I first discovered the existence of podcasts back in about 2011. The first podcast I ever listened to was called Downstage Center from the American Theatre Wing, where they interviewed just about every important theater acter from Broadway to Shakespeare. After that I started just searching iTunes for interviews with people I liked, like Imogen Heap, Tori Amos or Gregory Maguire.
More recently I’ve discovered podcasts again, and wow has the landscape changed since 2011. There are some really fantastic podcasts out there, and the best thing is that no matter what you’re interested in, there is probably at least one great-quality podcast out there. On top of that, because podcasts are almost always free, it’s a great medium to create in. I experimented with doing my own podcast and would like to come back to it at some point, though probably with a more focused idea of what I was doing. All that being said, I’m going to share with you some of the podcasts I’ve been listening to, and what I think of them.
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Hosted by David Barr Kirtley and John Joseph Adams
If I had to pick a “favorite podcast,” this would probably be it. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a podcast primarily centered around science fiction and fantasy, but honestly they touch on just about every element of geek culture. The podcast is hosted by Wired.com, so there is oftentimes an element of technology. Host David Barr Kirtley is really unique among podcast hosts, because he’s very good at asking questions that allow the guest to give a complete, uninteruppted answer. He is very skilled at leading the guest toward a topic they want to expand on, and he only pops in to offer commentary or ask further questions when it serves the guests narrative, he doesn’t monopolize the interviews by interjecting much with his own experience. This style of letting the guest have center stage has led some critics to think David is uninterested in the subject matter, but as you can see from the panel episodes, this is certainly not the case. The earlier episodes of Geek’s Guide usually included an interview as well as a panel discussion with fellow host John Joseph Adams and various other geeks (usually writers), however in recent years they’ve split the two formats into different episodes, which I personally like because it keeps the episodes from getting overloaded.
Pretty much every important “geek luminary” you can imagine has been interviewed on this podcast. Just some of their guests include: Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, George R.R. Martin, John Cleese, Patrick Rothfuss, R.A. Salvatore, Naomi Novak, Andy Weir, Ernest Cline, Ken Liu, Amanda Palmer, Diana Gabaldon, Christopher Moore, Dan Simmons, Margaret Atwood, Felicia Day, Lev & Austin Grossman, Gregory Maguire, and this is just scratching the surface. Short of Neil Gaiman and the Star Trek captains, there are very few icons of geek culture who have not appeared on the show.
I definitely recommend listening to Geek’s Guide, and you can start anywhere. Just scroll through the episode list and find some people and topics you want to hear about. They also have a Patreon, which is a great way to support the show.
Hosted by Dan Cummins
This is a new one for me. I’ve listened to Dan Cummins’ comedy for a long time on Pandora, and recently he started running ads after his comedy clips for the podcast, so I went to check it out. Basically Dan explores topics that go down the rabbit hole, no matter what the subject, as long as there is a plethora of information about it. Some of those topics include flat earth conspiracy theories, belief in Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster, the history of alien sightings, an examination on Walmart, conspiracy theories about lizard illimunati, and historical overviews of Hitler’s rise to power, Lyndon Johnson and his fascination with his own penis, and a variety of serial killers including Charles Manson, H.H. Holmes, and Ted Bundy.
Dan is one of the few people I’ve heard successfully carry an entire podcast by himself, he has only had a guest on the show one time so far (though it was hilarious and fun), and manages to keep me interested. He also intersperses some great comedy among his examinations, including my personal favorite bit about sucking the nipples of Irish kings (true story, by the way) during The Dead Do Tell Tales, and a hilarious anecdote about his occasionally obstinate daughter Monroe and a plastic dog during Robert the Cursed Doll.
Though I only just started listening to this series a few weeks ago, I highly recommend it.
Hosted by Chris Hardwick
I am probably one of the few people in the world who really didn’t know about Nerdist until somewhat recently. Last year I had a brief obsession with Maria Bamford after listening to her comedy and watching her Netflix series Lady Dynamite (which if you haven’t seen it is basically a very weird and meta dissection of the comedy genre), and found her interview on the show. Nerdist is just shy of a thousand episodes so there is a LOT of material, and as is the case with Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, if you just search for the name of any geek icon you’re likely to find an interview. My personal favorites are the interviews with Patrick Stewart, who has a fantastic sense of humour and seems to genuinely enjoy his time with Chris and the Nerdist crew. Not much else to say, just a really great place to find interviews with nerd icons.
Hosted by Emery Emery
2013 was my year of atheism. It began with God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, then Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and from there I went into an infinite spiral of atheist culture. One of my personal favorites was the Austin, Texas based Atheist Experience, a public access call-in show where a small panel of atheists basically listen to a bunch of hillbillies give weak explanations for the existance of God while the panel responds with some quiet and sane logic. At any rate, during this time I searched for some atheist podcasts and very briefly listened to part of an episode of Ardent Atheist, but I think at the time I got distracted and forgot to come back.
Recently I tried listening again and found that this show is pretty fantastic. Emery is fiery and hilarious, prone to outbursts and often flying into a screaming rage, but always about important injustices in the world that should be addressed, and even so, he still listens to opposing views. The panel is almost always made of atheists, so there isn’t exactly a lot of theological debate so much as there is a collective examination of the theological ideas of others, and a lot of time spent calling out religious nut-jobs who do real damage in the world. If you’re looking for a good show based in atheism, this is a great one.
Hosted by Sarah Koenig
I remember hearing a lot of buzz about Serial a few years ago when it first came out. I never listened to it, and I briefly had it confused with Thrilling Adventure Hour, so when I downloaded the first episode I fully expected a comedy podcast, having no idea what I was walking into. What I found was the incredibly compelling story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, supposedly at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Sarah Koenig is a journalist who examines the many flaws in the handling of the case, and really attempts to get to the bottom of who exactly killed Hae Min Lee, and most importantly, if Adnan was convicted when he is really innocent.
For his part, Adnan maintains his innocence, and every claim he makes about the circumstances surrounding the murder turn out to be true, while his representation at the hands of an attourney whose health was failing was very questionable. An alibi who never appeared during the trial ends up involved, and Sarah and her producer go through every aspect of the case, from a mysterious stranger in the park the day Hae’s body was found, to the incredibly weird Jay, a friend of Adnan’s who claims to have helped Adnan bury the body of Hae and then became the state’s star witness by testifying against Adnan.
I can warn you that there isn’t really a clear ending to this story. As of this writing, Adnan is still in prison, although Sarah’s work with Serial was responsible for getting Adnan another trial, and details are still sparse. There is a second season of Serial about the defection of U.S. soldier Bo Bergdahl, which admittedly I didn’t find quite as interesting and which I haven’t finished, but the first season is incredibly gripping, although be prepared for some disturbing details. I actually listened to the entirety of the first season in one night, beginning at around 8pm and ending the next morning, absolutely exhausted and barely awake but unable to stop listening.
And for what it’s worth, I think Jay did it.
Welcome to Night Vale
Hosted by Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin)
Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Welcome to Night Vale is the first podcast on this list to be completely fictional. It is somewhat like a radio play, except that the majority of episodes are narrated by a single character, Cecil Palmer, the host of a public radio station in the desert town of Night Vale. Night Vale is basically an incredibly creepy little town where Lovecraftian horrors are commonplace and where the ordinary is treated as unusual and the macabre as ordinary. From the first episode it’s clear that the central protagonist Cecil is gay, and in love with a newcomer in town, a scientist named Carlos. As times goes on, Night Vale’s popularity has grown and they’ve done several live episodes which include a full cast of actors portraying their characters in the style of a radio play. Night Vale’s popularity has led to the publication of a novel based in the town, and a second novel to be released soon.
The series begins a little slowly, and honestly I’m not quite as interested in the horror aspects of the show, simply because there isn’t one concrete narrative. The story is not really a story so much as a free form exploration of the town, with several recurring characters and running gags. Some episodes are better than others, but the writing has gotten consistently better as time goes on. Every episode also features a “weather” segment, which is a musical break, always featuring music from independent artists. You’re likely to find some cool new artists to follow through the weather segments.
By Spoke Media
Terms is another fictional podcast, very much done in the style of a radio play. Terms is more or less an examination of Donald Trump’s rise to becoming the president of the United States. But in Terms, things play out very differently. The central character is the outgoing president of the United States, Oliver Pierce, a Republican who managed to gain incredible popularity and revitalized his party, popular among both Republicans and Democrats. On election night it becomes clear that Republican candidate Charles Dunwalke, a malicious, maniacal anarchist who wants to provoke war around the world and disrupt the foundation of American principles (and who is, VERY clearly, a fictional representation of Donald Trump), is going to become the next preisdent, and Pierce begins to play a dangerous political game to ensure that Dunwalke doesn’t take office.
The writing of this story is very cliche, and I found myself rolling my times at least once during every episode, because the dialogue is very similar to the corny dialogue of crime procedurals, and the acting varies from pretty good to absolutely bad. Still, the story is interesting and the episodes aren’t incredibly long, so it’s very easy to get sucked in. The music, while a bit cliche, is also pretty good, and a little bit scary. But that might just be because I’ve primarily listened to the show while driving around at night.
Myths and Legends
Hosted by Jason Weiser
I’m really glad that this podcast exists. It’s one of those shows that is both entertaining and educational. Think of any famous legend, from mythology, literature or history, and it’s likely that it’s been touched on in this show, or will be at some point. Jason will choose a topic, and then combine several versions of the mythology surrounding it into one clear narrative, telling it in the form of a story, while adding in his own commentary. There’s some great ambient music underscoring the stories as well. He’s touched on topic from Greek and Arthurian legends to the history of The Little Mermaid, and my personal favorite, a two-part episode surrounding the events of the life of Pocahontas, told from the perspective of the settlers as well as the natives. Jason seems to make it a point to make sure that even during episodes with intense subject matter involving sex and death, he tries to keep the show fairly family friendly, which means that often sexuality is alluded to rather than spoken about explicitly, which admittedly I find a little annoying, because explicit sexuality and gore are an important part of these legends. He doesn’t do the legends any disservice, however, it’s just one element of the show that bothers me a little. Still, all in all this is a great podcast, and like Timesuck with Dan Cummins, it’s not only entertaining but really informative. There’s nothing better than learning while being entertained.