17 November 2016

A pocketful of podcasts

Posted by Callan Bentley

podcastsI listen to a few podcasts, and I’ve been meaning for a long time to write down some thoughts about them to share, in the same spirit in which I review books, or less frequently movies or television programs.

First, a general comment: I really, really like podcasts. This is a medium that is unique (aside from radio) in its ability to get you to think while you’re doing something else. And we all have a lot else to do. When that other activity doesn’t require my word-generating or word-understanding brain centers, I go for a podcast. For me, this means working in the yard, driving to and from campus, editing photos or making visual art, or sitting on the porch with a cup of tea. Podcast consumption isn’t compatible with reading or writing or teaching or parenting or even anything noisy, like doing the dishes. Just the same, I find I have a lot of time where I can reasonably tune in, and I do. I would estimate I consume about six hours of podcasts in a typical week, more in some weeks.

Lexicon Valley

A podcast about language. This has historically been one of my favorite podcasts. It explores the quirks of language, mainly the English language. There have been episodes of this show that have changed the way I think about words I’ve been uttering my entire life. That said, the show has changed formats, and I preferred the old format better. It used to be conversation-based between two, and sometimes three, articulate hosts. Now it’s mainly monologues from one (different from the earlier three) host. All are smart and have interesting material to share, but I liked the repartee that characterized the show’s initial incarnation (prior to the past summer), in particular the profane precision of (ex-?)host Bob Garfield. Every two weeks.

Point of Inquiry

This is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization dedicated to promoting a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. It has two excellent hosts, Lindsay Beyerstein and Josh Zepps, and they take turns hosting the show. In each episode either Josh or Lindsay interviews someone about their work or experience. Sometimes this is an author of a new book, and sometimes it’s someone who has a unique perspective on a current event, and sometimes it’s a Big Name in the world of skeptical activism or secularism. Weekly.

We The People Live

Zepps (mentioned above) is a former “HuffPost Live” host at the Huffington Post, with a distinct voice and a passion for social justice and secularlism. He’s a political junkie, too. I see him as a rising star among public intellectuals in our country, despite his Australian heritage (obvious as soon as you hear him talk). He hosts a podcast based on discussions between bright minds on the critical topics of the day, often live at a bar in Brooklyn, and sometimes in a studio. Recent episodes I’ve appreciated: discussions of the Trump phenomenon, discussions of the rise in Jihadi terrorism, and how to have difficult conversations – high level conversations on difficult, almost-certainly-inflammatory topics. He’s whip-smart and articulate and he shares my values, so I like listening to him talk about important stuff. Irregularly published, on average twice a week.

Waking Up

Detailed, high-level conversations and commentary from Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and several other books. This podcast was launched as a companion to his book Waking Up, but like Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True, it’s persisted long since its original purpose of book promotion has ceased. Sam Harris is a very precise thinker whose work doesn’t often translate into the modern expectation of soundbites and Twitter blips. The podcast is an ideal format to explore the ideas he’s interested in, since there’s no time limits, he can fully articulate the issues in question. The format varies – sometimes it’s interviews and discussions (some good, others exemplars of intractable conversational messes), sometimes it’s Harris discoursing on a particular topic (like the day after the election, which is an excellent listen – the episode is called “The Most Powerful Clown”) and sometimes it’s a “Ask Me Anything” format, wherein he answers audience questions. It’s a thoughtful body of work, and I’m forced to think about a suite of interesting issues from a new perspective as a result of listening to it. Irregularly published, on average a few times per month.

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe

This is one of the longest-running science podcasts, and one that’s been a staple of mine for years. The format is a long (1+ hour) discussion between the same set of panelists called “rogues.” There are probably better ways of describing them, but I think a newcomer to the show will be struck that the distribution of their genes is anomalous: the rogues consist of three Novella brothers, one non-Novella male, and one non-Novella female. The fact that three of the rogues are men from the same nuclear family is a bit bizarre, but it works anyhow. In my opinion, Steve Novella, the show’s host, is a delight to listen to, as is Cara Santa Maria, the newest rogue and the lone female voice on the show. (The show’s loss of Rebecca Watson weakened it substantially, but Cara has filled Rebecca’s shoes admirably and made the spot her own.) By way of criticism, i would say the other two Novella brothers (Bob and Jay) are not as strong in terms of the content they present or the comments they make, but you could argue that this makes the show’s dialogue work better, as sometimes their statements become jumping-off points for lessons in skepticism or understanding the scientific method. The truly great thing about this show is its consistency. Week after week, they offer a reliable format that has become as familiar to me as the All Things Considered theme song. If I were to run a podcast, I would be wise to model it after this one. One final caveat: I’m often frustrated at the shallowness of their geology coverage, but I’ve learned a ton about astrophysics and neuroscience from the show. Weekly.

Science… sort of

A rotating cast of panelists (“rogues”?) discuss science, but also beer and also whatever else comes into their minds. I met a few of the folks behind this podcast at the annual GSA meeting in Denver this year, and enjoyed talking to them. They seem to enjoy talking to each other, and some (like Ryan Haupt) have that awesome blend of articulate speech and arcane knowledge that makes for fascinating conversational partners. I have a feeling I’d really enjoy drinking beer around a campfire with these folks. However, I’m not sure it works perfectly for a podcast. Many times while listening to Science… sort of, I wish they would wrap up a given topic and move on to the next one. I guess the Skeptic’s Guide has trained me to expect relative “tightness” with the amount of time spent on a given topic, and my sometimes my expectations of time economically spent aren’t exactly met when it comes to this show. Still, they have strong geoscience content, and they appear to be doing it solely because they want to (not to make money at it), which is laudable. Weekly.


A groundbreaking radio program from WNYC, hosted by by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, an ideal pairing of personalities. Their inquiries are playful and enthusiastic and hip, and they tell the stories of scientific insight and hapless misadventure in a way that was clearly inspired by This American Life, but has branched off to become its own thing. Probably most of my readers will already be familiar with Radiolab, but if on some odd chance you’re not, I highly recommend it. Every two weeks.

More Perfect

A Radiolab spinoff about the Supreme Court. Only a handful of episodes, the most recent published in July. It’s good stuff, and it would be pertinent in the dark years to come to continue the series. Every two weeks, but apparently on indefinite hiatus.

Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!

This is nothing more than the popular NPR news quiz show, rendered in podcast form. It’s the same thing you would hear on the radio, but since I never listen to the radio, I prefer to get it this way, since I can listen to it via podcast whenever I want. Smart, funny commentary on the week’s news with a rotating panel of smart smart alecs, plus host Peter Sagal. Weekly.

Brains On!

This is a podcast for kids, and I have it on my iPad in case I’m driving with my son. It’s a podcast for his four-year-old mind that’s also interesting enough for me to listen to. It’s also spawned from public radio, and has the same feel or production value as a Mini-Me Radiolab. Every two weeks.

There is no reliable podcast focused on geology. I’m considering starting one. If I were to do that, what sort of material / features / characteristics would you want to hear?