Wednesday, June 24, 2015


I'm listening to a fair number of podcasts and talking about them on Twitter & so I not infrequently get questions about what I like/listen to/etc.  Here's the post as of June 2015 with some thoughts about the format & what I'm listening to.

Disclosure - I host a podcast (Cabbages & Kings) for sci-fi/fantasy readers, which I started recently in order to make the podcast I wanted to listen to.  I'll mention where it fits in at the bottom.  I consider myself more a consumer than a producer, however.  There are plenty of SFF podcasts I'd recommend before my own.

Just Give Me Your Favorite Podcasts -
  • NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour
  • In Our Time
  • For Colored Nerds
  • Fangirl Happy Hour (if you like science fiction/fantasy)

  • General notes about podcasts
  • Highly Produced Narrative Podcasts
  • Semi-Focused Panels
  • Journalism
  • Interviews
  • Science Fiction/Fantasy
  • Tech/Apple Geekery
  • Odds & Ends

General notes about how I think about podcasts:
Podcast is a stupid term, or at least tries to capture far too big a phenomenon.  Highly produced public radio programs built first for radio sit cheek-by-jowl with three guys in a basement babbling on for as long as they want about whatever they want.  Sponsored shows seeking to maximize listeners and market share are listed next to hobbyists.  Listeners may be cleaning, commuting, working, or doing a host of other activities.  In general, I try to think about a few axes:
  • Release Schedule
    • Weekly? Daily? Bi-Weekly?  Mostly this just has to do with how much you want to listen to.
  • Duration
    • Some podcasts are easily over an hour, occasionally 2+, a few come in quick 5 minute bursts.  I tend to group things into: micro-bursts (<10 minutes), the 15-30 minute chunks, "around an hour" and "long".
  • Format - There are plenty of podcasts and formats I've never tried (comedy for one), but what I'm familiar with usually falls into some combination of 4 categories
    • Interview - one or more hosts interviewing guests & trying to put the focus there.  Obviously a strong interviewer helps, as done a show with enough editorial voice to let you know what to expect.
    • Panel- a fairly consistent group of hosts who get together for about the same amount of time and talk.  You're inviting these people into your life for a while.
    • Narrative - Think "This American Life" or "Snap Judgement" (or "Serial").  Storytelling, usually with a host, but with the focus on the narrative, and different voices each time.  The compelling aspect seems to be how the story is told (and to a lesser extent what the story is)
    • Journalism - I separate this from "Narrative" because while there's probably a host bringing you stories, the emphasis is more on the story being told than how the story is told.  
  • Focus
    • How clear is the editorial voice, and what is the podcast about? I tend to listen to American journalism, some tech stuff, and sci-fi/fantasy related podcasts
    • Also, how much does the podcast stay on topic? Panels are often people hanging out with a few talking points, but who wildly digress.
    • Cultural background and voice sometimes fits in here as well.  I listen to BBC Radio programs, Black friends hanging out, NPR programs from deliberately unspecific "America", and with hosts who are predominantly men, women, or a mix.  That always matters, and is sometimes more noticeable (to someone raised on NPR) than others
  • Production Value
    • Is this an amateur with a microphone and some free audio editing software, someone with audio experience and a bit of mixing, or full-on studio-produced with plenty of post-production editing? Narrative and Journalism podcasts tend (in my experience) to have a higher production value.  There are plenty of interviews and people hanging out who run the gamut
So, to mention a few of my favorite podcasts:
  • NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour (hosted by Linda Holmes) is a weekly podcast about 45 minutes long where a fairly consistent panel of three chairs joined by a rotating fourth stay tightly focused  on a pair of pop culture topics (movies, books, music, TV shows, themes in culture) and close with a "what's making us happy" segment.  They've also been experimenting with shorter (~10 minute) "small batch editions" where a pair of people talk about a particular topic.  That's the description.  The pitch is that this is a smart, thoughtful group with a wide array of interests who get along well, are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, and manage to make even the most inane topic relevant and fascinating.  I have learned to trust their judgement about the topics they pick, even though they're usually not my interests, and always find the conversations enlightening.  (I'm bad at pitches.  Go listen to PCHH.  If you don't enjoy it, I begin to wonder whether you have a soul)
  • In Our Time (hosted by Melvyn Bragg) is a weekly podcast about an hour long where host Melvyn Bragg Interviews 3 guests with a tight focus (and stern eye on the clock) about a topic drawn from history, literature, or physical sciences.  The pitch is that (again) this is really smart people talking about a topic they know very well.
Lest you think I only like tightly produced and focused podcasts:
  • For Colored Nerds is a weekly podcast a bit over an hour (and I think getting longer) where a panel of two friends (sometimes joined by a guest) have a somewhat wide-ranging discussion about a couple of topics.  Hosts Eric & Brittany are black and their voices and cultural background come through strongly.  The pitch (and here you will start to see a pattern in my listening) is that these two are very thoughtful and opinionated.  They're also good at listening to each other, happy to explore the nuances of their opinions, and comfortable disagreeing.

Below is a list of podcasts, loosely grouped.  I’m bolding those that I always try to fit into my schedule, a highly subjective metric.  

Highly Produced Narrative Podcasts
  • I don't actually listen to many of these.  I find that my reaction to narrative podcasts is to feel manipulated rather than enjoying the experience.  I try to keep aware of This American Life because they do produce some stunning journalism.  However these are often very popular, and I've got enough of a passing familiarity to recommend a few.  All of these are highly produced weekly podcasts, most come out of public radio (or Gimlet Media, a for-profit company founded by an ex-public radio producer) and tend to have a strong editorial voice more in the way stories are told than in the kinds of stories you'll hear.  (If there's a Snap Judgement story, I'm not sure I could describe it.  But if you heard a Snap story, you could probably tell pretty quickly)
    • This American Life (it's spinoff Serial was the breakout of last year, and is getting a second season) - 3-4 stories focused around a loose theme.  One of the most famous public radio shows and podcasts
    • The Moth Radio Hour - people get up and tell stories.  The few episodes I’ve heard are generally really compelling
    • Snap Judgement - “Storytelling with a Beat” as host Glynn Washington puts it
    • The Mystery Show - Starlee Kine is charming and solves relatively mundane mysteries (the true origins of an ornate belt buckle).  The show seems to be doing really interesting things with the ways that they’re trying to build community and a consistent listening experience
    • Startup - Also from Gimlet Media, Startup follows a startup.  Season 1 was Gimlet media itself.  Season 2 is a dating site (I think)
    • NPR’s Planet Money also probably fits in this category.  Follow a crazy vaguely money related story
    • I’ve only listened to one episode, but I think Anxious Machine fits in here.  As far as I can tell, it’s unique in not being from a major distributor like a public radio institution or Gimlet.

Semi-Focused Panels
  • Where the first set of podcasts is about enjoying whatever story is being told, this set is all about enjoying the voices you’re subscribing to.  There’s probably a loose topic list and potential timeframe, but really these friends are hanging out, having fun, and you’re along for the ride.  All of these reward listening long enough to get comfortable with the hosts.
    • Another Round - a Buzzfeed podcast hosted by Heben and Tracy that’s usually around a half hour (I think).  These two engaging hosts & a guest talk about black life, pop culture, and lot more. (I’m underselling because I haven’t listened to enough to really have a sense of the voice, but this is a great example of the format.  Episode 12 is a good place to start.
    • Accidental Tech Podcast - 3 Apple tech nerds talk about Apple tech stuff.  I listened to previous podcasts from two of the hosts and got used to their styles, so I listen regularly and rely on this to keep me in touch with what’s happening in the technology I use.  Smart & semi-focused, I’m not sure I’d recommend this unless you’re really into Apple products or know of Marco Arment or John Siracusa, in which case you’ve probably decided whether to listen
    • The Incomparable - Jason Snell and a rotating set of panelists talk about geeky stuff.
    • PostBourgie - A “semi-orderly blog about race and gender and class and politics”
    • Fan Bros Show - “The voice of the urban geek”.  Discussion of Comics, Movies, Shows, and plenty of other geeky topics.
    • The Two Brandons is a comics-focused discussion between two black comics geeks.
  • Reporting.  Public Radio programs and others
    • Marketplace - A public media institution focused on the economy.  I clean to this every night.  I also enjoy Marketplace Weekend hosted by Lizzie O’Leary
    • Reveal - Hosted by Al Letson, a series of reports based on in-depth investigations.  
    • Pro Publica - a weekly podcast that expands on reporting done by the folks at Pro Publica.
    • Actuality - a new podcast from Marketplace and Quartz.  This is all I know, but that’s enough for me to try it out.
    • (Of course you can always stream NPR or listen to the NPR One App)
  • A few outliers that may fit in here:
    • Planet Money (discussed above)
    • Slate Money - Panelists led by Felix Salmon of Fusion (and his amazing English accent) discuss 3 financial stories each week
    • Current’s The Pub - Host Adam Ragusea is a public radio enthusiast making a podcast for public radio staff. This is the wonkiest podcast I listen to, even though I am only an enthusiastic listener.

  • Interviews tend to stand and fall on the strength of the host. There are a few I listen to at least occasionally:
  • In Our Time (mentioned above) - Mevyn Bragg gets great guests (with a good gender balance each week) to go deep on a specific topic (utilitarianism, water, Prester John, and others).
  • Fresh Air - Terri Gross is the voice of public radio for many people, including me. I don't listen every week, but whenever I do, I’m reminded how good Terri is at getting interest and engagement out of her guest
  • Minorities in Publishing - Host Jenn Baker talks to minorities in publishing.  As you might imagine, she brings in a wealth of extraordinary guests having fantastic conversations
  • WTF with Marc Maron - I’ve only listened to Marc interviewing Terri Gross and the president, but he seems like a good interviewer comfortable in his craft.  My sense is that Marc interviewers creators about who they are, rather than what they do.
  • MF Galaxy - Host Minister Faust interviews writers on writing, pop culture, progressive politics, and africentric change-makers.  A great interviewer.
  • Reading Lives - from BookRiot, an hour-long interview with guests from around the publishing industry talking about their early history with books.

Science Fiction / Fantasy
  • I’m an enthusiastic reader of science fiction and fantasy, and listen to a number of podcasts.  These include discussions of the craft, interviews with authors, and readers and critics discussing their books.  A few that I’d highlight
  • Fangirl Happy Hour - Every other week, hosts Renay of LadyBusiness and Ana of The Book Smugglers bring a feminist and fannish reading to books, comics, movies and shows.  These two are incredibly enthusiastic about what they love while also bringing a very sophisticated critical lens to their reading.
  • Tea and Jeopardy - Host Emma Newman invites authors to her virtual tea lair where “there’s always time for a cup of tea and a spot of mild peril”.  A charming interview wrapped up in a bit of a story.
  • Writing Excuses - 15 minutes of writing advice from 4 pro authors/webcartoonists.  A long-running podcast with a strong voice that is structuring this year as a “learn to write a novel” year
  • There are two podcasts produced by TorDotCom, one of the larger SFF community sites:
    • Midnight in Karachi - Host Mahvesh Murad interviews authors, generally those going a virtual book tour, though not always.  Mahvesh is a good interviewer, and the podcast is generally only around a half-hour long, usually making it the best of this class of podcasts.
    • Rocket Talk - Host Justin Landon has people involved in the SFF field on to talk about books and the industry.  (Disclosure, I was on recently doing a reader-reaction episode).  Frustratingly, I still don’t feel that there’s a consistent voice to the choice of guests - sometimes Justin’s shooting the breeze with a few friends, other times it’s a more serious discussion of a hot topic.  The standout episode is an interview with authors Kate Elliott and N. K. Jemisin about reader and publisher bias.
  • After this the list that I’ve at least sampled is long
    • Meanwhile in the Future is a new podcast from Gizmodo.  Host Rose Eveleth postulates a possible future (a second moon, the end of the internet), and then has on a few experts to discuss it.  Short and an original combination of speculative fiction and reporting.
    • The Three Hoarsemen are three fans grounded in older SFF who debate and argue over the new, the old, and what’s in between.  They’re a part of SF Signal, a group blog and group podcast that includes lots of others which seem mostly focused on interviewing authors and/or broadcasting panel discussions.
    • The Coode Street Podcast is also a pair of critics with decades of reading experience (and occasionally the associated blinders) who seem to vary between talking amongst themselves and bringing in a guest.  I tend to think that the guestless episodes are stronger.
    • Sword and Laser is an SFF reading/discussion group on Goodreads and podcast (and maybe other forms?)
    • Skiffy and Fanty, a bit of a variety of SF-related discussions and interviews
    • Galactic Suburbia - a panel of three australian authors talk about SFF stuff, usually through a feminist lens.
    • Geeks Guide to the Galaxy from Wired has author interviews and other things I think? I’ve only listened to a couple episodes with authors I’m interested in. When they were also on Midnight in Karachi it was better.
    • The Adventures of the Yellow Peril and Magical Negro is a panel of two readers who love SFF books, comics, and shows, but also talk about the bias and bigotry within the genre (past and present)
    • There are also a number of podcasts that bring short stories to your ears: Podcastle seems to be the big one.  Most of the semi-pro magazines have them (Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Uncanny, I’m sure of).  I’m missing a few, including Glittership.  If you like audio short fiction, you can probably keep yourself busy for as long as you’d like.
    • My own podcast is called Cabbages and Kings.  The plan is to interview readers of science fiction and fantasy, keeping the focus on texts and away from the drama in fandom, always under 30 minutes.  I’m still very much finding my voice, but I’m proud of the two-part discussion of Ancillary Justice (part 1 & 2) as well as my interview with Troy Wiggins.  
    • I mentioned The Incomparable above, but it often fits in here as well.

Tech / Apple Geekery
  • I’ve been listening less because I’m currently “off” in my on-again/off-again plan to teach myself to code, but I still enjoy Developing Perspective, a podcast from an apple developer talking about the app ecosystem and his development process.  Debug and Core Intuition seem oriented at independent developers.  Accidental Tech Podcast (mentioned above) would fit here

Odds & Ends
That’s almost everything I listen to.  I think I missed Intelligence Squared, where panels of 2 vs 2 square off against each other in a debate over some hot topic.  As long as there’s not a clear partisan breakdown or discussion of millennials, it’s usually semi-interesting.

I mostly dodged many of the major genres (sports & comedy are both huge I think, and there’s a genre of 5 minute tips & tricks as well), and networks (Gimlet, Slate’s Panoply and 5by5 are the ones that I know of) in this roundup.  It’s not exhaustive.  I should mention 5by5’s Back to Work with Merlin Mann which I listened to religiously for a long time before it finally became somewhat repetitive.  It’s loosely oriented around productivity and your outlook on life, and quite good.

This is what I’ll point people to from now on.  Good luck.

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