Listening notes: current podcasts

The ORF Funkhaus in Vienna, home of the Austria's oldest radio station. (Lisa Johnson)

The ORF Funkhaus in Vienna, home of Austria’s oldest radio station, and a big ear. (Lisa Johnson)

I’m a big fan of podcasts, and have been listening for a while — the oldest ones in my iTunes library date to the summer of 2005, when CBC Radio 3 launched its Canadian indie music podcast and my locked-out colleagues created CBC Unplugged.

That must have been the first podcast explosion, because “podcast” was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2005, I recently learned on a podcast.


My friends, many of them radio fiends, often trade notes on what’s a good listen right now, so I thought I’d jot a few down for anyone taking suggestions. And I am always looking for new shows, so please note your faves in the comments.


Another view of ORF’s Radiokulturhaus. Just love that font. (Lisa Johnson)


Tapestries vs. talk

Broadly speaking, I split podcasts in two camps: the highly-produced audio tapestry, and the smart-people-sitting-in-a-room-and-talking shows.

I like both, depending on the moment. Much respect to the Radiolabs and Serials (both tapestries) but sometimes smart people in a room are just lovely company on a crowded bus or long walk.

So here are my current podcast habits, with the big ones you’ll hear about everywhere at the bottom.

New listens

  • History on Fire:
    Crazy long episodes, no production, wonderful storytelling. Italian-born history professor Daniele Bolelli talks for two hours at a time about things you didn’t even know you wanted to know about. Great for a roadtrip. I’m not equally interested in all the history lessons, but I highly recommend the Iceman episode, where Bolelli reconstructs the life and possible murder of a well-preserved man who lived 5000 years ago. It’s an hour and forty-four minutes.
  • Slack Variety Pack:
    The debate continues on “branded” podcasts (which are made not just with ad support but for a client) and as a listener, my own jury is out too. But this one needed a listen because it’s made by a smart local crew (for the company Slack). A few episodes in, I’ve enjoyed it — they delve into scientific geekery (quantum computing!), and have some interesting talkers on trends and work culture. How detectable is a baked-in company stance? Will that taint the rest of it for me? We’ll see.
  • Mystery Show:
    From This American Life-alum Starlee Kine, a show where Kine gets missions from friends and acquaintances to solve un-Googleable mysteries, and she tracks down the answer. Way more about the journey than the destination, because it’s not that interesting to know how tall Jake Gyllenhaal is, but it is interesting to hear her get there.

Smart people, good company

This category is dominated for me by Slate, which does a lot of the smart-people-in-a-room shows, including ones on  parenting and feminism. These two are the ones I seem to listen to every week they come out:

  • Lexicon Valley:
    Words, and where they come from, with a word nerd (Mike Vuolo) and his foil, Bob Garfield, also of NPR’s On the Media. Did you know that orange the fruit came to the English language before orange the colour? I do, because of this show.
  • Slate Culture Gabfest:
    Three hosts discuss three topics a week with a mix of highbrow and fluffy pop culture. Interesting people, and they give me a sense of what big movies, TV shows and books are buzzing out there.

 The start-here-if-you-haven’t-already shows

  • Radiolab:
    “Weaving stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries.” (See? Tapestry.)
    Quite dedicated to the deep art and arc of story itself — those a-ha moments, and signposts to keep you listening. Sometimes leaves me wondering what’s sacrificed on the story altar, but there you go.
  • Serial:
    “One story, told week by week,” unfolded in great detail by host Sarah Koenig. So far, I was more transfixed by season 1 (about a Baltimore high schooler convicted of murdering his girlfriend) than season 2 (about Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier captured by the Taliban and labeled a traitor). A big, unfolding story of war is more removed, perhaps, than debates about cell records and the pay phone at Best Buy? I’m still listening though.
  • See also This American Life, 99% Invisible…. Am I missing any of the omnipresent biggies?

1 Comment

  1. Memory palace
    Dan carlin hardcore history
    Under the influence

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