During March, NPR and others are encouraging podcast enthusiasts to share their favorite content. Last year, I asked for recommendations, and my friends provided. Now I am almost always listening to a podcast: while I’m getting ready in the morning, working out or out for a walk, doing housework, driving. I use the default podcast app on my iPhone, but there are many more out there for all types of platforms.
Here are my top ten favorites, in no particular order. If you give one a listen and like it, I’d love to hear what you think!
The Sporkful (WNYC)
It should surprise no one that I like a show about food. I love food. But this is not a highbrow foodie program – it’s about the foods that we all know and love. These episodes are short and usually full of laughter. My favorite episodes are the arguments that seem insane on the surface (is cereal a soup? is a taco a sandwich?), but end up making you reconsider some of your etymological assumptions. I learned a lot, too, about the struggles of people with food sensitivities and particular religious diets through this show.
Judge John Hodgman (MaxFun)
I wish I had thought of this idea first. John Hodgman listens to disputes between people – such as, recently, “I want to convert our master bedroom into a dedicated virtual reality space, but my wife is not down” – and, after listening to arguments from both sides, decides on the issue. One of my favorite aspects of this show is the inversion of drama. Ordinarily, in court shows, we come to see people at their worst. The “litigants” in JJH present their issues not only humorously and with affection for the person they’re arguing with, but they also allow the listeners a peek into their personalities and individual lives as well. It is always charming and uplifting.
My Brother, My Brother and Me (MaxFun)
I discovered those McElroy boys through Monster Factory, a youtube show where Griffin and Justin abuse video game character creation mechanics to make hilarious and disturbing creations, all of whom they refer to lovingly as their children. This kind of joyful positivity is infectious, and it led to me finding more and more of their content (so much content).
In MBMBaM, the boys take questions from listeners and Yahoo Answers and try to give advice. Spoiler alert: it’s mostly jokes and goofs, but on the rare occasion that actual advice is given, it is always heartfelt and sincere. The best part about MBMBaM is that, in their pursuit of inclusivity, the brothers are outrageously enthusiastic about everything, and it is this aspect of their comedy that sets them apart.
I could fill this post entirely with McElroy brother content. They are prolific. It was hard to put only one of their shows here, especially since I’ve just caught up on The Adventure Zone – a DnD podcast they do with their dad – and I can’t believe how invested I’ve become in this story. It is so good. But MBMBaM was the first, and I think it’s the McElroys at their best. And now it’s a TV show! Truly, if you could use a laugh, put on anything by the McElroy brothers and your day will be a little brighter.
Reply All (Gimlet)
Even with my lousy memory, Reply All has the least forgettable content. Maybe it’s because I encounter the general themes of the show – the internet and technology – so routinely. But the stories they tell are so engaging and relatable – especially for my generation, where so much of our culture originates and spreads through the internet. Example: a few months ago, there was an episode in which Alex and PJ took calls from anyone for 48 consecutive hours. For a show that is usually very upbeat and humorous, it was rawer than I was prepared for. I think about it often. I think about Reply All content in general pretty often.
My dad grew up in Providence. When I came home on leave last year, he drove me around his old neighborhood, dropping names and connections that didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Shortly after that, Crimetown came out, an investigation on Rhode Island’s mob past. As I listen, the names and places that my dad told me about come rushing back. This show isn’t just RI’s past; it’s my dad’s past, too, growing up in a place where organized crime was part of the neighborhood. He loves this show.
Even if it didn’t hit so close to home, I would still listen to Crimetown. It is journalism that feels intimate and alive. I suspect they will do other cities in future seasons, and maybe it will make those cities feel close to home, too.
Planet Money (NPR)
Planet Money is my favorite “short and sweet” weekly podcast. It presents economics in current events in a way that makes me actually care. It is funny and playful. The episodes are also usually the perfect length to listen to while I get ready in the morning, and I always feel like I learned something after I’ve finished listening.
Radiolab Presents: More Perfect (WNYC)
Radiolab – the original podcast – is very good, but More Perfect is great. It only ran for a few episodes, but they were all totally engrossing. More Perfect discusses the history and events surrounding some of the most interesting decisions of the Supreme Court. If there was any one podcast that I desperately want to return to life, it’s this one. It packs a lot of fascinating insights into only a few episodes.
99% Invisible (PRX)
99PI discusses aspects of design and history that are hidden in plain sight. I found one of my new favorite blogs (McMansion Hell) through 99PI. I learn something new every time I listen; more importantly, I learn something new in a way that makes me perceive and interact with the world a little differently than before. Roman Mars also has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard, which makes learning even more of a pleasant experience.
Welcome to Night Vale (Night Vale Presents)
Welcome to Night Vale is the strange show about a fictional desert town that reignited my love of podcasts. It comes off a little heavy-handed in the weirdness sometimes, but the world of Night Vale stays consistent and believable because, I think, it creates an atmosphere where not only is anything possible, but also nothing is surprising. It is thirty minutes, twice a month, which allow me to think past my expectations of “normal” and wonder, “What if?”
The Night Vale folks have a few other weird-fiction shows: Alice Isn’t Dead (a truck driver searching for her missing wife becomes involved in a surreal plot), The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) (the janitor of the Eiffel Tower tries to get involved in the radio show being broadcast there), and Within the Wires (the narrator of instructional audio tapes subtly coerces the listener to escape from an institution).
Snap Judgment (WNYC)
Whereas other weekly themed storytelling podcast like The Moth engages with its rawness – one person, on a stage, sharing a story – Snap Judgment excels in composition, mixing music with personal narrative. I have never listened to an episode of Snap Judgment that wasn’t totally engrossing. Better yet, Snap is focusing increasingly on stories that don’t always reach the mainstream – stories from people with diverse backgrounds and struggles. They are usually from individual experience, sometimes from fiction, but they’re always true.