January’s Top 10 Podcast Episodes

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It’s the beginning of 2015, and while I spent a big portion of January out of town and not listening to podcasts, I caught up in the meantime, especially during long drives for work. I was moved by a lot of thought-provoking and insightful content this month, as well as some laughs.

Check it out:

Welcome To Night Vale #59 – Antiques

In a creepy desert town where the supernatural roams freely, Cecil the radio hosts keeps the public up-to-date on current events. This time, antiques… are attacking the town. Yes, you read that right, and that is precisely the kind of unusual, difficult-to-conceptualize, yet compelling story that makes Night Vale consistently worth listening to. It continues to be one of a few shows that I always make time for.

Reasonably Sound #12 – The Printing Press and the Great Vowel Shift

Mike Rugnetta, the host of PBS’s Idea Channel and this podcast about sound, is one of my favorites. People, I mean. Everything he creates is full of new ideas or ways of thinking about old or familiar concepts. This episode is about how before the printing press unified spelling and pronunciation of words (because it did that, as I was unaware!), written and spoken language varied much more significantly!

Rugnetta also discusses at length his holiday trip to England and some slang from over there, as well as what composes the English accent. He has yet to “miff” an episode. 🙂

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Invisibilia – The Secret History of Thoughts

This very first episode of Invisibilia, a new NPR show, was a strong one. The show sold itself as a combination of This American Life and RadioLab, both in style, content, and producers. And it is, in fact, the best of both worlds. I imagine my psychologist friends will thoroughly enjoy this show as it continues. Its focus is on thoughts, the brain, behavior, and how invisible influences guide our life.

The first episode is in two parts, first telling the story of a man who is overcome by violent thoughts about those around him, even those he loves, and how he attempts to cope, cure himself of this, as well as find the source. Second is the story of a man trapped and conscious in a body unable to move. For years. It’s a story of how one copes with hopelessness and the slow tick of time.

And yes, the hosts remark at the end, they did start the show in a heavy note! Subsequent episodes were a little less dark. 🙂

Planet Money – Johnny Mnemonic’s Secret Door

Planet Money is my go-to economics podcast. They talk about important economic principles or current events in an approachable way. This episode intersects with the tech world by diving into the market for hacks, glitches, and exploits in ubiquitous software. It follows a man who finds a dangerous bug in a new iOS software release and how one goes about getting money for this discovery. Apple (and other tech companies in this position) don’t dole out a large finder’s reward compared to foreign companies that wish to control devices for their own ends. So that’s often where the information is sold.

The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe #497

The SGU is what I consider the main podcast for those in the skeptic/science/atheist world. The hosts bring up recent news items of scientific discoveries or take down bogus claims that made headlines or are plaguing the culture. This week, Cara Santa Maria was a great guest, bringing a needed perspective as someone from the news side of the coin. She’s familiar with the process of deciding and writing about science news and the mistakes made by organizations ill-applying “balance” rules for science fact, for example.

It’s a solid episode, like so many of the SGU’s, and I’m looking forward to more guests as the team tries out people to perhaps fill up the roster since Watson left.

This American Life #544 – Batman

This TAL episode is basically an Invisibilia episode that was released later, but Ira Glass chats a little at the beginning and end. 😛 But seriously, this show was another great view into what Invisibilia will be like, and it’s promising. It highlights the world of the blind, and in particular one man, Daniel Kish, who clicks with his tongue to get around unassisted through echolocation. He’s a proponent of a kind of “tough love”, finding that the more hand-holding a blind child or person gets, the more cemented in their helplessness they become. The pros and cons of this belief are shown starkly in some of the anecdotes of his teaching in the show.

The hosts also investigate the idea that the blind actually do create a kind of mental image of the world around them in their head, especially using clicking. They ask whether this model is comparable to how those of us with sight see the world, and what the implications are of this possibility. In includes yelling on rooftops, too!

On The Media – The Attack on Charlie Hebdo, Reckoning with Free Speech, and More

This On The Media episode brought up several corner subjects around the Charlie Hebdo attack that I hadn’t considered before. One was the actual role the paper had within French society, which I wasn’t really aware of. Another was the diffusive effect of so many people showing the offensive imagery and how, while an important show of solidarity, any claim of bravery is diluted by the volume of outlets showing it already.

I also enjoyed the ending segments reviewing 2014’s biggest news coverage blunders and new technology that emerged last year.

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Nerdist #622 – Vacation Brain

I haven’t been regularly listening to the Nerdist for a while. The guests lined up haven’t appealed to me as much as some of the new shows I’ve been listening to. This one, though, was a hostful, or an episode with just the three primary hosts (Chris Hardwick, Matt Mira, and Jonah Ray). The trio update each other and the audience on their lives, and it’s very funny! It felt like a return to normalcy for me, since I’ve been a listener of theirs for several years.

Narratives emerge on Hardwick’s realization that vacation and relaxation can be hugely beneficial. Mira calls out the other two on sports-bashing, which was a major transition in tone over the years to being more accepting of what one might call “sports nerds”. Jonah is reclusive as always on new projects he’s working on, not wanting to jinx anything by pre-emptively generated excitement for something that isn’t done. The gang also talks about the milestones they’re reaching this year, namely 5 full years of podcasting.

The episode feels like one that would be a good primer for anyone wanting to be more familiar with the hosts of this long-running comedy interview podcast. It’s exciting it has continued this long.

StartUp #12 – Burnout

I’ve loved StartUp since its inception because it takes a personal, storytelling approach to the process of starting a business. It’s full of practical advice and information as well as a crafted, compelling narrative. This episode focused on a few employees of Gimlet that were running themselves ragged trying to keep up the pace of releasing episodes in the wake of the podcasting surge of Serial. It was raw for both the audience and those within Gimlet, resulting in a change of having regular meetings to air out these problems. Alex Blumberg, the host, also reflected on his communication to his employees in another very honest section.

Reply All #8 – Anxiety Box

And speaking of StartUp, Gimlet’s second podcast Reply All, created by the not-quite-“burned out” hosts from the previous entry, continues to cover great stories in the tech world. This one in particular was amusing and informative to me. A man suffering from anxiety creates a website that sends him emails regularly full of the anxieties he inputted into the site. It sounds ridiculous, but after he explains how it externalizes the silliness of incessant anxiety, I could see how it could help! These episodes are always really short, too, if you’re in for something quick and insightful.

Honorable mentions:

Reasonably Sound #13 – Shopworn Sound Effects

I’m still loving Mike Rugnetta’s thoughts, and this episode was a treat. He covers the extremely common sound effects used in film, television, and video games. In the first part he discusses how the notoriety of a sound effect can change what its use means. Well-known sound effects begin to be in-jokes amongst sound designers, ceasing to be the instance of sound it really is. Instead it becomes an entry in a long list of “uses” of that sound. Further, Rugnetta muses on how sound effects tap into what we feel something should sound like, even when the sound effect is not made using those objects or motion or person. Towards the end he lists five examples of sound effects that I believe everyone knows but might not know they know. These intriguing ideas make this a jam-packed, wonderful, and thoughtful episode.

Invisibilia – BONUS: Falling Off a Cliff

I can’t get enough of Invisibilia content this month, clearly. The hosts released a bonus segment that didn’t make it into the “Batman” episode I listed in this post. It’s a shorter story about a older blind woman accustomed to being lead by her husband’s arm trying to learn to be independent through Denial Kish’s teachings. The ending’s symbology was heartbreaking. Or heartwarming. I can’t decide.

Do you listen to other shows? What’s something you remember from recent weeks? Anything good stick in your mind! Share you own!

Edit (01-02-2015): I simply keep thinking about a few episodes I thoroughly enjoyed that I didn’t include because they occurred late in the month after I’d made my list. Also great were TAL’s “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” and Reply All’sThe Writing on the Wall“.

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