Podcasts Make You Smart and Stuff

For someone who could put up some stiff competition for the title of World’s Worst Aural Learner, I am intensely attached to podcasts. Again–I have selective hearing. If I forget to actively listen, I literally do not hear what is going on around me (that little trick got me through many a boring homily growing up). Having someone tell me directions is utterly pointless; write it down or it’s better not to even bother. What’s your name? Oh, nice to meet you, Person Whose Name I Have Already Forgotten.

Yet, podcasts have somehow become an integral part of my routine and my daily learning experience. I’m just such a desperately curious person; I can’t stop finding new things that fascinate me, and podcasts feed this obsession. I’m such a sucker for radio, and podcasts seem to be the closest thing modern America has to what radio used to be (yes, I know we still have radio. I’m not talking about Top 40 DJs yelling at me to text some inane code to some inane number to win some inane tickets). Can you read a book while doing dishes? No, not easily. BUT YOU CAN LISTEN TO A PODCAST. Can you read a book while staring at your ceiling with your eyes closed and a nice smelling candle lit (I like to date myself sometimes [all the time])? NO, BUT YOU CAN LISTEN TO A PODCAST. You catch my drift.

Perhaps it’s because of the company I keep (re: nerds, social justice-y people, generally badass future change agents in society), but many of my friends and family members are into podcasts. I find they’re a bit of a niche thing, but if you’re into them, you’re into them. For those of you who aren’t versed in the podcast nation though, here’s a primer of some of my favorites. DISCLAIMER: If you’re super into podcasts, don’t read this. Much of it is probably a reiteration of the top podcasts on Itunes. Whatever. Let’s continue.

First up, Stuff Mom Never Told You. If I had to name an all-time favorite, I’d go with this one. Cristen and Caroline talk about all things lady-related, and I eat up both their topics, their ethos, and their jolly banter. I especially have a girl crush on Cristen Conger, who I like to envision would be my friend if we ever met, mostly because she goes into weirdly old-timey voices almost as much as I do. Do you ever weirdly feel that way about people you’ve never met? Ok, moving on. I have learned so much from this podcasts through episodes that have covered everything from women and pie, Dolly Parton, female firefighters, women and cursing, women and chess, why women join cults, the social history of eyelashes, the origins and usage of the phrase “basic bitch” and a million other topics. Latina feminism, “exotic” beauty, the list goes on and on. I found this podcast spring semester of senior year of college, and rarely was I to be found walking around campus without an episode buzzing in my earbuds. If you love history, sociology, and all things LADY, check this one out. SMNTY: HIRE ME?! I’ll do all your research if I get to hang out in the studio with you and knit.

Second, Serial I couldn’t write a post about podcasts without referencing this phenomenon, which is by FAR the most popular podcast that has ever existed. If you’ve been living under a rock since September, this podcast from Sara Koenig of This American Life  tells the story, week by week, of Adnan Syed, a guy from Baltimore who was sentenced to life in prison for the alleged 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. In this series, Koenig revisits the entire case in excruciating detail, and what made the whole thing unique is that it was actually recorded week-to-week; new information was coming in as the podcast was being published. This one caused a world-wide phenomenon and everyone freaked out and started writing about what it means for podcasts now (I don’t think much, honestly). I had my guilt and doubts surrounding this one–I think the fact that this is a real girl and a real family gets lost in people’s listening, if not in the podcast itself–but damn, it was addicting. If you’re one of three people on Planet Earth who haven’t listened, do.

RADIOLAB. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT RADIOLAB. This is a new discovery for me (as in approximately three days ago, I know I know–behind the times), but I am completely addicted, enamored, encapsulated, all of the words. Radiolab is a podcast about science (hence the “lab”), but it presents these incredible, intricate topics in really accessible ways. In the past few days, I’ve listened to one about AIDS Patient Zero that a) blew my mind and b) led me to ruminate about the nature of fate and sick luck on my way to work. I’ve listened to one about language, one with the theme of falling, one about the inherent badness within human beings. What makes Radiolab so thrilling and revolutionary is the way it turns listening and presentation of sound into an art form; the sound editing is so unique and sometimes spastic, but also symphonic. It pulls you in, envelopes you. Never has the physics behind cats falling from windows sounded so fascinating, or so beautiful.

Radio Cherry Bombefrom the creators of Cherry Bombe magazine, shares a topic with its mother publication: women and food. The podcast episodes normally involve an interview with some badass woman working in the food world. They recently interviewed Ina Garten, so there’s really not much more to say.

The Moth is an ode to the ancient art of storytelling. It’s simple; the podcast pulls from its live spoken-word performances that it holds regularly around the country and packages them into podcast form to beam to listeners. There are no bells and whistles; just people and their stories. But more often than not, it’s absolutely stunning. In our constantly buzzing world of media and information, I think we’ve lost the power of a simple story. The Moth always reminds me of this.

The TEDRadio Hour. We’ve all heard TED Talks; it sometimes feels like there isn’t a topic that hasn’t, to some level, been covered by these mini lectures that happen at events around the world. The radio hour pulls some of these talks and ideas and compiles them into themed podcasts, inserting clips from TED Talks while expanding on the concepts through further interviews with the speakers. I listened to a really stunning on the nature of compassion, all while I was taking the bus to work.

There was a Funny or Die parody about Serial when it was about to end, and at one point, Michaela Watkins (as Sara Koenig) in all her frustration, yells, “I made a podcast, it was supposed to be for four people!” I love this odd little world of podcasts (that sometimes crosses over into the bigger world of media). There’s always so much to learn, you know?




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