October 11, 2014

My Pick of Podcasts

Eighty percent of my workday is spent driving my car around sleepy English towns through winding country roads. Yes, I know it sounds quaint and if you love Jane Austen novels you would find this place captivating. I felt this too but after three years the English countryside has lost most of its charm.

To battle boredom while driving to my assignments I listen to podcasts. I used to only listen to music but after awhile I just needed some human interaction and I exhausted all the audio books at my library that weren’t Nora Roberts novels. I have a few podcast standards that I listen to regularly and there are a lot that I’ve vetoed for one reason or another.

I have loved listening to dramatisations on tape when I was a kid. My uber religious grandmother gave me a book of tapes called “Adventures in Odyssey” that were set in the fictional town called Odyssey and the stories are about the residents with a Christian theme.

I remember laying on my waterbed (whatever happened to waterbeds?) on my stomach and getting lost in the stories. I remember being surprised that I liked it, as I was such a TV kid.

Here are the podcasts I listen to regularly:

Comedy Podcast

Answer Me This! is a comedy podcast that comes out fortnightly. The hosts are Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann. They are both thirty-something Oxford grads working in broadcasting in London. The third co-host is Martin Austwick aka Martin the Sound Man who is married to Helen.

The show, which they record in Helen and Martin’s Crystal Palace flat, has Helen and Olly answering questions from listeners that range from sweet (How can I ask my friend out?) to mundane (Why are juice glasses at buffets so small?) to just crazy/gross (Do vegans spit or swallow?).

Whatever the question you can be sure the answer will be a) witty b) informative c) thought provoking d) snort out loud funny. I love this podcast and I was really bummed when it went to fortnightly instead of weekly when Olly got a job at London’s LBC radio in the 1am -4am time slot.

The show really benefits from really catchy bumpers thanks to Martin who, besides being a physicist, is a musician that utilizes his skills to make jingles in the styles of The Pixies, Elliot Smith and Bob Dylan to name a few.

I highly recommend this podcast and lucky for you there is a huge back catalog to keep you busy for months (the really old stuff isn’t free).

BEST BITS- Helen and Olly have such good chemistry that when they get on a roll (which is basically all the time) it can be hilarious.
WORST BITS- It’s only put out every two weeks now (even though it is longer than the weekly shows, it’s just not enough).

Trivia Podcast

Good Job Brain calls themselves an “offbeat trivia podcast” where the host Karen quizzes the players/other hosts Colin, Dana and Chris each week. They start out with general trivia round “Pop Quiz Hot Shot” where Karen uses a Trivial Pursuit card.

The rest of show has the players taking turns to quiz each other on whatever that week’s theme is. Every fifth show is an “All Quiz Bonanza” where the players come up with random quizzes without an unifying theme.

I have learned loads of fun trivia from this show despite the host’s obsessions with poo. I love when they tell fun stories while giving background to their quizzes. I remember one story about Prince using NBA player Carlos Boozer’s house for a music video. Prince, among many other alterations, painted Boozer’s house purple and is now being sued.

The show was a Kickstarter initiative in 2011 and has been rather successful in its first few years. The group met doing pub quizzes together in San Francisco and they work really well off each other with their own specialist subjects (aka Colin is the sports guy, Chris is the video game nerd…). They are around the same age as me so luckily I get their cultural references but younger listeners might not.

There are a few regular-ish features – “Brad Pitt or Lasers,” “Belgium or not Belgium,” “Umm Actually” and the Carmen San Diego parody “Where in the World is Carmen San Mateo.”

If you want funny and often useful trivia this is the podcast for you. It is pretty clean so therefore it is child friendly, except for all the poo talk.

BEST BITS- It is really entertaining and I learn loads of funny and interesting facts.
WORST BITS- They don’t always publish regularly on the same day- it went from Tuesdays to Thursdays; Karen annoyingly makes lots of “Ooooh” and “Ohhhh” noises throughout; The ‘fun size” episodes are really annoying short minisodes. It would be much better if they just recorded two shows at once when they know they can’t do a full-length show.

Culture & Knowledge

I tell my husband often “Josh and Chuck say…” or “Did you know… Yeah Josh and Chuck told me.” Needless to say my husband is sick of hearing about Josh and Chuck. The duo are the hosts of Discovery’s Stuff You Should Know podcast. The third, silent member of the team in Jeri, the producer.

The podcast has been around for years and is part of How Stuff Works, which puts out several other podcasts. Basically the writers and editors from How Stuff Works teamed up and started podcasts about a bunch of different subjects.

Stuff You Should Know started out with Josh and some other co-hosts but it didn’t actually pick up traction until Chuck joined the team. Josh and Chuck have amazing chemistry together and I think that is the real reason why the podcast has been so successful.

The dynamic duo have hundreds of episodes and they put out two podcasts a week about varied topics from ‘How the sun works’ to ‘How marijuana works.’ Recurring elements include “The Way Back Machine,” “Grabster,” “Hippie Rob,” and “Lou Vega selling ice cream or working at a petrol station.”

One of the best episodes I remember is when they dramatized the experiences of victims from the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks.

BEST BITS- A varied choice of topics each week.
WORST BITS- They have to do adverts in the middle of podcasts for businesses like Graze boxes and –the worst- Stamps.com. I really hate the Stamps.com adverts as they are annoying and as I don’t live in the US they are completely moot for me.


Stuff You Missed in History Class is another podcast from the How Stuff Works people. Its been going since 2008 and has gone through a series of different hosts (one of the first hosts was Josh from SYSK). I have listened to every single podcast they have done in the last six years.

The current hosts are Holly and Tracey and they podcast about historical subjects- there really isn’t much more to describe what they do. The hosts that I thought worked the best were Katie and Sarah, but they both moved on to other jobs.

I think this is a problem when companies rather than individuals produce podcasts because they don’t seem passionate about the subjects at all and I have to rewind so often because I zone out.  

Holly and Tracey have zero chemistry and are seriously dull and monotone. This is really disappointing because I love the premise of this show. Tracey (who is the boss at How Stuff Works) has a really bad case of vocal frys that really does my head in.

I have probably just put you off listening to this podcast but I highly recommend listening to the older podcasts with better hosts.

BEST BITS- The podcast covers some really interesting subjects and a lot that I had never heard of.
WORST BITS- They have really annoying adverts selling razors and stamps.


Atomic Trivia War 9000 isn’t a great podcast really. It’s a trivia podcast hosted by Jason Hawk, a reporter in Ohio with a gaggle of kids, and the players are Kevin, the Canadian father figure of the group, Rochelle, the only other American and the only female, and Omar, the Costa Rican obsessed with breasts.

Jason puts together questions from a slew of nerdy topics like gaming, comics, movies etc. The others answer the questions and Jason keeps score- sometimes.

The sound quality is meh and the structure isn’t well thought out. So why do I listen to it? I’m not quite sure myself. I try out every trivia podcast that comes out and I had it on my iphone. I ran out of my usuals and put ATW9K on and thought it was crap, but then I listened to the next one, then the next and now its one of my usual podcasts.

Obviously there is something to the podcast or else I wouldn’t keep listening, but I’m not quite sure what it is.

BEST BITS- The end theme is really catchy and I find myself singing it often.
WORST BITS- They don’t publish podcasts on a regular basis. It’s been two weeks since the last podcast.


The Archers target audience are old age pensioners, farmers and me. This is actually a show on BBC Radio 4 that airs 15 minute-long shows six days a week. It follows the residents of Ambridge, a fictional English town, where farming is the main industry. It’s been on the air since the 50’s.

At first this was a programme that I listened to occasionally on Radio 4 when I had run out of podcasts. Then I decided to try out the podcast and now I am thoroughly hooked. Even now I went on their website fact checking and spent half an hour looking at the character’s bios. I like it because they use the real people behind the voices as the characters.

There are a lot of issues that I completely disagree with when it comes to farming and the culling of animals. But I think the personal relationships are what keep me listening.

BEST BITS- Really good characters with plot lines that keep me wanting more.
WORST BITS- Susan, the village shop worker and gossip monger who I really want to get her comeuppance, Jolene, the landlord of The Bull pub who really gets on my nerves, Rob, Helen, Lynda and Edd… I must like the show if I get so angry at the characters.

Public Radio

Lucky you if you’ve never heard “This American Life” before. It means you have years of old episodes to binge listen to while you fall secretly in love with Ira Glass.

This American Life is the combination of every good element in a radio drama, a documentary and a quirky, off beat programme. I love TAL so much that I gladly re-listen to episodes that are re-aired when someone goes on holiday.

Each week they pick a theme and do different stories in three acts about the theme. Sometimes the stories relevancy to the theme is a bit tenuous, but the stories are almost always compelling. I could listen to TAL everyday.

Sometimes they devote entire episodes to one story like the episode about Dr Gilmer taking over a murderer’s practice. This murderer is also a Dr Gilmer and surprisingly they are not related. The episode is so interesting with twists and turns and a surprise ending. Have I enticed you? Good.

BEST BITS- Compelling stories and interesting characters
WORST BITS- When they repeat shows that they aired within the last year. I also don’t like when they use fiction during a theme- I prefer real stories instead.

Drama & Documentary

Serial is new. It’s a spin-off of This American Life that takes a typical story they’d cover and get stuck in airing an episode each week about the story. The story is about a murder in 1999 where a high school senior is charge with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Here’s the premise:

“It's Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he's innocent - though he can't exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. But someone can. A classmate at Woodlawn High School says she knows where Adnan was. The trouble is, she’s nowhere to be found.”

I just listened to the third episode today and I can’t decide if Adnan is innocent or not. Every time I think yes he isn’t guilty, the narrative changes and then I’m not so sure.

What I am sure about is that I am eager to hear the next episode. But I knew that if this podcast was by the team behind TAL then it was going to be good.

BEST BITS- It’s like getting a double dose of TAL every week.
WORST BITS- I want to find out what happens… now. I’m really hoping there is a good resolution at the end of this.

Culture & Knowlegdge

Along with Serial, Radio Lab is the newest edition to my podcast repertoire.

I listened to the Galapagos episode today and I seriously think my dream of going to the islands was completely dashed. This isn’t because of the quality of the podcast, but rather it was story of 200,000 goats being murdered in cold blood by snipers in helicopters. This was done with full knowledge and at the behest of the naturalists in Galapagos.

The story went on to cover a lot of other atrocities on the islands that make me really sad. I grew up seeing the results of scientific exploration of the Galapagos thanks to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, FL- my hometown. Harbor Branch made many expeditions to the islands and we’d go to the institute on field trips.

Anyways, there aren’t any specific topics they talk about. There was a heart-breaking story on autism called “Juicervoce” and a story about a dolphin being taught English while living with a woman in “Hello.”

I’m so happy I’ve found Radio Lab because now I can explore their archives. It’s like finding a great TV show and finding out there are five seasons you can binge watch.

BEST BITS- I’ve liked what I’ve hear thus far and they definitely have me hooked.
WORST BITS- Not sure yet. Hopefully none.

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