Now that 2015 is upon us, you may casting around for some new podcasts to keep you company at the gym, as you prepare healthier meals, or whatever it is you're resolving to do that might call for interesting audio accompaniment. Broadly speaking, podcasts fall into two categories: those done by people who are professional media types and are often affiliated with existing media enterprises, and those done by people who are not those things and do it out of their living rooms or similar. Because I feel a special kinship with the latter category, this lists consists entirely of people who podcast for the love of it.
My number one podcast find of 2014, The Flophouse is a podcast in which, as framed every two weeks by host Dan McCoy (writer for The Daily Show), some friends watch a (presumably) bad movie and then talk about it. This is not necessarily a unique format, but McCoy, along with co-hosts Eliott Kalan (also of The Daily Show) and Stuart Wellington (the non-pro of the group, though he more than holds his own), have probably the best chemistry of any podcast hosts anywhere and make eavesdropping on their conversations a pure delight. Filled with sharp criticisms of terrible movies, insane tangents that emerge with the tiniest pretexts, and a healthy dose of what the MST3K guys always called "good-natured ribbing," their best episodes blend interesting critiques of what makes bad movies bad and straight-up hysterical absurdity. The show was featured in a number of year-end "Best of" lists, and it earned every accolade.
Where to start? With the caveat of making sure you start with an episode that features all three regular hosts--occasionally either Elliott or Stuart can't make recording and a variety of NYC-based funny types sub in, with fellow Daily Show Hallie Haglund being the stand-out of the fill-ins--you can dive in almost anywhere. There are plenty of running gags and references that get funnier with repetition through time, but I started with Episode #146--B*A*P*S and was immediately hooked.
Another 2014 find, The History of Rome consists of 180+ episodes in which Mike Duncan chronicles the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Beginning with its mythic beginnings, progressing through the days of the Republic, the early days of the Empire, the Golden Age of the "Five Good Emperors," through its slow but inexorable decline. He ends his story in 476, with the exile of the final Roman Emperor, and while its true that the Eastern Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire and carried on for a thousand more years, it seems the fitting a correct stopping point for the story Mike was telling. I learned a great deal about the murkier periods of Rome from this show, and Mike told the story in such a way that, even though little of the general arc came as a surprise (Spoiler: Rome falls), I still was engaged all the way, both intellectually and emotionally. A great listen for history fans, or just anyone who loves a gripping story, well and cleanly told. Mike finished the podcast a few years back, and has since started a new one about political revolutions called, well, Revolutions.
Where to start? The beginning, of course. The style of the show evolved over the five years it took Mike to tell his story, but to get the full effect of what he did, you have to start at the beginning. If you merely want a sample of Mike's voice and style, maybe check out his episode about Roman weddings, #69. (Warning--this is a direct download link, so if you click it, the episode will start playing. Just in case you're reading this on a work computer in an open office setting...)
This show straddles the amateur/professional line, but host Peter Adamson has such a direct, unfussy style, and the show is so much stamped with his quirky, pun-loving personality, that I feel it deserves a place on this list. Like The History of Rome, this show is exactly what it sounds like--it is a thorough history of Western Philosophy (including the Islamic world as the West), beginning with its origins and touching not only on the major figures, but also one lesser known and frequently forgotten figures whose work is still worth exploring. In fact, Peter is being so thorough that, after 4 years and 200+ episodes, he's just reached St. Anselm of Canterbury, a major figure in early Medieval thought. The show is often complex, but Peter is brilliant at making the ideas as clear as possible (obscurity, alas, often being the handmaid of philosophy) and fleshing them out with frequently humorous or absurd examples involving giraffes, Buster Keaton, and his imaginary sister.
Where to start? I would say that you should definitely start at the beginning, but it's also possible to drop in somewhere you feel comfortable to sample the vibe of the show, and then go back to the beginning if you like it. Alternately, start somewhere you feel very *un*comfortable, an area or a thinker that you know nothing about, and see how much Peter can teach you in just a few minutes.
The original Filmspotting is a great listen, but it falls a bit on the pro side of our divide. However, its spin-off has a decidedly more homespun vibe, and is generally more to my taste, to boot. Filmspotting: SVU is hosted by two film critics, Matt Singer and Alison Wilmore, who hosted the long-defunct but still awesome IFC News Podcast and then started their own show that borrows the Filmspotting name, but otherwise is a creation all its own. With keen intelligence and a great feeling of humor and warmth, Matt and Alison explore films and series available via the various streaming and on-line rental services, which means that essentially all of the things they review are available immediately for the interested listener. Extra points go to this show for the hosts' shared love of horror and genre films and their idiosyncratic tastes, which allows them to stand somewhat apart from the large critical mass.
Where to start? Anywhere. Scroll through their list of available episodes and find one that catches your filmic interest. A recent episode on Scanners and the work of David Cronenberg (#70) would make great listening for people who heard the Classic Horror Cast review of Videodrome and want more Cronenberg weirdness.
Citing the model of The History of Rome, a significant number of other podcasts have adopted Mike Duncan's format and are telling one story, slowly, with intelligence and humor. Of those that I have sampled, my favorite is definitely Jamie Jeffers' The British History Podcast. Jamie's task is to tell the entire story of Britain, which is a massive undertaking. He's currently deep in the pre-Viking early Medieval period, and I am learning so much about a period of British history that usually gets skipped over as being of little consequence. Jamie rightly argues that post-Roman, pre-Norman Britain is actually a pivotal time that sheds a great deal of light on later British history. Plus, the names are awesome and Jamie is a charming host.
Where to start? Again, I'd say start with the beginning, but if you want to dive in and sample an episode to see how Jamie's voice and style works for you, check out his kind of tangential, but very interesting, episode from last year (2013) about the dating of Christmas, episode #108.