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My brother’s a farmer. All day he works with his hands: carrying feed, driving a truck, relocating animals from one side of a fence to the other. And throughout it all, he’s got earbuds in that are alive with podcasts. Typically something from NPR or Radiolab. Maybe This American Life. Occasionally guys like Adam Carolla or Joe Rogan. At the beach this year with the rest of the family, I found him on the back porch sitting in the sun, headphones in, listening.
Whenever we speak now, he references podcasts like I might the news, or a book I’ve been reading. He uses terms like “terrestrial radio”. Most important, he’s been able to double up on his time, working and learning. Commuting and learning. Farming and learning.
Years out of school and in the workplace, many of us don’t have the time to keep learning regularly. Self-education requires the motivation and time for ventures through nonfiction books, documentaries and late-night wanderings from one Wikipedia page to the next. Podcasts, on the other hand, allow you to pack in self-improvement in whatever small bits of free time you have. Below are 10 of the best podcasts out there that cover topics ranging from politics and economics, to history and science, to revealing, insightful conversations with extremely interesting people. Study up.
The cliche of dry and boring history classes is turned on its head in Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, an author and radio talk show host who focuses on those turning points in history marked by violence, conflict or the unthinkable. He reads and reads and reads (he posts the reading list to his site) and then, every few months, he presents the best of what he learned in a long rambling lecture that’s more controversial than an average history lesson. Comparing historical atrocities, getting inside the minds of the bad guys and asking questions that wouldn’t be considered polite conversation are the hallmarks of Carlin’s show, which sucks you into society’s past.
From January until October of 2010, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, sat down every weekday and walked listeners through the history of the world. What has made his podcast still popular five years later is his method: his entrance into history is through objects. Each episode centers around an object, from the Mummy of Hornedjitef and a stone chopping tool from 2,000,000 B.C., to the Seated Buddha from Gandhara from 200 A.D., to the credit cards, solar-powered lamps, and chargers of today. For MacGregor, the tools in our hands, art on our walls and jewelry around our necks can tell us just as much as the history books.
Since 2009, the popular physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince from BBC Radio 4 have hosted a humor-riddled exploration of questions in science big and small. The weekly podcast explores subjects like space tourism, death, and the apocalypse, with the help of a guest panel made up of, usually, two scientists, to act as teachers, and one comedian, to break the dryness and ask the dumb questions a listener might have.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, Josh Clark and Charles Bryant, friends and senior editors at HowStuffWorks, answer questions — many you may have wondered about in the past, and many that you’ve probably never considered. The show started in 2008 to complement the site, but has morphed into a juggernaut of information that consistently ranks among the most popular podcasts available today. From topics like Jack the Ripper, to property rights, to the Spanish Inquisition and marriage among robots, nothing seems to be too obscure or too mainstream for the hosts, who leave the audience with many jumping-off points for their own intellectual curiosity.
First spurred into existence by the 2008 financial crisis, this podcast, produced by NPR, was inspired by the success of an episode of This American Life called “The Giant Pool of Money“. The series airs twice a week and explores the math-heavy aspects of economics and finance, along with the psychology of behavior and economic decision making, in order to answer questions about why people act the way they do.
Hosted by musician Hrishikesh Hirway, since 2014 Song Exploder has been deconstructing music — anything from rap to rock to television theme songs — to better understand exactly what is going on when we listen. For musicians and non-musicians alike, Hrishikesh’s podcast gets the artists themselves (past guests include U2, Spoon and Deathcab for Cutie) to provide an overview of their creative process, explain nuances of their music and, through all of it, give the listener a look inside their head.
Gabfest is a weekly podcast led by names familiar to readers of Slate: David Plotz, a former Slate editor, Emily Bazelon, a legal expert, and John Dickerson, an expert on Washington politics. The trio has informal discussions on current political news in a way that’s honest and irreverent, giving listeners a mix of the facts and opinions of the American political climate.
This cast is the answer to those wanting balanced but passionate political discussions, minus the yelling. Hosts Josh Barro, a columnist at The New York Times, Robert Scheer, editor-in-chief of Truthdig, and Arianna Huffington, publisher of the The Huffington Post, represent the left, right and center of current political topics. The show’s biggest draw is its design: hosts and their guests are given time to speak their mind without interruption, allowing for a type of discussion that approaches a desire for learning, rather than a desire to be right.
This is the second podcast on this list hosted by Dan Carlin, and for good reason. In Common Sense, he brings his unapologetic rhetoric from Hardcore History into the political realm, which is usually characterized by guarded and nuanced discussion. His viewpoint, which he refers to as “Martian”, is a monthly examination that, similar to Left, Right and Center, strives to be nonpartisan and free from the constraint of politeness.
WTF is not educational in the traditional sense, but you’ll definitely learn by listening to it. Marc Maron started his career onstage in the comedy clubs of Los Angeles and New York in the 1980s, brushing shoulders with today’s megastars while they were young. Now, in his 50s, many of those same comedians and performers and directors make it onto his show for hour-long discussions. Maron has an amazing ability to start honest discussions with the most guarded individuals, including Barack Obama, and can speak to other performers from the lens of his own experience. Listen first to his interview with Louis CK, which was named by Slate as the best podcast ever recorded.
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