- Erin L. Miller
15 PICKS FROM A PODCAST JUNKIE
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
My foray into podcasts is, I imagine, the same as many. A long commute meant I wore out most of my music and needed something to fill the space to and from work.
I think the key reason I listen to so many podcasts is because they never fail to make me feel connected to other people. It's easy to become a victim of your own thoughts until you realize that so many other people are experiencing something similar (or completely different—because there's a comfort in that too).
Aside from that, podcasts fascinate, educate, and keep me curious—something lost on a lot of folks after they reach adulthood. They carry on traditions from oral history and radio broadcasting. There's an intimacy in experiencing something solely on sound.
Of the picks below are ones that hit many of the "best podcast" lists. And others I just plain love and want to tell people about. You'll also probably notice I'm partial to what NPR and WNYC puts out (although, there are a metric ton of options out there).
This American Life
Anyone keen to the podcast world will recognize the name This American Life. Chunked out into "acts," each episode touches on stories of human nature and relies heavily on rich storytelling. It's frank, relatable, poetic, and almost always strikes an emotional chord with me.
When I saw Ira Glass give a talk in Greensboro, he said he liked radio because listeners go into it without any preconceived notions. Without relying on body language or visual cues, all that's left is a voice and the emotional timbre that comes from that voice. It allows us to place ourselves more easily inside those experiences and cultivates empathy.
Another one to log in the podcast mainstays, Radiolab (loosely) revolves around science. It has many of the same qualities as This American Life. Relatable, engaging, eloquent, and speaks to some sort of human truth.
A couple of episodes worth checking out:
From Tree to Shining Tree (I'll never look at trees the same)
Funky Hand Jive (fun fact: you carry bacteria from your mother for the rest of your life)
Glynn Washington + team pulls from an impressive creative well to produce a podcast with soul, poetry, and grit that's hard to match. A blend of humor, social justice, storytelling and everywhere in between, Snap Judgment is about the art of seeing the world through someone else's eyes.
From the creators of This American Life, this is the most addicting podcast I've heard to date. A long-game investigative journalism project, Serial follows Sarah Koenig in her thorough examination of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Puzzled together with interviews with accused murdered Adnan Syed, along with Koenig's own research and conclusions, each episode is truly engrossing. Hands down, one of the best true crime podcasts out there.
Another arm of This American Life, S-Town follows the story of John B. McLemore (an exceptionally interesting human being). It examines small-town America, politics, crime, horology, personal circumstance, and mental health. It starts in one direction and shifts into completely different territory. I love anything that has the capacity for surprise like that.
Neuroscientists have only begun to scratch the surface of their comprehension of the human brain. Hosted by Shankar Vedantam, Hidden Brain dives into all the human quirks and brain stuff that makes us behave the way we do. I always come out of the other side of each episode understanding a little more about the way I navigate and interact with the world.
Stuff You Should Know
Stuff You Should Know is candid, down-to-earth, and fascinating. It gives the feeling of sitting in your living room sharing casual conversations about important subjects. Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant give the mood of being among friends. They talk about everything from faith healing to satanism to trickle-down economics—with some delightful tangents into film and music.
Hosted by Benjamin Grundy and Aaron Wright, Mysterious Universe lays out some of the weirdest wonders of the world. Topics range from multiple personality disorder to myth and folklore.
TED Radio Hour
A round-up of some of the most important and evocative conversations of the modern age, TED Radio Hour is a podcast essential. It's all about discovery, innovation, technology, psychology, and a laundry list of other topics.
In Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner confronts the task of making economics digestible, relatable, and applicable to the real world. Money is one of those ubiquitous things that people think about a lot but don't talk about. Dubner discusses it in a way that's both eloquent and relevant.
Having a UX designer sister, I've always been on the periphery of design. While I may not be familiar with the nitty gritty, granular mechanisms of it, I've always been an appreciator of it. 99% Invisible gets its title from the idea that design is all around us without our even being aware. It encompasses design, architecture, and feats of engineering, often diving into the socio-economic implications. Ones that have stuck in the mind explore airships, Fordlandia, and the St. Louis "dollhouses."
The Paris Review
This one likely has the most beautifully cultivated sound design I've heard. Not only is The Paris Review one of my favorite literary journals, but they also put on a hell of a podcast. Each episode is a crafted compilation of poems, stories, and interviews. A great one for anyone who appreciates creative writing.
Death, Sex & Money
Anna Sale isn't afraid to have difficult conversations. In an effort to normalize this, she created a podcast that talks about the three topics we all skirt around: Death, Sex & Money. In the age of "ghosting," I think people are becoming more averse to having these types of conversations. I'm glad Sale is carving out a space for it.
If you ever need a good sob on your drive home from work, check out The Moth. One of the best story podcasts out there, it dives into both the devastating and humorous alike.
The Splendid Table
I love food. It turns out that I also love listening to people talk about food. The Splendid Table thoughtfully discusses food and the culture behind it with some of the best chefs and culinary aficionados out there. They have whole episodes dedicated to things like butter, mushrooms, and Spanish sauces. (Plus, the word "splendid" is lacking some well-deserved real estate in the world.)
Think I'm missing any? Share some of your favorites!