Until last year, I wasn't a committed podcast listener. I'd dabbled here and there—a little Radiolab, a little This American Life—but nothing that I really gave my attention to. I used to listen as I worked on design projects, but talking often interrupts creative thought, so podcasts would end up jettisoned in favor of music. And during my commutes I preferred to listen to NPR.
But news gets repetitive, and news is often very depressing, and I realized I was spending every single day drowning in the muck of human tragedy. Eventually I remembered podcasts, and then I started listening with fervor. I stumble across new ones all the time, and abandon some of them quickly if they aren't scratching that particular narrative itch that I have.
Here, then, are my favorites of the last year of listening. I doubt this will be an unpredictable list, but maybe there's a gem or two here you haven't tried before. These are in alphabetical order, so as not to be mistaken for an endorsement of one above another. They're all quite wonderful in their own ways.
I've only recently discovered this podcast, but I love it. The title refers to the unseen acts of design that humans commit every day, the ones that shape the way we interact with each other, with objects, the world around us. Recent episodes include "Under the Moonlight," about the creation of arc light towers. If you're a designer, you'll love this show. If you're not, but you're curious about the story behind the story of things, this one's for you, too.
Austin Film Festival's On Story
I adore this podcast. As I understand it, On Story is actually an independent television show. I've never seen it. The podcast, I suspect, is excerpted from the shows, and from various events at the Austin Film Festival. Doesn't particularly matter. What does matter is that the episodes are usually multiple film and television writers talking about craft and the life of a writer, and they're fascinating. Not a lot of bullshit and patter here. Most of my favorite episodes involve Shane Black; they're a great place to start for the truth about writing for film.
There's little chance anyone has missed The Nerdist. Hosted by the comedian Chris Hardwick, this is a surprisingly engaging, heartfelt, probing show, despite the occasional fart joke. Hardwick has candid, open conversations with everyone from William Shatner to Paul McCartney; they're some of the most honest and unfiltered interviews I've heard. These shows are often an hour or more long, so they take twice the commute to listen to. But there's a hell of an archive—over six hundred episodes—and several new shows per week. Plus: the theme song is utterly unskippable.
Nerdist Writers Panel
A sister podcast to The Nerdist, Writers Panel is hosted by Ben Blacker, a television writer. Each week he brings other TV and film writers, and sometimes writers of comics or other mediums, onto the show to talk about everything from how they got started in their respective fields to what the mechanics of working on a show are, day to day. This one is particularly fun because of the wide range of experience: you're just as likely to hear insights from a first-year TV writer about what it's like to be in a writers' room for the first time as you are to hear from a showrunner or well-known screenwriter. Downer: the theme song is utterly skippable.
This is probably my favorite of them all. Radiolab is an audio mashup of every science program you watched as a child. Every episode is triggered by a question, a curiosity, and then dives deeply into the science and understanding of how something might happen. My favorite episode is one called "Space," in which hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich talk with Ann Druyan, scientist and widow of Carl Sagan, about the Voyager experiment, particularly its gold record, and how Druyan and Sagan fell in love while working together on the project.
Reply All is the second podcast from a young startup called Gimlet Media. The podcast is all about... well, the internet. Just about anything that happens on it now, or did once upon a time, or makes it a curious place. I've listened to every episode produced so far, and they're far-reaching and diverse: there's an episode about people sending their most urgent and important messages to each other, wistfully, hopefully, through a strange app that hardly ever works; there's another about the web's first cam girl, and what she learned about privacy and a life lived online twenty years ago, long before the lessons that most of us are just learning now. Great young show hosted by Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, the former hosts of TLDR.
Well, if you missed this one, I don't know what to tell you. This might be the first podcast to ever dominate the national conversation, to be parodied on Saturday Night Live and Funny or Die. Hosted by Sarah Koenig and released as a spin-off of This American Life, Serial is twelve episodes all about one story. The first season investigates the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student, fifteen years after it happened and after a fellow student was sent to jail for the crime. Fascinating, page-turning—ear-turning?—and undeniably compelling. I'm curious to see where the second season takes the show.
This is the first show from the previously mentioned Gimlet Media, and it's a rather meta one, as it's all about the process of Alex Blumberg, a former This American Life producer, starting up Gimlet Media. Uniquely fascinating, if only because it's like peering into the brain of an American entrepreneur, moment by moment, as they agonize over the small and large challenges of starting a new company, finding investors, making their first public fuckup, and finding their footing among other podcasts.
This American Life
Sort of the granddaddy of all narrative journalism podcasts, isn't it? If you've never heard This American Life, you've probably lived under a rock. It's appeared on NPR for a hundred and six million years, and is hosted by Ira Glass, whose narrative style influenced a number of journalists, including the folks behind Serial, StartUp and Reply All, also on my list here. "Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme..."
WTF with Marc Maron
Though I'm not a particular fan of Maron's comedy—I don't dislike it, but it doesn't connect with me—I really love his podcast. Like The Nerdist, Maron invites famous folks onto the show, then buries them in his enthusiastic, puppy-like curiosity, somehow dragging his subjects away from their familiar, well-trodden patter and into honest conversations about family, their fears, their regrets. It's quite entertaining, often very touching, and always good fun. His recent interview of Paul Thomas Anderson revealed the director's regrets about Magnolia, for example; his interview of Melanie Lynskey is kind of adorable, as they analyze each other and practically seem to fall in love during their conversation.
I'm still looking for new shows. I've just stumbled across the BBC's World Book Club podcast, with its interview, readings and conversations with everyone from Jhumpa Lahiri to David Guterson, for example. But I'm sure there are dozens of fantastic, amazing shows I haven't been listening to, and it's your obligation now to tell me what they are so I can stop missing out.