So I’ve been listening to podcasts off-and-on for a while now: when I was in middle school and the Harry Potter books were still coming out, I actually burned myself CDs of Mugglecast episodes so that I could have podcasts with me on a plane trip. But in this past year, I’ve really come to love the podcast format: podcasts can provide a space both for innovative fiction experiments and for delightfully unstructured conversations between friends.
To that end, here are eight podcasts that you should be listening to:
1. Stuff You Missed In History Class – An occasionally rotating panel of hosts discusses historical subjects that your high school teachers probably didn’t get around to mentioning. The hosts are particularly drawn to stories that focus on identity politics and marginalized groups, but they also have a lot of fun talking about con men, “cursed” ships, and weird cultural fads.
Want to check it out? Your mileage here will really vary depending on the historical people and periods that fascinate you, so click around and try a few. To sample what they have to offer, though, I recommend “Alan Turing: Codebreaker,” which discusses Turing, the Enigma Machine, and the persecution of homosexuality in twentieth-century Britain. (Bonus: this episode will also give you some background knowledge if you’re excited about seeing the Benedict Cumberbatch film The Imitation Game in a few months.) You might also enjoy “The Bone Wars,” in which hosts Deblina and Sarah tell the fascinating story of a conflict between two paleontologists that led to the rival scientists dynamiting fossils in order to sabotage each other, or the more recent episode “Building Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.”
2. The Thrilling Adventure Hour – A staged production in the style of old-time radio, The Thrilling Adventure Hour uses the new audio format of the podcast to explore the conventions of what radio used to sound like. Actors as diverse as Nick Offerman, Juliet Landau, Nathan Fillion, and Emily Blunt perform in campy serialized stories – written by Ben Blacker and Ben Acker – about a time-travelling Amelia Earhart, a pun-happy superhero, and many other wacky premises.
Want to check it out? I particularly recommend the ongoing stories of “Beyond Belief” and “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars.” In “Beyond Belief,” the wonderful Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster play a fast-talking married pair of boozy upper-crust detectives – very much descendents of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora or Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence – who solve supernatural mysteries. In “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” Marc Evan Jackson and Mark Gagliardi play an Earth-born lawman and his Martian companion, and the stories feel very much like what would happen if you marooned a grumpy Han Solo on Mars and told him to try to keep the peace amongst the robots and outlaws. It is weird. And very silly. Because the show is serialized, you might as well begin with early episodes, perhaps with “Beyond Belief: Love Love Me Doom” and “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars: Inside Out in Outer Space.”
3. How Did This Get Made – A panel of comedians watches bad movies then sits down and tries to figure out (1) what just happened? (2) who thought this was a good idea? and (3) how did this get made?? The joy of this podcast comes from how seriously these podcasters take their task, genuinely trying to work out plot holes and strange character motivations in movies such as From Justin to Kelly and Speed 2. Also, they get distracted and end up just riffing on things.
Want to check it out? HDTGM is particularly wonderful when the panel is trying to piece together the plots of heist movies that didn’t quite work. To that end, you might enjoy “Reindeer Games,” in which they discuss a bizarrely complicated Ben Affleck Christmas movie and “Hudson Hawk,” in which they discuss the Bruce Willis heist movie and then realize that they should write their own secret identity/ heist film about nuns on the run: Nundercover.
4. Nerdist Writers Panel – Ben Blacker (of Thrilling Adventure Hour fame) interviews writers and talks about both what they write and how they write it. If you’re a process nerd, or if you’re curious about the behind-the-scenes development of particular TV shows, books, films, and comics, then you should absolutely check out this podcast. Blacker is funny and smart, and he always seems genuinely interested in what his guests have to say. The podcast feed includes a Tuesday “regular” Nerdist Writers Panel episode and a Saturday “Comics Edition,” in which Blacker and friends talk about writing comic books – but they also just geek out about their favorite runs of the X-Men and their ideal rosters for the Justice League.
Want to check it out? The recent episode “Legend of Korra/ Avatar: The Last Airbender” provides a particularly interesting glimpse into the process of creating the animated Nickelodeon property – and involves the creators getting rather candid about the M. Night Shyamalan Last Airbender film. I also adore “Comics Edition #20: Kelly Sue DeConnick,” in which the writer of Captain Marvel and Pretty Deadly talks about issues of inclusion in mainstream comics, discusses her writing process and her involvement in the redesign of Carol Danvers, and geeks out about her favorite comic book creators.
5. Welcome to Night Vale – It’s no secret that I love Welcome to Night Vale. But seriously: it’s a fictional radio show set in a mysterious desert town, in which our host, Cecil, updates the community on town happenings, including the fact that Wednesday has been cancelled due to a scheduling conflict. Also, a wormhole has opened during the high school PTA meeting, sending pterodactyls into the gymnasium (details to follow as the story develops). It is weird, but oh so very clever.
Want to check it out? WtNV gets fairly serialized fairly quickly, so there’s perhaps no better place to start than episode 1: “Pilot.” To really get an idea of the creative storytelling and genuine oddity that imbues this podcast, however, also check out episode 13: “A Story About You.”
6. Ask Me Another – Ask Me Another is a geeky NPR quiz show (although perhaps that’s redundant). Hosted by comedian Ophira Eisenberg and musician Jonathan Coulton, it’s charming, silly, and very fun to play along with. It’s part Will-Shortz-esque word games, part pop-culture-based pub trivia, and all very wonderful.
Want to check it out? Recent favorite episodes have included “We Might Be Giant Nerds,” on which They Might Be Giants is the musical guest and “Two Can Slay That Game,” which includes New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum being challenged to a quiz about Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
7. Extra Hot Great – A pop culture roundtable between TV critics for Previously.tv, in which the podcasters go over the week in TV, vote extraordinary episodes of TV shows into “The Canon,” and play bizarrely hard trivia games. To be honest, half the reason I started listening was because I was fascinated with the insane trivia games, in which, for example, the quiz master will play five seconds of a song from a fictional band (such as Parks and Rec’s “Mouse Rat”) and then ask the players to name the show that the band was on. It’s very silly, but that’s very much the point.
Want to check it out? The podcasters of Extra Hot Great do tend to have strong opinions about reality TV, so episode 5, “You Wanna Be on Top?” – in which the panel discusses lots of reality TV, Tara nominates an infamous episode of America’s Next Top Model into the canon, and the TV game time tests knowledge of TV pseudonyms – is perhaps a good introduction into the show. I also recommend episode 32, “Gone Catfish-ing,” in which the always charming Matt Mira of Nerdist fame is a guest panelist and the group discuss the eponymous Catfish TV show; also, an episode of Star Trek: TNG is nominated for the canon, and the panelists are quizzed on their ability to recognize the last lines of TV shows.
8. Pop Culture Happy Hour – Favorite podcast ever. Hands down. NPR culture critics have roundtable discussions about pop culture which are occasionally interspersed with quizzes about regrettable television, comic book superheroes, and – famously – “Paint or Perp,” in which Linda Holmes challenged her fellow podcasters to determine if particular words were Sherwin-Williams paint colors or episodes of Law & Order: SVU. (It’s surprisingly difficult to tell.) Ending each episode with a segment called “What’s Making Us Happy This Week,” PCHH is also wonderful about recommending more pop culture for listeners to consume!
Want to check it out? PCHH loves its “low-brow” pop culture as much as any of us, so the episode in which they enlist Ari Shapiro to discuss “The Shambolic VMAs and Hollywood in the White House” is a delight. They also, however, make great use of their friendship with the NPR Code Switch team and thereby have great discussions about race and representation, as in the episode on “‘Fruitvale Station’ and Yelling at Clouds.” But really, I love Pop Culture Happy Hour because Linda, Glen, Stephen, and the rest so clearly have so much fun talking about pop culture and fan communities. To that end, “Live From San Diego Comic Con” is absolutely wonderful.