What I'm Doing

Part 2: For Your Ears Only

Once, I reached Podcast Zero. I had listened to every single episode of the podcasts in my queue. Of course, I have no way of knowing how large my podcast queue is relative to others’. At the time of this post, I have 13 podcast subscriptions.

My interests in certain podcasts have waxed and waned over time—Studio 360, one of my early mainstays, dropped off the list a few years ago; Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing got cut when some thing he said pissed me off (and later picked back up for an Ira Glass episode); TL;DR was replaced by Reply All. There are a few podcasts that I enjoy when I catch them on the radio, but feel no need to hear with any particular regularity. I count Car Talk, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and Prairie Home Companion among these. But there are those that have been there consistently since the first day I found them: This American Life, The Moth, 99% Invisible, RadioLab.

In the past year, I’ve listened to hours of podcasts. I would venture to guess that podcasting rivals my hours spent watching TV. In this era, that’s saying something.

My podcast preferences tend to be those with a consistent narrative structure; I like knowing what to expect. There are plenty of wonderful shows with a much looser, conversational style and these can be particularly interesting when they feature an expert or guest you favor. Many podcasts treat episodes as discrete stories that may not connect thematically to the following week, but there are growing number of podcasts that rely on you as a serialized listener: Welcome to the Nightvale, Startup and Serial are among them.

Thanks to the success of Serial, there have been many rounds of other podcast nerds sharing their favorites—Buzzfeed, Slate, The Atlantic, Medium, Esquire, The Guardian— and I’m tossing my hat into the arena here as a bit of a podcast connoisseur. If you’re just beginning to find podcasts, you can’t go wrong by starting with these episodes.

Once you’re done you’ll want to run to the nearest computer and make an immediate donation to public radio for producing such epic storytelling. Trust me on this.

Somewhere in the Arabian Sea

This American Life

Life aboard the USS John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier that was stationed in the Arabian Sea and supported bombing missions over Afghanistan. Only a few dozen people on board actually fly jets. It takes the rest of the crew — over 5,000 people — to keep them in the air.This American Life producers visited the Stennis in 2002, about six weeks into its deployment. The hour is devoted to this one story.

Song Exploder

99% Invisible

The architecture behind a piece of music can be much more involved than meets the ear, and this is what inspired Hrishikesh Hirway to start a podcast called Song Exploder, where musicians “take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.” Be sure to also check this killer Song Exploder episode on The Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” 

The Bitter End


We turn to doctors to save our lives — to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves.

How to Divide an Imaginary Pie


[Note: This is one of the few podcasts that is best listened to in order, but trust me, the 2 episodes before this are well worth it.] Before Alex and Matt can lock in their partnership, they need to discuss equity: how much of the company each of them will own.  Alex starts by suggesting that Matt get 10%.  Matt thinks 45% is fair.  Day one of their negotiation ends without agreement.

Patient Zero


The greatest mysteries have a shadowy figure at the center—someone who sets things in motion and holds the key to how the story unfolds. In epidemiology, this central character is known as Patient Zero—the case at the heart of an outbreak.

Rest Stop

This American Life

Nine radio producers. Two days. One rest stop on the New York State Thruway. In this show, we’ll bring you stories of people who are just passing through, and people who are at the rest stop every day—working. One of them has worked there since 1969. A bunch of others came from Asia and eastern Europe to pour coffee for travelers.

Title TK 

99% Invisible 

Now, we’ve all come up with names before—for pets, or children, or bands, or blogs. But when it comes to designing a name for a business or a product,  there are a number of additional factors to consider. In this daily barrage, only the names that are most interesting and most pleasant on the tongue can survive in your memory.

Website for Sale

Reply All

We enter the mysterious, Byzantine underworld of domain sales, where people make money speculating on the website naming market. A few years ago, the owners of the popular journalism website longform.org blundered into this world when they innocently tried to procure longform.com.

What I'm Doing

Part 1: That Time I Was Cool Before Everyone Else

Despite being a regular early adopter, I still can’t believe how far ahead I was of podcasts becoming a thing. I heard my first episode of This American Life while driving along I-81 in 2006. Every station along the rural mountainside was a fuzzy mess, but there was Ira Glass’s professorial voice soothing my fractured heart with each mile. In perhaps a very backwards way, podcasts are how I first discovered the reach of public radio too.

David and I have spent the past two weeks debating whether Serial’s success is based on the medium or the story–I say both. Podcasts are such a compelling format because, unlike TV, they enable you to continue other tasks without being beholden to the sofa. Much of our collective time in cars is spent listening to podcasts. David streams Dave Ramsey and The Vergecast while washing the dishes. I let the dulcet tones of Roman Mars and Jad Abumrad take me away while I fold the laundry. We have almost unnatural relationships with people we hardly know. We reference them like best friends: “You know, Dave mentioned that we really should get rid of our credit cards and use cash instead.”

No Women, Mo’ Problems

I recently realized that before Serial I didn’t have a single podcast in my queue hosted by a woman. I knew plenty of women helped produce my favorite podcasts—Sarah Koenig of This American Life, and Zoe Chace and Stacey Vanek-Smith of Planet Money being three of them–but I found myself unsubscribing from other lady-led podcasts because they often seemed to lack the narrative structure that I find to be the holy grail of audio storytelling.

That’s all changing. Not only is Sarah Koenig and her team proving to be rockstars, new podcasts like Criminal, hosted by Phoebe Judge, will be opening all kinds of doors for other voices to emerge. This year I joined my first Kickstarter campaign to bring at least two new podcasts led by women to Radiotopia.

Podcasting Thought-Pieces

So we’re here at this moment when podcasting is certainly part of a zeitgeist. I hope that it means many more organizations are giving their content folks an opportunity to test how they might contribute to this medium.

I’m happy to say I’m not the only one thinking about the future of podcasts; in fact, there are a great many others discussing why podcasting might just be the next great thing. I’ve pulled a selection below, but feel free to add others in the comments.

And if you’ve never listened to a podcast before, let Ira and his friend tell you how easy it is to get started.