While most of the world gets pumped in the earbuds by their favorite playlists (case in point: a guy just last week in the elevator listening to “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, cranked to 11), I’m a talk-radio gal. I know: cue the loud eye rolls.
But. I’ve developed a 2-hour commute these past few years and learned a thing or two from an old life of long travel. When my husband and I used to make the 8-hour drive between Boston and here a few times a year, we discovered audiobooks (pre- audible.com: we rented the compact discs…from the library). The chapters were longer than songs, the arcs of stories more distracting than choruses. And suddenly, Exit 3 became Exit 43.
So, if this impending holiday season gifts you chunks of empty time and you’re all caught up on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, might I suggest earsful of new listens? Herewith, the current favorite podcasts of a content snob:
HOMECOMING by Gimlet Media
What: The channel’s first scripted series, Homecoming is Serial meets Stranger Things meets Lost meets Little Orphan Annie. WHO: Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac are therapist and veteran at the mysterious Homecoming Initiative; David Schwimmer (perfecting the jerky side of Ross Gellar) is its demanding director. The draw of this audible drama is its experimental storytelling and authenticity—thanks in part to the screenwriter who picked up pitch-perfect dialogue after years spent tuning human voices as a film sound engineer. Theater of the mind fo’ sho’.
Total Binge Time: 100+ minutes
Episodes of Note: Gotta listen to the whole thing.
SLATE CULTURE GABFEST by Slate
What: My weekly dose of critical thinking on both hi- and low-brow cultural ephemera. Sample topics: finding solace in art after depressing election results; is Billy on the Street innocent performance art or the documentary of a lothario?
Who: The roundtable includes digital native Julia Turner, wunderkind editor-in-chief of Slate; critic-at-large and witheringly smart cynic Stephen Metcalf; and Slate film critic (and Texan PhD) Dana Stevens.
Why: The discussions are erudite, non-precious, tidy and gloves-off.
Total Binge Time: 8 years’ worth of weekly shows
WTF with MARC MARON
What: The interview show that rebooted standup Maron’s decades-long career, all from his LA garage.
Who: Host is Marc Maron, the clinically angry standup comedian (he’s mellowed). Along with boldfaced Hollywood and indie comedy names alike. And, President Obama.
Why: It’s the longform stop on the celebrity promotional circuit that manages to avoid all manner of schtick and prepared talking points. Maron even out-Terry-Grossed Terry Gross!
Total Binge Time: 769 episodes and counting Note: the first 10 or so minutes wherein Maron updates listeners on his hypochondria/dad issues/nicotine gum addiction/tour dates? Skippable.
REPLY ALL by Gimlet Media
What: “A show about the Internet.”
Who: Two guys host/report/star in stories that spiral every which way, as long as they begin with some online origin.
Why: It’s very self-aware. The personalities and points of view of these guys are as much the story as the stories. One’s a young family man who used to be an IT guy, the other’s a Brooklynite bachelor with a kinetic laugh and a little-brother streak. Plus, “Yes-Yes-No,” the feature wherein these two connected guys unpack cryptic tweets with their much-older, analog boss.
Total Binge Time: 83 episodes
Starter Episodes: Boy in Photo, a decades-sprawling dive into a 2006 message-board thread that dissected just what the hell was going on in a random picture that the early Internet burped out; Undo, Undo, Undo.
THIS AMERICAN LIFE by WBEZ
What: The granddaddy of the thoughtful audio narrative, This American Life has catalyzed the careers of many original voices, most notably David Sedaris. “Each week we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme.” Journalistically produced, kind to the ear, perfect for a decent drive.
Who: Freaky-cool founder, Ira Glass, ties conceptual threads between disparate stories of both mundane and unique American life with curiously paced delivery and little musical segues that build the mood. The format has spawned the considered radio format as we know it, and never disappoints.
Total Binge Time: Weekly shows since 1995
Episodes of Note: Use Only as Directed, the startling toxicity of Tylenol; Tough Room, a backstage episode with writers from The Onion; Petty Tyrant, the unbelievable tale of a sadistic school janitor; the annual (and festive!) week-of-Thanksgiving Poultry Slams.
More Perfect by WNYC
What: From the makers of Radio Lab, More Perfect tells tales of the epic impact of the Supreme Court. Only totally not boring.
Who: A host of hosts reports on landmark cases, origin stories, myth-busting, near-misses, the law and more from the lens of “we, the people” (i.e., comprehensible).
Episodes of Note: The Political Thicket, the backstory behind a 1962 redistricting case, “the most important case” of a former Chief Justice’s tenure.
Total Binge Time: Almost five hours to date.
Tracy Thompson is Creative Director at Karma and recites monologues in the shower.