Podcasts are definitely one of my favorite forms of media. They're an incredibly diverse, democratic, and creative format. The average podcast that I listen to is between 25 and 45 minutes long, with some outliers at the very short end being just a few minutes in some installments, and some of the more rambling ones stretching to over an hour each. I listen to several a day, mostly thanks to the fact that I walk to and from work, about 40 minutes each way. The bulk of the shows I subscribe to could be loosely called "educational" but a better word might be "exegetical" (as long as we're taking a pretty wide view of what is a "text"—and as a former academic, I certainly do). These podcasts are usually run by highly intelligent and vocally charismatic obsessives who have a passion for sharing the things they are obsessed with. Some are produced as more traditional radio essays, some as panel discussions, some as sort of dramatic monologues. (Podcasts are also the reason that this blog is built as a Squarespace site, since they are one of the most frequent sponsors on nearly EVERY SINGLE PODCAST I listen to, so when I started to think about making a blog, that was pretty much the only way I could conceive of doing it.)
I currently have 25 subscriptions. My newest podcast crush is on a show made by two sisters in London called "Rosie and Jessica's Day of Fun." It's pretty much the audio equivalent of a very twee and delightful lifestyle blog with a fair amount of pop culture thrown in. I have a pretty crippling case of swooning Anglophilia (and spent time studying abroad in England during my college years), so most of what I love about this is the Britishness of it all, but Rosie and Jessica are also quite funny and have given me all sorts of ideas for things to read, watch, listen to, bake, and knit (once I get around to learning how to knit). In any case, it's thoroughly charming. One of the recurring features on the show is called "Top Five," wherein they each list their top five entries in a particular category, usually pop-cultural but sometimes more prosaic, such as the week they did sandwich fillings. In the spirit of this feature, here, in no particular order, are my Top Five Podcasts! (All of which are completely nerdy in a variety of delightful ways.)
1. Pop Culture Happy Hour
This is the podcast that started it all for me. I was told to start listening to it in 2011, when it began, by someone I should have listened to but didn't, but when I did finally get around to listening, I got very attached very fast. It's a round-table discussion show featuring four panelists, all with some connection of varying strength to NPR, and they talk about all kinds of topics surrounding popular culture: not just specific books, movies, music, and TV shows, but also larger ideas like authenticity, the job of the critic, and pop cultural rites of passage. The heart of the show is Linda Holmes, who is the editor of NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See, a smart and lovely writer, and a personal role model of mine. She writes and speaks with humor and honesty and erudition on a staggeringly wide variety of topics on the podcast and the blog and Twitter and I am a little bit besotted with her. The other regular panelists include Linda's best friend, NPR Music correspondent Stephen Thompson, and Glen Weldon, who is technically a Real Writer but for all intents and purposes should probably just give up and become professionally hilarious on Twitter full time. There used to be a fourth regular panelist, the now oft-missed Trey Graham, but currently they have a rotating group of guests, which I think actually works really well for the show. I'm *DYING* for them to come do a live show in Boston, but for now I content myself with relistening to some of my favorites when the gap between weekly shows just seems too long. Here are a few of those favorite episodes:
The Authenticity Business and a Colorful Quiz
Jane the Virgin and Sexy Sex Thrillers
Profanity in Popular Culture and Outdated Tech
The Golden Globes and Twitter Criticism
2. Song Exploder
Oh, I love Song Exploder so much. The recommendation for this actually came from Glen Weldon during an edition of the "What's Making Us Happy" section of Pop Culture Happy Hour, which is where all the panelists share something they love that week. In Song Exploder, the brilliant Hrishikesh Hirway gets musicians to break down and analyze the component parts of music they have made. This involves playing bits and pieces of tracks, telling personal anecdotes that relate to the music, and dropping random pieces of music theory, history, and trivia. Because of the way the show is edited, it often comes out seeming like the artist is just recounting the story in isolation, but I strongly believe that Hrishikesh is too self-effacing in his editing and that he's something of an artist himself in the way he stitches everything together. This podcast has turned me on to music I never would have listened to otherwise and given me deep appreciation for songs in genres I usually have no interest in. This is an awesome show. Here are a few standout episodes, although I honestly don't think I've ever heard a bad one (although I do wish he'd talk to a few more female creators sometimes):
Jeff Beal, "House of Cards (Main Title Theme)"
The Long Winters, "The Commander Thinks Aloud"
How to Dress Well, "Pour Cyril"
3. The Allusionist
This is another fairly new and SUPER British podcast discovery. This one is run by Helen Zaltzman, another girlcrush of mine, who mostly seems to make a living being clever and funny and hugely nerdy all day. This podcast focuses specifically on words, which are some of my favorite things. It hasn't been around for too long, but here are a few early stand-out episodes:
Ban the Pun
This is another brilliant NPR podcast. It's fairly new, having just run one series at the point, but it should come back soon (?) for more. The idea behind the podcast is that it "explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior," which seems a little vague but allows the two hosts, Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, to pretty much go wherever they want with it, and the creative license they take is one of the show's real strong points. The episodes usually feature a few deep-dive stories around a common theme, or a creative pairing of seemingly dissimilar stories around an insightful interpretation of a common theme, plus a few little vignettes and personal anecdotes from the hosts. That mix of levels and tones is really compelling to me; it's both silly and serious, awesome (in the sense of awe-inspiring) and kind of petty, sometimes. They occasionally get a bit too far into dime-store philosophy and public-radioy "driveway moment" heartstring-pullers, but for a show that's only had six full episodes so far, they're doing pretty great. My favorite episodes in the first series were these three:
The Secret History of Thoughts
How to Become Batman
5. Obviously Rosie and Jessica's Day of Fun!
For the ones everyone likes: Serial, 99% Invisible, Welcome to Night Vale
For raw emotional content: The Heart, Dear Sugar Radio, Love + Radio
For other lovely nerdiness: How to Do Everything, Reasonably Sound, The Worst Bestsellers
What are you favorite podcasts?? Do you feel the same way about this magical, wonderful art form as I do? Please share in the comments, I can always use more recommendations!
This whole entry is basically "Recommended Listening," and IF you listen to many of these, you will also end up with a whole lot of reading recommendations, so just do that, will you?