I spent a lot of time over the past year driving from one place to another. Sometimes these excursions were short jaunts, but often they involved hours and hours of monotonous highway driving. Colima Warblers and Whooping Cranes, like many other cool birds, just don’t hang out close to major airports. To fill the mind-numbing void, I loaded up my iPod up with a ton of podcasts. The best of these episodes could help to turn a six hour trek across three states into a moderately enjoyable afternoon. After well over 200 hours of listening, here are my favorite podcasts for making the time fly, and also a few honorable mentions.
The Absolute Best Podcasts for Long Drives
Overview: The granddaddy of narrative-based radio shows, it still delivers entertaining, thought-provoking, and high quality episodes every week – even after more than 500 episodes. The best stories are truly riveting and unforgettable: What happens when a sane person pretends to be crazy and gets committed to a mental institution? Are sliced hog rectums being sold as calamari? Does a found scrap of paper really contain the secret formula to Coca Cola? What happens when inmates at a high security prison stage Hamlet? Ira Glass and his team of reporters and producers find out.
Suggested Episodes: Pro Se (#385), Doppelgangers (#484), The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar (#352), Switched at Birth (#360), When Patents Attack (#441), Act V (#218), Very Tough Love (#430), Original Recipe (#427), Million Dollar Idea (#412), The House on Loon Lake (#199)
Overview: Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich weave science and technology stories together with philosophy and observations about the human experience to make a fascinating hour-long podcast. This duo explores everything from randomness and coincidence to space and time to morality and mortality. Amazing soundscapes add to the listening experience.
Suggested Episodes: Stochasticity, Parasites, Race, Cities, Unraveling Bolero, Argentine Invasion, Speedy Beet
Overview: Dumb name, incredible podcast. You might think that a podcast about economics would be boring, but this one is anything but. Recent episodes explore issues such as: Is it illegal to sell your old MP3s? Why is LeBron James underpaid, and why doesn’t he mind? What is a firefighter worth? Why didn’t the price of Coke change for 70 years? Most episodes are a bite-sized 20 minutes of so, and totally worth your time.
Suggested Episodes: Rocky Pipkin, Private Eye Vs. The Raisin Outlaw (#478), The Eddie Murphy Rule (#471), The Surprisingly Entertaining History Of The Income Tax (#356), The Hidden Digital Wealth In Your Pocket (#449), It’s Hard To Do Good (#460)
Overview: Storytelling – with a beat. Glynn Washington hosts this hour-long podcast featuring amazing stories – sometimes humorous, sometimes heart wrenching. Music and sound effects augment the experience. Dig it.
Suggested Episodes: Choosing Sides (#408), Rage Against the Machine (#410), Absolution (#310), Crossing Borders (#214), Fighting Back (#212)
Overview: Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt collaborate on this informative and entertaining short-format podcast. Episodes vary in length, but most are in the 6 to 25 minute range, with some longer specials. A little zanier than Planet Money, but a nice complement to it. Recent episodes have explored topics such as: Who owns the words that come out of your mouth? Was Jane Austen a game theorist? Do baby girls cause divorce?
Suggested Episodes: The Upside of Quitting, Government Employees Gone Wild, How Much Does Your Name Matter, The Cobra Effect, The Days of Wine and Mouses
Overview: Roman Mars explores the hidden world of architecture and design in these short but polished podcasts. Why did early slot machines pretend to be vending machines? Were car makers the driving force behind criminalizing jaywalking? How did a simple circle and horizontal line painted on the hulls of ships save the lives of thousands of sailors? What special considerations must architects keep in mind when designing spaces for deaf people? Roman is your expert guide for these topics and more.
Suggested Episodes: Game Changer (#77), The Modern Moloch (#76), The Great Red Car Conspiracy (#70), Broken Window (#67), Razzle Dazzle (#65), The Best Beer in the World (#55), A Cheer for Samuel Plimsoll (#33), Check Cashing Stores (#18)
Overview: Entertaining and moving true stories, told live by the people who experienced them. Some make you laugh, some make you cry, some make you think.
Suggested Episodes: Elna Baker: To Russia With Love, George Lombardi: Mission to India, Lisa Lampanelli: Fat Girl, Interrupted, Tristan Jimerson: A Dish Best Served Cold, Elna Baker: A Mexican Mormon Christmas, Ernesto Quinonez: Dog Days of Spanish Harlem, Janna Levin: Life on a Mobius Strip
Andrea Seabrook cuts through the spin and theatrics in our nation’s capital to take a clear-eyed view of our federal government and its politics. If you’re tired of political coverage which seems to have an agenda, try this one out for a change.
Want to know how to win a hockey face-off? Cook cicadas? Recruit a Russian double agent? Rescue a deer stuck on the ice? Take a portrait of the president? These guys can tell you. Light-hearted and fun without being dumb or silly.
A look at how the law and our legal system intersect our lives in mundane and extraordinary ways. My favorite episode so far is about jury nullification – when a jury acquits a defendant they believe to be guilty – and how and why this outcome is tolerated in our country.
Stories and interviews about everyday people doing interesting things. The quality is a bit uneven, with some terrific podcasts and some that are only so-so. Some episodes are not appropriate for children.
“How to win your dinner party” – a mix of food, culture, conversations, and advice. This is a recent addition to my podcast diet, but I have enjoyed the episodes I’ve heard so far.
So what makes a good podcast? I think there’s a strong element of storytelling in most of my favorites. They offer up some sort of intriguing premise: a mystery, a conflict, a counter-intuitive assertion, a question, a surprise. And then explore that premise providing details, spinning out a narrative, talking to experts, and/or discussing the outcomes. Snap Judgment provides this awesome flowchart for determining whether a submission is right for their show. It includes questions like:
Will your story make me laugh or cry?
Is there anything at stake?
Is there a conflict?
Are there compelling characters?
In addition to gathering good material, the best podcasts are tightly edited. They have a sense of tension, coherence, or densely packed content. There is no unnecessary talk, no lame airtime. Reflective pauses or breaks between stories are relatively short and covered by interesting music or sounds. Here’s a hint, podcasters – sitting around shooting the breeze with your buddies does not make for entertaining listening, no matter how clever you are or how famous your guests are. The care that goes into structuring and editing a well-produced podcast is obvious, and very much appreciated! If you want to learn about making a high quality, finely polished product check out anything by Roman Mars, Jad Abumrod, Ira Glass, Glynn Washington, Andrea Seabrook, or the Planet Money Team.
As a teacher, it also strikes me that most of these podcasts share many of the features of a good lesson: the topic is interesting or relevant, the audience is highly engaged, the content is memorable, examples/analogies/stories are used to elucidate the topic, important details are included, and humor is used appropriately and effectively.
So the next time you’re driving through the night to see catch that rare Yellow-green Vireo or vagrant Flame-colored Tanager, load up on some good podcasts first and let these fine story tellers keep you company on that long, lonely road.