Six Great Podcast Episodes

I listen to a lot of podcasts – so many, in fact, that I sometimes run out of new material and have to go back to one of my old standbys. So I keep a certain number of great episodes downloaded to my phone at all times, both for when I’ve run out of new material and for those times (airplanes, power outages, zombocalypse) that I’m left without an internet connection.

These aren’t necessarily indicative of the podcasts I listen to all the time – there are lots of news and technology podcasts that I enjoy, but don’t find re-listenable. But the chances are good that at any given point in time, I’m in the mood to hear one of these six episodes.

43Folders – John Gruber & Merlin Mann’s Blogging Panel at SxSW

Gruber and Mann are technology bloggers, but their talk from the 2009 South by Southwest festival is a fantastic exploration of inspiration, doing what you love, and pushing through even when it feels like nobody’s paying attention. It’s nominally about blogging, but if you make any kind of art, I think there’s valuable wisdom here.

Fresh Air – Terry Gross Interviews Maurice Sendak

This interview is without a doubt one of the most affecting pieces of tape I’ve ever heard. Gross spoke with Sendak very near the end of his life, and his reflections about growing old are somehow sad, beautiful, and inspiring all at once. The interview is well-worth hearing in its entirety, but if you just want to bawl your eyes out, check out this animated excerpt from the New York Times.

This American Life – Retraction

This American Life has produced dozens of fantastic episodes in its twenty-year run, so I’m sure they’d be disappointed to hear that one of my favorites is on the subject of their greatest journalistic failure. A few months before this episode ran, the show featured a monologue about Apple’s production line in China from a speaker named Mike Daisey – much of which turned out to be fabricated.

The first part of this show is a fascinating journalistic detective story as Rob Schmitz, a reporter based in China, hears things in the monologue that don’t add up and starts digging into Daisey’s story. But it’s the second part that I find truly fascinating, as Ira Glass sits down in the studio with Daisey and probes him about why he thought he could get away with such outright fabrication. It’s an intensely awkward experience, a portrait of a man who is used to being able to talk himself out of any situation slowly coming to the realization that he’s gotten himself into real trouble.

Radiolab Shorts – Fu Manchu

Radiolab seems to have lost its way recently, which makes me sad: the show was the first podcast I fell in love with. But it’s been a long time since they’ve made a truly thrilling piece of radio, and it seems like when they’re not mounting ill-advised defenses of plagiarizers, they’re failing to consider their approach when talking to massacre-survivors.

This short, from 2010, showcases in 12 minutes everything that was great about the show: their commitment to story, the way they tied that story together with interesting scientific concepts, and the way that – at their best – the innovative editing and sound design supported, rather than detracted from, their intent. It’s the story of an orangutan escape artist named Fu Manchu, and it’s awesome.

(I also love this 2007 episode about zoos, especially the first segment about the construction of the first interactive enclosure built for gorillas at the Seattle Zoo.)

WTF With Marc Maron – Louis CK Parts 1 and 2

In the early days, there was something lovably ramshackle about WTF with Marc Maron: it really was just a b-list comedian talking to his friends in his garage. The show’s changed in the five years since it launched, and as it approaches its 500th episode, the show no longer feels like Maron’s just rifling through his rolodex to book guests. That’s sometimes good – I’ve really enjoyed his recent interviews of non-comedians. But it also means that the show has lost some of the personal connection Marc used to have to his guests.

These two episodes (drawn from the same interview) are part interview, part therapy session, and it’s fascinating to hear these guys probe at old wounds and try to repair their friendship on-air.

99% Invisible - Wild Ones Live

99% Invisible is one of the best-produced podcasts out there, but this episode is something that host Roman Mars had only minimal involvement in. It’s a taped performance from author Jon Mooallem, who’s reading excerpts from his book, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America”. Backing up Mooallem is the folk band Black Prairie, which shares several members with The Decemberists. The stories are funny, sad, and totally fascinating, and the music provides a really great counterpoint that shores up the emotional beats of Mooallem’s work. If you like it, definitely check out Mooallem’s book as well.