A Short Guide To Making Your Life Awesome Through Podcasts

I will admit it: I’m addicted to podcasts. But on balance I think it’s a healthy addiction and I think you should get addicted too.

Recently I was on a long road trip with a friend and made it my goal to get him into at least one podcast before we got home. I think I succeeded once we stumbled upon a treasure trove of Dutch insults on Surprisingly Awesome. “Why stop there?” I thought, “Why not give the gift of unbridled joy and insight to everyone willing to spend a few minutes reading a blog post?” Why not indeed.

If you’ve been curious about podcasts, this post is for you. Or if you’ve downloaded one or two podcasts and thought “meh” and given up, this is also for you. If you hate more than anything listening and learning and laughing without adding extra hours to your day this is not for you, go read this instead. The sections here are helpfully bulleted with questions so that you can skip what’s irrelevant and go straight to the good stuff.

I have been too embarrassed to ask but what is a podcast and why should I care?

I could say that podcasts are like radio shows you can download, but it’s a lot more than that. Podcasts are essentially just audio content that you can download and listen to anywhere. But there’s good news: in the last few years podcasts have gone from being a niche for nerds to going mainstream and leading to appearances on Late Night TV as well as bestselling authors like Malcolm Gladwell jumping into podcasting. Podcasts today have flat-out some of the best writing you’ll find anywhere, the most insightful commentary, and some of the most surprising moments of joy you’ll encounter. It’s like that moment when you learned you could find clips of hilarious things on YouTube and you thought “Where has this been in my life?” Except that podcasts will make you smarter not dumber. [See below]

How do I listen to podcasts?

Look I know that you can use a computer because you have found this webpage on the world wide web. Strong start. Don’t make this complicated: If you’ve got an iPhone or iPod use iTunes, and if you’ve got an Android phone use Google Play Music. But once you get addicted to podcasts there are also some other great podcast apps out. Personally I paid a couple bucks to use Pocket Casts on Android. It is simple, clean, and makes discovering new podcasts easy.

When am I supposed to be listening to these things? Do you expect me to just sit there in an uncomfortable wooden chair and listen to something while I stare at a wall?

Sure, if you want. But one of the things I love about podcasts is that you can start listening without carving out additional time. Yes, you can add joy and insight to your day without adding time to your schedule. Who doesn’t want that?

  • Listen in the car: This is easy if you’ve got a fancy car with a Bluetooth hookup for your phone. If you don’t you can probably grab a cable like this and plug directly into your stereo, or buy an FM transmitter. But if you’re like me you can just crank up the volume on your phone and stick it in your cupholder so it amplifies the sound. (I have a degree in creative writing not engineering, people.)
  • Listen while you’re doing mindless chores: Folding laundry? Doing the dishes? Stacking, sorting, or cleaning? Grab some headphones or just play the podcasts from your computer or phone.
  • Listen during your morning routine: I typically have 10 minutes when I’m shaving, washing my face, brushing teeth, etc. There are lots of great podcasts 5-10 minutes long that fit perfectly in this spot.
  • Listen while you’re working out: I love music when I’m working out, but I also love podcasts. Music will get you hyped up but podcasts will distract you from the burning sensation in your calves while you push for the last half mile. The only issue I’ve found is that listening to humorous podcasts does cause occasional bursts of laughter to yourself in the gym. (Though people give you a little extra room after that.)   
  • Listen while traveling: If you have to take a bus, train, or plane regularly podcasts are a great companion. You often can’t whip out a screen without burning through your data, or don’t want to shell out money for in-flight WiFi. Grab some podcasts before you go instead.
  • Listen while resting: Take a few minutes and watch a sunrise or sunset, take a quick walk, or put your feet up. While your body rests let your mind recharge.

Can’t I just watch TV during those times instead?

You can, but two problems: First, you can half-watch and just listen to a TV episode and kind of follow it but the show is meant to be watched so really you’re getting a sub-par experience. But podcasts are meant to be experienced as audio only. Meaning you get a great experience with just your headphones. Second, lots of TV is just mindless entertainment but there’s a world of informative content out there, giving you a great chance to learn something while you’re entertained.

What should I listen to? I have no idea. (Worse: I tried one podcast one time and it was terrible/boring/offensive.)

Fear not. We don’t write off television entirely because it seems like hundreds of the channels have “nothing on”… so don’t write off the world of podcasts. I’m going to start with a list of my favorite podcasts and then move from there into topics.

[Note: Some or all of these can occasionally feature strong language. Note the “E” for explicit on the episode or note the warning at the beginning of the podcast.]

Here are my top five picks right now:

  • This American Life: The podcast I got addicted to first was, ironically enough, a radio show. It’s essentially a series of stories around a theme. Think of it like a great magazine with a new theme each issue, majoring on human relationships, from a liberal perspective, with equal doses of humor and heartbreak thrown in. If you listen try to their Favorites–The Short List first to get the concept. On weekly basis you’ll like 50% of them, hate 25% of them, and absolutely love 25% of them. TAL pioneered a particular style that has influenced generations of podcasts.
  • Radiolab: The other top juggernaut of the podcast world alongside TAL is also a radio show, but this one focusing on science. The writing is great here but what takes this to another level is the audio production of the episodes. These are not hokey sound effects, but incredibly creative and gorgeous even from a purely audio perspective. This is one that deserves to be played through good headphones or a good stereo system. Plus, you won’t even realize that you are learning huge things about the way the world works, but you will.
  • Startup: This started as a podcast about starting a podcast company and indeed it worked and Gimlet Media (as we heard it named in that first season) is taking over the podcasting world one show at a time. It’s notable for giving a real and raw look at what it takes to start a company of any kind, but the insights and reflections will apply to almost anyone holding down a job.
  • Ask Pastor John: This is an example of a Christian podcast that manages to take a simple concept and execute it really well really consistently. Every day John Piper answers a listener question (ranging from “I’ve already wasted my life–now what?” to “I don’t like my job–now what?”) in a 5-8 minute clip. This is what I listen to every morning while I shave and over time you get a great range of intensely theological and intensely practical issues and, most importantly, start to get a feel for how John Piper thinks about life.
  • I Tell My Husband the News: This is a recent add for me but I’m loving it so far. A reporter for USA Today tells her husband, a comedian, about the news of the week since he apparently refuses to read any news himself. It’s sunny and entertaining and short (10-12 minutes) so perfect for folding laundry or dishes.

Aren’t you a Christian? Why aren’t there more Christian podcast recommendations?

It is true that I am a Christian but Bible-related podcasts aren’t the majority of my listening diet, partially because I’m a pastor and already immersed in Bible study. I do listen to podcasts of churches but I figure everyone will have their own favorite preachers so I won’t list mine here.

However there are some Christian podcasts I do regularly check out.

  • The Briefing with Albert Mohler: President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Mohler gives his “briefing” on the things you need to know for the day with a Christian worldview. I listen in especially after big events to hear his perspective. His mind is wired in a frighteningly effective way to scan headlines, see patterns, and connect dots. [True story: I once took him to a video interview where the producer asked him for a second take and he said “Well sure but I’m a radio man and the first take is always the best.” And it was true. So I imagine all these are one take and I’m probably right.]
  • RELEVANT Podcast: This is the audio companion to Relevant Magazine–a blend of pop culture news, interviews, social justice updates, and some devotional theology thrown in. Really, this is 50% the crew joking around and 50% other content but it’s pretty fun. I find the theological perspectives often at odds with my own but also think it’s useful to keep up with what’s going on in this vein of the Christian world. And people, one of the podcast guys is going to trap himself in a room and watch 24hrs of Nicolas Cage movies to raise money for charity AND it’s called “Trapped in the Cage” so how can you not like this?

I like listening to music not podcasts. I’m just going to listen to music unless you have a podcast for people that want to listen to music instead of podcasts.

There is a perfect podcast for you called Song Exploder. Producers and artists break down how they created a song. Often you get to hear the original demos and hear how the song progressed both in writing and production on its way to the final product. And it’s incredibly diverse–recently I listened to one from Old Crow Medicine Show and then one from Carly Rae Jepsen.

I’m not interested in sitting down for a lecture but I would like to learn useful things anyway while having a good time.

Then you friend need Surprisingly Awesome in your life. They take the mundane and show you both the surprise and awesomeness packed into things like Insults, Extinct Hockey, and Mattresses.

You should also definitely check out Planet Money on NPR. It’s a podcast on economics but put into plain English. Look I’m a liberal arts major and I can keep up. It’s not only fascinating it’s really useful.

And for a cool podcast about Supreme Court rulings (really!) check out More Perfect.

I like mysteries. Are there any mysteries?

Oh yes. Joyous or serious?

For serious mysteries you can’t do any better than Serial. The first season, about a cold case murder, was a breakout pop-culture phenomenon so big that SNL parodied it. It’s fanatically investigated and reported.

For joyous mysteries you need Mystery Show about lost belt buckles returned to their owners, and the strangely fluctuating height of Jake Gyllenhal.

I love stories and This American Life, anything else like that?

Another story driven podcast I love is Snap Judgment.

I just want to browse the internet instead of listening to podcasts.

There is an awesome podcast about the internet actually called Reply All. It would be #6 on the list up there. But really it’s not about the internet as much as it is about what the internet reveals about human beings in surprising and interesting ways. The recent “On the Inside” series had some of the best reporting I’ve ever heard.

I am into some weird niche culture you wouldn’t understand so leave me alone with my pile of comic books and World of Warcraft mage character and old Twilight Zone DVDs.

You probably should listen to It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast. Since you are weird you should also check out Welcome to Night Vale which is a thing that can’t be explained, except on lonely moonlit nights.

This is crazy. Next you’re going to tell me there’s a whole podcast dedicated to helping you discover new podcasts to listen to.

There is and it’s called Sampler. You’re welcome.

Are there any podcasts that you used to love but totally went downhill and caused you to shed bitter tears?

Yes. The Happy Rant Podcast used to be, essentially, the Stephen Altrogge show but now that he’s left the show what is life? Listen, it’s the fault of no one. They have a great crew now and it will march on into the future. Just like the Chicago Bulls kept playing after Michael Jordan retired. But he still retired and took all the best homeschool jokes with him.

I’ve made it through this whole insane list because I can’t sleep. What now?

You, friend, need Sleep With Me a podcast that puts you to sleep with pointless stories and a soothing voice. I’ve used this more than once.

Ricky Alcantar

I'm the Lead Pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso, TX. I love my wife Jenn, my two boys, and my city. Sometimes I write. Other times I just think about writing and listen to a lot of podcasts instead.