Podcasts for Today’s Discerning Crowd of Undifferentiated Millennials
Shove an earbud in the bud of your ear these days and you’re able to listen to practically every word or note ever spoken or noted in the recorded history of man. That’s pretty impressive and pretty daunting. And with the smash success of shows like Serial and Invisibilia, the burgeoning format of the Podcast has risen to new-found prominence. These pre-recorded shows come in all kinds of form, style, and content- Serial was an investigation of a supposedly solved murder that exposed serious problems in the criminal justice system; Invisibilia explores the weirdness of the human mind and science. Both have roots in the venerable NPR tradition, specifically through This American Life and both come highly recommended. But once you get through them, what else is there to listen to? Plenty. Let me share some of my favorites with you.
This is one of the weirdest, best shows around. I don’t just mean among podcasts and audio format, I mean of all shows. The conceit of the show is that it is a local radio news broadcast from this desert town called Night Vale. The host of the show is Cecil who provides town updates and information to the inhabitants of the town and we, the eavesdropping listeners slowly learn all about the pervasive weirdness of the town. Such weirdness includes the Sheriff’s Secret Police, The Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, the Dog Park, Hooded Figures, and the coming of the Smiling God. That’s just a handful of the many deeply odd aspects of the show.
What really brings it all together though, what keeps you intrigued and emotionally engaged amidst the shitstorm of confusion is host Cecil’s rich humanism. His love of Night Vale is infectious and his schtick- to treat even the most insane occurrences with the bemused detachment of someone reading off your local community calendar- supremely effective. No other show on this list has effected me on as deep an emotional level as WTNV’s combination of warmth and nihilism.
Recommended For: Fans of Twin Peaks, People who wish Lake Wobegon would be invaded by sentient pyramids, cosplay enthusiast who like to cosplay as people/creatures that are never physically described.
I started listening to this, honestly, in order to figure out which HP Lovecraft stories were actually worth reading. I ended up devouring the show and reading fewer of the Lovecraft stories than I had expected. And that kind of highlights what is so great about this show: The hosts love good Lovecraft but they aren’t afraid to mock the bad ones or to point out which ones are sub-par or outright bad. They also don’t offer apologies or excuses for the troubling features of Lovecraft- namely that some of his stories or pretty awfully racist.
Hosts Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer have an easy camaraderie and are engaging, funny, and (though they might deny it) very smart on Lovecraft and contemporary “weird fiction”. In their first hundred or so shows they review every story of HP Lovecraft, from the bad to the good, with a layman’s approach levied with a good bit of background info. They aren’t interested, mostly, in picking the works apart for hidden allusions and literary obscurity; they tell you what the story is about and they tell you which bits are good, which are funny, which are creepy, and then they provide some background and easter egg type info that makes the story deeper or richer. They have long-since exhausted the corpus of Lovecraft’s work and moved on to contemporaries and influences of Lovecraft. One of the nicest things about the podcast is that they stick to Public Domain works and they provide you with easy and free ways to access the works they’re reviewing beforehand, allowing the more homework-minded among us to be prepared each bi-week.
I highly recommend subscribing to the premium feed. Though they still produce a monthly free show, there’s just a ton more content on the premium feed (for $6.66 every three months) that is well worth the purchase. And they also have a bunch of full readings of HP Lovecraft stories that are well worth the listen.
Recommended For: Cthulhu Cultists (aka Cthultists), fans of weird fiction, people annoyed by anyone who tries to defend Lovecraft’s racism. Readers of Cthulhu’s Corner who want to figure out what the hell we’re alluding to half the time.
Unhappy with your roommate or significant other? Trying to make a decision about what to do with your life? Having a long-running argument about whether or not to raise backyard chickens or if you should spike the soccer balls the neighbor kids kick over into your yard onto a row of prominently-displayed pikes? Well stop fighting and ask minor TV celebrity John Hodgman to decide.
Judge John Hodgman is a podcast in which mustached man and Yale alum John Hodgman (not a real judge, but a proud Fake Internet Judge) weighs in on all manner of disputes among petitioners. While mocking- relentlessly but without cruelty- the positions of all parties, John Hodgman seeks out what he calls the “crux” of any argument. His decisions tend to uphold the status quo more than anything, but he has a true knack for finding that crux and explaining what is really behind an argument. While being completely different in format, tone, and content from WTNV, Judge John Hodgman still has that depth of emotional wisdom that keeps it from being just a parody of various Court TV programs or a mockery of the petitioners’ (often) petty complaints. You come for the jokes and the pop cultural references but you end up having learned something new every time. For instance, I learned that the best place to buy a decorative axe is at Best Made Company.
Recommended For: People who want to point to their significant other and say “See! I told you so!”, People who think that hot dogs are sandwiches.
You know what is great about Podcasts? Being able to listen to great NPR content without having to listen to the bi-annual pledge drives that occur roughly three times a month. I switched to downloading some of my favorite NPR shows and, while I miss Steve Inskeep’s voice and some current events, what I don’t miss out on is Ira Glass’s fantastic This American Life.
TAL is kind of hard to describe, but its impact on radio storytelling and Podcasts is undeniable. It is a true titan in the medium even if its intellectual offspring like Serial and Invisibilia have brought in millions of new listeners to podcasts. TAL remains both a weekly NPR radio program and a Podcast version of the same program. Each week they bring 3-4 segments arranged around a theme. The last episode I listened to featured the theme “Returning to the scene of the crime” and the stories consisted of: A Florida judge who sentenced small-time shoplifters to holding up a sign at the scene of their crime explaining what they had done; comedian Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up routine about having to pay for the damage done to the car of the drunk driver who smashed into him, and Dan Savage recounting how the death of his mother almost brought him back into the Catholic church. That last segment should not be listened to by anyone who needs clear vision at the time. Like if you’re driving.
TAL, at its best, features stories that can devastate you. This episode in particular still sticks with me. In it a man risks his own life to travel 900 ft underwater, underground to recover the body of a lost diver. Listen to it and I think TAL might have you hooked.
Recommended For: Humans. Also some dogs. Anyone wondering why so many other podcasts all sound so similar.
How much time do you have on hand? Probably not enough to get through an episode of Hardcore History in one sitting. These are f#cking massive podcasts, often multiple hour-long affairs that are each just part of longer explorations of history. For instance, his series on World War 1 was six episodes long and each episode is between 3 and 4 1/2 hours long. That’s the hardcore part of this. These aren’t just podcast episodes, these are basically audiobooks broken up into (slightly) smaller chunks.
Dan, as he himself has said, is not an historian but he is an enthusiast of history. He has this fantastic delivery and he must be devouring history books and organizing their content into a fantastically entertaining and informative product. He also cites his work, which allows you to check him on anything you question or just delve deeper into specific topics. If you ever wanted to know more about the world behind us (in time) but found other history dry then you need to check out Dan Carlin. It is a cliche to say it, but he really does bring history to life. He helps you to understand that how the figures of the past fit within a long tradition, how the decisions of politicians today reflect the same choices and pressures that were
put on, say, the Roman politicians. Or why the generals in WW1 ended sending up so many thousands of their own citizens into the meat grinders of battles like Verdun. His history is often brutally depicted (because he wants you to understand, on a visceral level, the brutality of history). One of my favorite episodes, and I haven’t listened to all of them, was a stand-alone (ie not part of a longer series) called “Prophets of Doom”. It depicts a story I’d never heard before, about how the German city of Munster was taken over by some pretty nutso zealots during the Protestant Reformation and the carnage that ensued.
Recommended For: People with a lot of time to listen to stuff. Maybe someone on roadtrip across Asia. Or Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. Also anyone who wants a “soundtrack” to listen to while playing Rome: Total War II for 36 hours straight.
These both fall into the Special Mention category because I just started listening to them. Limetown is following very closely in the footsteps of Serial, taking an investigative journalism approach to an old mystery. But it is doing it with a twist that I’m not going to divulge here. The first two (of, apparently, seven) episodes have moved along very well and set up the central mystery. Highly recommend for Halloween.
Lore delves into the roots of supernatural cultural phenomena. Very well done and exposes some very interesting history that even people familiar with things like Vampires and Werewolves and ghosts are probably not familiar with. It could benefit from having a second host or a little bit more production, but it is still very interesting listening.
Check out Contributing Author Tumps’ feed on Twitch and their weekly podcast Aftermath.