If we meet at a party and get into a good conversation, I’ll eventually start telling you about how much I enjoy podcasts. If I don’t, it’s probably because I’ve just jumped straight into talking about something I’ve recently learned from one of my favorites.
Sometimes, I watch TV. Or more accurately, I watch Netflix. After all, we live in a great age of television – there’s even a Wikipedia article titled The Golden Age of Television (2000–Present), citing 14 articles proclaiming the assertion. I’m in love with the impossibly endearing employees of the Pawnee Parks Department, and addicted to learning about the turbulent histories of the dynamic guards and prisoners of Litchfield Penitentiary.
However, a somewhat less well-known fact is that we are also in a golden age of radio. And just like television is rarely on actual televisions, today’s radio is no longer confined to physical radios. I’m a radio fanatic, but the last time I listened to a physical radio was at least 7 months ago, driving an old car as I visited my hometown over the holidays. Instead, I spend much of my life plugged into earbuds, enjoying wonderful radio via my iPhone. Only, this radio isn’t usually called “radio” – most of the time, these radio shows are called podcasts.
And TV isn’t as good as podcasts. For one, podcasts are an intimate experience – this is something I didn’t fully realize until drafting up this blog post (keep reading, and you’ll probably see why). Also, one of the core strengths of podcasts is their portability. They’re my go-to way to enhance commutes, shopping, exercise sessions, monotonous design activities like type design or photo editing, cooking, eating, dish-washing, apartment sweeping, and basically any activity that requires my body to move but leaves some room to listen and think. That adds up to quite a bit of time, so I’ve grown quite a list of favorite shows.
Just in case you’re reading this and you don’t yet listen to podcasts, you can find out how to get started from Ira Glass and his friend Mary. If you’re already using your iPhone’s default Podcasts app and would like a better experience, check out Overcast, an exceptionally good podcast app for iOS.
And finally, here are the podcasts I listen to most regularly:
I think this was the first podcast I started listening to. It’s still one of my favorites, and one I frequently recommend to people if they don’t yet listen to podcasts. Radiolab takes stories from science or current events, and explores them in an immersive blend of philosophy, sprirituality, and experimental sound production. You kind of have to hear it to understand, but then you’ll probably be hooked.
- This American Life
This American Life is the Beatles of radio shows – prolific, awesome, and about as famous as radio shows get. It started in 1995, airs every week, and each episode is an hour long. Each week’s show has a theme, and delivers several stories based around that theme. Each story is so well-crafted, listening to the show is honestly one of the highlights of each week, for me (and somewhat devastating if it’s a rerun of an episode I already know). It’s hosted by Ira Glass, who is phenomenal, plus lots of contributors.
- Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
To me, most history shows are boring. Why? They gloss over all the details that allow you to personally connect with the people who were really involved in historical events. Most history shows make you feel like those events happened in the distant past. Hardcore History is the opposite. It richly describes pivotal moments in history in a way that makes them at once gutturally painful and totally fascinating. The result is a seriously addicting podcast. Episodes tend to be between about 2 and 4 hours long, but once you start listening, you’ll be glad to have so much to relish. Start by listening to Carlin’s series “Wrath of the Khans,” which chronicles the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire.
- On the Grid
This show is hosted by three graphic designers in three US cities, who talk with one another every week about design, current events, and their lives. It’s less about the technical work of design or waxing poetic about great designers than about exploring the political and philosophical aspects of being a designer today. When the do delve into the meatier, more technical aspects of design, they do a good job of keeping these discussions quite accessible to people who may not work in those areas yet, or as often. I’ve listened to this show for several years now, and the three hosts, Andy, Matt, and Dan, feel something like good friends to me. They’re considerate, funny, and thoughtful, making for a show that’s sort of like if On Being and The Bugle were mixed with Design Matters (this will make sense if you read the rest of these podcast descriptions carefully).
- 99% Invisible
This is a really, really excellent show on design (the title refers to the idea that 99% of good design is invisible – it surrounds us everyday, but we hardly notice it, when it’s doing its job correctly). Host Roman Mars leads this show which delivers polished, quick, fascinating stories of design, ranging from architecture to graphic design to the age of billiards halls to horror movie music composition.
- Freakonomics Radio
Freakonomics has written several popular books diving into behavorial economics, exploring why we do what we do, and how incentives can shift behavior in unexpectedly profound ways. Full disclosure: though this is one of the very best podcasts I listen to, I’ve only listened to one of the books. Why? Because most of it’s content, I had already heard on the podcast, and in this form, you get to hear in-person interviews with experts that are only quoted in the books, along with funny, endearing conversations between the two writers and hosts, journalist Stephen Dubner and economics professor Steven Levitt.
How could I not listen to Serial, with that perfectly-crafted intro and theme music? A spin off of This American Life, Serial shattered podcast listening records, nabbing an estimated 39 million listeners, as of December 2014. Can’t wait for Season 2!
- Slate’s The Gist
Mike Pesca feels like your longtime friend’s dad who is great to have a beer with, and talk to about current events, pop culure, history, and vexillology. The shows are quick and come out each weekday, so it’s become one of my favorite news sources.
- Planet Money
Planet Money is another hit from NPR, and rightfully so. Twice a week, it produces a show that is tightly written, well-delivered, entertaining, and illuminating, showing how the world economy is made up of countless relatable human stories.
- Marketplace, from APM
Another famous show, this is a podcast I’ve more-recently started listening to. I love staying generally current on what’s happening in the world,and Marketplace is a really well-crafted, informative, quick listen.
- All Songs Considered
You may already know about this show from NPR, but if you don’t, it’s and easy and excellent way to learn about new music, with enjoyable commentary from guys who feel like cool uncles, and younger contributors who feel like they’d make good friends. This is one of the few podcasts I listen to a 1x speed (because obviously it would be pretty horrible to speed up a music-centric show).
With the tagline “a series about the invisible forces that shape human behavior,” I went into this show expecting a show similar to Freakonomics or Planet Money. Instead, the forces discussed in this show are less external and economic than internal and psychological: Invisibilia concentrates on how our brains, our emotions, and our abilities and disabilities shape who we are – and how we can grapple with these forces. It’s between seasons right now, but the first few shows were awesome, and worth going back to listen to.
StartUp is a podcast that gives a very personal view into the experience of starting a business, by following founders as they struggle to make it work. It’s first season was a bit meta, as it told the story of the host, Alex Blumberg, actually starting a company to make podcasts. Blumberg is awesome: he was once an editor at This American Life, went on the co-found Planet Money, and now helps run Gimlet Media (the name of the company started during StartUp).
- Reply All
This show calls itself “A Show About the Internet.” It is the second show released by Gimlet Media. It’s really well made and has two lovable hosts, Alex and PJ, who talk about how people are connected by the Internet. It’s often funny, and sometimes really touching. It’s one of the few podcasts that has made me both laugh out loud and cry in the same episode (#28, “Shipped to Tibuktu”).
- Mystery Show
Mystery Show is possibly the most lovable, least “useful” podcast I listen to. The third show from Gimlet Media, it doesn’t cover especially deep, philosophical, or academic topics, but rather has a host, Starlee Kine, who solves very random mysteries for friends. Episodes so far have solved mysteries like “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?” and who an elaborate, found cowboy belt buckle belonged to. Starlee is so intensely friendly to everyone she encouters along the way, from Jake Gyllenhaal to anonymous phone agents in call service centers, that I can’t help but connect with her and find myself rooting for her to solve more mysteries.
- BuzzFeed’s Internet Explorer
The internet is a weird place, and each week, IE’s two really likeable hosts, Katie and Ryan, delve into some facet of it that is gross, hard to believe, endearing, or often times all three things at once. This gives me the same fix I used to have to go to Reddit to stumble across, but without requiring me to spend hours getting sucked into comment threads of puns.
- Shop Talk Show
Hosted by Dave Rupert and Chris Coyier (founder of CSS-Tricks and Codepen), Shop Talk Show focuses on web design and development, and though it is frequently quite technical, it also maintains a high level of humor, due in no small part to a copious (but tasteful) use of sound effects.
- The Web Ahead
Jen Simmons is a web designer and developer who inteviews experts to explore “changing technologies and the future of the web.” It’s released sporadically because Simmons seems to do a fair amount of web work herself, and keeps a consistently high level of quality on the show.
- Note to Self
I haven’t completely figured out how to feel about this show, yet, as I’ve just started listening. For one, I really love the subject matter: how to be fully human in a digital age – amidst surveillance, the effects of screens on our brains, and navigating life online. However, I’ve so far felt with each show aggravated that I want a deeper, more debate-filled discussion – likely because I’m used to hearing such topics covered on Radiolab, which tends to really contemplate such issues, rather than just tell about them.
- seanwes podcast
This is one of the podcasts that falls into a special category for me: the hosts and the tone of it sometimes annoy me, and yet it’s so useful, I listen to it pretty often, anyway. Sean Wes is a designer, lettering artist, and entrepreneur, and on this show, he gives concrete strategies for making a living, following your passion. What’s more, this is one of the few podcasts with high production quality and no ads to skip through.
- This Week in Startups
“TWIST” is another terrific show for learning about the world of business and technology. Entrepreneur and investor Jason Calacanis has hosted more than 550 episodes of TWIST, most of which are 1-on-1 interviews with founders of tech companies. Jason has an ego which occasionally makes the show hard to listen to, but overall this podcast has tons of great lessons to teach about business and life and is usually really entertaining, too.
- The Tim Ferriss Show
Yet another occasionally annoying but often excellent podcast. As someone who judges books by their covers, Tim Ferriss isn’t someone I trusted at first, as he is best known as the author of The Four Hour Workweek. I forget how I first learned about this show, but aside from an obnoxious intro with a few too many minutes of ads, this show consistently delivers really interesting interviews with incredible guests, who divulge their strategies for high performance and share the stories of how they became who they are today. A couple of my favorite episodes are with Alex Blumberg, founder of Gimlet Media (see Gimlet podcasts above) and with Phil Libin, founder of Evernote.
- Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders
You know that cool class you took at Stanford, that brought in inspiring speakers to give you hard-won lessons on excelling in business and living fully? Oh wait, you didn’t go to Stanford, either? Nor did I, but thankfully, they share these lectures as podcasts. You’ll feel like you’re right there in the lecture hall, learning alongside your peers in the soon-to-be Silicon Valley elite.
- The Bugle
I’m a big John Oliver fan, so I was excited to learn that I could get a bit more of his politically-sharp humor in my life. As it turns out, Bugle co-host Andy Zaltzman, actually ends up putting on most of the shows himself, but it’s become a great way to dabble in a bit of British satire, when I need it.
- Happier with Gretchen Rubin
This is probably the most suburban mom-oriented show I listen to (after all, its most frequent sponsors are purveyors of window treatments and on-demand art framing), but it’s still a good way to give myself weekly tips on how I can be a happy, fuller person.
- How To Do Everything
This is an entertaining and occasionally informative show from NPR, which I listen to mostly because the two guys who host it are likeable and generally funny. It talks about how to do things.
- Common Sense with Dan Carlin
I’ve already espoused my love for Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, but because it only comes out once every month or two, Common Sense has been a good way to take in a bit more Dan Carlin. In it, Carlin talks critically about current political events. Each time, it makes me think about issues in broader, deeper way. As such, it actually tends to require a bit more emotional and mental effort than other shows, but can really be worth it.
- The Late Show Podcast
I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Colbert for a long time, and this podcast is basically just a promotion for his upcoming role on the Late Show. It talks about the surprisingly complex process of creating a late night TV show, including discussions on planning, pre-writing, and theater design and renovation.
- On Being
Listing this one is partly aspriational, because I miss more of these than I catch, because they’re so thoughtful and sometimes feel long. Still, when I do listen, I really appreciate Krista Tippett for putting on a show that ponders the deeper questions in life, and lets me feel a calm in my day.
- Design Matters with Debbie Millman
This is a show I’ve barely listened to yet, but which I know I’ll go back into the archives and binge on, at some point in the not-too-distant future. I’ve really enjoyed Debbie Millman’s book How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer in the past, so it’s a show I’m confident in recommending, despite a current lack of personal listening experience.
The best of the best:
Because the Internet:
Getting down to business:
If I’ve already listened to everything else, these are also awesome:
Shows I sometimes listen to, but mean to listen to more often:
Wow, if you made it through all that, you’re probably either my mom, my girlfriend, or someone who seriously likes learning about podcasts. Whatever the case may be, shoot me an email or tweet at me, because I’d love to chat with you!