PodCast Roundup

One of the frequent topics of discussion amongst my peers is what PodCasts are worthwhile. What we each listen to and why. Please comment with any worthy PodCasts that I’ve not tried.

Answer Me This. This is literally two comedians receiving questions from the public and trying to answer them. They cover a range of topics, but the largest subset seem to be about small social details. I listen to this intermittently, and with frequent fast-forwarding to get past pointless questions or answers.

Big Picture Science. This is a topical magazine show, with each episode built around an organizing concept. The segments are generally aimed at a very broad audience, so I don’t hear much that’s really new to me. Another intermittent PodCast that I skim for sub-topics of interest.

The Bugle. The best short-hand for this show is that it’s the radio version of The Daily Show. This is one of the must-hear PodCasts, and I am rarely behind in my listening.

Common Sense With Dan Carlin. At approximately weekly intervals, Dan Carlin surveys current events and tries to put them into context and understand them. A good reporter gives the facts, a great reporter understands the meaning, and Dan Carlin verges on the great at times.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. This does for historical events what Common Sense does for the present day, or vice versa. These are extensively researched, so that even in areas where I have a broad knowledge, I usually learn something. What makes this show stand out though, is Carlin’s ability to take you down into the mind-set of the people who experienced the history he’s relating. Another must-hear.

Fatman on Batman. Kevin Smith interviews various folks involved with Batman in some way. I’ve got my doubts about Smith as a film maker, but as an interviewer in this field he is able to leverage his extensive knowledge into deep and interesting interviews. While the Batman content is all great, I think he also goes deep enough in each interview that there’s a lot of insight into the lives of his guests, giving it an interest beyond its nominal subject.

The Film Program from BBC Radio 4. While reviews are included in this mini-magazine, it’s main strength is that it takes a closer look at specific films and specific topics each week. This means that this program is less topical than most review shows, and I think there are certainly topics it covers that can be returned to for a second or third hearing with benefit.

Forum – A World Of Ideas. This is a panel-discussion show, but it is so superficial that no matter how interesting the topic they pick, I could barely ever make it through an episode.

Friday Night Comedy: The Now Show and the News Quiz. Very topical sketch and quiz shows about each week’s news. Very funny, but also very lightweight.

Front Row. A media round-up show that covers Art, Museums, Theatre, Books, and sometimes Films. The magazine format means that they cover about 3 items per show, and since the shows are daily, they cover a huge amount of material each week. I find almost all of the segments interesting, but the sheer volume of material means I’ve shifted to the weekly highlights show.

Global News from the BBC. This news show was quite good, but because it updates twice a day, and only changes some of the material in each update, I quickly found the repetition of material frustrating.

A History of the World in 100 Objects. Brilliant exploration of history through the objects that people have left behind. The companion website means that the objects can be subsequently explored in more detail. The show is finished, but well worth a listen. The main content was also turned into a book, which is excellent.

In Our Time. Each week they take a detailed look at some historical event or item, or some scientific construct. The quality of individual episodes varies based on the specificity of the topic and the quality of the guests, but it’s worth keeping an eye on for topics of interest. I listen to about 2/3 of the episodes.

The Infinite Monkey Cage. Comedian Robin Ince and Brian Cox discuss some or other scientific concept with a panel, mostly comedians, occasional experts. It’s amusing, but doesn’t have much depth or complexity. Another intermittent listen.

Jay And Silent Bob Get Old. Each week Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes sit down and free-associate for between 1 and 2 hours. The early episodes were a fascinating autobiography-cum-interview with Jason Mewes about his struggle with addiction; after that, I think you’d need to really like their company to make their rambling interesting.

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Stuff includes history, writing, cooking, films and roleplaying. Generally this show is very good, and both Robin and Ken are very interesting in and of themselves. The diversity of material means that in each episode there are always topics of real interest, even if there is the occasional dud. This is another of my top picks, and I’m rarely more than an episode or two behind.

Letter From America. Not technically a PodCast, BBC Radio 4 put all of Alistair Cooke’s letters online for free. This is an amazing resource, and I am steadily getting through the thousands of back episodes.

Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Review. This is the most comprehensive film review show that I’ve found. They don’t review absolutely every film that gets released each week, but they make an honest try. Kermode is a pretty good critic, and their bickering is quite entertaining. Not quite as much of a must-hear as K&R or The Bugle, this is still pretty near the top of my list.

The Moth Podcast. Recordings of live storytelling. This is extremely variable in interest and quality, but when it’s good, it’s quite good. I tend to listen to the first minute and then make a snap judgement about whether to continue.

Moyers and Company. This is the audio track of the TV interview show. Each week they cover some or other topic of real importance. However, I find the representation laboured, so that by the time each episode finishes I am both depressed at how messed up the world is, but bored from how slowly I got informed about that mess. I only listen to episodes very occasionally now for that reason.

NPR Books PodCast. I like the content of this show, but I get frustrated at the overly mannered presentation. Interviews are very static and the subject is generally coddled – I can’t remember the last time a penetrating question was asked. The straight reviews are all read exactly how you remember public speaking from 90% of your classmates reading an essay in front of the class at school. So this is another intermittent listen.

The Pod Delusion. Another magazine show that each week looks at a variety of topics. It is made by volunteers, so the quality of the interviews and reporting is incredibly variable, and it has adopted most of the annoying features of American podcasts, such as pointless musical interludes, soft and unfocused interviews, and an apparent target listening age of young teens. Having tried a score of episodes, I tend two listen to segments very selectively.

Radiolab from WNYC. Another magazine show. Again, I find the topics interesting, but the American presentational style makes me feel continually condescended to.

RNZ: At the Movies. They review only a few movies, hardly ever have any interesting interviews, and Simon Morris over-dramatizes everything he says to the point of self-caricature. A must-miss.

RNZ: Mediawatch. This is another news-focused show, reporting on the news through the prism of how the news is reported. The show indirectly covers the week’s news, including detailed analysis of both the news and the way it’s reported. I don’t catch this every week, but it’s rare that I make it through an episode without having both learned a lot and been entertained.

Robin and Jose’s Utter Shambles. This show is based around a pair of comedians sitting around a table talking about whatever crosses their mind with a guest from the creative world. They don’t seem to be making it any more, but when they did, almost every interview was interesting and provided great insight into the creative process of some individual. Because it’s an interview show not linked to any specific product, subjects can really express what they think, rather than simply trying to convince you to go to their newest movie or buy their newest book. It was a must-listen, and I particularly recommend the Alan Moore episodes from the back catalogue.

Shakespeare’s Restless World. A general look at Elizabethan England at the time of Shakespeare, with some reference to how the plays interacted with the wider world at the time. This is by the same guy who did A History of the World in 100 Objects and I highly recommend it.

Start the Week. Completely pointless panel show.

Stuff You Missed In History Class. This gets mildly interesting when it covers genuinely obscure topics, but the presenters are intensely irritating. It tries to present its content using a dialogue between two people, but it just comes across as two idiots patronising an audience that can’t really be as stupid as they are.

Thinking Allowed. Each week consists of two short segments on a piece of recent sociological research. The format is generally the author of the research discussing it with another expert in the field, with the presenter acting as moderator. This is a fairly-much perfect format in my view, because it is information-dense, but retains enough clarity for the lay-person to follow the discussion.

This American Life. The archetypal magazine radio show. I want to like this, but I just find it annoying.

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One Response to PodCast Roundup

  1. robynjean says:

    2 comments: I am sorry that the moth podcast is in fact, not about moths and also, I agree with you about Radiolab. I always feel like they think I am dumber or have a shorter attention span than I do. Having said that, I have learnt stuff listening to that show.
    You might also like Ockham’s razor on ABC Radio National (Australia). It’s a once a week 15 minute opinion show covering science, philosophy, medicine, history and sometimes current events. It does look like you’ve already got a lot to listen to though…

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