Four Deep Dive Podcasts for News and Culture Junkies

Join the headphones-on-transit revolution with these heavyweight shows.

By Shannon Rupp 31 Jul 2015 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

While shrinking news outlets still offer the who, what, and where of big stories, endless staff cuts mean that they rarely have the resources to tell us about the how or the why.

That's where journalism podcasts come in. They often function like the beat reporters of another era, digging deep into the nooks and crannies of the news. Which makes them indispensible for anyone who is trying to stay well-informed in a world that sucks up your time with brain-numbing things like grocery shopping and laundry.

To save you some time, here are podcasts that answer the crucial question often raised by fast-and-dirty news reports: what's up with that?

'Planet Money'

I read endless coverage of the economic meltdown in Greece trying to find an answer to one simple question: how were ordinary Greeks coping? By which I really meant, how were people just like me coping?

As is often the case with my vague economic questions, Planet Money had the answer. Spoiler alert: it involves an elaborately repurposed fridge safe and visiting bank machines at 2 a.m.

Planet Money is where I learned that solar panels are fast getting cheaper and more common on the roofs of Americans (Episode 616). It also explained how and why economist Maynard Keynes, who got so much right, got it so wrong when he predicted that by the 21st century we'd all be working two-day weeks (Episode 614).

The show began as a series explaining the backstory to the 2008 recession, but soon it was indispensable for anyone trying to figure out the weirdness that characterizes economics. It delivers the answer to many things I had no idea I needed to know. And it does it in just the time it takes to clean the kitchen -- between 13 and 25 minutes an episode.

Like many of the best news podcasts, it's done by professional radio reporters and is part of the NPR network so there's that comforting technical expertise I appreciate.

'Reply All'

Reply All is the show you need if you have no time to explore the dark corners of the Internet, or even the ridiculously popular ones, but you like to know what the heck is going in the digital world.

The hosts for this show -- PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman -- used to be heard on the journalism-junkie's must-listen On The Media. But they were lured into this new gig last fall by former NPR producer Alex Blumberg, who launched his own podcast company Gimlet Media.

He must have seduced them away from public radio's fine health insurance with promises of endless freedom to prank each other and exercise their lovely sense of the absurd. Many interviews are punctuated with PJ's maniacal laugh -- he's the one who sounds like a mischievous 10-year-old -- and much of the show includes banter between PJ and Alex (the long-suffering responsible one).

Advertisers get big bang for their buck as the two try out the products in a multitude of unorthodox ways. While on parental leave Alex built a website on a sponsor's platform to show us just how darn easy it is to use. He loaded PJ's photo along with a running clock to calculate how long it would take the duo's errant half to get around to visiting the newborn. (A shameful 57 days.)

Reply All is the place to hear about Instagram sensation Marnie the Dog, a rescue mutt whose owner makes a living photographing Marnie and her dangling tongue for the amusement of the masses (#19: Underdog). She has 1.6 million followers.

It's also the place to learn about the business behind duping lonely, 60-year-old divorcees into parting with a few thousand bucks to help out their mysterious digital beaus (#13: Love is lies).

But I think the one thing everyone needs to understand about the internet is its single most influential property, Reddit: what the site is, how it works, and the reason it's so often at the centre of internet controversies.

'Pop Culture Happy Hour'

Hell will freeze over before I sit through another superhero flick in a movie theatre, but that doesn't mean I want to be the only person at the party who knows nothing about Ant Man.

Pop Culture Happy Hour gives us a glimpse of pop culture through the eyes of people who spend all their lives thinking about it. And they think some mighty interesting stuff that goes well beyond the banal preview/review format.

What I like best about PCHH is what I like about NPR generally -- they are not afraid to put smart people on the air. The trio of regulars and a rotating panel of their pals are just so sharp: funny; witty; insightful.

Ringleader Linda Holmes, author of the Monkey See blog, is joined by NPR music guy Stephen Thompson and NPR comics guy Glen Weldon. The latter's cynical barbs often match my own outlook on the world, and have me hanging over the cutting board laughing. (Since I'd never cook without podcasts to stave off the boredom, I'm also grateful to PCHH for ensuring I eat a proper meal at least once a week.)

Generally I think 20 to 30 minutes is the ideal length for a podcast. But PCHH's 45-minute long shows whip by far too fast, largely due to the superb editing. No one talks much about this, but the difference between mediocre, rambling, amateur radio and the most addictive listens isn't just the hosts, or the story, it's the editing.

PCHH is broken into three segments. Two focus on a new production, a theme, or an idea. The third is my favourite segment. All the panelists answer the question, “What's making me happy this week?”

They're an eclectic bunch and the offerings are predictably unpredictable. A fabulous band. An article they read. A book they finally got around to or an old TV show that makes them think about how TV has changed. Sometimes they recommend other podcasts.

I've been a culture vulture all my life, and my tastes are eclectic, yet they manage to tip me to things I knew nothing about. And they've made me feel that I've missed something essential by not knowing. They're the best kind of critics: scouts who comb the landscape looking for the good stuff.

'Longform' is as an aggregator site for fiction and non-fiction feature writing and a podcast of lengthy interviews with high-profile writers. (Let's not get into the ongoing argument about whether non-fiction means something is true, or whether it means the author named a few real people along with some real places and imagined the rest.)

Although some episodes of Longform's podcast might talk about exactly that since they often discuss the craft of writing. But Longform is at its best when interviewing real journalists who cover significant stories. The interviews often deliver insights into how newsgathering works. As is often the case with beat reporting, listeners learn that some of the most interesting stories never make it to print.

Their archive is 150 episodes deep, but I think one of the most compelling interviews they've done is a two-part episode last February talking to the reporter who covers ISIS and other terrorists for the New York Times. She has an unconventional way of working, which includes chatting up the social media savvy terrorists in Twitter.

Join the revolution

You can listen to these shows online or find them on iTunes. From there you can download them to a mobile, which is what I do if I want to listen in places where Wi-Fi is spotty.

But it's often more convenient to listen via an app on a mobile. CBC radio has its own app, as do other public broadcasters. It's also worth your while to download a podcatcher app. There are at least a dozen of these on the market, both paid and free, that will let you access any show -- sort of like a Netflix platform for audio. These apps have a variety of features and some help you find content, but which one you choose is purely a matter of taste.

One of the oldest and best developed is Stitcher, which is available free on a variety of platforms and will soon be available on your car's dashboard where that AM radio used to be.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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