The ultimate guide to becoming a better podcast listener

Can’t get into podcasts? I couldn’t, either — but now I get more “reading” done in a day than I used to in weeks (bonus: huge recommendation list to get you started!)

When I was a kid, I was basically a cartoon character of a nerd. I would sneak books under the dining table, get in trouble for reading under my desk, trip on the sidewalk because I was reading books while walking…you name it, I tried to read while doing it (to varying levels of success).

Several years later, I find it much harder to make time for reading. I had constant background irritation at myself for not spending more time reading, but also struggled to fit it in around everything else (and really, who needs something else to feel bad about?!).

Enter podcasts.

Over the last 2–3 years, I’ve gone from barely ever reading (no matter how much I wanted to make time for it!) to sometimes tearing through 4–6 hours of audio in a day (and averaging around 2–4 hours). It’s made a huge difference not just in the amount of knowledge I can pick up, but also in being able to really relax and dive into a story the same way I used to do constantly with books.

What’s so great about podcasts, anyways?

Accessibility

A lot of people who find podcasts much easier to deal with than text, especially those with dyslexia or ADD/ADHD. For my part, as I’ve got older, I’ve grown more fidgety, and sitting still to read is difficult. I actually focus and relax better when I can do something with my hands — podcasting lets me get the benefits of reading while I’m crocheting, drawing, cleaning, or doing something else. And of course, podcasts are free (although there’s almost always the option to support creators via donations or Patreon campaigns!).

Diversity

It’s not really a secret that having diverse casts & characters isn’t exactly the forte of traditional media. Podcasts aren’t inherently better about this — there are plenty of podcasts who have about as much diversity as your average TV show — but there are a lot of podcasts that have characters that are similar to my real-life friend group, which I almost never see anywhere else. (Once you start listening to them and get used to it, going back to “normal” media makes for a very striking contrast.)

Productivity

The fact that you can do more than one thing while listening can make you feel like a productivity powerhouse. Granted, you can’t do anything that uses a ton of brainpower — writing while listening to a podcast is a recipe for insta-headache — but you can clean, cook, walk, run (some people can, anyways — me personally, I’m too busy trying not to die when I’m running), do basic administrative type work, crochet or knit, draw…once you start looking for things you can do while listening to podcasts, you’ll be surprised how many there are.

“I just can’t get into them!”

So many people tell me they’ve tried to get into podcasts but just can’t seem to get into them, they’re visual learners and can’t process auditory information, etc. Aside from the fact that “learning styles” are mostly a myth, it’s my opinion that this has more to do with the fact that we just aren’t used to listening to text the same way we read it. Listening is actually a very similar cognitive process to reading, but from early childhood, much more emphasis is put on learning how to read and making reading a part of your daily life.

This isn’t a bad thing — literacy is important! — but it leads a lot of people to think that there’s no way they can get into an audio medium, because just like reading, it is a skill you have to practice a little. I used to consider myself someone who just could not process non-visual mediums, and obviously I’ve done a 180 on that. I do find that my recall of very specific facts is often better if I originally absorb the information via written text or visuals, but unless you’re going to be answering a standardized test about the podcasts you’re listening to, that’s not super important. (I’ve also found things that can offset that, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

My biggest tip? Try a few different types of podcasts. My first introduction to podcasts was strictly interview style, where you have 1–2 hosts interviewing a new person every week. I find most interview-style podcasts pretty boring, so I had no interest in podcasts at all…until I was introduced to panel-style podcasts (where you’ve got 2–4 hosts discussing new topics every episode) and audio-drama style podcasts (which can be similar to an audiobook in production style, being narrated by one person, or be more actively acted out between the characters).

In particular, I find that starting off with audio dramas makes it a lot easier for you to get used to consuming content via listening. It’s a lot easier to pay attention to a story than it is to listen to nonfiction content, unless it’s incredibly interesting/engaging nonfiction (which does exist, I promise!). Once you’ve picked up the skill of listening and multitasking, without losing the thread of what you’re listening to, you can expand to nonfiction if you want.

How to fit more podcast action into your day

Look for places you can “stack”

Throughout your day, there are times/places where you’re only doing one thing, but you could easily add podcasts on top of it. This could be:

  • Walking the dog
  • Your commute
  • Cooking dinner
  • And so on…

Basically, any time you’re not doing something where you need to be actively listening or actively talking (or writing — using your words, let’s say), you can be listening to podcasts.

Speed up the audio

You can do this in pretty much any podcast app — I listen to podcasts at 1.25–1.5x by default. Overcast (my podcast app of choice) also has a cool feature where it auto-speeds up by cutting down on pauses, so you get a shorter listening time without any potential audio distortion or chipmunk voices.

Carry headphones with you

One of the tips I’ve heard a lot for reading more is always having something you can read — same applies here. Always have a pair of headphones on you (if you’re looking for a cheap cordless pair, I love these) and it’s a lot easier to listen to podcasts.

Using podcasts as habit-encouragement

I’ve done a lot of habit experiments over the years, and have been sharing them since at least 2011 (whew, now I feel old). One thing I’ve learned is that having positive reinforcement for habits you’re trying to make stick makes a huge difference. (Assuming that it isn’t entirely counterproductive to whatever your goal is, of course.)

When I started listening to audio dramas, I was so hooked on the story that I looked for anything I could do that would give me more time to listen. This led to being much more active (as walking/light jogging are two obvious routes!), keeping up with cleaning, and integrating drawing/sketching into my life much more. In particular, having positive reinforcement for drawing has helped greatly — I already enjoy drawing, but the fact that I can listen to a podcast and have a great story (and often, inspiration for what I’m sketching!) makes me much more likely to do it.

If you have a similar habit that you’ve been trying to make stick and just can’t manage it, try adding podcasts into the mix.

70+ podcasts to get you started:

I didn’t write a full summary for each of these, because if I did we’d be here all day, but I did include a few words about each one. The list is split into fiction and non, with a third section to include some podcasts that I haven’t started yet but that come highly recommended and that I’m excited to dig into when I get the chance.

Nonfiction

2 Dope Queens (comedy)

30 for 30 (from ESPN, but not all “standard” sports — the story of the all-woman Arctic team is really great)

99% Invisible (design and how it influences our lives)

The Allusionist (what words really mean and why)

Another Round (everything from pop culture to politics covered by two whip-smart, very funny women)

Call Your Girlfriend (along the same lines as AR, but with less interviews of guests and more talk about menstruation)

Criminal (true crime, but less grisly than a lot of crime media)

Fizzle (business that isn’t boring)

Imaginary Worlds (sort of like 99pi, but for geek/nerd stuff, but also without gross nerd-bro-ness)

Inc Uncensored (recaps on business news)

Lore (folklore/mythology)

The Memory Palace (tiny narrative pieces of history, beautiful & bittersweet, fave ep 1, fave ep 2)

The Mystery Show (impossible to describe but Good and Pure)

My Brother, My Brother, and Me (comedy, terrible advice from three good good brothers)

Note to Self (how tech impacts our lives)

Partially Derivative (data science but in a way non-data-scientists can understand & be entertained by)

Planet Money (NPR’s dispatches about money/economics)

Popaganda (pop culture & news from an intersectional feminist slant)

Soooo Many White Guys (more comedy! interviews with…the opposite of its title)

Stuff You Missed in History Class (does what it says on the tin)

The Unpodcast (business news/issues)

This Old Marketing (content marketing news/issues)

Wonderful! (a podcast about Good Things)

Woodland Secrets (really great interviews with interesting people)

Work In Progress (Slack’s podcast about work and the identity we find in it)

The Writers Panel (interviews with all your fave writers from TV & movies)

Writing Excuses (short, incredibly useful episodes on how to write better, from accomplished authors)

Fiction

The Adventure Zone (actual play D&D by the guys from MBMBAM and their dad)

Alice Isn’t Dead (creepy road-trippy vibes like early Supernatural, but with queer ladies instead)

Archive 81 (Lovecraft-esque misadventures/horror but modern day, with more archival radio “footage” and less racism)

Ars Paradoxica (time-travel hijinks that get really existentialist really fast)

Big Data (chronicles the best/worst heist ever)

The Bridge (maritime horror from an alternate universe coastline)

The Bright Sessions (snippets from therapy for X Men, basically)

Bronzeville (period-drama focusing on 1940s Chicago — from their site: “chronicle[s] the lives of players in the lottery games, while illuminating the self-sustainability of the community’s African American residents”)

Campaign (a Star Wars actual play and it’s JUST SO GOOD Y’ALL)

Dice Funk (a D&D actual play comedy podcast)

Dungeons and Lesbians (D&D actual play with…well I think you can figure it out)

The Dungeon Rats (more D&D actual play with Chicago improvisers)

EOS 10 (sci-fi audio drama, with more episodes coming soon!)

The Far Meridian (quiet, thoughtful episodes about a woman with agoraphobia in a traveling lighthouse)

Freed (semi-postapocalyptic radio dispatches)

Friends at the Table (actual play RPG, start with season two if you like cyberpunk/scifi, or three if you like fantasy — incredible worldbuilding and characterization)

Girl in Space (a sci-fi mystery about space, science, truth, beauty, and delicious cheeses)

Godsfall (actual play D&D, high fantasy, great characters with LGBTQ+ rep and wonderful worldbuilding…not to be repetitive BUT REALLY)

Greater Boston (stories from a quirkier version of Boston)

Hector vs the Future (“the world’s first and only and therefore best seven episode podcast sitcom about an ailing museum of outdated technology called the Obsoleteum”)

Hello from the Magic Tavern (fantasy improv with lots of talk about buttholes)

The Infinite Now (dispatches from across time and space)

Join the Party (D&D actual play with gargoyles that talk like the Fonz)

Mabel (sort of like queer gothic romance and folklore-based horror mashed together, so good)

The Message (only one season, scientists trying to decode an alien message and not die in the process)

Limetown (only one season so far, sci-fi thriller)

The Once and Future Nerd (think Game of Thrones with less of the bad stuff and more of a sense of humor)

The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) (just listen to it and have it do weird things to your heart)

The Penumbra (Retrofuturist noir)

Rover Red (postapocalyptic adventures and also there’s sentient sand and warring factions)

Serendipity City (another one of mine! actual play RPG podcast that follows a gang of mostly-well meaning criminals & takes place in a sprawling, alt-1920s metropolis with a magical underworld)

The Strange Case of the Starship Iris (very early, but so far it’s kind of like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica got thrown into a blender with an extra dash of government conspiracy)

Unplaced (a woman wakes up one day to find that no one can see or hear her and that everyone she knows is slowly forgetting about her) (disclaimer, I’m the creator of this one!)

Welcome to Night Vale (radio dispatches from a town where every conspiracy theory you can dream of & some you can’t are all true)

Within the Wires (motivational tapes, but from 1984, and also there’s a story in them)

Wolf 359 (space hijinks that get really existentialist, aka “crying in space”)

Haven’t started (yet), but come highly recommended

The Adventures of MechaBetty (“Just a small town girl turned giant cyborg to fight off an alien invasion.”)

Alba Salix, Royal Physician (fairy tale comedy for the ears)

The Alexandria Archives (“The South’s Answer to Miskatonic University”)

Bad With Money (A podcast about money from the opposite of a financial expert)

The Behemoth (audio miniseries following something large as it walks its way across the US with a 15 year old girl)

The Blood Crow Stories (horror anthology, each season on a new story)

Blue Dawn (an interpersonal actual play podcast)

Box Not Included (“looking at geek culture and the media we love and loathe from a queer perspective”)

Code Switch (“Race and Identity, Remixed.”)

Dames and Dragons (all-lady D&D actual play)

Deadly Manners (dark comedy murder-mystery with a lot of actors you’ve probably heard of)

Ear Hustle (stories of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it)

Epiphany (“explores the cognitive ghosts that loss leaves behind and the things we do to escape them”)

Flash Forward (speculations about hypothetical futures)

Gutter Queens (two lady cartoonists talking shop)

The Haven Chronicles (“follows a group of soldiers as they investigate a distress signal on the corporately owned backwater planet of Haven”)

Help Me (mystery sci-fi)

Inkwyrm (a sci-fi podcast about fashion, aliens, and the indeterminately fabulous future)

The Infinite Bad (a comedy-horror roleplaying podcast)

The Intern (about a young woman navigating NYC and a new career in tech/media)

Jim Robbie and the Wanderers (optimistic postapocalyptic travels)

Lesser Gods (a soundscaped, shifting perspective, murder mystery podcast)

Liberty (serialized sci-fi audio dramas)

LucyD (a supernatural drama, following a young woman dealing with unusual and frightening events surrounding her mysterious nightmares)

The Magnus Archives (“a horror fiction anthology podcast examining what lurks in the archives of The Magnus Institute”)

Minority Korner (“Learn. Laugh. Play…like Blues Clue’s! Only more Black, gay, and lady like.”)

The Mythology Podcast (myth/folklore/legends from all over the world)

Nerds of Prey (discussion/debate/critique about nerd culture)

OakPodcast (When technology specialist and U.S. Marine Mara “Holly” Ellison wakes up in suburban Alabama with no papers or memory of getting there, she starts sending distress calls to her team)

Our Fair City (“a postapocalyptic sci-fi radio epic”)

Point Mystic (“in search of the stories behind the magic, the mystery, and the unexplained”)

Queery (“QUEERY explores individual stories of identity, personality and the shifting cultural matrix around gender, sexuality and civil rights.”)

Radiation World (“an all original post-apocalyptic comedy audio series”)

Rest of Us in Tech (interview series amplifying the voices of the underrepresented in tech)

Return Home (Jonathan returns home to “unravel the mystery of what his home town has become…or has always been”)

Sawbones (medicinal history)

Sneak Attack (more actual play D&D)

SPINES (“Two months ago, Wren woke up covered in blood, suffering from memory loss, and surrounded by the remnants of some strange cult ritual. SPINES is the story of her search for answers.”)

Spirits (“a boozy podcast about mythology, legends, and lore”)

Station to Station (“A sci-fi mystery/horror about a science project with dark secrets, a biochemist with melancholic tendencies, and the mysterious notes of a lost scientist, set on research cruise several hundred miles away from land”)

Steal the Stars (“A new sci-fi heist thriller podcast from the writer of THE MESSAGE and LIFEAFTER”)

Subject: Found (“All that is lost must be found.”)

Sun City Duet (an actual play podcast about LGBT characters)

Tales of Thattown (“a small town full of nice people, bad politics, and supernatural forces”)

Tin Can (“the story of Gene Reynolds: a pilot who becomes stranded out in space after an accident aboard his ship”)

Uncanny County (“strange tales of the American southwest”)

Venture Maidens (4 Maidens making an actual play 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons Podcast)

What’s the Frequency? (psychedelic noir audio drama set in 1940s Los Angeles)

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law (A law professor teaches a radio producer (Roman Mars) about the US Constitution using Trump’s bizarre tweets & executive actions.)

Wooden Overcoats (a British comedy about two warring funeral homes)

Whew.

I hope that your new favorite podcast is somewhere on that list! If you feel like I missed anything, let me know…obviously, my rotation is pretty full, but I’m always looking for another great one to add to the list.

And if you love podcasts too…

I’m working on one (two, actually) — there’s a little more info here, and you can sign up to stay updated at that site, follow me here or on Twitter to stay in the loop, or sign up to get (occasional, interesting, and non-spammy!) email updates: