Welcome to the fourth installation of our series on recommended podcasts in 2020. Last time I focused on design podcasts. This time I want to focus on storytelling.
These podcasts cover a wide range of topics, but what they share is an expert ability to tell a story, to not only see the beauty in everyday life but also to relate it in a way that resonates.
- 99% Invisible
- The Anthropocene Reviewed
- Reply All
- A Way with Words
- Levar Burton Reads
I think the official show description says it best:
99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.
It started as a project of KALW public radio and the American Institute of Architects and has grown into one of the most popular podcasts in the world, with a book and thriving community.
There are dozens of fantastic episodes, but a couple older ones have stuck with me. Ten Thousand Years is designing a radioactive site for the distant future, which will still be dangerous in 200,000 years. How do you communicate danger with future people who may not even read our language or understand our cultural references? Reversal of Fortune is another great episode, all about Chicago, the history of the city, the architecture, the insane plan to reverse the flow of the Chicago river? Yes.
This show, led by bestselling author John Green, covers the Anthropocene: the current geological age, in which human activity has profoundly shaped the planet and its biodiversity. It’s hard to describe what ties the episodes together, other than a keen eye for finding wondrous stories where you’d least expect it.
The episode on Googling Strangers and Kentucky Bluegrass is an absolute must-listen. The one on Super Mario Kart and the Bonneville Salt Flats is excellent as well.
Reply All is also hard to categorize. It’s roughly about the Internet and how technology affects people… also how people influence technology… but with a rich humor and loving heart at the core of each episode. Super clear, right?
The Case of the Missing Hit is possibly my favorite podcast episode on any show, ever. It’s a guy remembering a hit song that no one else remembers. The journey he goes on to find some truth, if possible, is amazing and amazingly entertaining. Just listen to it.
Honestly, after the missing hit, you can just pick any episode and start there. It’s that consistently good. But the two-part Long Distance episode is especially good too, the story or tracking down a phone scammer.
I have a longstanding fascination with etymology and the story of how our modern languages came to be, why certain words have certain feelings, etc. A Way with Words scratches that itch unlike any other media I’ve found. It’s a show about language: slang, new words, jokes, riddles, word games, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, books, literature, folklore, and speaking and writing well.
I enjoy all of the episodes, but I’m a linguistics nerd. I’ll recommend two to start. Beside Myself is a nicely representative episode covering potential anachronisms in Downton Abbey movie, a celebration of semicolons, and one teacher’s creative solution to teen profanity in the classroom. Clever Clogs discusses how and why the Southern drawl developed, it also covers the phrase It’s a thing.
This last recommendation is more literally story-telling. It’s simply Levar Burton reading short fiction, with some light sound effect support. It’s every bit as fantastic as it sounds.
I recommend just skimming the episode list and picking whatever strikes your fancy, but these are good starting points:
“The Foster Portfolio” by Kurt Vonnegut
“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison, Part 1
There are hundreds of excellent podcasts out there, depending on your interests. What I like about these five shows is that they are virtually guaranteed to have excellent stories, guaranteed to entertain and distract.
People have called 2020 the longest year ever, and I definitely empathize with that sentiment. It feels at every turn, there’s some new crisis happening, some new thing to be worried or angry about.
These podcasts not only provide a much-needed respite from the daily strife of current events, they tell stories that remind us of how similar we all are, how much love and beauty still exist in the world. They remind us of the value of a good story well told.
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