For three years, I drove to and from work either listening to The Kane Show (check that link and you’ll understand the quality of the programming) or music off of my iPod. I wasted between an hour and an hour and a half every day this way– that’s 4-6% of my precious, precious time. Last July, I decided to change that, and I started listening to podcasts in an effort to at least pretend to improve my mind. A year later, I’ve been around the block enough to know what’s worthwhile in the podcast field. Please enjoy this, Part I of The One and Only Official Review of Podcasts I’ve Listened To.
I frequently run out of the six or so podcasts that I still do listen to, so I can’t really afford to be that picky about what I subscribe to. I am anyway. I’ve completely given up on the following podcasts, in order of terribleness:
The Cracked Podcast
I apologize in advance for the length of this review; I just feel heartbreakingly betrayed by this one, because I read just way, way too much Cracked. So much so that I frequently misrepresent stuff I read in its articles as fact. It’s… it’s one of the worst things about me, really. I spend most weekends delaying productivity by watching the stupid videos they make for hours.
So, when I first decided to subscribe to the Cracked podcast, I thought it would be either an awesome list of fun / hilarious stuff I didn’t know, like a radio version of my old favorite video series, or it’d be an awesome fun pop culture talking-about-session, like a radio version of my new favorite video series. (I specifically link that one because there is, no joke, a Cracked podcast entitled “Actors Who Do Weirdly Specific Stuff in Every Movie.” I haven’t listened to it, but it’s safe to say it’s boring and sucks.)
Let me give you an idea of what listening to the Cracked podcast the first time was like. I listened to A Prairie Home Companion growing up, and I can remember picturing Garrison Keillor as a sort of handsome, older type — sort of an American Sean Connery. And then I saw him, and it completely changed my view of the show — there was no way to unsee what I had seen.
This is exactly how I felt when I listened to one of my (formerly) favorite Cracked authors, David Wong, on the podcast. He wrote some silly “horror” novels (one or more of which was made into a movie starring Paul Giamatti) that were at least passably entertaining, and he generally made interesting articles and stuff. But it turns out he’s like a dour, boring late-30-something boring guy who’s really boring and dour and… sad? He’s really sad.
Another important factor is that Cracked works really well in written, hyperlinked format, so you can check out the studies and articles that are being used to justify their wild claims. (Not that I ever do, but that one could). Their videos work really well because they are well scripted. Instead, the Cracked podcast takes your favorite people from the site and renders them boring and useless as they get into boring and useless conversations about stuff they half-remember from articles you’ve already read with head Cracked editor and most boring and useless person alive, Jack O’Brien. Guys, what I’m getting at here is that the Cracked podcast is boring and useless.
Take this episode, with aforementioned David Wong and Jack O’Brien taking on “the true meaning of Christmas,” without any regard for what Christmas actually means historically. Here’s a hint: it’s not “let’s get drunk and celebrate just to spite winter,” as they suggest, and instead has everything to do with role reversal, as they explicitly say it doesn’t.
This American Life
I’m going to catch flack for this one, but This American Life is boring, and Ira Glass is an annoying jackwad. Honestly, my least favorite thing about TAL is Ira Glass; the stories go back and forth between mildly entertaining (think David Sedaris-level entertainment, where you say, “How thoroughly amusing!” and then move on with your life) and total snooze-fests, but Ira Glass just sounds like the kind of guy who grew up knowing that he was a dullard and decided to make up for it by getting like really in touch with his emotions, so that he could convey his true sense of wonder at everything from Michelangelo’s David to the masterpiece his barista just made whipping a fork through the milk in his cafe au lait.
Otherwise, the show is probably fine.
I was sort of poisoned against the show because the first one I listened to was their live show, and about half the show is Ira “My Voice is Stupid and So’s My Face” Glass just… describing things that were happening on the stage? It actually made me physically uncomfortable how poignant he thought every single moment was.
Stuff You Should Know / Stuff You Missed in History Class
Hey team! Do you want people to read off of wikipedia pages at you? Great! You can listen to the How Stuff Works podcasts!
This group really suffers from the same thing that the Cracked podcast suffers from, which is an inability to navigate to related information when you get bored. Also that the people talking are boring and haven’t scripted anything out ; it’s literally just two people talking about what they found out about something. They don’t even meet up after they do their research to talk about what they want to talk discuss or what was most interesting, they just put their initial discussion on the air and call it a podcast. (They actually admitted this in an episode once, but I’m not going to go back and find it.) The history one is usually a little bit better, but the delivery makes it sound like a middle school powerpoint presentation; they just sort of list facts and describe them as “really cool” instead of tying people and events into larger historical contexts. Ultimately, it’s a waste of time.
Some of the topics are actually really interesting, and despite the format, pretty infromative — I learned a good bit about crack, for instance, and about the Irish potato famine — but some are really boring or just poorly done. Please enjoy my two least favorites. Also, I couldn’t figure out how to embed their tracks in under 3 minutes, so they must be a pretty fly-by-night operation.
Stuff That’s Cool I Guess But Not For Me
The idea for this one is actually totally rad. Take a song and bring the musician on to talk about what went into creating it. It’s a design podcast at heart, and I’m fascinated by design — the incredible amount of thought that goes into the seemingly simplest things has always fascinated me. When I hear a song, I typically think about it as a guitar part, a bass part, a drum part, and vocals, and they all sort of work together and a song comes out, but it basically follows standard musical practice with fourths and fifths and whatever. Maybe, if you’re going to do something crazy, you add in a keyboard.
It turns out that there’s about 30 other layers in the background, and all of them are tiny little design choices that completely change the song (“I used the theme that’s running through the bass line for the first two verses and put it up two octaves on a steel drum, but drop the resolution to the major chord so that it really gives you that sense of Caribbean heartbreak”). Having the artist walk through these is fascinating; it’s basically VH1 Storytellers, but for the whole song instead of just the lead singer.
My principal concern with this show is that I’m not into enough hip, cool music to know anything about the songs they’re exploding. Their episode list includes such bands as Poliça, Sea Wolf, and Nite Jewel, none of whom I’ve even heard of. Even the bands I’ve heard of like Garbage have songs I’ve never heard of (in this case, something off a 2012 album — did you know Garbage was still making music?). I subscribed for awhile in the hopes that something I’d ever heard of would come up, but it never did, and eventually I gave up.
The first episode I heard was something I’d heard of, and it was totally rad. Check out this explosion of the House of Cards main theme.
The Memory Palace
The Memory Palace is pretty much what This American Life wishes it could be. It’s principally a story-telling podcast, and it presents well-told, slice-of-life stories that conjure images and emotions associated with a certain time and place. It just happens to primarily focus on times that are not this time rather than attempting to document the present (and as a result one of the strongest emotions it conjures tends to be nostalgia).
My primary issue with this podcast is that it is very short (usually ~5 minutes) and it comes out rarely (~once per month, maybe?). I basically got sick of seeing it not be updated on my list of podcasts and took it off. Also, because I only listened to a few episodes, it’s somewhat difficult for me to be sure that I wouldn’t have eventually found it too sappy, boring, or, honestly, pretentious. But I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, because the episodes I listened to were pretty good, and I do love history.
I can’t seem to find a good embed link for my favorite episode about the day that Niagara Falls stopped falling, but I can get a link from one of my other favorite podcasts, who occasionally use his stories in theirs:
So concludes Part I of The One and Only Official Review of Podcasts I’ve Listened To. Come back next week for Part II: Podcasts I Actually Still Listen To!