This week, I’m picking up where we left off in Part 1 of my podcast review (perhaps more appropriately titled “Stuff I Don’t Listen To and Why I Don’t Listen To It”, or “I Get Angry At People For No Reason”). This week, I’ll be talking about the tiny, tiny subset of podcasts that I think are even remotely worth my time to listen to, in ascending order of worthiness.
Of the six podcasts I still listen to, three of them are moderately interesting at best, and hugely infuriating at their worst.
I started listening to PM because I thought they would tell me about the basics of being an adult — saving, investing, planning for the future. It turns out they’re actually a poorly-named economic-themed anecdote-based podcast. They have some interesting tidbits, like the one about the conference that set the dollar up as the primary international currency, but an equal number that are basically pure conjecture about a dumb talking point, like the one about milk being in the back of the store. They also have some interesting policy tidbits. After I found out that they provide no useful information, I kept listening to them primarily because… they’re short? They come out pretty often, which means if one episode is really boring, it’s over quickly, and maybe the next one will be moderately interesting.
One of my chief gripes with them is that they claim to be an economics podcast, but not a single one of them appears to have any economic training — they’re just reporters. And while I understand that it’s their job to go out and find actual economists and get them to opine / spew data at people, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect the reporters to have an idea of what the economists are talking about. This comes up again in the Freakonomics podcast, but nothing infuriates me more than people saying things like “It may not make sense, but to an economist…” because it implies that economists have this magical power to see the truth through the BS. Economics is basically just the study of the allocation of scarce resources, and applied broadly enough, that’s basically what everybody does every day — allocate scarce resources, like their time and money. They treat economists like some sort of mythical creature with God-like money knowledge, but basically anything being explained by an economist should be understandable by anyone who has ever made a decision.
The other thing that brings this podcast down is the voices of the reporters. Zoe Chace has the single most annoying speech pattern (even worse than “vocal fry“) — seriously, it sounds like she’s viciously attacking the words as she speaks them. And then one of the reporters has like… maybe a lisp? There’s definitely something lispy going on, and I end up focusing way more on how he’s saying things than what he’s actually saying. I know this is a cheap shot, but it’s actually an important part of the presentation. Their job as radio hosts is to present things with their voices; you’d think they’d brush up on their non-regional diction and present a palatable medium to convey information.
This might be my least favorite episode — it’s not really fair, since this is basically what I do for a living, but it just drives me through the roof how they are so incredibly befuddled by the end of Trading Places, especially given that their explanation of commodities trading literally comes from the movie itself. “I watched this whole movie and I had no idea what was going on, can you explain it?” “Yeah, watch the movie, it explains everything.”
99% Invisible is ostensibly an architecture podcast, but it turns out architecture is pretty boring and esoteric, so they broadened their focus to general design. I actually really like this for the most part; there have been some really interesting stories (like this one about the Citigroup Center building in NYC secretly being structurally unstable and needing secret nighttime retrofits) and a lot of really cool stuff about how things got the way they are (like this one about barcodes). The reporting is usually solid, and unlike PM, the 99PI folks actually understand what they’re talking about and add to the story. It’s also not an actual radio show, just a podcast, which means the format is a little bit more flexible.
On the other hand, the host Roman Mars is a special kind of unbearable, self-import hipster. He’s exactly the kind of person you would expect to tell you repeatedly he’s from San Francisco or to name his kid Mazlo — or for that matter to spell it “Mazlo” instead of “Maslow,” like a less-un-normal person would do. It could be much worse — his soft-spoken self-importance is almost always positive, singing the high praises of the tiniest details of the most boring and mundane garbage. Still, it’s a huge drawback to the show, especially when he’s talking about, for instance, the designs that went into creating a community for hypochondriacs who think that they are allergic to plastic and electricity being near them.
My favorite episode so far has to be the one about futuristic-looking interfaces in sci-fi movies; in particular, I think the “design apology” concept adds a cool dimension to a lot of these movies.
The Freakonomics podcast is well-produced and entertaining in much the same way that the books are, and while Dubner suffers from the same “… but to an economist!” problem as Planet Money, he at least understands that it’s not so much about being an economist as it is about thinking in a certain way and evaluating decision spaces, and he’s a surprisingly good interviewer. The podcast also explores a larger economic space than PM, embracing behavioral economics and focusing less on the monetary aspects of economics. The show also features a rich set of experts on various economic subjects, and excels whenever Levitt stops by, primarily because he sounds like such a goofball.
The reason this doesn’t make the “best of the best” cut for me is that I think most episodes lack a meaningful conclusion. This could be viewed as a plus, since the best conclusions are almost always going to be “it depends,” but the subjects usually aren’t interesting enough as talking points to make it really engaging. Also, I spend a fair amount of time yelling at the radio when they start discussing problems I think have obvious or incorrect solutions, and now that the Silver Line is open it’s much less acceptable for me to yell than it was when I commuted in my car.
The episode about quitting is probably the most representative episode — basically, taking a common maxim and examining whether or not it’s true from an economic perspective (in this case, examining the return on allocation of scarce time).
I also really liked his interview with Takeru Kobayashi. Who knew the hotdog champ had studied economics?
Honestly, these two and the winner below are all up there on my list of favorites. But I’m ranking things, so they have to appear in some order.
Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
WWDTM is my go-to Friday podcast, since it puts me in a good mood for the weekend. It’s also the most likely to be interesting for long journeys and the least likely for me to zone out on. It’s a usually informative and frequently hilarious news quiz show, hosted by Peter Sagal with Bill Kurtis as a scorekeeper for three panelists, typically drawn from a pool of B-level comedians (basically the ones most likely to be on NPR…). They also feature listener call-in games, which range from impossibly easy (the limerick game, wherein Bill Kurtis reads a limerick with the last word or phrase missing, and the user just has to figure out what rhymes, and people will routinely be like “Hmmm… you said ‘turple…’ then ‘urple…’ and it’s a color… so … orange?” It’s incredible when someone doesn’t get it.) to impossibly hard (the fake news game where each contestant reads a ridiculous news story and the user has to guess which one is real). I can’t imagine what it’d be like to call into that show and be told that you’re going to be on the fake news story. I think I would cry.
There’s two things wrong with the podcast — the first is clip shows, which they do about every other month, when they’re on vacation, and the second is some of the panelists. A lot of the panelists are great — Roy Blount, Jr. and Tom “We’ll leave the light on for you” Bodett are my favorites — but some of them are cringe-inducing, in particular this one guy, I can never remember who, whose laugh is … whatever the opposite of infectious is? It’s like a vaccine — a weakened form of laughter that stops you from ever contracting the condition once you’ve experienced it. But I’m sure he’s a great guy or whatever. Hilariously, they also have Bobcat Goldthwait as a panelist.
The episodes are all pretty similar, so I just tried to find one with both Tom Bodett and Roy Blount, Jr. This one features Itzhak Perlman!
Backstory takes a theme and explores its past in America. The hosts are three American history professors from around Virginia, each with a specialty in the 18th, 19th, or 20th Century. They do several 5-10 minute pieces on various aspects of the issue, typically consisting of interviews with experts or a story from one of their producers. The themes range from hot-topic issues (the “I Have a Dream” speech on its 50th anniversary) to somewhat more mundane fare (fashion in America), but the pieces are consistently enlightening and usually help to contextualize the theme and how it fits into other themes throughout history. (In the aforementioned fashion example, for instance, they explore the contradiction of the white settlers “civilizing” mission with the Enlightenment’s fondness for and closeness to nature, and how this plays out politically with Benjamin Franklin’s coon-skin hat in France during the American Revolution.)
Occasionally, the podcasts can be a little dry, and I have a tendency to zone out. Also, frequently the call-ins are either yawn-inducing or cringe-worthy. But all-in-all, as a history buff, I think this is one of the better history podcasts available — certainly the best one I’ve found so far.
It’s hard to come up with a really good representative episode, because they’re all of pretty similar quality. I chose this one because it’s topical now.
The Big Winner: Radiolab
I get the most excited when I see that I have a new Radiolab to listen to. It’s the best-produced (some might say over-produced?) of the podcasts I listen to, and it consistently provides interesting stories that are at least mostly science-based. It’s hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, and although Krulwich frequently plays the straight man, debating theories they’re presenting with such clever arguments as “I just feel like that can’t be true,” he’s usually saved by Abumrad, who convinces the listener of the plausibility of whatever’s being presented. Also, they were just on Colbert.
Occasionally, they do a music episode, and I usually hate those. But otherwise, the show is top-notch in entertainment and information, and I just wish it came out more often.
This one is actually totally not representative, since it’s their live show, but it is my favorite, because dinosaurs. Just stop listening after the dinosaur part, though, because the rest was kinda boring and trippy, if I remember correctly.
This one was really good and is probably much more of a representative episode.
That does it for The Only Podcast Review You’ll Ever Need. If you know of any more I should listen to, throw them my way!