Valentine || to Podcasts
Right up there in the top few questions I'm routinely asked about nomadic life--right next to "What do you eat?" and "How long are you going to do that for?"--is the kindly inquiry "Don't you get lonely?"
I have to bite my tongue not to turn the question back on people, because I know they mean well. (But seriously...don't you get lonely? Doesn't everybody?)
I'm always shocked to learn how many people don't know about podcasting yet--how it works (click "Download," insert earbuds) or even that it exists. (Update: Serial has definitely changed this, but they're still out there.) I'm far from being the early adopter type, but this widespread ignorance among my own peer group about the biggest new media format of our day makes me feel very fashion-forward.
Podcasting is public radio returned from summer vacation with new contacts, a nice pair of...legs, and some iconoclastic political views. It calls back what radio used to be, back in the day--a meritocratic frontier where anyone can find a home for their voice, from angry comics to glib cultural critics to regular folks monologuing into a microphone.
It should be said, however, that none of the foregoing are the reason why they're saying we're currently in a "golden age of podcasting" right now. (For real--google it.) And I suspect this golden age has less to do with commuter hours and more to do with the storytelling podcasts that got the whole medium off the ground. These shows may fit in any number of niches, from science (RadioLab) to business (StartUp) to internet trends (Reply All); what they have in common is a foot planted squarely in old-time radio programs. Like classic cocktails reinvented for modern-day speakeasies, these shows take real-life narratives, mix it with after-hours journalistic technique, garnish with some clever music, and serve it up with dry self-reflection.
With this metaphor in mind, here is a list of our favorite podcasts that keep us company on the road:
This American Life (the Old-Fashioned)
I know everybody knows this one by now--either because they are OG public radio junkies or because they heard reference to it on Serial, which was produced by TAL founder Ira Glass. (To whom we must give props for his gracious attitude toward the breakaway success of his podcast's much younger spinoff.) TAL spends an hour each week on a single theme, with three or more real-life stories within that theme told largely by the people who lived them. (This blog owes not a little to the format.)
Listen to this one about how people everywhere find a tribe where their secret weirdness can belong.
99% Invisible (the Manhattan)
This simple drink takes a surprising amount of exactitude to get right, and so does a podcast about the highly technical details of how life as we know it is engineered. The sultry tones of Roman Mars do a lot to ingratiate this arcana into the listener's ear; once attentive, you'll find yourself attracted like a moth to the flame of information nobody else knows. Stuff like how much time it took to create the MacBook "trash" sound, or why Portland airport's carpet became such a thing, or the provenance behind those "inflatable men" that ceaselessly undulate in front of used car lots.
Listen to this one about where all the NYC subway graffiti went.
Fugitive Waves (the French 75)
Don't let the effervescence fool you--this podcast (like its namesake drink) packs an assertive wallop. The French 75 gets it from a slug of gin hiding amid the Champagne; Fugitive Waves gets it from impeccable historic research. Each episode is sparked by a "shard of sound" pulled from the air--something the producers hear wafting from an ancestor's record player, called by a street vendor, or wafting right outside their office window. Following the thread of this sound is less an exercise in audio journalism, more something akin to conjury that solicits forgotten rooms and side streets for the stories they have to tell.
Listen to this one about the guy who made a living recording the major events of Memphis, Tn.
WTF Podcast (the Whiskey Sour)
One of the most basic formulas in the canon is also one of the hardest to get right. Yes, it can be tinkered to individual taste, but go too heavy on one of the elements and you've got something too bitter, too sweet, or too blunt. This is as true of the whiskey sour as it is of the conversational interviews that comedian Marc Maron hosts in his garage. When this podcast started, it was (or seemed) largely a way for Marc to hash out his grievances with his more successful peers in the comedy world; I actually had to quit listening for a while because his anger was bringing out all my own personal bitterness at life. But when I started listening again, not only did I find that his subject reach had expanded, but he seemed, well, happier...still a sarcastic hair-trigger polemical, but a happier one. Despite the presence of luminaries like Jack White, Mel Brooks and Paul Thomas Anderson on the other end of his microphone, my favorite thing now about this podcast is hearing Marc muse about his own personal journey at the beginning of each episode, and close with tasty blues licks on one of his vintage guitars.
Frickin' Circus (the Daiquiri)
It seems sweet and funky and frivolous, but actually this podcast is a pretty dark well of intense reflection on life's farcical and sometimes cruel unpredictability. One of the weirdest and most compelling of all the podcasts on this list, Frickin' Circus is also one of the least "produced"--just a guy in front of a microphone, riffing from his topic into whatever depths of precipitous personal intimacy might beckon.
Love + Radio (the Negroni)
It takes me between three and five sips to really start enjoying a Negroni. Similarly, it's not until the third listen that I feel like I'm truly appreciating any given Love + Radio episode. The first time is just to get your ear used to it, the second time is to grasp what's really going on, and the third time is where you get that mmm-so-good tingle. These guys make obscure, provocative pieces of renegade audio performance art that mix truth and fiction like it's heroin and cough syrup. They deserve at least some of the credit--maybe most of it--for sparking the podcast revolution, since their work has been getting rejected by public radio longer than most other podcasts have been alive.
Listen to this one about someone who left her shitty job for one that is more, or less, shitty, depending on how your moral glasses let you see it.
Strangers (the Sidecar)
I wish Lea Thau were my big sister...and I know that doesn't make me special. To hear her husky whisper is to love her. Her poignant reportage concerns close people becoming strangers and strangers becoming close and what that does to our personal identities...it could get really, obnoxiously meta, but Lea's fine and mellow voice and her unapologetic compassion for all parties (including herself) works like a citrus-tempered cognac on a cool night--it makes everything difficult and painful go down smooth and sweet, and leaves you feeling a lot better afterward.
Listen to this one about how a waitress, a former bomber pilot and a retired railroad engineer embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Joe Frank (straight whiskey, stolen from Grandpa's basement, consumed warm)
When I heard my first Joe Frank podcast, I had to check my pulse and look around me to make sure I was still in the known realm. It was partly terrifying and wholly entrancing. His dirty low voice slowly fills up the air like an old gray-beard filling up the last available gravesite in the cemetery. That is to say, prepare yourself for the darkness ahead. He stretches the imagination and adds a dimension to radio you didn't know existed. Probably because it didn't before Frank. Have a listen and try to hold your emotions close to your chest, but don't be surprised if you fail.
Listen to this one about...who even knows.
Like everyone, yes I get lonely, whether or not I'm driving around the country.
Like everyone, my loneliness is much comforted by people talking to me.
Have a favorite we didn't mention? Tell us about it in the comments down below.