For someone who doesn’t like to drive, I spend an inordinate amount of time in the car. I was someone who had to be cajoled into actually taking my driving test, despite the fact that unlike a lot of teenagers I already had a car waiting for me to drive. I just wasn’t interested; I know a lot of people find driving relaxing, but I think of it as a necessary evil. If I can reasonably avoid getting behind the wheel, I will do so; my friends all know this and generally are willing to volunteer to chauffeur when needed. But I take a lot of solo road trips where there is no one else that can drive, so I wind up in the driver’s seat more often than I would like. If I want to jet off to Philly or Boston randomly for a show or go to New York City and back in a night, I have to be willing to get myself there. That’s the price you pay for living the jet set life.
One of the things that I do to make my time driving more palpable to me is listening to podcasts. I don’t mind listening to music in the car, but I find podcasts to be more entertaining and help the time pass more quickly. I tend to listen to pop culture related podcasts – shocker – but somehow I equate this with being a more productive use of my time than just jamming out to tunes. When I am engaged with a podcast, it helps keep me more alert and focused; with music it is too easy to start daydreaming or let me mind wander, which is problematic for someone who is often on the road late at night. Because I have to devote more attention to listening to whatever the podcast is discussing, I feel like it makes me a better overall driver. Plus I’m too lazy to put together music playlists on my iPod, so if I can listen to something that kills 40 minutes without me having to do anything, so much the better. In some ways, podcasts are my reward for doing something that I would rather not be doing; I may be stuck in the car for 4 hours, but at least I can look forward to catching up on my podcasts in the process.
Over the years, I’ve cultivated a relatively small group of podcasts that I try to listen to regularly. I’m always on the search for new ones to try out, but these are my tried and true favorites that I always make time for. They actually make driving less tedious for me, which is the highest recommendation that I can bestow upon them. Here are the podcasts that I consider essential listening:
This is a newest podcast in the fold and the one that I am currently the most obsessed with. I’ve been yammering on about this podcast for the past few weeks, probably driving my friends and co-workers insane. But it’s just that addictive and enthralling.
Serial comes from the people that do This American Life and is and follows one true story over the course of a season. Serial debuted about six weeks ago and its first story is a doozy: host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 murder of a high school senior in Baltimore County. Her ex-boyfriend was arrested and convicted of the crime, but did he actually do it? Serial sets out to answer that question and what makes it fascinating is that this is not an obvious case of a wrongful conviction or police misconduct; the further that Koenig gets into the story, the more unsure you are of what actually happened. The murder may not have played out the way that the State argued that it did, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t do it either. Koenig painstakingly goes through all the evidence and interviews many of the people that knew both the players involved – including the convicted murderer.
I love true crime stuff, but what sets this podcast apart is the journalist commitment to a thorough investigation and the ebbs and flows of the host’s uncertainty as to how this actually played out; some episodes she sounds pretty convinced that he’s innocent, but other weeks she is less sure of that. It’s just riveting listening; I binge listened to the first four episodes on one of my trips to NYC and I was outraged that there weren’t more to listen to. Now that I’ve exhausted my backlog of episodes, I have to listen to them week to week as they are posted every Thursday and the wait seriously is maddening. Once you start listening, you’ll be fully invested. Even when I’m not listening to the podcast, I find myself rehashing the evidence presented in my mind. This is definitely a podcast that sticks with you; I can barely wait for whatever the final resolution is. I’d hate to think that Adnan is actually guilty, since he seems like a pretty likable guy in her interviews, but nicer people have done worse. I just want to see where the podcast takes me. Highly recommended.
I’m admittedly a little behind on this podcast; I only just discovered it, but it’s been around since 2011. Thrilling Adventure Hour is a modern stage show and podcast done in the style of old time radio; the podcast is actually a recording of the live show that is done monthly, mostly in LA (though the show does go out on the road occasionally). The live show usually features four segments: two regular segments that are done every month and the remaining two spots rotate through various other segments. For the podcast, each segment is its own episode, so you can pick and choose which shows within the show that you listen to. I am totally down the rabbit hole with this podcast; after hearing it mentioned a lot in the various online circles in which I travel, I finally decided to give it a shot and I was absolutely hooked. Even though there were 180+ episodes in the can by the time I started listening, I’ve gone back to the beginning and am working my way through all the episodes to date. For some of the shows that’s necessary, since there are story lines that run through various episodes and there is a history to understand; other are more stand-alone shows that you could jump into at any time. However, I am enjoying the Thrilling Adventure Hour so much that I don’t want to deny myself any of it; even though it will be time consuming, I need to hear every last second of it. Though it’s done in an old timey style, it is not a boring or dated podcast; Thrilling Adventure Hour flips the genre on its head and the results are a fresh take on a vintage form of entertainment.
My favorite two segments have to be the regular features, which works out nicely since there are the most of those episodes. The stage show usually kicks off with Sparks Nevada: Marshall on Mars, which is a western/space hybrid. If you liked Firefly, you’ll dig Sparks Nevada; in fact, Nathan Fillion guest stars on this show as one of the recurring characters. The basic premise is that we have colonized Mars and that the human Sparks Nevada has been appointed to provide some law and order to this new version of the wild, wild west. He’s assisted by a Martian named Croach the Tracker, who has onus to the marshall for saving his people from a flood. This odd couple frequently save the planet from all sorts of peril – robots, aliens, humans, etc – and fight for the affection of the Red Plains Rider (voiced by the always awesome Busy Phillips). Sparks Nevada is funny and clever and has a fantastic theme song. I can’t get enough of it.
The other main segment is Beyond Belief; it chronicles the adventures of Frank and Sadie Doyle, married mediums who are called upon to wrangle supernatural beings in between throwing back an inordinate amount of martinis. Beyond Belief is one part ghost story and one part 30s comedy; Paul F. Thompkins and Paget Brewster absolutely nail the delivery for both of these characters. You’d be forgiven for forgetting what decade you are in while listening. It’s just fabulous.
Of the rotating segments, I’m partial to Captain Laserbeam, a superhero story done in the style of vintage 60s Batman. The criminals all have punny names and it’s all silly fun. I also enjoyed two segments that they have currently retired: the odd Down in Moonshine Holler, which follows a reverse Cinderella story of a millionaire who masquerades as a hobo to find his impoverished lady love, and Tales from the Black Lagoon, which tells ridiculous stories from old Hollywood. Once you’ve heard Jimmy Stewart as an opium fiend, you know you are listening to something innovative.
This podcast is done by comedian Doug Benson, who is a big movie buff. He brings together a panel of people – usually his friends and fellow comedians, though actors and other people do drop by – to talk briefly about movies and then to play film inspired games. The best is the Leonard Maltin game, where contestants have to guess the name of a film from a few clues from Maltin’s review after bidding Name That Tune style as to how many members of the cast that they need to hear listed to get it right. I have seen more movies than most, but I am absolutely terrible at half the games that they play. The guests aren’t that great at them either, which makes it entertaining. Leonard Maltin has appeared on the show multiple times and is a good sport about his name being attached to a podcast that is mostly comprised of stoner comedians. Jon Hamm has been on the show and has further proved his awesomness by being a film savant; he wins almost every time that he appears and is charming and funny all the while. I find myself laughing out loud a lot at the podcast as well as getting ridiculously excited when I get an answer right. One of my favorite episodes of all time was when a very drunk Chris Evans was on the show. He was fantastically funny. It’s a vastly entertaining way to spend some time.
This is one of the first podcasts that I got hooked on and I’ve been a faithful listener for years. Comedian Marc Maron conducts some fascinating interviews; because he is such an open book and willing to talk about his own faults and failings, he’s able to get his guests to be very candid in their talk with him. He primarily interviews comedians – both old and new – but he’s also expanded into talking to actors and musicians as well. After someone has been on WTF, I feel like I know them a lot better; not everyone bares their soul, but I feel like most people that go on the show reveal a little bit more of themselves than they would do in other interviews. The best episodes are when Marc interviews someone that he’s had history with; Maron is a bitter guy with anger issues and has had a combative relationship with numerous other comics over the years. The fact that these people are willing to still go on his show and hash out their differences – to varying degrees of forgiveness – speaks to the power of the podcast. Marc and Louis C.K. had a falling out years ago and managed to repair their relationship during the interview. For people like me who fancy themselves comedy nerds, WTF not only introduces me to many comics that I might not have otherwise heard of, but it is a chance to get to know them as people rather than just performers. After Robin Williams died, listening to his WTF episode was both poignant and heartbreaking. Maron can be a little self-involved for some, but I enjoy him and WTF immensely.
You would think that a NPR podcast about pop culture would be a little too highbrow for most, but the beauty of Pop Culture Happy Hour is that it that they talk about mainstream culture in a smart way. The weekly podcast is a roundtable discussion that has introduced me to a lot of books, podcasts and other pop culture that I might not otherwise decided to check out. This podcast is where I first heard of Thrilling Adventure Hour, so just for that recommendation alone I am forever thankful. The panelists on Pop Culture Happy Hour have very different points of view, but they are also all friendly and mostly respect each other’s opinions. A lot of coverage of pop culture isn’t done in a particularly smart way, but even when I disagree with the folks on Pop Culture Happy Hour, I know it will at least be a thoughtful and interesting discussion without also being a boring lecture. I especially enjoy that they end the podcast each week by going around the room and discussing what pop culture is making them happy. That seems like a very positive way to wrap things up and allows them to make some quick recommendations that I often incorporate into my own pop culture exploration.
I check in on most of the Grantland pop culture podcasts, but Hollywood Prospectus is by far my favorite of the bunch. Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan generally like the same stuff that I do and I really enjoy when they break down the latest episodes of some of my favorite television shows. They are big Game of Thrones fans as well – and they haven’t read the books – so I especially look forward to their insight and theories on what we’ve witnessed on Sunday. Though we generally have the same taste in movies and TV, I’ve gotten a number of book and music recommendations from this pair that I’ve enjoyed; they were the first people that I heard talking about The Passage, a book that I really liked, and they help keep me current on the world of hip hop. Greenwald and Ryan grew up together – they have been friends since high school – so they have great camaraderie and playful banter on the podcast. It’s like listening to my guy friends argue about and discuss pop culture; I get really bummed out when there isn’t a new podcast every week. If Andy and Chris recommend something, that’s likely to make a difference to me. It was a relief when they started to lose interest in Homeland; I thought that I was the only one who thought that show went right off the rails. Sunday night television is a lot more fun when I know that I’ll get to listen to these two break the shows down later in the week.
There are other podcasts that I dabble in, but these are the shows that are most central to my listening rotation. Even with all of the time I spend in the car I’m still behind on some of these, so I’ve started trying to listen to a podcast before I go to sleep to stay current. I’m looking forward to my drive to Rochester this weekend not only because I’ll get to visit with friends, but because I’ll get nearly 7 hours of podcast listening in during the round trip. I won’t say that I am excited about driving now, but podcasts have made the experience much more pleasurable. Maybe someday there will be an As Heather’s World Turns podcast, though it may have to feature someone else since I’m not necessarily a fan of the sound of my voice. I’m always looking to give new shows a try, so if you have any podcast suggestions sound off in the comments below. What are your favorite podcasts to listen to?