Free Podcasts Worth Paying For

My daily commute runs about 40-50 minutes, and I’m not always interested in what’s on the radio, so I spend a fair amount of time listening to podcasts.  Here are my favorites; I enjoy them enough that I’ve been moved to donate money to support them.  All are available on iTunes (for free, of course).

Escape Pod: terrific science fiction short stories.  This one really lives up to its name, as it’s a great way to get my mind completely off work and into a totally different place.  The quality of the stories is high (a lot of Hugo and Nebula award winners), and the reading is good, too.  The “Intro” and “Outro” segments aren’t annoying; just a little bit of background on the author and what’s going on with the podcast, just enough to make you feel a little bit a part of the community, without droning on like so many podcasts do.  For much of its life, it was run by Stephen Eley, who also did a pretty big share of the reading; he’s come to feel like an old friend.  His voice isn’t going to put Morgan Freeman out of work anytime, but it works, and I can still get immersed in the story. Wow, it looks like I’ve listened to about 110 of these, and in all of  those recordings, there have only been one or two that I’ve quit on due to lack of interest or poor audio quality. These are far outweighed by the huge number of stories that have been enthralling and memorable. And hey, lucky me – most episodes are just the right length for my commute!  Some that still stick with me even after a couple years: Acephalous Dreams, Bright Red Star, Edward Bear and  the Very Long Walk, The Something-Dreaming Game, and “How I Mounted Goldie, Saved My Partner Lori, and Sniffed Out The People’s Justice”, about a hero cop dog.

Radio Lab: this is actually a radio show, from WNYC, though  the podcast often includes additional shorts and bonus material.  Most episodes consist of a a small number of inner segments exploring somewhat related topics, rather like This American Life (also a fine podcast!) or a raft of other NPR shows.  This show, though, has a few aspects that make it stand out.  First of all,  the subject matter – there’s a strong focus on science, particularly on its really interesting frontiers, with a strong emphasis on the mind and brain.  Second is  the aspect that probably gives the show its name: the show’s auditory inventiveness. These guys love to play around with creative editing, audio processing, and sound effects, to enhance how they tell the story.  It’s not just messing around or showing off – it really does help the story get through, and the tight editing means  there’s no wasted space. And third, the hosts – Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich do a great job, and have an enjoyable banter.

Some favorite episodes that got me hooked: Sleep, Morality , War of  the Worlds.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: a friend turned me on to this one.  There aren’t many episodes, as it takes him a long time to put these together, but these are some fascinating monologues and discussions about history, from ancient to modern.  Dan will tell you clearly he’s “not a historian”, but he selects events or facets of history that interest him, researches the heck out of them, and talks about them in a way that makes his clear enthusiasm infectious.  He’s very engaging to listen to, and he manages to glean the human element out of  these old sources, helping you get to know some of  these historical figures, and giving you a feel for what it must have been like to be present for  these events.  I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be riveted by a three-part podcast about the Punic Wars, to the point where I’d sometimes sit in the parking lot a little while because I didn’t want to stop, but Dan did it for me (I also didn’t expect that it would have powerful lessons that still ring true today, like what can come out of negotiating with someone who’s bent on your total destruction).  My favorite set of episodes might be the four-part series “Ghosts of the Ostfront”, about the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II; this part of the war is little-known to most Westerners (including me), but, as I learned from Dan, was breathtaking in its scope, drama, horror, and savagery.  Some favorite single-episode episodes, if you want a smaller taste, are “Steppe Stories” and “Apache Tears”.  These shows come out about every two months, and run an hour or more in length, so if you try it, you’ll quickly blaze through them and find yourself eagerly waiting around for the next one, along with me.

(Dan has another podcast, “Common Sense with Dan Carlin”, that’s more about current events.  I don’t enjoy it as much, as they’re more free-form than the history podcasts, and Dan’s got a tendency to ramble when he’s further off script; he’ll express an interesting thought in 30 seconds, and somehow reiterate it for another several minutes, without adding much that an intelligent listener wouldn’t simply fill in for themselves.)

Skeptoid: every week, host Brian Dunning turns his skeptical eye toward some pseudoscientific therapy, paranormal claim, or other popular meme, and digs up the real story – or at least enough of it to show that there just isn’t enough there for anyone to draw those fantastic conclusions.   Many are about ghostly sightings and spooky events that are pretty easy to be skeptical about, but he’ll also fearlessly go after what are sure to be a lot of people’s favorite beliefs, such as organic foods, the Virgin of Guadalupe (a very interesting episode), and the “SuperSize Me” critique of fast food.   Skeptoid’s episodes are frequent and pretty short (under 15 minutes), so they’re a nice bite-size chunk if you’ve only got  that much further to drive.  Some leave me wanting a little more depth, but they’re just about always entertaining.

Honorable Mention: The Moth (people telling true stories about  themselves, in front of an audience, without notes), and This American Life (the radio show).  Also, author Scott Sigler has put out some of his books as podcasts – he’s not for everybody (not for the squeamish, that’s for sure), but I got hooked, and plowed through “Earthcore”, “Infected”, “Contagious”, and “Nocturnal”. I’d love to be able to cut the memory of some of those scenes out of my brain, but  that probably won’t stop me from reading more.

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