Podcasts are great for catching up on news, culture, or just killing time on a road trip, run, or daily commute. Yet it always surprises my fellow podcasts junkies and I that this term “podcast” is foreign to so many people. If you ask a person if they’ve ever heard of podcasts, you’re likely to be met with a “what are those again?” or a passionate exchange of your favorite stations, what kind of podcast player you use, and perhaps even your cousin’s indie podcast that you keep telling other people to subscribe to but can’t be bothered to listen to more than an episode yourself. So to satisfy the luddites among us, let’s answer that question: “what the heck is a podcast?”
It’s radio on the Internet (kinda)
You’ve heard of vlogging and people live-streaming their lives and thoughts. Well, podcasts are kind of the same thing, just without the video aspect. It’s essentially radio, but an endless sea of it, with countless people making their own podcasts every day. And like the radio itself, (almost) all podcasts are free to listen to. All you need is the internet, which nearly everyone has now; it’s basically a human right. Podcasts are a cool way to view tiny corners of the world through other people’s perspectives.
NPR tends to be a lot of people’s introduction into podcasts. The famous (partially) federally funded nonprofit radio station has many of its shows as the number one reigning podcast in multiple categories for years. From shows like WNYC’s Radiolab to This American Life, shows that began as FM Radio entertainment now top the charts in podcast downloads. Recently though, NPR has said they will stop advertising the podcast versions of their radio shows because it cuts into the effectiveness of their sponsorships (as anyone who has had the misfortune to tune in during a fundraising drive is familiar with).
This is great news to the other podcast-exclusive empires and shows that may see NPR as their competition.
The real podcast empires
There is a rising class of media giants that have seemed to have turned their entire brand into an umbrella for multiple different shows.
How Stuff Works
Gaining a larger web presence with their published articles, HowStuffWorks was one of the first big names in podcasting with their most popular brain popcorn-style show appropriately named Stuff You Should Know wherein they discuss literally any topic you might wanna know more about, from how traffic works to clockmaking. From samurais to hostage negotiation. Whether you want to learn Stuff You Missed in History or Stuff to Blow Your Mind, HowStuffWorks has been an ear-candy provider for many years now and is a definite empire in podcasting.
Even if you have no idea who Chris Hardwick is, chances are you’ve heard or seen him somewhere. The comedian with the work ethic of a Wall Street Methhead with five hours to live, Hardwick turned his popular interview/all-things-nerd podcast into a flagship show that supported a number of his and his friends’ other passion projects. Co-hosts Matt Mira and Jonah Ray Smith each got their own show under Nerdist Industries: Jonah RayDio and James Bonding (where, you guessed it, they discuss every episode of James Bond ever). Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon have one of the most adorable podcasts of all time called The Indoor Kids. Fellow Silicon Valley star TJ Miller also has his podcast on the show: Cashing in with TJ Miller (one of the strangest podcasts you can listen to). The accumulated success and niche nerd love has spawned a number of others from Pete Holmes’ You made it Weird to many more!
Often confused with Salon and Buzzfeed but possessing higher quality content than both, Slate is now actually publishing their podcast under the parent network’s name: Panoply. However, Slate has already become an internet powerhouse in online journalism, and they have expanded their podcast empire to reflect this. A favorite of political commentator Stephen Colbert, Slate Political Gabfest is one of their most famous podcasts along with other hits like Slate’s Culture Gabfest, Mom & Dad Are Fighting (a parenting podcast), DoubleX Gabfest, Audio Book Club, and Hang Up and Listen (a surprisingly accessible sports podcast).
Film geeks may think Kevin Smith is a relatively minor figure in Hollywood with a handful of movies that had a lackluster performance at the box office, along with a recent “Comic Book Men” show on AMC that also garners a relatively small audience.
Yet Kevin Smith is definitely not hurting for money or something to do with his spare time. His weekly podcast called Smodcast became a cult hit and now the Smodcast banner promotes a number of other shows such as Hollywood Babble-On, Jay & Silent Bob Get Old, Fatman On Batman, and a number of others, the least of which not being Talk Salad & Scrambled Eggs, a podcast where Kevin Smith and Matt Mira discuss every episode of Frasier.
The original “Machinema” filmmakers behind the Halo-based webseries Red Vs. Blue, Rooster Teeth is another company that made it big mainstream after catering to a very niche audience. Their flagship podcast started as “The Drunk Tank Podcast,” however founders Burnie Burns and Gus Sorolla found years into being the biggest names in gaming-related podcasting that sponsors weren’t likely to get behind a brand name with “drunk” in it. Thus they changed their name and years later began producing countless YouTube videos and a number of other podcasts with mixed results, teaming up with other established internet brands like FunHaus. They even crowdfunded their own major motion picture recently called Lazer Team.
There is such a glut of podcasts these days. Much like YouTube videos, it literally would be physically impossible to listen to them all. However, there are some cool apps that can simplify your podcast-listening experience (there’s an app for everything, right?) So if you’ve just gotten the podcast bug (or already have it and are looking for more), here are some high-quality podcasts to alert your senses and satiate your appetite culled from the world’s biggest podcast addict: me.
This Week in Tech (TWiT): As simple as it sounds: tech news reported weekly.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: An amateur history blog with amazing storytelling, Hardcore History delves into some of the most fascinating aspects of history you never thought you wanted to know so much about.
Savage Lovecast: A down-to-earth relationship and sex podcast by Dan Savage.
A Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe: A podcast hosted by Neurosurgeon and president of the New England Skeptical Society Dr. Steve Novella where he, his brothers, and friends discuss the week’s news from a skeptic’s point of view and debunk bad medical and science reporting.
Girl on Guy with Aisha Tyler: The actress often referred to as the “female Chris Hardwick” has countless jobs with her two most famous currently being the voice of Lana Kane on Archer and the host of this popular interview show.
Judge John Hodgman: Do you have a dispute with a loved one? This real life fake judge show features petty disputes to be resolved by the benevolent and surprisingly insightful wisdom of the eccentric John Hodgman.
If you haven’t gotten super into podcasts yet, do so now. They are vastly underrated. Instead of wasting time and brainpower on dumb videos of cats and mindless mobile games, use your phone as a tool for knowledge!