If I were Commander of the Internet (a position I apply for yearly), and you were trying to sell me on podcasts 10 years ago, I’d have told you to clean out your desk. “The kids don’t want to LISTEN to words!” I’d shout, cigar clenched between my teeth like J. Jonah Jameson. “No one’s even got time to watch a whole cat video on YouTube these days. TEXT and VINES, that’s the future, baby. What, are they going to huddle around the iPod speaker at night?”
Of course, 10 years ago, they’d have been like “What’s a Vine, ma’am?” And I would have thrown my cigar at them, scaring them out of my office.
About two months ago, I realized what a fool I’ve been.
I know exactly the combination of fallacies that caused me to decry podcasts for so long. First, I had the vague feeling you had to pay for them. When I heard something like “Download Turtle-Power-Cast on iTunes,” it was the same verbiage used to hawk digital albums for $9.99, and I wasn’t gonna look it up, no matter HOW many exclusive interviews with Corey Feldman it had.
Second, for an embarrassingly long time, I was a Blackberry User AND listened to music on a Classic iPod, like some sort of Cave Person. Even if I theoretically had a podcast I was itchin’ to follow, bringing my iPod in from my car periodically just to sync it was a royal pain in the ‘cast. (I now, like most non-Cave-People (and some Cave People), have a smartphone capable of downloading a podcast at my every whim — even at a stoplight! Don’t tell the boys in blue…)
My only real means of listening to podcasts was on the computer, which I thought was how most people consumed them, since so many podcast websites have an embedded player. That didn’t work for me. My laptop is where I write. Or work. Or go on Imgur. The point is: I’m terribly distractible. If I have a song playing that has words in it, I sit entranced with my head tilted like a dog’s until that song is over, or until my work day ends 9 hours later. My dear friend Melissa writes with the radio on — commercials and all! If I did that, I’d just end up with a Word document containing the lyrics to “Piano Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” and my thoughts on local mattress stores.
(Conversely, I can only write/work/concentrate if all other noise is drowned out, so if you need instrumental music, I fancy myself a human Pandora of wordless songs. Avengers soundtracks for epic scenes. Video game orchestrations or Cirque du Soleil for fantastical whimsy. Take it from me — driving to work listening to the 1989 Batman theme puts a whole different spin on your day. I don’t need to Lean In; just give me some of those sweet Danny Elfman jamz, and I’ll take the world — and the board room — by storm!)
So, when all the buzz around “Serial” was heating up two years ago, I just thought all its listeners either had a mastery of concentration to listen at work and not get fired or really long commutes during which they didn’t spend blasting musicals for some reason.
What finally turned me around was my co-worker Maddy. I was giving her a hard time for not yet blasting “Hamilton” during her commute (see essay: I am not throwing away my shot), and her excuse was that she was all over this fiction podcast called “The Black Tapes.”
It was creepy, she said, but not jump-scare-y, and each episode was 40 minutes, so I could get through the entire first season in two weeks’ commute. Mix that with my healthy sense of fairness, and I realized I could hardly ask her to love Hamilton if I didn’t give HER recommendation an equal try. Well, I got TOTALLY on board with The Black Tapes, so♫ UH-OH, you made the WRONG SUCKER a fan, Maddy, so time to pay the piper and listen to Ham, Maddy ♫
More about The Black Tapes in a sec, but getting into that one series COMPLETELY sent me down the rabbit hole into podcast obsession — specifically fiction podcasts. Before, when I thought of a fiction audio show, I’d picture the scene from Annie with terrible acting and fake sound effects.
But the ol’ fictional Investigative Reporting schtick lends itself so perfectly to podcasts, I suddenly couldn’t consume enough. And I still can’t! I am here today to report to you my findings of great podcasts in the hopes that you can do me a solid and recommend some back, Pandora-style, once I provide to you my tastes.
First, let me sour my lavish praise of the medium and solidify my place as a Judgy Curmudgeon by saying… they don’t all do it for me.
A few podcasts keep cropping up on Best Of lists, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. I ain’t gonna name names, but… I get that the old writing adage of “show; don’t tell” is a bit difficult in a dialogue-heavy medium where description is sometimes necessary, but this is the kind of writing that shouldn’t escape middle school.
Without quoting directly, there was an episode from one of these “Best Of” series where a character more or less announced at the beginning, “Yo, as you know, I’m a wild card who doesn’t play by the rules.” To which another character replied, “Yeah, well, I’m your sergeant and you’re just a lowly specialist, so you’d better play ball.” I… If… You assume they would already have known each other… Never mind.
Then there’s Super Famous Creepy-Small-Town-Radio-Show Podcast that I really wanted to like and didn’t so much. 30 minutes of deadpan surrealist one-liners can get a bit predictable by episode 20 or so. I DON’T MAKE THE RULES!
I also can’t with the comedians. By and large, the ol’ famous host with special guest or two co-hosts shooting the breeze is… not great. They talk over each other, they reference inside jokes that no one cares about, they kiss ass because there’s a special guest who isn’t as funny and it’s impolite to react to flattened jokes with silence. I get it. Keep hustlin’, but it’s not my jam. And it’s apparently millions of other people’s jams, so who am I, the King of Town? (I keep applying, whenever my Commander of the Internet position is turned down.)
OKAY, so the actual point of this article is to share with you the podcasts that are worth ya time, at least according to my personal tastes, so let’s dive in.
Okay, okay, I know I just said I don’t usually care for two-comedian-hosts-bantering, but when it’s funny and they respect each other, you’ve got yourself a joke-mine. I can’t decide if hosts Kris and Mikey came to each episode prepared with pages of humorous bullet points or if they’re just masters of improv, but this one tickles my funny bone. Have they technically not made any new episodes for a year and a half? Don’t worry about it. You have plenty to go on. If you enjoy popular culture and mocking brand engagement, give this one a listen. The commercials alone are worth your time.
A parallel-universe-NPR called “Pacific Northwest Stories” issues a parallel-universe-Serial-like spinoff, hosted by Alex Reagan, a journalist reporting on slice-of-life stories about things like geocachers and self-professed ghosthunters. One interview subject was so interesting — a ghost hunter who doesn’t believe in the paranormal — she and her producer decided to make his “unsolved cases” the topic of the entire season, geocaching be damned! Covering one unsolved case per episode, Alex starts to notice eerie similarities that might link the cases to one another. With spotlessly in-universe websites and writerless credits, you get a glimpse, as a listener, into how War of the Worlds might have been assumed nonfiction at the time. Recommended for people who are too scared to even consider the nosleep podcast; it’s creepy but not sleep-ruining scary.
When Best-Podcast lists kept including this one “brought to you by G.E.” instead of “made on evenings and weekends by a few writers, their actor friends, and a mic from Best Buy,” I was prepared for eye-rolling corporate schlock and was pleasantly surprised. With a tight 8-episode run, The Message follows the podcast Cyphercast with Nicky Tomalin. The NSA has declassified a strange recording captured by the military some 70 years ago that they believe to be extraterrestrial in origin, and Nicky is an intern with a cryptography firm hoping to capture the moment the team cracks the case.
I’m not going to spoil it, but there was one bit that caught me so off guard that — for a MILLISECOND — I second-guessed my choice to continue listening. I recommend playing it on Overcast to get the full effect (and ask me about it later, after you listen, because I want to high-five with someone about it). I keep searching for G.E.’s next foray into podcasting, because this one did it right.
Often referred to as “X-Files meets Serial,” Limetown starts with a 911 recording from ten years ago that kicked off the subsequent disappearance of 300 people from a small town in Tennessee. Lia Haddock, a relative of one of the missing, grew up hearing about the mystery often and went into Investigative Journalism to try and crack the case. Though the trail has been cold for a decade, her sleuthing leads her stumbling into some interview subjects who probably should have kept quiet. This podcast has some of the best acting, sound editing, and writing of any I’ve heard.
Unlike The Message, which is a self-contained one-season series, Limetown is allegedly getting a second season and possibly a prequel novel, if Reddit is to be believed. Though, if you’re going to listen, which you should, don’t go on Reddit until you’re done with the first season, what is this, your first day on the Internet?
So there you have it. A few podcasts to fill your week or month, depending how long your commute or how much our entertainment tastes align.
Now I ask you: do you like any of the above and it TOTALLY reminds you of this other podcast you can’t believe I left out? Please let me know, and I’ll give it a try! And if I don’t like it, I’ll never tell you, but we can stay friends! I’m probably a jerk! But if I like it, I will shower you with praise and unwanted high-fives!