So I thought after all the seriousness I’d write about something fun! With a kernel of seriousness, of course, but mostly fun. Over the last few years I’ve been seduced by the world of podcasts, mostly because I do things where I need entertainment fed to me through speakers or earbuds, like driving or cooking or gardening or hiking up a mountain once a week. (A very small mountain, but still a mountain by local standards. I include a photo of the view just to prove… I don’t know, something.
That I was there (this morning, in fact), I guess. And there won’t be any other photos in the post, so.)
“Need” is relative, and it would perhaps be better for my soul to listen to the sounds of nature, but much as I love them gardening tasks can be pretty boring, and hiking sometimes hurts, so distractions help me to persevere. And there’s both entertainment and education available in staggering amounts through podcasts; I learn and I laugh and lots of other good stuff happens.
So here’s what I’ve been listening to, and I welcome more suggestions in the comments. No particular order, but I’ll start with the history podcasts and go on from there.
BackStory. Discussions among four historians and their guests about topics in American history as inspired by today’s news. Lively, relevant, and scholarly. The podcast is based at University of Virginia, so the Charlottesville protest episode was personal to them and is a good place to start.
The Whiskey Rebellion. Similar in topic (American history, current relevance) but hosted by two historians who are American expatriates teaching at the University of Edinburgh. They drink whisky (spelled the Scottish way) while conversing, but it’s not Drunk History by any means. They are not fond of Donald Trump.
Scene on Radio. Not exclusively a history podcast, but I got into it just recently for the Seeing White series, which I highly recommend: it’s an examination by host John Biewen (who is white), with regular commentary by Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika (who isn’t), of what “whiteness” means and where the idea of being white comes from historically, with an emphasis on American history. I like it because it insists on diving below what could be a shallow wallowing in white guilt; it “turns the lens” and doesn’t accept whiteness as default position, or in fact as real actual thing, and makes a good case for racism as the product of institutions and economic needs rather than attitudes and fears. If you don’t want to commit to the whole thing I’d recommend Part 3 (Made in America) and Part 13 (White Affirmative Action) but really it’s all worth listening to. And I’ll keep following the podcast as a whole.
Radiolab. If you listen to NPR you probably know this one already, but the show covers multiple fascinating topics in a sound-filled, carefully-produced way: science, history, politics, international spots of interest, moral dilemmas, etc. This was one of the first non-comedy or fiction podcasts I started listening to, and it was because, believe it or not, my phone pocket-subscribed to it. I kid you not, I was just walking along one day and voices started coming out of my pocket. Thanks, Apple! They did a side podcast recently called More Perfect about Supreme Court decisions, which was really good and I hope they continue it.
99 Percent Invisible. Everything on the topic of architecture and design, interpreted very broadly (recent episodes have covered the stickers collected by coal miners, computer algorithms, how new emojis are chosen, the history of the stethoscope, and the maroon (escaped slave) communities in the Great Dismal Swamp. (I followed a book recommendation from that last one, and it may end up of use for the book I’m currently writing.) Always cool.
What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. With Roman Mars, the host of the above, and his neighbor who happens to be a professor of constitutional law.
Lexicon Valley. From Slate, hosted by linguist John McWhorter. All kinds of fascinating topics about language. This is like candy to me.
The Allusionist. Another linguistics podcast, with Helen Zaltzman as host. Also candy.
The Memory Palace. Nate DiMeo recording short, beautiful essays on art, history, all sorts of topics. Sometimes I am not in the mood for this and sometimes I want to listen to it forever.
The West Wing Weekly. Do you love “The West Wing” and wish that it was our world now instead of what we have? Indulge yourself along with hosts Joshua Malina (who played Will Bailey on the show) and Hrishikesh Herway (avid fan of TWW, musician, host of the podcast Song Exploder, which I have listened to a bit but am not cool enough to have on my list of regular appointments). They started last March covering an episode a week and are now up to the end of season 3 (I just listened to the one for “Posse Comitatus” and am still all emotional about it). It helps to rewatch the show as you ride along with them, since they dive right in and don’t necessarily discuss things in order or systematically, but it is just such fun. They don’t gush, they don’t love everything and they’ll tell you why (but also why they love so much of it), they have great in-jokes, and they attract amazing guests including the Prime Minister of Canada along with other representatives of the Real World of Politics as well as members of the show’s cast and crew. Oh, I adore this.
Showcase from Radiotopia. Radiotopia is the producer of many of these podcasts, and they keep bringing out new ones, but they also get suggestions that won’t make a full podcast alone, so they have this forum for short-term ideas. I’ve been enjoying the first multi-part series, Ways of Hearing, about listening in the digital age, with musician Damon Krukowski.
Twenty Thousand Hertz. Also about sounds that are fascinating, recognizable, historical, influential. Just started this one. Most recent episodes were about crossmodal senses research, and Watergate, so it’s promising.
Rough Translation. Another one from NPR, giving an international perspective on issues that are important to us at home.
Plantrama. Gardening podcast! I picked this up (from recommendations on Garden Rant) because I’ve read and enjoyed the hosts, C.L. Fornari and Ellen Zachos. I have not ventured far into the gardening podcast world, perhaps because I don’t want to listen to more of people talking about what I talk about so much already, but this one is pretty good so far and not annoying.
Imaginary Worlds. Sci-fi, fantasy, all that. I am not geeky enough to listen to every episode, but the ones I have listened to are very good. And if you follow the link you’ll see that the most recent episode featured Helen Zaltzman, which is a good example of the delicious incestuousness of the podcast world. (There was a week in August when every podcast I listened to was airing an episode from another podcast or inviting on the host of one. It was seriously weird.)
LeVar Burton Reads. Reading Rainbow for adults! LeVar Burton reads short stories. Great for long trips.
Fiction: I got kind of tired of Welcome to Night Vale this year, but picked up their Alice Isn’t Dead (woman goes searching for her missing wife, government-sponsored possibly-supernatural danger ensues). Also have enjoyed The Bright Sessions (psychotherapy for the strangely gifted leads to escape from the clutches of a secret government agency) and Ars Paradoxica (accidental invention of time travel leads to government service during WWII). We love the government.
I think that’s it, aside from the ones I just listen to occasionally. It seems like a lot! but they don’t all update on a regular basis, and I do a lot of gardening and hiking. I am open to suggestions for podcasts you all have enjoyed, based on what you know of my interests. As they say at the end of every “West Wing Weekly” episode: What’s next?