I was first introduced to podcasts in the winter of 2009. I was just out of college and had put together a hodgepodge of horrible jobs to make ends meet. Among these was a job holding a sign on the corner outside of Discount Guns. Yes, I was one of those people. I made $10 an hour and worked five hour shifts. My boss told me I was welcome to listen to my iPod while I stood out there, and I began collecting various audio programs of note. I relearned the basics of Spanish with Coffee Break Spanish, a language learning podcast taught by two native Scots. It made for some delightful pronunciation variety. I also “read” The Great Gatsby, a book which I hated in high school and thoroughly enjoyed upon giving it a second chance. I acquired a number of interesting podcasts and began listening to every episode of every one. All in all, my sign-holding days were quite productive.
It’s been a long time since I left that job, but I still listen to podcasts constantly. When I’m getting ready for work or getting ready for bed. In the car and anytime I ride the bus. On lunch break and when I’m cleaning the kitchen. My life is filled to the brim with audio.
So it was never a problem for me to be in a car by myself for five hours a day for four months straight. I saw it as something of a blessing. I could catch up on old podcasts where I’d fallen behind, and add new things to my repertoire. So, after 15,000 miles, here’s my top picks of the genre. If this list seems like a massive amount of audio that no one could ever get through, you should know that it’s not even an exhaustive list of the podcasts I subscribe to. And it doesn’t include the audiobooks I added. But if ever you find yourself waiting for a bus, driving in the car, eating alone at a restaurant, preparing dinner, doing your hair, sewing, knitting, eating, cleaning, or sitting in bed unable to fall asleep, consider at least one of the following:
This American Life – Weekly, 1 hour
This NPR program is the pinnacle of modern radio programming, and is consistently the highest rated podcast in the iTunes store. If you only have one hour a week to listen to something, this should be it.
Stuff You Should Know – Twice Weekly, 30-40 minutes
Josh and Chuck feel like your funny best friends, and they manage to make absolutely every topic interesting. Sure everyone knows Rasputin is cool, but have you ever thought about how a diving bell works? Or the rules behind police chases? Or how you would recognize a flesh-eating bacterial infection?
Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me – Weekly, 1 hour
Another NPR hit, this news-based comedy hour pretending to be a game show is one of the highlights of my week. My heart soars when I hear the dulcet tones of Paula Poundstone.
Planet Money – Twice Weekly, 15-30 minutes
From the people who brought you This American Life, Planet Money explains financial concepts in a way that is interesting, understandable, and entertaining. Even if you don’t normally like financial and economic stuff – in fact, especially if you don’t normally like financial and economic stuff – you should listen to Planet Money.
Fresh Air – Monday-Friday, 1 hour (individual segments are broken apart for the podcast, and range from 5-50 minutes)
There’s a reason Terry Gross has been on the air for almost 40 years. She is damn good at her job. Her interview with Keith Richards is one of the best things I ever heard. Because of her, I understand Quentin Tarantino and his relationship to violence. And even when it’s not Terry behind the mic, Fresh Air offers a huge range of topics. Celebrities from Tom Hanks to Stephen King. Authors who write about life on the front line or the fall of communism or bananas. You have no idea how interesting bananas are. Fresh Air has vindicated my perfectionist tendencies. I feel the need to listen to every episode (since anything less would be incomplete), and there are so many fascinating things I have learned about culture and science and music and art as a result. I am serious about the bananas.
The Tobolowsky Files – Sporadically published, 1 hour (Best to start at the beginning and listen through as though it were an audiobook)
You don’t realize it, but you already know who Stephen Tobolowsky is. Beyond being a talented character actor, he’s a very good storyteller. Over the course of the series you start to realize that he has a sort of Kevin Bacon quality to him, in that he has inadvertently interacted with almost everyone in Hollywood. In fact, Stephen Tobolowsky is the reason behind the name of the band Radiohead, a fact of which even the members of Radiohead are probably unaware.
A History of the World in 100 Objects – Completely published, 15 minutes
This was a fascinating series. The British Museum has a large and impressive collection, and 100 objects were selected to representatively explain the history of civilization. They start with the most basic of hand tools, and cycle through ancient pottery, modern art, and eventually a solar-powered lamp. High quality photos of all the objects are available on their website, so you can take a look at the objects being described.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour – Weekly, 20-40 minutes
In the style of old-time radio dramas, The Thrilling Adventure Hour is performed and recorded live in Hollywood. Episodes move back and forth between different styles, and you’re likely to hear a few famous voices along the way (Neil Patrick Harris, anyone?). I will give the warning that I am not in love with all of the story lines equally, so if you aren’t wild about the first episode you hear, be sure to give it a second or third try.
New Yorker: Fiction – Monthly, 30-60 minutes
Once a month the New Yorker Magazine has an amazingly talented writer come on and read one of his or her favorite short stories by a different amazingly talented writer. Afterwards the writer and the fiction editor spend a few minutes discussing the story, breaking down themes, and looking at what makes the story stand out. This podcast is what you always wanted your high school and college literature classes to be like.
Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing – Weekly, 10 minutes
It doesn’t matter if you’re not a grammar nerd. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a writer. Grammar Girl will make you a better English speaker, and give you ammunition against would-be grammar nazis who like to promote outdated myths about the language. Some episodes may get a bit too deep into grammar for the casual listener, but most everyone would find it interesting to learn why the popular Christmas song proclaims, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and not, “the Lord has come.”
(These are topic-specific podcasts. In my opinion several of these could go toe-to-toe against the others in terms of quality, but they do require a base level of interest in the subject matter.)
I Should Be Writing – Irregular Updating is Part of Her Charm, 40-50 minutes
Known as “The Podcast for Wannabe Fiction Writers,” Mur Lafferty manages to be intensely engaging in a way that feels effortless. I’ve never known someone to say so much with a simple, thoughtful pause. I imagine Mur’s words could be helpful for anyone trying to pursue a creative passion, not just fiction writers.
Writing Excuses – Weekly, 15 minutes
Another good one for those interested in writing. A small group of published authors ranging from sci-fi writers to webcomic artists take on important topics for those interested in the field.
Stuff Mom Never Told You – Twice Weekly, 30-40 minutes
From the people who brought you Stuff You Should Know, this podcasts focuses on issues related to gender and society. Hold on to your hats, it turns out everything is really complicated.
Stuff You Missed in History Class – Twice Weekly, 30-40 minutes
This podcast covers the parts of history you didn’t even know you didn’t know about, including the Oyster Wars, the Antikythera Mechanism, and why there are so many emus in Australia.
EDIT Dec 28, 2014: The original draft of this article included a recommendation for Freakonomics, which I no longer suggest due to some evidence that they don’t always use…evidence.