Like many people, I drive a lot. And, like any card-carrying Prius driver, I fill my time driving listening to NPR, The Current, “This American Life.” I have done this for years. I literally grew up on NPR, as my mom would play it in the car as we were shuttled back and forth to elementary school or soccer practice. The possibility for subject matter out of a third-grader’s depth didn’t bother her. “That’s just life,” she’d say. What this did was create a pretty deep, Pavlovian need for me to always be listening to something engaging, something new, something that expanded my world view while driving. In other words, no Top 40. Ever.
This has taken a predictable pattern in the past few years. NPR’s “Morning Edition” in the a.m. and “All Things Considered” in the afternoon. On long drives, or odd times, I’ll listen to story-driven podcasts like “This American Life,” “Snap Judgment,” and, most recently, “Serial,” which is fantastic. Every once and a while, maybe an audiobook.
These are generally for entertainment, though — a way to pass the time so I can easily drift in and out of focus without missing much. Recently, though, I’ve found all of these story driven podcasts kind of blurring together. They are all immensely well-produced and full of great content, but much of the time feel more like a distraction. In order to break up this monotony and feel like the time I spend driving isn’t a total waste, I decided to seek out different podcasts — specifically ones that I might actually learn something while listening. This isn’t to say that “This American Life” isn’t informative; it’s just not all that challenging. It being so damn listenable is, after all, why it’s the most popular podcast in the US.
So below is a brief list of podcasts I’ve been listening to that fall into the “more challenging” category. Ones where I feel like I’m doing some mental exercise. Ones where I feel like I am continually learning.
- A Partially Examined Life – A philosophy podcast “by some guys who at one point were set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.” This one is a deep, deep dive. In college I took some basic philosophy classes, and though I was always interested in the study, I never really got into it. Not like this, at least. The podcast is simple — every episode, three guys focus on a few texts from a particular philosopher and break things down in an accessible way. Well, as accessible as debating Kantian versus Jungian ontologies can be. At around two hours (!!) per episode, they are a serious investment of time. Doing the work — reading the discussed texts ahead of listening to each episode — is one of the more enjoyable things I’ve done recently, because it really has that pure scholarly feel that I enjoyed so much in college. Once we leave college we are so rarely challenged mentally in arenas in which we have no experience. Most of us stop learning almost altogether, or just stick to what we do for a career. So trying to learn something completely new is an extremely rewarding exercise. This podcast isn’t an everyday thing, but once a week or so, it’s fun to dig into some Kierkegaard and listen to a debate of his finer points. It stretches me to think critically in ways few things can these days.
- a16z – Andreessen Horowitz is one of the premier venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Started by Mark Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, they’ve invested in companies such a Groupon, Instagram, Oculus, Skype, Facebook, Airbnb, and more. One of the things that sets them apart from the black-box mystery of other VC firms is their dedication to openness and demystifying the world of venture funding. This podcast is an extension of that. It’s a short, intermittently released podcast focusing on whatever they decide to chat about. Usually, it’s entrepreneurs from companies they’ve funded or the partners of the firm discussing trends in technology. The thing that makes it so fascinating is that they don’t take the NPR “explain it so that anyone could understand it” approach. It’s very much an inside-baseball discussion, with experts chatting with other experts like they would on a conference call. So while I don’t know anything about computer programming, hearing two tech entrepreneurs/engineers talk the finer points of an emerging technology is a fascinating behind-the-curtain perspective you just can’t really find anywhere else.
- Radio Ambulante – Think “This American Life” but in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, nor do I understand it all that well. I took classes in high school, got conversational at one point, but pretty much lost what little communicative ability I had by not continuing to speak or learn. However, I always have wanted to learn it. I tried different ways: Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and listening to Pimsleur Spanish Learning audiobooks in the car, but nothing really stuck. My fault, of course — probably because of my own laziness. When I went to Peru last year, I brushed up a bit and was able to do the most basic of communicating — “How much is this?” “Where is this place?” “What animal am I eating?” It really whetted my appetite for trying, yet again, to learn a second language. I stumbled across this podcast one day and decided, what the hell, might as well give it a listen. What I found was that listening to a storytelling format I was used to, in this case “This American Life”, and listening in on Spanish conversations among native speakers, was a surprisingly good way to sharpen my language skills. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t understand 90% of what’s being said, but I can make out the basic structures of the stories and the gist of a lot of the conversations. It also makes me work for it. I have to listen closely and tax myself to pick up what little I can. Again, not an everyday sort of podcast, but putting in the work can be a lot of fun.
- NPR’s Planet Money – This is definitely the most accessible of the bunch. Using NPR’s classic journalistic style, “Planet Money” explores the ways in which money and economics are applied to wide swath of topics, both familiar and foreign. It’s the layman’s approach to economics, so there will be no debate over the merits of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” here. What it does do — and does very well — is expose the listener to a variety of things they have never given thought to. For instance, recently topics could include Swiss cheese cartels, the finer points of trading zoo animals, why certain nations hoard US $100 bills, why milk is in the back of a grocery store, the patent system and the ownership of airspace. It may be more of a surface approach, but at only 15-20 minutes an episode, you learn a little bit about a lot of different, interesting economic topics.
I’m not saying that these podcasts are for you — they probably aren’t. But there are so many great podcasts being created on such an enormous breadth of topics, there will certainly be something you could seek out that will challenge you, something outside your comfort zone.