Earlier today I tweeted about the podcasts I’d added — and removed — for 2014. A few people asked me about what else I listened to, so here’s a list. I might also write another post about why you should listen to podcasts and how to get set up.
The Memory Palace (7 min): The first episode of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace I listened to was Six Stories, about Otis’ development of the elevator. Lest you think this would somehow be an informative yet dry treatment, let me assure you that it was a beautifully told story about the sheer danger and romance of those early elevators. Six Stories was rebroadcast by 99% Invisible (see below) and convinced me to investigate The Memory Palace further.
I don’t take subscribing to new podcasts lightly — we don’t have unlimited time, after all — so I test them out for a while. The next episode I heard, Shadowboxing, ensured that The Memory Palace immediately exited probation. Shadowboxing was even better than Six Stories, about the life of John L. Sullivan, a champion boxer. There are a lot of conventional ways in which you could tell the story about such a person, but this one was different and its path was satisfyingly unguessable. “Now I get why Nate only podcasts once a month,” I thought. If anything it reminds me of what 99% Invisible was like before Roman Mars (IMHO) mistakenly heeded some listeners’ requests to lengthen the show.
The Memory Palace doesn’t appear to have any ads, which simultaneously pleases and worries me. I should totally go and donate to him right now, and maybe hire him to do an audio tour of some museum I like.
Snap Judgment (50 min): Take 16 minutes and just listen to Where No One Should Go. It has the quality of the very best radio, a personal story that unfolds deliberately and then ratchets the pressure higher and higher and higher. Just don’t listen to it before bedtime.
From NPR and PRX. I cheated a bit on this one because I haven’t listened to many episodes so I’m not fully sure I’ll stay subscribed, but the linked clip was so good that I’m happy to give it a shot.
Harmontown (2 hours): Heard of Community? This podcast is by its showrunner, Dan Harmon, and it’s actually a live recording of a weekly ‘town hall’ stand-up session he does in LA with his friends. About 50-75% of the episodes are absolute gold, full of ridiculous free-wheeling one-up joking, and enhanced by a never-ending cavalcade of guest comics and writers (last week was Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development). Apparently Robin Williams was on a couple of episodes, so I’m saving those for a rainy day. There’s also usually a live D&D session at the end as well.
The remaining 25-50% of episodes can be pretty dire; this week saw them talking about gender relations. It was very earnest and well-intentioned, I’ll give them that, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to listen to undergrad bull sessions any more. If it sounds like an episode is about to turn into this, just skip it – there’ll be another good one along next week!
In Our Time (40 min): Everyone has their own ‘this justifies the entire BBC licence fee’ show, and In Our Time is mine. Every week, it sees Melvyn Bragg invite on three guests to talk about the ‘history of ideas’ which in practice encompasses pretty much everything; the last three episodes were on Plato’s Symposium, The Medici, and Complexity (so yes, both arts and science!). While Melvyn usually does a good job at directing the discussion, it’s only as good as its guests, which means that some episodes can lag a little bit; plus if you already know about a particular subject reasonably well, you’re unlikely to hear anything new. However, the variety is so great that for most people that should happen very rarely.
I like In Our Time so much that a few years ago I set up a blog and wiki dedicated to the show. Both are now choked by spam due to my total lack of commitment to the project, but I did get interviewed by Radio 4 about it, which was neat.
This American Life (1 hour): The most popular podcast in the world, and deservedly so. Such story. Much emotion. Very NPR. No need for Adrian further support. Time subscribe.
Accidental Tech Podcast (90 min): One of the two surviving tech podcasts I subscribe to, largely because like all other Apple fans, I secretly admire John Siracusa’s supremely exhaustive deconstruction of things he dislikes (which is, apparently, everything). It assumes a high knowledge of technology, so if you don’t already read tech blogs, you’ll find it hard going. Marco Arment brings a nice level of in-the-trenches app development/business experience, and Casey Liss is a perfect foil to his two more-famous co-hosts.
Core Intuition (30 min): Even more Apple and tech-focused than ATP, and best enjoyed if you’re a Mac or iOS developer. I am not either of those, but I like hearing about what’s happening in that world. The hosts have a charmingly hang-dog attitude towards the profession and business of selling apps for a living, which I appreciate as a counterpoint to the hopped-up hype of Silicon Valley startups.
Thinking Allowed (30 min): “Laurie Taylor explores the latest research into how society words and discusses current ideas on how we live today.” In other words, it’s a weekly digest of sociology research presented by a guy who has a deep suspicion of the internet and has a strong self-indulgent streak. The reason why this is any good at all is because a) Laurie actually realises all of this and usually tries to do better and b) they get the original researchers on the show! Recent topics include Waiting in A&E, Faith and Doubt, Love, Santa’s Helpers, and Chicago.
99% Invisible (20 min): I have the T-shirt, and I’m willing to wear it — not just because I love the show, but because it’s got a great design. Which — segue alert! — is apropos because the podcast is all about design in the world around us, from Revolving Doors and Bubble Houses to US currency and the Steering Wheel. The host, Roman Mars, has built up an empire, raising half a million dollars on Kickstarter in two years, and has a lovely voice to boot.
At 15-20 minutes, 99% Invisible is very compact, and as mentioned earlier it used to be even shorter at only 5-10 minutes long. Maybe it’s just because I listen to too many podcasts that I pine for the old days. In any case, one of the very best episodes, Wild Ones Live (listen as soon as you have 30 minutes to spare) was longer, and it needed the extra time.
The Metafilter Podcast (90 min): There is no other online community that I have greater love for than the ‘community weblog’ Metafilter; it represents to me all that is good on the internet. Every month, the moderators discuss the posts they enjoyed, bringing to bear their particular experience (Matt Haughey, founder and internet elder statesman; Josh Millard, hacker and geek in the best senses of the words; Jessamyn West, America’s favourite librarian). It goes on a bit long and they don’t take it too seriously, so don’t expect a slick production here.
Fighting Talk (50 min): A BBC comedy quiz panel show about the week’s sporting news. If you don’t follow any sport, then you should probably give this show a pass. I don’t follow sport but I still listen because I consider it to be an enjoyable way to improve my British-specific cultural literacy such that I can say to normal people, “Well, he’s no Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor but he can’t throw darts half bad,” or “The Gooners might be happy they’re top of the league but as long as Wenger keeps that coat, there’s no way they’re winning,” etc etc.
The Incomparable (45-90 min): A weekly show about geek TV, films, games, books, and more. I only listen to half the episodes since they have a much higher tolerance for bad science fiction and fantasy than I do, but I enjoy being among ‘my people’ once in a while.
More or Less (30 min): Presented by Tim Harford, the Financial Times’ ‘undercover economist’, this show fights the good fight in explaining why 100,000 Christian martyrs don’t actually die every year, or why six cyclists dying in a week is tragic but not — statistically — particularly noteworthy. Tim is not the most natural radio presenter, bless him, but he’s getting better. The only problem is that the BBC mixes the Radio 4 and the World Service versions of the show (long and short respectively) together, which means you’ll have to manually delete the latter every week except in the weeks when the former isn’t on. Get it together, Beeb!
Leaving the Rotation
The Talk Show: I like reading John Gruber’s Daring Fireball and his unashamed advocacy of Apple, but he’s developed bad podcast habits ever since he lost his co-host; wildly long podcasts, endless digressions into minutiae, etc. There’s still good stuff there but I already have enough tech reading and listening in my life.
In Beta: While Kevin Purdy is a nice guy, it’s not the same without Gina Trapani, and no amount of guest hosts will fix that. I get the feeling that it’ll go on hiatus soon.
Planet Money: After 500 episodes (about 100 of which were seemingly about their T-shirt), I think I’ve heard everything they have to say about economics. It was a good run, guys, and I really appreciated the near-real-time commentary during the financial crisis, but I’ve moved on.
I co-host a weekly 30 min podcast about tech, art, religion, games, politics, culture, books, movies, “and much much more,” called The Cultures with my good friends Naomi Alderman and Andrea Phillips. It is very much an amateur affair but we enjoy doing it, so if you like what I write, please check it out! No ads, either…