Conversations to Keep You Company
Much like radio, there’s an intimacy to podcasts because you’re hearing a live human voice, right here in your room. While I was living overseas for seven years, there were times, no matter how many friends I had, that being alone in my tiny apartment felt, well, a little lonely. Podcasts helped me feel connected back to the U.S., to the bigger world outside, and made cooking or folding laundry for one feel like a team effort.
Here are a few long-running shows with plenty of episodes for you to binge on while you stay cozy at home.
Gastropod is one of a handful of shows I keep coming back to again and again: Each episode takes listeners on a deep dive into the science and history of food. They travel the world to bring you surprising sounds and interviews with cooks, scientists and farmers. In their sourdough episode, hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber visit a laboratory in Belgium that is collecting sourdough cultures from around the world (and introduce some mind-bending facts about microbes). Listen to their episode on the secret history of Jack Daniel’s whiskey while sipping a tipple yourself. And the episode on citrus involves both museums and the mafia.
Does the quarantine have you cooking up a storm? Check out The Splendid Table, a long-running show that started 25 years ago at Minnesota Public Radio. It’s a thoughtful, measured podcast reminiscent of classic radio: A host with a soothing voice, segments with expert cooks and food industry guests, and a website chock-full of tips and recipes. Host Francis Lam is a culinary school graduate, and takes calls from listeners to answer their kitchen queries. Recent excellent episodes include one on cooking with scraps, and one all about the history and uses behind your favorite kitchen tools.
Passenger List is a tense thriller that slowly unravels the mysterious disappearance of Atlantic Flight 702. Among its missing 256 passengers is the brother of Kaitlin Le, expertly voiced by Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran. Kaitlin can’t stop digging into the disappearance and the facts that just don’t quite add up, leading her into ever more treacherous waters. This is more than an audiobook; it’s a true radio drama, with a star-studded cast of characters and well-executed sound effects. A word of warning: Season 1 ends with a cliffhanger, and Season 2 isn’t expected until 2021.
If you’re looking for something a little more lighthearted, give Hello From the Magic Tavern a listen. The premise is delightfully absurd: Fictional host Arnie Niekam starts each episode by explaining that he has fallen through a dimensional portal behind a Burger King, landing in the kingdom of Foon. Since he has oh-so-fortuitously landed with his podcasting equipment in hand and can still reach a faint wi-fi signal from the Burger King, Arnie has decided to interview the characters that come through the tavern where he’s set up shop and explain the world of Foon to us. In the process, the show manages to parody both fantasy genre tropes and the most pedantic of podcast talk shows. It’s a relief to indulge in a show that really (really, really) doesn’t take itself seriously — in fact, most of the dialogue is improvised. Note that this show is not really kid-friendly, so pop those earbuds in.
You’ll get a quick moment of respite delivered daily in The Slowdown. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith hosts, reading a single poem on each five-minute episode. It begins with a short reflection — in a recent introduction to Cathy Song’s poem Ikebana, Smith asks, “Is beauty more important to us only after we’ve grasped the reality of mortality?” This is the kind of show you’ll want to put on while making your morning coffee, or maybe one you plug in your headphones for when you take a work-break and lay down on the couch. I recommend taking an extra couple minutes after the episode to let it all sink in.
For a longer moment of zen, subscribe to On Being, a podcast that explores “the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?” While not exactly spiritual, many of the guests come from spiritual walks of life: They’ve included the Dalai Lama talking about happiness, scholar Brené Brown on vulnerability, and the late, great poet Mary Oliver in a rare interview discussing the wisdom of the world. Host Krista Tippet offers a master class in the art of interviewing, spiraling each conversation inward towards the kernels of truth at the heart of each episode.
99% Invisible explores the world of design and architecture, which when viewed broadly can include the making of the Murphy bed, the controversy around Singaporean cemeteries, and the evolution of the basketball court. These are all episodes of 99 P.I. (as it’s affectionately called by fans), a highly-produced show that involves intensive reporting and careful layering of sound and music. The magic of this show is its ability to take listeners on a journey of discovery alongside their reporters — we get the “aha!” moments when they do — and the delight in learning that a seemingly meaningless item or building or city layout actually has so much more to say about our history and our world.
Ever wondered what life might be like if we could live underwater? Or what would happen if the Internet suddenly broke one day? What if we lived in a future where we could swap bodies? Flash Forward tackles questions like these and turns each into an episode that explores the issues at stake. True-crime podcast fans will appreciate the season on crime, which explores how crime will be committed, justice served, and ethics reimagined. I loved the season on bodies, which raises questions about what the self even is. Host Rose Eveleth always starts us off with a “fishbowl” exercise, a mini radio drama illustrating a scene from this imagined future (the underwater episode features a real estate agent explaining the features of an underwater apartment to a young woman), followed by real interviews with scientists and scholars working at the edges of the almost-possible.