You may have heard that podcasting has a renaissance going on. As a podcaster since the beginning stages of the medium — and one slightly surprised to find that the medium has now reached ten years of age — I can only welcome the news, though I never knew podcasting had gone into a dark age. New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose tells the story of the appearance of Apple’s iPod, followed by a flowering of “podcasts about politics, sports, literature, comedy,” “podcasts that sounded like NPR, and ones that sounded like Rush Limbaugh,” some that “lacked polish,” but most possessed of “a kind of energy to them that suited their audiences well.” But then, “sometime around 2009 or 2010, the podcast scene seemed to wither. The stalwarts (This American Life, Radiolab) stayed around at the top of the iTunes charts, but there wasn’t much else happening. Download numbers fell. Interest waned.” But ah, in this year of our Pod 2014, things have changed: “Today, a very different problem exists: There are too many great podcasts to keep up with.”
Roose, and hundreds upon hundreds of other people on the internet, recommends first and foremost Serial (iTunes — RSS — Soundcloud), “the true-crime drama hosted by This American Life producer Sarah Koenig,” a show sometimes credited with reviving podcasting itself. The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson calls it “the podcast we’ve been waiting for” in a piece giving a look into the reasons behind its success. Roos also gives special mention to another new show involving a name you might recognize from the This American Life orbit: Alex Blumberg’s StartUp (iTunes — RSS), a running document of the creator’s attempt to launch a podcasting business, the kind of venture that sounds less quixotic all the time. And Roose also names a personal favorite of mine, the well-known podcast about architecture and design — but Really, About Life Itself — 99% Invisible (iTunes — RSS).
If you feel like getting into this podcast renaissance, or if you’ve spent years as a podcast listener and just need some new material in your rotation, you could do much worse than starting with the three shows above. To add to that list, I can suggest no podcast more suited to the interests of Open Culture readers than In Our Time (iTunes — RSS), the long-running BBC Radio 4 program about the history of ideas wherein veteran broadcaster Melvyn Bragg interviews groups of Oxbridge experts on subjects like nuclear fusion, the Haitian revolution, Rudyard Kipling, the Battle of Talas, and the female pharaoh Hatshepsut — just in the past month. Personally, I so enjoy In Our Time that I went to interview Melvyn Bragg on my own podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture earlier this year.
Interviews and comedy have proven two of the most durable forms of content in podcasting, and anyone who hasn’t dipped into comedian Marc Maron’s in-depth and introspective interview show WTF (iTunes — RSS) — not that many haven’t at this point — has missed out on a sterling example of the kind of listening experiences podcasting, and only podcasting, has made possible. (You might consider also listening to my interview with Maron on The Los Angeles Review of Books podcast.) And while not necessarily comedy, I can’t imagine Open Culture readers not getting a laugh, and all other kinds of intellectual stimulation besides, out of the podcasting of Benjamen Walker. Walker, formerly the host of Too Much Information on the beloved independent radio station WFMU, recently launched a new show called Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything (iTunes — Soundcloud), a show of personal stories that explores all things to which those stories connect.
True, one complaint about podcasting in its early years held that the shows podcasters made went too personal — the old charge of “two or three guys sitting in basement talking about nothing” — but now that this decade-old medium has found more mature forms, the personal has become its art and its craft. I never hesitate to promote XO (iTunes — RSS), a show by Keith McNally, a podcast auteur whom I believe has done more to master the creative personal-story podcast than almost anybody, and he began doing it earlier. (As with Bragg, I went to his hometown of Toronto to interview him too.) But enough about my favorite podcasts; which ones do you tirelessly champion? Make your recommendations, and we’ll round them up in a post soon.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.