Podcasts 101: Recommendations

By Rachel Stewart

I love podcasts; at least once a day I’ll pull one up and listen to it.  Fun fact: I actually have one on right now while writing this.  Podcasts are shows that are told only using audio; radio shows, but not on the radio.  Even though you can usually find episodes of a podcast on that podcast’s website, I recommend getting an app, like the simply-named “Podcasts,” so you can see all of your podcasts in one place, and you’ll get notifications when new episodes come out.  They cover almost any topic you can imagine, and while most are non-fiction, there are some fictional ones.  There are more than 115,000 English language podcasts, so the search to find the ones for you can seem harrowing, but never fear–I’m here to give you my top 5 recommendations (in no particular order), in which you’ll hopefully find one that fits your listening pleasure.

1. Night Vale- Fiction- Dark Humor

My personal favorite, and the only fictional feature on this list, Night Vale is for all my fellow dark humorists out there, who just love when something seems not quite right.  This podcast features “twice-monthly community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring…announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, [and] dark hooded figures with unknowable powers…Turn on your radio and hide.”  Our main character, Cecil Palmer, hosts this community radio station, relating to us the recent happenings in the town, and introducing us to recurring town citizens, such as Hiram McDaniels, the three-headed dragon, and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, whose name is pretty self-explanatory. You’ll need to listen to this podcast in chronological order, because believe it or not, there actually is an overarching plot. Through these strange happenings, you will become attached to this town, and all the unique characters within it, rendering you incapable of leaving.  However, whether that’s because you’re just enjoying it so much, or because of unseen mystical forces is yet to be determined…

2. This American Life- Non-fiction- Personal storytelling

Maybe the most popular podcast of all time, This American Life is a weekly podcast, hosted by Ira Glass, that takes a look at one topic and then examines it through different stories, or “acts” as the podcast refers to them.  Usually Glass only narrates the first story, an introduction to that episode’s topic, and then maybe a little something in between the acts. Then, he hands the reins over to other contributors, who share their story related to the topic.  They try to take journalism to the lives of everyday people, and tell stories about people from all walks of life.  Even though most of the acts focus on real things that have happened to real people, occasionally they will have a fictional piece read, such as a short story from a book or a poem.  You don’t have to listen to this in any particular order, but the only free episode they offer is whatever the most recent episode is.

3. RadioLab- Non-fiction- Science & Philosophy

Radiolab, another one of my top favorites, is similar to This American Life (TAL) in that it also focuses on one theme for each episode, and then explores it in many ways.  However, Radiolab is different, and personally I prefer it to TAL.  For one, its hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, host the entire show, and the show is built upon the ongoing dialogue between them and whatever guests they bring onto the show.  Also, this show lends itself to explore more abstract topics such as “Blame” and “Worth.”  As a result of this, the show ends up exploring their topics in a little more of an unorthodox way, poking at them from more unique angles.  Also, many times debates between Abumrad and Krulwich arise over the ethics of whatever is being talked about or the future consequences of something.  It’s described as a show “designed for listeners who demand skepticism, but appreciate wonder.”  All of their episodes are available for free, and my personal favorite is “The Bad Show,” in which they examine the dark side of human nature.  If that seems a bit too dismal for you, then they also have an episode entitled “The Good Show,” which, you guessed it, examines the kind, caring, and compassionate parts of human nature.

4. B**** Media- Non-fiction- Social Commentary

(No posted logo because use of profanity)

This podcast is a “feminist response to pop culture,” where the hosts, Amy Lam and Sarah Mirk “analyze popular media with an eye on gender, race, class, and sexuality.”  Every week one of two podcast types is released.  One is called “Popaganda,” which is an hour-long episode focused on one topic, ranging from serious topics such as “A Protest is not a Riot” to more fun topics such as “The Evolution of Wonder Woman.”  The other is called “Backtalk,” which is a quick, thirty-minute conversation about the past week in pop culture, looked at through an intersectional feminist lens.  This podcast will not be for everyone, but it’s very educational, while being presented in an entertaining and engaging way.  I highly enjoy it, and it can help to open people’s eyes for the first time, think more critically about pop culture, or to broaden their  already-existing ideas about what topics feminism can cover.

5. Serial- Non-fiction- True Crime Investigative Journalism

This podcast, which is actually a spin-off of This American Life, exploded in popularity when it was airing last year.  It follows the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of Adnan Syed.  The intrigue to this podcast lies in Syed’s trial, the shaky case against him that put him in jail, eliciting doubt about whether or not he is truly guilty. Through interviews from people involved in the case, real audio from the trial, talking to Adnan Syed himself, and more, the host, Sarah Koenig takes us in deep into this case, analyzing it piece by piece in every episode.  This is not a clear-cut story where at the end the true killer is found, and everything is wrapped up in a pretty bow; this is real life.  You will never hear Koenig say, “Yep he definitely did it,” or, “Nope, it couldn’t have been him,” and I think that’s part of what makes people love it so much  As of now, Syed’s time on the podcast is over, with 12 episodes wrapping up season one.  That doesn’t mean Serial is over though, as season two is said to premier this fall, introducing a new story to captivate listeners once again.

Honorable Mentions-

Call Your Girlfriend- Social Commentary/Comedy- Two feminist best friends, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, discuss current events through a socially conscious–and hilarious–eye, which includes topics such as casual racism, rom-coms, “free boobin’,” Lorde’s lipstick, Stanley Tucci, and much more. Similar to B**** Media, but more lighthearted and humorous, and more of a casual conversation with two friends.

All in The Mind- Psychology- An Australian broadcast that takes listeners on a “weekly foray into the mental universe,” with topics ranging from delusions, to dreams, to everything in between.

Stuff You Missed in History Class- History- This podcast highlights the “greatest and strangest” things in history that your classes probably missed teaching you about.

The Alton Browncast- Food- Remember Good Eats on Food Network with the charismatic host, Alton Brown? He’s since moved on from that classic show, but now has his own podcast.  He discusses recent food news, talks to celebrities (such as the wonderful Bobby Flay) and “basically does whatever he flippin’ wants for 45 minutes.”