I love podcasts. I really believe they are the next new creative medium to explode, even more than they already have in the post-Serial world. The very weird thing is, I just assumed everyone loved podcasts. Not necessarily that everyone listened to them -- they can be a time consuming mode of content consumption -- but I had never heard anyone say they were affirmatively anti-podcast.
Then I had this lengthy, very tongue-in-cheek back and forth on Twitter with a few friends I adore and respect and think are very smart people. The one point that caught me off guard was, and I paraphrase here: Why would I listen to a podcast when I can use that time reading?
With that objection in mind, allow me to advocate on behalf of the podcast.
To me there are two types of podcasts: Narrative podcasts and non-narrative podcasts. You're probably very familiar with non-narrative podcasts. They don't tell stories, they just kind of talk about stuff. I love these kinds of podcasts because you get to listen to a group of intelligent and/or funny people sit around a table and talk about something you're super interested in. This is what No Challenges Remaining does. It's what my favorite Slate podcasts like the Culture Gabfest, Political Gabfest, and Hang Up and Listen do. It's what Marc Maron's WTF podcast is and even Terry Gross' Fresh Air, both of which are guest interview shows.
There's also a subset of non-narrative podcasts that are almost strictly informational. I find a lot of new music via the KEXP Music That Matters podcast, which is basically just a one hour radio show. There's also Stuff You Should Know, a podcast that basically explains things you may be too embarrassed to admit you don't know.
The Non-narrative podcast genre is what most people thought of when they thought of podcasts until Serial changed the game. While narrative-style podcasts existed before -- hello, This American Life -- Serial became such a phenomenon that it effectively introduced the narrative style to thousands of people and made everyone, including me, sit up and think "Hey, podcasts as a creative vehicle for storytelling. I want to hear more of that kind of stuff." Serial changed how I listened to podcasts and what I wanted out of a podcast. It was, in many ways, The Sopranos of podcasts. It showed you how podcasts could be used as a vehicle for dramatic storytelling.
Obviously this style of storytelling, whether non-fiction or fiction, could be captured in written form. Unlike the free-ranging discussion style non-narrative podcasts, narrative ones could easily be converted into magazine or web articles. All they're really doing is telling a story. But this is where I argue that if done right, these stories are far better in audio form than in written form. Hearing the voices of the subjects of these stories, allowing the narrators voice to shepherd you through the story, hearing the ambient sounds that paint the picture and the scene, all of that can be far more affecting than words in print.
In that vein it would be ironic for me to try and get my point across with more written words. You have to hear it to understand just how powerful a well-done narrative podcast can be.
Here are some of the funniest, most moving, most mind-blowing narrative podcasts I've heard over the last year.
Love and Radio: Superchat
This particular episode of Love and Death is legendary in my circle of friends. I recommend it to everyone with one very strong caveat: Listen to it with your headphones in. It is the definition of NSFW.
99pi: Game Over
99 Percent Invisible is my favorite podcast of the moment not only because the subject matter is always interesting (it's a podcast about design) but I find the narration and the editing so clever and perfect. Roman Mars has the perfect podcast voice and his cheeky personality comes across with his little interjections here and there.
I would recommend any 99pi episode but I'm using Game Over here because again, this is a story that would not be as affecting if you read it as a magazine article in Wired. The audio makes it.
Strangers: Falling Slowly
Here's an example of a story that probably would have made for a wonderful personal essay. But I remember listening to this episode when I was on a bus in London last year and I completely missed my stop because I was so engrossed and moved. Something about hearing a personal confessional -- it's just so intimate. Like a friend telling you a quiet story over coffee.
The Truth: Eat Cake
There are quite a few podcasts that are trying to do the radio drama thing. The Truth is my favorite because it's modern. So many other ones are trying to old-timey radio dramas or something sci-fi. The Truth is contemporary and, for the most part, takes place in the real world.
Eat Cake made me smile like a goofball when I first heard it. I probably looked really dumb walking down the street.
Welcome to Night Vale
It doesn't get more original than Welcome to Night Vale. Imagine a community access radio show designed to provide the news to its local community, a community where paranormal activity and aliens are completely normal and not weird at all. It is absurd and out there and very funny.
More non-narrative recommendations: Anything from the Radiotopia family, The Thrilling Adventure Hour, This is Criminal, Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything, Death Sex and Money, Radiolab, NPR's Snap Judgment, Everything is Stories, The Moth, Radio Diaries, StartUp.