I have a 25-30 minute drive to work every day. It is the worst. It’s the first time in my life I’ve really had a commute (that wasn’t walking down a forested path in a National Park, for example) and I hate that every minute of it is contributing to climate change, that sometimes I get stuck in traffic jams (luckily this is rare), and that it means I have an hour fewer every work day to do fun or productive things.
The one nice thing about it is that I get to listen to lots of podcasts, and there are so many good ones out there. If, like me, you have a commute that’s longer than you’d like, or if you need something to listen to while you fold laundry or do dishes or take road trips or fall asleep at night, I recommend podcasts to you as well. Maybe you already listen to lots of them. So, if for any reason you are interested in my opinions on this topic (I do listen to approximately 250-300 hours of podcasts a year, after all), here’s my list of…
what I listen to and why:
This list in a rough order – ones I like the best are closer to the top, like the least closer to the bottom, but I don’t necessarily always like #1 better than #2, or #4 better than #5, etc.
Most of these fit in one of two length categories, and I’ve marked them as such:
- [S]: Shorter episodes, each usually around 15-20 minutes
- [L]: Longer episodes, each usually around 35-45+ minutes
- RadioLab | with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich | [L] | Classic. Everybody loves RadioLab. They do mostly science-based stories, about curious phenomena in the scientific world, creatures and natural history, physics, genetics, etc etc etc. Extremely well-edited and Jad and Robert are so likable and articulate. I love this always, but sometimes they get lame and just re-play an episode from another podcast with their own commentary inserted, which is sort of cheating.
- This American Life | with Ira Glass | [L] | Another classic. They’re so dependable – a new, excellent episode, forty minutes or so, nearly every Sunday like clockwork. I feel like everyone has heard this one, and if you haven’t, just get on it.
- Serial | with Sarah Koenig | [L] | Became the most-listened-to-ever podcast last year, when she was diving into the murder case against Adnan Syed, so you’ve probably heard of it. Sarah uses music much less than most of these other longer-form podcasts – it’s almost entirely her talking into her microphone, or playing interviews, so the editing is quite simple, but she’s so articulate and the stories are so intriguing that it doesn’t matter. She teases apart every single thread of complicated stories without it becoming dull. The first season was about Adnan’s murder conviction, and the current one is about Bo Bergdahl and his five years as a Taliban POW – and the debate over why he left his base in the first place.
- Planet Money | from NPR | [S] | It’s insane how entertaining this little economics podcast is. The reporting is excellent, each episode is relatively short, and each one leaves me with a weird and pleasing anecdote or new fact to go around telling everyone all day – like why CEO pay got so high, or how some dude beat the lottery, or why and how the price of a Coke stayed constant for 70 years.
- 99% Invisible | with Roman Mars | [S] | A podcast about design and architecture, with episodes on everything from the invention of basketball to “salmon cannons” to expiration dates on food to mistakes in the structural integrity of skyscrapers. Doesn’t that sound good? Also, Roman Mars has a very cool name and has a very soothing, massage-room sort of voice.
- Invisibilia | with Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel | [L] | They’re between seasons and they haven’t done a new episode since July, but hopefully they return soon. All about “the invisible forces that control human behavior.” Thoroughly researched, very entertaining and fascinating stories (ranging from tragic to hilarious), with fun and well-spoken hosts.
- Mystery Show | with Starlee Kine | [L] |A very hilarious, absurd, zany podcast by the adorable Starlee Kine in which she solves “mysteries” (like “exactly how tall is Jake Gyllenhall” or “what did that vanity plate that said ILUV911 mean?” or “what happened to that old video rental place”) and in the process gets all kinds of ordinary people and/or celebrities to open up to her about their life stories in funny and surprising ways. Also no new episodes since July, very sad, come back soon please.
- Snap Judgment | with Glynn Washington | [L] | Self-described as “story-telling with a beat.” Sometimes I love it, sometimes I find it annoying or boring. Glynn Washington is an expressive story-teller, but his affected voice for stories can get on my nerves. Still, the stories tend to be well-curated, they’re beautifully combined with sound and music, and there are fascinating stories about criminals and tracking people and camping trips and carnivals and all kinds of things.
- Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Ask Me Another | with Peter Segal and Ophira Eisenberg, respectively | [L] | Two for the price of one! Both of these are NPR quiz shows that I enjoy listening to while stuck in traffic, on especially long road trips, or when I’m otherwise stressed and want some soothing easy listening. They’re always trying to be funny and they occasionally are, and often I’ll pick up some fun new trivia along the way. It’s nice to learn something new about current events from WWDTM and that AMA includes clever music from singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. (WWDTM is about politics and the news from that week; AMA is about trivia and word games.)
- The Allusionist | with Helen Zaltzman | [S] | Short, quippy pieces in a lovely British accent about the origin of words or phrases, linguistic analyses, and more. I really like Helen Zaltzman’s voice and the subject matter, but there’s something that makes me not completely love this podcast, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I just wish it were done with a more serious take and less of a bubbly, isn’t-that-amusing one.
- Freakonomics Radio | with Stephen Dubner | [L] | Another interesting economics podcast, but this one’s just not as good as Planet Money, or even Dubner and Leavitt’s books with the same Freakonomics title. The stories usually have interesting premises, but seem to often drag too long – plus Dubner has a sleepy, inherently boring-sounding, mono-tonal voice. Still – it’s on the list, and sometimes they produce episodes that I really really love.
- The Moth | assorted hosts | [L] | Maybe this one should be higher up on the list. It’s hard because every episode is so different from the one before it – each is a collection of short true stories, told live by the people who lived them. Usually, an episode of the podcast has no cohesive theme, but consists of two to five random stories from different people at different events. Some of the stories are brilliant, hilarious, fascinatingly weird, horizon-broadening, or make me cry and snot all over my car – and some of them are poorly told, boring, overly sentimental, or irrelevant. I still recommend giving it a try – just don’t feel bad about skipping around through or between episodes.
- Love + Radio | with Nick van der Kolk | [S] – [L] | This was also a hard one to place, because I think it’s an extraordinarily well-done, well-curated, unique podcast that showcases some really powerful stories of human existence – I just can never really get into it. But that’s a personal problem, because I have an extremely short attention span for things that are just one person talking for an extended period of time, and that’s what this is. Instead of an interview-style format, or one that cuts between different people’s voices to tell a story, these stories are usually told by a single voice. It reminds me of being read aloud to, which I am not good at. I get bored or I fall asleep or I become impatient. But this is my own character flaw, and not Love + Radio’s. They’re great and you’ll probably love them.
- Dirtbag Diaries | with Fitz Cahall | [S] | I want this one to be so much better! It’s a podcast all about outdoor adventure, with climbing, hiking, skiing, road-tripping, and travel stories, so it has so much potential. But it’s not as smooth or skillful as the other podcasts on this list, and many of its reporters have distracting or unpleasant voices. The overall sound quality is low. And some of the stories are really entertaining (like one about being stuck in an insane storm on a little sailboat), but some are honestly pretty lame – like, I don’t want to hear about your ordinary road trip. That’s a “kinda had to be there” story. Still, I keep it on my list, and read the description carefully before I hit play.
- The Splendid Table | with Lynne Rosetto Kasper | [L] | Oh, Splendid Table. If you aren’t familiar, this is a show about food that is the radio equivalent of an Instagram account showing only beautiful photos of meals involving little bits of herbs strewn over them. I listen to it when I’m having trouble falling asleep, or when I’ve run out of everything else, or when I need to cook dinner and want to quickly get inspired and feel super hungry. I do enjoy when people call in with questions – they always have these ridiculous problems, like “So, I live on a tiny farm in the South of France, and my apricot trees are just going crazy this year! I’m looking for some ideas of what I can do with, say, thirty, forty pounds of fresh apricots.”
Next on my list – I haven’t listened to these yet, but they come highly recommended:
- On the Media | with Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield | [S] – [L]
- Outside/In | with Sam Evans-Brown | [S]