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How Sound (73 episodes)
This is a biweekly podcast about radio and podcasting, produced by Rob Rosenthal of the Public Radio Exchange. It features stories and interviews about the problems radio professionals have to solve, from constructing a narrative to getting usable audio when interviewing someone over Skype.
The Memory Palace (60 episodes)
A former editor and producer at Marketplace, Nate DiMeo says he’s long been pitching the public radio bigwigs an idea for a weekly, hour-long show about history. “There’re shows about nearly every big humanities category—art, books, religion/philosophy, auto-repair, music—but, at the time, no one was doing a history show. It felt like an opportunity missed,” he writes. No one has taken him up on the idea so far, but The Memory Palace, an irregularly produced show that tells character-driven stories about history, is a lovely substitute.
The Moth (78 episodes)
The Moth Radio Hour has a simple concept: true stories told live without notes. I think the “told live” part is true, but the stories often feel so highly shaped and produced that I wonder about the “true” part. Still, it’s compelling, emotional stuff.
99% Invisible (112 episodes)
My favorite podcast of all time, this show takes a highly visual subject—design and architecture—and somehow manages to bring it alive through sound alone. It’s the creation of Roman Mars, a producer who got his start in radio at San Francisco’s KALW, and it got a huge boost this year—moving to weekly episodes—after raising $375,000 on Kickstarter. Mars used some of the money to start Radiotopia, a collection of other “creator-driven, high-quality, entrepreneurial programs” that includes Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything.
On Being (~500 episodes)
This is the reincarnated, slightly more ecumenical version of a Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media show called Speaking of Faith. Host Krista Tippett is the sort of calm, humane, insightful person you’d want as the mediator in a debate between Kennedy and Krushchev, or Obama and Putin. Broadly, the show is about spiritual matters—but that definition is broad enough to encompass an episode about acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton and the value of silence and another about hidden stories in the Book of Exodus.
On the Media (~500 episodes)
This is WNYC’s brazen, irreverent, indispensable weekly look at the news business and whether it’s living up to its own standards. Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone have co-hosted the show since 2001, tackling everything from the media’s handling of the Snowden leaks to the travails of Rupert Murdoch’s news empire. OTM now has a little-brother podcast called TLDR; I’m not sure I like it, as it’s painfully conscious in its focus on the sensibilities of millenials.
Planet Money (537 episodes)
Planet Money was born during the 2008-2009 financial crisis as a home for plain-English explanations of the intricacies of things like collateralized debt obligations and quantitative easing. It’s evolved into a general podcast about economics, the meaning of money, and all the human intricacies of commerce. There were even whole shows devoted to answering, once and for all, why Americans still use the penny, and why we don’t have a viable dollar coin.
Radiolab (143 episodes, counting “Shorts”)
I once binge-listened to about 20 episodes of WNYC’s Radiolab while driving from Massachusetts to Michigan and back. Ever since, I’ve felt like co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are personal friends. The show is, very loosely, about science, with a bias toward neuroscience and our understanding of consciousness. The hour-long episodes usually include several segments around a theme such as time, parasites, or the placebo effect. Abumrad, a composer, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011, in part for his skill using elaborate editing, sound design, and sound effects to heighten the show’s storytelling.
Studio 360 (~600 episodes)
Studio 360 is an arts and culture magazine hosted by novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen. WNYC (which is, clearly, the world capital of good radio) says the show’s mission is to steer listeners to the latest in pop culture, including movies, music, books, and TV, but in practice, it veers all over the place—there’s a series on “American Icons” like Superman and I Love Lucy, and there was a whole show where Andersen hung out at Coney Island with the guys in the band They Might Be Giants.
This American Life (525 episodes)
The original storytelling show, this WBEZ production has made Ira Glass the most famous man in public radio; he even had a cameo appearance in the Veronica Mars movie. The show is uneven—after 20 years, it would be hard to make every episode an award-winner—but it’s still always worth listening to.
Welcome to Night Vale (46 episodes)
This sendup of small-town community radio, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and performed by Cecil Gershwin Palmer, is set in the fictional town of Night Vale, which is sort of a mashup of Mayberry, Roswell, Area 51, Lake Wobegon, and Twin Peaks. It’s oddly arresting, and is a fitting show to end my list. You can’t listen to just one episode—it gets inside your head, sort of like the static from those hooded figures in the dog park.
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