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What I’m Listening to These Days: My Favorite Podcasts

November 21, 2017

I’ve been an avid podcast listener since Apple released its native podcast app in 2005. I listen on my commute, drives anywhere, walking through the hardware or grocery store, working in the yard or around the house. I listen to podcasts or audiobooks almost everywhere I can. In the past few years, I started listening to podcasts as I go to sleep because it keeps my mind focused on one thing instead of flitting about.

I saw this story about people who listen to podcasts at high speeds. I usually listen to audiobooks at 1.25x or 1.5x, depending on the speed of the performer and type of book, but I rarely do the same with podcasts. However, it did get me thinking about how much I consume weekly. The article says “over 20% of podcast listeners listen to more than six per week.” I would guesstimate I listen to about twenty podcasts a week. Some are shorter than others—the NPR News Now podcast is released twice daily and is only five minutes, whereas Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, released every few months can be five hours an episode.

My favorites have changed over the years. Some of the podcasts I used to listen to religiously—Sound Opinions, Science Friday and On the Media—have taken back seats to newer discoveries. Others, like Slate’s Political Gabfest have been on my must-listen weekly list for a decade.

Here’s what I’m listening to these days:

Every Episode, Always Of…

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Slate’s Political Gabfest is all about the chemistry. Although the three hosts have since moved on from their Slate writing days—Emily Bazelon is a legal expert and staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, John Dickerson hosts CBS’s Face the Nation and David Plotz is CEO of Atlas Obscura —they have continued to sync up for this weekly show on politics. I’ve grown to feel like they’re old friends. Their personalities are a great blend: Emily is bubbly and brilliant, Plotz is cranky and argumentative, and Dickerson is a highly-respected, throwback down-the-middle journalist. Their generally left-of-center points of view are usually well-reasoned, and their rapport is a weekly delight. I also credit them with many great recommendations over the years, including getting me started with Audible, Dan Carlin and David Blight’s Civil War course. They’ve responded to more than one of my tweets (as has Dickerson, separately) and years ago featured one of my book recommendations on their show. By far my favorite podcast. I’ve listened to every single one for over a decade.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is released about every 3-4 months, and sometimes the wait can be excruciating. Each show is 1-6 hours long, and he sometimes strings them together in a series (“Death Throes of the Republic” about the fall of the Roman Empire is six episodes, and his “Blueprint for Armageddon” series on WWI is over 19 hours in total). He focuses on the extremes of the human condition and likes to get into the trenches, dungeons and fighting pits of history. Each show is well-sourced and will add columns to your reading list. I credit Carlin for sparking my interest in WWI, among other things. Joe Rogan, another prolific podcaster, said Dan Carlin’s podcast is “one of the greatest things in the history of history.” Hyperbole, maybe, but if more history teachers were like him, Americans would be less ignorant about our world.

Last Week’s Balls is a podcast that two of my friends are involved in (one is a co-host, the other the producer). The show is two old pals, Nikki and Ana, talking about “sports and dating and other stuff.” Some great stories and inventive counter-factuals espoused weekly. The dating stories could be material for a sitcom, and their sports knowledge goes much deeper than mine (except on MMA, which they know nothing about yet opine on freely from time to time). Overall, the show has the vibe of morning talk radio but the charm of two old friends just having a good time.

 

I Listen To Most Episodes of…

KCRW’s Left, Right and Center is a political podcast that argues all sides of an issue. The lineup has changed over the years. I don’t miss Arianna Huffington, who would audaciously be introduced as neither left nor right but “somewhere beyond” (b.s.—she was clearly far left). But I do miss Chrystia Freeland, who used to appear often and whom I developed a huge brain crush on. I also wish David From was a more frequent guest. But whoever is on, the discussion is usually smart and lively.

The Gist from Slate is loud-mouth word-wizard Mike Pesca talking about politics and whatever else is on his mind, with sometimes interviews from filmmakers, musicians, comedians, comics and writers. I found Pesca abrasive at first but have grown to really like him (except the rare episodes when he sings—that is and will always be horribly abrasive).

WTF With Marc Maron is a fantastic interview show where comedian Marc Maron’s own neurosis and openness set the tone for long sit-down conversations with famous people in his garage. Known for getting in deep with his subjects, the interviews can sometimes feel like mutual therapy sessions. He sometimes fights with his guests, sometimes gets frustrated that he can’t connect, and often reflects on the vibe of the interview. There are currently 864 episodes and some unlikely gems in the bunch. The show where Obama comes to Marc’s garage and the follow-up where Marc talks about interviewing the President are fantastic. His repost of his interview with Robin Williams upon news of his death, with Marc’s devastating intro, is heartbreaking. But the best ones tend to be the guests who you know but don’t really know—Bobcat GoldThwait, Alice Cooper and Willem Dafoe come to mind.

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Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is another great interview podcast. Jesse actually helped Marc Maron get started. His guests tend to be smaller names—usually comedians, writers and hip hop musicians. He’s a very smart, charming interviewer. A great podcast for discovering new music and writers.

 

More Politics

I started listening to Face the Nation when John Dickerson took over as host. He’s a great interviewer and will push his subjects when they spout nonsense, but he deals with too many top U.S. politicians who are trained to stick to their partisan talking points. So the show is often just a bullhorn for politicians who don’t really want to engage. The roundtable analysis isn’t bad, though.

Radio Atlantic is a weekly podcast with a political bent. Like the magazine, it has quality, in-depth content. How a person becomes a Neo-Nazi, an interview with Khizr Khan and Alphabet’s (Google’s) moonshot projects are all recent topics.

The Ezra Klein Show and The Axe Files are both great for their in-depth conversations with big-name people in the political world who actually will engage in substantial conversations. Axelrod is less annoying than Klein, but they’re both really smart and good interviewers.

And though I haven’t listened in a bit, to balance out my left-leaning listening I sometimes listen to The Federalist Radio Hour, Radio Free GOP and Politico’s Off-Message.

 

On Science and Neuroscience

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There is probably no better-produced podcast than Radiolab. The off-beat science stories are fascinating, and the hosts—Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich are completely endearing and likable with their childlike curiosity and amazement.

The Hidden Brain and Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History are both really interesting, though I’d be more willing to put money on the factual accuracy of the first. Plus, one time someone told me that they’d met Malcolm Gladwell and that he smelled funny. Probably not a fair way to judge a podcast, but sometimes I can’t shake that.

For people who like to think about how we think, Rationally Speaking is smart and usually interesting. And Science Vs takes controversial topics and tries to prove them right or wrong with science.

Podcasts On Books

When I finish a book, I’ll often scan through my list of book-focused podcasts and see if I can find any episodes on that book. NPR Books and Slate’s Audio Book Club are pretty reliable, but I prefer the longer, if less professionally-produced podcasts. The hosts of Literary Disco  are sometimes annoying, but the conversations are usually fun and lively. On Overdue, they talk about the books “you’ve been meaning to read” (ditto on the hosts).

 

Miscellaneous

A few other randos that I listen to every once in awhile:

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99% Invisible reminds me of Radio Lab in its calming demeanor, but it focuses more on the design of the world around us. Everything from how queues are designed to household products to architecture to how money is made to prevent counterfeitting.

Speaking of currency, Planet Money is an interesting podcast about, shocker, economics.

Creative Confidence and The Accidental Creative are good for the business of creative thinking. And How I Built This interviews top CEOs and founders of the best companies in the world.

Finally, Trumpcast is a good listen if you want to get angry and feel like we live in a complete idiocracy and the world is going to shit.

 

The exciting thing to me is that although radio has been around for almost a century, the podcast democratizes the medium so anyone with a mic and a voice (and hopefully an idea) can create content. In fact, Dan Carlin was recently on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about that very thing.

We’re still in the early days of the medium. There are still many many voices to be heard, niches to be explored and styles to be invented. I wish there were more listening hours in the day.

What’s in your ears?

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