Friday, April 5, 2013

12 Great Podcasts: My Methadone for Screen Addiction

I almost never watch television anymore. Like many, I watch TV shows and movies on my computer, but even that is pretty limited lately. For some reason, I just find myself less interested, perhaps because I’m too fidgety. I do, however, spend way too much time in front of my computer screen both for work and, perhaps more so, for distraction. I find it becomes addictive, a sort of mental crutch that offers a hollow escape from actually engaging with my thoughts or, god forbid, interacting thoughtfully with others. Over the past several years, however, I’ve noticed that audio podcasts have gradually supplanted a great deal of what used to be my screen time. While this is still a distraction, I find it a better diversion than sitting in front of a glowing screen for hours. As those from previous generations raised on radio programs know well, the beauty of audio entertainment is that you can still do other activities while listening. Whether it’s cooking food, working in the yard, going for a walk, cleaning house, or playing with my dog, I love being able to engage with ideas (or consume ideas, I suppose) while still being active and productive. With that said, here are some of my favorite podcasts. This is not some esoteric list of little-known podcasts (in fact, there is a lot of NPR content on this list), but given how often I talk to people who never listen to podcasts, I find them worth listing. Here they are...

This is perhaps my favorite podcast, though I’m sure it’s not for everyone. Maron is a journeyman stand-up comedian who apparently found himself without a great deal of career prospects when he started this podcast from his garage in Los Angeles. Well, his podcast has blown up and resurrected his career, and for good reason. The podcast consists of a short monologue of sorts before a long, in-depth interview session with random guests, mostly from the world of comedy (though guests also include musicians and other people the host finds interesting.) Maron wears his neuroses on his sleeve and the show is often uncomfortably but engagingly honest and raw. More importantly, though, the podcast is always funny, insightful, and extremely intelligent without the typical pretense of overwrought intellectualism.

Uploaded twice-weekly on Mondays & Thursdays

Bill Moyers is the elder statesmen of the American left. I’ll admit, he’s a bit of a personal hero. He is a southern Christian from Texas who worked as the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. This is not necessarily the background one would expect from such a strident champion for economic equality and progressive causes. What makes Moyers special is his elegance, grace, and humility even as he asks the most difficult and cutting questions about America’s moral failings. Beyond that, Moyers seems endlessly curious and is as comfortable discussing poetry and literature as he is discussing arcane finance laws.

This podcast is an audio version of his weekly television show on PBS (which can also be viewed free online.)

Uploaded weekly on Saturdays

If, like me, you can’t afford or don’t want to pay for HBO, Bill Maher’s weekly show is available as an audio podcast for free (though they are pretty damn inconsistent in releasing them.) Of course, Maher is a potty-mouthed lefty and fundamentalist atheist who sometimes annoys even those who agree with his politics. However, the show is at its best when guests are actually forced to engage with each other beyond pat talking points, which does happen on occasion. It is also nice to hear adults be able to talk like adults. Despite his obvious leftist ideology, Maher has an independent streak in his political thinking that I find refreshing.

Uploaded weekly whenever they feel like it, apparently (though often on Tuesdays or Wednesdays)

For the most part, this weekly podcast addresses the larger political “stories” of the week, so rarely does one find any groundbreaking ideas here.  However, Slate has a pretty solid roster of creative journalists, so often an unexpected topic arises that strays from the standard talking point analysis that comprises so much political journalism. Also, the conversational tone, personality quirks, and intelligence of the three main hosts makes for good listening even when the topics are less than inspiring.

Uploaded weekly on Fridays

How can any left-leaning (or simply open-minded) person not love Cornel West, if for no other reason than the sheer force of his personality? The man is a fascinating combination of street-preacher, Ivy League philosopher, cultural critic, and even hip-hop raconteur. His enthusiasm for ideas, flair for performance,  and struggle to live his convictions make him a very rare public intellectual, like a cross between Noam Chomsky and Dick Gregory. His cohort, NPR & PBS host Tavis Smiley, acts as a grounding force as the two men strive to keep discussions of race, poverty, and economic hegemony in the public discourse. While I find the show a bit too self-consumed at times, I can’t argue with their intelligence or their commitment in word, deed, and pocketbook to the issues most important to their conscience. The fact that these two get almost as much flack from the establishment left as they do the whole of the right offers evidence that they’re doing something right.

NOTE: This podcast is now defunct, though legacy episodes are still available for download

The Moth is a non-profit organization devoted to creative storytelling. The podcast features recordings from live spoken word events whereby amateurs and professionals alike tell true stories on most any topic imaginable, usually grouped in themes. The stories are often excellent, and I frequently find myself surprised to be interested in a story that I would have never expected to care about.

Uploaded weekly on Mondays

Host Elvis Mitchell is a longtime film critic who has an uncanny knack for getting to the heart of what motivates filmmakers, actors, and artists. Frequently, Mitchell finds less-obvious connections between his guests’ disparate works over the whole of their careers.  Often his insights even seem to surprise the guests themselves and usually leads to a great conversation.

Uploaded Weekly on Wednesdays

Despite his widely publicized anger issues, I can’t help but like Alec Baldwin. The man just has charisma. He is smart, funny, and, like most of the people on this list, incredibly curious. Baldwin seems to own his celebrity and is not one to feign false modesty (his detractors would call that arrogance, I suppose.) Baldwin seems to have a true sense of himself and is able to have a down to earth conversation even as he references lavish globe-trotting vacations and the other luxuries of wealth and fame. With wide-ranging guests from the political world (including conservatives), entertainment world, and beyond, Baldwin offers smart, in-depth conversations typically full of laughter with gentle prodding towards self-analysis from both host and guest.

NOTE: This podcast is now defunct.

This daily NPR show (from WBUR in Boston) is something I realize I’ve taken for granted. I’ve listened for a long time on the radio, but, until relatively recently, didn’t seek out the podcast too often. Like Terry Gross, I believe host Tom Ashbrook is downright heroic in his breadth of knowledge and research. He is also masterful at keeping a show’s rhythm intact even with a call-in component from the general public. The show typically focuses on politics and current events but is wide-reaching and expansive in points of view solicited. I find myself referencing ideas discussed on this show more and more frequently lately.

Uploaded daily

This podcast from Curb Your Enthusiasm co-star Jeff Garlin is fairly new. In addition to acting, Garlin is a stand-up comedian who typically works in a wholly improvised, free-form style. His personality and enthusiasm are infectious if not sometimes a bit overwhelming in this podcast.

NOTE: This podcast is now defunct.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this podcast, though I do thoroughly enjoy it. What makes this podcast work are the intelligence and personalities of the hosts. What makes this podcast laborious sometimes is the intelligence and personalities of the host. These are highly educated New York culture writers who sometimes seem a little too eager to demonstrate their ivory tower academic bona-fides whether discussing Philip Roth or Lady GaGa. Their seeming affection for one another, sense of humor, and ability to poke fun at themselves somehow makes their pretentious tendencies much more charming than annoying. Besides, they worked hard for those post-bachelor degrees, I’m sure, and can’t resist showing them off.

Uploaded Weekly on Wednesdays

I told you this wasn’t an esoteric list, and Fresh Air needs no introduction.  That said, I think Terry Gross is a genuine national treasure who has somehow managed to maintain a consistently excellent and diverse show forever. If you’re unable to catch the show on NPR, each episode is available as a podcast.

Uploaded daily


So, there’s the list. I could name at least a dozen more podcasts I listen to fairly frequently, but these comprise my main podcast diet. If any readers out there have recommendations (or reactions), I’d love to hear them! Thanks for stopping by.

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