The Five Best Podcasts in the World

Because I’m an English teacher, I rarely read anything I don’t have to.  During the semester, my novels collect dust on the coffee table, my Kindle lies abandoned in my schoolbag, and the weekend newspapers sit coiled uncomfortably in their rubber bands until I toss them in the recycling bin.  Once my final grading is done, it will be a week or so before I feel like reading anything for pleasure or even for edificiation.

I do, however, listen to things.  I listen to audiobooks – mostly popular social science stuff like Malcolm Gladwell or humour like Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, because in my experience, fiction doesn’t really work in audiobook form.  Mostly, though, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts, and the iPod, have entirely transformed my life.  In retrospect, I’m not sure how I functioned in the years before the iPod.  I listen to podcasts on the metro, while I’m running, while I cook, while I do errands.  I am incapable of falling asleep anymore unless I’m listening to a human voice telling me things interesting enough to keep my brain from wandering to the stresses of the day.  The Husband refuses to talk me to sleep, so I depend on the podcasters of the world to fill that role.

Podcasts are doing more for me than preserving my sanity.  I find myself, more and more, quoting or paraphrasing things in my classroom that I have heard on a podcast, whether it concerns Daniel Gilbert discussing the complexities of human happiness or Jonathan Schooler outlining the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing.”  I ask my students to listen to podcasted stories in order to expand their understanding of narrative.  Podcasts have become another medium through which I can teach my students the skills and the content I think are important for them.

So in that vein, I present to you my five favourite podcasts.  No matter what you teach, these podcasts will enrich your life or, at the very least, help you forget your troubles long enough to fall asleep.

1. Radiolab

Radiolab is without question the best podcast in the whole world.  Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich take sometimes esoteric scientific and philosphical concepts and apply them to basic, concrete, everyday experiences so that anyone can understand and relate to them.  Stochasticity – randomness – is explained through such experiences as gambling addiction and eerie chance meetings.  We learn how hookworms can help cure allergies, how epilepsy can make you an ultra-runner, and whether it’s better for a cat to fall fifteen stories than two stories.  If you care about what makes us human and what our place is in the universe, this podcast is for you.

2. This American Life

Ira Glass’s iconic introductory line – “each week we choose a theme, and give you a series of stories on that theme” – doesn’t do this show justice.  This American Life is the current gold standard in radio storytelling.  David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and others all rose to fame on this show, and it ranges from the painfully intimate – stories about babysitting and breakups - to the personal side of global crises like the Iraq war and the economic crisis.  This American Life taught me to love radio as I hadn’t since childhood; before podcasts became a thing, I found countless excuses to get stuff done in my office so I could be near the computer and stream their show archive for hours on end.  Just go.  You’ll love it.

3. The Age of Persuasion

I may have a bit of a nationalist impulse to promote shows from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and certain great CBC shows, like the venerable As It Happens, may be of limited interest to non-Canadians.  The Age of Persuasion is not one of these shows; it is undeniably entertaining radio about the past and present of the advertising industry.  Terry O’Reilly tells us about advertisers’ invention of “The Happy Homemaker,” the rise of the “pitchman,” and the evolution of such phenomena as “luxury marketing.”  The archive at their webpage is limited, but if you subscribe through iTunes you can download most previous episodes.

4. Spark

Another CBC show that everyone should listen to.  Nora Young has the best voice in radio, and it doesn’t matter whether you really care about the world of technology – this show is about technology you DO care about, whether it’s using GPS tracking technology to deal with truancy or paying more because your online shopping history says you will.

5. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

This regular feature on NPR’s Culturetopia podcast is pure brainy brainlessness – a panel of brilliant cultural commentators who are clearly good friends and who sound a bit drunk (although apparently “the cocktails are fictional”), giddily recounting everything they love and hate about books, music, film, video games and so on.  Recurring segments include “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” (Albert Brooks on Twitter!  Clem Snide!)  and “The Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” (in which panelists try to guess the provenance of some truly horrendous TV audio clips).  Listen to this when you are tired and you’ll find yourself doubled over laughing, even if you’re on the bus at rush hour – the worried looks from strangers will be totally worth it.

Tell me your favourite podcasts – I can’t get enough.

Image by Magstefan

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