I listen to a lot of podcasts, mostly because I work from home and spend a lot of time in the car. When I’m not working on a project, the idle chatter in my head can become deafening. My brain requires an enormous and often unseemly amount of verbal input (written or auditory) to keep the ol’ flywheel spinning.
I’ve found that listening to podcasts helps with that.
For a couple reasons they’re a far better and potentially more beneficial source of mental stimulation than spending hours consuming content on a screen. First and most obviously, you can do other things (like walk the dog, fold laundry, or cook dinner) while you’re listening. Second being that you’re listening to actual humans speak, often in conversation, which forces your brain to sustain attentional and narrative continuity over the course of an episode. It’s refreshing and challenging to do so in a world of sound bites, tweets, and image macros on reddit. Third and finally, you have the power to curate your own stream of entertainment with a degree of finesse that’s almost impossible with other media.
I’ve said that “podcasts are the television of the headphone generation,” but I’m wrong. Podcasts, as a medium, are better than TV. Why? Because the podcast, as a technology, offered the holy grail of à la carte selection and truly on-demand playability right from the start, and continues to do so in a time where such freedom of choice is either antithetical to the business models of television and even terrestrial radio providers, or comes at a hefty premium.
So, this brings me (and by proxy you, dear reader) to a long list of podcasts I have known and loved. For some of them, I’ve explained why I like them. For some, I’ve left that out for whatever reason. But irrespective of the presence or absence of explanation, I want you to know that they’ve passed my “smell test” for quality, at least a good portion of the time. I’ve written this post because I recommend a lot of podcasts to a lot of different people. I wanted a document of record (which will likely be expanded upon) to which I might refer them in the future.
Also, I’ve done my best to categorize them. Although I should warn you that some podcasts are real “genre benders” and kind of transcend categorization.
Podcasts that have opened my mind
One thing I really enjoy about listening to podcasts is how engrossing audio, as a medium, can be. A really good piece of audio can kind of take you away from the world for awhile and in that open state your mind explores the soundscape.
Some of the first podcasts I got hooked on were in this “mind expanding” category, in which I include outright educational content, but also narrative storytelling that expanded my capacity to empathize. Here are some of them.
This American Life – I owe a huge debt to Ira Glass and the This American Life team for being a kind of companion to me during my third year of college, which was otherwise difficult and somewhat lonely. Spending $3 or $4 on the TAL iOS app was probably the best dollar-for-dollar entertainment purchase I’ve made, because over the course of my third year in school I listened to almost every episode of TAL — some 300+ hours of audio at the time. In those hours spent eating lunch alone (which isn’t as sad as it sounds, really) or taking late-night walks around Hyde Park, I got a really good feel for storytelling, and gained an understanding of the texture of American life. I probably wouldn’t be the same person were it not for all that binge-listening.
99% Invisible – God, it’s just too good to explain.
To The Best of Our Knowledge – It’s a real shame this one isn’t more well-known. From Wisconsin Public Radio, TTBOOK explores big ideas in fields ranging from science, philosophy and the arts. Said big ideas include: death, our uncertain future, living like a caveman, narcissism, math, and hundreds of other topics. The podcast’s tone is a mixture of curiosity, wonder and reverence for the subject matter.
The RSA Podcast – This is a favorite of mine. The Royal Society releases audio recordings of its events, where authors and experts give talks and host discussions on books and big ideas. Think of these lectures as the long version TED Talks, where the speakers are given the opportunity to expound on a subject in a more in-depth way.
Radiolab – This is what happens when you combine interesting science content with some overzealous sound mixing (which sounds great through headphones). In all seriousness, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have produced some of the best science content I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming. Their gleeful, geeky curiosity is infectious and their ability to lucidly explain difficult concepts through interviews is something awesome.
TED Radio Hour – What happens when you thematically arrange interesting talks from some of the world’s best and brightest and intersperse those talks with insightful conversation with the speakers in a style only NPR can pull off un-ironically? Well, you get Guy Raz’s show. Say what you will about TED Talks — that its “Science, philosophy and technology run on the model of American Idol”—it’s impossible to deny the appeal of listening to smart people talk about things that fascinate them.
Podcasts that have made me a better, more thoughtful entrepreneur
The problem with “startup culture” is that people tend to treat startups as something different from normal business. That startups are just businesses often gets lost in the rhetoric of Disruption and the discussions around fundraising that perverts “raising a round” into an end in itself instead of a means to a wholly different end – “building something people want”. (Shoutout to Y Combinator.)
The podcasts I mention below do a fairly good job of discussing entrepreneurship and innovation in a no-nonsense style. I have a zero-tolerance policy on startup bullshit, and these podcasts have (so far) made it through.
Working Out – It might just be the charming accents, but I really love Ashley Baxter and Paddy Donnelly’s podcast about “[the] journey to figure out how to create a business doing what you love.” On Working Out, they discuss the fundamentals of striking out on your own and staying sane and do so so in a deeply humane and relatable way. From asking “Why aren’t you shipping?” to discovering your motivations with the “five why’s”, the bredth and depth of this podcast is impressive. Definitely check it out.
Dorm Room Tycoon – William Channer, the host of Dorm Room Tycoon, is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever listened to. I don’t even know where to start. First of all, he manages to secure some of the most influential people in the tech business as guests. Then, through a striking combination of incisiveness, curiosity and humility, his questions lead to long conversations that probe the depths of the topic at hand. This is one of the few business podcasts I could binge-listen for an entire afternoon. While some episodes are more engaging than others (which is expected) I have yet to be truly disappointed by anything he’s put out.
a16z – Venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz’s podcast features excellent speakers and the occasional in-depth conversation about a wide range of technology and entrepreneurship news and topics.
Foundation – Foundation is a video podcast produced by Kevin Rose, the Digg founder -slash- Google Ventures partner -slash- frequent wine-drinking guest on Tim Ferriss’s podcast. Foundation features guests like Elon Musk, Ev Williams, Brian Armstrong and Kevin Systrom in conversations about their origins and current projects.
Commonwealth Club of California – Much like a16z, the Commonwealth Club of California’s podcast features authors, leaders and innovators talking about big problems and current events. But unlike a16z and some of the other podcasts in this section, the Commonwealth Club also hosts discussions on broader social, philosophical and international issues. The Commonwealth Club’s conversations serve to contextualize the discussions from the other podcasts in this list.
Podcasts that have made me laugh
A year or so ago I went through a rather dark period of my life. Part of what helped me cope with the brutal combination of depression and anxiety was binging on comedy podcasts.
The thing about comedy is that the funniest stuff often makes light of life’s dark side. Or, as Mark Twain said, “Humor is the good-natured side of the truth.” These podcasts aren’t really about jokes; they’re conversations with people who, at their best, are paid to be extraordinarily observant, and then somehow transform those observations into something that makes a bunch of people laugh.
The Duncan Trussell Family Hour – Of all the podcasts I’ll mention in this post, the DTFH has to be my all-time favorite. Duncan Trussell is a standup comic with what can only be described as a psychedelic, phantasmagorical sense of humor. His guests range from anthropologists, comics, satanists, futurists, magic practitioners, musicians and Zen teachers. It’s a real menagerie. And his podcast intros are incredible, in that they alternately make you squirm, howl with laughter, and marvel at the universe.
While almost all DTFH podcast episodes are good, the ones he’s done with Danielle Bolelli, Emol Amos, and other recurring guests are the best.
The Joe Rogan Experience – There’s a lot can be said about the JRE. Joe Rogan knows how to talk, and is a really good interviewer. Despite being a bit of a meathead, Joe’s a smart dude. He’s leveraged his podcast’s popularity to get some really interesting guests. Listening to the JRE helped me reframe a lot of the things I’ve been through, and has provided some little-i inspiration to me. Save for some common tropes — like the illegal nature of hemp in the US, psychedelics, long rants on the military-industrial complex, MMA fighting, and heaping doses of broscience around nootropics and performance enhancing substances—all of which get tiresome after the second or third time, conversation is usually really engaging.
Highly recommended for listening at the gym.
You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes – Pete Holmes, who’s probably better known for his short-lived TBS talk show, is self-referential and incredibly, almost painfully friendly and gracious with his guests. He can get a little woo-woo-y at times, mostly because he grew up very Christian and instead of rejecting those teachings for something like atheism, he took the alternate path and pursued experiential spirituality and new-age living. But whatever. His podcast is funny, and I liken it to a really nice cup of hot chocolate.