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Why it's a great time to start listening to podcasts 8 min read

Why it's a great time to start listening to podcasts

One of the best podcast apps just became free, so here are some recommendations of episodes from this week

By Cary Littlejohn
Why it's a great time to start listening to podcasts Post image

Before I returned to graduate school to study journalism, I was inspired by podcasts. I’d been turned on to podcasts in law school by friends who knew me well saying, “Cary, you would like this.” I look back on those recommendations as some of the nicest things they could have said about me. Because somehow, podcasts represent an idealized version of myself. I like that I would be associated with certain shows, certain modes of storytelling, certain interests, and I loved that my friends recognized that in me.

In rural Mississippi, where I was living after law school, podcasts grew in importance to my life. I lived roughly an hour’s drive from pretty much everything that wasn’t my job, but it rarely registered as a negative. Sure, I would complain about the inconvenience of driving an hour to a movie theater, but deep down, I relished the time in the car because of podcasts. It was captive time, and one of the reasons talk radio flourished in popularity with drive-time audiences. During most of that time, I drove a 2001 GMC Jimmy, hovering somewhere around 200,000 miles, and its aging speakers made it hard for me to hear the spoken tones of most of my favorite podcasts. So important was the ability to listen to podcasts but so averse was I to spending any serious money to upgrade the sound system on a car that’s wheels could fall off any minute that I took to purchasing small Bluetooth speakers and setting them in my cupholder so I could receive my daily fix. I burned through three or four of them before I bought a newer car.

Around town, my time spent walking my dog became a joyous ritual in large part due to podcasts. The benefits to my and my dog’s health should have been enough, but in central Mississippi where the summer heat makes walking feel more akin to swimming — draining in its forward push due to the resistance of heavy water molecules hanging in the air, leaving you soaked through your clothes by its end — walking was a chore. But podcasts provided much-needed company during our outings, and I would string together playlists that would dictate the length of our walks, often reaching four-plus miles so I could get through them all.

When asked about my story —the inevitable “why” behind my decision to leave Mississippi and the practice of law to return to graduate school—podcasts are a central part of that narrative.  On the side of highly produced podcasts, I was in awe of the storytelling that as done by these consummately talented writers, hosts and producers. On the chattier end of the spectrum, the beauty of the product itself receded (though no doubt the production effort is still incredibly high) and the personalities came to forefront. I listened because I wanted to feel a part of a smart conversation. I listened because I wanted to feel a sense of community with like-minded individuals. I listened because episodes made me laugh or think or cry, sometimes in the same episode. And I wanted to be a part of that world, a world I rightly or wrongly attributed to journalism. Though I didn’t come here to master the fine points of audio production, I wanted to be in an environment where the people around me valued the essence of all journalism: storytelling. Compelling characters, vivid scenes, crisp dialogue, beautiful writing — these are the stock and trade of all journalists. The best podcasts are just exceptionally good at it.

There is something beautifully nostalgic about the medium — it’s just radio on demand, and NPR hosts are constantly reminding audiences (which trend younger), “Hey, we do this over the terrestrial airwaves, too, you know.” Despite this reminder, podcasts are iPhone-centric: The stereotypical listener is streaming them through one of Apple’s phones into white headphones. Hell, even the name betrays its Apple-infused roots, a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast. As the Great Podcast Boom of the past few years has shown, there are numerous ways for listeners to engage with the medium.

This week, I was greeted with an email from the creators of my preferred podcast app, Pocket Casts. A big change just took place for the company: It was making its app free, changing over from a one-time purchase of the app to the now-popular “freemium” model, where the basic services are offered for free and a collection of extras existing for those wanting the most out of the service and are willing to subscribe. The company attempted to do right by those of us who’d already bought the one-time purchase by giving us three years of the new subscription perks free for three years. But many users didn’t find that agreeable, and in an even nicer gesture of a company listening to its customers, it upgraded the three years to lifetime subscription for free.

I can’t recommend this app highly enough, and now that it’s free, I thought you, dear reader, might like to know about it. If you’re a podcast pro, there are numerous features that will make the switch worth your while. If you’re a total newbie to podcasts, this is a great time to get started. Not sure where to start? Keep reading below for a list of recommendations from some of the week’s best in my playlist.


The Big Picture

How it describes itself: “The Ringer dives into movies as Sean Fennessey sits down with Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers, breaks down the latest industry trends, handicaps the upcoming Oscars race, and reviews new films with Ringer colleagues like Shea Serrano, Amanda Dobbins, and Bill Simmons.”

This Week: 2019 belongs to Brad Pitt, so Fennessey and Dobbins rank their top 5 Pitt movies. After that, Fennessey interviews director James Gray; his newest, Ad Astra, starring Pitt, released this week.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest

How it describes itself: “New York Times critic Dwight Garner says “The Slate Culture Gabfest is  one of the highlights of my week.” The award-winning Culture Gabfest  features Slate culture critics Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia  Turner debating the week in culture, from highbrow to pop.”

This week: The trio discusses the new film Hustlers, Ken Burns’s newest epic documentary (on country music), and the compulsively readable but ultimately pointless “scandal” of Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway and her ghostwriter.

Still Processing

How it describes itself: “Step inside the confession booth of Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two  culture writers for The New York Times. They devour TV, movies, art,  music and the internet to find the things that move them — to tears, awe  and anger. Still Processing is where they try to understand the  pleasures and pathologies of America in 2019.”

This week (actually last week): After a long break, Morris and Wortham are back. They tackle the still massive list of Democratic primary candidates and give a refreshing take that’s not the usual fare of full-time political reporters.

It’s Been a Minute

How it describes itself: “A talk show with a heart. Each week, Sam interviews people in the  culture who deserve your attention. Plus weekly wraps of the news with  other journalists. Join Sam as he makes sense of the world through  conversation.”

This week: An interview with Malcolm Gladwell upon the release of his latest book, Talking to Strangers.

Just as a shout-out to Sam Sanders for being an awesome soul, he did this:

So, naturally, I saw this and responded with:

Sam '“liked” that. That remains one of the coolest aspects of Twitter: It can help us reach those we admire.


Fresh Air

How it describes itself: “Fresh Air from WHYY, the Peabody Award-winning weekday magazine of  contemporary arts and issues, is one of public radio's most popular  programs. Hosted by Terry Gross, the show features intimate  conversations with today's biggest luminaries.”

This week: Terry Gross talks to New York Times reporters Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin, authors of The Education of Brett Kavanaugh. The interview goes in-depth on the new allegations against Justice Kavanaugh they uncovered during their reporting.


How it describes itself: “Kara Swisher, Silicon Valley’s most revered journalist, hosts candid  interviews with tech execs, politicians, celebrities and more about  their big ideas and how they’re changing our world.”

This week: More in-depth reporting of men and sexual assault. New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey wrote She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, and give an inside look at just how difficult the reporting process was.

The Journal

How it describes itself: “The most important stories, explained through the lens of business. A podcast about money, business and power. Hosted by Kate Linebaugh and  Ryan Knutson.”

This week: California passed a bill that will allow student athletes to profit from endorsement deals, blurring (if not outright obliterating) the line between professionalism and amateurism. But the NCAA still forbids such agreements.

Economist Radio

How it describes itself: “The Economist was founded in 1843 ‘to throw white light on the subjects within its range.’”

This week: We saw a global climate strike on Friday with an estimated four million participants worldwide. This is a short episode that doesn’t pretend to cover all the intricacies of the climate change issue, but focuses on scientific models, misinformation and doubt, adaptation strategies, and artists who focus on climate change.

Planet Money

How it describes itself: “The economy explained. Imagine you could call up a friend and say, "Meet  me at the bar and tell me what's going on with the economy." Now  imagine that's actually a fun evening.”

This week: With the massive UAW strike seeing almost 50,000 auto workers walk out, the episode looks back to a time when strikes were anything but boring.


Slate’s Political Gabfest

How it describes itself: “Voted ‘Favorite Political Podcast’ by iTunes listeners. Stephen Colbert  says ‘Everybody should listen to the Slate Political Gabfest.’ The Gabfest, featuring Slate's Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz, is the kind of informal and irreverent discussion Washington journalists have after hours over drinks.”

This week: Our favorite gabbers are live in St. Paul, MN in this episode, and these live shows are beautiful reminders that justify the part of me that wants to take part in a smart conversation with smart friends. I was lucky enough to see them when they came to St. Louis last year, and their brilliance just happens in real-time, no editing necessary. This week they discuss Democratic candidates and the “middle ground,” the concept of “chaos voters,” and a discussion with novelist Curtis Sittenfield and her brand of political fiction.

NPR Politics Podcast

How it describes itself: “The NPR Politics Podcast is where NPR's political reporters talk to you  like they talk to each other. With weekly roundups and quick takes on  news of the day, you don't have to keep up with politics to know what's  happening. You just have to keep up with us.”

This week: Cokie Roberts, one of NPR’s “founding mothers,” died this week. The episode is a retrospective of her life and career from some who knew her best. It’s short and sweet, and it celebrates this pioneering female journalist for all she did for NPR and those who followed in her footsteps.

Pod Save America

How it describes itself: “Four former aides to President Obama — Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon  Lovett, and Tommy Vietor — are joined by journalists, politicians,  comedians, and activists for a freewheeling conversation about politics,  the press and the challenges posed by the Trump presidency.”

This week: The guys discuss the developing story of a whistleblower in President Trump’s administration relaying concerns about the president’s call with a foreign leader. (The story is filling out thanks to continued dogged reporting, such as the New York Timesupdate on Sunday morning. They go on to talk about Corey Lewandowski’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which led to a barrage of tweets and hot takes after Lewandowski said, “ I have no obligation to be honest to the media,” yet CNN insisted on having him on the air that same night.

But let’s not lose sight of the actual news from the hearing: Lewandowski confirms that President Trump asked him to commit obstruction of justice by instructing then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to drop the Mueller investigation focused on Russian interference in 2016’s election. The episode wraps up with a discussion with David Plouffe, President Obama’s campaign manager, who has his own brand new podcast, Campaign HQ.

These are just a smattering of the myriad podcasts I listen to in a given week, but I found something interesting or valuable in each of them. I hope you will give them a shot if you’re in the market for a new podcast. If you’re still not sure about podcasts in general, I hope to put together a starter kit of suggestions in a future post, so stay tuned.

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