Let's Talk Podcasting (Again)

September 30, 2018 | Wendy

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This fall, Toronto Public Library is getting excited about all things audio - especially podcasts.

With over half a million podcasts in the world as of June 2018, it can be hard to know where to dive in - and any introductory guide is going to be flawed, limited and incomplete. With that in mind, I present one librarian's humble, and very personal, opinions on a dozen podcasts you might want to have listened to by late 2018, from the obvious to the slightly outré. But as a mortal  human with only one set of ears and a full-time job, I can't possibly listen to all of the good podcasts out there - so please help me out and post your favourites in the comments. 

The Personal Favourite:

Radiolab logo


Back in 2010, I was assembling some Ikea bookshelves while listening to Radiolab's Animal Minds episodes. To this day, there are still visible tearstains on the laminate. Fifteen seasons and hundreds of episodes in, some people find the interplay between the show's two hosts, Jad and Robert, too cute; some people say that the episodes are overproduced. I say - well, I say nothing, because I'm too busy choking back sobs over the show's informative and science-based, yet viscerally emotional, content. (Bonus: the show comes with an excellent, and extensive, reading list!)

Do you love Radiolab's spirit of scientific curiosity, but wish it was a bit more... femme? Fear not! You have a couple of great options:



Invisibilia originally featured former Radiolabber Lulu Miller, and it carries over some qualities from that show. It's billed as an investigation of "the invisible... ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions that guide human behaviour", and it features many of the moments of jaw-dropped wonder that are Radiolab's stock in trade. (It's now helmed by NPR journalists Hannah Rosen and Alix Spiegel, who are just as good.)

Getting Curious logo

Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness

This podcast sees the Queer Eye star delving into a cornucopia of topics, ranging from virtual reality to social media to gender to the psychology of trauma in immigration detainees. His interviews with experts have a delightfully giddy energy, while still managing to be solidly educational.

The Classic

This American Life logo

This American Life

You've probably already heard this. But the venerable NPR institution has become the template for a particular kind of in-depth, human-interest podcast, and it has a massive back catalogue, so if you're ever hard up for a well-produced story to listen to, TAL's got your back.

The History Podcast Everyone Likes But Me


Hardcore History

Do you want a really well-informed, articulate guy to talk to you about world history for literally hours at a time? I don't! But it seems like everybody else I know loves this podcast, so I'm going to recommend it anyway.  Hours! Of having history explained to you. At a level of detail you'd probably never encounter anywhere else. Try it - maybe it's your thing. 

The History Podcast Everyone Likes That I Also Like


The Secret Life of Canada

Billed as "a history podcast about the country you know, the stories you don't", The Secret Life of Canada is hosted by two very personable playwrights and amateur historians, Leah Simone Bowen and Falen Johnson. It delves into aspects of Canadian history that often go undiscussed. (Spoiler: a lot of Canadian history is pretty horrifying.) Eye-opening, educational, and blissfully brief.

The Innovative One


Ear Hustle

Ear Hustle (the title is prison slang for 'eavesdropping') demonstrates what can be accomplished when media production and distribution is available to everyone: it's a partnership between an artist, Nigel Poor, and a San Quentin Prison inmate, Earlonne Woods. Woods' in-depth, sensitive interviews with inmates on many aspects of prison life are illuminating, even as the restrained tone of the production reveals the challenges of creating art under constant surveillance.

The Creepy and Fanciful One


Welcome to Night Vale 

I'll let Night Vale's website speak for itself: "Welcome to Night Vale is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events... Turn on your radio and hide." With nearly 150 episodes under its belt, Night Vale provides hours of entertainment for anyone who craves a frisson of weirdness just before bedtime.  

Alice Isn't Dead logo

Alice Isn't Dead

Produced by the same people as Night Vale, Alice Isn't Dead is a narrative in the form of a truck driver's audio diary as she searches across a not-quite-normal America for her wife, whom she'd long believed dead. Zombies and other strange occurrences abound.

The Chatty One

Do By Friday logo

Do By Friday

There's a whole class of podcasts that are less "formal interview" than "gang of friends chatting over brunch". These podcasts stand or fall on the personalities of their hosts. Do By Friday features three charming San Fransiscans -- Merlin Mann, Alex Cox and Max Temkin -- whose often-hilarious hot takes on news items make them good company for when you're too busy commuting or doing housework to go for brunch with your actual friends.

The Musical One

Song Exploder logo

Song Exploder

Billed as "A podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made," this slick series of twenty-minute interviews is catnip for music lovers. Hear hip hop trio Clippings make beats by crumpling beer cans and breaking breeze blocks; hear Björk... being Björk. Addictive. 

The Current One

The Habitat logo

The Habitat

I've just started listening to this reality-show-like documentary: in Hawaii, six volunteers spend an entire year enclosed in a dome simulating a Mars habitat (for science!). Host Lynn Levy embellishes the crew's recordings with vintage clips from NASA missions and fascinating (and sometimes disgusting) details about life in space. I'm halfway through; so far, so good.

So, what essential listening have I missed? (Would you like to discuss the ethics of Serial and S-Town?) Let me know in the comments!

To find out more about podcast-related activities at the library in Fall, 2018, check out my colleague Bill V.'s excellent podcast post