Welcome to my first regularly occurring segment – my monthly media recommendations! I’m always excited to share my favorite books, podcasts, music, and TV shows with my friends, so I decided to formalize my suggestions and put them on my blog so everyone can discover interesting new content.
My first media recommendation list is dedicated to podcasts. We are in the golden era of podcasting. There are amazing, well-produced podcasts about almost every possible topic: serialized science fiction, spiritual enlightenment, sports analysis, and self-improvement. I listen to podcasts every chance I get – while exercising, cooking, driving, and even as I fall asleep. Now that smartphones and computers are much more ubiquitous, online content has never been more accessible. Even better – most podcasts are free! Unlike paid subscriptions to Netflix or Hulu, podcasts are generally free so the barrier to access is even lower.
The podcasts that I’m recommending this month are specifically focused on acquiring new information, a favorite hobby of mine. This is not the serious, textbook kind of information; it’s more of a gathering of fun, random facts. I feel a lot more knowledgeable and capable of discussing all types of topics now that I listen to these podcasts.
The following are my top five favorite podcasts that teach me something new every day. With Stuff You Should Know, I learn about everything under the sun – including how the sun works, in one memorable episode. I discover the economic side of everything with Freakonomics Radio, because there’s always an economic side. Code Switch offers insight into navigating conversations about race and culture to better connect with people of different backgrounds. My Spanish language comprehension skills are improving with The Unlimited Spanish Podcast. And for a quick hit of knowledge, I turn to Part-Time Genius, which offers easily dispensable and retainable facts.
1. Stuff You Should Know, with Josh Clark and Charles W. Bryant
I first discovered podcasts three years ago, during my sophomore year of college. I read an article about the fun and informative Stuff You Should Know (SYSK), and I decided to give it a try. I was immediately hooked. For a long time, SYSK was the only podcast I listened to because of its incredibly extensive backlog of episodes. The show just celebrated its 10 year anniversary, and has more than 1,000 episodes in its arsenal. The two hosts, Josh and Chuck, are good friends well known for going on amusing rants often only tangentially related to the topic at hand. They bring life to the material so even topics I don’t normally seek out (such as true crime and space stories), are engaging. As listeners of the show often write in to say, Josh and Chuck are two white, Southern men surprisingly good at tackling issues of inequality.
SYSK episodes are just the right length – usually between 45-60 minutes. Sometimes with shorter shows the hosts don’t go into depth about the topic and I am left wanting more. Josh and Chuck take a deep dive into the mechanics of how each theory, event, or object works, whether the topic is as broad as climate change or narrow as the Beagle Brigade.
The show covers a broad range of topics – everything from food, history, science, murder mysteries, anthropology, and economics. SYSK delves into little known history events such as the 1912 Villisca Ax Murders and the mystery of the Antikythera Mechanism, as well as two part series on larger events like the Trail of Tears. There are scientific inquiries into the workings of HeLa cells, snakes (this episode is amusingly called Oh No, Snakes!) and puberty. The sociology-based episodes explore if elections laws are designed to suppress voting and the gendered distaste of vocal fry.
My favorite episodes (so far) are Operation Mincemeat: How a Corpse Fooled the Nazis, a great investigation into WWII battle plan espionage; and Why You Should Never Scare a Vulture. Like most Americans, I’ve never thought fondly of vultures but this episode shared their importance as interrupters of disease vectors and their curious adaptions to hot climates.
I cannot recommend this podcast enough. At its heart, this show is two friends trying to figure out how the world works. I listen to it at least twice a week, and I always learn something new. It is consistently rated in the top fifteen podcasts on iTunes for good reason.
2. Freakonomics, with Stephen J. Dubner
This was the second show I discovered once I started exploring the world of podcasts and I quickly became addicted to it. The podcast is a continuation of Stephen Dubner’s and Steve Levitt’s best-selling book series Freakonomics. Steve Levitt is the doctorate economist of the pair and offers his economic analyses in the books, but Stephen Dubner runs the radio show turned podcast. Stephen invites experts to share their opinions on any range of topics. Since he isn’t an economist, he asks basic questions about theories and principles so that listeners don’t have to have a lot of background knowledge to understand and enjoy the show. He is an excellent audio presenter, very aware of pacing and the rhythm of conversations. Their tagline is “The hidden side of everything,” and this is clearly true as they explore economics, and often sociology, in every context.
Freakonomics is worthwhile to listen to because often economics is thought of a boring, dry field that doesn’t seem to predict actual events (such as the Great Recession) accurately. However there is another side to the field – it also can help explain gender, race, professional, and social inequalities. I find economic theory so engaging, especially as it relates to social phenomenon, and Stephen and his guests do an excellent job exploring that relationship. The show covers such a broad range of topics that may appear only superficially related to economics, but upon closer inspection, have deep economic impacts. Stephen covers the economic side of the demonization of gluten, the universal language Esperanto, the Koch brothers, and why nurses are so valuable.
My favorite episodes are often about the exploration of social disparities, and how economic analyses can foster policy or behavioral changes to help bridge the difference. One example of this exploration is the episode What Can Uber Teach Us About the Gender Pay Gap? Uber commissioned the study and Stephen interviewed one of the main authors. The company pays the same rate to drivers in the same city, yet there was still a noticeable gap in women and men’s earnings (about 7%), and this episode explores why. This episode was so fascinating to me because I’m always interested in gendered analyses of subjects that are seemingly gender neutral. There is an underlying gendered difference in most occupations, including something as innocuous as driving with Uber.
Bonus: Stephen Dubner also hosted another podcast called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which is a game show turned podcast. The lively podcast invited about five knowledgable people in any field to tell a panel of well-known judges something they didn’t know. The judges then decided which guest shared the most surprising, interesting story and awarded the winner a gag gift. Great show in a fun, fresh format. There haven’t been any episodes this year, so I’m not sure if Stephen is taking a break or if the podcast is over, but the backlog of episodes is still available and very funny. I hope Stephen decides to continue it this year, check it out!
3. Code Switch, with several journalists of color at NPR
I discovered Code Switch right after the release of the genre-bending film Get Out. I wanted to listen to interviews with Jordan Peele, the writer and director, to learn about the making of the film, as well as an analysis of subtler themes I didn’t catch during my first viewing. This episode was so insightful that I kept listening to the show, eager to hear their analysis of race, racism, and culture. Code Switch offers insight into how to think about race and culture to better connect with people of different backgrounds. Several journalists of color run the podcast, and they investigate a plethora of issues surrounding race – housing segregation, immigration, the education system, interracial relationships, and more. They interview guests about recent literature, politics, pop culture, and history. The show continually offers a fresh perspective on each topic because of the constant rotation of hosts and guests. Episodes are always informative, sometimes light and fun, sometimes bleak and uncomfortable, but always worthwhile.
I listened to this show in college, but I enjoy it even more post-graduation. I am no longer part of big groups that meet weekly to discuss our opinions on social issues and their impact on various communities. I still talk about these issues with friends individually, but there is a difference between hearing one friend’s perspective and learning from a large group of people with diverse racial/ethnic/gender identity/ socioeconomic backgrounds. I haven’t found a comparable replacement for these groups yet, but Code Switch offers me a chance to continue learning about these social issues from various thoughtful, intelligent hosts.
Though it was published over a year ago, my favorite episode is “We’re Still Talking About ‘My Family’s Slave.’” A long form article published last June in the Atlantic detailed the life of Eudocia Pulido, one immigrant Filipino family’s katulong, domestic servant, and how the author came to terms with her status within the family. I didn’t know much about slavery outside of the American context, so the piece was very eye-opening for me. Code Switch hosts interviewed the author’s widow and a professor who studies the practice in his native Philippines. They discussed how to think about what happened specifically to Eudocia, how the practice has evolved in the Philippines, and how to think about enslavement vs. indebtedness vs. ownership. Overall, this episode was extremely thoughtful and well executed. Code Switch produces quality content about all types of issues surrounding race and inequality, definitely worth a listen.
4. The Unlimited Spanish Podcast, with Óscar Pellus
I recently started listening to The Unlimited Spanish Podcast because I wanted to improve my Spanish accent and comprehension. I’ve always been interested in learning Spanish; I like the rhythm and the structure of it. If I had had free space in my schedule in college, I would’ve minored in Spanish. Instead, I listen to this podcast to continue learning. Many of my Spanish teachers in high school and college were not native speakers and so didn’t have a proper accent. Thus understanding others and my own pronunciation has always been challenging for me. The Unlimited Spanish Podcast is perfect for solidifying my verbal comprehension.
This podcast is a great learning tool if you already know basic vocabulary and grammar rules. The host, Óscar Pellus, speaks very gently and clearly, so following along takes work but is not too difficult. Episodes are usually shorter than 15 minutes, so this is a great quick hit of Spanish. Each episode usually has a theme where new vocabulary is introduced, like Body Parts or Vacations, or general discussions of Spanish culture. Some episodes have a question and answer format where there are pauses for the listener to answer a question about the story, or a call and repeat for new vocabulary. Another great perk of this podcast – the full transcript of each episode is available online for reading practice. The Unlimited Spanish Podcast is a great resource if you want to brush up on your Spanish speaking and listening skills. Óscar’s voice is so soothing and rhythmic I often listen as I fall asleep.
5. Part-Time Genius, with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur
Part-Time Genius is also a new podcast in my arsenal. If you only have time for short burst of fun facts, Part-Time Genius is perfect. In every sense, the podcast is light-hearted. They offer episodes on the shorter side, typically between 20-30 minutes, sometimes as short as 12 minutes. I don’t listen to this show often because it is a bit short if I’m doing a lengthy task like cleaning or working out. But when I do listen, I always enjoy the camaraderie between the hosts, Will and Mango, and their easy-going presentation.
Their shows are not in-depth investigations into the mechanics of how each topic works, but I do learn information in a manageable way. The content is easily digestible and fun, exploring such issues as How Avocados Conquered the World and Every Day Life in Antarctica. Part-Time Genius has a regularly occurring segment, nine facts about anything from office supplies to Aussie animals to Disney trivia (entertainingly called 9 Disney Facts to Work Into Conversations Immediately!).
Regardless of the topic of each episode, I always come away with random trivia to share with friends. My favorite episode is 9 Leafy Facts about Houseplants, which gives advice about not sending a basil plant to someone you love (it indicates strong dislike in floriography) and delves into why Venus flytraps are the official state carnivorous flower in North Carolina. Check out Part-Time Genius if you’re looking for a gentle, informative resource.
I hope you enjoyed my first monthly media recommendation list! I highly recommend trying any of the above shows if you want to learn something new about a wide range of topics. Podcasting is an amazing medium with so many types of shows that are increasingly accessible to broad audiences. I get my podcasts for free from the iTunes Podcast app, but they’re also available on each podcast’s website, on Soundcloud, or various paid apps such as Audible or Instacast. So many ways to listen, so many things ot learn.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcasts I have recommended and on your own favorite learning podcasts! Let me know in the comments below.