Podcast Overload: Soundtrack to Your New Year's Resolutions

May we suggest taking Sarah Koenig to the gym? Or, declutter with BBC blockbusters.

By Shannon Rupp 13 Jan 2016 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor at The Tyee and our podcast reviewer. Know of a show you think she should hear? Mention it in the comments section or tweet her @shannonrupp.

I always think of January as the month where fun goes to die.

Holidays are over, everyone is skint and entertainment of all sorts is on hiatus. As you read this, you are probably contemplating getting fit, clearing clutter or overhauling your finances. Quite possibly all three. Again.

Look on the bright side: with the help of podcasts to amuse you for free, this might just be the January in which you get a grip.

So here's the catch-up list of podcasts you've heard people talking about. It will make that closet clear-out almost fun.

The usual suspects (are American)

The Americans probably took the lead in podcasting because of the way their nation funds public broadcasting -- which is to say, barely at all. Americans opted for a sort of charity model: tax-deductible donations from listeners. So when podcasting debuted a decade ago, their networks of public radio stations were open to the idea of online radio, which could sell ads.

Many of the big stations and networks like NPR invested a lot of resources in podcasting long before they were even breaking even, and in the process, they got really good at it.

The aptly named Death, Sex & Money is about the things polite people are taught not to mention in public. Host Anna Sale is a superb interviewer, which means she soon has people confessing to being criminals or failures at their careers, or their marriages, or their lives.

It's mesmerizing. There isn't a bad episode in more than a year's worth of podcasts. But since you need something to brighten the dark cold of January, why not start with sex? The Feb. 25, 2015 episode, "Cheating Happens," is about something roughly a quarter of married people do.

Happy fantasizing.

This American Life celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015, and it's one of a handful of American public radio shows that have set the tone for podcasting. Many of the leading podcasters passed through their tiny offices, where they learned rigorous standards for scriptwriting, recording and editing. So if you've never listened, the time is now. Start with whatever is current and work your way back through the archives. Most of the stories are timeless.

Serial is back, along with the controversies. Does Sarah Koenig stack the story to force us to think her way? Certainly I know a few news reporters who think so (although I don't).

There's still time to be part of the Season 2 debate, since the show is only four episodes into the saga of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who went AWOL in Afghanistan and spent five years as a guest of the Taliban. If Serial Season 1 was the non-fiction answer to The Wire, then Season 2 is the answer to Homeland.

Was Bergdahl turned? Who knows. But the podcast is fascinating and it may already be having an impact. After the December premiere, the U.S. military announced it will court martial Bergdahl. Is that Serial's doing? Let the arguments begin.

Radiolab is a sound-rich show that offers provocative true stories across a range of topics too wide to sum up in a line or two. I recommend skimming the archive for a subject that catches your attention. But if you want to be disturbed by history, listen to the July 3, 2015 episode about some new facts uncovered in British government archives about the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya.


Around this time of year you'll see plenty of lists with headlines like, "The 20 podcasts you must hear," which turn out to be next to useless as guides. We can all see what tops the iTunes charts, the question is: who is it appealing to? And why?

A far better way to find shows to suit your tastes is by reviewing the better podcast networks, which tend to offer similar levels of quality regardless of the subject.

Radiotopia is home to four of my personal favourites and everything on their roster of 13 podcasts is well-produced and worth a listen.

For example, if you're interested in the medieval serf-like politics of the so-called sharing economy, give the Instaserfs series a listen, at Benjamin Walker's Theory of Everything podcast.

And don't miss Panoply, which is Slate magazine's network of podcasts. It includes more than 70 offerings from print publishers like the Wall Street Journal and Popular Science, as well as the magazine's own shows.

Unlike most print outlets, which seem to think radio is as easy at it sounds, Slate hired radio producers to wrangle their print contributors into decent quality audio, and you can hear the difference.

Podcasts about podcasts

Naturally there are podcasts about podcasts, although not as many as you might expect.

BBC's In Pod We Trust interviews significant podcasters about the suddenly hot medium.

CBC's Podcast Playlist, is now a podcast too. The broadcast show is a sampler of clips from some of the most popular shows, so it's a good place to begin the search for your own personal programming.

Go public

Outside of NPR, public broadcasters have been late to the straight-to-podcast world, but their high quality specialty programs deliver shows that many podcasts aspire to.

CBC's Under the Influence kicks off its 2016 season this month. The long-running hit about advertising and marketing is one of the most entertaining radio shows in the world, and it has the awards to prove it. It's also essential listening for anyone who hopes to be media literate in an era where journalism and the propaganda trades are merging.

To find the hundreds of offerings from public broadcasters, go into iTunes and search the network name. BBC is the juggernaut, with NPR running a close second. Type "public radio" into search to turn up all the other American public radio offerings.

Australian public broadcasting goes under both ABC and RN (for Radio National) And don't forget RTE, Ireland's public broadcaster. The accents can take some getting used to, but on the plus side, it will expand your vocabulary.

Science and technology

Trying to keep up with the high tech world? You won't do better than by tuning into CBC's Spark every week.

Interested in science? CBC's Quirks & Quarks is outstanding when it comes to reporting new research in an interesting, accessible way. And I'd suggest science lovers add Australian Broadcasting's All in The Mind, about brain behaviour and their podcast, Science Vs.

The latter takes on the glut of pseudoscience infecting discussions of medicine, nutrition and psychology. I particularly liked last summer's episode "Science Vs. the Paleo Diet." It's the ultimate answer to the low-carbing foodie-zealot at your dinner table.

TV for your ears

I'm a big fan of radio drama when it's done well, which is to say, my enthusiasm runs hot and cold.

While the Brits still do superb theatre of the mind, North Americans abandoned the format decades ago and the skills for writing serial audio drama have been lost here. But recently there have been attempts to resurrect the art form, courtesy (ironically) of Serial.

The Serial podcast leans heavily on what is often called "creative non-fiction" writing techniques -- borrowing the tools of fiction writers and applying them to the way you cover the facts. Or possibly, playing fast-and-loose with the facts to come up with a fascinating piece of fiction masquerading as reality. It's not always clear, and the technique is controversial in journalism circles.

But there's no denying it's much loved by audiences who like to see confusing reality packaged into neat, meaningful fiction-like packages.

So why wouldn't we love it vice-versa? That seems to be the thinking behind a trio of North American* drama podcasts. In Limetown, The Message and The Black Tapes there's a female public radio reporter character who is investigating a mystery.

All three are getting a lot of buzz, and plenty of downloads. But to my ear, the writing and the acting sound clumsy and amateur. In their imitations, they seem to have missed just how well Koenig writes, with lean, neutral prose that makes the clips she includes all the more riveting.

Or maybe it's just that my tastes are attuned to BBC radio blockbusters written by the likes of Neil Gaiman and featuring marquee actors of the calibre of Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer and Bill Nighy?

So don't take my word for it -- listen for yourself.

But for predictably well-produced radio theatre, the BBC's Drama of the Week podcast offers a stand-alone play. And the BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra websites offer time-limited radio series.

This month I'm catching up on Tumanbay, a 10-part drama series about an imaginary world inspired by Egypt's Mamluk dynasty, which ruled from the 13th century until the early 1500s.

The Brit press compared it to Game of Thrones when it premiered last fall.

So I'm sure that by the time I'm ready to learn the fate of Jon Snow on April 24, I will have Instagram-worthy closets.  [Tyee]

*Story has been updated to reflect 'The Black Tapes' is a Canadian podcast based in Vancouver.

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