I enjoy listening to podcasts when I’m at the gym, on the bus, working on a home improvement project, or otherwise have my ears free. I’ve also incorporated them into ESL classes and recommended them to students for listening practice, though most of my favorites are targeted towards native speakers and so demand a high level of language proficiency on the part of the student. These three podcasts are the ones I have found that I can not do without. Find information on subscribing to them by clicking on the titles below.
This weekly, hour-long NPR show is available as a free podcast and in a streamed archive that includes almost every story broadcast over the 15+ year history of the show. I’ve mentioned this podcast previously, but it’s at the top of the list because of the consistently engaging stories that are posted (and aired — check local listings) each week. Some favorites include episode 238 Lost in Translation, which includes the story of Yao Ming‘s first American translator beginning at the 40 minute mark; episode 188 Kid Logic, which incorporates kids’ ideas on everything from the Tooth Fairy to why planes get smaller when they fly away; and episode 90 Telephone, which includes a story about how a teenager’s behavior changes when he hears himself on the phone, which begins at the seven minute mark. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve listened to well over half of the episodes available online and many of them have stuck with me for years.
Radio Lab is another NPR show that broadcasts in some markets (again, check local listings,) though less frequently than This American Life. But the focus of Radio Lab is science in the very broadest sense and the hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, do an amazing job of making some of the most profound and bleeding-edge topics understandable (and interesting!) to almost anyone. Fortunately, every episode and the interspersed shorts, all of which make up the podcast, are available online for listening or downloading at any time. Some of my favorites include the Limits episode, which details a non-stop bike race across the continent of North America including what effects riding a bicycle for a hundred hours has on the human body and mind; the Famous Tumors episode, which discusses the contagious tumors that are decimating the wild populations of Tasmanian Devils; and the New Normal? episode which reframes Evolution in a really startling way. Many of the episodes draw conclusions that rub against the grain of common sense and challenge our preconceived notions of what we think we know. Not only is the content compelling, but the audio editing is exceptional.
The Moth features real stories told live onstage without notes. There is some overlap in themes with This American Life, but these stories are not edited into a one-hour radio show. Rather each story is presented individually, regardless of its length, and with live crowd reactions. The Moth supports story telling events around the U.S. and broadcasts its best stories via the podcast. A very few stories are available online, but most are not. Stories are usually told by people you have never heard of, though there have been a few “celebrity” story tellers (Blue Clues host Steve Burns and Milli Vanilli frontman Fab Morvan are two examples.) Some episodes are marked explicit, usually for coarse language, but each story is a personal tale told by the person who lived it. I have heard stories that run the range from shipwreck survivors to Apollo Theater dancers to New York City cops to people getting out of bad relationships or reflecting on their parenting skills. Each story is unique and interesting.