I’m thrilled to present the first post from a guest contributor to this blog. James Fowles is a longtime friend and someone whose views and opinions I find to be well-reasoned and articulate. I hope this is the first of many posts here from him. You can find him on Twitter @jayfowles. -Matt
The world rejoiced yet again when the newest episode of the true-crime podcast Serial dropped earlier today. If you haven’t heard about it, go here. It has quickly become the most popular podcast in the world, and for good reason. In fact, it is so popular that it has spawned a cottage industry of additional podcasts about the podcast. Some podcasts obsess over every detail of the show. Some are spoofs of the original’s distinctive style and narration
I recommended Serial recently to a friend, who, after catching up on the original, quickly began gorging on the spin offs. Thousands of other fans are doing the same. And while I understand their enthusiasm, I cannot follow them down the rabbit hole. I made that trip over and over again when Lost was on the air, and I know from experience that such obsessiveness requires too much mental space. So I have kept my passion for Serial in check. No spin offs or spoofs for me.
However, my enthusiasm for Serial has caused me go overboard with other podcasts. After one episode, I quickly scoured the iTunes Podcasts app for other shows that could fill my daily commute. After a few months of refinement, I’ve created a rotation of podcasts that I listen to regularly, and I submit them here for your listening pleasure.
A special note before we begin: Before Serial, my car’s radio was essentially locked onto my local NPR affiliate. Some podcasts I subscribe to are either produced by NPR, or by studios that regularly produce content for NPR. Most are simply re-broadcasts of shows already available over-the-air, but aren’t usually on when I drive. So for these podcasts, I’ve also listed when they are currently scheduled to broadcast on my local NPR affiliate, 90.1 WFYI.
The Writer’s Almanac (Mon-Fri: 10:00 AM, Sun: 9:00 AM and 7:55 PM): My morning drive begins with this five-minute gem. Host Garrison Keillor, with his warm papa bear voice, recounts historical events that correspond with the current date, including the birthdays of authors and other historical figures. He concludes each five-minute episode by reading a notable poem. It’s as close to meditation as you can get while driving bumper-to-bumper.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: A pure NPR podcast (not broadcast on radio) hosted by Linda Holmes, who is also the editor of NPR’s pop-culture blog, Monkey See. It’s a light-hearted 45 minute show that features a discussion about all things pop culture. A recent episode discussed Disney’s Big Hero 6. The week before that they discussed Foxcatcher and movie trailers (specifically, what makes a trailer effective or not effective). The panel consists of Holmes and three other NPR personalities. Their discussions are always thought-provoking, but they never take themselves too seriously. They also occasionally produce “Small Batches.” Eight to ten minute episodes about a specific book, movie, television series, etc. They recently did a small batch about Serial spinoffs, too.
This American Life (Fri: 8:00 PM, Sat: 2:00 PM): Serial’s parent. This show is a luminary of the modern-day radio format. The show explores universal themes that are always rooted in deeply personal portraits of real people. Sometimes funny. Sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes dramatic. Sometimes stringently journalistic. Seriously, if you haven’t heard of This American Life, stop reading right now, and download any of its 541 episodes. A good episode of This American Life will stay with you for days (and there are no bad episodes of TAL, btw).
StarTalk Radio, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson: An hour-long interview format podcast, where NDT discusses all things Science. They just finished up an enjoyable two-part series on the state of science journalism, which featured Bill Nye and Elise Andrews from IFLScience.com. NDT usually has a different semi-famous co-host each week, and a different semi-famous guest (my recent favorite was Hank Azaria from The Simpsons). Though “Radio” is in its title, this is a pure podcast. I am not aware of it being broadcast anywhere over the air. However, this podcast does have more commercial breaks than any other podcast on this list. Of all the podcasts listed here, StarTalk sounds the most like a traditional radio talk show, minus all the yelling and partisan fighting.
Planet Money: This NPR podcast generally lasts 15-20 minutes, and focuses on economic issues. But not like how Bloomberg focuses on economic issues. Have you ever wondered how the lunar-esque terrain of Iceland evolved into a hospitable, thriving economy? No? Well, the Planet Money people have. They do a great job of using unique problems to explain current economic issues. For non-business minded people like me, its a great way to learn about economic concepts without being bored. And to learn about Iceland.
Working: This podcast, produced by slate.com, highlights people’s daily lives at work. In each episode, host David Plotz asks one person about the details of their career. I enjoy this podcast because Plotz does a great job of keeping his interviewees focused on their day-to-day responsibilities. When someone uses terminology unique to their industry, he’ll interrupt to ask for clarification. He doesn’t ask about big ideas or industry trends. He’s only concerned about the minutia of their daily lives. His questions pull interesting details from his interviewees, no matter what their career is. Appliance repairman. Farmer. Pastor. Porn Star. All these careers and more have been featured on this unique podcast. Anyone who enjoys learning about people would enjoy this podcast.
WTF, Mark Maron: Fair warning: if you have a problem with the F word, you probably won’t like this podcast. Comic Mark Maron has been producing this podcast from his garage for five years (a lifetime in podcast years). In each 1.5 hour episode Maron interviews celebrities and his comedian friends. But this isn’t “Access Hollywood.” Maron is a gifted interviewer, and like David Letterman, excels at getting his guests to open up about their lives and experiences. Plus, he’s pretty funny. So there’s that.
Feel free to share your favorite podcasts by clicking on the dialogue bubble at the top of this post.
James Fowles is a long-time resident of Mapleton Fall-Creek, a neighborhood on Indianapolis’ near north side. After he puts he three young children to bed, he enjoys watching movies that feature lots of cussing. He can be followed on Twitter @jayfowles.