Our ears usually aren’t busy. I use my hands to hold things and my eyes to see if there are any seats on the 145; but my ears? They usually have a lot of free time. That’s where podcasts come in.
If you’ve heard of podcasts, you’ve probably heard of Serial, whose first season shot to the top of the charts almost overnight in late 2014. If you’ve heard of podcasts and are a nerd like me, you’ve also probably heard of Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast that made America weird again. Podcasts are a relatively new form of digital media that embodies the mobile and electronically accessible world in which we live, while also harkening back to the radio programs from when the world dreamed in black and white.
The word “podcast” is a combination of the word “pod” — as in iPod — and the word “broadcast” and refers to a category of episodic programs that are distributed online. The whole process used to be more tedious, but these days you can just subscribe to one and you’ll receive episodes as they come out. They’re like Netflix for your ears. Some are scripted and have a single host, while others are free-form discussions between a group of people. Most importantly, however, is that they cover a wide range of topics.
From fact to fantasy, video games to historical literature, photography to cooking to self-help — even one about that book series you adored in the ’90s. There’s one designed intentionally to put people to asleep. And another explores ideas of social science by looking at contemporary pop music.
The popular ones get enough press as it is, so here are five great podcasts you probably haven’t heard of.
Looking for something spooky? Hosted by Aaron Mahnke, each episode of Lore focuses on a particular spooky historical object or occurrence and the facts and rumours surrounding it. One episode discussed Robert the Doll, a doll which is said to have murdered its owner. Another episode talked about Spring-Heeled Jack, a mysterious figure with clawed hands and fiery red eyes sighted in London during the Victorian Era. Another discussed the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin.
What makes Lore a podcast different than someone simply telling ghost stories by the campfire is how Mahnke is able to tell these stories clearly and compellingly, while also doing his best to explain the truth behind the myth. To quote Mahnke, “sometimes the truth is more frightening than fiction.”
New episodes are released every other Monday.
Hosted by comedian/actor Paul F. Tompkins, Spontaneanation is “a completely improvised show, from monologue to interview to narrative sketch.” It features Tompkins, guests, improvisers, and accompanist Eban Schletter to provide “an hour of comedy that none of them ever see coming.” The improv sketches are based around a location, chosen by the guest, which in the past have included “paediatrician’s office,” “pet store, post robbery,” “Dracula’s bedroom,” and “a clown cemetery.”
Each episode is a joy to listen to. I’ve often found myself laughing out loud on the bus, much to the concern of my fellow passengers. Tompkins and his guests are very skilled in improvisation and in constructing the absurdly hilarious stories that the form allows.
New episodes are released every Monday.
A spin-off of the London based panel quiz show QI, the three hosts follow the pattern of their parent show by sharing obscure facts and correcting widely believed misconceptions. In each episode the hosts take turns sharing a broad and interesting fact, while the others share smaller facts that are vaguely related. Notable facts have included: “parrot fish eat their own pyjamas,” “Albert Einstein has a social media team,” and that “Gary Numan is slightly older than Gary Oldman.”
If you’re someone who likes learning one new thing every day, then you’ll find each episode to be an embarrassment of riches. Learn new facts! Impress your friends! Become slightly more interesting at parties!
New episodes are released every Thursday.
Hosted by Jamie Madigan, PhD, this podcast resides at the multifaceted intersection between psychology and video gaming. The website describes it as a discussion about these two topics, featuring an expert on a specific topic: “Guests include those working in academia, [or] the gaming industry, or as consultants.”
Topics have included micro-transactions, the effect of violence in video games, the idea of “flow,” how games are different from other forms of media, and if video games can make people smarter.
As video games grow in popularity, and given the increasing ease with which individuals can create games, the moral panic surrounding games has increased primarily through gut-feelings and assumptions rather than science and data. This podcast brings the latest research to the table to better inform people of which concerns are legitimate and which are not.
New episodes are released around the middle of each month.
Do you remember the Animorphs book series by K.A. Applegate? Of course you do; it was the best series of kids’ books in the ’90s. That’s right, better than Goosebumps. In this podcast, hosts Hannah and Kelly go through each book in the series and discuss the plot, character development and motivation, and the surprisingly dark and complex themes present at every level of the text.
The hosts do an excellent job of analyzing each book and of discussing how they relate to topics of linguistics, or psychology, or identity, or how awesome it would be to turn into a red-tailed hawk. By returning to the series as adults, they are able to better notice the depth of the books and how their own lives have been shaped by the characters and lessons within.
So, if you’re a fan of the books, or just want to hear people do a very intelligent and well-informed close reading of a text, then I strongly, strongly recommend subscribing to this podcast.
New episodes are released twice a month.