Here are five highly recommended podcasts for the discerning listener. Note: For those who may listen in the presence of young ears, always watch for an “Explicit” warning when downloading individual episodes.
Generally considered the best science fiction podcast currently in production – on this planet anyway – “Escape Pod” essentially functions as a audio literary magazine. Each week, the editors post a new sci-fi story from their vast pool of contributing authors worldwide.
Writers are paid according to market guidelines established by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, same as they would be if publishing in print. That keeps the quality up, and “Escape Pod” relies on theater and voice-over professionals to do the actual reading of the stories.
It’s a great way to keep up on new speculative fiction while you’re walking the dog or mowing the lawn. The umbrella organization Escape Artists also puts out two sister podcasts, “Pseudopod” and “PodCastle,” covering the horror and fantasy genres, respectively.
The improv comedy podcast “Superego” is built around a very loose framing premise, in which each sketch is presented as a psychological case study examining a particular sort of personality disorder – megalomania, narcissism, what have you.
But the premise can go any direction at all, and often takes off in several directions at once. L.A. comedians Matt Gourley, Jeremy Carter, Mark McConville and Paul F. Tompkins are impossibly fast and funny, steering away from the usual dirty joke terrain and into brainy, literate absurdism.
Recent sketches include a town hall meeting of dysfunctional super-villains, and a funny chronicle of surrealist artist H.R. Giger at a fast-food drive-through.
Regular listeners to NPR will already be familiar with “Fresh Air,” the award-winning syndicated radio show out of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. Host Terry Gross is considered one of the best journalists and interviewers in the game, and her wide-ranging tastes generate episodes that bounce all around: politics, film, music, food and a possibly disproportionate amount of musical theater coverage.
All “Fresh Air” episodes are posted to the podcast feed, usually the morning after initial broadcast, and condensed to around 45 minutes with the station breaks excised. Recently, the producers have started adding bonus content to the podcast version, usually in the form of extended interview segments cut from the broadcast edition.
Sometimes, the “Fresh Air” podcast digs into the vaults, as well: One recent episode on the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” added archival interview material with the former Beach Boy going back to the 1980s. Terry Gross has been around a long time, and she’s talked to everybody. Twice. At least.
Created by host Roman Mars, “99% Invisible” is a great example of how a small independent production can gain traction in the podcast world simply on merit. The project began in 2010 as a narrowly focused podcast on design and architecture, but Mars’ storytelling style was so intriguing that his segments were picked up by public radio heavyweights like “This American Life” and “Radiolab.”
Now at 150 episodes and counting, “99% Invisible” continues to find new ways to explore those hidden elements of design that inform everyday life. Mars and his team also branch out into obscure areas of history and science, chasing down whatever interesting notions come their way. New episodes are now released weekly, under Mars’ podcast collective Radiotopia, which also includes the excellent Durham-based true crime podcast, “Criminal.”
‘Judge John Hodgman’
Former literary agent and “accidental celebrity” John Hodgman became famous as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (and as “The PC Guy” in those Apple commercials). But he’s also a ridiculously prolific humor writer, with countless magazine pieces and three very funny fake almanac books to his name.
His podcast on the Maximum Fun network, “Judge John Hodgman,” is structured as a courtroom show in which Hodgman rules on disputes submitted by call-in guests. The fun comes from the ridiculously bizarre or trivial cases that must be adjudicated, but also from Hodgman’s oddly formal, fake-imperious style of improvisation.
Public radio host Jesse Thorn serves as Hodgman’s bailiff, and special guests are often invited in as “guest experts.” Hodgman’s show is a great example of how the podcast format can be successfully stretched into new shapes.