There are more podcasts out there than you can shake a stick at. There’s probably even a podcast celebrating the fact that there are more podcasts out there than you can shake a stick at. At any rate, here are five which excel at pumping rich, creamy goodness into your brain. And since the first episode of a podcast isn’t necessarily the best place to start (especially when you’re trying to convince someone else how great it can be), there are some suggestions included for each below as well. Let’s start at the top, shall we?
1. Radiolab. If you’re familiar with Radiolab, you may agree that this is an easy target. Exploring the depths of topics like science, history, philosophy, identity—even love. A product of WNYC, a public radio station based in (where else?) New York City, Radiolab is streets ahead of the rest of this list. Nationally syndicated and wildly popular—for good reason—this hour-long radio show’s podcast version also offers condensed (usually between 10 and 30 minutes) broadcasts of stories and investigations into things we might never consider, or that might keep us up at night, pondering and wondering. Masterfully edited with layers of voice-overs and sound bites, the show’s artful and unconventional construction strikes me each time I tune in, and I’ve yet to find an episode I haven’t enjoyed. “Double Blasted” is a good story to kick off your Radiolab experience. It packs a mental and emotional wallop and is edited in true Radiolab fashion. If you’re looking for something more accessible, try the “Argentine Invasion” episode.
2. Star Talk. This podcast is the product of Hayden Planetarium’s Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and superstar. In this science-y podcast, the Doc explores the nature of the universe through the lenses of physics, time and even pop-culture. If it’s even remotely related to astronomy or physics, it’s probably been addressed on Star Talk. Oh, and did I mention every episode features a comedian or celebrity co-host (sometimes both!)? If you want to dive into Star Talk (and you really ought to), I’d start with any episode featuring frequent guest comedian Eugene Mirman. A terrific one for guest spots is “Star Talk Live! Exploring our Funky Solar System”. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll pee…and you’ll be smarter for it.
3. Thrilling Adventure Hour. The Thrilling Adventure Hour provides a much-needed dose of old-timey radio format and sketch comedy rolled into one ball of wax. This podcast borrows the tropes and memes that made the golden age of radio such a popular force in its heyday; wry humor and double entendres abound in stories told amid manufactured sound effects and laugh tracks. If that isn’t enough of a reason to give this podcast a whirl, then do it for the guest voice-overs and fake commercial sponsors. Where else can you listen to a veritable army of comedians and their celebrity guests voice amazing stories AND hear from their chipper (and imaginary) sponsors like Work Juice Coffee and Patriot Cigarettes? It’s a refreshing, hilarious change of pace for anyone who wants to kill an hour, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
4. Escape Pod. Escape Pod is a sort of grandfather podcast. By that I mean that it’s generated spin-offs in Pseudopod and Podcastle (horror and fantasy, respectively), both of which also hold their own as quality productions. Having been around for almost a decade, Escape Pod remains my favorite source for short science fiction. And with 52 stories per year for 9 years (and still going strong), this one has enough of the goods to entertain you for, like…ever. The Paper Menagerie (China Mieville’s Hugo Award winner for best short story, 2012) appeared on Escape Pod before its grand recognition. It’s certainly as good a place to start as any, but you can find a story from myriad sci-fi categories in this podcast. Just search out a summary that sounds up your alley and click on that triangle!
5. Bubkes. The hosts of this roughly hour-long podcast are Brian Ernst and Mitch Brinkman, two amateur filmmakers in Chicago. The thing I like most about Bubkes is its ever-changing trajectory; topics range from Thai food to toddler-servants to fan fiction to placenta. That’s right, placenta, or as they call it, “nature’s granola bar.” The back-and-forth banter keeps you laughing-and that’s about the only predictable aspect of the show. To see what your missing, and start off with a full-flavored mouthful, I advise checking out episodes 3 (“Spa Day, Golden Globes, Placenta, And Entourage Fan Fiction”) or 5 (“The Ginger Prince Rewinds Back Babies”).
Honorable Mention: The Nerdist. I like the idea of The Nerdist more than I actually like The Nerdist. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great podcast, but sometimes I just feel like The Nerdist is what it is for the sake of itself. Did that make sense? I think so. The guests and topics are generally terrific but its deal breaker (only sometimes) is that the host, Chris Hardwick, can get hard to listen to for a whole episode…which is pretty much a requirement for a podcast, isn’t it?