“Binge watching” TV shows wasn’t possible until the advent of full-season DVD sets in the late 1990s. And while bingeing was common enough in the 2000s—I definitely remember a few weekends spent inhaling 24, BSG, and The Wire—it didn’t really leap into the mainstream until 2013, when Netflix began streaming whole seasons of shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black all at once.
Bingeing is addictive, as Portlandia’s Fred Armison and Carrie Brownstein dramatized in their ROFL-inducing skit One More Episode of Battlestar Galactica. You find a show you like, clear your schedule, stock up on popcorn and frozen pizza, and watch until your eyes turn to sandpaper. But this isn’t necessarily the kind of high that leaves you hollow and drained. Assuming you’ve picked a good show, you get to internalize a rich universe of characters with complex story arcs, and you return to the real world a slightly different person. We don’t have an Austen, a Tolstoy, or a Dickens around anymore, but we do have hundreds of episodes of The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Breaking Bad.
But way before Netflix video streaming, there was podcasting. Never mind that “podcast” has a specific technical definition—an audio file delivered automatically via RSS feed. It’s basically on-demand radio. And there are some fantastic shows out there, with thousands of free episodes waiting to be downloaded. They’ll cost you nothing except your attention, unless you decide to become a donor (most podcasts are labors of love created by highly creative but grossly undercompensated producers).
You’ll find my list of the top shows below. Once you’ve found one you love, you’ll probably find yourself binge listening—and believe me, that moment when you’ve burrowed through the entire archive and you have to wait until the following week for the next new episode is just as painful as it is with TV.
The great thing about bingeing on podcasts, though, is that you can do something else at the same time: driving, exercising, cooking, cleaning house. In that respect, it’s pretty much like listening to audio books. It’s one of the only forms of multitasking that doesn’t make you stupid.
It should be admitted up front that the world of podcasts isn’t very user-friendly. It’s still way too hard to find and share on-demand radio content. Bingeing on a show starting from the very first episode can be tricky, since iTunes and other sources don’t always offer every episode. On top of that—and there’s no way to put this kindly—radio producers aren’t terribly Web-savvy, so their websites mostly suck. Their archived episodes are often scattered across three or four different locations. I’m looking at you, Jesse Thorn.
Playing a podcast will probably never be as easy as just turning on a radio. After all, we’re dealing with big digital files delivered by cloud servers here. But there’s no inherent reason it can’t be as easy as bringing up a YouTube video in a Web browser or firing up Netflix on your Roku player, Apple TV, or Blu-Ray/DVD player. Are you listening, Silicon Valley? The world is still waiting for some engineer-entrepreneur with a passion for radio to solve the basic problems holding back on-demand radio as a genre, like search, discovery, skimming, storage, and sharing.
The technical hurdles are one of the big reasons that “audio never goes viral,” to quote Nate DiMeo, the freelance producer behind the history podcast The Memory Palace. Berlin-based SoundCloud is working to make audio more portable with its embeddable player, which has been called “YouTube for audio.” But most people access podcasts via smartphone apps. And in that department the options are still…evolving. I’ve written about the best apps: Stitcher, Swell, and the Apple Podcasts app. None are perfect. All I can say is that the effort you put into mastering one of these platforms will be well rewarded.
But in spite of all the constraints (or perhaps because of them) there’s some amazingly compelling and quirky podcast content being created these days. New funding mechanisms like Kickstarter and new marketplaces like the Public Radio Exchange have been a help, and there are even a couple of micro-syndicates popping up, like Thorn’s Maximum Fun and Roman Mars’ Radiotopia, to support niche shows that might have trouble making it on their own. The best thing you can do to make sure great audio production keeps thriving is to give some money directly to one of these shows.
Some of the podcasts I like are big shows with regular broadcast slots and dedicated funding from NPR and/or their home stations. Others are tiny non-broadcast shows with just one producer and almost no budget. The great thing about podcasting is that it’s still a medium where anyone with a microphone, a recorder, a computer, and a little bit of editing and storytelling smarts can make something decent and build a following. (If you have your own favorite podcasts, let other readers know in the comment section below.)
Without further ado:
Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything (17 episodes)
Walker’s previous show, Too Much Information (51 episodes from 2011 to 2013), was an interview show about Web memes, the media, culture, politics, and odd personalities. Theory of Everything is… an interview show about Web memes, the media, culture, politics, and odd personalities.
Bullseye, fka The Sound of Young America (565 episodes)
Jesse Thorn, a nerdy-cool San Francisco native who attended UC Santa Cruz (of course), is smart, savvy, likable, and incredibly well versed in pop culture. His show consists mostly of long interviews with cultural figures like—this week—George R.R. Martin, author of the novels that formed the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Decode DC (33 episodes)
Andrea Seabrook is the former congressional correspondent for NPR. She left the network in 2012 to start Decode DC, an irreverent show that explores the inner workings of the Washington establishment. The show raised $100,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign and is now part of the E.W. Scripps media chain.
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