Five Podcasts For Your Friday

Randy Sklar, Daniel Van Newkirk, and Jason Sklar, hosts of the podcast Dumb People Town

I was an early adopter of podcasts. This is largely because I worked in educational technology at Penn State, and my coworkers were the cool gadget kids who knew about all the new things. This particular unit focuses on seeking out new technology and researching it to see if there is any use for it in teaching. Back around 2007, I began to listen to podcasts via an occasional RSS feed, because I wanted to familiarize myself with the format in case I started to write about it.

The first one I subscribed to was Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF. It launched in 2009, and I was an early adopter because I was a big fan of Maron’s particularly prickly form of standup comedy. I quickly discovered that Maron was actually a very good interviewer. As odd as this will sound, this is what I listen to while working out.

I soon found other podcasts in genres that ranged from political, storytelling, comedy, and true crime. Podcasts have made me laugh out loud, which is kind of embarrassing if you do this in public, such as in a gym or out on the street. Randomly bursting into laughter gets you some funny looks. Podcasts have greatly informed me, as they offer free access to just about any kind of expert imaginable. And I have been moved by podcasts, especially ones that invest a lot of effort into telling good stories.

One of the reasons that podcasts are as popular as they are, in my opinion, is people like to hear good stories. They are also, in most cases, free entertainment. As of 2021, 41% of Americans had listened to a podcast in the previous month, according to Pew Research Center. Whether you are part of that 41% and are looking for another podcast to listen to, or are new to podcasts and want to try one out, finding a new podcast can be a little overwhelming. There are so many of them! And like anything else, some are good, and, well, some suck. To help you find your next listen, here are five I recommend:

Why Is This Happening?: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes hosts this political podcast that features an interview with an expert on subjects that have relevance to the current news. Basically, the overall theme is in the title: What the hell is going on with all this crazy shit in politics, and why is it happening? The extended format of a podcast (each episode is roughly an hour long) gives Hayes room to explore each subject and you come away from each listen with a lot to chew on. There are episodes that tackle the obvious, like the GOP’s attempt to march America towards fascism, and the not-so-obvious, such as a fascinating episode about lotteries, including their remarkable history and how lotteries don’t really help states as much as they claim. Hayes’ interviewing chops and empathy make this a great listen.

Into America: Another MSNBC podcast, Into America documents Black life in our nation. Hosted by Trymaine Lee, the podcast sometimes handles heavy subjects such as the darker aspects of America’s racial history and how Buffalo’s Black community after an act of domestic terrorism unleashed on their community, last year’s mass shooting by a white racist. Other times, the show can look at impactful Black culture, such as their multi-episode look at the history of hip-hop. These are stories that often, other parts of the media ignore. Lee’s smooth voice and deft storytelling skills are key reasons to add this podcast to your subscription list.

This Is Love: This podcast is hosted by one of podcasting’s stars, Phoebe Judge, the former local NPR reporter who earned her fame hosting a true-crime podcast called Criminal. While that podcast is about humanity at its worse, This Is Love is about humanity at its best. Judge broadens the definition of love to include love of things like a particular line of work, cities, hobbies, and more. For example, a recent episode is about a couple who own a theater in Kyiv that has become a bomb shelter during Ukraine’s war with Russia, telling a story of love for their community at an extremely trying time. Judge’s incredible speaking voice (it’s hard to explain how remarkable it is), fantastic production, and remarkable storytelling make this a gorgeous listen.

Dumb People Town: Standup comic Daniel Van Kirk and twin standup comics Randy Sklar and Jason Sklar host this often hilarious look at people doing things so dumb they make the news. The theme song explains it all:

Dan and Rand and Jay will share/tales of folks so unaware/they lack in grace and sometimes shoes/the life they live will make the news/breaking down each epic fail/in Florida there’s half-price bail

Yes, often the stories take place in Florida, because of course they do. The show’s philosophy is the world is getting dumber and one way to deal with this is to laugh at it, and they do a great job doing that. Joined by a guest from the comedy world, the three hosts break down three stories an episode and ponder how the person in these tales of stupid ended up in these profoundly idiotic situations. Examples include a guy who went to a fast food drive-thru at 1 am naked and drunk (and his defense was “show me in the Constitution where that is illegal”) and a story with the headline “Florida man wields machete, bat in fight with son over hedgehog.” An oddly fascinating part of the show is a contest where each host and the guest has to guess the age of the story’s main dumb protagonist. Sometimes you discover that people are not ever going to be old enough to know better.

Unexplainable: This Vox Media podcast focuses on the great mysteries of science. Noam HassenfeldByrd Pinkerton, Meradith Hoddinott, Mandy NguyenCristian Ayala, and Brian Resnick explore subjects such as the sense of smell and how we have little idea how it works, the diverse sets of habitats teeming with life that is the home you live in, the big problem with space exploration (space is constantly trying to kill astronauts in multiple ways), and how there is actually no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes life. A podcast like this could be as dry as the Mojave Desert at noon, but hosts and production make for a lively and fun educational experience. You will learn all kinds of wild stuff, like how slime molds can solve mazes and make complex decisions and what that means for the definition of intelligence. Sounds smarter than the current GOP front-runner for 2024!

One thought on “Five Podcasts For Your Friday

  1. In a bit of a different take on podcasts, one that I rarely miss is the podcast version of the daily news program Democracy Now hosted by Amy Goodman. I get mocked for it by my family – they call it “all Darfur, all the time”. But I find it a useful corrective to the general run of what passes for news.

    I also enjoy the weekly husband/wife podcast The Professional Left hosted by bloggers Driftglass and Blue Gal. Based in Springfield, IL, they roundup the week’s news in an entertaining way. Plus, like Caturday, they have an internet Kitty of the Week.

    Stepping away from the news, I enjoy Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet, a sister/brother podcast. I won’t try and explain it. It just tickles me.

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