I had a moment of startling self-realization yesterday when it struck me that I listen to (on average) probably about 10 hours of podcasts per week. Ten hours?! That's ten hours that I'm not actively engaged in communicating with other people, or writing, or exercising, or working, for that matter. I feel less guilty when I consider that the first five are usually my early-morning-coffee hours before leaving the house to bike to work Monday through Friday. But the other five? Generally, those are my cooking hours, or my BART- and MUNI-riding hours, the occasional lunch break or stroll over Bernal Hill.
I start feeling better when I realize how supremely QUALITY these shows are, and even though I'm too broke to actively support any of them (at this point in time!), I do listen to them obsessively. I can't help it. These are my stories, my soap operas, the intellectual conversations I have with my coffee mug or the train station. And, in the tradition of my favorite podcast nerd-celebrities, I am going to make a TOP 10 list of my favorites and post them here:
1. This American Life
Okay, so this is a cult classic now, but I have been a loyal fan of Ira Glass and his band of microphone-wielding journalists since 1997, when I inherited an 8-track tape of the show "Music Lessons." This show was actually taped live in San Francisco, and featured David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott, three writers that I later saw speak at UCSB. The radio show has just gotten better with the years, and I'll grudgingly admit that its new television series is quite good too. Not the same, but also good.
2. Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me
Another NPR classic, this weekly news quiz show offers some of the best and most current satire out there. This captures my love for old-timey radio shows a la Prairie Home Companion, although it's punchier, more progressive, and not quite so Lutheran. I had the opportunity to see a live taping of Wait, Wait at UC Berkeley last spring, and it was even funnier in person. There's nothing quite like Peter Sagal making penis jokes in between interviewing prominent senators.
3. Radio Lab
This is THE BEST RADIO SHOW EVER PRODUCED, hands down. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich literally make science the coolest thing in the world. They only produce about 12 shows a year, but every show is fascinating, hilarious, poignant, dutifully researched, and truly, amazingly original. My physicist friend Melina turned me on to them, and these babies are staying on my laptop until it bites its digital dust.
4. Sound Opinions
Think Chuck Klosterman meets Carl Kasell meets MTV for adults. Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot host this great weekly podcast where they interview contemporary musicians of all genres, deconstruct musical movements such as disco, punk, and heavy metal, and break down the legal side of the music industry. I've become addicted to music criticism thanks to them, and find that this is podcast in particular is my favorite one to work out to, maybe because it makes me think and plays good music at the same time. They recommend music based on a "Buy It, Burn It, Trash It" scale which is at times hilarious. The show itself is Buy It all the way.
5. The Sound of Young America
Jesse Thorn hosts this hip and thoughtful podcast, which he updates regularly on his awesome blog, MaximumFun.org. This guy is my hero. He has interviewed all of the people I have ever wanted to meet (Janeane Garafalo, Gift of Gab, Neil Gaiman, Mike Birbiglia, Louis C.K., Ira Glass, and so so many more), and asks really thought-provoking and never patronizing questions. Perhaps my favorite part about him (aside from the fact that he's crazy talented) is that he started this show as a student at UC Santa Cruz, and his nonprofit podcast and radio empire has just multiplied since then. He also co-hosts Jordan, Jesse, Go!, which is the goofier, more casual side to Young America. A Plus to Jesse Thorn and his cronies for putting together a really fabulous DIY network.
6. The Moth
The Moth is a storytelling and open mic series that is hosted in New York City and Los Angeles. These stories are told by comedians, actors, writers, and really anyone with a fifteen-minute story who comes to the stage. The shows are organized by theme (a.k.a. "Loss," or "Animals," etc.), and are always insightful. Some of the best recordings I've ever heard were only about ten minutes long, from people I'd never heard of, but their words stayed with me. I heard a rumor that the Moth will be starting an hour-long public radio show soon, and I can't wait.
7. New Yorker Fiction Podcast
The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman hosts this monthly podcast which features a prominent writer reading his or her favorite story. The genres and styles of the stories vary greatly, as do the readers themselves, but these are the podcasts that remind me why I was a literature major, and what I could look forward to, if I ever achieve any success as a writer. The discussions before and after are really interesting, too. I first heard of Junot Diaz through a reading of one of his stories by Edwidge Danticat, and was so thrilled to find a writer who captures where I'm at right now. A great show.
8. Selected Shorts
Another great radio show out of WNYC--this one showcases live recordings of literary readings at New York City's Symphony Space. Isaiah Sheffer helps produce these evenings of short story brilliance, selects actors to perform the stories, and sometimes interviews performers and writers afterward. This is one of the shows that inspires me as a writer and reader, and sharpens my vocabulary as well. Would be a fun place to work...although I'd work for any of these podcasts for free!
9. To the Best of Our Knowledge
This Wisconsin-based PRI show tackles topics of many natures--anything from Military Identity in America to Atheism and its Critics. One of the best, most poignant radio stories I've ever heard was about how to parent transgender children. This radio could be the one thing that convinced me to move to Madison, one day.
10. NPR Live in Concert
For those broke music nerds who can't afford to see their favorite bands in concert, but do have the two hours to burn en route to and from work, this is the perfect podcast. I've used this podcast to check out bands whose work I'm not familiar with, but whose live performances seem absolutely transformative. There are a few concerts whose sets I've practically memorized--Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, the Ting Tings, Mates of State. Now this is a job I would love to have: recording and meeting all these bands. Sweet.
I thought I was exaggerating when I said ten hours of podcasts per week, but really that might be a conservative estimate. Maybe this is what happens when you grow up on PBS and NPR: maybe you have nerdy cravings for people with soothing voices deconstructing science or critiquing an old John Cheever story. Regardless, I love these podcasts in part because they make that part of the day mine, all mine, whether I am brushing my hair before work or walking up the hill home.
Oh, it feels good to be nerdy.