There are voices in my head. They follow me everywhere I go - even across hundreds of miles of travel. Whenever I'm trying to work, or relax, or do chores, they talk to me.
Podcasts. The mere mention puts my hair on edge. I feel unproductive - I should be learning something right now. Let me put on an episode. No it's fine, I can still focus.
My friends know I'm obsessed with listening to strangers talk for hours at a time. Occasionally someone I know will mention having a boring commute, or wanting to do something while grinding in a video game. Every time this happens, I get borderline evangelical. "You should listen to that Vox show," I'll say. "The newest episode of Invisibilia is really good, you'd like it."
But where do you start? What shows would you like? Is there really more to podcasts than a bunch of ex-comedians who think they're still funny? The way I see it, there's three main categories of podcasts that appeal to all kinds of listeners. Don't worry, I've got recommendations.
Fiction podcasts play out like an audiobook or an old-time radio drama. If you've had a TV show on in the background when working, you know roughly what this is like.
"A sleepy desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep."
Night Vale is the story of a small town where conspiracy theories are the norm and everyone has a story to tell about monsters or hooded figures. The large cast of memorable characters and the story of the most important character - Night Vale itself - is presented as a local radio news show. The narrator, Cecil Palmer, is a native of Night Vale and presents all the oddities in a perfectly nonplussed tone. If you like dry humor and the aesthetic of conspiracy, take a vacation to this sleepy desert community.
Listen at welcometonightvale.com
"You have been hearing... The Truth."
The Truth is a fiction anthology series. Think Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, but not always scary. The Truth tackles genres from comedy to political satire to psychological thriller, all with unmatched wit and talent. The Truth describes itself as "movies for your ears", and each 10- to 20-minute episode will have you on the edge of your seat.
If you like branching out into new genres, or you don't want to try and keep up with one long storyline, consider seeking out The Truth.
Listen at thetruthpodcast.com
Roundtable podcasts are less like an elaborate story being told and more like hanging out with your friends after lunch. These shows are more about the hosts and less about specific topics.
"The McElroy Brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed."
My Brother, My Brother and Me is a comedy show pretending to be an advice show. Brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy take questions from their listeners, sure, but when half their responses are "pack up and move out of town," perhaps this isn't the place to find serious information. Instead you'll find off-the-wall improv, bizarre advice topics, and genuine brotherly love. This podcast has been gaining in popularity and quality for over seven years, and with their recent TV show on iTunes these brothers show no signs of stopping. If you enjoy the sudden realization that your vocabulary has been forever changed by a podcast host, or you want comedy that never punches down, you have three new family members to meet.
Listen at maximumfun.org
"Be good and be good at it."
Waypoint Radio is an example of a roundtable show with a greater emphasis on specific topics. Rotating hosts Austin Walker, Danielle Riendeau, Rob Zacne, Patrick Klepek, and Danika Herrod run the gaming journalism website Waypoint. Together they write and publish articles about video games and gamer culture with a progressive lens. The podcast has a wide emotional range, from jokes about defunct video game mascots to serious discussions about the responsibilities of game developers, game players, and game journalists. If you like keeping up with gaming news but you don't like reading all those articles, add this Waypoint to your map.
Listen at waypoint.vice.com
Nonfiction podcasts are generally created by radio journalists who want more time to tell engaging stories. The best radio storytellers rival the greats of documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism.
"Each week we pick a theme, and then bring you a few stories on that theme."
This American Life is the grand-daddy of radio storytelling. With over 600 episodes, host Ira Glass and his team of reporters have been telling great stories since the idea of podcasting was just a twinkle in someone's eye. Each hour-long episode is thematically consistent, but having multiple stories from different reporters keeps the pace energetic. I wholeheartedly believe you cannot go wrong with This American Life. It might take a few episodes to warm up to Ira Glass's unconventional voice and delivery, but I'd listen to an hour of the man reading grocery lists. If you have ever read or watched or heard a good story and felt intellectual hunger pangs after, you should be living This American Life.
Listen at thisamericanlife.org
"Super Tech Support is the segment on the show where people write into us with tech support problems that are beyond their scope to solve and I - very hubristically - try to solve those problems."
Reply All is a show that started out telling stories about computers and the Internet. As the Internet became more integral to society, Reply All started branching out into broader societal topics. Hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, along with their team of producers and journalists, are masters at transforming obscure online oddities into genuinely compelling narratives. If you have developed a taste for the peculiar on the Internet, don't hesitate to click Reply All.
Listen at replyall.limo
I hope these six shows will fill your free hours with stories and characters. There's a few podcast genres that don't quite fit my categories (I see you, Dungeons and Dragons podcasts!), but the bulk of shows follow these three traditions. If you are like me and six podcasts feels like a fraction of how much you want to listen, hit me up on Twitter @BackwardsFlow! I'm subscribed to like thirty podcasts at any given time.