Podcasts 101

Logos from recommended podcasts

What is a podcast?

A podcast is like radio on demand. So, unlike the days when you had to turn on your radio at noon on Sunday to hear your favorite show, you can now listen anytime anywhere. In the car or on the bus, folding laundry or packing lunches, on long walks or while working out. When internet is available and when it’s not.

What are podcasts about?

Everything. Sports, news, psychology, pop culture, trivia, history, music, movies, science, fashion, religion, wellness, economics – if people like to talk about it, there’s a podcast about it. Some feature a host doing a monologue on a topic of interest to them. Some are 2 – 4 hosts discussing a topic – like a movie reviews podcast. Some feature a host interviewing experts in the field. Many may feel similar to talk radio or TV talk shows. There are stand-up comedy podcasts. There are also lots of story-telling podcasts or radio theatre podcasts, where a story might be told in a single episode, or might be serialized over many episodes for many years.

How do podcasts work?

Podcasters upload recordings to the internet, and you can use a variety of apps to access them. You can stream content live over an internet connection (on your desktop computer at home, on your laptop WiFi at a coffee shop, or using the cellular data on your phone) or you can download to your phone or other mobile device so you can listen any time without needing internet access.

What does it cost to listen?

Most podcasts are free. Many podcasters get no financial compensation for their work, some use a system like Patreon to collect donations from listeners, and some have commercial sponsors, so they’ll run 30 second to two minute “ads” for their sponsors. For many podcasts, this ad consists of the host riffing about their sponsor’s product, saying whatever random thoughts come to mind each week. They can be entertaining – but, when the “ad” comes on one of my weekly podcasts, I just tap the “fast forward 30 seconds” button 4 times to skip it. (Sorry to Casper Mattress, Hello Fresh, and Harry’s Razors – I do appreciate your sponsorship of podcasts I listen to, I promise!)

Who makes podcasts?

Podcasts range hugely. There are some slick professional productions by major media corporations, but there’s plenty that are recorded around someone’s kitchen table. I’ve heard podcasters get interrupted by police sirens going by, crying kids, cats knocking their coffee off the table and more. Some podcasts are made by some top experts in their field. But the majority are made by amateurs who have day jobs but podcast about their passions. There is a wide range of quality – sometimes I have sought out “expert advice” in an area I knew little about, and then discovered that I knew more than the person making the podcast! (When we were prepping for a trip to Disneyland, I checked out lots of podcasts for tips and trivia, and wow, there’s a broad range of skill and knowledge amongst Disney podcasters.)

One thing that makes podcasts different than, for example, a weekly show on NPR, is that the podcasters may let their personalities shine through more and share more of their personal experiences and opinions than they would on a radio show. I have some podcasts I’ve listened to every week for years, and know their in-jokes (like why Devindra on /Filmcast can finally understand Interstellar) and know when they got a new dog (like Linda Holmes on Pop Culture Happy Hour and Sam Sanders from NPR Politics and It’s Been a Minute.) Sitting down and listening to the podcasts can feel a little like dropping in on old friends.

Where / How do I listen?

There are a few podcasts that are only available on one platform – you have to go to their website or their app to listen. But the majority are available on lots of different platforms. If you have an iOS device, Apple podcasts is the default option, and it works well. (Though some recommend Pocket Casts when you’re ready for more options.) For Android, there are multiple options. The most common recommendations are: Pocket Casts, Stitcher, and BeyondPod. Plus NPR One for all things NPR. More recommendations.

On each of these apps, you can search for shows, get recommendations, and read reviews. You can choose to listen to just a single episode of a podcast, or you can subscribe to your favorite shows so you’ll get notified when there’s a new episode (or you can set it to download automatically every time a new episode is released.)

What should I listen to?

There are so many choices that it’s hard to know where to start. In 2014, Slate wrote about The Top 25 Podcast Episodes of All Time. Time Magazine offered their recommendations on 50 Best Podcasts (2017), the Guardian’s 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear (2016), and here’s Esquire’s 20 Best Podcasts of 2017. NPR has a “podcast concierge” at earbud.fm – they crowd-sourced recommendations from over 6000 people, and pared the options down to 228 episodes (including some NPR shows and many that aren’t).

I’ll just share a few examples from what I listen to, but this is only a snapshot of the options available and may tell you as much about my own personal quirks as it does about the world of podcasting.

  • Round table discussions of pop culture topics (typically the same hosts each week)
    • Pop Culture Happy Hour. An NPR podcast where the hosts discuss current movies, TV, books, music, and more.
    • /Filmcast. Each week, they discuss “What We’ve Been Watching” (on TV and movies) and review one movie in depth. I’ve been listening weekly for years, and when I hear the theme song start playing, it just makes me happy! Each summer they have the Summer Movie Wager where they bet on what will be the top grossing movie of the summer, and you can play along. I was probably irrationally pleased at the fact that for most of the summer I was beating all the hosts.
    • Still Processing was great. Till they stopped releasing podcasts in August with no warning. It featured two African-American culture writers for the New York Times. Hopefully they’ll return.
    • I’m currently binging This Is Us from NBC, and I’m really enjoying also binging on two related podcasts: This is Us with Kei & Clyde, and This is Us Too, which both just feature a married couple chatting about one of their favorite shows. (I find the Afterbuzz TV on This is Us a little annoying, and actively disliked the one episode of This is Us Podcast that I tried. Podcasts are diverse and you are certain to find some that click with you and others that don’t.)
  • Interview-based shows: the host covers a different topic each week, interviewing experts in that field
    • Imaginary Worlds. The host, Eric Molinsky, talks and interviews people about science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and gaming – imaginary worlds and why we choose to suspend our disbelief. Eric has a great voice, a respectful interviewing style, and a genuine curiosity that really gets me engaged.
    • Hidden Brain from NPR. Host Shankar Vedantam uses science and story-telling to link neurobiology with economics, sociology and more. It reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior.
    • Broadway Backstory. A documentary style podcast exploring how a show goes from an idea to a full production.
    • 99% Invisible. Host Roman Mars (with one of the best voices in radio) explores the power of design and architecture. He takes on a topic that you may not even notice when it is working well and tells a compelling story about why it works the way it does.
    • The TED Radio Hour. Guy Raz explores the emotions, insights, and discoveries that make us human. The TED Radio Hour is a narrative journey through fascinating ideas, astonishing inventions, fresh approaches to old problems, and new ways to think and create
  • NPR Politics: In-depth stories and discussion on the politics of the day from NPR’s top political reporters. I binged this from September 2016 – September 2017, then couldn’t bear to listen anymore. (But not because I don’t love the hosts or the podcast!)
  • Story-telling
    • Serial. This was a phenomenon when it launched in 2014. A true crime podcast, told as a serialized drama.  I have only listened to the first season, the story of Adnan and the murder of Hae Min Lee. The week long wait between episodes was unbearable. So compelling!!
    • The Moth. True stories, told live by those who experienced them. Recognized storytellers, first timers, and voices from communities whose stories often go heard. Range from hilarious to heart-breaking, often within the course of one story.
    • Vinyl Cafe. The Vinyl Cafe is an hour long show from the CBC that includes music (focusing on Canadian musicians), verbal essays about the host’s travels through Canada, stories from listeners and stories about a fictional family – the Dave and Morley stories. Sweet, delightful little stories that can have you laughing so hard you cry. (They’re kid appropriate too!) It broke my heart when the host Stuart McLean died in 2017. Right now on iTunes, they only have the Holiday Special. (Hopefully the rest re-appears someday.) But go, listen to it now. And then buy his CD’s of more stories.
  • Trivia podcasts. This summer, my daughter and I were playing pub trivia every Tuesday night (shout-out to Geeks Who Drink at Otter Bar in Seattle), so I binged on lots of trivia podcasts. My favorite by far was PodQuiz. Host James Carter is just so reliable. Each week there are 20 quality questions, and they always follow the same pattern, which is just strangely reassuring in an unpredictable world. He always starts with a music round, then questions on the theme of the week, then audio clips, then a general knowledge round. Then he plays a song (I skip over these, but that’s just me…) and then the answers. And the same sound effects every week and always ending with “Bye now.” I also really like Good Job Brain (and so does my 8 year old son). It’s a fun mixture of quizzes and also background knowledge on trivia topics which will build your skill for future trivia events.
  • Podcasts for Kids: I have an 8 year old, so we also spend plenty of car rides listening to science podcasts (Brains On, Wow in the World) and story podcasts (Sparkle Stories, Story Pirates, and Stories Podcasts). Read all about Podcasts for Kids and get all my recommendations in this separate post.

What are your favorite podcasts that I should check out?

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