What’s old is new again.
Welcome the new age of the podcast. Many people compare podcasts to online radio, but they are different in that podcasts are recorded in advance and then ready to be listened to at your convenience. Podcasts, which have been around since about 2004, have been quietly plugging along in the background with little growth and not much buzz.
All that changed with Serial. Serial, a podcast produced by This American Life that turned into an obsession for many, chronicled an investigation of a fifteen year-old murder case (you can read my review of Serial here). It quickly became the fastest downloaded podcast on iTunes ever to reach 5 million listeners.
While a compelling listen is always a a good way to spend your time, listening to poorly-executed podcasts can be just as valuable as listening to outstanding ones. You can pinpoint when your attention is captured and when it wanes. By listening to both ends of the storytelling-prowess spectrum, you can learn how to analyze your own project based upon your response to listening to other programs.
I suppose I am a bit nostalgic for that previous radio era, a time that had come and gone before I was even born. That said, this isn’t your granddad’s radio hour. Today’s long form storytelling podcasts are skillfully structured combining current techniques and an understanding of today’s listeners. They cover topics ranging from true crime and current events to the more nebulous but compelling topics. What does it mean to be happy and is chasing happiness really the answer? What happens when people are put in positions that are far out of their expertise? Why do people say such hateful things on the Internet? Each of these topics is tackled with a depth and skill guaranteed to keep you listening until the very end.
The master of this domain, in my opinion, is This American Life, with its substantial catalog of interesting episodes all crafted under Ira Glass’s gifted guidance. And, although I had heard of TAL, I never listened consistently until getting hooked on Serial.
I had no idea what I was missing.
So, storytellers, consider tuning in and downloading an episode or two the next time you go for a walk, a run, or a drive. Apple’s Podcast app is simple to use and there are also several options for listening on Android devices as well. Here are a few podcasts I hope you will consider:
This is the one that started it all for me. The investigation, handled deftly by Sarah Koenig, will keep you downloading one episode after another, causing you to ignore phone calls, dishes and possibly even your children.
This American Life:
TAL is the wise and skilled parent of Serial, and many agree that they are masters of long form storytelling. Some of my favorite episodes include:
The House on Loon Lake, Episode #199: Described by TAL as a “real life Hardy Boys Mystery,” it’s the tale of what happens when a boy discovers an abandoned house and decides to find out what happened to the people who lived there.
Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde: Episode #492: When Dr. Benjamin Gilmer lands a job working in a small clinic, he discovers he is replacing another doctor…also named Dr. Gilmer. The previous physician was serving time in prison for killing his own father, an act that those who knew the family couldn’t believe. As it turns out, there was far more to the story.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS: Episode #545. Act I of this episode broke my heart. What happens when someone hides behind their anonymity on the Internet, bullying you and saying hateful things? One writer decides to confront her attacker–with surprising results. Note: This episode has some explicit language but there is a ‘bleeped’ version on TAL’s site.
This true crime podcast keeps things short and sweet, introducing a 20-30 minute episode monthly. My favorite episode chronicles Raymond Chandler fans–seventy-year-old newlyweds– working diligently to get something extremely important to Chandler back to where it belongs. A must for Chandler and mystery fans:
This one caught my attention because it chronicled a man starting an Internet startup. As someone who has been involved with a company going through investment funding and working on pitches and PR during the tech bubble, I found this one hit close to home. In a surprising twist, it also shows the challenges of starting a new tech business while trying to raise young children, giving it a more layered narrative and one that is far more compelling than a simple launch story. Not mystery based but great storytelling in a contemporary and intimate format. Side note–Alex Blumberg was a former TAL producer and left to start this company.