The best podcasts you aren't listening to but should be

Rob Walker
Ep. 1262: Where we lock the gates with Marc Maron
Comedian Marc Maron usually interviews his friends on his WTF Podcast, but today we're turning the tables and getting his take on tracking down Internet trolls, his development as a humorist, and his new TV show on IFC.

Apple got lots of attention last week, as the tech and business press speculated over the deeper meaning of its latest quarterly results. Meanwhile, a notice in the iTunes store marked a milestone that drew far less media interest: total podcast subscriptions via iTunes passed the 1 billion mark.

It’s been a long time since podcasting was a sexy topic for most technology and trend writers, but it just so happens that I’m a podcast fanatic: The form is one of my favorite digital-era innovations. It’s a great companion during chores, excellent for making commutes and long flights feel more productive, and a total godsend for an insomniac. And while the tech press might not seem interested, the podcast ecosystem thrives on, building audiences, talent, and even some businesses.

Apple celebrated by highlighting widely popular podcasts like This American Life and WTF with Marc Maron. But I’m going to take advantage of the moment to share a few of my less obvious favorites.

Radiolab, a meticulously produced science and Big Ideas show, is broadcast on lots of public radio stations, but it’s actually better as a podcast. That’s because instead of airing every day or every week, it pops in sporadic “seasons,” on an unpredictable schedule. The podcast offers new material on a regular basis, supplementing full shows with excellent mini-episode “shorts.” It’s also a show that rewards close listening, so I’d rather hear it through ear buds or headphones than a car radio.

If you’re already a fan of Radiolab or This American Life, check out Re:Sound, from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, which airs on WBEZ in Chicago. It’s a smartly curated weekly mix of audio stories collected from all over the world. Studio 360, Kurt Andersen’s arts and culture show, is also consistently good — but pretty well known. So if that’s old news to you, try The Organist: a relatively new but very promising monthly mix of stories and interviews put together by editors of The Believer.

One of the great things about podcasting is that even some of the repurposed broadcasts involve shows I would never have been able to hear. That’s how I’ve become a big fan of 360 Documentaries on Australia’s ABC Radio, an excellent source of long-form radio nonfiction. I also enjoy ABC’s technology-and-science-oriented Future Tense (disclosure: I’ve been a guest on that a few times). And from another part of the world: BBC 4’s In Our Time brings together groups of scholarly experts to discuss the “history of ideas,” from the invention of radio to Icelandic sagas to the French Physiocrats.

If you’re more the talk show type, and you’ve heard enough of the usual suspects on Fresh Air, Bullseyeis a younger-skewing, more adventurous, pop culture alternative. I’m also a regular listener to Think, which airs on KERA in Dallas. I became aware of it when promoting a book a few years ago, and was struck that host Krys Boyd had clearly actually read it, which makes for much better interviews than most chat shows.

What about music? The familiar answer here is All Songs Considered, which is fine when the episodes involve playing actual songs instead of meandering recaps of music festivals or whatever. Sound Opinions is a nice blend of news, reviews, and deep-dive interviews and features from well-matched partners Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. I read very little music criticism these days, but I find The New York Times Popcast’s conversations among critics, facilitated by excellent host Ben Ratliff, surprisingly engaging. My favorite all-music show is The Sounds In My Head, a labor of love podcast guided by the fine taste of its host, Daniel. (Disclosure: I once wrote Daniel fan mail; we later met and I even ended up being a guest host on one episode some years ago.)

Podcasting can also be a great way to take in certain television content, such as Sunday yak shows This Week and Meet The Press, and even 60 Minutes. (Look for them in iTunes.) Missing the visuals is rarely a problem; it’s easy to zip past the boring parts; and the podcast iterations of these shows have almost no commercial interruption. This way, 60 Minutes is usually more like 40 minutes.

As for native-podcast shows: The most famous by far is the above-mentioned WTF with Marc Maron, and there’s a ton of other comedy content out there. But I’d like to squeeze in shout-outs to a few more idiosyncratic shows. Yet another cool thing about the podcast format is it allows for programming that is exactly as long, or short, as it needs to be: The Memory Palace produces bite-sized but always interesting stories drawn from history, 99 Percent Invisibletakes a similar short-form approach to unusual design topics, and Vox Tablet offers weekly interviews and stories related to Jewish culture. Benjamen Walker (no relation) has a fascinating genre-blurring show called Theory of Everything, and although there have only been seven episodes over a period of three years, the show A Life Well Wasted, about “videogames and people who love them,” is wonderful.

Phew! I could keep going, but you’ve got a lot of listening to do. If you’re already a podcast fan, express your rage about your favorite show that I left out, or just politely suggest other podcasts you’d recommend. As you can tell, I’m all ears.