If you have looked at the internet in the last couple of weeks, chances are you’ve crossed paths with the world’s most popular podcast, Serial. It’s only 9 episodes in, but it has been downloaded millions of times, and has even inspired parodies. In a world of successful media entities, you might think this is normal. But it isn’t.
Things like Serial aren’t supposed to go viral. First of all it’s a podcast, and as a friend of mine once joked on Facebook, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it knows what it feels like to be a podcast.” Secondly, it is a careful journalist dissection of a 15 year old murder case, told in true crime style by a public radio veteran. No lolcats, no Kim Kardashian. No current affairs even.
Serial, an offshoot of Ira Glass’ wildly successful This American Life radio show, deserves the success it is experiencing. I’ll let you discover Serial on your own time (warning: be prepared to wave bye-bye to 9 consecutive hours of your life). And if you suddenly find yourself addicted to having something interesting coursing through your ears on public transport, here’s a list of podcasts you can sink your teeth into. Most of them aren’t narrative the way Serial is, but they’re all interesting in their own way.
I recommend using the Downcast app to listen to these on your phone, or you can go to the podcasts websites (which we’ve linked to) and stream in your browser.
Answer Me This This is a fun one with some occasionally UK-centric banter. The format is that people send in questions about mundane questions from their daily lives, or about the larger questions in life such as why is bread sliced, and the hosts do the research to answer it in a fun way. It’s foul-mouthed and very English. Which are both good things.
Inside The New York Times Book Review Each week, Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, talks to authors, editors and critics about new books, the literary scene and current best sellers.
BBC4′s The Infinite Monkey Cage This is England at its best. It combines stand up comedians and particle physicists, so you laugh your head off on public transport and come away having learned something about the meaning of the universe.
BBC4′s The Film Programme Francine Stock talks to directors, writers and critics about the latest film releases and classics, and she’s far more bearable that Mark Kermode on BBC 5 live’s film review program.
WNYC Here’s The Thing If you can get past Baldwin’s risible attempts at portraying gravitas by adopting a 1950s radiocaster voice, it’s actually pretty interesting. He’s a funny dude, and has access to some tremendous guests. He’s slightly obsessed with US politics though.
By The Way: In Conversation With Jeff Garlin Jeff Garlin, he of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, has candid conversations with everyone from Larry David to Micheal Sheen. The conversations are aggressively unstructured, and tend to go in interesting and unexpected places. And Garlin’s laugh alone is worth having this in your subscriptions.
Judge John Hodgman Hodgman is the epitome of East Coast deadpan absurdity. If you think he sounds family it’s because you’ve seen him on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. He takes up ridiculous ‘court cases’ between bickering friends, and conducts a mock trial. Funnay.
The New Yorker Fiction This one’s pretty self-explanatory.
Writing Excuses “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” That’s the pithy description that Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells have inscribed on their brilliant, fast-paced podcast about writing technique.
KCRW’s Film Reviews The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern gives a succinct and insightful review of one of the week’s releases.
NPR Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis provide hilarity with their regular panelists and weekly guest star. It’s very American humour, intellectual, witty and occasionally utterly silly in a very public radio way. There are recurrent sections, like Bluff the Listener and the Limerick Challenge, that give it an old school game show vibe. You’ll be cracking up in the car a lot.
The Moth The Moth is an acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, and this brilliant weekly podcast delivers their favorite stories from The Moth Mainstage, StorySLAMs and MothSHOP Community program.
NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour & Slate’s Culture Gabfest These two podcasts are my crack. Both have brilliant dynamics between all the hosts, and they discuss the main stories from the pop culture universe every week with a delicate balance of intelligence and self-derision. Recently Pop Culture Happy Hour has started doing Small Batch episodes, that they upload in between their full weekly programs, that take one timely topic and form a discussion around it for a few short, wonderful minutes.
WBEZ This American Life This is the podcast that spawned Serial. It is the daddy of narrative journalism, hosted by everyone’s favorite public radio host, Ira Glass.
WTF with Marc Maron Washed up comedian Marc Maron interviews other comedians, washed up and otherwise. It’s not necessarily funny but it’s a brilliant insight into the way an artist’s tortured mind works, and since stand-up comedians are the rockstars of our generation, it’s pretty cool.
The Guardian Tech Weekly An irreverent look at tech with Polish-American host Aleks Krotoski (pictured above), both about the software and hardware that make up our daily lives, as well as the social and economic implications they have in the long run.
KEXP Song of the Day Features exclusive in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent musicians, along with songs from more established artists. I’m not entirely sure how they get around rights issues (a lot of music podcasts feature short music clips to get around that), but it’s a thing of beauty.