Tuesday, May 10, 2011

5 Podcasts to make you a better person*

I listen to a lot of podcasts - I often use them to ease the monotony of whatever errands I may be attending to, or to distract me away from the fact that my circle of real-life friends is rapidly dwindling and I'm not doing a good job replenishing the ranks.

In years to come, psychologists will point to listening-habits like mine as a trait indicating mental illness, as my obsessive need to stave off tedium leaves me deprived of any time for introspection, genuine human interaction, or the will to make new friends, since the people in my head are smarter than most people I'd meet in my daily life anyhow.

Today, dear reader, I've decided to share this burden with you, in internet-friendly list form! I'm going to give you five podcasts that I consider essential listening to see if I can't rob you of your thought-organising time too.

#5: The Onion Radio News

Despite expanding their schtick from mere mock-newspapers to mock-TV and radio news, The Onion still manages to deliver a mostly consistent stream of laughs. The Onion Radio News series are the finest expression of The Onion, in my opinion. Bite-sized pieces that show off the variety and humour of The Onion mean that even if you absolutely can't enjoy the humor in one piece, the next one is a few seconds away, and it's likely to be a good one. The Onion lampoons world leaders and public figures to great effect, but I enjoy it most when it's delivering absurd treatises on (fictional) everyday people agonizing over mundane occurrences with its dependably bang-on, po-faced delivery.

When Newsweek crumbled, I was worried about my favourite America-centric podcast, Newsweek On Air, but it quickly re-appeared as 'For Your Ears Only' (and I didn't have to update my RSS feed!). Despite losing the Newsweek branding, it still delivers a solid news programme, talking about the major news from the past week in a refreshingly organised and relaxed fashion, including voices from across the political spectrum. Granted, the guests they have on the show tend to be hocking books, but they tend to be smarter than your average bear, dealing in facts and avoiding appeals to emotion, reflecting the demeanour of the coolheaded and informed hosts.

The format of the show suits a European interested in US goings-on - recapping the week's news means that all the redundant information from breaking news has been pruned out, leaving only the good stuff. They also have a rather nifty 'Archive' segment at the end of every episode, where they typically replay a major story from the same time last year.

#4: Global News - BBC World Service

According to the podcast's own intro, Global News presents 'a selection of highlights from across BBC World Service news' over the course of the day. Each 30 minute episode provides a smorgasbord of major world events, human interest pieces from across the globe, and enough non-western voices to make you feel as though you're not being blinkered by more easily accessible news outlets. The podcast is updated every 12 hours (!), so don't let OCD get the better of you when you see all the episodes you've missed.

Skepticality holds a special place in my heart as the first podcast I got hooked on. The format is pretty simple - long form interviews with scientists and notable people about controversies or the books they're hocking. What's fantastic about this approach is that the interviewees have time to expound on the usual soundbites, often forming a great companion-pieces to the item they're shilling. Hosts Derek and Swoopy are intelligent people who understand that they are implicitly endorsing a book by interviewing the authors, so they clearly endeavour to read the book, and it shows in the kind of conversation-stoking and thought-provoking insights that one wishes would find their way into all shows.

As the name implies, this is a sceptical show for those who like to keep their wits sharp and learn about the difference between cutting-edge and broken-thinking. If you have a passing interest in inoculating yourself against superstitious nonsense while simultaneously hearing some wickedly intelligent people talk about fascinating stuff, this podcast is worth an hour of your time every fortnight.

For years, I noticed that a few of the entertainment-oriented podcasts would denigrate themselves by saying things like "This American Life we ain't", until it was finally drilled into my head that This American Life was a radio programme that has reached lofty heights that many others aspire to, and I needed to check it out.

I had high expectations, despite knowing little about the show, and these expectations were far exceeded. The hour-long podcast consists of a collection of discrete stories (referred to as 'acts' by the effortlessly charming host, Ira Glass), collected under an often tenuous theme, and presented in an exquisitely crafted fashion, with music cues and narrative interludes that bridge or disrupt the flow of the story as necessary.

Even after five months of listening, each week throws up thrilling surprises. The human interest stories often illuminate the darkest corners of the human psyche. The breakdowns of cultural curiosities from around the world are informative, fun, but somehow reverent. The precautionary tales are given enough room to breathe so that instead of scoffing at the mistakes of the victims, the listener becomes more attuned to his own fallacies. This American Life is a masterclass in storytelling, and yet they are happy to subvert their tried and tested approach seemingly whenever the fancy strikes (the most recent episode at the time of writing is a collection of stories from the past seven days entitled "This Week").

Every other week I find myself enthusing to a new person about the latest episode of This American Life, and I assure them that despite what the name implies, This American Life is not necessarily only relevant to Americans.

The first thing you might notice about this recommendation is that word again: 'Skeptic'. This podcast is a totally separate entity from Skepticality, but they share a common goal: advancing scientific literacy and critical thinking in the general public.

Spending 80 minutes a week listening to five 'sceptics' from the New England Skeptical Society tackling whatever woo is worthy of addressing might not sound like a particularly good time, but these guys have captured lightning in a bottle. Each of the five panelists have complementary personalities that bring great levity and energy to a subject that could quickly devolve into something stuffy and academic. It's always great to have smart people clearly elucidate on the facts underneath the hype of major science stories in the media, and the enthusiasm they have for human endeavours is infective.

The regular features on this show are a fun way of bolstering one's intellectual toolkit. When the panelists engage in 'Name That Logical Fallacy' and 'Science or Fiction', the listener gets to play along at home, and learn something in process that will assist in deflating the nutter at the social function rambling about conspiracy theories and bigfoot sightings. It's easy to pick up on because it's intuitive stuff, but it's powerful to learn a little about how your thoughts can be derailed.

The only thing I can currently think to fault the podcast on are the stilted buffer pieces they use between segments, so rather than rambling on about how immensely grateful I am to have these awesome people volunteer their time to combat pernicious shillers of dangerous pseudoscience, I'll implore you to download the latest episode and defy you not to come away a little wiser 80 minutes later.


So there you have it! Five podcasts deserving of your time for various reasons, cherry-picked to help you pass the time, learn a bit about the world, and inject a bit of fun into your pathetic life.

*=Will not make you a better person. Will make you a more Sully person.

1 comment:

Sully said...

Other honourable mentions:

Real Time With Bill Maher: Another Politics/Comedy talk show from Americaland. Great content, but the podcast is just the audio ripped from a TV show, so you'll miss some of the visual humour. Also, there's technical issues with pretty much every episode.

Skeptoid: Bite sized sceptical treats that tackle a specific conspiracy theory or strange phenomenon with a scientific approach. Really should have made the cut, as it's one of my favourites, but I didn't want to push the 'sceptical' angle too hard in one post.

Now that you've heard my preferences, does anyone care to weigh in with their own recommended listening?