Top 11 podcasts for February 2015

Last year, I had to replace the AM/FM CD player that came with my 2003 model year Toyota. The CD player had stopped working. I went from listening to audio-books for the past six years to being forced to listen to a mix of VPR (NPR), CJAD, CBC Radio One and only occasionally music. Some local radio is good (mostly NPR). But even radio hosts I enjoy listening to, like Andrew Carter, became hard to take because of the often grating ads that run on CJAD.

I got a new CD/radio at Future Shop and made sure it had bluetooth. I had an idea that I would download audio books onto my Android smartphone and then stream them via bluetooth to my car stereo. That idea never took off because I discovered podcasts.

Podcasts are radio shows delivered to users on-demand without needing an actual radio thingy. The best podcasts tend to be produced by organizations like NPR and Slate. While anyone can produce one in their home, the best stuff is being done by professionals. Here is my guide to podcasts.

Hardware

You will need a car stereo (aka car deck) that has Bluetooth, and a smartphone (iPhone, Nexus, etc.) or music player (iPod, Sony) that has Bluetooth. Alternatively, you can connect it through a mini-stereo plug. But that doesn’t sound as cool and who needs all those wires? If you don’t have a deck with Bluetooth, you can buy something like an Aukey Portable Bluetooth 3.0 Audio Receiver (Canadian link) and plug it in to the Aux plug (assuming you have that).

Software

If you have an Apple smartphone or music player, you can download and stream podcasts with the Podcasts app. If you have an Android-OS phone like the Google Nexus, or LG, Samsung, HTC and so on, I recommend Pocket Casts. It is $3.99 and is worth it.

Top 11 podcasts

So what should you listen to? Here are my top 11 podcasts:

The American Life#1 – This American Life: This is one of the most popular podcasts. It’s also on public radio, so you may have heard it. It is a series of stories organized by a theme. These are extremely well-crafted but the conversational tone makes it feel unlike anything you normally hear on the TV news magazine shows or the evening news. But be warned: Ira Glass’ manner of speaking will slowly creep into your own if you are not careful.

 #2 – Serial: This true crime podcast became so popular that even SNL took notice and did a skit. So far there has only been one 12-episode arc. If the next story is as addictive, I’ll go ahead and make it #1 on this list.

#3 – Invisibilia: The title is Latin for “all the invisible things.” The show explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior, like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. This sounds vague. But the show is just like This American Life. As I write this, there have only been a handful of episodes, including one about a sightless man who taught himself to see using echo-location, the way bats do.

#4 – Freakonomics Radio: This is a weekly podcast from the guys who brought you the popular books. It shares a great deal with Planet Money in that they both spend a lot of time explaining things related to economics. It’s well produced and you feel smarter at the end.

#5 – The TED Radio Hour: If you like TED talks, you will like this. It combines clips from the talks with interviews with the speakers. Guy Raz went to the Ira Glass School of Announcing, so you’ll note similarities in his style.

#6 – Planet Money: This was one of the first podcasts I started listening to and it led me to many others, for which I am grateful. It’s also a relatively short podcast that hammers home one or two basic ideas. So you really do understand by the end.

#7 – The Moth PodcastReal stories by regular people (although a lot tend to be writers). Some are funny. Some are sad. Many are amazing. I first heard this show on NPR on the weekends and was so happy to be able to listen to it whenever I wanted.

#8 – Radiolab from WNYC: This is the half-brother of The American Life. If you like one you will like the other. Why is it only number 8? Who knows. This list isn’t very scientific.

Pop culture happy hour#9 – Pop Culture Happy Hour: Another weekly NPR podcast. It’s four people talking about your favourite TV, movies and occasionally music and less occasionally books. It’s like the friends you always wished you had to discuss The Simpsons with.

#10 – The GistI heard about this from Glen Weldon on Pop Culture Happy Hour. It’s a daily podcast–which is rare–from Slate. Mike Pesca interviews people and ends with his commentary/rant, which he calls The Spiel. He is very likeable, funny, and sports fans will enjoy that he is a big sports guy who sounds like he was raised in the NYC area. I actually listen to this podcast more than any other because is produced daily. Maybe because of that, I penalized it by making it only #10. Sorry, Mike.

#11 – Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin: Who knew he could do radio too. Alec Baldwin conducts good interviews with mostly entertainers. His episode with Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman were about as good as podcasts get.

There are, of course, lots of other good podcasts. I still have to get into StartUp. NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is funny. Intelligence Squared is a good debate show. On the Media is a very good press criticism show. Then there are TV shows that you can download as audio like 60 Minutes, NBC Nightly News, and Real Time with Bill Maher. But you’ll soon discover that regular podcasts are not just better suited for your car than, say, 60 Minutes, but are actually every bit as good and maybe even better than the best TV news or talk shows.

Go listen to podcasts. Your daily commute will be much happier.

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