Making Podcast Recommendations

I have the hardest time recommending podcasts to folks who don’t already listen to podcasts. I think I can trace this to two primary factors:

  1. This is perhaps counterintuitive, but podcasts strike me as one of the more intimate media platforms. Ostensibly there’s nothing different about a podcast than a radio show, except everything is different. Turn on a radio, and you get what you can pull in within signal range. Podcasts are opt-in, and thus, very personal. My Overcast playlist is bespoke radio,” and I can’t imagine anyone else would select exactly the same podcasts as me.
  2. I don’t listen to any of the truly big podcasts anymore. I listened to This American Life and Pop Culture Happy Hour years ago, but drifted away as the shows became more predictable and the hosts more, well, grating. One or two of the shows named below might still fit on the big podcast list, but I’m guessing the rest are comfortably middle-range.

So, when podcasts come up in conversation with someone and I’m asked what I listen to (or would recommend they listen to), I struggle a bit to explain my preferences (which seem clear to me without any real examination 1 ) or to think of something that would be widely enjoyed. (As much as I love Roderick on the Line and Reconcilable Differences, neither of those are podcasts I’m about to suggest to someone new to the medium.) After the most recent instance of this situation, here, for future reference, is my default podcast recommendation list:

- The Allusionist (Helen Zaltzman)

A linguistics podcast hosted by a British comedy writer? Yup — and it’s good. It’s released on a (mostly?) biweekly basis. I should get to it more often than I do, because every time I listen I’m reminded of how much I like it.

- The Incomparable (Jason Snell, et alii.)

Hundreds of episodes about really nerdy (geeky?) pop culture & books. There’s something here for almost everyone. I might start someone with a draft episode if I don’t have a good sense of what they like, or recommend one of the more focused topics if I know they enjoy something in particular (Roald Dahl, superheroes, sci-fi cinema/TV, etc.). I’ve been listening for a very long time, but I’m not a completionist with this one.

- Life of the Law (Nancy Mullane, et alii.)

Primarily investigative reporting on wide-ranging legal issues all over the topical map, intermixed with studio interviews & occasional live events. Fascinating stuff, particularly the work they do with folks in prison. My listen rate is probably 75% for this one, skirting the live events and some subjects where I have less interest.

- The Memory Palace (Nate DiMeo)

The host calls this a storytelling podcast,” and there really isn’t a better way to describe it. He centers his monthly stories around little, significant moments & figures in history. This is one of my longstanding personal favorites.

- Omnibus (John Roderick & Ken Jennings)

This is the newest podcast on this list; the first episode was released in December 2017. John Roderick is a Seattle rock musician; Ken Jennings holds the record for longest winning streak on Jeopardy!. The show is zany, premised around creating a time capsule of esoterica & historical flotsam for posterity. Pretty amusing stuff. (The ads for other podcasts on the HowStuffWorks network get old really fast, though.)

- On Being (Krista Tippett)

The podcast version of a public radio show by the same name, devoted to examining the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?.” I don’t listen to every episode, but for someone interested in Big Picture issues, this might be a good fit.

- Radiolab (Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, et alii.)

Because this is the podcast version of a radio program produced by WNYC, I’m guessing it’s the biggest one on this list. It covers topics all across the spectrum, so it’s easy to recommend. I think I found this one initially through an interview with Oliver Sacks, but I might be conflating that with a later episode. Abumrad & Krulwich host, but there’s an assortment of voices in the mix. Abumrad’s a MacArthur recipient.

- Song Exploder (Hrishikesh Hirway)

Biweekly deep dives into recorded music. Hrishikesh invites musicians to deconstruct one of their songs into its various elements. A sample of past guests: Butch Vig & Shirley Manson of Garbage, Michael Stipe & Mike Mills of R.E.M., Iggy Pop, Björk, Aimee Mann, Andrew Bird. My musical tastes don’t overlap with most others’ particularly well, so I dip into this one depending on what song is featured.

- Top 4 (Marco & Tiff Arment)

Yes, a podcast with Marco Arment, but not one of the two he’s best known for recording. Tiff & Marco’s chemistry is delightful (no wonder they’re married), and the concept keeps things fresh. I think episode 24, Vegetables,” is the place to start, because who doesn’t have opinions about veggies?

- 99% Invisible (Roman Mars, et alii.)

This is pretty well known among podcast aficionados, but I don’t think a single aspiring podcast listener I’ve met has heard of it. Focused on design & architecture, but from an aesthetic & experiential perspective. The show’s premised on the Buckminster Fuller observation that 99% of us is invisible, but applies that to the built environment all around us.

Like I said, this list is intended for general recommendation. My personal top ten is going to be a bit different, but not everyone is interested in baseball, Merlin Mann’s weekly conversation with Johns Roderick & Siracusa, or technology — and that’s okay.

  1. But should they?↩︎


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