By Erik Jones
You would think it was a scene from the 1930’s, but just recently my wife and I sat in the dark, listening to hours of compelling audio through a set of speakers.
It was Serial, a binge worthy show that finally put the word “podcast” firmly into the collective consciousness where it belongs. The first season was a massive success and has left many people wondering what this whole podcast thing is about. Unfortunately, what happens next is typically confusion on what else is worth listening to because there are an unbelievable amount of podcasts and not a lot of guidance.
There are over 285,000 podcasts to choose from, with every imaginable topic and format covered. It would take eight years of checking out one show per day to get through even the top 1% of what’s out there. Only an insane person would ever actually do that which means (assuming you’re sane) you’ll be lost before you begin without having a solid foundation of recommendations.
The types of recommendations I’d like to explore are those geared towards a widely curious person. Podcasts are perfect for people looking to expand their mind because they let you quickly soak in enormous amounts of information about the world, all while doing something mundane like driving or working out.
I put together a wide ranging list of shows that regularly make my head spin in the best possible way. Before getting to that though, I wanted to address some of the hurdles that prevent people from fully getting into podcasts. I’m always trying to convert people into podcast true believers and I’ve learned along the way that when people don’t have context on what’s what in podcast land, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH PODCASTS?
-The term “podcast” has been around since 2004 and is any recorded audio program that can be downloaded over the internet and subscribed to. You may say, “well that could mean anything!” Exactly, which is why it’s such an exciting medium.
-Apple did not invent podcasts, but iTunes and the iPod did catapult them on their slow and steady climb towards mainstream.
–Podcasts are steadily growing in popularity. There are now about 46 million listeners in the U.S.
-They are almost entirely free, with the exception of some popular shows charging to gain access to older episodes. This means ads, but usually only a few per episode at most, and sometimes only at the beginning or end. The ads are infinitely less annoying than regular radio ads because they are usually read by the host.
-Almost all public radio shows also release their content as a podcast, but any show that doesn’t have an NPR or some set of station call letters in the logo is probably a podcast only show. A lot of the best podcasts for learning have a tie to public radio, which I had somehow never listened to until getting into podcasts.
-Podcasts are not regulated by the FCC so they can have any content and length. This is where shit can get weird, usually in a good way.
-To make one, all you really need is a microphone, a computer and an internet connection. The barrier to entry is low, which is why there are that insane amount to sift through. It’s easy to make a podcast but extremely difficult to make one worth listening to.
-The average podcast is released on a set schedule and can be subscribed to. This allows the listener to get new episodes automatically downloaded to a device or computer.
-Having the choice to download the shows and being able to pause, rewind, or skip over ads is an advantage over the typical radio experience. Getting used to this control over what you want to listen to and when will make you despise the typical AM/FM radio experience.
WHERE TO GET PODCASTS
There are a lot of options but I’m going to keep it simple. Think of the places to download podcasts as similar to TV streaming services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, except in a world in which they all have the exact same content. They would all get you what you want, albeit in slightly different ways. Podcast players contain the same podcasts, but each app will allow for a slightly different experience.
For computers, the podcast most likely has it’s own website you can stream directly from, but the easiest thing is to use iTunes or Soundcloud, which both have everything in one spot.
For iOS devices, start off using the “Podcasts” app that is preloaded by Apple on your device.
For Android devices, search “podcast” within the Google Play store and choose the first free app that pops up. Stitcher radio or any other highly rated app will work fine.
Any podcast player would work to start, but I recommend experimenting with the many players out there to get a sense of the differences once you get more sucked into the podcast world. Pocket Casts and Overcast (ios only) are great apps to eventually graduate to if you want more features and a better experience.
If anything is still confusing, just watch this video of Ira Glass explaining to an old person how to listen to Serial. If you are still confused after that, there is no help for you.
THE SUPER SIZED PODCAST PLAYLIST FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE
This is the collection of my favorite podcasts that regularly make my brain hurt, which tells me they are doing something right. Some shows have hundreds of episodes so I included links to suggestions of where to start if the show sounds interesting to you.
The All Stars
OK, to start off I’ll list the podcasts I usually recommend first that have the perfect combination between popularity and the ability to teach you things you didn’t know that you didn’t know.
This American Life
Some of the best learning happens through stories. This American Life and host Ira Glass have made this show an art form over it’s multi-decade run. A Podcast fan not listening to this is like a fan of mob movies not watching The Godfather. To download more than the most recent episode you need to get their app, which for a few bucks is definitely worth it.
Don’t let the potentially boring name fool you. Out of everything on this list, I think this is closest to the perfect podcast for learning about the world. The episodes are short, well produced, and always deliver something interesting. This show was born after This American Life ran their story “The Giant Pool of Money” during the financial crisis. After this became their most popular show ever, they realized there was a need to explore stories within the sometimes complicated and hidden web of the economy.
The ultimate gateway drug for getting into podcasts. Regardless of what type of shows you might be into, you simply have to listen to this. It’s more entertaining than educational, but you will definitely walk away with a much greater understanding on how journalism and the justice system works.
Stuff You Should Know
Josh and Chuck are two of my favorite podcast hosts. They have great banter as they break down an interesting topic they usually didn’t know much about until they researched the heck out of it.
This show is a perfect example of how the right mix of great journalism, storytelling, and radio production skills can lead to one of the best ways to engage with a topic. They address a wide range of topics and have probably hurt my brain more than any other show. Don’t be deceived at the bland or vague sounding titles. The “colors” episode was the first I listened to on someone’s suggestion and it blew my mind.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
Alright, so Dan Carlin is a bit of an anomaly. He has this incredibly rare talent of being able to do a solo show on deeply complicated subjects and make them engaging as hell. This show single handedly got me more into history and I can’t recommend it enough, regardless of your interest in the topics he discusses. He consistently does multi-part series, with each episode being at least several hours long. This might sound insane, but just listen to one and you’ll be hooked. The best way to describe this podcast is a free audiobook of sorts on major historical events. Also, he doesn’t go off of a script as I learned during this interview. He is a true broadcaster and gives great insight into what different historians think while putting everything into context.
Logical Insanity (This may have fallen into the back catalogue that requires purchase, but this along with all the others are worth it.)
Freakonomics is a great and extremely popular book written by journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt. They look at all sorts of unexpected truths that can become obvious if you just know where to look, namely lots and lots of the right data. The podcast is created by Dubner and from what I’ve heard, are uniformly excellent. Dubner is a great journalist and is talented at taking large issues that sometimes get too sound bitey and exploring them in a satisfying and even handed way. I’ll recommend a two part show on health care and one that is a more fun and big idea kind of episode.
The Tim Ferriss Show
Great interviews with people across a wide range of personalities, all with the goal of dissecting excellence. This is definitely on my loyal listens list and is possibly my favorite podcast. You get a snapshot into what interesting, successful people are doing and what you can do to replicate their habits and success. The biggest commonality I’ve noticed between all of these interesting people is that every single one of them is hugely curious and are always learning new things.
TED Radio Hour
Hosted by long time NPR journalist, Guy Raz, who has teamed up with TED talks to bring their content to podcast form in a curated fashion. He takes several different talks that fit into a larger theme, edits them down, and squeezes in short interviews with the presenters. I’m a fan of TED talks but I simply don’t have the time to check out as many as I would like. This fixes that and actually makes it a better experience because you don’t have to figure out what to watch.
I got so much out of hearing the well researched stories from the shows listed below vs simply reading about them. The human voice combined with compelling stories hits me in deep parts of the brain that text simply can’t touch.
The hidden forces that shape our behavior. An ex producer from This American Life and an ex producer from Radiolab = must listen!
PBS Frontline documentaries literally just released in audio format. Similar to public radio, I’ve only recently discovered how excellent these are.
Focuses on thought provoking and entertaining stories involving the internet. It’s not viral video and meme discussions like you might think but some really interesting pieces.
It’s so easy to forget how narrow our view of the world is. Hearing how someone does their job can be a fascinating and essential way to get outside of our own little bubble.
A show exploring the design and architecture of the world and the hidden stories contained within. This show has short episodes that are packed with information that cause you to look at everyday items much differently.
Like most people, I am fairly allergic to political arguments. I’d much rather learn about politics in a big picture way than hear from a partisan talking head list off rhetorical points that primarily exist to make someone of an opposing opinion feel stupid. These shows hit that sweet spot that appeals to me.
Dan Carlin’s Common Sense
Dan Carlin’s independent mind and expert understanding of history makes his discussions my favorite way to ingest political thought.
KCRW’s Left, Right & Center
Get an idea of what all sides of the political spectrum think of current political issues.
Philosophy is one of those subjects that most benefits from self study and isn’t always appealing when you are told what to think or read in a classroom setting. Podcasts such as the one below allows the listener to set their own pace.
The Partially Examined Life
These four guys planned to become professors in philosophy and all decided in more reasonable life paths. Perfect for newbies and philosophy junkies alike.
There are TONS of business podcasts, with a wide range of niche’s and quality. I am a huge fan of cross pollination of knowledge across any subject, and the two shows below are completely different but equally valuable in adding to how to think about money flowing around you.
Listen to the entire first season to get an inside look of how a newly formed for-profit podcast producing company, Gimlet Media, tries to figure out how to raise money and survive. You will learn a lot about the podcast world and how the startup world works in this fascinating series. I’ve listened to everything Gimlet media has put out, and it’s all great, including the above mentioned Reply All.
The Smart Passive Income Podcast
If you want to learn anything to do with blogging or all the different ways to make money online, Pat Flynn is the guy. The topics are so varied, I didn’t know what to suggest, so check them all out and see what pops out at you.
I used to listen solely to music when I worked out or mowed the lawn. Now podcasts have taken over my life and are pretty much the only thing that go through my earbuds. Luckily, there are plenty of great music podcasts like NPR’s All Songs Considered that allow me to get both addictions addressed at the same time. They even sometimes contain unexpected ways to hurt my brain like the one below.
I wanted to highlight this one particular episode of WBEZ’s Sound Opinion podcast. It did something I didn’t think possible- made me a fan of Jazz. It is easy to be infected by the passion these hosts have for the music and gain such an appreciation for the genre.
SCIENCE & CRITICAL THINKING
Most of us have no need to ever revisit the periodic table, but ALL of us need to be able to be scientifically literate enough to make heads or tails of the endless scientific literature that seeps into the mainstream through sensationalized headlines. All of the shows below will make you a better thinker and more scientifically literate.
StarTalk Radio Show with Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is easily the best known science communicator alive today. A perfect place to start with this show is a two part live episode on evolution with Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, Eugene Mirman, Jim Gaffigan, and Maeve Higgins (the last three are comedians and make this surprisingly hilarious).
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe
If you love learning about science and strive to improve your critical thinking, then you are probably a skeptic. These two shows below are good introductions to the skeptical world and to this show.
You Are Not So Smart
You are unaware of how unaware you are. Excellent primers on many aspects of psychology from the context of our limitless ability to rationalize our self delusion. Plus with the best intro music and cookie recipes each episode, what more could you want?!
The Biggest Story in the World
The Guardian newspaper in the UK ran a campaign about global warming and this 12 part series gave a behind the scenes look at the process. This series gives great insight into journalism and the politics of global warming. The whole series is worth a listen, even though they did a terrible job letting the audience know who is currently speaking.
Dr Karl on triplej
I just discovered this show and I’ve quickly realized that Dr Karl is the Australian Carl Sagan and is pretty amazing. This podcast is what airs on a radio show in Australia and includes rapid-fire science and medical questions asked to Dr Karl. He talks fast, knows everything, and is infectiously curious.
A show from Mother Jones that from what I’ve heard so far, does a fine job exploring scientific and thought provoking questions.
The Knowledge Project
I recently discovered the Farnam Street blog which is an excellent site looking into psychology, decision making, science and everything in between. The creator, Shane Parrish, started this podcast, and so far it exactly fits my taste. Interviews with interesting people who share insights and recommend lots of books.
A short and sweet podcast that gives you a lot to think on without wasting your time with endless pontificating. The hosting duties are split between an astrophysicist, a biologist, and a neuroscientist and they “report on curiosities and current events in and beyond their fields”. Consider me a fan.
When I was younger, listening to a debate would be the last way I would want to spend my time. Now, as I’m becoming old and boring, I appreciate the idea of getting the full context on an issue in one spot rather than having to piece together many different biased articles that would have you think their opinion is the whole picture.
Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates
NPR produces this great series of debates that pit two teams of two against each other around a highly contested topic. The best part of this is that there are winners and losers, with the winning team being the one who swayed the most audience members from their original opinion. Also check out the UK version.
HOW TO FIND MORE
There are just so many podcasts in comedy, interviews, music, pop culture, video games, etc that I just couldn’t get into with the scope of this post, but hopefully the above is more than enough to help you scratch your curiosity itch for quite some time.
When you are ready for more, here are the best ways to keep it fresh.
1) Directories. All the different apps, as well as iTunes, have directories listing the most popular shows by topic. This is a good place to start but gives you the false illusion that these top lists are the only things worth checking out.
2) Rope friends into podcasts and make them feed you episodes they know you’ll like and vice versa.
3) Many popular podcasts are part of a network where they promote each other in order to survive easier in the crowded world of podcasting by giving each other visibility. Here are some large networks that have many mind-expanding shows, including several of the ones mentioned above: Panoply, Radiotopia, NPR, WBEZ Chicago, WNYC.
4) This site below is starting to get things going in the direction audio search needs to go in. Type in a topic or anything you might be interested in and it can search transcripts of the most popular podcasts and return relevant episodes to check out. https://www.audiosear.ch/.
5) Newsletters. I stumbled upon the hotpod newsletter written by Nick Quah. Check out the archive to get a bunch of great recommendations and industry news about podcasts. He also tipped me off to some other newsletters that recommend podcasts: The Podcast Broadcast from Brittany Jezouit and Adolescence is a Marketing Tool from Sara Weber. All are fantastic ways to ensure you will never come close to running out of things to check out. As a bonus I reached out to both Brittany and Sara to see what podcasts make them really think that I didn’t already include. A huge thank you to both of them for turning me onto some fantastic shows.
6) /r/podcasts on reddit is a great place to ask for suggestions. If none of that sentence makes any sense, check out my post on how to Become Smarter with Reddit for a full breakdown.
Just the beginning
This is just the beginning of the growth and market maturity of podcasts, so join the fun of being a podcast convert and endlessly harassing everyone else to get on board. One last recommendation- don’t be loyal to just a few shows. There are too many podcasts to get bogged down trying to listen to the back catalogue of just a handful of podcasts. Jump around, check out episodes that sound interesting and sample as many different types of shows as possible. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment with any of your own suggestions.