The Best Podcasts To Listen To This Summer
I’m a podcast fiend. I used to be a reader but with the internet expanding at the speed of light, the high demands of the 24-hour news cycle and the general hubbub of inner city life, I find my attention span has reduced to an itty, bitty pinhead. Podcasts are educational, entertaining and universe expanding, but more than anything else, they are digestible. Relaxing, too. They keep your hands free to doodle and your eyes free to wander, while opening multiple windows on the world. Does this sound like a new summer habit you can handle?
Here are a few choice podcasts to get you started.
TAL is the reigning king of podcasts and the most obvious inclusion, so this is just a brief primer for the uninitiated. Produced in Chicago for National Public Radio and hosted by a nebbish intellectual by the name of Ira Glass, TAL is a weekly, hour-long collection of stories from across America that respond to a particular theme (different each week). Sometimes fiction, mostly factual, the stories covered by TAL are fascinating, funny, unique and deeply human, presented by a host of contributors including David Sedaris and Mike Birbiglia.
99% Invisible is the flagship podcast of the Radiotopia network, a podcast hub based in Oakland, California. Hosted by Roman Mars, this series explores the unseen world of design (with the premise that good design is 99% invisible), taking the broadest possible view of the subject. From shortwave radio stations to ouija boards to national flags to online worlds, this podcast takes you into strange, unexpected and delightful corners with deep knowledge but a very light touch. You don’t know how interesting the world can be until you’ve heard 99% Invisible. Bonus points for Roman Mars excellent voice, which is always laced with a smile.
Produced bi-weeky for Radiotopia by a guy called Hrishikesh Hirway, Song Exploder is a wet dream for music nerds. The premise is simple and episodes are short: Hrishikesh gets musicians from popular indie bands to explain how they wrote and recorded one of their hits, using stems and samples from the song in questions to illustrate how it came together. At the end of each episode, you hear the song in full, with fresh ears and respect.
Start with: Pick your favourite artist! Death Cab for Cutie, The National, Bjork, Grimes, Ghostface Killah, Iggy Pop, Courtney Barnett – the list is diverse and excellent.
Radiolab is right up there with TAL, a titan of the podcast scene, but it would be remiss of me to leave it out when it is so very beautiful. Hosted by elder statesman Robert Krulwich and MacArthur Fellow Jad Abumrad, Radiolab began as a lay person’s gateway to the wonders of the scientific world, but has expanded to look at science and tech through compelling human stories. The layered sound editing of this show and the original electronic music beds are part of its charm, but Radiolab’s indefinable quality comes from its ability to tickle your fancy while simultaneously blowing your mind.
Planet Money should be required listening for all left-leaning voters, as it helps folks like us come to terms with the vagaries of economics. The show began as a spin-off of This American Life, when Ira brought in finance specialists to investigate the GFC, resulting in an absolutely groundbreaking episode called The Giant Pool of Money. The trick with these guys is two-fold: they make it easy and they make it fun. They move from current events like the rise of Trump to conceptual projects life the lifespan of oil, and they do it all with excellent humour and incredible insight. It’s one of those shows that makes you feel smarter (in tiny, digestible doses).
Hosted by the Gimlet podcast network, based in Brooklyn, Reply does for internet culture what Planet Money does for money, taking you on a vivid journey to the strange and unknown corners of tech. Though it’s only a couple of years old, the show has a legion of fans and quite a few structural quirks, including a segment called ‘Yes Yes No’ where the hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, explain inexplicable internet trends to their producer, Alex Blumberg (ex-Planet Money). These guys elevate cat videos to modern art, and they aren’t above taking acid or confronting dead people for the sake of a story.
There are some beautiful documentary podcasts produced in England, predominantly by the BBC, but my particular favourite is a really stuffy thing that comes directly from Radio 4. A Point of View features an aural essay each week by some of Britain’s most interesting brains – a 10- or 15-minute stream of ideas that is dense, challenging and polemical. Writer Will Self often features, grumpy about something or other, while the political philosopher John Gray casts a steady eye over the long tail of history. In the vaults, there is a treasure trove of stuff from Clive James, among others. You wouldn’t necessarily call it fun, in fact it’s horribly droll, but A Point of View is also often brilliant.
The podcast that gave failed comedian Marc Maron a new lease on life is deceptively brilliant. Maron himself is a bit of a pill, constantly editorialising on behalf of his sponsors or griping in a distinctly American way about the challenges of his day, but when he settles into the proper bones of the podcast – a leagues deep celebrity interview – you’ll find yourself in a place where honesty and intimacy are king. In the early days, Marc relied on his comedy friends for talent but he’s so big now that pretty much anyone answers his call, from Thom Yorke to Anthony Bourdain to President Obama, the latter of whom came to Marc’s garage (just like everyone else) for the interview.
When it comes to comedy podcasts, everyone has their favourite, whether Ricky Gervais, Comedy Bang Bang or My Dad Wrote a Porno. But my heart was won in the dawn of the podcast era by a little-known, now defunct duo by the name of Adam and Joe. These two quintessentially British goof balls started out on TV before moving to radio, where they spun off podcasts from their live-to-air shows for XFM and BBC 6 Music. Then Joe went off and got a serious film career, and their once beautiful union was left in ruins. Thankfully their weird, stupid, hilarious podcasts survive, filled with Garageband jingles and joyful, giggling men.
Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. She stashes a lot of her writing here.