Five Podcasts That Will Make You Smarter
As radio begins its dark descent into irrelevance, podcasts are quickly spreading as the format that many Americans go to in order to get their “talk radio” fix. Whether you’re a leaf-eating liberal or a cocked and loaded conservative, you can find a podcast tailored to even the narrowest point of view. Just a few years ago, podcasts were those obscure things that hipsters listened to so they could stay ahead of the trends. Now they have become insanely popular and that popularity is constantly growing. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, the number of people age 12 and older who have listened to at least one podcast is 33 percent, a number that has steadily risen since 2006.
The thing that podcasts seem to do better than other forms of multimedia is, through sheer volume, teach you about any subject you can dream of. Physics, sports, sex, music, magic, comedy, pop culture, etc.. You can literally find a podcast on anything.
But if it’s just some general knowledge and interesting point of views that you’re looking for, then here are five podcasts that will make you smarter and expand your knowledge of the world around you.
The Joe Rogan Experience
Most people know Joe Rogan as the guy from “Fear Factor” and the UFC. But many will also know him as the host of his massively popular podcast which won "Comedy Podcast of the Year" in 2012.
This amazing podcast runs the gamut, discussing just about everything including psychedelic drugs, astrophysics, martial arts, geology, galactic colonization, neuroscience, nutrition, physical fitness, psychology, and big game hunting. His guests include comedian friends like Bill Burr, astrophysicists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, UFC fighters, doctors, scientists and rappers like Everlast and Immortal Technique. Rogan truly is the Everyman.
While he himself says that he simply parrots the words of smarter people, Rogan is an incredibly clear thinker who can interview on-the-fly with the best of them. And when you’re recording live three-hour podcasts, you have to be able to hold a conversation. He does a great job of allowing the experts to vamp on subjects while he asks the correct follow-up questions to keep them going.
Oh and Rogan is a stand-up comedian who will have your eyes watery from some of his jokes. The shows where he teams up with one to two other comedians are laugh riots with non-stop punch lines that rival any stand-up act.
His off-the-cuff, unapologetic style also mixes surprisingly well with some of the more milquetoast guests he has as he gets them to loosen up with his genuine laughter and gentle demeanor.
This podcast alone can change lives. It gives you everything you need in one place and promotes a healthy lifestyle, both physically and mentally. As long as you don’t mind the fact that he does every podcast slightly stoned, “The Joe Rogan Experience” is something to behold.
Common Sense with Dan Carlin
Spoiler alert. This is not the only time that Dan Carlin appears on this list. Why? Because he offers one of the more unique, unbiased and logic-driven point of views on history and current events that you will find anywhere.
Carlin is a former television and radio journalist who made his foray into podcasting for the freedom that it allowed as some of Carlin’s commentary can be considered a little too radical for traditional public forums. Of course that’s ridiculous. Carlin simply looks at everything from every possible angle and sympathizes with all sides.
He’s not certain about every one of his opinions and forgoes the loud, boisterous persona adopted by many political pundits in favor of a more intelligent, well-thought-out approach. Each show is well researched and he takes a Chomsky-esque approach, leaving his pro-American tendencies at the door, and dives deep into every issue facing us at the moment with a clear mind.
He stays surprisingly moderate while at the same time viciously kicking down the doors of those he deems as acting immorally or talking out of both sides of their mouths. Somehow, he never comes off as preachy or haughty and is, more often than not, simply positing ideas and viewpoints as something to consider.
Whether you agree with him or not, and many will not, Carlin is always an interesting, erudite listen and will open eyes to new trains of thought.
This two-time Peabody Award-winning podcast is, as it says in its iTunes description, “an investigation told through sounds and stories, and centered around one big idea.” One listen to this podcast will tell you why it’s so lauded.
Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich take you on a journey each show through stories that generally relate to one subject but in completely different ways. The shows cover themes like “Galapagos,” where they show how fragile the evolutionary chain is and how the introduction of one tiny bug can spell death for one creature and life for another, or “Patient Zero,” where they talk about how one infamous woman called Typhoid Mary caused the death of thousands with her reckless dismissal of doctors orders and how the introduction of HIV into the human species may have been caused by monkey hunters ingesting blood with a mutated super-virus.
The production value for this WNYC product is top-notch and the stories are told in an artistic and unique way. It’s a basic interview format heavily edited with numerous sound clips to create an exceedingly deep feeling experience that you wouldn’t expect from an audio show. The formula has been copied numerous times and it’s not hard to find “Radiolab” clones out there.
With an entertaining mix of science, music and good journalism, “Radiolab” is second to none when it comes to podcasting. Download and enjoy.
“Freakonomics Radio” is another WNYC podcast based off the book, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” which also spawned the documentary of the same name. Freakonomics takes a look at the world through the eyes of an economist. Now while that sounds like one of the most boring things you can possibly listen to, host Stephen J. Dubner is able to explore interesting facets of the most prosaic things.
Similar to Radiolab, “Freakonomics Radio” explores one subject in-depth for each episode but from an economic, numbers-oriented point of view. They discuss incentives, supply and demand and trickle down effects but with things that you wouldn’t generally associate with economics.
Episode titles include “Am I Boring You?,” “Should Kids Pay Back Their Parents for Raising Them?” and “The Folly of Prediction.” This podcast simply offers the same thing that the rest of the podcasts on this list offer: a different way to look at things. And it does it in an entertaining and engaging way.
You’re ears are constantly at attention and each episode offers something new. If you’re looking for a more mathematical take on things, “Freakonomics Radio,” will more than satisfy.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
Ah, our old friend Dan Carlin. If you’re starting to suspect that I have a man crush on him, you’re spot on. He brings his extraordinary oratory talents to world history where his raspy, mellifluous voice and ability to build drama are a perfect fit for telling old war stories.
While he constantly reiterates that he is not a historian, he certainly has all the qualifications. Each episode, some of which run as long as four hours, is abundantly researched and perfected over the course of a few months. His perfectionism comes through in his work, as the three-plus hours go by in a flash and give you a true, deep-rooted understanding of whatever event he’s discussing — mostly because one episode is rarely enough for him. His recently finished series on World War I, called “Blueprint for Armageddon,” spans six episodes and 20-plus hours starting with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and ending with the Treaty of Versailles in 1918.
He mixes his own commentary and thoughts with interesting first-hand accounts and the viewpoints of other historians. He amplifies the grisly details but never seems gratuitous in his description of violence and war.
By talking about them as regular humans instead of as deified heroes and villains, he makes historical figures much more relatable and their decisions, both good and bad, much easier to understand.
Carlin has a unique gift for presenting history to the masses in a colorful, digestible way. I can only imagine how awesome his bedtime stories would be. If you’re a fan of history, or even if you’ve been sullied by monotone Social Studies teachers and want to give it another shot, Carlin is the best in the business at whisking people away to the past.