In a little over a week, the family will pile into the Family Truckster and go on vacation. As I explained it to the kids, they’re going to have a good time whether they like it or not. The trip will involve several five-plus hour days of driving as we make our way from one stop to the next. That’s a lot of windshield time, which means it’s time to crowdsource some ideas for podcasts to listen to on the way.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll lead with some of my favorites.
Marketplace and Marketplace Tech. Although the ads have been getting longer and more intrusive lately, these are still two evergreen faves. They’re news shows about business, the economy, and (in the latter case) technology, but they’re much lighter than the description makes them sound. I considered it a career highlight a few years ago when I was interviewed for a segment, and a brief clip of my voice made it on the air. Over time, you start to pick up on the personas of some of the reporters; nobody does an aural smirk like Amy Scott. They recently added CNET alum Molly Wood, who fits the show eerily well. She and Kai Ryssdal even started a spinoff podcast called Make Me Smart that gives their banter some breathing room.
The Pollsters. This one is for the poli sci nerd in me. It’s a more-or-less weekly show by a pair of pollsters with different political affiliations. Margie, the Democrat, has a bit of Janeane Garofalo or Daria in her delivery; Kristen, the Republican, is typically more chipper. It rarely falls into sparring territory, though; they seem to genuinely like each other, and they share a taste for testing hypotheses against data. (They drop words like “crosstabs” into conversation, assuming that listeners know what it means.) The combination of humor, civility, and empiricism grows on you.
This American Life. Well, yeah.
Death, Sex, and Money. The host, Anna Sale, has three great strengths. She can sniff out a story from an unlikely corner, she gets interviewees to open up as well as anybody, and she has the best laugh in the business. Her recent interview with Alec Baldwin actually made him seem likable, which takes some doing. Bonus points for her jaw-dropping interview with former senator Alan Simpson a couple of years ago.
Reveal. Despite inconsistent audio, the stories are often excellent. It’s investigative journalism from the bottom up.
The Dollop. It’s an American history podcast in which one comedian does a play-by-play of some obscure moment or person in history while the other riffs on it. Except when they have guests, or both start laughing, or Gareth forgets to be funny for a few minutes and just keeps repeating “right.” It’s a sort of audio Mystery Science Theater, but based on real events. The quality of the episodes varies, but the one about Sylvester Graham (featuring guest Patton Oswalt) is great fun, and the one about baseball legend Bill Veeck and disco demolition night at Comiskey Park had me laughing out loud as I drove. The language can be a bit salty, so it’s not kid-friendly, but the better episodes are worth it.
Higher Ed Happy Hour. I don’t especially care to listen to people drinking, but the conversations are often quite good. Kevin Carey and Libby Nelson come off as good sports, and the guests are often quite smart. I’ve got this one on my “career goals” list, too.
Comedy Bang Bang. This one is not family friendly. It’s set up as an interview show, but it follows the cardinal rule of comedy improv: “yes, and.” Given its length - well over an hour for most episodes - “yes, and” can lead pretty far afield. Paul F. Tompkins’ occasional impression of Andrew Lloyd Webber is a highlight, and anytime they get Jessica St. Clair’s “Marissa Wompler” is more than worthwhile. (“Womp it up!”)
The Dana Gould Hour. It’s usually much more than an hour, and it comes out when it comes out, but it’s often brilliant. Gould is a comedian who used to write for The Simpsons, and if you follow the podcast long enough, you get to know him weirdly well. He’s obsessed with the Planet of the Apes movies, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and anything on Boston tv in the 1960’s and 70’s. He’s a terrible interviewer, but his guests are good sports, and it’s frequently funny. “Two Guys from Boston” is a great recurring bit that could easily be its own show.
And an honorable mention from the audiobook world goes to anything by P.G. Wodehouse. His stuff can seem stilted on the page, but when read out loud, it’s perfect. He once referred to his books as musical comedy without music, and there’s truth to that, but just listen for the use of language. His politics were obtuse and the plots insubstantial, but who cares -- he played the language like a maestro. Listen with writer’s ears.
Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Heard any good podcasts lately?