I Heart These Podcasts

Believe it or not, I never listened to a podcast until last year. I’m not sure why — I think I was just content with books, magazines, movies and TV in terms of my media consumption.

But last year, I had my baby, and my endless wilderness of reading time — oh, those were the days! — had suddenly dwindled down to a few precious half-hours or so in the evening. I did manage to read books in the time I had to myself, but it came at the expense of a lot of magazine reading. Gone were the afternoons when I could settle down with a stack of mags and some tea, take in some #longreads and really dig into in-depth, detailed, well-researched articles.

I still missed non-fiction, though. It just hits a certain sweet spot in my brain — the part of me that uses curiosity as an engine and springboard for creativity and engagement with the world. A great article by a great writer can make something you’ve overlooked, taken for granted or otherwise never really considered into a great spark of reverie, imagination and illumination. And it just makes me feel smarter and more engaged in the world. So I missed a lot of my non-fiction magazine reading, but I just didn’t know how else to fit it in. (“Fitting it in” = ah, the dilemma of working mamas everywhere.)

But then I discovered podcasts! I download a bunch of my iPhone and play them in the car while I drive here or there or work out, or have them playing in the background while I care for the baby in the early mornings or evenings. Listening to podcasts were almost like taking mini-classes about anything from the neuroscience of attraction to a Benedictine take on anxiety — but there’s something about the podcast format that feels more homey and companionable than a lecture. The best podcasts don’t feel like someone reading from a script, but as if someone is talking to you — or you’re eavesdropping on a particularly interesting conversation.

Anyway, I’m a podcast newbie-nerd now. I often will subscribe to a bunch of podcasts at a time, and then unsubscribe if I find myself deleting or skipping episodes consistently. Is anyone else out there a podcast fan? Please recommend me your favorite ones; I’m always looking for new ones, and while the topic is important — I’m particularly looking for funny, feminist ones — I can try anything as long as it’s presented in an engaging way. (I like more episodic podcasts versus ‘Serial’-type continuing narratives, since I tend to skip episodes if I’m particularly busy one week.) These are the ones I’m enjoying most at the moment:

ON BEING. Sometimes I think this is the uber-NPR of podcasts, mostly because host Krista Tippett has that kind of voice. (You know that voice: softish, almost comically even.) But the content is actually very deep, philosophical, even spiritual stuff. She interviews a range of thinkers, entertainers and artists — everyone from Steven Batchelor to poet Mary Oliver — and her interviews are truly masterful and superlative: full of depth, insight, intimacy and wisdom. If you hate earnestness, this is not the podcast for you. But if you truly grapple with the deep questions of existence like what it means to be human and how to live a meaningful life, then you will love this to pieces.

STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW. This is also another super-popular podcast, but for a very good reason — it consistently covers quirky range of topics in a slightly goofy yet smart way. It’s done everything from the history of public relations to a deep dive into the history of the HIV virus to the infamous 1977 ‘Star Wars’ TV special. But part of the appeal are the two hosts, Chuck and Josh, who have a funny, genuine rapport — they always seem to go off on a little tangent about movies in each episode, which I find endearing. This is the kind of podcast that fulfills the ‘cool dinner party conversation’ part of my brain: there are lots of great stories, info and anecdotes here.

HAPPIER WITH GRETCHEN RUBIN. It’s taken me awhile to come around to Gretchen Rubin, though I’ve read all her self-help-y bestsellers and found them helpful. In print she can come across as dogmatic, humorless, strident and Tracy Flickish, but over the podcast it’s clear she has a lot of humor and self-awareness about these aspects of herself. (It also helps, I think, that she does her podcast with her screenwriter sister, which might bring out a warmer, more likable side in her.) Like her books, Happier is full of practical tips and suggestions about, yes, living a happier life.

WOMEN OF THE HOUR BY LENA DUNHAM. Lena Dunham is a public figure that I’ve always found a little polarizing for myself — I love what she stands for, as a feminist and general person trying to just get through life with a modicum of honesty and fun. But sometimes I do just want to shake her for her cluelessness at times. Her podcast, though, plays to her strengths — she just sounds like a nice, smart person that I wouldn’t mind sitting next to me on a flight. A lot of the criticism leveled at her — her tone-deafness about race, a certain provincialism peculiar to super-arty, wealthy-ish NYC progeny — is addressed (obliquely) on her podcast, and is a welcoming sign that she’s willing to grow, change, evolve and learn. But more than that, she covers a lot of personal topics with a honesty and intimacy that is surprisingly sweet, especially in comparison to the sometimes excruciating, masochistic awkwardness on her TV show ‘Girls.’ Anyway, this isn’t an ongoing podcast series — it’s pretty much wrapped up now — but it’s worth a listen still.

CONVERSATION WITH ALANIS MORISSETTE. Okay, disclaimer: I’m actually not a huge fan of Alanis’ music. It’s just not my thing. But in the podcast she comes across as a really warm, maternal, empathetic presence. She does very in-depth interviews with lots of relationship and self-help experts that make you think about your romantic choices, patterns and history. You do need a high tolerance for relationship self-help and a bit of woo-woo as well, but if you want some insight into that realm of life, Alanis is your podcast dream.

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