I first discovered podcasts and radio story-telling in 2008 when I heard a few episodes of This American Life on the radio. I loved the episodes very much, and when I learned that I could listen to all of the episodes whenever I wanted through a new type of distribution known as podcasting, I was hooked. All of the episodes were available to me in a free library available on my iPod already! From here I discovered other shows like Radiolab and The Moth and You Made it Weird These were the shows were the gateway drug that plunged me into being a total Audiophile. So I thought I would combine my two loves in this post; my love for “top lists” and “podcasting.” The list, of course, is fun because it’s purely subjective and reveals more about me than the actual quality of the show. That’s why I’m sharing it.
Disclaimer: I love/hate lists like this because they inevitably leave out some very beautiful and important shows. I don’t mean to make such value statements. On the other hand, I love calling out some of the exceptional examples of great radio. These are some shows that stand out as incredibly moving, entertaining or thought-provoking.
A word about series:
For any artist or creator, there will be hits and misses. Some of my favorite episodes come from shows that can be pretty inconsistent. This is mostly the case with the interview style or minimally produced shows. However, it’s really the erratic, precarious nature that makes the exceptional shows shine more brightly. They are able to deliver a sparkling spontaneity and immediacy the more produced shows cannot. Sometimes the power of these shows depends on their context within the broader series or season ( see Revisionist History #1 ).
Ok, just so I don’t go on too long, I’m going to limit myself to five! Yes, only 5 of my favorite podcast episodes ever!! ( I will probably kick myself for leaving something out.)
This is the only episode on the list I actually heard during a radio broadcast and then went back to listen to the entire episode from the beginning. I’ve listened to it repeatedly, and I’m always struck by how intimate it is from the beginning. This is one of the last public interviews Sendak gave before he passed away in 2012. This episode inspired a deep appreciation and love of Sendak’s work. Every year since this year, I have received a new Sendak book for Christmas. There is a lot from Sendak’s approach to life and work that has inspired me and exemplifies what I aspire to do when I create. This episode contains a tenderness that is very rare and holy. He is so open and vulnerable during this interview it’s just beautiful.
Radiolab has been a staple in my podcast diet from the beginning. Radiolab is a highly produced show about science, and I believe it has changed my brain. I was never really interested in science during my school and college years. Science seemed antithetical to art and creativity. Thanks to shows like Radiolab my curiosity was ignited, and I was able to see how science was the other half of art. This show, in particular, I have listened repeatedly to this episode because it tackles my favorite subject, the mysteries of transformation. This one is a perfect example of how this show dances with the line between materiality and spirituality. Theism and atheism.
It’s probably no secret that I’ve been a Rob Bell fan since the Mars Hill days. The beautiful thing about his show The Robcast is that it is a lovely example of consistency. He intentionally keeps the production bar Low-Fi for himself so that he will just focus on sharing what’s currently on his mind. The genius of it is that since he’s a world class communicator, he can be off the cuff without losing focus of his idea and rambling. It’s a pretty unique show in this way and has definitely given me loads of insight on work, creativity, theology and Biblical exegesis. This episode is an excellent example of his interview style. He’s interviewing his neighbor “Rabbi Joel” about his favorite Jewish words and I find it totally exciting and engaging! This show along with the radio-topic show The Allusionist was the inspiration for my weekly “Word” meditations during my church-days.
Ok… Let’s start first with Gimlet… seriously people. I could gush about this for too long so I’ll be careful. Gimlet Media was started by Alex Blumberg (Planet Money, This American Life) back in 2014 when he launched his company and chronicled its beginning with the show Startup. I listened to that first show and loved it. From there I started listening to some of their other shows like Reply-All ( which is the show I should really be talking about because It has my absolute favorite hosts on radio PJ Vote and Alex Goldmund… I feel so bad about not talking about Reply-All right now... but when making a Best-of list, hard choices MUST be made! ) And don’t even get me started on The Story Pirates (Parents!!! How do you not know about The Story Pirates?!!!). However, if I was forced to pick one show and one episode, the one closest to my heart is Heavyweight, a podcast from another TAL contributor Johnathan Goldstein. In each episode, Goldstein looks at a pivotal moment in a story of someone’s story that changes the course of their life. I don’t know if he’s the best, but I can’t think of anyone who can weave the humor and emotion of an audio-story like Jonathan. He’s got a magic touch. It's so good it is one of the rare shows that Christa and I both listen to… at the same time! We sit on our bed, she gets her stitching, and I grab a coloring book, and we listen together. This one is about a guy he went to Hebrew school when he was young. Back then he wanted to grow up to be a rabbi before everything changed. Even though it happens in the world of Judaism, There is a lot in this story that I could relate to. The best part of every show, however, is right at the beginning, before the title song, when he calls his friend Jackie... Gah!! I wish we were friends!
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of a slew of bestselling books on social science such as Tipping Point, Outliers and Blink. When he turned his attention to podcasting, I knew it would be good, but I had no idea just how good it could be. I could pick a favorite episode from each season, but this post has already gone on long enough, so I’m strategically suggesting the finale of the third season because I believe it’s a sneaky way to get you to listen to the whole season. Just as Game of Thrones, Mad Men and The Wire elevated television by crafting a story with a long arc, Gladwell raises the podcast medium. In this season he brings his famous wit, compassion, and curiosity to stories about the unreliability of memory and ends the season with why Elvis had such a hard time remembering the lyrics to one of his most famous songs. For years the topic of memory has been especially fascinating to me, but nothing I’ve heard or read captures how I feel about it better than this show.
Ok, I honestly didn’t intend to write such a long post about this topic. You can probably get a sense of how I actually feel about this medium for story-telling. Perhaps the most appropriate way to discuss these shows are in person over coffee (or bourbon!) so when do you want to get together? What are some of your favorite podcasts?