Podcast Prescriptions

I’d be in radio if I wasn’t an academic. Not the WKRP disc-jockey kind of radio, but the tweedy public-radio kind. The kind that produces a 5-hour intellectual biography of Northrop Frye, or Eleanor Wachtel’s long, thoughtful interviews with writers like A.S. Byatt or Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean radio that exposes you to ideas and people and books you haven’t read yet, but should. (Or better yet, the kind that gives you just enough knowledge to get away without reading them.)

Back in the 1990s, these were the kinds of programs I’d record off CBC Radio and play and replay until my cassettes’ magnetic tapes wore out. I loved their earnest confidence that they were broadcasting something substantial, something that deserved an audience. It had one in me, for what it’s worth. Listening to the Massey Lectures and Writers and Company interviews expanded my media diet – as Sue Gardner describes in her 2009 Dalton Camp Lecture [starting at ~ 6:00]. Thinking of those formative programs now makes me grateful for the people who broadcast them, and the governments who funded them.

My nostalgia for antique networks (well-funded public radio) and media (cassette tapes) would be depressing if we weren’t living in a what one magazine called the “podcast renaissance”. I measure this new golden age of intelligent audio in terms of access, not national funding. As Gardner says, back in 1990 if you were a Canadian living overseas or you had a niche interest in (say) Machine Learning, there was literally nothing for you. The means of production and mass distribution were prohibitively expensive and carefully regulated.

Today, there are 250,000 podcasts listed on iTunes alone (source), and 17% of adult Americans listened to a podcast in the last month (source). That’s a lot of niches, streaming to a lot of earbuds. There are podcasts about pervasive stuff like grammar or behavioral economics. And there are topical podcasts with high production values, like Radiolab or the TED Radio Hour. I listen to them, because they deserve their popularity.

But there are others that deserve a bigger audience, and I want to recommend them here. With a quarter-million to choose from, we all need a few recommendations. Try a recent episode or two, and download older ones if you like them. (This is a companion piece to my previous post on audiobooks.)

Here are the podcasts that I’ve listened to for a year or more, grouped by the categories that I use on my app of choice, Overcast. (Two reasons: it syncs across devices, so I can pause a podcast on the iPhone and resume it on the iPad; and I can set it to play at slightly increased speeds like 1.3x or 1.4x, each preset for a different show).

If I’ve missed some essential titles, add them in the comments at the bottom of this post. Most are about antique culture and current affairs or technology, on public radio in the anglosphere (US and Commonwealth) – so some global and topical diversification would improve my media diet.

Arts + Culture

  • To call In Our Time a panel discusion of topics in the history of ideas doesn’t do it justice. It features British academics on topics from science (plate tectonics, quantum theory) to literature (Alexander Pope, Beowulf) to philosophy (epistemology, pragmatism). The host, Melvyn Bragg, gingerly prods the speakers with pointed questions to move things along. Like many of my favourites, this is the podcast version of a radio program – one that’s broadcast nearly 700 episodes on BBC Radio 4 since 1998. Lose yourself in their topical archives. I’ve used more than a few to help me prepare lectures, and even based a writing assignment for first-year students on them.
  • Arts & Ideas is another BBC program, this one on Radio 3, featuring discussions and interviews – focused more on cultural topics, as its name suggests. Some are recordings of live events with rotating hosts, while others feature a clutch of topics: one recent episode covered mathematics, Napolean, and a new Palestinian novel. Philip Dodd is my favourite host, because he’s never satisfied with a glib answer.
  • 99% Invisible makes you see our world as the outcome of a series of human decisions. Roman Mars and his cohosts present on topic in design and architecture, way outside your expectations – topics that make you recognize the invisible designs all around us. Like how all former Pizza Hut restaurants have the same roof shape, even the one that got turned into a funeral home. Or the names for those weird no-man’s-land spaces between on-ramps and freeways. Even the shows about obscure landmarks, like Busta Rhymes Island (you read that right), are strangely compelling. This is another podcast on the most-popular charts that deserves every listener.


  • Spark is the first Canadian program on this list. I’ve liked the host (Nora Young)’s work since (again) the 1990s, when she hosted the irreverent pop-culture magazine-style Definitely Not the Opera. Each show has a theme (‘hacking food’ was a recent one) and series of smart interviews with technologists in acadmia and industry about digital culture and tools. I need to stay on top of these things, as a digital humanist and educational technologist; and I can even say that Spark led me to build a citizen-scholar feature into my last successful grant application.
  • Click is a BBC radio show on the World Service, covering tech news from a global perspective. It ranges well beyond the Silicon Valley wizardry to drones in Papua New Guinea, hackathons in east London, or mobile phones in Malawi. Like CBC’s Spark, it solicits material from an active listener community. The podcast features ‘intro’ and ‘outro’ banter between the host, Gareth Mitchell, and his skeptical resident expert, Bill Thompson; their chemistry is one of the show’s best features.
  • Digital Campus is “a biweekly discussion of how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums.” That’s been their tagline since this virtual roundtable first convened in 2007. The five rotating hosts are academics centered around the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and they often bring in outside guests. Over the years they’ve taught me everything I know about new projects and tools in digital humanities and history, about scholarly collaborations with librarians and archivists, and about emerging trends in areas like copyright law.
  • Future Tense is the first podcast here from the southern hemisphere, namely Australian public broadcasting (ABC Radio National). Hosted by the amiable, inquisitive Antony Funnell, it examines “the social, cultural and economic fault lines arising from rapid transformation” with interviews and short documentaries on a given topic. Recent topics included emojis, mercenary soldiers, and evergy from human waste – a range that helps it to counterbalance more narrowly techno-centric programs.

Politics + Media

  • The Political Scene is a topical discussion from The New Yorker editors and contributors. If you read the magazine, like I do, you’re their target audience: interested in Washington corridors of power and the interpersonal dynamics of Supreme Court justices, and inclined to believe that Hillary Clinton will win a moral victory even if she loses the electoral college.
  • On the Media does for media what 99% Invisible does for the built environment. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield offer arch-skeptical analyses of media tendencies you didn’t see at first glance. From the same New York station (WNYC) that brings you Radiolab.
  • ELECTION: The Cambridge Politics Podcast is hosted by David Runciman from the Politics department at the University of Cambridge. It’s the best podcast I’ve found on U.K. and global politics, and began (as the name suggests) as a weekly discussion of the 2015 Parliamentary election. It helps if you can distinguish the domestic parties and major players: like who the Home Sectretary is, and how Ed Milliband differs from David Milliband. But you pick it up quickly enough, and rotating guest discussions on topics like mental health or electoral reform are worth the download alone.
  • The House covers Canadian politics from the CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau. With a new host (the last fired this week for financial chicanery), it continues to make probing inquiries into political developments in Ottawa. I re-subscribed after feeling I was paying too much attention to American congressional psychodramas – always entertaining, but thankfully remote – at the expense of the domestic politics that my votes can actually change. Should you listen to The House if your taxes don’t pay the senators’ dodgy expenses? Probably not, but if you’re Canadian, add it to your rotation. Your media diet may make you a cosmopolitan global citizen, but some politics are local.

In Sum

Those are my idiosyncratic prescriptions for podcasts worth hearing. Some will reaffirm your beliefs, but most will do what all media should do: expand your thinking with new information you ought to know, and new angles on what you thought you knew. Like great teaching, they repay the time you give them. To return to Northrop Frye, I still quote to myself something he said in that 5-part series: “anything worth understanding is worth understanding by everybody.”

As I said, I’d make radio myself if I wasn’t an academic. But virtually all the shows in the first two categories here (at least) prominently feature academics, either as speakers or hosts (in the case of Digital Campus). Arts and Ideas even has a ‘new generation thinkers’ series that identifies younger academics as future broadcasting presenters, fledgling David Starkeys or Lisa Jardines. So the line between these professions is blurry.

But I’ll stick to teaching. The world isn’t crying out for another podcast on Shakespeare or on the digital humanities. Not yet, anyway. And teaching gives me find outlets for my audiophilia in recordings for students – whether of Sonnet 72 or a speech from Troilus and Cressida; or my complete recording of Sidney’s Defence in three parts; or my video podcast on the Elizabethan stage.

One Response to “Podcast Prescriptions”

  1. amanda

    Thanks for this. Looking forward to listening to a few new gems instead of sifting through endless podcasts that I don’t connect with.


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