, most definitely, must listen to. I know because I’m that guy. I smile dopily on the bus to and from work to my comedy podcast of choice. I shed tears whilst cooking and pass it off like it’s just the onions and not the gripping story I’m listening to. I plug in on my lunch break to expand my knowledge. With the first season of the podcast Serial cracking a million downloads, podcasts can no longer be ignored.
I know what your thinking: great, more time-consuming stuff I don’t have the time for. Between House of Cards, the Avengers movies, and the endless torrent of news, there’s not a second spare to be able to dedicate to listening to podcasts. The truth is, though, there invariably emerge moments of our days where our hands are occupied but our minds are free. The first question I ask someone who wants to get into podcasts is: How long is your commute? There are podcasts that range from a measly 5 minutes per episode to serialised epics that can total tens of hours. Whatever slivers of time were once lost to the inefficiencies of the meatspace can be spent listening to podcasts. I listen on my commute, whilst shopping, whilst eating, whilst cooking, and sometimes instead of watching TV or reading. If I drove, I’d be listening then too. I’ll even go out for a walk just to concentrate on a particularly inspired episode. There’s such a glut of free, quality content that once you dip in, it can be hard to stop at just a few.
Okay, so you’re in. What do you listen to? Thankfully, this medium has been around for over a decade (called “podcast” after the iPod which was released in 2001) and there’s bound to be something to get into.
These are those shows that define the medium for a lot of people. If you want to be a part of the conversation, it’s these you’ll want to stop at first.
Currently in its second season, Serial marked the moment podcasts went mainstream. The first season followed a true crime story of a murder in 1999 Baltimore. Adnan Sayid was put behind bars for the murder of his girlfriend but host and reporter Sarah Koenig thinks the evidence to convict was insufficient. The second season trawls through the capture of US marine Bowe Bergdahl in the Middle East and his surviving the longest period of capture since The Vietnam War. Expertly told, utterly gripping, Serial is still the best example of what podcasts can do.
This American Life
Length: approx. 60mins
You might have thought, what kind of podcast could make someone cry. This American Life does this almost every episode. Each weekly episode is made up of a handful of stories on a particular theme, most often between 2 and 4. This means any particular episode has a few convenient spots to pause if you can’t listen to the whole thing in one go. Sarah Koenig of Serial began her podcasting career with This American Life and the formidable craft with which the stories are constructed makes for utterly compelling listening. If you only had time enough for one podcast, this should be it.
If you only had time enough for one podcast, this should be it.
If This American Life focussed on a sinHgle story each week, you’d get Radiolab. The reporting here spans from their base in NYC and often speaks with a more journalistic voice. Recently following stories of cyber security and paparazzi in Korea, the bimonthly schedule means makes each episode of Radiolab special.
There are a lot of people that know a lot more than you do about a lot more things. Thankfully a bunch of them also make podcasts.
Length: approx. 20mins
Another spin-off from This American Life, Planet Money looks at economics from the least boring way possible. Sure, they cover big things like the Free Trade negotiations of 2015 and the big question mark that surrounds interest rates in the US, but they also generate stories that explain economic principles and history of supply chains, of lotteries, of anything involving currency basically. A favourite episode of mine recently saw one of their reporters trying to track down an infamous Birkin Bag: a bag sold by Hérmés for as much as $100 000 and yet apparently which not single Hérmés store ever has in stock. Entertaining and insightful.
Length: approx. 30mins
Co-hosted by Adam Davidson formerly of Planet Money and filmmaker Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talledega Nights, The Big Short), Surprisingly Awesome is really what is says on the tin: one of the hosts has to convince the other that something you’d think was completely boring, like mould or concrete, was actually awesome and worthy of attention. Did you know that broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, and cabbage were all parts of the same species like different dog breeds? I do now after listening to Surprisingly Awesome.
Did you know that broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, and cabbage were all parts of the same species like different dog breeds? I do now after listening to Surprisingly Awesome.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
These are best consumed on a lazy Sunday. With epics spanning tens of hours, Dan Carlin’s history explainers are some of the most comprehensive and riveting retellings of history’s most important stories. They’re like that slightly-crazy, ultra-enthused Year 10 history teacher who made you care about the Punic Wars and made you realise that history isn’t something that happened, but stuff that at one point was happening.
A lot of my favourite podcasts centre on technology, culture, and their crucial intersection.
Length: approx. 30mins
Produced by the same company that produces Surprisingly Awesome, ReplyAll tells short stories about culture that sounds the Internet. From a Hasidic Jew who had to leave his community for his use of the Internet to recently revealing a potential conspiracy around rat viral videos that might extend to the mythical Pizza Rat, ReplyAll always surprises and serves as a reminder of just how critically impactful the Internet is.
Length: approx. 20mins
With a focus on design and architecture, host Roman Mars tells stories that quickly make you see that design is an intrinsic part of humanity. Recent episodes have centred on the model upon which a large majority of New York City’s public statues were based as well as the crazily complex process of manufacturing neon lights and why the industry might be lost to the annals of history.
Tomorrow with Joshua Topolsky
Length: approx. 60mins
Joshua Topolsky, a journalist founder and former Editor-In-Chief at TheVerge.com and who has recently left Bloomberg interviews friends and colleagues about literally whatever. From Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopolous to YouTube star Casey Neistat, Topolsky’s show is two fingers on the cultural pulse that beats within today’s technology.
Topolsky’s show is two fingers on the cultural pulse that beats within today’s technology.
How to get all this done
The accompanying video will give you an overview of the basic setup required to get listening from home or, more likely, from your mobile device of choice. It’s really straight-forward, the apps are free and there’s a good chance you’ve already got it installed on your device and can start downloading now.
Let us know if you have any recommendations, I’m always keen to hear more.
Maybe you can be that guy.