I am usually late to the game on cultural phenomena.
I started binge-watching 24 on Netflix when the show was already in its fifth season.
I first became enthralled with Mad Men seven years after it first hit the airwaves.
I didn’t start listening to the Beatles until 30 years after they broke up.
(Granted, I was not alive for the first eleven of those years, but still …)
Every now and then, though, I find myself ahead of the curve. Such is the case with podcasts.
I have been sampling and subscribing to podcasts since slightly after their inception, which Wikipedia pegs as somewhere in the 2004-05 range. Ten years later, the field seems to be catching up; podcasts continue to inch closer to mainstream use, and several of them have become legitimate moneymakers for their producers.
(Mine, by the way, is not one of them. I don’t make any money from the Telling The Story podcast; I simply do it, much like I write this blog, for the joy and value it brings.)
Last Saturday, facing a five-hour road trip by myself and feeling overloaded on recent music, I decided to scour the landscape for new podcasts. I was not disappointed. Ten days of binge-listening later, I find myself again excited for the future of a medium that finally seems to be getting its legs.
Here are three podcasts I’d recommend to anyone interested in a mind-expanding good time:
Startup (Gimlet Media)
Meet the podcast that inspired this post.
After all, what better way to understand the rising influence of podcasts than to listen to a podcast partially about said influence?
That’s what you get from Season 1 of Startup, which its producers describe as a “series about what it’s really like to get a business off the ground.” That inaugural season profiles the podcast production company itself, Gimlet Media, in a season that my friend and podcast interview subject John Kirtley described to me in a text message as “some meta s—“. (He meant it, I think, as a compliment.)
Indeed, the meta nature of the first season almost gives Startup’s producers an unfair advantage, both as a podcast and as a company. The mastermind behind it is Alex Blumberg, whose production at NPR’s This American Life provides the other “unfair advantage” that makes Startup such an exquisite listen. Blumberg is a master of character development and writing. Beyond that, despite all the personal and professional stresses he discusses during these episodes, he remains calm and composed — almost soothing — as a narrator. You want to root for him, even if you’re simply rooting for him to make money as an entrepreneur.
I have not yet listened to Season 2 of Startup, which centers on a separate small business trying to build itself up. But I am so thoroughly impressed after hearing Season 1 that I can heartily recommend the podcast in general, particularly for a beginner to the medium. It’s a great gateway podcast whose storytelling heightens an already fascinating subject.
Music Popcast (New York Times)
While Startup just … started up last fall, this next podcast has been around almost since the medium’s inception. Reviews on iTunes date back to 2006.
I cannot speak to how the New York Times’ Music Popcast sounded then. Listening to it in 2015 provides much-needed intelligent discussion of the world of pop music.
I stumbled upon it recently after seeing the movie “Straight Outta Compton”. While the film had its strengths, it also felt greatly sanitized and incomplete in how it retold the rise and fall of the rap group N.W.A. In reading reviews, I discovered Music Popcast and became instantly enthralled.
The “Straight Outta Compton” episode is a shining example of what makes this podcast so relevant. Times music writer Jon Caramanica discusses the film with Reginald Dennis, who worked during the early Nineties at The Source magazine. They spend more than an hour filling in all the blanks left by the movie, providing a thorough and complex picture of that era and its music. I found it as rewarding as the film, and I paid $12 less to hear it.
Other episodes prove just as strong. For example, when Caramanica and fellow Times writer Ben Ratliff dissect the music of The Weeknd, they provide the listener with a profound sense of context. You learn about his biography and his journey as an artist; you walk away with a stronger understanding at how he arrived at his latest album.
Simply put, if you enjoy pop music but want to feel more deeply connected to it, here lies your answer.
The Lowe Post (Grantland)
If, on the other hand (or in addition to your first hand), you prefer to listen to discussions about basketball, you should turn your ears to the Lowe Post.
I have made no secret of my affection for the podcast’s host, Grantland basketball writer Zach Lowe. I name-checked him in an earlier article titled 5 reasons for hope for journalism’s future, in which I described him like this:
When talking about basketball, Lowe is on a different level. He possesses an extraordinary knowledge of the game, but he separates himself by utilizing just about every advantage of the online edifice: unlimited length, GIFs, social media presence, and various formats.
He is a role model for how to do it right — know your medium, know your subject, and create unique and stellar work.
This especially applies to his work as a podcaster, where he provides the most civilized and enjoyable basketball talk around. He also often uses his connections as a beat writer to land timely guests,
Since the departure of Grantland founder Bill Simmons, Lowe has become the site’s unquestioned authority for all matters NBA. He deserves the mantle, and he uses his podcast in a straightforward but effective manner: to talk about basketball in a more enlightening and engaging way than anyone else.