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21 Podcasts To Check Out

by Kate Sedgwick Jan 11, 2012
Free audio entertainment has never been better.

THERE ARE ALMOST too many good podcasts to keep up with.

I have been into podcasts for years. Long before the podcast boom and well before I had an MP3 player, I would stream them though my computer. I’m an audio junkie and I prefer listening to podcasts to music at least 80% of the time — chalk it up to growing up in a house where NPR was playing during the majority of waking hours.

While corporate radio is more and more about repetition, podcasts are often just a couple people getting together and deciding on their own what they want their show to be about. Corporations haven’t figured out how to get their claws into this market and destroy it yet since podcasts are (mostly) free and operated by voluntary donation.

If you like to listen to people talk, here are some podcasts to check out.

Storytelling and shop-talk for writers

Other People

Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown, hosts this show.

Listi introduces each episode of Other People with some thoughts, ideas, or stories from his own life that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the guests. These monologues are highly cerebral and relatable.

Interviews with writers of all stripes get into deep territory, including what their lives were like growing up and the process of writing. Brad Listi is revealing about himself and often gets great insights out of his guests. If you’re a writer, or just think you might be one, this twice weekly podcast is one to check out.


This is one hell of a storytelling podcast. While host Kevin Allison’s exuberance is perhaps questionable in its sincerity, and the show is starting to get a little commercial-heavy, there is a lot here to enjoy.

Stories of practically anonymous contributors share audio space with well-known comedians, writers, and performers interspersed with strange audio tidbits, mixes, and songs sent in by audience members.

RISK! typically runs about an hour (thought there are sometimes shorter episodes) and is always entertaining.

This American Life

If you’re into podcasts already, then you know about This American Life.

Back when my talk jones was only satiated by radio and comedy records, I made a point of being near a radio on Sundays at broadcast time for this show. If I was with friends, they were required to shut up and listen with me. If my phone rang, I’d answer and say, “This American Life is on. I’ll call you later.” Lucky for me that before I expatriated, the show went digital and I can listen anytime I want to from anywhere in the world.

Ira Glass helms this show, produced in Chicago through PRI. This show tells stories you would never otherwise hear using interview, narration, and straight reading. I first heard of David Sedaris though this show when he read some of his work. The focus and execution of narrative with such a wide variety of processes and the thoughtful curation of the stories included in each show still keep me hanging in the street to hear the end of a segment, even once I arrive at my destination.

New Yorker: Fiction

New Yorker: Fiction Podcast invites fiction contributors to The New Yorker to read the short stories of other authors they admire from previous publications.

The magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, hosts the show and has conversations before and after the readings with the guests about aspects of the chosen stories and the reasons for their selections.

If you’re into writing or reading fiction, this is a fascinating podcast. I seldom listen to podcasts more than once, but frequently make an exception for this one.

KQED: The Writers’ Block

Once a week, KQED in San Francisco releases an episode in which authors read from their own work. The Writers’ Block generally comes in at under 15 minutes — some are shorter than five minutes.

I save these up and listen to several in a row and often find myself wishing for more. This podcast is different from any other I’ve ever heard because there’s no host. The authors introduce themselves and the show and do the outro, too.

The Moth

This competitive storytelling event has gone nationwide in the US.

Storytellers who want to give it a go in front of a live audience put their names in a hat and are called up at random to tell their stories. The Moth podcast is released at least once a week.

Often, these are less than 20 minutes long, though the recent release of two more-than-hour-long episodes of the Chicago Grand Slam were a delight. It’s hosted by Dan Kennedy and gets storytellers from all walks of life to tell true stories.

PRI: Selected Shorts

If you’re not in broadcasting range of a station that plays this one, the entire weekly show is available on Monday morning.

Short fiction categorized by theme is read by actors in front of a live audience. Because Selected Shorts is a radio show, too, all cuss words are bleeped out.

If you’re a writer, you might also be interested to know that the deadline to submit to The 2012 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize is March 2, 2012. The winner gets $1,000 and a 10 week course at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the winning story may be read on the air.

Science and the human condition

Madness Radio

This is one of the most revelatory podcasts I’ve ever heard. Madness Radio explores mental health from the patient’s view.

There are innovations happening in the world of mental health independent of drug treatments and the DSMIV, and Madness Radio gives innovators a forum to express their knowledge and points of view with enlightened interviewer Will Hall.

Even if the topics often sound dry, the personal stories of the guests and Will make the issues discussed come into sharp and often shocking relief. I always learn something new when I listen and enjoy doing it. The show is not frequently updated — there have been four month gaps between podcasts — but it’s worth the wait, and the archives are extensive.

WNYC’s Radiolab

Radiolab makes stories out of science in such an entertaining way, you won’t even be aware that you’re learning.

I love the way the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, make hours of research come alive.

Full length episodes that come in at an hour or more are released less frequently than shorts, which generally run about 20 minutes each.

Each episode explores and idea or topic in-depth, including the origin of the face used on CPR dummies, altruism, the difference between the way we sound to ourselves and the way we sound to others, and investigations into other things you didn’t know you were curious about, but turn out to be.

Savage Love Podcast

I love Dan Savage’s no-nonsense, sex-positive perspective and have spent way too much time reading his column over the years.

The Savage Love Podcast is in the same format as his long running advice column in The Stranger: people call in with their problems and Dan gives his solutions, often taking the time to call back and chat to get a better idea what’s going on.

Weekly episodes are released on Tuesdays and run about an hour.

Comedy and dialogue

WTF with Marc Maron

Marc Maron is a veteran comic who releases two podcasts a week on Monday and Thursday.

He’s gained a lot of sponsors, so I find myself skipping through the commercials lately, but that’s the price you pay for premium payment-optional entertainment. For the first several minutes of each episode of WTF, Maron talks about what’s on his mind.

The interviews have traditionally been with comedians who talk about their careers, lives, and philosophies. Lately, some authors and actors have been guests as well. Maron’s insecurities play a big part in his interview style. Over the first year and a half of his show, the majority of interviews ended with Maron saying, “Are we good?”

The episodes average about an hour in length. Noteworthy episodes include those of recently deceased comics Patrice O’Neal and Mike DeStefano as they give fans a deeper insight into the offstage personalities of these guys who are missed.

The Lavender Hour

Comedian couple Natasha Leggero and Duncan Trussel run The Lavender Hour.

I have to admit that I don’t check out the websites of most podcasts very often. I usually just subscribe, download, and listen. But with The Lavender Hour, I almost always check out the website after listening to the show to see what other fans are saying and how the conversation continues to unfold.

Something about the way Duncan and Natasha get into issues and go off on tangents keeps me curious about their ideas long after I’ve finished listening. This podcast is (usually) once-weekly for free with bonus episodes running a dollar a pop.

Walking the Room

This show is for sick fucks.

Hosted by comedians Dave Anthony and Greg Behrendt, Walking the Room is named for the phenomenon when a comedian has such a bad set that the audience just gets up and walks out.

The two take turns telling stories from their lives and going off on obscene and bizarre tangents that delight the twisted and disgust the average person.

The introductory episode I most recommend to get a handle on what this podcast is all about is episode 16 in which the terms “clown from the neck down,” and “cuddlah” are invented as monikers for listeners of the show. It has something to do with ICP, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

If this sounds like something you might like, check it out and you’ll be corn-doggin’ in no time.

The Smartest Man in the World

Before I started listening to this show, I thought of Greg Proops exclusively as a sketch comedian. Silly me. This guy is a hilarious comedian — and I guess that goes for almost any genre of the medium.

Episodes of The Smartest Man in the World are recorded in front of live audiences wherever in the world Proops happens to be — Edinburgh, Montreal, San Francisco, Atlanta, and even from a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Audience participation is a big part of the show as listeners are invited to send in questions or ask them live at each performance.

He’s fast on his feet and seldom repeats ideas as he sips vodka and gets to pontificating in the most endearing way. And if you don’t know who Satchel Paige is, you’ll soon find out.

Tom Rhodes Radio

Tom Rhodes is a hilarious comedian with an international act and no permanent address.

His podcast is sporadically released, but very entertaining. He doesn’t just interview other comics, but musicians, promoters, his uncle, and once another guy named Tom Rhodes (a musician).

Recently he released an episode in which he interviewed his sister before her death from breast cancer. I didn’t know how to act listening to that while walking the streets of Buenos Aires — I had tears sprouting one minute and was near cackling the next.

The only thing that disappoints me about Tom Rhodes Radio is the infrequency of the updates, but when they come out, they satisfy.

Comedy and Everything Else

Oh, how I wish this podcast were updated as frequently as in times past.

Hosted by Jimmy Dore and Stefane Zamorano, CaEE is political and hilarious.

They often invite guests into their house, where they record the show, and there are lots of call-in cameos from celebrity impersonators that hit more than they miss.

This show is topical and enjoyable and I wish I hadn’t tapped out the archives a long time ago because I want more.

Comedy and improv

The Long Shot

I recommend this podcast all the time.

It took me a little while to get into the groove with this one because the personalities are so diverse, and when you are new to the show it seems a little chaotic and confusing. The advice I give is to just to listen to three episodes and give The Long Shot a chance.

The chemistry between the four hosts (comedians Eddie Pepitone, Sean Conroy, Jamie Flam, and Amber Kenny) won me over quickly and I anticipate this podcast more than any other. While listening, I have often burst out laughing walking down the sidewalk, in line at the store, and on public transit. People stare like I’m loony and I don’t care.

This is the best podcast you’re probably missing out on. Whether they have a guest or not, I have found listening to instantly improve my day. Episodes clock in at over an hour, generally and are released weekly.

Comedy Bang Bang

This show is absurd, and I love it.

Formerly known as Comedy Death Ray with a live weekly standup show by the same name (whatever that name happens to be) at UCB Theater in LA, Comedy Bang Bang is hosted by Scott Auckerman (AKA Hot Saucerman).

The show’s purported “open door policy” means that anyone at all could show up — be it Cake Boss, Governor Jesse Ventura, Auckerman’s former stepfather, or his current weed dealer. Are these real people? Yeah, real funny. This show’s nerdy silliness doesn’t get old for me, there are too many brilliant minds behind it, including frequent guest Paul F. Thompkins.

Comedy and pop culture

The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture

Comedian W. Kamau Bell and Living Colour guitarist Vernon A.Reid team up for the Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture or FNGTAC.

The show is rangy — from comic books to movies to politics, comedy, music, celebrity, and more, FNGTAC is reassuring, funny, provocative, and full of fresh perspectives you’re not going to hear in mainstream media.

That’s what’s so great about podcasts: you choose what you want to hear, not the other way around. I wish these guys weren’t too busy to release a podcast a week lately. When they get around to it, though, I listen right away.

The Dork Forest

Jackie Kashian is funny as hell, but her podcast isn’t all about comedy.

The Dork Forest‘s guests are just about anyone who’s willing to be on the show that Kashian thinks is interesting. They are invited to get deep into their dorkitude, be it baseball, comic books, food, sci-fi, birds, or unsolved murders.

The majority of guests are entertaining and endearing in their deep, hidden love for the obscure, and you never know what topics will come bubbling up.

Studio 360

Yes, it’s another PRI show, but this one is all about the arts and pop culture.

Hosted by writer Kurt Anderson, Studio 360 features discussions with artists of all mediums (including comedians, musicians, writers, dancers, filmmakers and visual artists) about projects and processes.

While there is often quite a bit of humor in the show, and sometimes audio art and collage in the show itself, this show is especially noteworthy in a culture where art is no longer mainstream. Talking to people who are emerging and established artists is something that used to be considered interesting — if you think that’s still the case, this is a podcast to check out.

Is that all?

Want more podcast recommendations? Check out the AV Club’s Podmass’ best podcasts of 2011 which includes some I love (like The Mental Illness Happy Hour which I failed to mention here), some I never heard of, and some that I could frankly do without. But that’s the beauty of podcasts — you really choose your own adventure.

If you have recommendations for more, please leave them in the comments. There can never be too much of a good thing.

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