Ira Glass speaks to me

How the comfort of a familiar voice opens the door to uncomfortable ideas

Yesterday, had the driver in the car next to mine glanced to his left, he would have seen me talking. He might have assumed I was talking to myself or, if he was in a generous mood, maybe he figured I was on a hands-free call. Wrong on both counts, pal. I was talking to Slate's Julia Turner.

Of course, Julia didn't know that. Julia might as well be my imaginary friend. So might Julia's cohosts, Dana Stevens and Stephen Turner. So might Sarah Koenig, and Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson, and Phoebe Judge, and Ira Glass, and Dave Cole, Tara Ariano, and Sarah D. Bunting, and Linda Holmes, and Karina Longworth...You get the point. There are a lot of voices in my head.

That statement becomes a lot less crazy-sounding when I clarify that those voices all come from podcasts. I listen to a handful (read: an unmanageable number that grows daily), and I often find myself talking back to them, despite the fact that the hosts obviously can't hear me. I do this not because I love to hear the sound of my own voice, but because I actually feel like I'm talking to a friend.

How beautiful is Geena Davis in this role, even when she's depressed about her horror of a boyfriend?

Plenty has been written about the intimacy of podcasts, the trust it creates in listeners, and the way a podcast, more than any other medium, can make you feel like if you ever see randomly see Kevin T. Porter walking down the street, it totally won't be weird if you run up to him like you're old friends and ask him if Kelly Bishop smells like autumn, the way you imagine. It's not just that podcast hosts -- their voices, their quirks, their tastes -- become familiar to you over thousands of hours of listening. It's that you really are engaging in a collaborative effort.

Nowhere have I seen this better explained than in Jonah Weiner's piece in Slate, written last December, where he quotes Jad Abumrad:

Abumrad, the Radiolab host, has himself observed that, in the absence of visual information, when he describes something to listeners on the radio, “In a sense, I’m painting something but I’m not holding the paintbrush. You are. So it’s this deep act of co-authorship, and in that is some potential for empathy.”

No wonder I feel compelled to talk back at Julia Turner when I listen to the Culture Gabfest. We're in this together, man.

What compelled me to yap at Julia this time was a segment of the Gabfest's December 30th episode. The hosts were talking about podcasting as a form and referring to Weiner's piece, where he gets into that idea of comfort as one of the defining features of podcasts' popularity. Here's Julia's summary:

Julia Turner: You get these kind of little cadences and rhythms and this repeat relationship that is fundamentally comforting. And [Weiner] raised the question at the end of his essay about what it means for a form, a critical form or an artistic form or a media form to be fundamentally -- have that comfort laced within it, and does that mean that it would be more difficult within the form to raise challenging ideas or to kind of confront or surprise the listener in interesting ways.


I had to pause the episode then to think through my response. Because my immediate reaction was, "No way, man." In fact, I think it's the comfort that podcasts offer that makes them exactly the right medium through which to confront challenging or uncomfortable ideas.

(This is about when I started talking out loud, as if Julia -- and, by extension, Jonah -- were in the car with me.)

It's like this: If I'm about to head down a dark alley in a strange city at night, I'm not going to take the hand offered by some stranger. I'm going to take the hand of a trusted friend and let her lead the way. Podcasting is the same: The fact that I trust the hosts makes me more willing to explore ideas I might normally shy away from.


I am a solidly middle class white woman from the Midwest who lives in Anchorage -- which is another way of saying that I'm not forced to confront racial inequality on a daily basis. That shit is uncomfortable as hell to get into; I'm afraid I'll say something stupid or realize I hold a terrible preconception or have an ignorant reaction. But I have been listening to Another Round's Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton long enough to know that their rapid-fire questions round is called "Pew, Pew, Pew" (just make a space-gun sound when you read it) and that I'd better not profess a love of squirrels if I ever meet one of these women. Suddenly, because I feel like I know Heben and Tracy, and because I like and trust them, it gets a whole lot easier to confront and think about race.

It's true across the board. When I listen to Reply All and hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt say they're going to talk about how computers work -- a subject about which I could normally give exactly zero craps -- I don't hit "skip." I stick around and listen because I know ("know") these guys well enough to trust that they're going to take me on an incredible audio adventure. (They did.)


In the movies, it's always some strange wizard or time traveler or Hagrid who says, "Come with me on a great adventure!" But for real: If that happened IRL, you'd be like, "A) Are you a rapist or serial killer? and b) Homeland is on in like five minute and also I DO NOT KNOW YOU." In real life, it's the people you trust that you're willing to follow some place unfamiliar or scary.

I think this is why it's so hard for me to get into a new podcast. I'm uncomfortable with people I don't already know and trust. Or, as Weiner puts it in his essay, "In a podcast, the moment we lose faith in our guide, it becomes increasingly excruciating to keep listening — intimacy curdles into invasiveness." If that faith's not even there in the first place? It's super hard to get on board with the automatic intimacy podcasts offer.

My friend and fellow podcastophile (there's got to be a better word for that, right?) Mara raved to me about Gilmore Guys, but when I tried to listen to the first couple episodes, my reaction was, "I can't with this." Part of that was the shaggy nature of a brand-new podcast; GG hadn't quite figured out its own rhythms early on. But the real problem was I didn't know these dudes. We didn't share any jokes, I didn't know what they found funny or sad, I wasn't familiar with the rhythm of the show or the rapport between Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe.


When I told Mara this, she encouraged me to skip a few early episodes and give the show a second chance. Now, 522 episodes in, I recite the intro to "Pop Goes the Cul-ture" with the hosts every time; I, too, believe Bishop is Queen; and I've developed a slightly inappropriate crush on Demi. It took a little time, but eventually the trust grew because I found the comfort a familiar podcast can offer.

In the Slate Plus version of his article, Weiner includes an addendum in which he remarks:

Still, I don’t know of any truly experimental or avant-garde podcast — the kind of off-kilter gem you might have once stumbled upon at 2 a.m. on a local free-form station, or, indeed, on public-access television — where part of the experience of listening is to be knocked askew, assaulted, and otherwise disturbed, even as you’re enthralled. This connects to the earlier point about the role of empathic connection in the medium: Podcasts, by and large, establish a relationship marked by comfort.

Weiner might not know of any avent-garde podcasts, but the comfortable relationship and capacity for empathy are exactly the qualities that would make podcasting the perfect medium in which to try a show like that -- because those very qualities are what would turn listeners into willing participants in the experiment.

This year's pleasant surprises

Ah, that glorious time of year when best-of lists abound! I even made one. What could possibly be better than talking about the best? Nice surprises, that's what. It's super exciting when I get to run out to the bookstore, say, and pick up a much-anticipated new novel. But it's even more exciting -- and amazing, and kind of touching -- when someone else does that for me. The pleasant, unexpected thing is kind of the best.

This year was chock full of pleasant surprises when it comes to pop culture -- the kind of stuff that makes me go, "Awww, yeah, I loved that!" when I think of it. Here are some of the things that might not have necessarily made a best-of-2015-T.V. or Top Movies of This Year list, had I made one, but nevertheless brought me great joy.

maxresdefaultiZombie: To be able to change one's mind is a wonderful thing. When I first saw promos for the CW's new show iZombie,  I thought it looked like a dumb show trying to smoosh two popular television standbys (zombies and procedurals) to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Boy, was I wrong. From the creators of Veronica MarsiZombie features the same snappy dialogue as its predecessor, along with the same bubblegum exterior barely concealing darker concerns. Both the characters and the actors portraying them are infinitely appealing (particularly Rose McIver as the titular zombie Liv Moore [I know] and Rahul Kohli as her medical examiner buddy, Ravi Chakrabarti). Every week, this is the first television show I want to catch up with. (Also, it's got a pretty killer credit sequence.)

Gilmore Guys podcast: Some things take a little warming-up-to. For me, Gilmore Guys was one of those things; I didn't get into the first couple of episodes, possibly because the hosts of the podcast, Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe, hadn't quite found their groove yet. But a second try got me hooked, and now I binge-listen to the two guys recapping episodes of Gilmore Girls with the help of a different guest each episode. As a bonus, I'm pretty sure Kevin and Demi single-handedly brought about the upcoming new season of Gilmore Girls, no matter how adamantly they insist otherwise.

Krampus_posterQuality horror: The BabadookIt Follows, The Visit, and Krampus. Holy Krampus, has this been a fantastic year for horror movie fans! The Babadook and It Follows delivered with legit scares paired with thoughtful explorations of grief and sexual trauma, respectively. Then M. Night Shyamalan pulled his own head out of his ass, kept to the writer-director's chair (instead of sneaking into the actor's trailer) and delivered laughs and frights with The Visit. And, just in time for Christmas, we got the wicked ghoul-fest, Krampus, a delightfully nasty, Gremlins-esque holiday horror. Clearly, Santa decided that I was at least halfway decent this year.

150209_r26115-1200Hamilton: Hey, you guys! Have you heard about this cool new musical, Hamilton? Probably not, right? Ugh, I am so not cutting edge. Earlier this year I polled my Facebook friends for new running music, and one of them suggested the Hamilton cast album. "Please," I scoffed. "I can't run to Broadway tunes. What will happen when I get to the inevitable sad ballad." Well, apologies are due to Anna Whiteside because six months later, I'm eating my words. Actually, I'm garbling my words as I try to keep up with the rap and hip-hop rhythms of Lin-Manuel Miranda's ear-wormy musical -- which is, as it turns out, actually great to run to. What I really love about this show -- in addition to the music itself -- is the way it takes this big, abstract concept (creating a nation) and humanizes it through the characters, their relationships, and their own ambitions.

Rufus Wainwright in Anchorage: Living in Alaska has its drawbacks, most of them tolerable. But one of the big bummers is that not a lot of musical acts decide to take their tours this far north. This year, though, I got two see two pretty fantastic shows. First, Garfunkel and Oates played at the University of Alaska. No offense to those funny ladies, but the second show I got to see could never be topped:  Rufus Wainwright came to Anchorage! The venue was kind of intimate, the seats were actually fantastic, and he played most of my favorite songs when he wasn't complaining about the "tassels" on his mountain-man-type shirt.

blackishBlackish: I don't know why I just generally don't watch half-hour comedies. After Parks and Recreation ended, I wasn't sure I'd be including any non-animated comedies on my DVR roster (Bob's Burgers would have made this "pleasant surprises" list, except that I was pleasantly surprised by it about two years ago.) But nothing consistently makes me laugh as hard as Blackish, which has a crazily stacked, hilarious cast -- including four child actors I actually don't hate.

The "Pandering" article:  You know when someone writes something, and you read it, and you go, "Damn, this woman is expressing everything I feel at this very moment in time"? Claire Vaye Watkins's "On Pandering" is that, except I only felt that way about 50 percent of the article; the other 50 percent made me go, "Oh, I need to be more aware of this kind of thing and pay attention to it and think about it all the time."

A Dark Room:  I'm only not a gamer because I didn't get into gaming early on and now I feel like an old dog that just does not have time to learn new tricks that require you to press a combination of A+Up+Right+Right+C. Which is why A Dark Room is perfect for me: It's a completely text-based game that has you gathering fire wood and building traps and wondering what those the strange creatures are that keep stealing your bait. The less you know going into A Dark Room, the better, because the game unfolds like a story as you continue to steadily work and make discoveries.

The cats and cucumbers viral video: I don't understand why it's funny. And yet IT IS.


RuVealed: This was year I discovered America's actual greatest top model show, RuPaul's Drag Race, which is excellent on its own. But I've gotten a lot of joy out of watching RuVealed on Logo, which is just a re-airing of old seasons, with the addition of RuPaul providing commentary, Pop Up Video-style. I love how Ru loves a cheesy joke.

The Shining Girls and Fates and Furies: Both these books made my Top Whatever list this year, but these are the two that really surprised me. I figured both would be good, but I wasn't prepared for how much I would love them.

Limetown-logo-SQ-LargeLimetown: Billed as "Serial, but fiction," Limetown is a story told episode by episode, in the guise of an NPR-type longform investigation. Its host, Lea Haddock, tries to find answers to the mysteries surrounding a small town whose entire population vanished. While later episodes didn't hold up quite as well as the early ones, I still looked forward to each new installment and really loved hearing the story unfold.

TheBillfold's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts: I'm not normally a fan-fic reader, but I've been loving Nicole Dieker's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts, which imagine each character years after the show's end and how their financial situations impact, or are impacted by, their lives now.

Jessica-Jones-posterMarvel's Jessica Jones: Now that I've finished the new Netflix series, it's hard to remember a time when this show wasn't a sure-fire hit for me. But my history with superheroes is this:  I like them at the movies, not so much on my T.V. I tried Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and couldn't get into it; I really liked Marvel's Agent Carter (particularly Hayley Atwell's performance), but it got lost on my DVR and I never bothered to return to it after the first two episodes. But Jessica feels like an altogether different creature, and I love it. Can't wait for season 2 -- and in the meantime, it actually convinced me to give Daredevil a try.

Pocket: No I will never stop trying to make Pocket happen. I just won't. Because it's amazing. It's the simplest thing on earth, and yet it has changed how (and when) I read things on the internet. Just download it. Do it.

Pontypool: The very definition of a pleasant surprise, since I knew nothing about this movie before watching it, as I chronicled here.

The "It's Going to Be Okay" post from The Oatmeal: Imagine you're having a bad day. Then imagine you read this. Yeah. Everything's going to be okay.

friday_night_lightsFriday Night Lights: I KNOW. It took me a really long time to finally watch FNL. I think I actually started watching the show with my friend, Sara, earlier than 2015, but we finished up this year. And even though I'd heard from every T.V. critic in the world how great this show was and how it wasn't really about football, I was still surprised at how much I came to love Dillon, Texas, Coach and Mrs. Coach, the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions, Matt and Street and Tyra and Vince and Tim Riggins. And Lance! The motto might be "clear eyes," but mine were pretty misty by the time the last end credits rolled. (This piece on Vulture, which describes how the kids on the show were cast, was also a nice surprise.)

"What the Flula?!": Game of Thrones is a pretty incredible show. But this might actually be more incredible.

MST3K anticipation: We won't get the new episodes until next year, but the massive success of the Kickstarter campaign means we get fourteen to look forward to -- with Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the Mads.

Adventures at the movieplexEverest and The Martian. Seeing The Martian may have been one of the funnest times I had at the movies this year; seeing Everest might have been one of the most sweat-inducing.

1087-M-What-We-Do-in-the-ShadowsWhat We Do in the ShadowsMockumentaries are a little played out, so maybe I can be forgiven for not expecting too much out of this goofy remedy to another played-out trope: vampires. Shadows has quickly become the kind of movie my friends and I can put on the T.V. as "background noise," then quickly succumb to, spending the rest of the evening asking each other if we would "like some basghetti."

Black_Mirror_The_National_Anthem_TV-511261979-largeMore Black Mirror is coming!: Black Mirror might be the best show that virtually no one else I know seems to know about. But you've got time to catch up on this British answer to The Twilight Zone -- the original run is just six episodes, all of which are available on Netflix. And then, after you've become completely dazzled and shocked by the series, you can thank Netflix for reviving the show for another 12 episodes, which should hit the internet sometime in 2016. (There may actually be nothing in this world that can top the very first episode of Black Mirror -- another viewing experience you should try to have without knowing anything about it beforehand, by the way -- but I'm anxious for the new episodes to give it their best try.)

New to me: Recent podcast discoveries

81b648aaf8ec9493b25d002485d1b35bI need a new podcast like the proverbial fish needs its proverbial bicycle. I just counted:  I listen regularly to 42 podcasts. This number doesn't include the podcasts that I only occasionally check in on, or the ones I download only to listen to the one episode I'm interested in because someone told me about it ("someone" most likely being the host of another podcast). But you can't deny an addiction. You can only admit you have a problem and try to control it. Hello, my name is Jamey, and I'm a podcast addict.

Thanks in part to a (work-mandated) trip to a podcast conference a couple weeks ago, I've recently discovered several new dealers who truck in my drug of choice. Some of these podcasts have been around a good while; I'm just late to the game. Others are still in their infancy. But here are a few of the new-ish podcasts that I've recently become obsessed with.

The Canon The premise is simple:  Hosts Amy Nicholson (of the LA Weekly) and Devin Faraci (of Birth.Movies.Death) debate which films should be entered in the "canon" of great movies. The conversation can get pretty heated, especially when Amy and Devin strongly disagree about a particular film, but both hosts bring a wealth of film knowledge, critical insight, and (in Amy's case, at least) a ream of research about every movie they discuss. The episode that got me hooked was the one that pondered whether It's a Wonderful Life should be entered into the canon; a recent favorite is the episode on The Sound of Music. (They also discuss more recent films. I'm just an old-movie nerd, I guess.)

Another Round with Heben & Tracy Some podcasts are powered by a gimmick or a theme; others are just two people talking. Ano0bnXv8ZAther Round, a podcast from BuzzFeed, falls into the latter category, but there are few duos I'd rather listen to than Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton. They have a casual rapport that nevertheless sounds polished, they're hilarious, and they talk about topics that are often ignored by media elsewhere (race, gender, casual discrimination). I am in love with Tracy's corny joke segment and "What Had Happened Was." Best episode so far:  Episode 19, in which NPR's Audie Cornish turns out to share my pre-interview anxieties and I learn that the best name ever for a goldfish is "Cornbread."

Faculty of Horror Another podcast hosted by two women! Bonus:  This is a horror movie podcast hosted by two women. Did someone sneak a peek at my Christmas wish list? Delightful Canadians Alex West and Andrea Subissati take an in-depth look horror movies each episode, sometimes tackling one film at a time or occasionally choosing a theme (monster brides; witches in film) to unite a discussion. What I love about this podcast is it isn't just two hosts talking about what they like or dislike about a film; the approach Andrea and Alex take to each movie favors analysis over critique, and as a result, their explorations have an academic flavor (as the podcast title suggests) that draws me in. But here "academic" isn't a synonym for dry. Conversation between the hosts is always lively, and their occasional forays into radio sketch improv make me giggle. My favorite episode so far has been the one on Rosemary's Baby.

I Was There, Too Often, it's the host who decides for me whether or not I'll stick with a podcast. While I Was 20141101_222943_4138_680374There, Too has an interesting enough premise to keep me listening, host Matt Gourley's offbeat presence and oddball segments are the big draw for me. Each episode, Matt interviews an actor who was a small part of a big film, giving you the inside dirt on, say, what it's like to shoot the same scene with Bill Murray in every kind of weather possible, or what the heck Arcturian poontang is. You also get "bonus" segments like "I Was There, Tune" which gives you insight into movie music, and "I Was There, Mew," an interview between Matt and his cat, Margeaux the Fat Guy. (You read that right.)

Lore Lore would be the perfect podcast to play as you sit around a fire in the dark of night, sharing scary stories. Writer and host Aaron Mahnke offers a new, true scary tale every episode and always manages to creep me out with his careful research, well crafted storytelling, and excellent narration. Episode 8, "The Castle," is truly creeptastic, while Episode 2, "The Bloody Pit," is a sad and horrifying look at a historical disaster.

You Must Remember This If you love old Hollywood, then I don't know how you aren't already listening to Karina imgres-1Longworth's You Must Remember This, a show that explores "the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century," as Karina reminds listeners each episode. Whether speculating if Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy, relating the story behind Hollywood's night club for servicemen, or freaking you the fuck out with Charles Manson's on-again, off-again flirtation with Hollywood fame, Karina's research is methodical and her storytelling is incredibly absorbing. While earlier seasons comprised one-off episodes about different subjects, the most recent season was dedicated completely to the story of Charles Manson's Hollywood, and the result was an historical serialized story that, for me, rivaled Serial itself.

A Podcast Baker's Dozen

podcastTen years ago, some genius coined the word “podcast,” and to commemorate that moment, this week Slate has been going bananas, posting articles on intimacy and podcasting, depression and podcasting, and the rise of podcasting pastors. As part of all this coverage, rather than put together a list of the best podcasts out there, David Haglund and Rebecca Onion curated a list of the best podcast episodes. In a Slate Plus extra on this week’s Culture Gabfest, Haglund explained that the idea was to do something a little more surprising than one more list of great shows you’ve probably already listened to. The list of episodes is worth checking out; there were lots of shows included that I’d never even heard of, and some that I’ll definitely add to my ever-growing collection of podcasts. Podcasting is pretty widely recognized as one of our most intimate forms of entertainment. Intimacy isn’t just about proximity; it’s also personal. One man’s top podcast of all time is another’s nails-on-a-chalkboard. (I, for one, can’t deal with the sound of Mike Pesca’s voice, so The Gist will never make my podcast rotation, no matter how smart or insightful or funny it is.) The act of making any Top Whatever list is always going to incite reactions of “You didn’t include THIS?! You morons have no taste!” but my feelings about podcasts are probably stronger, even, than my feelings about movies and television—so it’s unsurprising that I found Haglund and Onion’s list lacking.

Here, then, are my picks for Best Podcast Episodes, Ever—with a caveat. Remember how I said taste in podcasts is personal? Well, this list is highly personal. First, I can’t listen to everything, so these episodes are selected from an admittedly small pool; I regularly check in with roughly thirty-five podcasts, which is an atom in a molecule in a drop in the podcasting bucket.

Second, there are things on here that tickle or move me that will probably leave others cold. There are episodes I find jaw-droppingly fascinating but will make other listeners yawn. But, for whatever reason, these are all episodes that I’ve actually saved and re-listened to, most of them more than once, because they speak to me. (Pun.)

Hopefully, though, the episodes I’ve picked will pique your interest enough to get you to check out one or two of these shows.

13. Doug Loves Movies – “Chris Evans, Leonard Maltin, and Adam Scott guest” Whether or not I like an episode of Doug Loves Movies hinges on who his guests are. Doug Benson gets a lot of comedy heavyweights to take the stage for a night of gametime, but the episode that features Adam Scott and Chris Evans holds a special place in my heart because it actually got me to like Chris Evans. Up till the day I listened to this episode, I didn’t give shit one about Mr. Blandy McOatmal Captain America, but on DLM he is utterly charming—and quite possibly drunk. It doesn’t hurt that Adam Scott is his usual Adam Scott self, or that the actual Leonard Maltin is present to play the Leonard Maltin game.

Hooked yet? If you listen to the episode and need more Doug, for my money, you cannot go wrong with any episode that includes Paul F. Tompkins as “Werner Herzog.”

12. The Truth – “Moon GraffitiThis is The Truth’s pilot episode and, as happens with a lot of pilot episodes, I didn’t know what to expect, going in. “Moon Graffiti” immediately sucks you in as a suspenseful and elegant piece of storytelling/radio drama, a fictionalized version of the first moon landing based on an actual speech written for Richard Nixon in the event that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became stranded on the moon. I first listened to this episode with my mouth hanging open. (This image will be a recurring theme of this list.) Happily, The Truth’s pilot is no fluke; nearly every episode is as strong as this first one.

Hooked yet? Try “They’re Made Out of Meat,” a dramatic reading of a short story by Terry Bisson (accompanied by an interview with the author), or “Falling,” a play about a freak train accident that leads to romance.

11. We Hate Movies – “DreamcatcherWe probably have Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to thank for the mind-boggling number of podcasts dedicated to making fun of movies. I listen to two: How Did This Get Made? (which is totally worth checking out even if it didn’t make the baker’s dozen), and We Hate Movies, hosted by a trio (occasionally a foursome) of guys who very clearly don’t hate movies at all but are reliably hilarious when hating on movies. “Dreamcatcher” finds them in top form and provides them with the opportunity to consider Stephen King’s ultimate contribution to the horror monster cannon: butt weasels. There’s also time for the guys’ Wilford Brimley impression (a recurring delight) and serious thought on the subject of whether one could ever successfully write a sad story about farting.

Hooked yet? I also have a fond place in my heart for the episodes about “The Good Son” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Often, the best parts of WHM involve the hosts improvising bizarre imagined scenarios about the actors or director involved in whatever movie they’re riffing on, and the best of these is probably Timid Tim Burton calling Johnny Depp in the “New Nightmare” episode.

10. Slate Spoiler Special – “SunshineI have a lot to say about Sunshine, probably one of Danny Boyle’s least-known films. A lot. So every time I queue up Slate’s Spoiler Special on this movie, in which Dana Stevens and John Swansburg discuss every turn in the film’s plot, I find myself talking out loud, as if Dana and John can hear my contribution to the conversation. Sometimes I listen to this episode of the Spoiler Special just because I’m in the mood to watch Sunshine but don’t have the time. Really, I’m ranking this at #10 because I want you to go watch Sunshine. But also because I giggle every time Dana or John refers to the film’s boogeyman as “Roasty-Toasty.”

Hooked yet? If you love talking about movies you’ve seen, really every episode of the Spoiler Special is worth listening to. But, for real, it’s a Spoiler Special, so keep that in mind.

9. This American Life – “The Radio Drama EpisodeYes, technically This American Life (and Fresh Air, which I’ll get to later) is produced for radio. But I primarily listen to it in podcast form. “The Radio Drama Episode” is one of TAL’s live shows and it’s also a foray from the show’s usual format; this time, instead of choosing a theme and telling stories on that theme, Ira Glass and his crew revisit some old stories and tell some new one. But rather than merely reporting on each story, they’ve gotten professional Broadway singers, writers, composers, and (not that it matters for an audio podcast) choreographers to stage musical interpretations of those stories. It’s a ton of fun, and I apologize in advance for the earworm you will contract (“What the heck I got to do-oo-oo to be with you”) after you listen to this episode.

Hooked yet? I mean, it’s This American Life. Just listen to any old episode. But, in honor of the holidays, you could start with “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”

8. Criminal – “Call Your MomCriminal is a fairly young podcast, and I only recently discovered it. “Call Your Mom” was, I think, the second episode I ever listened to, and it was another jaw-dropper. Host Phoebe Judge talks with mother-daughter coroners Kathleen Vernon and Linda Vernon. It’s an intimate look at a job few people know (or want to know) about, and both Vernon women are fascinating interviewees.

Hooked yet?Animal Instincts” made me late for work, I was so invested in hearing about a man convicted of murder when the real killer may have been…an owl.

7. Death, Sex, and Money – “Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on SurvivalDo you know anything about Ellen Burstyn’s life? I didn’t before I listened to this episode of Death, Sex, and Money, which finds host Anna Sale talking each week with a guest about exactly those three things. Actress Ellen Burstyn is candid and unaffected as she tells Sale about having an abortion, being in an abusive marriage, and being taken for granted as a woman. Unexpectedly, the episode has a postscript when Burstyn invites Sale back to her apartment to re-answer a question she feels she didn’t initially give enough thought to. The conversation is intimate, honest, and charming. And now I know what a “should-less day” is.

Hooked yet?This Senator Saved My Love Life” is how I discovered the podcast and tells Sale’s own story of relationships and politics. The recent “College Sweethearts: Transformed” talks with a straight woman and a trans man in a queer relationship that started in college.

6. Fresh Air – “Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak“Oh, god, there are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die! But I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” Shit, man, I can’t even type those words without tearing up. This episode combines four interviews Terry Gross did with author Maurice Sendak over the years, culminating in their final interview in 2011, a year before he died. As Sendak says to Gross in this episode, she brings something out in him that he doesn’t give up to any other interviewer. The first time I listened to the final interview, I had to leave my desk at work and go to the bathroom to pull myself together. Sendak speaks about the end of his own life with such eloquence and bravery, his voice cracking as he tells Terry, “Almost certainly, I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you,” and Terry is audibly moved…holy fuck, I need to go cry for half an hour.

Hooked yet? As with TAL, if you’re not listening to Fresh Air, it’s probably because you don’t want to. But if you love it as much as I do and want another entry from the “Terry Makes Jamey Cry” cannon (and if you loved David Rakoff), download “David Rakoff: ‘There Is No Answer as to Why Me,’” grab some Kleenex, and have yourself a listen.

5. Serial – Episodes 1 (“The Alibi”), 2 (“The Breakup”), and 3 (“Leakin Park”) Oh, Serial’s a good podcast, huh? SHOCKING REVALATION, JAMEY. I know, I’m not telling anyone anything new here. But Serial makes the list mostly because of how I was introduced to it—not episode by episode but in a binge-listen that took place on a long drive for a work trip I was dreading. I chose Serial because I’d downloaded three episodes, which meant I could keep my eyes on the road and not have to search for something new to listen to when an episode ended. I thought I was just choosing something entertaining; I didn’t know that I was exposing myself to what would become the podcast obsession of the year. I was halfway through “Leakin Park” when I arrived at my destination, and the frustration and anticipation I felt when I couldn’t finish listening right that second would wash over me again and again for the next several weeks, every time I finished a new episode of Serial.

Hooked yet? If you’re not, then you never will be, is my guess. Serial just concluded its first season and will return with a second sometime in the near future.

4. Radiolab – “The Ring and IJust as my Doug Loves Movies pick made me care about Chris Evans, Radiolab’s “The Ring and I” made me care about opera, which may be an even more impressive feat. Host Jad Abumrad devotes the entire hour to an exploration of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, exploring the opera through history, food, pop culture, and—obviously—music. The episode is a departure from the show’s usual science(ish) focus but it uses Radiolab’s method of coming at a single subject from multiple angles to uncover why, exactly, so many people are obsessed with this opera.

Hooked yet?Musical Language” is a more traditional Radiolab episode still concerned with music, while “War of the Worlds” is the podcast’s first live show, complete with Robert Krulwich at his hammiest.

3. Pop Culture Happy Hour – “This Craziness with Vampires and ForeheadsMuch as I love Linda Holmes (and want her job) and Stephen Thompson, if Glen Weldon ever bails from PCHH, I may not be able to listen ever again. Come to PCHH for the pop culture discussions; stay for the Weldon Rant. This episode gives Glen an opportunity to hold forth on his initial disdain for Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the crew talks about things they were initially wrong about. But the real reason this episode is #3 is Charles Grodin Man. I’m not going to say anything else, other than listening to Glen describe CGM (and to Stephen’s reaction) while driving nearly made me run off the road, so hard was I laughing.

Hooked yet? In “Warrior Women and Movies That Call to Us” the PCHH team has a truly fascinating discussion about female warriors in pop culture, while “Profanity in Pop Culture and Outdated Tech” gives NPR producers a workout with the censor button.

2. Professor Blastoff – Episode 82, “Voice (w/ Lake Bell)Here’s another podcast that I listen to for the sole purpose of cheering myself up by making myself laugh uncontrollably. I have probably played the first twelve minutes of “Voice” a good thirty or forty times, and it still cracks me up. Tig Notaro, David Huntsberger, and Kyle Dunnigan usually begin each episode by catching each other up on what’s going on in their lives, riffing, and doing bits. But Kyle highjacks the episode immediately when he launches into his Del La Rue character, only to be driven to the point of exasperation when Tig and David won’t let him break character. The rest of the episode is worth listening to, too, as Lake Bell leads the Blastronauts through voice exercises. But between Kyle’s Del stories and Tig and David’s giggling, this is still my go-to episode when I need a good laugh.

Hooked yet? PB is, admittedly, a very weird podcast. After “Voice,” start with “Sensory Science (w/ Corey Beilstein)” for actual science, then listen to “Live in New York (w/ Ira Glass)” for a truly surreal interaction between the gang and the TAL host.

1. Extra Hot Great – “Your Tiger Cub” My love for Extra Hot Great is well-known and everlasting. Though the show has changed some since its move away from film to focus on television, I still tune in eagerly every week. But I will always hold dear the earliest episodes of EHG because they made me feel like I had friends to visit and talk with at a time in my life when I lived far away from all of my actual, non-imaginary friends. Like PB’s “Voice,” I have listened to “Your Tiger Cub” so many times I can actually quote from it. From Joe’s rundown of his Halloween movie marathon, to Adam Sternbergh’s submission of Police Squad to The Cannon, this is EHG at its goofiest and best.

Hooked yet? I’m honestly not sure if you can still access EHG Mark 1, but if you can, “Most Regrettably Dingle” is worth listening to because it exists in a time before we all realized just how great Bob’s Burgers was going to be. With EHG Mark 2, the gang no longer talks about movies, but “Canna-Vale of Tears” features Sarah D. Bunting delivering the exact rant I would have given had I been able to find the words through my rage after Bobby Cannavale stole Mandy Patinkin’s Emmy. (I’m still mad.)

A Voice in the Dark

photoPodcasts are having quite a moment. With the This American Life spin-off, Serial, suddenly capturing everyone’s attention, not to mention the launch of not just a podcast (Startup) but potentially an entire podcasting empire from TAL and Planet Money alum Alex Blumberg, who’s bringing audiences “the origin story you never get to hear,” I can’t get two headlines into the blogs and websites I regularly read without discovering another post contemplating whether Serial will end in a satisfying way, or reflecting upon the nature of storytelling. Slate, which produces its own impressive array of podcasts, is so Serial-obsessed, it now drops a podcast about the podcast the day after every new episode of Serial becomes available. Not to brag, but I feel like the world has finally caught up with me. I downloaded my first podcast back when my friend Sara gave me my first iPod, one of those now adorably retro Nanos with the teeny digital screen, 8 gigs, and the menu wheel. These were the olden days, before touchscreens. My Nano was teal and came engraved with the words, “For Jamey – from your good pal, Gary Oldman.”

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do with this thing. I’ve never been a big music listener, and my old-timey iPod couldn’t play movies. But then I realized that a good chunk of the NPR shows I enjoyed listening to on the radio were available as podcasts—and thus I discovered not only on-demand listening, but an entire array of shows produced by professionals and amateurs, covering every subject imaginable.

I started listening all the time. I was living in North Carolina, going to grad school, and I never walked to class without a pair of earbuds nestled in my ears. I strategically positioned my iPod in rooms so I could listen as I cleaned my apartment. I went on epic walks around town just so I could finish listening to the latest episode of Radiolab. Whereas before, nearly every sentence I spoke started with the words, “I heard on NPR,” now each conversation I launched began, “Oh, I was just listening to this podcast…”

After grad school, I moved to Vermont for work. I had landed my dream job, but it required me to live in a very small, somewhat remote town where, I had been warned, the people who had held my position before me often had trouble making friends or finding things to do. I’ve always been good at living alone, but the two years I spent in Vermont were sometimes a challenge even for me.

Luckily, I had podcasts.

If I had listened regularly before, I listened constantly now. My old Nano couldn’t handle the number of episodes I downloaded (some of which I saved, knowing I’d want to re-listen), so I bought a new 16 gig iPod. I listened in the morning, while I showered, and in the evening, as I cooked elaborate one-person dinners. I listened as I became a runner, circling the two-mile track around the little park on the north side of town. I acquired the accoutrements necessary for round-the-clock, on-the-go listening: a second pair of earbuds, a set of speakers, an adapter for my car.

I was utterly solitary during my time in Vermont. I could go literally an entire week without speaking to a single other human being (and I’m using “literally” in its original sense, not for effect). I’ve always had a habit of talking to myself, but it got out of hand those two years; I would have whole discussions in the aisle of a grocery store about which peanut butter to buy and not even realize how insane I looked until strangers started shooting terrified glances my way. While all the alone time was excellent for getting lots of writing done and reading staggering stacks of books, there were times when I longed to hear a human voice that wasn’t my own.

That’s how podcasts became more than something for me to listen to. They’re an intimate form of entertainment, more inclusive than television, more personal than radio. Even shows that are on their face about something other than the people hosting them, details about the lives of most podcast hosts inevitably seep their way into shows, so that over time you come to feel you know these people—people whose faces you may never have seen, people with whom you’ve never actually exchanged words. (Yelling at Slate’s Culture Gabfest host Stephen Metcalf that he’s being far too cynical and possibly a teensy bit misogynistic about Taylor Swift’s new album does not count.) People who are, essentially, just voices inside your head.

Before Tig Notaro became a household name among comedy aficionados, I’d gotten first-hand updates on the series of awful circumstances that befell her via Professor Blastoff. I’ve rooted for Glen Weldon every time he mentioned how the writing of his new book was going on Pop Culture Happy Hour. Babies have been born, dogs adopted, careers ended and begun as I’ve listened to some podcasts for longer than I’ve known some of my closest friends. If, by some crazy random happenstance, I ever happen to meet the hosts of my favorite podcast, Extra Hot Great, which I have been listening to since episode four, mark one—before Tara (it’s pronounced TAR-ah!) and Dave moved to the west coast to launch Previously.tv and re-launch the podcast—I know that I will become an instantaneous mess, one of those embarrassingly fawning fans who borders on creepy given the amount of personal information I’ve discerned about them over my years of listening.

Not long ago, Steve, Julia, and Daaaaay-na (as Steve is wont to introduce her) spent a segment of Culture Gabfest contemplating why podcasts seem more intimate than other forms of entertainment. (At least I think they did; I cannot for the life of me find the episode I’m thinking of, and you try doing a search for a podcast in which the hosts talk about podcasts.) Anyway, I believe I remember Dana suggesting that, in part, podcasts feel so intimate not just because you come to know—or think you know—so much about the people who host them, but because those people are essentially voices nestled inside your ears, disembodied and speaking in a way that seems to involve you. Even when hosts interview a guest or speak amongst themselves, you feel included.

I’ve often wondered why I love podcasts so much—above and beyond movies, television, and even books—and I think this is why.

When I was a little kid, I regularly spent nights at my grandma’s house. She and my grandpa had separate rooms; hers was outfitted with an extra bed where I remember putting off sleep for as long as possible, begging instead for a bedtime story. Grandma had dozens in her repertoire. She rarely cracked open an actual book to read to me. Instead, her voice, reedy with age, rose out of the darkness of the room, hushed in the way all nighttime voices are hushed, to tell me the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, of Goldielocks, of Little Black Sambo.* She told and retold these stories, embellishing them with non-canonical details, lengthening them in the hopes that eventually I’d tire and finally fall asleep. After awhile, I began to memorize even the parts of the stories she’d made up herself.

“So Little Red Riding Hood walked through the forest,” Grandma would whisper, “swinging her basket, while all around her the woods grew darker and darker. Then, from behind a tree, she heard a voice—”

“Grandma,” I’d pipe up. “You forgot the part where she stops to look at herself in the pond.”

“Oh, right. She stopped at the edge of a clear pond to admire her reflection and her little red cape. Then, she heard a voice—”

“But Grandma, what about the part where she skips rocks across the creek?”

A sigh in the dark. “There was a creek that flowed from the pond, and Red found some smooth stones, and even though she knew she needed to hurry to Grandma’s house, she stopped to skip the rocks across the creek…”

Grandma, clearly, had the patience of Job himself.

Long before the internet gave me podcasts, I had Grandma. Long before I could read, there were stories in the dark, a voice in my ears, a narrative I interacted with. Maybe not everyone who listens to podcasts had the same experience, but I think all humans have a basic, reflexive reaction to being told a story in the dark. Someone turns off the lights and starts to speak, and it’s almost impossible not to listen.

*Yes, I know Little Black Sambo is a horribly racist story. But Grandma was from a different era, I didn't understand the racial implications at the time, and this tale regularly made the nighttime story rotation.