Back in University, I was fortunate enough to work college radio to pay for food and beer. Mostly, this was as a disc jockey (a term that was all too real) and promoter; but I spent a lot of time with my colleagues in other departments – one of whom was a producer for KUOM’s Culture Queue (recently re-branded as Real College Podcast), an arts and culture magazine style radio show. She was the first person to introduce me to the finer aspects of public radio, and the first to introduce me to WNYC’s Radiolab. Other than listening to Car Talk with my father ever since I can remember, and catching parts of Democracy Now with my folks, I had never really explored radio journalism. In the dark room that semester, while developing photos, I powered through almost every episode of Radiolab then produced, and kept up regularly with her show, Culture Queue. It was not long before I was scavenging the Internet for similar radio broadcasts. Flash forward a few years, and I now listen to everything; from the classics, such as, The Adventures of Superman, a radio serial that originally aired from 1940 through 1951, to the third wave feminist banter on Guys We F****d; from the phenomena that is Serial, to the performance art that is DVDASA; from public radio’s equivalent to the New York Yankees, This American Life, to niche shows such as Three Tickets: History and Culture of the Iowa Caucuses.
If you were to ask any of my close friends what I talk about over a few rounds that night, undoubtedly one would mention whatever I learned from a podcast that day. Today, on Downcast (my iOS podcast app of choice), I now have subscriptions to 82 different shows – varying from non-profit punk rock radio, to investigative journalism, to film banter. Of course I do not listen to every single one every single week, but I think many readers would be shocked at my completion rate.
Not everyone is as obsessive as myself, but anyone in their twenties could find some time to embrace this format of story-telling, reporting, and art. Whether it’s during a workout at the gym, over a commute, or while making dinner, the following list, in no particular order, is a great starting point for those trying to expand their breadth of knowledge while passing some time.
Slate’s Political Gabfest
Runtime: Between 40-60 minutes
Gabfest is like Christmas in July – except it happens every Friday. This is the one show, that absolutely no matter what, I tune in to the day it airs and absorb every second of it. Gabfest is hosted by David Plotz, former Editor-At-Large of Slate and current CEO of Atlas Obscura, Emily Bazelon, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine¸ and John Dickerson, host of one of the longest running news programs in the history of television, CBS’s Face the Nation. Each episode, the show covers three socio-political topics in the week’s news. If you have ever wanted a better understanding of the nitty-gritty behind presidential campaigns, or a lay understanding of the legal ramifications of a major Supreme Court decision, or a place to share frustration over the latest national tragedy, Gabfest is it. The three hosts are some of the brightest in their respective fields, and despite the relatively heavy material, the show feels like a casual, yet intellectual, conversation you might have with some friends over cocktails.
Recommended Episode: The most recent.
Runtime: Between 10-30 minutes.
99% Invisible began as a collaboration between San Francisco’s KALW and the American Institute of Architects. The show is distributed via PRX for broadcast, and a member of the Radiotopia podcast network. Created by Roman Mars, each episode focuses on a single topic or example of design, and attempts to expose designers and non-designers alike to the implications design has on the world around us. Paced like poetic prose, it is easy to lose oneself in the stories Mars draws in 99% Invisible.
Recommended Episode: Episode 181: Milk Carton Kids
Runtime: Between 10-20 minutes.
Helen Zaltzman, who holds a degree in Old and Middle English, hosts this Radiotopia podcast about language and etymology. Zaltzman has been in the podcast business for some time, as a host with Olly Mann on Answer Me This!, the first podcast to be given its own national show on BBC Radio 5 Live. During each episode of The Allusionist, Zaltman takes the listener on a comedic journey of the oddities of the English language.
Recommended Episode: Allusionist 4: Detonating the C-Bomb
The Axe Files with David Axelrod
Runtime: 30-60 minutes.
Arguably the heaviest show on this list, The Axe Files is, “a series of revealing interviews with key figures in the political world,” done “beyond the soundbites” in traditional long form. Hosted by David Axelrod, Chief Strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, former Senior Advisor to the President, and founder and director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, The Axe Files dives head first into the who’s who of American politics. Only ten episodes in and the show has touted key political figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and former Republican Presidential Candidate, Governor Mitt Romney. For anyone with even a slight interest in American politics, this show should be mandatory.
Recommended Episode: Episode 3 – Captain Mark Kelly
How Did This Get Made?
Runtime: 30-90 minutes.
Twenty-five years ago, Mystery Science Theater 3000, made its national debut on The Comedy Channel (now, Comedy Central) – and with it, brought riffing on bad films from something you do in the privacy of one’s own basement to something as American as apple pie. How Did This Get Made?, a podcast on the Earwolf network, continues that tradition, with hosts Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas. Each episode invites on different guests, riffs bad films, deconstructs plot holes, criticizes poor screen plays, and presents second opinions (in the form of five-star reviews posted online from Amazon users). Full episodes air every two weeks, while “.5” episodes on off-weeks announce the upcoming film and challenges for fans – this way, if dedicated, you never feel left out of the loop. If you enjoy poking fun at bad movies with some buddies, you will love How Did This Get Made?.
Recommended Episode: LOL: Live!
Runtime: 25-75 minutes.
Produced by WNYC, Radiolab is a nationally syndicated public radio program available as a podcast. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab is a philosophical investigation into the mysteries of what it is to be human. Different episodes, with the assistance of a slate of producers, take on different types of stories, every one of them fascinating. With near flawless sound design and constant educational substance, Radiolab is a treasure to listen to.
Recommended Episode: Smile My Ass
Death, Sex & Money
Runtime: 20-60 minutes.
Death, Sex & Money is podcast produced by WNYC, hosted by Stanford University alum and accomplished journalist, Anna Sale. Death, Sex & Money, bills itself as an “interview show about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.” The show’s title is pretty self-explanatory, but the content drives deeper than one might imagine.
Recommended Episode: The Sex Worker Next Door
Runtime: 75-120 minutes.
Jay & Silent Bob diehards will immediately recognize The SModcast Network, a network of podcasts curated by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. Though home to many great shows, Edumacation is probably the most accessible for those who are not comic book geeks, Clerks obsessives, or owners of Jay & Silent Bob Do Degrassi. Edumacation, which airs regularly, is hosted by Kevin Smith and former The Tonight Show with Jay Leno writer, Professor Andy (Not a Real Professor) McElfresh. Each episode, they bring listeners the Sci, the Fi, the Why, and the Bye; factoids, trivia, and contemporary pop-science meant to educate Kevin Smith - and the listeners. With a healthy dose of pop-culture references and comedy, listeners learn interesting things about the world we live in.
Recommended Episode: The most recent.
Runtime: 12-25 minutes.
Produced by NPR, in association with Chicago Public Media, Planet Money is a podcast originally launched in September of 2008 to cover the global financial crisis. Today, it airs biweekly, and tends to cover microeconomic and macroeconomic concepts via informal case studies in a manner the average American could comprehend. Hardly heavy on academia, Planet Money consistently wows on what moves the world, and gives listeners the chance to think like an economist.
Recommended Episode: Episode 660: The T-Rex in My Backyard
Runtime: 45-60 minutes.
StarTalk Radio, produced by Curved Light Productions and partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is a podcast on space, science, and pop culture. The podcast has been such a hit, that the National Geographic Channel picked it up as a television series. Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and recent frequent cohosts Chuck Nice, and Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy), StarTalk Radio features interviews with policy makers, celebrities, and academics and scans the cosmos to find out just how science affects every individual’s life. Recent guests include President Jimmy Carter, Arianna Huffington, George Takei, H. Jon Benjamin, Senator Cory Booker, and President Bill Clinton. Humorous and educational, StarTalk is a must for anyone who ever had even the slightest bit of fun in high school chemistry.
Recommended Episode: Decoding Science with President Bill Clinton
Runtime: 20-45 minutes.
A show about the Internet, Reply All is the second show to be released on Gimlet Media a start-up podcast company started via the StartUp Podcast (super meta, and another great show). Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, and confronts how humans are connected to and through the Internet. Since you are living in the Internet era, you will just get this show.
Recommended Episode: Jennicam Revisited