5) WELCOME TO NIGHTVALE -
Growing up I didn’t really know what a radio play was before I started making my own. It just seemed natural to record stories on my tape deck. Like TV without the screen. Then I was introduced to true radio plays like The Shadow, The Thin Man, The Green Hornet, and Bonanza among others. I fell in love. I get a kick out of studying the voice acting, the sound effects, and the tricks they use to propel the story without bogging down the actors with exposition. Of course you wouldn’t have to worry about the latter if the entire point of your radio play was said exposition.
People have been telling me to check out Welcome to Nightvale since its inception. I’m just stubborn and easily distracted. This year I downloaded a few for a short road trip, binged them back-to-back, and was hooked.
Somewhere in the deserts of America is a small town called Nightvale which is the manifestation of all the most eccentric and out-there plot devices of HP Lovecraft. When you live in a town where hooded figures won’t allow you access to the dog park, cats can float four feet off the ground, and the Sheriff runs a secret police force with helicopters and listening devices to monitor your every action it can be tough to keep up-to-date on what you need to know. Never fret. Cecil Palmer voices Welcome to Nightvale, a twice-monthly community update featuring local weather, news, and announcements.
Take that “weather” bit with a grain of salt. Every episode does feature a segment CALLED “The Weather,” but it’s actually a cut-away from the main story to a dark and brooding, sometimes poignant, folk-inspired indie song. This is one of the best parts of the show for me. I tend to binge podcasts hard and after a few hours I need a break from the talking. I’ll put on a Spotify playlist instead. Welcome to Nightvale gives you that break after 15 minutes of show, every episode. It’s like that little bite of ginger after you’ve finished your sushi. It cleanses the palette and prepares you for another episode.
Each episode stands alone just fine, and you can really hop in at any point and catch yourself up rather quickly. My favorite thing though is the continuity. When you listen long enough you start to put the news stories and characters from Nightvale together into a big puzzle that is telling a larger, ongoing story. Every year acts as sort of a season on television, building to a crescendo of an anniversary episode. This was demonstrated perfectly at the end of the second year when the stories of twenty or so characters crashed together into a cacophony of a revolution against the evil corporation, StrexCorp, which was slowly taking over Nightvale. It was very satisfying, and rewards attentive listening.
Welcome to Nightvale is dark, funny, heart-wrenching, terrifying, soothing, well-paced and patient. Tired of the same-old conversational or storytelling podcast? Try a podcast for the Netflix generation.
4) THIS AMERICAN LIFE -
God I’m a cliche. Yes, I know… EVERYONE listens to This American Life. It’s hard to miss it on weekends as you’re flipping through radio stations to find what to listen to. But there’s a reason it climbed out of Chicago Public Radio and into the radio antennas of the entire nation. It’s just so damn good.
This American Life is sort of an audio magazine featuring one to five articles per episode, each on a theme. Host Ira Glass is thoughtful, good-natured, intelligent, and driven. He opens and closes most episodes, and clarifies individual stories by questioning the producer who conducted the individuals and pursued the article.
Each story is thorough, featuring multiple interviews and live recordings as well as descriptive scene-setting and exposition by the producers. All the voices on the show are captivating and intriguing. Plus the production value is incredible. Sound effects and music weave into each other with seamless editing to take stories to places you wouldn’t necessarily expect when they begin. Each episode can be heard without ANY context for the subject matter or the show itself.
This American Life can be heard on over 500 radio stations and is available on Stitcher and iTunes as well as ThisAmericanLife.org.
3) RADIOLAB -
Speaking of public radio…
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are the hosts of Radiolab, an hour-long show featured on New York radio station WNYC and syndicated nationwide on NPR. Every week, with help from producers, Jad and Robert break down science and philosophy into laser-focused, digestible chunks in articles similarly structured to This American Life.
I’m not a big fan of science… or really philosophy for that matter. Both subjects tend to bore me if not encapsulated in a headline or diluted properly. That’s what makes Radiolab so great. They take a subject that’s too big to cover in an hour, apply a very specific lens, then find the story. They make these grand topics relatable with personal interviews and it doesn’t hurt that each one sets it up with a beginning, middle, and end. It feels like a storytelling podcast where you happen to learn a thing or two along the way.
The quality that initially drew me to Radiolab was the sound design. I had a short break between shifts at the restaurant one Saturday (or was it Sunday) and ate my lunch in the car. After swallowing but before digestion I planned to run around downtown hanging fliers for an upcoming event. But I left the radio on. Radiolab had me hooked from its opening theme: an ethereal, repetitive, and soothing number that takes you from the surface world and relaxingly glides you down into the depths of the scientific. I skipped the rest of my errands in favor of finishing the entire episode.
Yet another podcast I eventually fell victim to.
Radiolab can be found on Stitcher and to find when and where to catch them on the radio near you, try RadioLab.org.
2) FEaB -
Two of the most popular and well-known podcast empires are Smodcast and Nerdist. Both are led by a powerhouse of geek culture with sales sway, celebrity status, and a cult following that can’t be matched. Both also have sidekicks that add to the flavor of the show, but often get forgotten or drowned out in the hysteria and marketing. Imagine a world where one sidekick from each show joined forces to create their own podcast. From out of the shadow of their celebrity masters could they foster an empire to conquer their and surpass their favorite friends?
The quick answer is no. Matt Mira and Scott Mosier are lazy and lethargic. Their episodes aren’t on a regular schedule and in fact only release when requested from a sponsor. They frequently make jokes about the fact they're watching TV while recording or doing special outdoor episodes because they’d rather be hiking. When I can get my hands on an episode, however, I find it to be one of the most charming hours I’ve ever heard. You can’t fault them for their lack of dedication. That’s what made them sidekicks to begin with!
The two things that Matt and Scott have in common (outside of entertainment) are food and reading, so that’s what most of these episodes boil down to. They can easily burn twenty minutes breaking down the process of choosing their first smoker, how they marinate their ribs, or describing every course of an extravagant meal they enjoyed in New York and comparing it to a dinner they had in Vancouver in 2012. Every episode also features their “FEaB READS.” It’s a breakdown of everything they’re reading right now, and what they recommend. Both are hearty readers and can usually spout off two or three books each.
FEaB is my favorite kind of podcast. Relaxed, conversational, and funny. If you’re having one of those days you can’t handle the higher energy of, say, Smodcast or Nerdist, download the first episode of FEaB at Nerdist.com or Smodcast.com and just… relax.
1) BEAUTIFUL/ANONYMOUS (BEAUTIFUL STORIES FROM ANONYMOUS PEOPLE)
I’ve developed quite the crush on Chris Gethard in the last few weeks. I’m not a fan of stand-up comedy and thus have an aversion to comedians in general. I get really uncomfortable and defensive when someone is obviously TRYING to make me laugh. That’s why I’ve enjoyed podcasts like Smodcast or Tell ‘Em Steve Dave, where it feels like friends conversing and naturally making EACH OTHER laugh. It’s also what draws me to Chris Gethard.
Gethard is a non-traditional comedian. He’s “alt” and “hipster” to their truest definitions. He tends to put together an environment or a template and let the comedy grow naturally from the circumstances. His cable show on Fusion always has a theme and a big set piece that keeps celebrity guests on their toes (eg; an interactive Duck Hunt game where the guest is hoisted up on bungees, a trampoline slam dunk competition, an entire episode dedicated to guessing the contents of a dumpster).
Gethard’s podcast Beautiful/Anonymous takes that mentality and blends it with my other favorite Chris Gethard philosophy: using comedy to do good in people’s lives. Gethard wrestles with depression and addiction and uses his shows to address these and other hard topics. He’s very caring and empathetic and I admire his heart.
I can’t give a better elevator pitch for Beautiful/Anonymous than Earwolf, its hosted podcast network: “1 phone call. 1 hour. No names. No holds barred. That’s the premise behind Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, hosted by comedian Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show, Broad City, This American Life, and one of Time Out’s '10 best comedians of 2015'). Every week, Chris opens the phone line to one anonymous caller, and he can’t hang up first, no matter what. From shocking confessions and family secrets to philosophical discussions and shameless self-promotion, anything can and will happen!”
Beautiful/Anonymous can be hilarious or sad or haunting or inspirational or awkward… and often is all of those in one hour. Check out the first episode on Earwolf.com or Stitcher or wherever you download podcasts and never stop.