My Eight Favorite Podcasts

I am a heavy podcast listener. It’s a primary source of news, entertainment and education for me. Between daily workouts at the gym and frequent bus rides, I go through 10 to 20 hours of podcasts every week. I love audio only media as it frees me to listen while I’m cooking, running or doing other activities that don’t require my full concentration. I’ve tried out dozens of different ones, and over time I’ve arrived at a solid lineup. I know all too well how subjective “best of” lists are, but without writing a list for you personally, here are the ones I listen to and recommend most often.

My Eight Favorite Podcasts

  • BackStory – three American historians pick an important topic for each episode and go back through U.S. history with the goal of extracting lessons and comparisons with the present. They often pick timely subjects like: domestic terrorismelections, satire in America, or popular court trials (e.g. Serial/Making of A Murderer). I used to be surprised how each episode made me rethink my opinions, but now its an expectation they’re earned (a rare accomplishment). It’s a fantastic show that challenges your assumptions, and doesn’t bore you by taking itself too seriously.
  • Think – A straightforward interview program. It’s a simple show where authors talk about their new books and ideas. Host Krys Boyd consistently asks good, albeit often safe, questions, has good guests (some I’ve heard of before but many not) and outputs several episodes a week. I find many new books to read from her show. Try Rebuilding Our Roads or The 50th Percentile.
  • This American Life – The wonderful progenitor of so much modern storytelling (and podcast styles). Depending on the topic for each episode I might skip past, but they’re often so brave in the kinds of stories they’re willing to tell and so exceptional in how they tell them, that I’m a dedicated subscriber anyway. Try The SuperThe Giant Pool of Money, or Retraction (on the Mike Daisy truth/storytelling scandal).
  • Here’s the Thing – I was surprised by how good an interviewer Alec Baldwin, the show’s host, is.  Given his fame he gets exception guests and gets them to answer questions, and respond authentically, in ways you’d never hear in a standard interview. Try this excellent episode where he interviews Dustin Hoffman and Edie Falco.
  • In Our Time – A BBC Radio show exploring classical literature, history, philosophy, or science. Host Melvyn Bragg joins with two or three top class academic experts on the week’s subject, and leads them in a discussion about it. It’s an intensely intellectual show – they don’t play down very much to the audience (Bragg does a solid job of reframing and clarifying on behalf of the audience when needed, but sometimes it’s over my head). Start with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Salem Witch Trials, or Marie Curie.
  • The Gist – This news show centers on the talents of Mike Pesca. I love his blend of playful sarcasm with serious questions and commentary about what’s going on in the world. Currently one of my favorite shows. I don’t like all his jokes, but there is a cleverness running through everything on the show that pays off far more often than it doesn’t and I appreciate the effort even when it doesn’t work. Try He Watched Every Superbowl or Exercise Fad B.S. He often closes the show with exceptional insights like this one.
  • The Weeds – A political policy show by Vox.com. The podcast’s name refers to their goal of staying out of the weeds of sensationalized, shallow, political reporting. Instead they focus on policy, and the history of policy creation. I don’t remember how I found it, but I’ve been really happy with the depth of show, and how good a job they do making the creation of public policy interesting. Try Will Taxing The Rich Hurt Growth?, Immigration and the Minimum Wage and How Politics Is Making Us Stupid.
  • The Moth – this podcast is based on the live show of true stories told live, without notes. The podcast takes some of the best stories and compiles them in each episode. It’s wonderfully simple, diverse and provocative. Highly recommended, especially if you have an interest in storytelling of any kind. Try this exceptional story by Colin Quinn, about Robert DeNero’s birthday party.

Notable Podcasts

I don’t listen to these as regularly, but when I see a topic I’m interested in, or run out of other podcasts, I jump into these.

  • WTF – Comedian Marc Maron’s long running show is centered on him interviewing  one or two guests per episode. He is a often a good interviewer, but I find the pleasure I derive from him and the show inconsistent. I’ll listen if I know of the guest or their work. He often has an opening monologue, which some people love, but I nearly always skip (in part because it ends with his sponsor advertisements). Try this episode where he interviews NPR’s Terry Gross or Obama.
  • Radiolab – a brilliant re-interpretation of This American Life, and a leader of the second wave of more inventive kinds of storytelling. The show centers on the conversations between its two hosts (but spirals outwards for much of the show), and has a style that is more energetic and unpredictable than most shows of its kind.
  • Song Exploder – They interview a musician about how a song was written, and then play the song. It’s simple and fantastic. I listen to all their episodes where I know the artist or the song. Try this episode with Bjork (she is wonderfully eloquent here and I recommend it whether you like her music or not).
  • 99%  invisible – This is the show I recommend most to engineers, designers and people interested in how the world is made. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, I don’t listen to the show (part of it is I find Roman Mars’ voice distracting – sorry Roman!).

Based on my list, is there a podcast you think I should try? Leave a comment.

20 Responses to “My Eight Favorite Podcasts”

  1. Dan

    Thanks for this – I want to go and listen to several of these now! Not being a commuter (I live 13 mins cycle from work) has its disadvantages in this regard…

    Reply
  2. Kelly Irwin

    Thanks for all the great info, Looking forward to filling my downtown with your recommendations!!!

    Reply
  3. Sean Crawford

    Thank you Scott.

    I don’t have an iPod, but if I consume these the way I consume TED talks, then I will be happy, but it will take a while to get back to you.

    I have a pet peeve; I’m feeling annoyed at a “flaw” in my world. (Admittedly I don’t watch enough TV to have experienced what they mean)
    “They” will refer with contempt to nice experts speaking on TV as being “talking heads”—and then promptly change the channel.

    I peevishly wonder if they are the same guys who happily listen to talk radio, or if that is a different, non-overlapping audience.

    Reply
  4. Donna

    Others that I like, which may or not be to your taste:
    – Slate Money: even though this is about the US financial system, I really like it – it’s always the first I listen to after a break. Clever folks talking money
    – Freakonomics radio
    – Thinking Allowed: BBC show on a range of smart topics
    – Ideas at the house: This might be a bit too Australia-specific, but contains a wide range of smart people talking big ideas – it’s recordings from live events

    I must give This American Life another go – everyone seems to like it – I may have started on a dud episode. I too don’t always listen to 99% invisible, and also not sure why.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Donna. I tried Planet Money, which contributed to some excellent This American Life Episodes, but never got into it. I bet Slate Money is similiar in spirit.

      For This American Life – they take a lot of risks with the format and topics, and the show has been going for a long time – it’s understandable why anyone might have trouble making it a regular habit. And of course some people just don’t like Ira Glass’s voice – media is about as subjective as it gets.

      Reply
      1. Donna

        Slate Money is quite different to Planet Money. It’s not nice to say, but it’s a lot ‘cleverer’. The content still may not be to your taste though – it is pretty money-nerd.

        Reply
  5. Stephen Lead

    I’m a big fan of Desert Island Discs from the BBC. The premise is that the guest will be marooned on a desert island and can only take 7 records with them (the program started about 70 years ago).

    The host Kirsty Young has a real knack for getting the guests to tell entertaining stories from their lives. The guests range include lots of famous people, but some of my favourites are people you’ve never heard of, who nonetheless have lead fascinating lives.

    Reply
  6. Murali

    Econtalk – Russ Roberts of George Mason university. Economics is only part of it. He interviews many top thinkers, writers from diverse areas. Almost every other episode is insightful. Russ choice of words and his listening is outstanding.

    Reply
  7. Matt Perry

    Great list. Can’t resist adding my own favorites:

    – On the Media from WNYC: Bob Garfield, Brooke Gladstone. Media. Podcast. Snark. Heart. To me this is perfect as radio and perfect-er as a 40 minute podcast. I never miss it.

    – Most stuff from https://gimletmedia.com/. Gimlet is perhaps the world’s first for-profit podcast-producing startup, co-founded by Alex Blumberg (This American Life/Planet Money) I think Reply All (PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman’s show about the internet) is their best show, but they have six now.

    – Slate’s Amicus Podcast — Dahlia Luthwick’s covers the Supreme Court. For some reason I am addicted to this. If you’re really really into the Supreme Court you can listen to “Oyez” — complete oral arguments for all SCOTUS cases.

    Reply
  8. Cheryl Talbot

    Thanks for writing confessions of a public speaker. I needed this book twenty years ago. Am excited to have read it now. Never too late to learn.

    Reply
  9. G. Ranma

    Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Common Sense with DC stand out for a good grip on story telling. Try it, you will like it.

    I’ve been listening to Bloggingheads.tv shows for ten years. George Horgan and George Johnson are good, as is almost every diavlog Bob Wright is doing.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I’ve had HH recommended to me before, but haven’t tried. Perhaps your mention of it will push me over – thanks for taking the time.

      Reply
      1. Oliver

        I second HH and also The Life Scientific.

        Reply

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