Since my first week's introduction to daily podcasts, I have anxiously awaited revisiting this topic and going beyond the daily and current-events options into the abyss of highly engaging, well-produced options that is the current podcast market. Podcasts, nothing more than audio files accessed on the internet (in the first draft I inadvertently wrote radio instead of internet, showing my true colors), are popping up everywhere and for any topic - I have some friends that never miss an episode of their Bachelor podcast and others that make major financial decisions based on their investing podcasts. I was first introduced to the medium when Serial was released in 2014, and I still consider that one of the best examples of storytelling that I have ever experienced. Since then, I've listened to some of the big names - This American Life, Dirty John, S-Town - but prior to the last few weeks, had never spent time exploring beyond those major players. Warning before you read on: once you have seen what's out there, you will want to lock yourself away and do nothing but listen to the hours of intriguing stories and ideas that are patiently waiting in your podcasting app (given the unlikelihood of that happening for me, there's some chance that I might start running again for no reason other than an excuse to get some listening minutes).
Given the number of podcasts that ended up on the "must listen" list, I'm dividing this post into three parts: (1) documentary, history, and pop culture; (2) innovation, technology, and science; (3) true crime, advice, and pure entertainment. Quick note: I spent a shockingly-inefficient amount of time trying to divide the podcasts on the finalist list into categories or genres. It wasn't necessarily a neat or clean categorization, so be generous in your review of the section titles and the sorting of podcasts to each category.
For part 1, I have seven podcasts: three that are serialized (I used documentary to describe the style in the title so you wouldn't immediately assume it was an in-depth look at Serial - while I would be happy to do that as well, see above, it's not in this particular post); two that are history; and two that are pop culture. Obviously you cannot hit all of these every week, but I recommend hitting at least an episode of each.
1. Caliphate is a 10-chapter New York Times podcast that delves into the ideology of ISIS. Featuring Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter from the terrorism beat, the podcast seeks to answer one primary question: in the war on terror, who are we really fighting? The series opens with an interview from a former ISIS recruit, who continues to emerge throughout the series. With a style much like its sister podcast The Daily, Caliphate is engaging from start to finish even as it tackles complex issues and makes them accessible to listeners. While I have heard and read much on terror and the war on terror over the last couple of decades, I can't articulate much about the ideology that drives recruits and feeds terrorist organizations. I look forward to finishing all ten episodes (at least once, maybe more than once).
2. The Habitat - Did you know that NASA is conducting experiments on a remote Hawaii island to better understand what life on Mars is like and how humans would survive there? And, that they conduct these experiments by having volunteers live in an "imitation Mars" habitat for extended periods of time? Lynn Levy, the host of The Habitat, apparently did. She gave the six members of HI-SEA (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) IV recording devices to track their year spent in this habitat (the size of a two-car garage). The Habitat, a Gimlet podcast, is a seven-episode series that follows the experiences of the volunteers during their year, August 28, 2015 - August 28, 2016, in the imitation-mars dome. Each episode is around 30 minutes and you will be hooked after the trailer. I have many takeaways on this one, but the most compelling at the moment is the number of things that go on in the world that I know NOTHING about. Mars. We are actively preparing for Mars.
3. We Came to Win is another podcast created by Gimlet (which I feel some allegiance to because, in the wake of my Serial high, I listened to and loved Start Up). With 10 episodes released from April 25 to June 14, We Came to Win tells the stories of the most memorable World Cup moments in history. The episodes range from 20 minutes to an hour and cover topics from Hope Solo, to "The World's Most Hated Referree," to the Zaire team of 1974, the first all-black team to compete at the World Cup. While I am not a soccer aficionado (I admittedly did not watch a minute of this year's World Cup), I nevertheless am drawn to this podcast because of the world-wide relevance of the stories that it tells. While I didn't tune in to Russia, over 3 billion people did watch the world cup this year (that is almost half of everyone on the planet). Given its worldwide popularity and the significance that countries place on this event, the stories told are about much more than soccer. The episodes can stand alone, so even if you are not a soccer fan, pick at least one and listen. At the very least, you'll get another dose of the enthralling narrative that has come to define Gimlet.
4. Revisionist History - Important caveat: I am a history major and often find fascinating those topics that others might bucket as boring. That said, the two history podcasts here are objectively entertaining (so say I, subjectively). The first, Revisionist History is by Malcolm Gladwell, who has an extraordinary ability to look at a topic and find a story that others did not see. Revisionist History does just that: each episode looks at "something" from the past - an event, an idea, a person, etc. - and then reinterprets it, finding things overlooked or misunderstood. There are three seasons, each with 10 episodes ranging in length from 30 minutes to an hour. I am partial to the season 3 finale, Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis - because of the Elvis focus - but the episodes can stand alone and you can't go wrong with any of them.
5. The Dollop combines two of the best things around: history and comedy. Comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds have been releasing these "bi-weekly-ish" episodes since April of 2014. The premise of The Dollop is that Dave reads an historical story to Gareth, who has no previous knowledge of the topic and no idea what the episode is going to be about. I started by listening to the July 17 episode, Women and Transportation, which had me laughing out loud at horrific events described in medical texts. Not the easiest of tasks, as I would have thought that I had a firm rule about not laughing over falling uteri. While it took a while to get started, The Dollop is a really entertaining concept, as the listener learns about a topic amidst a comedic improv between Dave and Gareth. The episodes range from 30 minutes to two hours (which I find a little overwhelming). I recommend picking a topic or two that you like (or picking one of the shorter ones) and giving it a listen. Just don't laugh too hard so as to risk a falling uterus and a myriad of horrors (see July 17th episode for more details).
6. The Watch is a weekly podcast from The Ringer that discusses recent and trending TV shows, movies, and music. Hosted by Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan, The Watch has been coming out weekly since November of 2015, and each episode is between 45 minutes and an hour long. When I first started listening to this, I decided in the first 10 minutes that I wasn't interested. The pace was more conversational and less focused than some of the other podcasts, and I felt like I was wasting my listening time and that the topics were too specific - i.e., if I wasn't going to watch the show featured, why bother. However, I left the most recent episode playing while I began another task and became hooked. While I probably will not watch the show they were discussing, Castle Rock, their many references to other books, movies, writers, and trends that influenced it made it really fascinating. And, they're really funny. I won't make any attempt to listen to this on a weekly basis, but I will pull out a few episodes and, on a road trip or that ellusive long run, have a listen. Up first, "Emmy Nominations and Sharp Objects," "Remembering Anthony Bourdain," and "Fox, Disney, Comcast and the Content Wars of Tomorrow."
7. Las Culturistas is a weekly pop culture podcast hosted by "culture consultants" Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang. If I hadn't learned from The Watch to stick with it, I think I would have turned this one off in the first five minutes (I love a good schedule and anything that seems like dead time makes me squirm). That said, this podcast was good for me. While they cover a wide range of top pop culture events, headlines, and moments, it is safe to say that the journey is very much the destination with this podcast. But, once you lean into that, the journey is a good one. There are constant pop culture references - Lorelai and Rory would love this - and it was hilarious. The episodes are released every Wednesday and are anywhere from 45 minutes to almost two hours, but you can come and go and still get to live the experience. I feel a little less history nerd and a little more light and funny just after one listen. And, I now know what TOML means.
I enjoyed every minute listening to these seven podcasts. I will be sad to put them aside this week, but looking forward to focusing on the lists of innovation, technology, and science podcasts. More on that next week!
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