If You're Stuck at Home and Need Something to Listen to

It occurred to me this morning that in the near future—or perhaps already—some people may find themselves stuck at home for an extended period of time, looking for something to do. And that, if that were the case, some podcast recommendations might be welcome. If that sounds useful to you, well, here you go: 36 podcasts that I find bingeable or otherwise suitable for long listens, organized roughly by genre. I'll try to include content notes where appropriate.

Audio Dramas/Audio Fiction:

Most of these are either limited run shows or have defined seasons/arcs that make them very bingeable. A couple are ongoing shows that I still find good for back-to-back listening. In alphabetical order:

  1. I have been a humongous fan of The Adventure Zone for years now. It's an actual-play RPG show by the McElroy family, and it is both funny and engaging, with delightful characters and excellent storytelling. So far there have been two complete arcs (each arc is a complete and independent story) and a third is ongoing, and there have been several mini-arcs and one-offs. I recommend starting from the beginning. (Content notes: strong language, comic violence)
  2. Mermaid Palace's audio drama Asking For It is an adaptation of the Goldilocks tale, a story about a young queer woman, music, and the cycle of abuse. Excellent writing and voice acting. (Content notes: intimate partner abuse, drugs, strong language, explicit sexual content)
  3. The Big Loop is an audio drama anthology, with almost all of the stories told in the first person. Includes both speculative and realist fiction, and really well done. So far, my favorite ep is the SF story "You." (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes)
  4. George the Poet's show Have You Heard George's Podcast? combines hip hop, spoken word, and audio drama to deliver both insightful musings about creativity and incisive social commentary. Sounds unlike any other show I know of.
  5. Ross Sutherland's show Imaginary Advice includes experimental audio fiction, poetry, and occasional audio-blog-style episodes. There's a playfulness to the writing and sound design that I love, and it's consistently surprising in the best way.
  6. LeVar Burton Reads is just what the title says: in every episode, host LeVar Burton reads a hand-picked and excellent short story. There's a heavy emphasis on speculative fiction, and Burton is a master storyteller. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes. See individual episode descriptions for specific notes.)
  7. In Mija, a young Latina woman from NYC tells her family's story of immigration. It's well done and very immersive, often feeling more like a docuseries than fiction.
  8. James Kim's MOONFACE is about a young, closeted Korean American man who struggles to communicate with his immigrant mother, because they literally don't speak the same language. It's a beautiful and moving story about identity, queer relationships, friendship, family, and podcasting. (Content notes: strong language, explicit sexual content)
  9. Murmurs, by BBC Sounds, is a Twilight-Zone-esque anthology show. Each episode is a different horror/SF story about worlds bleeding into each other. The sound design uses glitching and distortion to delightfully eerie effect.
  10. Kaitlin Prest's audio drama The Shadows is about the arc of a relationship, beginning, middle, and end. I was completely drawn in by the performances, which are viscerally real. Amazing show. (Content notes: strong language, explicit sexual content)
  11. Tin Can Audio's audio drama The Tower imagines a world in which a seemingly endlessly tall tower exists, and follows one woman's haunting journey as she climbs it. Reminded me of Borges or Ted Chiang. The way that the story is told through a series of phone calls works really well—it's eerie at times, but the conversations between characters are also quite intimate.
  12. Finally, I'm very proud of my own audio fiction anthology show, LikeWise Fiction, in which I read excellent short stories from many genres, all written by women, nonbinary authors, authors of color, and LGBTQIA+ authors. In the first season I've featured stories by writers including Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Kat Howard, Rachel Lyon, Celeste Ng, JY Yang, and more. I'd love if you had a listen. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes, see individual episode descriptions for specific notes)

History/Social Topics:

These are all either limited-run shows or they have discrete seasons that can be listened to like a miniseries. All are strong narrative nonfiction.

  1. Closer Than They Appear is a 2017 show by Carvell Wallace about race in America, with a mixture of interviews and personal narrative that I found quite compelling.
  2. Another show by Carvell Wallace is Finding Fred, which is all about Mr. Rogers, both looking at the work he did and asking what we lessons we can take from him to help us live in the often scary world of today.
  3. The Washington Post's Lillian Cunningham has done three excellent series on American history. The first, from 2016, was Presidential, which looked at each US president from the beginning through today.
  4. The next of Cunningham's shows was 2018's Constitutional, which is all about the US Constitution and how it came to be what it is.
  5. And then most recently, Cunningham did Moonrise, an excellent narrative documentary about the space race and moon landing, showing a lot of the darker parts of the story that most of us don't learn about in school.
  6. Another excellent show about the US Constitution is Radiolab's special series More Perfect, in which each episode is a breakdown and history of one of the amendments.
  7. For me, the granddaddy of history podcasts is Mike Duncan's The History of Rome, which, over the course of 179 episodes, charts the history of Rome from its pre-republican era through the fall of the Western Empire.
  8. I also very much enjoy Duncan's current show, Revolutions, which is all about different revolutions throughout history. Each of the show's 10 seasons covers a different revolution, including the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and more. The current (and final) season is covering the Russian Revolution, and it's excellent.
  9. Finally, Scene On Radio is, in my opinion, a must-listen. Season 2 is about the history of race and racism in the US, season 3 is about the roots of misogyny and toxic masculinity in our society, and the current season is about inequality in America. Informative, engaging, and excellent.

Literary Interviews:

These are all ongoing shows, so they're not necessarily great for bingeing, but they all have great, long-form conversations about books and literature, and are excellent for a long listen. In alphabetical order:

  1. David Naimon's Between the Covers has long-form interviews with authors across many genres, including literary fiction, SF and fantasy, and poetry. David is an excellent reader and has some of the best questions of any interview I know.
  2. Rachel Zucker's show Commonplace features "conversations with poets (and other people)." Rachel gets to deep and intimate places with her guests, and I'm always impressed by what a close rapport she establishes in her conversations. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
  3. Maris Kreizman's The Maris Review always feels like two pals having the most interesting conversation, it's great. This one includes a lot of excellent memoir and creative nonfiction, much more than other lit shows I listen to.
  4. The Poet Salon is interviews with poets, and what I love about it is that it manages to have insightful and profound conversations while also showing how fun poetry can be.
  5. KUT's This Is Just to Say is another excellent poetry show. The host, Carrie Fountain, is herself one of my favorite poets, and I love how she gets her guests to talk not just about their own work, but also about other poems that they love. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
  6. VS is hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi, two of my favorite poets. Their interviews are top notch, and I also just love the way their friendship is so evident when they talk to each other in the intros and outros. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
  7. Courtney Balestier's show WMFA is another favorite of mine. She's talked to a wide variety of writers but with a heavy focus on fiction, and I like how she focuses on craft. I also quite like the minisodes she posts during off weeks, which are short personal monologues on creativity.
  8. Finally, I wanted to mention my own show, Keep the Channel Open, which is a series of conversations about art and creativity with people working in all different creative fields, including writers, visual artists, podcasters, curators, and more. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)

Other Shows:

Last, but not least, here are some shows that didn't fit into the other categories but which I love and which I think are great for extended listening. In alphabetical order:

  1. Helen Zaltzman's podcast The Allusionist is all about language, and what makes it so great is that it is fun. A lot of the episodes are humorous, many are deeply empathetic, all of them are entertaining and informative.
  2. Maggie Tokuda-Hall's show Drunk Safari is, sadly, no longer in production, but it is still available to listen to! Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilettantes. This show is the very definition of "delightful." (Content notes: strong language)
  3. Ear Hustle is about daily life inside prison, and what makes it unique is that it's told by and made by residents and former residents of San Quentin prison. It's a really well-made show, and it shares stories that many of us don't hear often enough. (Content notes: some strong language, references to violence.)
  4. The McElroy Brothers Will Be In Trolls World Tour is a hilarious faux-documentary series that the McElroys made as a way to sort of scam their way into getting cast in the movie. Honestly, it is the reason I am excited to see that movie. (Content notes: strong language [I think?])
  5. Of course, the McElroys' flagship show is My Brother, My Brother, and Me, "an advice show for the modren [sic] era." (Each episode opens with the disclaimer: "The McElroy Brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed.) I reckon many of you already know this one but it consistently makes my day better when I listen to it, so I couldn't not mention it. (Content notes: strong language, crude humor)
  6. My Friend Chuck, is by comedian McKenzie Goodwin and erotica author Chuck Tingle, and it's one of my new favorite shows. Each week McKenzie reviews one of Chuck's books, they talk about movies and local news, and they prove love is real. It's very funny and deeply decent. (Content notes: sexual content, some strong language)
  7. Only Here is a show by the San Diego NPR station, KPBS, and it is all about the unique culture of the San Diego-Tijuana border region, the things that happen only here.

Obviously, I do hope that, wherever you are, you and the people you love are staying safe and healthy, and that this crisis passes quickly. In the meantime, I hope this list is useful to you.

Thoughts on podcast intros

I was listening to Chuck Tingle and McKenzie Goodwin’s podcast My Friend Chuck this morning and thinking about how much I enjoy their introductory banter. It got me to thinking about podcast intros and how divisive they can be. Some people love them, some people hate them. I think what it comes down to, really, is whether you listen to podcasts more for their content (and therefore you mainly think of them as a conduit for delivering that content) or whether you listen to them more for their personalities. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap. I think most listeners respond to the hosts on a personal level, and want the hosts to be interesting or genial or entertaining. And I think most people also want the content to be compelling. But I think it’s a meaningful distinction and one worth thinking about when considering what kind of show you want to make and what kind of audience you hope to attract.

The most common complaint I hear about podcast intros is that they are a waste of time, that people don’t want to hear all the “blah blah blah,” and would rather just skip straight to the good stuff. I think that makes sense if you’re listening mainly for content. I think in extreme cases, this kind of listener might think of the hosts as incidental or interchangeable—it’s not the host that matters, it’s everything else. That’s a bit reductive, of course, because I think most people understand on some level that the host’s style and demeanor and the qualities of their voice does make a difference in how the rest of the content is framed and delivered.

On the other hand, there are listeners who don’t mind intro monologues or banter, or who actively enjoy such. And I think this speaks to another aspect of podcasting people talk about a lot, which is the intimacy, and the relationship between listener and show/host. You hear this all the time, right? How having a podcaster’s voice in your head on a regular basis makes them a part of your inner life. How it almost feels like you’re friends or even family, even though intellectually you know that you’ve never met or even spoken.

Again, I do think there’s a lot of overlap here, because many people who dislike intros can still feel that relationship or connection to a show or its hosts. And many people who feel that connection will still get bored with some episodes if the content isn’t there.

I suspect that part of this also has to do with what kind of shows one gravitates toward. If you’re mainly listening to interview shows or round-table discussion shows or the ubiquitous “two guys talking” type of show, I think you’re more likely to feel that personal connection. (My gut feeling is also that the more DIY or casual sounding the podcast is, the more you may feel that connection—assuming that it is interesting or well-produced enough that you stay listening.)

On the other hand, if you’re mainly listening to news or news-adjacent shows, or if you’re listening to highly produced feature shows (e.g. Radiolab, This American Life) or documentary shows (e.g. Serial, S-Town), you might be listening more for the segments than the interstitials. That format of show tends to give you a lot less visibility into the host’s life or personality, often have rotating hosts, and just generally give you less time with the host. The structure of the show reflects this—the host talks during the interstitials, not the segments.

Not to say that you never get personality in these shows. I think that long-time listeners of This American Life do have a sense of who Ira Glass is, for example. And certainly his sensibility shapes the show. But that’s not really a focus of the show. Compare this with a show like WTF, where even though ostensibly the draw is the interview, the whole episode is run through and through with Marc Maron’s personality and point of view. In a lot of ways I think people listen more for him than for the guests.

Personally, I do listen to shows like Radiolab and This American Life and other reported or production-forward shows. I listen to a lot shows in that category, actually. But I find that I’m also much more likely to skip episodes of those shows if I’m not interested in the topic. On the other hand, the shows where I come back for almost every episode tend to be the ones where I’m connecting at least as much with the hosts as with the content. Some examples: Pop Culture Happy Hour, Between the Covers, VS, Commonplace, WMFA, My Friend Chuck, The Adventure Zone. These don’t all involve intro monologues or banter, but for the ones that do, I tend to find that part just as interesting and satisfying to listen to as the “content” portion of the show. And I think that speaks to the power of that personal connection.

None of this is to say that one way or the other is better or “right.” Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But I do think that that personal connection is something that encourages long-term audience retention and deeper audience engagement. And so if that’s something you want to do with your show, it can be worthwhile to think about how to format and structure your show to allow that kind of engagement. It could mean intro monologues/banter, but it could be something else. The point here isn’t to force it or to be presentational about it, but rather to think about how you can allow opportunities for your authentic personality to come through in your show. How can your listeners get to know you? I think that’s an important question to consider.

This isn’t to say that it’s sufficient to just say “Well, I’m an interesting person so people will obviously want to listen to whatever I have to say.” There’s still craft involved in making a show for an audience. Aside from which, a lot of podcast newbies tend to overestimate just how interesting they actually are. This is why you end up with so many “three guys with a microphone talking about nothing” shows.

(To be clear, it’s perfectly fine to make a podcast just for yourself and your friends, just so that you can have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But if you want to make a show other people want to listen to, it does take more than that.)

Putting yourself and your personality into your show can be a really great way to create a loyal audience, I think. And so thinking about how to do that can be useful. But I think it’s important that it not be done cynically. It needs to be something that fits you. For myself, I quit doing personal monologues in my show a while ago, and now in my intros I just introduce the guest and do some show-related housekeeping. I do like having a venue to present my own thoughts, but it just never felt right for Keep the Channel Open, and writing the monologues was a lot of work. Even without the personal monologues, though, I think that KTCO does have a lot of opportunity for people to get to know me as the host, because the way I structure the interview portion of the show is very conversational and not just question-answer-question-answer. The monologues I used to do were intentionally about trying to create a connection with listeners, to keep them coming back even if they didn’t know the guest, but doing it that way always felt forced. Letting the interactions in my conversations speak for themselves is more organic and authentic for me.

Interestingly, LikeWise Fiction has a lot less opportunity for me appear as me during the “content” portion of the show, because I’m trying to present the story and its characters, not me. But, conversely, I can put more of me into the intro and outro when commenting on the story. I find that interesting, anyway. The intro monologues I did for KTCO were modeled on what Maron does in WTF (though in my own style and voice, not his), but that didn’t work for me. It just wasn’t a good fit. Meanwhile, the intro/outro commentary I do in LikeWise Fiction is modeled on what LeVar Burton does on LeVar Burton Reads, as well as a bit on the interview portions of the New Yorker: Fiction podcast and The Other Stories podcast. And this does feel right to me.

All this is just to say that I think it’s okay for some people to hate intro monologues and for some people to love them, that finding a way to connect with your audience is good, and doing it in a way that authentically fits you is best.