It’s nice to see the popularity of podcasts take off — the same amount of people that use Twitter listen to them, which is something like 57 million Americans — because it’s one of the best forms of free infotainment.
It’s also a particularly useful way to transform mundane moments in the day to an engrossing time you’d rather prolong than go to class. And from commutes and workouts, to chores and work-study, students experience a myriad of those dull moments, making podcasts an essential way to maintain sanity and banish boredom.
But for the uninitiated, jumping on the podcast train can be daunting, considering there’s about 250,000 of them spread out across Apple, Google, and Spotify’s markets.
So as part of our student guide, we thought we’d send you in the right direction with eight podcasts you should download right now.
At first glance, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series looks quite intimidating. There are no guests, interviews, or pre-recorded material; it’s just Carlin taking listeners on a massive journey through the annals of history for about 3-6 hours.
But don’t be fooled by perceptions of a dry history lecture, because Carlin’s show is non-fiction storytelling at its most exciting. The host, a 49-year-old historian with a clear passion for it, doesn’t flatly recite names of figures, dates and events, but rather he unfolds the pivotal moments in our history that changed our collective destiny, and traces how they affect us in the present. Along the way, Carlin attempts to answer some big questions: Why are genocidal leaders considered “great?” Is there are a limit to human depravity? What would today’s Americans do if they were living in Nazi Germany? And perhaps most intriguing, how can we even be sure our version of history is really what happened?
It’s thrilling, brilliantly paced material. It’s also extremely dark and fascinating in a macabre, voyeuristic kind of way. Carlin, with his gravelly, ominous voice, doesn’t censor any grisly details from his sweeping retellings of mankind's most bloody moments. He’s covered with meticulous detail and almost cinematic flair such historical events as Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the Mongol Invasion, the Black Death plague, World War II, the Protestant Reformation, and the race to build the world’s first atomic bomb, to name perhaps his most well-received episodes.
We'd put his show at Game of Thrones level captivating. There are many of the same elements: epic battles, political intrigue, assassinations, conspiracies, honorable heroes, despicable villains, and philosophical quandaries. There may not be dragons, ice zombies, or even visuals at all, but Hardcore History lingers in the mind longer, because the awesome stories it tells actually happened.
With Friends Like These
After Trump won the election, former members of Obama’s staff Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett felt they had to do something to combat the level of vitriol, divisiveness, and alternative facts coming out of the new administration. So they turned their feelings of hopeless into action and launched a company called “Crooked Media,” with a number of different podcasts under the name, all of which have risen tremendously in popularity over recent months.
One of the podcasts in the Crooked Media family, With Friends Like These, could perhaps be the best new political show to come out this year.
As the name is supposed to suggest, the podcast brings a wide range of guests on to talk about socio-cultural-political topics like religion, feminism, immigration, protests, sexuality, the prison system, healthcare, and race relations, to name a few. Hosted by the journalist and critic Ana Marie Cox, the show is built around uncomfortable conversations that in many ways, attempt to grapple with the state of America today: what do we do with the fact that one-half of the country wants virtually nothing to do with the other half?
Each week, Cox moderates (and sometimes leads) a discussion between two people that would likely never talk amicably to one another in the real-world, and it’s equal parts revealing and enthralling.
Pod Save The People
Don’t watch political pundits on TV; save time and brain cells by downloading our second recommendation from the Crooked Media empire: Pod Save the People. It’s hosted by writer, blue vest lover, and Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who amplifies perspectives that demand attention.
When he’s not dropping cold hard truths on Twitter, this Bowdoin College graduate heads to the studio to try and answer the questions that most are too scared to even ask: what does the future of “the Resistance” truly look like? How do we reform a poisoned criminal justice system? What are the links between the NFL and white supremacy? How will the rap industry decouple itself from misogyny and homophobia? Why are healthcare and housing social justice issues? Are white people prepared to discard some of their privileges in the fight against racial injustice?
But most importantly, Mckesson and his guests will help you, the listener, learn how to leverage knowledge and privilege to make a difference in your community. Staying woke starts with Mckesson.
Global News Podcast
Here’s something most people on both the left and the right can agree on: mainstream media sometimes sucks. And although some would still label BBC as agenda-driven, we happen to think they’re honest, objective, and less guilty of sensationalism as other outlets.
Everyday BBC puts out two 20-minute podcasts, smartly edited with high-profile interviews from around the world, that review the most important news stories of the day. It’s a perfect way for a student to stay informed on events that matter. Think about how much time students waste reading nonsense clickbaity pieces, or even worse, outright false or politically-motivated stories.
Cut the bullshit, and start your day listening to BBC. That way you can unplug from the madness that is international news for the rest of the day (which is highly recommended, by the way) after having armed yourself with only the most relevant bits of current events.
Myths and Legends
Consuming hot takes on today's socio-political arena is a satisfying guilty pleasure, but a well-balanced podcast diet also calls for a dose of fiction, and in this case, fantasy short stories.
Myths and Legends is pure fun. For 30 minutes host Jason will take you out of this mundane world and into ones where gods cast spells, water demons eat children, and a forest hut runs on chicken feet, using his often humorous retellings of centuries' worth of mythology.
And we can’t stress this enough: these aren’t the fairy tales you’re used to. When told true to the source material, stories from the Arabian Nights, ancient Greek poems or Brothers Grimm stories, for example, are way more outrageous, surreal, and violent than you might have remembered them.
But what we love most about Myths and Legends is that it doesn’t just surprise us with exciting versions of the stories we thought we knew, it also offers seldom-heard gems sourced from spots like Korea, Mexico, Romania, Egypt, Japan, West Africa, and Russia.
Strap in for adult story time.
Waking Up Podcast
While neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris might not be universally loved, his fairly nascent podcast is growing in popularity for a reason: he’s sharp as a knife, enviously eloquent, and a lightening rod for thought-provoking discussions.
Harris interviews a guest — usually an academic or author — for about 60-80 minutes, and unpacks some hugely important, potentially volatile topics like: the moral implications of genetics, the history of violence, the threats that might come with artificial intelligence, immigration and terrorism, the validity of IQ, cyber-security, gender differences, the economics of climate change, the role of consciousness on quantum mechanics, the problems with religion, and the very nature of truth itself.
Harris treads on some super thorny, sometimes unstable ground with his show, but navigates across so methodically and confidently that not much is lost on the listener or left to desired after the interview ends.
The success of the Waking Up podcast points to the demand media consumers have for long, uncensored conversations with smart people trying to make sense of the world without getting hysterical.
NPR’s Radiolab has been the king of podcast downloads for quite some time now, with well over a million downloads an episode. While mainstream opinions don't often yield the best results, they do in this case. Each episode of Radiolab is heavily, expertly produced and only rolls out about once a month.
But with Radiolab’s production values so high, editing so slick, and interviews so compelling, the wait is completely worth it.
This podcast excels at sound design, meaning it's structured as a multi-layered mix of on-the-ground soundbites, ambient music, effects, interviews, and quips from the two charismatic hosts: Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. The format is really fun and will likely hold your attention hostage for the duration of the episode, which typically runs around 50 minutes.
So what’s it about? Just about anything really! It seems the only prerequisite for topics is that it has to be insanely interesting and viewed through an academically objective lens. The two hosts offer true stories from around the world, encouraging listeners to unravel the mysteries of life hidden in plain sight. Episodes have taken listeners inside history’s craziest con, top-secret ceremonies, gamma radiation labs, North Korean prisons, medicine cabinets, fake newsrooms, underneath the Earth in microscopic biomes, and the political thicket of the most controversial Supreme Court case.
This show probably won’t ever fall out of our favor, and its vast archive of gripping non-fiction stories are right at your fingertips so you can get obsessed too.
Star Talk Radio
Last on our list is a podcast that asks listeners to ponder their place in the universe.
It turns out, according to the famous astrophysicist and host of the show StarTalk Radio, Neil Degrasse Tyson, we aren’t special at all in the grand scheme of things. But still, there must be a reason why we’re compelled to gaze up at the stars and contemplate the nature of reality. Right?
Tyson’s mind-melting show reminds us that humans are technically just a means for the vast universe to think and observe itself. Humans time on Earth has only taken up a lightning fast moment when measured against the history of the universe. Across the blackness of space, we occupy just a tiny part of it on a pale blue dot.
For the unimaginative, this can be unsettling and frustrating, but to the curious, it can be liberating. Consider the fact that the seven most common elements in the Universe are all found in our bodies presents a comforting relief from the nauseating immensity of space and its infinite mysteries; the universe is within us.
Each week or so Tyson explains some insanely deep concepts in a remarkably accessible way. No, you won’t be able to fully comprehend string theory, or what happens inside the event horizon of a black hole, but Tyson, along with another scientist or two, can lay the groundwork for understanding these wondrous realities.
This podcast is perfect for a hungry mind desperate to swap out thoughts of earthly dramas for cosmic ones.
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