Required Listenings Top 5: Favorite Podcasts

First generation iPod Shuffle with the cap rem...

I used to have this iPod model. (Small in storage, but pretty damn sturdy - unsurprising, considering it was a USB flash drive with a headphone jack.) (Image via Wikipedia.)

I never really got into podcast listening (and certainly not podcasting) until about February, when I got my iPod touch (and therefore a music listening device that held more than a gigabyte – sorry, 1st Generation iPod shuffle). But since I started, I’ve been listening in a huge way. I regularly listen weekly to (by my unofficial count) 19 different podcasts. (My goodness, that’s a lot.) Obviously, I enjoy listening to them, otherwise I wouldn’t – but of course, I have a few particular favorites. (For the record, I’m going to have to disallow inclusion of PodQuiz, ’cause while it’s awesome, since I was once on the show, I don’t feel like it’s right to include it.) In any case, here they are:

5. Startalk Radio (Curved Light Productions)

Quite a few podcasts I listen to are educational, specifically about science, for which I have a great affinity. (One of the podcasts that didn’t make the cut, WBEZ’s Clever Apes, is a fun science show too.) But Startalk is very different: as they say in their intro, it’s where “space, science, and society are converging.” They fulfill that by having astrophysics rock star Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host, and a rotation of stand-up comedians as co-hosts (Leighann Lord, Chuck Nice and Eugene Mirman have all appeared). Speaking to experts in both the lab and the studio, there is both substantive discussion and a little funny commentary – from the co-host and Tyson both. Along with scientists, Tyson has spoken to people who have been inspired by science, like Moby and Jonathan Coulton, and those who have inspired scientific endeavors, like Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame, a two-part interview from which I was greatly moved.

4. The Nerdist (Nerdist Industries)

The flagship and namesake of Chris Hardwick’s burgeoning podcasting empire, The Nerdist is similar to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in that instead of trying to be funny all the time, it’s quite poignant – it’s an interview show first. At least, when they have a guest. When they do, it’s great – even when I may not enjoy that guest’s work (like when they interviewed 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss or, more recently, Tom Green), Hardwick and co-hosts Jonah Ray and Matt Mira bring out the best in them. But what I truly love are their regularly recurring “Hostful” shows, where it’s just Hardwick, Ray and Mira riffing for an hour. It’s not even an interview at that point – it’s a conversation between friends, and it’s great to listen in on that.

3. The Bugle: Audio Newspaper for a Visual World (The Times Online)

Strangely, this is one of three British podcasts I listen to (the others being PodQuiz and, very recently, the Men in Blazers Premier League podcast on Bill Simmons’s Grantland Network), but in any case, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. Each week Andy Zaltzman and The Daily Show‘s John Oliver comment on the news – mostly ridiculous stuff, like Silvio Berlusconi – but in such a way that it’s impossible for me to not stop laughing hysterically when they really get on a roll. It was especially great during the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, as Zaltzman (who was in the belly of the beast, in News International’s London headquarters) and Oliver gave some of their most biting commentary against their employers for about four straight weeks – with both of them shocked how the show was still on the air.

The next two are some heavy hitters in the public radio and podcasting worlds:

2. Radiolab (WNYC and NPR)

It’s less the information the show provides – and it’s plenty, what with Radiolab being a sort of This American Life of science – that makes me love this podcast, as much as it is the absolute euphony that it provides. MacArthur Genius grantee Jad Abumrad is responsible for, in my view, the best-sounding show on radio – with both excellent choice in background music and, further, the melding of that music. Additionally, Abumrad and co-host Robert Krulwich provide excellent insight on different themes and concepts in science; it’s not textbook stuff, but stories that relate back to the scientific world.

1. Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me! (NPR and WBEZ)

I’ve actually been listening to Wait Wait, NPR’s weekly news quiz, for over a year and a half, and it (along with Doctor Who) have come to define my Saturday activities. It gives me an incentive to be news-literate (including in wacky, strange news, in the case of the “Bluff the Listener” game), is pretty funny, and generally speaking the “Not My Job” guests are pretty cool. Plus, currently it’s the only game show on which I can appear (as the prize isn’t monetary – it’s scorekeeper Carl Kasell recording a voicemail message). Wait Wait is a welcome part my rotation of entertainment and of my weekend routine, and I’m quite glad for that.

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