Why You Should Listen to Podcasts
Scientists have found that the same regions of the brain are used when reading (either on a page or screen) as are used when listening to something like a podcast or audio book. In fact, based on brain scans alone it’s impossible to determine the stimulus modality — reading vs listening (Fatma Deniz, 2019). So while many still love to sit and read articles, newspapers, and books (count me in that group), they’re still getting the same benefit when listening to an audio book or a podcast. Podcasts have made it possible to consume information while otherwise engaged – like doing yard work, working out, or washing dishes.
In 2017 I wrote about my favorite podcasts. We’re getting into the season of lists so I thought I’d revise my list and break it up into a few categories. This list is kind of long and I admit that I don’t have time to listen to every episode of each podcast I’ve included. Some I listen to religiously, others I listen to if I’ve got a long drive or don’t have an audio book I’m listening to. I love music but throughout the day, when driving, walking, working out, or even doing tasks around the house, I’m usually listening to either a podcast or audio book.
I made an attempt to categorize these podcasts. You may disagree with how I did this, but it helps keep them separate, especially considering why I listen to them and why I think you might be interested. The categories are: professional development, general creativity and curiosity, science and the natural world, mindfulness, news and current events, fun and light hearted, and finally honorable mentions.
General Creativity and Curiosity
The podcasts in this category, and those listed under Mindfulness, are probably the ones I find most fulfilling. While they’re often not directly related to professional work I do, they are always thought provoking and spark creativity, not to mention the life-changing nudges now and then.
Overview – I can sum up the reason you should listen to this podcast in two words: Malcom Gladwell. Gladwell has the truly rare ability to look at things facing society in ways that open new opportunities for exploration and explanation.
Sample – McDonald’s Broke My Heart.
Frequency – Once a week, 10-episode seasons. They’re released on Thursday mornings and are the first thing on my playlist.
Overview – Speaking of podcasts that look at everyday issues from a new and insightful perspective, Freakonomics does that as well. The podcast was inspired by the book Freakonomics who’s author, Stephen Dubner, has taken the art of looking at issues outside the typical lens to the next level.
Sample – How to Fail Like a Pro.
Frequency – Once a week on Thursday morning. I listen to every episode (some multiple times).
TED Radio Hour
Overview – next to Serial, this is probably what convinced me podcasts were a great way to learn and keep my mind moving. Guy Raz interviews folks who’ve delivered exceptional TED talks and digs under the surface of what they said. He connects the dots between a number of TED talks each episode, painting a vibrant picture of issues people face each day.
Sample – Rethinking Anger.
Frequency – every Thursday morning.
Overview – Shankar Vedantam mixes interviews with scientists and research with stories, sometimes from his own life, to discuss some of the big issues people face. His insights are refreshing and at the end of every episode he thanks, in a genuine way, someone who helped with the production. Hidden Brain turned me on to one of my favorite jazz pieces, performed by Keith Jarret: https://youtu.be/Pd_Kti6jvy8.
Sample – You 2.0: Why Disorder May be Good for Us.
Frequency – Releases once a week on Monday mornings.
Science and the Natural World
Like most young people, I was excited by the natural world, weather, bugs and animals, and the stars as a child. While school, being what Neil deGrasse Tyson sometimes refers as the “trash heap of a child’s curiosity,” didn’t force me to submit to the tyranny of boredom and common sense, it did convince me that I wouldn’t be able to make a true career in what called to me – the natural sciences (The Darwin of my imagination, a wandering naturalist, was one of my heroes). Nevertheless, I still find that biology, astronomy, history, and sociology ignite that early inquisitiveness that so enriched my adolescent years.
60-second Science, Scientific America
Overview – Because of the short format, the producers of 60-Second Science get right to the point, explaining the why, what, and how in short bursts that gives my mind something to chew on that’s not too deep or rich to grasp.
Sample – Galloping Ant Beats Saharan Heat.
Frequency – I listen to maybe half of the episodes as they’re released, almost every weekday.
Stuff You Should Know
Overview – Josh and Chuck, two guys who seem endlessly curious about everything, do some research on a topic separately, not speaking to each other, and then after a week or so (during which I think they do a lot of other writing, research, and some side projects) they record themselves as they reveal what they learned. They generally do a good job of including just enough of their own thoughts to keep things interesting and personal but rarely let their own biases over-color the discussion. Both have a great sense of humor, love music and movies (which takes them down some hilarious tangents). Among many other things, Chuck loves animals and Josh loves the book 1491.
Sample – How Guide Dogs Work.
Frequency – A little while ago they started releasing four a week: two normal (usually between 45 minutes to an hour long), one “short stuff” (on a topic that only takes 10 or so minutes to discuss), and on Saturdays one “SYSK Selects” which is a previously released podcast either Josh or Chuck really liked.
Overview – Ira Flatow (honestly, until I wrote this, I thought it was Ira Plato), discusses the latest scientific discoveries.
Sample – Oceans and Climate, Quantum Mechanics.
Frequency – Every Friday.
Overview – The host, usually Neil deGrasse Tyson, interviews a scientist, maker, author, and sometimes even actors and discusses the interviews with two or three co-hosts (usually one or two comedians and another scientist with a specialty in the field discussed). The premise is that they’re exploring where science and culture combine.
Sample – Freakonomics, with Stephen J. Dubner.
Frequency – Once a week.
TEDEd, Lessons Worth Sharing
Overview – The target audience for this podcast is much younger than me. Each episode is about five minutes long and includes an animated video, perfect for middle school science and history classes. But it explains complex topics in such a simple and approachable way, I love listening.
Sample – Are the Illuminati Real?
Frequency – four or five times a month.
The world is full of noise, shouting distractions, worries and anxiety. It’s as if people are searching for something that’s just out of their vision and they’re not even sure what it is they’re grasping for. Like an old feeling or presence, something they think they could regain if they could just find it. And so we pour our souls into social media, watching sports, work, and binge-watching Netflix. But I think, while what we’re searching for is perhaps still beyond our grasp, we can settle our minds and find peace through the words and inspiration from ancient philosophies that are either foreign to us, or form the bedrock of our society without us realizing it. These podcasts help me get closer to that which seems to be in the universe but is so hard to find.
The Daily Stoic
Overview – Ryan Holiday takes small lessons taught by ancient stoics (like Cicero and Seneca) and applies them in today’s life. Each episode is less than five minutes long as serves as a great way to center yourself as you get ready for the day.
Sample – There is Only One Place to Look.
Frequency – Every weekday.
Overview – if you enjoyed the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, this podcast is for you. While Buddhism is a religion, it is also a mindful philosophy that doesn’t interfere with most other religious doctrine as well as atheist views and can be used as a way to help develop a more purposeful, calm, and mindful way of living.
Sample – Solitude and Worldly Concerns.
Frequency – I listen to each episode as they’re released, usually weekly.
Professional and Leadership Development
I work in the L&D field and oddly I’ve found it very difficult to find a podcast that feels like it’s worth my time. For a while I listened to Guy Raz’s How I Built This, but I got tired of stories of people “risking it all” while they lived in their parents’ basement to work on their startup in their parents’ garage. (I think Guy Raz is awesome and TED Radio Hour is listed elsewhere in this post.)
1-3-20 with Daniel Pink
Overview – Dan Pink is the king of taking a concept, usually something complex, distilling it to a fine shot, and delivering it in a sweet and potent cocktail of knowledge. In this podcast he interviews authors and asks them the three most important things about their book in 20 minutes.
Sample – Leading and Innovating with Excellence.
Frequency – I’m not sure. Mr. Pink hasn’t actually produced a new podcast in a year or so. Hopefully he didn’t give it up.
Overview – author of Extreme Ownership and former Navy seal, Jocko Willink takes a long-form podcast to talk about serious issues people face today. Jocko, like some of my stoic and Buddhist friends, advocates for living in the moment, taking ownership of everything in your life, creating a powerful ideology of responsibility and discipline.
Frequency – once a week.
News and Current Events
A lot is going on. Besides the local newspaper, it’s tough to find a news source that doesn’t parrot politically motivated talking points. If you’re looking for news that doesn’t just tell you what to think and sticks to actual news, I’ve found a few that are worth listening to.
BBC Global News Podcast
Overview – CNN, Fox News, the NY Times, Washing Post, … and all the rest, tend to be highly partisan. Some admit it (MSN and Fox), others ridiculously claim they’re balanced (I’m looking at you, CNN and NY Times). So getting news from the BBC is refreshing. Plus, there’s a focus on international issues that are devoid of a political slant.
Frequency – Twice a day on weekdays; once a day on weekends.
Overview – Tired of the same old news anchors seeking for 15-second sound bites from partisans hacks? Me too. FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast does a great job cutting through all the mysticism the talking heads jabber on about with clear-headed opinions backed by concrete data. And they critique the “news” and “data” touted by a lot of other sources. And they’re not partisan. What more could you ask for?
Frequency: Usually twice a week but if something big happens they’ll record ad-hoc.
Overview – Ever wondered what the heck block chain is but don’t want to listen to some academic explain it like he’s talking to another economist with a PHD from Oxford? Then this is the podcast for you.
Sample – BOTUS.
Frequency – Twice a week.
Overview – this is the micro-learning version of Planet Money. The hosts take an economic indicator and spend a little over five minutes explaining why it’s important and what it means. It’s a great way to consume what’s usually presented as confusing and boring information in a fun and informative way.
Sample – The Broken Unemployment System.
Frequency – Every weekday afternoon.
Fun and Light Hearted
Life is tough and it’s important to laugh. The podcasts in this category are a great way to take some time and enjoy some of the absurdities of everyday living, recent events, and just silliness.
Overview – Remember when your grandfather and dad would get together and laugh at the most ridiculous stuff? Well, I do. And these two brothers do the same thing as they answer questions from people about their cars. More often than not it turns into relationship advice. They’re not recording new episodes, so the car information tends to be old but that’s not why you listen. You listen to chuckle along with to guys who remind you of the times when you got to hang out with old guys who had a familial bond only old men can have with each other.
Sample – Cream Rinse. Tom and Ray collapse into a laughing fit as a call with a woman asking about how to keep her hair from getting frizzy while driving devolves into them asking about her hair products.
Frequency – weekly on Saturday morning. I listen to it every Saturday.
Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me
Overview – this is a famous news game show that’s been played on NPR each Saturday for years. They just recorded their 1,000th show (near my home in Salt Lake City). The host, Peter Sagal, runs the show with a three-person panel made up of humorist authors and comedians (like Paula Poundstone) and the co-host Bill Kurtis. They play funny games with listeners, all focused on recent news.
Sample – Regina King.
Frequency – Every Saturday.
Broken Record with Malcolm Gladwell
Overview – This is the second podcast I have listed in this post by Malcolm Gladwell. Broken Record is Gladwell thinking about the impact of music while he interviews musicians. It’s refreshing and fun to listen to and has exposed me to some fantastic details otherwise lost to history about composers, music, and their influence.
Sample – Perfection is Second Rate.
Frequency – This is a backup for me – if it’s a Tuesday or Wednesday and I don’t have an audio book, I’ll turn to this podcast.
Ron Burgundy Podcast
Overview – This podcast is unique in that the host, Ron Burgundy, is a fictional character from the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Ron Burgundy is played by Will Ferrell and his co-host, Carolina Barlow is played by herself. It’s hilarious. I didn’t watch the movie but love the podcast.
Sample – Child Care.
Frequency – released each Thursday during seasons that are about 11 episodes long.
The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe
Overview – Mike Rowe, who seems to have done almost everything but might be most famous for his show on the Discovery channel, Dirty Jobs, tells stories similar to how Paul Harvey used to on the radio, but Mike Rowe does it in a podcast. He finds stories of famous people and incidents and unwinds them in a way that sucks you in from the beginning. On Halloween he broke from his traditional format and did a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart.
Sample – All of his podcasts are listed and can be played from here.
Frequency – almost every Tuesday.
How to Do Everything
Overview – Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag, producers for Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, produced their own podcast for a few years that is still the funniest podcast I’ve heard. They stopped producing episodes of How to Do Everything a couple years ago, which is tragic. Their content was smart and funny. It’s worth going back and listening to, like binging on The Office on Netflix.
Sample – The Only Olympics Guide You’ll Ever Need.
Frequency – Not being produced anymore.
The following podcasts are either new to me or not something that I’m going to spend a lot of time listening to, but the folks developing them are brilliant and have a lot of great knowledge to pass along.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts
Overview – Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, changed my life. I’ve recommended it more times than I can count. Her podcast focuses on educators and parents of introverts. I wish this podcast had been around 20 years ago when I was a new father. Now that most of my kids are grown up I don’t listen to it as much as I would have.
Sample – Link to all the podcasts.
Frequency – I’m not sure, since I haven’t been listening.
Learning Design Secrets with Seth Warburton
Overview – I work with Seth and can safely say that he’s a brilliant instructional designer. He’s just begun his podcast experiment and I’m excited to see how it goes. His podcast is going to be on learning and design, focusing on the practical application of all the theory we hear about but rarely see applied.
Sample – When Personalization Goes Wrong.
Frequency – Weekly.
I wish Angela Duckworth would do a podcast on Grit. That book is on my top 25-most influential books that I’ve read in the last 10 years. She’s appeared on other podcasts, but really should be doing her own. There are a lot of pop-science folks out there making a bunch of noise but Mrs. Duckworth brings a truly insightful and scientific approach to personal improvement that truly makes a difference.
Fatma Deniz, A. O.-E. (2019, September 25). The Representation of Semantic Information Across Human Cerebral Cortex During Listening Versus Reading Is Invariant to Stimulus Modality. Retrieved from jneurosci.org: https://www.jneurosci.org/content/39/39/7722