“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.
How Sound (73 episodes)
This is a biweekly podcast about radio and podcasting, produced by Rob Rosenthal of the Public Radio Exchange. It features stories and interviews about the problems radio professionals have to solve, from constructing a narrative to getting usable audio when interviewing someone over Skype.
The Memory Palace (60 episodes)
A former editor and producer at Marketplace, Nate DiMeo says he’s long been pitching the public radio bigwigs an idea for a weekly, hour-long show about history. “There’re shows about nearly every big humanities category—art, books, religion/philosophy, auto-repair, music—but, at the time, no one was doing a history show. It felt like an opportunity missed,” he writes. No one has taken him up on the idea so far, but The Memory Palace, an irregularly produced show that tells character-driven stories about history, is a lovely substitute.
The Moth (78 episodes)
The Moth Radio Hour has a simple concept: true stories told live without notes. I think the “told live” part is true, but the stories often feel so highly shaped and produced that I wonder about the “true” part. Still, it’s compelling, emotional stuff.
99% Invisible (112 episodes)
My favorite podcast of all time, this show takes a highly visual subject—design and architecture—and somehow manages to bring it alive through sound alone. It’s the creation of Roman Mars, a producer who got his start in radio at San Francisco’s KALW, and it got a huge boost this year—moving to weekly episodes—after raising $375,000 on Kickstarter. Mars used some of the money to start Radiotopia, a collection of other “creator-driven, high-quality, entrepreneurial programs” that includes Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything.
On Being (~500 episodes)
This is the reincarnated, slightly more ecumenical version of a Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media show called Speaking of Faith. Host Krista Tippett is the sort of calm, humane, insightful person you’d want as the mediator in a debate between Kennedy and Krushchev, or Obama and Putin. Broadly, the show is about spiritual matters—but that definition is broad enough to encompass an episode about acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton and the value of silence and another about hidden stories in the Book of Exodus.
On the Media (~500 episodes)
This is WNYC’s brazen, irreverent, indispensable weekly look at the news business and whether it’s living up to its own standards. Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone have co-hosted the show since 2001, tackling everything from the media’s handling of the Snowden leaks to the travails of Rupert Murdoch’s news empire. OTM now has a little-brother podcast called TLDR; I’m not sure I like it, as it’s painfully conscious in its focus on the sensibilities of millenials.
Planet Money (537 episodes)
Planet Money was born during the 2008-2009 financial crisis as a home for plain-English explanations of the intricacies of things like collateralized debt obligations and quantitative easing. It’s evolved into a general podcast about economics, the meaning of money, and all the human intricacies of commerce. There were even whole shows devoted to answering, once and for all, why Americans still use the penny, and why we don’t have a viable dollar coin.
Radiolab (143 episodes, counting “Shorts”)
I once binge-listened to about 20 episodes of WNYC’s Radiolab while driving from Massachusetts to Michigan and back. Ever since, I’ve felt like co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are personal friends. The show is, very loosely, about science, with a bias toward neuroscience and our understanding of consciousness. The hour-long episodes usually include several segments around a theme such as time, parasites, or the placebo effect. Abumrad, a composer, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011, in part for his skill using elaborate editing, sound design, and sound effects to heighten the show’s storytelling.
Studio 360 (~600 episodes)
Studio 360 is an arts and culture magazine hosted by novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen. WNYC (which is, clearly, the world capital of good radio) says the show’s mission is to steer listeners to the latest in pop culture, including movies, music, books, and TV, but in practice, it veers all over the place—there’s a series on “American Icons” like Superman and I Love Lucy, and there was a whole show where Andersen hung out at Coney Island with the guys in the band They Might Be Giants.
This American Life (525 episodes)
The original storytelling show, this WBEZ production has made Ira Glass the most famous man in public radio; he even had a cameo appearance in the Veronica Mars movie. The show is uneven—after 20 years, it would be hard to make every episode an award-winner—but it’s still always worth listening to.
Welcome to Night Vale (46 episodes)
This sendup of small-town community radio, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and performed by Cecil Gershwin Palmer, is set in the fictional town of Night Vale, which is sort of a mashup of Mayberry, Roswell, Area 51, Lake Wobegon, and Twin Peaks. It’s oddly arresting, and is a fitting show to end my list. You can’t listen to just one episode—it gets inside your head, sort of like the static from those hooded figures in the dog park.
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