Podcasts! Where Should You Start?
Right now I'm staring at, let's see, two long rows of barrels, maybe twelve barrels of coffee beans in each row, so twenty-four types of coffee to try. The Fleet Foxes are playing softly on the speakers - "you gooooo wherever you go today/you goooo todayyyy" - but four of the previous songs sounded great and I had to Shazam three of them. Next door is a bookstore of thirty-two rooms of books I need to read. This neighborhood is full of restaurants and bars and shops into which I need to poke my head. And then there's the app on my iPhone that holds all those new, interesting, well-produced audio podcasts, ready, waiting to leap out at me, ready to toss all that knowledge and perspective in my ears. Do you get it? What I'm trying to say is that there's too much, and that it's fine. It's a lively bit of privilege we have today. We deserve to take advantage of all of it, or some of it, or even just bits of it, with whatever amount of time we have leftover from all the other necessarily life things we do - diaper changes, job changes, oil changes, Bowie Changes on repeat.
So, you probably have a TV column you read to tell you what shows to watch (Andy Greenwald, come back, don't ever leave again). You might, like me, read A.O. Scott and Wesley Morris at The New York Times to get your movie recommendations. Yelp tells you that here are where all the hipsters are. NPR offers a Tiny Desk and all my new favorite girl bands. But as podcasts become a commute gobbler and a solid sous chef, more shows are popping up and more great stories are being told, and I'm launching QueueTips to sift through it all for you.
Twice a month I'll send an email to your inbox with recommendations of the best current shows and episodes, a look into the archive of some of my favorite defunct programs, and even some tips on how to start a show of your own. My personal queue is full of diverse shows from all over the world, so I'd assume this newsletter will reflect that.
Here are a few quick places to start, shows that bring it every week or every month:
- This American Life is the longest-running podcast I know of, and it's also the best one. The crew - from WBEZ, Chicago's famous public radio station - travels the country telling real, complex, funny, emotional stories, and while the sound of the show isn't terribly artsy or anything, it's always an hour well-spent. There's a reason it's the top show on iTunes just about every week.
- If scripted drama is your thing, try out the six-episode first season of Limetown (Two-Up Productions). Limetown tells the story of a fictional research facility - from the perspective of a fictional journalist named Lia Haddock - and the people who vanished from inside of it. The show takes advantage of the intimacy of the medium, where the spooky cliffhangers are literally jammed in your ears. More than a few times, I lost sleep over Limetown's endings.
- Revisionist History (Panoply) easily gets 2016's podcast gold star for best new show. Esteemed author (and already-great podcast guest) Malcolm Gladwell revisits events of the past, with the intent to hit them with a new light. I was enthralled from the first line of the trailer - "I think we're bad historians." - to the final episode, an ornery takedown of spineless satire comedy.
- And then of course there's Serial, the breakout show that launched podcasts back into the mainstream in 2014. The first season of Serial is a true-crime story told over ten episodes, about the 1999 murder of a high school girl and the trial that followed. It quickly became the most downloaded show in the world, for good reason. The storytelling and reporting in that first season is world-class.
For the more technical bits of podcast-consumption, I'd recommend the Overcast app. Sure, Apple auto-installs the wonky Podcasts app on your iPhones, but Overcast is just better, more organized, prettier. It downloads new episodes on your device only when you're connected to wifi (a savior of data plans) and for a few bucks you can upgrade to get playlist-making power and other cool stuff. For you Android users, there's Stitcher, which is also cool.
So, those are the proper entrance points into the podcast world, but they're only the bullet points. Take a look around the world of information and you see newspapers, magazines, and television channels, all of which have their place. But to me audio has become the essential way to understand. There's not much a print writer can do to dress up a quote on a page (even a powerful one); it's flat by nature. Then, if that same person goes on television to speak passionately or excitedly or while grieving, they're subject to a strange set of judgments - what are they wearing? Are their cries convincing enough? The words can get lost. But while also being the most mobile medium for a high-paced era, podcasts seem to slide into a sweet spot. By hearing people, audio gives you emotional context for stories without undermining the message. True listening is an intimate, powerful thing.
Hopefully you'll find a show to act as your gateway to the flourishing world of audio podcasts. And hopefully this newsletter can help with that search.