Since starting the Book Fight podcast, I’ve had a number of friends ask me one variant or another of the following question: When am I supposed to find time to listen to a podcast? And I get it, I definitely get it. We’re all busy, or, at the very least, we like telling others (and ourselves) that we’re busy. We value our leisure time, and we tend to have a set number of reliable entertainments: books, movies, TV shows we watch each week, websites we keep up with, functional alcoholism. We’re reluctant to let new stuff in, especially if it comes in a format we’re not all that familiar with.
Or maybe I’m projecting here, since this was my own attitude toward podcasts until a couple years ago. Every now and again some dude would corner me at a party (it was always dudes, for some reason) to evangelize about a podcast I just had to start listening to, and my reaction was generally to drain my drink, then excuse myself for another. Mentally, I added ‘podcasts’ to the long list of things people had tried to push on me over the years but which I’d chosen to ignore: various cross-training regimens and fad diets, grind-your-own peanut butter, colonics, the TV show Battlestar Galactica (I know, I know, I’m sorry).
The podcast that finally hooked me–and I realize I’m far from alone in this–was Marc Maron’s excellent WTF, which I stumbled upon when he interviewed Louis CK, and which I then managed to never stop listening to. Since then, the roster of podcasts I listen to regularly has expanded to represent a pretty decent chunk of my leisure time.
So, when do I find time to listen to them?
1. Cleaning the house: Seriously, my apartment is like 30%-55% cleaner than before I discovered podcasts. I’ll block out an hour for a podcast episode, plug my iPhone into the living-room stereo, and before I know it I’m laughing and dusting simultaneously, which, believe me, never happened before (except for a brief period during which I combined house cleaning with pot smoking, but that’s a different story for a different time).
2. Commuting on foot (i.e., walking): I bike around Philly, and I wouldn’t recommend listening to podcasts while riding your bike, because people wearing headphones while biking annoy me nearly as much as people who bike on the sidewalk. But! Walking and podcast-listening are a perfect pair. I suppose I’m lucky, in that I live in a city, where I can walk to various stores and markets and such, but I suspect a fair percentage of our listeners, and potential listeners, are similarly situated. Even if you’re not, walking is great exercise. It’s relaxing. As a species, we don’t do nearly enough of it.
3. Cooking dinner: Before I discovered podcasts, I had a fundamental problem. I enjoy cooking. But I also tend to enjoy cooking at just about the time our local listener-funded radio station, WXPN, broadcasts its insufferable (to adults) children’s program, Kids Corner. I can’t see my television from my kitchen, and anyway, TV is hard to watch while putting together a meal. Podcasts to the rescue! Now, I realize many of you are married, or otherwise partnered, and cooking time is couple time. Bully for you! Seriously, though, if you’re single, or if your relationship has reached that point where you no longer have anything remotely interesting to say to one another: podcasts!
4. Driving: Okay, this one is a lie, for me at least, because I don’t actually own a car. (And yes, I realize I am painting a picture of myself that would indicate I should grind my own peanut butter and watch Battlestar Galactica. I get it. Leave me alone.) But if you do drive, podcasts are a much more enjoyable way to spend your in-the-car time than whatever’s on the local radio, unless you happen to live in or around Seattle, in which case: fine, listen to KEXP, because KEXP is awesome, I’ve got absolutely no beef with you. I suppose you could take your chances on NPR, but for every great Terry Gross interview, there are two shows about gardening, and also I’m increasingly convinced that Marketplace is a subtle tool of capitalist oppression (again: a topic for another post). If you’ve got an iPod you can plug into your stereo, you can stop being a slave to The Man and control your own destiny.
5. At the gym: The televisions in my South Philly gym are generally tuned to some combination of CNN/soap operas/shouty ESPN roundtables/The Food Network (which is weird, right? I mean, why are people watching cooking shows while running on the treadmill? The psychology is kinda fascinating). So I’ll often listen to a podcast, unless I feel like listening to music, which frankly is most of the time, but hey these are just suggestions, okay?
I’m sure there are plenty of possible scenarios I’m leaving out, but you get the point: there is room for podcasts in your life! And not just our podcast, because frankly there’s an entire world of wonderful podcasts out there. I’ve still only scratched the surface in my own listening. But here are some shows I particularly like, and which I think fans of Book Fight might also like:
1. WTF with Marc Maron: I mentioned this one already, but it deserves a second shout-out. Long-form interviews that go way beyond talking points and delve into the subjects’ real lives: their insecurities, anxieties, triumphs and failures. Most of the interviews are with comedians, though recently he’s begun branching out, interviewing artist/cartoonist Tony Millionaire and a number of musicians, including Fiona Apple and Wayne Coyne and Jack Black.
2. Bookworm: I suppose this is like a half-cast, since Michael Silverblatt’s author-interview show runs on KCRW and just happens to also be available for download. I started listening at the recommendation of a friend, who insisted that Silverblatt was pretty much the best reader in America. And it seems to be true. He’ll regularly pull something from a book that makes the author gasp, “I can’t believe you noticed that! No one ever notices that!” There’s something so pure and earnest in his love of books, it’s really a joy to listen to. And if you can still get it in the archives, his talk with David Foster Wallace about Infinite Jest is just flat-out incredible.
3. My Brother, My Brother and Me: Okay, this one won’t be for everyone. It’s basically three real-life brothers from West Virginia who riff for an hour. Ostensibly they’re offering “advice,” answering both real queries from their listeners and a sampling of ridiculous questions from Yahoo! Answers. But the questions are really just a jumping-off point for ridiculousness. It’s goofy, yes, but the brothers have great chemistry, and at least once per episode I laugh uncontrollably (as in their latest episode, when they briefly confused Stockard Channing for Channing Tatum in a bit about male strippers spreading their butt cheeks).
4. The Partially Examined Life: I was a philosophy minor in college (I know, you’re so impressed), and this show has been an enjoyable way to reacquaint myself with things I didn’t retain well enough the first go-round. The hosts were all PhD students in the UT-Austin philosophy program and all dropped out to pursue other stuff, which makes for a nice balance of “academic legitimacy” with “people who have escaped the bullshittier parts of academia.” I don’t listen to every episode, but I’ve appreciated the refresher courses on folks like William James and Charles Peirce, and I now know enough about Derrida that I don’t have to duck my head in shame quite so often at faculty meetings.
5. Doug Loves Movies: I’ll admit, I kind of hated this podcast the first time I listened to it. The games–Build a Title, the Leonard Maltin Game–seemed like what dorm-dwelling stoners come up with to amuse themselves. And I’m an adult, dammit! But then I caught a couple episodes with guests I really liked–he draws from a pretty wide swatch of the comedy world; all the shows are recorded live with a ticketed audience–and gradually it won me over. Like My Brother, My Brother and Me, it’s goofy, but the goofiness is a large part of the charm. Plus Anna Kendrick was on a couple weeks ago, and she is just delightful in every conceivable way.
6. Analyze Phish: This was a four-part “miniseries” rather than a regular podcast, but it made me realize how many cool things a podcast can do. Comedy writer Harris Wittels (from Parks and Rec) decided he wanted to convince Scott Aukerman, host of Comedy Bang Bang, to like the band Phish. For the first three episodes he played him clips of songs; for the fourth and (so far) final episode, Aukerman accompanied Wittels to a Phish show at Madison Square Garden, to which they brought along drugs and a portable recorder. Whether you like Phish or not, there’s something engaging/hilarious about the dynamic, and in how much shit Wittels takes along the way from Phish fans for “doing it wrong.” Incidentally, this gave rise to an idea I’m still trying to make happen, where Barrelhouse editor Joe Killiany will try to convince the rest of us to like The Counting Crows as much as he does, over the course of a month. It will, of course, be called The Longest December.
7. Other People w/ Brad Listi. I’ll admit I’m a newbie to The Nervous Breakdown’s interviews with authors, but so far I really like what Listi has created, a kind of WTF for the literary world (I imagine he’s already growing tired of that particular comparison, but it seems apt). Whereas Silverblatt’s Bookworm focuses on a specific book, Listi wants to walk through a writer’s life, find what drives them, what inspires them, what makes them tick. All of which is done with enough humor to keep it from turning into Inside the Actors Studio.
There are several other podcasts I find myself dipping in and out of: The Nerdist, The Long Shot, Comedy Bang Bang. The comedy podcasting world, in particular, tends to be a little insular, so you can follow comics you like as they pop up on various shows, then decide whether you like the hosts enough to stick around. And that tends to be a very personal choice, which is one of the things I love about podcasts. They don’t have to appeal to a huge audience, and there are tons of niches to fill. A great starting place is The A/V Club’s weekly Podmass feature, where they review shows from the previous week.
Okay, this post has rambled on quite long enough, I think. If there are other shows you like, or think I might like, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments. And if you’re not yet a listener of the Book Fight podcast, I hope you’ll consider giving us a go. I like to think we provide a good mix of serious criticism and goofy nonsense. We take the books seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.