What I think about some podcasts

Listening to podcasts is a surprisingly central element in my life… I used to despise running, then I discovered podcasting, and voila, I’m into running. I used to severely despise swimming, then I discovered the underwater iPod (easily the greatest technological achievement in the modern age, just edging out the moon landing and the Manhattan Project), and voila, I’m into swimming. Chores? Podcast. Kids are playing at the playground? Podcast.

So, I thought I’d share with the world my take on every podcast I’ve given a serious listen to. Because the world needs my opinion.

Roughly in descending order by Dan-assigned quality.

The Adam Carolla Show (comedy)

Carolla is the sharpest comedian who has ever lived, as well as an excellent interviewer, and the production quality of the show is unparalleled. I’ve learned lately to skip the first ~20 minutes of the show when he’s just telling stories from his day, but all the recurring bits, interviews, and news (i.e., the last 60 minutes of each 80-minute show) remain hilarious and occasionally thought-provoking. He’s so sharp that you might be tempted to take him seriously and listen like to his rants as engaging debate, which may cause you to dislike him and/or discontinue your enjoyment of the show. Remember: this is a comedy podcast, and IMO it’s the best of the lot.

Serial (long-form journalism)

Very little commentary necessary, since everyone who has heard of podcasting has already listened to Serial. This is investigative journalism at its absolute best, brought to a medium that suits it.

The Daily (medium-form journalism, news)

Firstly, I like this WordPress theme but that clearly comes out looking like “The Dally” (rhymes with “Sally”) rather than “The Daily” (rhymes with… shit… whale-y?).

But more to the point… this is about as good as daily long-form journalism could possibly be, and it’s the first thing I listen to every day. This is basically the New York Times in a tiny box, except I can read it while I walk my dog. My favorite part is hearing Barbaro quote Trump’s most insane tweets in his very calm, journalistic, almost soothing voice. But really, as left-leaning at the Times may be, this is not a leftist political podcast, of which there are plenty, a few of which I’ll slam below.

Example: just before typing this paragraph, I listened to an episode in which he interviewed Scott Pruitt. As a hippie socialist, I feel that Scott Pruitt is a demon sent to the Earth because Satan likes deserts. But during this interview, Pruitt was allowed space to make a very reasonable legal argument about the way he runs the EPA, and I came away thinking “I still despise him, but the things he said were more right than wrong.” The fact that the interview could go that way is a testament to (oh-so-rare balanced journalism).

FWIW after he made those points he basically went on to denounce climate science. So, fuck him. But his legal arguments were sound.

Limetown (fiction)

I devoured this… easily the best fiction podcast I’ve come across, in fact it sets the standard for audio fiction. Likely an indicator of where the audiobook/podcast format will end up. I’m only slightly disappointed that they’re reportedly doing a Season 2 instead of doing a new story, because I think the science is in on whether great Sci-Fi shows really get better with time (remember the last season of Lost?).

Story Pirates (kids)

At the time I’m writing this, my kids are 8 and 6… actually, that’s only somewhat relevant, because I think this podcast is incredible. They must have a team of Oompa-Loompas recording music for them every week, because the music is spectacular, and the humor is somewhere between SpongeBob and 30 Rock… sets the standard for kids podcasting.

30 for 30 (long-form journalism)

I think the jury is in re: the quality of the “30 for 30” TV series, and whether you’re into sports or not, it’s fantastic storytelling. Yes, there’s always some link to sports, but if Game of Thrones were part of a larger series about monarchy, you wouldn’t have to be “into monarchy” to enjoy Game of Thrones.

The podcast is clearly an appendix to the TV show, and you might think “that sounds boring if I don’t watch the TV series”, but the podcast completely stands on its own. The “core” episodes that tell a story are significantly more interesting than the “bonus” episodes that interview the storytellers and are a bit more “meta”, but since those are clearly marked in the episode titles, I see no reason to count those against the podcast.

Dan Snow’s History Hit (history)

Dan Snow’s enthusiasm for anything related to history is infectious. I won’t say that every episode is enthralling, but the great episodes are great, and even when I’m not 100% into the material, he shows so much excitement that it’s hard to not be engaged. And among all the history podcasts I’ve tried, History Hit does the best job tying history in to current events when it’s appropriate, without plastering unnecessary historical context all over every current headline (maybe 1 in 8 episodes really addresses a current topic). Significant bent toward WWII history, which happens to be of particular interest to me. But basically he’s one of those people who could make you excited about anything.

I’m giving a 0.001 point deduction for the intro music/montage change from 2017 to 2018; the old intro got me totally fired up, and the new intro sounds like it could be the introduction to a middle-school textbook. But it still rounds up to five stars.

The Dave Dameshek Football Program (sports)

This is obviously only relevant from September to February, but if you’re looking for a way to extend your NFL enjoyment from Tuesday morning until Thursday afternoon, look no further. I love technical NFL commentary, but I can’t stand dry recounting of stats or lengthy recommendations about who you should pick up for your fantasy team; the DDFP doesn’t take itself too seriously, and mixes in just the right amount of personality and in-depth analysis. Two episodes a week, a recap episode on Tuesday and a preview episode on Thursday. This is probably the only podcast on this list for which I find myself clicking “refresh” when I’m eagerly awaiting a new episode.

Mongabay Newscast (environment)

I’m trying out a few conservation-themed podcasts, and so far this is best-in-class. It’s somewhat biodiversity-focused, so if you want today’s pessimism about climate specifically, you may have to look elsewhere, but it’s a good mix of informative and interesting, and the way it leans within environmental news aligns well with my interests.

The Best of Mike and Mike [retired] (sports)

During football season, I couldn’t wait to finish watching the games somewhere around Wednesday (I really stretch my football out), so I could listen to the Monday episode of M&M. FWIW I’m giving this five stars on the basis of 1 episode a week for ~20 weeks a year; I had no interest in the other 95% of the show. That said, I was surprisingly emotional during the last week of the show. I wouldn’t say I “cried”, but I was definitely a little teary.

Golic and Wingo (sports)

Mike and Mike ended during football season, so I tried to replace it immediately with Golic and Wingo, which is sort of the same show. It’s good, but it’s not the same. You can’t easily flip a switch and get the same chemistry that M&M had, but I’ll give it time.

The 36 questions (musical fiction)

Somewhere between “cute” and “excellent”. An all-around solid podcast-listening experience, and only three episodes, and musical. Worth the three episodes of your time. I’d say it’s really more like four stars on quality, but a full-point bump for originality.

EconTalk (economics)

It’s refreshing to hear a super-smart person interview other super-smart people, and even more refreshing that he disagrees with every guest no fewer than three times. It’s a fantastic dialogue, and the clear winner on this list in the “makes me smarter” category.

Real Time with Bill Maher (politics)

Funny and insightful, and generally lives up to its billing of allowing conservative voices to speak “in the lion’s den”. That said, post-Trump Maher is a little irrational, and a little less willing to listen to those conservative voices, so IMO the quality of the show declined in 2017. But still, I look forward to it every week, and I’m not sure there’s a person alive with whom I agree on more issues, especially the ones he takes the left to task on. In particular, much more than most left-leaning pundits, he’s willing to prioritize issues (yes, it’s true, climate change and the threat of nuclear armageddon are in fact more important than transgender bathroom access or whether Anne Coulter is offending someone today).

I personally like the “Overtime” portion of the show even better than the show itself, and I’m glad they found a way to work that into the podcast.

Planet Money (economics)

Less technical than EconTalk, but still informative, and bubbling with enthusiasm about all things economics and finance. Occasionally there’s a dud, almost always when they do an episode that’s not at all about economics, in which case it’s almost always about technology (see “Your cell Phone’s a Snitch”), but the other 99% of episodes are fun, painless education about macroeconomics, finance, and current events in money.

I’m not doing a separate rating for “The Indicator”, which started out as a version of Planet Money where they focus on some specific number for each episode, but they quickly realized the number things was absurd, and you could make up a number for any episode about anything (I could do a podcast about dogs and say “today’s indicator is five, which is the combined number of legs and tongues that dogs have), so they dropped that, and now it’s just mini-Planet-Money, and IMO it’s slightly worse than Planet Money (just too short to be informative), but still decent.

History of WWII before he decided to make it a full-time gig

History of WWII after he decided to make it a full-time gig

This podcast is a serious investment, but I think of this as an effective audio adaptation of a good popular history of the war. Somewhere between textbook detail and unscripted.

At some point, he jumped back in time a bit to catch us up on the Second Sino-Japanese War, which I was on board with. But around the same time, he announced that he’s making this a full-time gig, and it clearly occurred to him that if he kept up the same pace (which, BTW, was not fast, he was on track for probably a 500-episode series), he would eventually run out, so it slowed to a painful crawl. I think I’ll pick and choose episodes going forward. If you want to spend some time immersing yourself in WWII history, I recommend the first 100 episodes.

Stories Podcast (kids)

If you have kids who are between 5 and 7, and you spend any time in the car, download every episode of this podcast. The stories are excellent, with a broad tonal variety (from fairly tale to humor to kid-action), and the songs are quite good. I used to have this at five stars, until I discovered Story Pirates.

Hardcore History (history)

Dan Carlin is the recognized leader in history podcasting, and for the most part I’m on board with this assessment. He has a conversational tone and includes just the right amount of detail: never bogged down in army-group-x-moved-this-way-then-that-way, but always goes deep on the big-picture discussion. Favorite episodes: Blueprint for Armageddon (WWI), Ghosts of the Ostfront (WWII), The American Peril (Spanish-American War), Destroyer of Worlds (atomic bombs), Prophets of Doom (totally random). Half-point off because some of the episodes are insufferable, but usually you know pretty quick, so I just skip those. The one about the fall of Rome whose title I can’t remember, for example, and the one about ancient Persia whose name I can’t remember. Interesting topics, really boring coverage.

Conversations with Tyler (economics)

This also falls into the “makes me smarter” category (like EconTalk), and also falls under “it’s really great to heart smart people ask thoughtful questions to other smart people”. I’d say if you like Ted talks (which I don’t, FWIW), you’ll like this, and if you skipped econ 101 in college but want to know what you would be able to understand if you took it, this is also for you. A little less accessible than EconTalk, and a little less engagement in debate between host and guest.

Tuner (music)

The Tuner podcast breaks down one song a week, discussing some aspect of harmony, production, genre, etc. They walk a tricky line between talking to folks who know about theory and trying to present tutorials for novices, and I think they handle it about a well as one could.

What Really Happened? (medium-form journalism)

He talks about one interesting story each episode, under the guide of uncovering “the truth”. I sort of wish he would drop the “what really happened?” bit and just call this a podcast full of interesting stories you probably forgot about, since some of them can’t plausibly be cast as “what really happened?”, e.g. the story about Britney Spears’s meltdown. It was just a good story about Britney Spears. But overall, this is good, one-story-per-episode journalism.

The Butterfly Effect (long-form journalism)

This is an excellent, in-depth, season-long look at… well, I’m pretty sure this is an excellent podcast regardless of topic, so let’s start with words like “excellent” and “in-depth”. It’s not ideal that his first season was about bizarre corners of the porn industry; it gives the podcast a bit of a “listen if you like kinky stuff” vibe, and it’s hard to say this is an “important” topic. But the quality is excellent, so I both recommend it and eagerly await season 2.

Science Friday (science)

I’m really skeptical about science podcasts… I feel like I should want to listen to more science podcasts, but I think the assumption there is that science podcasts will make me smarter. So far, in my experience, science podcasts all sit somewhere in the uncanny valley between “useful information but too technical for anyone unless you have a PhD on that particular topic” and “so high-level that no useful information is transferred, so you feel like you’re learning, but at the end of an episode, you can’t say what you learned”. I tried the Science and Nature podcasts, and they both sat around the same level of detail as Science Friday, but in comparison, they felt like slow, scripted interviews. So I’m calling this best-in-class, but I remain unconvinced that time listening to science podcasts isn’t better spent listening to comedy podcasts.

S-Town (long-form journalism)

It’s hard not to compare this to Serial, and… well, that’s how life goes. Whoever steps in when Brady retires is going to have a lot of 11-5 seasons that get called “disappointing”. The production on S-Town was great, the reporting was great, but it just never drew us in the way Serial Season 1 did, and it never felt as important as Serial Season 2.

Terms (fiction)

This is a fictional story about White-House-level political intrigue. It’s almost impossible not to listen to it as a way-too-on-the-nose telling of “what if Barack Obama decided to prevent Trump from taking office?”, but I’m placing a lot of stock in the writers’ claims that the story was written well before there was a Trump. If you can look at it as fiction, instead of weak satire, it’s quite compelling.

Steal the Stars (fiction) (the first 13 episodes)

Steal the Stars (fiction) (the last episode)

Original narrative and excellent production; this was a solid five stars going in to the last episode, but it came apart so badly in the last 30 minutes that I wanted back the time I had invested in the whole season. Uck. Five stars for the first 90% of the season, negative one star for the last episode.

Freakonomics Radio (economics?)

Hit or miss; avoid any episodes related to technology, avoid any episodes related to motivation or personal improvement, avoid any episodes that sound really abstract, and avoid any episodes that are just interviews with a luminary. But anything related to economics is always awesome, and freak-quently asked questions episodes are even better.

Homecoming (fiction)

Wow, this show is full of itself. A 20-minute podcast with a 10-minute weekly aftershow to go behind the scenes? But it’s good nonetheless, and the production quality possibly even exceeds that of Limetown. I can’t say I really care about the story; I wish they had channeled their energies into something a little more hard-hitting… stealing a submarine, zombies, etc. But the plot is basically an acceptable scaffold for good acting, good production, and good dialogue.

BBC History Extra (history)

This is like five stars if you hand-pick episodes, but like three stars if you listen blind and get buried in esotera about the British monarchy. The interviews are generally very scripted, and it’s hard to tell whether the interviewer is even listening to the answers, or just working down the list. In a world where we have History Hit, I’m not sure this podcast has a place. That said, it’s still concise and sometimes-interesting history.

The Message (fiction)

Another decent docudrama sunk by the existence of Limetown. It’s OK, but the plot gets a little abstract and silly for my tastes.

Fitzdog Radio (comedy)

He’s a fantastic interviewer, but at the end of the day two funny people talking about not that much just isn’t enough to keep my attention. When he gets into someone’s life story, he has a Stern-esque ability to get people to open up, but for the most part he’s just getting comedians to open up, which is a pretty narrow slice.

The Black Tapes (fiction)

I got really into this for a while, great production, great acting, and solid scripts. But the story definitely took a turn for the silly and poorly thought out… without spoilers, it left the “interesting supernatural with rules” and ended up at “mystical nonsense”.

I do like that the Internet is intensely confused about what level the fiction starts at… is the network real? Is Alex Reagan real? Is PNWS real?

Reasonable Doubt (comedy, and sometimes law)

Really interesting when Geragos talks about cases, really boring when they do their 20-minute rants and/or motivational speeches. If they expanded this to an hour and basically made it “Adam interviews Geragos about an interesting legal case”, this would easily be five stars.

Direct Current (energy)

I tried a bunch of science podcasts in a flurry of science-podcast-downloading, and basically all of them fell in the uncomfortable gap between “enough detail to actually teach you something” and “enough accessibility that you don’t need a PhD to follow along”. Sadly, this podcast also fell in that gap, but I’m giving it a bump for:

  1. The idea that the US government (the DOE) made a well-produced, lively podcast
  2. A fantastic 2.5-episode piece on the history of the Manhattan Project. Five stars for those 2.5 episodes.

Pod Save America (politics)

I basically quit Facebook a few years ago because even though I’m a borderline communist, I just couldn’t take liberals preaching to the choir any more. If, however, I were really into liberals preaching to the choir, as most liberals appear to be, I think this podcast would be great. These are reasonably funny, reasonably well-connected, very intelligent dudes giving a slightly profane take on political news. That said, it just made me mad at liberals, so I’m done with it after two episodes.

WTF

I don’t understand why this is so popular, or why Obama appeared on this show instead of a zillion other podcasts. Maron is an excellent interviewer, but the monologue portion of the show is boring (like, it doesn’t seem to even be an attempt at humor, it’s just a guy talking for 10 minutes), and even when the interviews are good, it’s still just two people talking about not that much, and IMO he’s not even remotely the best interviewer on this list, much less in the entire podverse. See Fitzdog Radio and the ACS; both IMO ask more interesting questions and relate to guests more effectively. So WTF is up with its popularity?

Life After (fiction)

Props to them for starting a new story after The Message, but IMO this one is not as good. The whole season has the same plot as one episode of Black Mirror, and the episode of Black Mirror was better.

When Diplomacy Fails (history)

Great premise (each episode describes the diplomatic build-up in a conflict that eventually ended in war), but suuuuper boring, like a textbook being read to me.

Norm Macdonald Live (comedy)

Second only to “Revisionist History” in the “disappointing” category. Norm Macdonald is a comedic genius with a completely unique voice, and when I heard he had a podcast, I was sure this would stand next to Carolla atop Mount Funny. But it was not to be. As of 2017, it was clearly recorded on someone’s iPhone (despite having two producers in the room… what are they actually producing?), it was crass without being clever… a letdown. The jokes at the end of each episode, very Weekend-Update-esque, are definitely a strong point; if there were a separate podcast with just those, I would be in.

Daily Zeitgeist (politics)

See “Pod Save America”, except take Pod Save America, substitute “drugs” for “relevant political connections and insider insight”, and you’ve got the Daily Zeitgeist.

Serendipity (fiction)

Based only on the first episode, but I didn’t get it. Rambling nonsense. And why do people think it’s a good idea to have a 10-minute preamble about the episode before the episode starts?

Revisionist History (history?)

This was really disappointing, especially when it turned blowhard and stopped having anything to do with history. A huge name in journalism and storytelling is going to do a podcast that critically assesses a historical narrative? Sign me up! But what actually came out was a blowhard-y, uninformative, irritating outpouring of rich white male guilt.

Economic Rockstar (economics)

I started this in my fit of excitement when I discovered other economics podcasts (e.g. EconTalk, Planet Money), but this was horrible by comparison. Slow and boring, living up to every stereotype of economists talking to other economists. Ironic, given the title, no?

Darkest night (fiction)

Right out of the gate this felt like a high school play… except imagine a high school play where they had to narrate every minute detail because the audience has their eyes closed. “I’m picking up a screwdriver now”, “I’m walking through the door now”, etc.

The Leviathan Chronicles (fiction)

See “Edict Zero”, only it feels like more effort went into it, in a bad way.

The Cleansed (fiction)

See “Edict Zero”.

The Deep Vault (fiction)

Also felt very intentionally theatrical (like Edict Zero and We’re Alive), acting and dialog were rough enough that I didn’t take the time to discover the story.

Edict Zero (fiction)

Over-the-top voice acting, more like high school kids putting on a play than a professional podcast. I didn’t make it through an episode.

We’re Alive

I listened to this right after I finished Limetown, which made it seem even worse. The writing was just horrendous; I didn’t make it through one episode. As of right now, this is the worst podcast I’ve ever tried to listen to.

A few that I tried but don’t want to rate because IMO they were good but just not for me…

Welcome to Nightvale

Really interesting use of the medium, very smart, but not my bag.

The Truth

Had been recommended along with serial dramas like Limetown, and I’m just not into the format. Well-produced.

Intercepted

Excellent longform (emphasis on long) reporting on current events, but in my podverse I want reflective, less-current longform journalism / discussion (Serial, History Hit) and shorter reporting on current events (The Daily).

Up First

Good short take on the day’s news, but IMO made obsolete by The Daily.