Get smarter with ‘More Perfect,’ ‘The Run-Up,’ more
Here are five highly recommended podcasts for the discerning listener. (A note for those who may listen in the presence of young ears: watch for an “Explicit” warning when downloading individual episodes.)
“More Perfect” is the first spin-off series from the podcast godfathers (podfathers?) over at “Radiolab” – and it’s a must-listen. In broad terms, the series takes the U.S. Supreme Court as its topic. But by profiling carefully selected cases and issues, the limited series provides a way at looking at American history and culture from a fascinating vantage point.
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As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court has shaped American history like few other institutions. This rotating tribunal of nine individuals wields enormous power, and each episode of “More Perfect” digs deep into a specific case or legal concept. One episode explores the incredibly strange history of jury selection laws. Another breaks down the complexities behind that familiar phrase “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The six-episode series is best experienced in order, but each installment stands on its own. I particularly recommend “The Political Thicket,” which details a Supreme Court case so thorny that it drove one judge to a nervous breakdown.
Find it: wnyc.org/shows
Fans of the amorphous genre sometimes termed weird fiction will want to sample “The Drabblecast,” a podcast that essentially functions as an audio magazine for short stories and flash fiction (very short stories). The weird fiction genre can be traced all the way back to the late 19th century, and spans multiple genres like science fiction, fantasy and supernatural horror.
“The Drabblecast” is hosted by writer and musician Norm Sherman, who also does the bulk of the production and narration on stories submitted by both professional and amateur authors. Short fiction podcasts, like short fiction generally, are a necessarily hit-or-miss affair, but I’ve found that Drabblecast rarely disappoints. The subject matter is invariably, well, weird, but the running times are manageable – 20 to 40 minutes. If you’re not feeling it on a particular story, move on to the next one.
The Drabblecast archive feed is spotty, however; not all past episodes remain in the feed. But you can download stories in MP3 chunks of 25 each from the Drabblecast website.
Find it: drabblecast.org
As you might expect, National Public Radio generates mounds of podcasts week in and week out. Click around online – or use the dedicated NPR One app – and you can get back episodes of dozens of public radio shows both familiar (“Fresh Air”) and obscure (“Talking Animals”).
Somewhere in the middle is “Hidden Brain,” which exists in several incarnations online and on the radio. The podcast episodes are often expanded versions of shorter radio stories from NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. As the name suggests, “Hidden Brain” focuses on those unconscious and subliminal aspects of the human mind – the invisible patterns that inform what we do both individually and collectively.
Recent episodes have covered such weirdness as the psychology of forgery and unconscious perils of the family vacation. The episode “What are the Odds?” serves as a nice sampler, as it digs into the actual mathematics behind what we perceive as coincidences.
Find it: npr.org/podcasts
This has been an absolutely brutal election year, and I’ve made the decision to tune out 99 percent of the noise for the sake of my sanity. I’m not kidding. It’s a genuine health issue, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve made an exception for “The Run-Up,” one of a growing list of quality podcasts put out by The New York Times.
Hosted by veteran political reporter Michael Barbaro, “The Run-Up” takes interesting angles into election issues and features a wide range of voices. You’ll hear plenty of wonky pundit analysis, but also some fascinating behind-the-scenes details from the world of journalism. Be sure to check out the Oct. 4 episode on how reporters got hold of Trump’s tax returns.
“The Run-Up” will post twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays, through Election Day.
Find it: nytimes.com/podcasts/run-up
We’ve written about the locally produced podcast “Criminal” a couple of times before. It’s hosted by WUNC’s Phoebe Judge and recently celebrated its 50th episode. Longtime listeners will want to grab up that anniversary episode, which features follow-up reports on several listener favorites, like the crime-fighting Buddha statue of Oakland, Calif.
If you’re not already on board, now’s the time to get hip to “Criminal.” A regular presence at the top of the charts, the podcast has proven so popular that the producers are staging a series of live shows across the country this fall, including one in Durham on Oct. 27. Check the website for details.
Find it: thisiscriminal.com