About three years ago, during a routine repair of my car’s computer, the screen that tells you how many miles per gallon you’re using (I have a Prius) got wiped out, along with (and here’s the crucial part) the ability to turn on and off the stereo. So for a while, I simply rode around in silence, which was sometimes good and sometimes not so good. Then, a little while after that, I got a job three days a week that involved a 35-minute commute each way. It was then that two things happened: I got a little Bluetooth speaker that works with my phone and I started listening to podcasts. Little did I know I’d been waiting for podcasts all my life. How did I (seriously!) ever live so long without them? And really, if you have spoken to me at all in the past three years, I’ve probably at some point said, I was listening to this podcast and…
So I figured what with all the podcast curating I’ve been doing (okay, seriously, my curating, of any kind, is minimal), I thought I’d share the ones that I listen to regularly, in case you have any interest at all in listening to what I happen to think is really cool. This list is not really in any order.
RadioLab. This is the one I started with and often the episodes are fantastic (I highly recommend the one called “Be Careful What You Plan For” that involves a certain psychological study that took place at Harvard in the 1950s and one particular participant in that study.) (How’s that for cryptic? Believe me, the reveal is totally worth it.). My problem is only with the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, who act as though no one would be interested in a show about science and human nature unless the hosts were yukking it up all the time or acting like total idiots so the audience might feel smart. They are never ever funny.
99% Invisible. This is a podcast about design, sort of. Or perhaps it always is, but in very unexpected and fascinating ways. Lots about cities and signs and architecture, but also technology and history and even sound design. Also furniture, such as Freud’s couch. And, for example, the worst smell in the world (liquid ass!) that is used to train army medics. I am such a fan of the show that I have totally forgiven the host, Roman Mars, for being really excited about a topic I pitched to him and then slowly losing interest as it seemed to be an increasingly difficult show to record. Strangely, he sounds completely different on the phone. I suppose he uses his radio voice only on the air.
Mystery Show. Honestly, this is everything I could ever want in a podcast. I might even call it perfect, but you should probably decide for yourself. Let’s just say that it is storytelling at its very best. Each episode, the adorable, hilarious (never irritating!) host, Starlee Kine, solves mysteries that cannot be solved by the usual methods. No Google, for example. So she might try to figure out what happened to a video store that seemed to disappear without a trace overnight. Or she might try to figure out what exactly was going on in a specific scene on a Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox. For me, without question, the very best episode was “The Belt Buckle,” in which a belt buckle that her friend found as a child (like, at least 20 years ago) on the side of the road was amazingly returned to its rightful owner. It is so delightful and so unexpectedly moving you will probably cry. I cannot wait for the new season to start. Come on, Starlee.
Serial. Yeah, we all know this one. I was just as caught up in season one as everyone else was, though it eventually felt too creepily sensational to me. By the end, all of Sarah Koenig’s updates on Adnan’s case were practically giddy. I loved the second season, however, which was the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who was held captive by the Taliban for five years. Sarah Koenig explores every angle of his story and I found every single episode riveting. There is so much to think about with this one and, just like with the first season, you are left not quite knowing what to believe. Which is totally fine.
More Perfect. This is the newest one and it’s a spinoff of RadioLab, which means more Jad (but, thankfully, less yukking it up). This podcast explores cases and issues involving the Supreme Court, and even if you think this is not quite your thing (even though it is so totally my thing), trust me, it’s worth your time. My favorite one so far (there have only been three) is called “The Political Thicket,” in which a Supreme Court case in 1962 (Baker v. Carr) caused one justice to have a nervous breakdown, another to have a stroke, and basically changed the way the Supreme Court dealt with politics forever.
Invisibilia. This is another RadioLab spinoff, but it’s like if RadioLab did the same stories (perhaps more focused on the human nature and psychology angle) but with entirely likable hosts. I happen to love Lulu Miller (not entirely because of her name, but maybe a tiny bit) and the entire first season of the show was terrific. The titles of the episodes should give you a good indication of what they’re about; for example, “The Secret History of Thoughts,” “Fearless,” “The Power of Categories.” The new season just started and I am saving the first episode for us all to listen to on our upcoming trip to Portland, Maine. I am ridiculously excited.
Embedded. This is a newish podcast from NPR in which reporters, and host Kelly McEvers, take a story from the news and “go deep.” So, for example, in one episode reporters follow police officers in L.A.’s “Skid Row” to see what really goes on after hours. In another, a reporter goes to Greenland to spend time there figuring out why it has the highest suicide rate in the world. Some episodes are better than others, but even the ones I didn’t love (what happens to basketball players who don’t get picked during the draft?) were still quite good.
The Canon. In this one, your cohosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson, both movie critics, pick a movie each week and decide if it belongs in “the canon” of great films. Devin is somewhat of a jackass and Amy is much smarter and more interesting, but there are times when Devin gets it just right and Amy is completely off base. Their banter is usually fun, although there are episodes (see: Goodfellas) where there is so much animosity I kind of can’t take it and have to stop listening (this probably only happened once). Sometimes they will pick two movies and pit them against each other, which is usually a lot of fun (the most recent example being “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes vs. Some Like It Hot”). Their love of Steven Spielberg is curious, but mostly the movies they choose to debate are really good ones. Without meaning to, I’ve become totally addicted to this podcast.
Surprisingly Awesome. This one is hosted by Adam Davidson and Adam McKay, but sometimes (if you’re lucky) John Hodgman steps in as host (the most recent one “Extinct Hockey” that he hosted is my absolute favorite). I don’t always love it but I have learned some interesting things (especially about concrete and broccoli). The premise is roughly to take a seemingly boring topic and to show how surprisingly awesome it is. But it has kind of devolved into just things they want to talk about (yo mama jokes, why “I told you so” is always a disappointing and awful feeling). I always think I might stop listening but I am still listening.
Reply All. This is, as the name implies, a podcast about the internet. That seems to be the only requirement, which means that the episodes are as varied as you can imagine. And they are usually pretty great. Recently, there was a four-part episode about a guy who managed to start a blog from prison, but then suddenly (in a very Serial-like turn of events) it followed the case that got him into prison in the first place. One episode detailed the guy who inadvertently invented pop-up ads and has felt guilty about it ever since. A couple of episodes have dealt with online dating, and all of its strange and mysterious secrets. My only problem with the show (which is the problem I have every single episode) is that one of the hosts, P.J. Vogt, has such an awful laugh that I cringe every time he laughs. Sometimes even his voice makes me cringe. I eventually realized that his voice and his laugh (and even, to be honest, his personality) reminded me of someone I used to date. This does not make things any easier.
The Loh Life. If you don’t love Sandra Tsing Loh, this is not for you. In fact, if you do not love her, you will hate this podcast. Just imagine three minutes of Sandra Tsing Loh talking about whatever topic she’s come up with for the week, which I almost always find endearing and funny, but which someone else might find unbearable. It’s your call.