Updated on 02.19.15

Everything You Need to Know About Listening to Podcasts, My Favorite Free Form of Entertainment

Trent Hamm
Radiolab live

Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad (right) and Robert Krulwich explore scientific curiosities with a sense of humor. Photo: WNYC

I spend the equivalent of a full-time job working at my computer or laptop, and that’s usually with audio turned on. On top of that, I have my cell phone almost everywhere with me and when I’m in the car; I usually plug it in and listen to the audio through my car’s speaker system.

What do I listen to? Podcasts.

Podcasts are free audio programs distributed over the Internet. You can download them and listen to them as you please, essentially creating a radio station focused entirely on the topics you want to listen to. There are podcasts out there covering almost any topic that you can imagine – and probably dozens of podcasts on that topic.

Because you can choose programs that match your interests and can swap programs in and out as you wish, it becomes much like having a customized radio station for yourself that you can even take with you wherever you go if you have a smartphone.

What are the basic things I need to know?

Podcasts really aren’t that different than any other kind of radio program. The only difference is that podcast creators distribute the episodes of their program over the Internet for everyone to listen to rather than using a traditional radio station.

Because podcasting is a very “do it yourself” format, podcasts vary greatly in quality. Some are recorded in professional studios, others in nice home studios with great microphones, and still others are recorded on a cell phone or with a simple cheap microphone. Some are hosted by people with great radio voices, while others are hosted by people who are excitedly nervous. I actually like this and consider it a feature; it’s really cool to listen to a podcast from someone who is doing it just because they love the topic they’re talking about.

How do people find interesting podcasts to listen to? Most of the time, people listen to podcasts using a podcast manager. A podcast manager is simply a piece of software that helps you find podcasts to listen to and keeps track of which podcast episodes you’ve listened to (and which ones you’ve haven’t). One feature that most podcast managers have is to simply listen to all of your unlistened podcast episodes.

Most of the time, people use their podcast manager software to find a new podcast and then they listen to an episode or two. If they like what they hear, they can usually subscribe to that podcast. What that means is that when a new episode of that podcast is released, that new episode appears almost immediately in your podcast manager so you can listen to it at your convenience.

Many popular programs already on the radio – particularly public radio programs – are also available in podcast form, so you can mix those in with other podcasts that don’t actually air on a radio station.

How do I listen to podcasts?

There are a lot of podcast managers out there that you can use to listen to and subscribe to podcasts. Here are a few of those options.

Desktop

Desktop programs allow you to download podcasts to your personal computer. These are the best options if you just use a single computer and perhaps sync that computer with a portable mp3 player.

iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/) is easily the most ubiquitous podcast management tool. It works spectacularly well as a desktop podcast manager and allows you to easily find podcasts to listen to for free through the iTunes Store. It also has stellar integration with iDevices – iPhones, iPods, and iPads – so if you use those devices on the go, you can keep your list of subscribed podcasts and your record of listened-to and unlistened episodes in sync effortlessly.

gPodder (http://gpodder.org/) is probably the best desktop alternative to iTunes. It also has an integrated podcast directory that makes it easy to find new podcasts to listen to with just a few clicks and integrates well with Android mobile devices.

Web-Based

These options allow you to play podcasts directly from your web browser. These are great if you move from computer to computer and device to device but always have access to wi-fi and aren’t relying on a cellular data plan. Web-based podcast managers usually rely on streaming audio to present the sound to you, so if you’re going to be using a cellular Internet connection, it’s going to devour your data plan, so be careful.

ShortOrange (http://shortorange.com/) is probably my favorite of this group as it offers a great and easy-to-use interface on both desktop and mobile web browsers and you can play around with it without having an account (though it won’t track subscriptions or listens for you). If you tend to alternate between a desktop and a laptop for podcast listening, this is probably my recommendation.

Player.FM (https://player.fm/) is similar to ShortOrange but offers dedicated mobile apps for iOS and Android devices, which I consider a nice perk. If you alternate between a wide variety of desktop and mobile devices, this is probably the best choice.

Mobile

If you listen to podcasts primarily or exclusively on mobile devices, you have a lot of options. Here are two that really stand out.

Overcast (https://overcast.fm/) is easily my favorite podcast manager for iOS. It just works exactly as I want in my head. In fact, if they improved the web interface, it would be my only podcast manager. If you’re just listening using iOS almost all of the time and rarely listen elsewhere, this is my top recommendation.

Pocket Casts (http://www.shiftyjelly.com/pocketcasts), on the other hand, is my recommendation for Android users. It features a great interface, syncs well across multiple Android devices, and is very smart about downloading episodes when you’re around wi-fi instead of using mobile data.

How do I find podcasts to listen to?

All of the podcast managers I mention above are integrated with a great podcast directory that enable you to easily look for podcast recommendations based on topic, as well as look up podcasts by name (if you know the name of a particular one you want to listen to).

The “recommendation” engine varies a lot from podcast manager to podcast manager, but most of them make it easy to just browse through a list of topics – entertainment, games, sports, news, history, and so on – and then see lists of either the most popular podcasts in that topic or recommendations within that topic. If the categories are broad, there are usually dozens of popular podcasts within that topic.

There are many, many lists of great podcasts floating around on countless different websites. Just go to Google, type in a topic you like, and then follow that with the words “top podcasts,” and you’ll get a list of podcasts on that subject. (If you don’t get a good list, change your topic to something slightly more general, like switching “Philadelphia 76ers” to “NBA”).

What are some podcasts that you recommend?

This is kind of like drinking from a fire hose. There are many, many podcasts out there that I enjoy listening to and these just offer a sampling of those options. I am generally subscribed to somewhere around 50 podcasts at any given time and that roster rotates constantly as I try out new podcasts and drop other ones (not because I don’t enjoy them, but because there’s such a bounty of great podcasts out there).

Here are twenty podcasts that I really, really enjoy and I generally stay subscribed to all the time. A few of these are replays of radio programs, so you may have heard them before on your local NPR station, for example.

Serial

Serial is a season-based podcast where a single story is discussed in detail over a dozen (or so) episodes. The first season of Serial – which you can download in its entirety for about eight hours of listening – covers the details of a mysterious murder case in Baltimore, digging into the case in such nuance that you can’t help but wonder whether or not the courts actually understood things to that level of detail. If you enjoy mysteries, then you’ll love it. The depth here brings things to life.

This American Life

This American Life is a weekly hour-long radio program that’s often aired on public radio stations. Each episode of the show focuses on one particular aspect of American life – one recent episode focuses on how Americans express anger, while another one focuses on how police see many situations differently than other citizens do. The episodes are usually broken up into a handful of segments, each with different people doing the presentation, giving it a surprising amount of variety within the topic of the day.

Radiolab

Radiolab focuses on scientific and philosophical topics, taking a broad topic like football and looking at it from a number of different angles, some very analytic and some not so analytic. This is usually done with a light touch and a nice sense of humor that makes for very enjoyable and sometimes thoughtful listening. Most episodes are about an hour in length, with some shorter episodes popping up from time to time, and there’s a fresh episode every week or two.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Hardcore History is a irregularly-produced podcast that focuses on incredibly deep and thorough coverage of a historical event, almost coming off like an extremely well done audiobook. For example, the host, Dan Carlin, has recently covered World War I in a five episode series with each episode lasting two to three hours. Carlin keeps the topic interesting by turning historical events into a narrative story and often describes how events of the past impact our lives today. I love it when a new episode of this pops up.

Tiny Desk Concerts

Tiny Desk Concerts is a series of short concerts performed in the offices of National Public Radio by a wide variety of musicians. You’ll hear everything from folk and country and Americana to rock and pop and classical and electronica and hip-hop and almost anything else you can imagine.

Sword and Laser

Sword and Laser is a weekly podcast hosted by Tom Merritt and Veronica Belmont that focuses on fantasy and science fiction books and short stories. They interview lots of authors and have a monthly “book club” where they select a book, give brief non-spoilerish discussions of it over the next few episodes, then have an all-spoilers discussion of it after that before selecting another one.

99% Invisible

99% Invisible is a podcast focusing on design topics. How are things made? What about the decisions in the details of making things? The host Roman Mars tackles all kinds of different elements of design in a great discussion-oriented weekly podcast that lasts about thirty minutes per episode.

Hang Up and Listen

I enjoy sports, but I often get fed up with the bombast of sports discussions which often end with shouting or people yelling catchphrases. This one’s different. Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca host a weekly 90 minute podcast that discusses sports from a variety of angles without getting caught up in the shouting and emotion that often fill other discussions of sports on the radio (and on television for that matter).

This Is Your Life with Michael Hyatt

This podcast, hosted by Michael Hyatt, is focused on what he calls “intentional leadership,” meaning that it’s a weekly discussion of the personal attributes and characteristics of what makes a great leader and how a person can cultivate them. This show really clicks when guests are brought on for discussions. The show branches out into things like personal growth, productivity, and other issues, but is always handled so smartly.

State of the Re:Union

State of the Re:Union is a brilliant show hosted by Al Letson where he visits and looks at the challenges and issues facing one particular town or city in the United States each episode. He might look at a large city in the Pacific Northwest one episode, then hit a smaller city in the Heartland, then examine a tiny town in the South the next week. By looking at the nation from this town by town perspective, it begins to become clear that we all actually have a lot more in common than we think. This show has done more to help me reflect on the differences and commonalities among Americans than almost anything I’ve ever experienced.

Fresh Air

Fresh Air is an hour-long daily interview program from NPR hosted by Terry Gross. The show mostly focuses on a single long interview with a single guest, but the guests have incredible variety from episode to episode. She might interview a politician one episode, a rock star in another, a writer in another, then a film star in another. It’s that variety that keeps me coming back for more.

Planet Money

Planet Money is a twice-weekly podcast produced by NPR that focuses on economic and personal finance news and perspectives. Planet Money is hosted by a fairly large staff that bring to life that connection between your day-to-day life and large-scale economic issues like the rise of the American dollar against foreign currencies. I firmly believe that letting this podcast run in the background sometimes inspires articles for The Simple Dollar in the back of my head.

The Pen Addict

The Pen Addict is a weekly hourlong show hosted by Brad Dowdy and Myke Hurley that focuses on pens, paper, and other analog tools. It’s a very niche topic but the incredible enthusiasm of the hosts really carry the show.

Dan Carlin’s Common Sense

This is another show hosted by Dan Carlin (who also hosts Hardcore History, mentioned earlier) where the host discusses current events and politics in America. The host seems to try to find unique angles on the issues that don’t really fit into the usual liberal-conservative spectrum and usually leaves me thinking about current events in a new way – which is why I love it.

Marketplace

Marketplace is a daily (weekdays at least) radio program from American Public Media that’s shared in podcast form. Currently hosted by Kai Ryssdal, the show focuses mostly on business and economic issues, but is done in such a light and interesting fashion with some incredibly catchy music used to separate segments.

The Moth

The Moth is just people telling stories, nothing more, nothing less. The podcast is simply audio recordings of live events where people get up on stage and tell a story about their life. It is incredibly human and leaves you fascinated with the varieties of human experience that exist in the world today.

How to Do Everything

This is a bizarre little mixed bag of things. The hosts, Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag, spend each episode answering a handful of “how do I…” questions on a wide variety of things. They might talk about how to make cheese in your basement then talk about how to cut ties with an old friend who has suddenly gotten weirdly political. The variety – and the enthusiasm of the hosts – makes this crazy mix work.

The Dice Tower

The Dice Tower is a podcast about board and card games hosted by Tom Vasel and Eric Summerer. The hosts have great enthusiasm for the topic and have no problem filling an hour a week with all kinds of discussion about new game releases, classic games, horrible (and great) gaming experiences, and so on.

TED Radio Hour

TED Radio Hour is an hourlong show consisting of short talks on a shared topic by a variety of contributors. One week, the topic might be “love;” another week might center on “fears” or “secrets.” Often, the short topics focus on current research in those areas, while some of the topics might focus on applicable advice. The mix of voices and ideas adds up to brilliance.

Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale is perhaps the strangest entry on this list. Each episode of the show takes the form of a “local news” radio program from a fictional town where strange and bizarre things happen. The show clicks because there are so many continued threads and stories from episode to episode that overlap in interesting ways. It starts a bit slow – you have to give it time – but it grows into a brilliant story that leaves you looking forward to the next episode each time. This is a podcast well worth starting from the beginning.

Final Thoughts

Podcasts are essentially a method for creating your own radio station, full of shows on topics you’re interested in and hosted by people who you like. If you don’t like a show, you have complete power to effectively cancel it by just hitting the “delete” button. You can listen to podcasts at home, when you’re walking, when you’re commuting, or pretty much anywhere else. You only hear repeats if you choose to hear repeats, so it’s always fresh.

In terms of sheer hours, podcasts have easily been my primary form of entertainment over the past several years. They play in the background when I’m working and they fill the air in the vehicle whenever I drive anywhere. I deeply enjoy listening to a wide variety of enthusiastic people discussing a wide variety of topics I enjoy. It never, ever gets old – after all, there’s always a new podcast around the corner to listen to.

The best part? It’s all free.

Dig in. You won’t regret it. You’ll have infinite entertainment for free.

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