Podcasts for the picky
April 26, 2016 8:58 PM   Subscribe

I have a dilemma. I want to listen to podcasts to relax before I drift off to sleep, but I strongly dislike a lot of them. Most of them. I cannot tolerate the rambling, self-focused, chatty style podcasts that I keep downloading. They seem so interesting, too! Video games, murder mysteries, film and book critiques... but they're clogged with obnoxious banter or in jokes or naval gazing.

I know this is picky, but any recs? I want calm, intelligent, well-written podcasts about interesting topics that aren't scary or highly emotional (I'm trying to doze off). No pseudo-science or spiritual stuff. A minimum of vocalized pauses, please. This American Life is riiiight on the edge of what I can tolerate. Sometimes I have to turn it off. Quirks and Quarks is wonderful, but I want to listen to podcasts about a variety of topics.

I did look at previous AskMe questions regarding podcasts but there are so many recommendations (over 200 posts) for a variety of podcast types. It's overwhelming.
posted by Stonkle to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
KCRW has a few you might find interesting: UnFictional, The Organist, Here Be Monsters. I also highly endorse ARRVLS, a podcast which has been featured on UnFictional recently.
posted by mykescipark at 9:10 PM on April 26, 2016

Podcasts from the BBC sound like they're exactly what you're after. In Our Time is the Metafilter favourite (and matches your requirements) but really anything broadcast on BBC Radio 4 would do.
posted by tavegyl at 9:10 PM on April 26, 2016 [16 favorites]

I have trouble sleeping from time to time. I can say that Sleep with me does a wonderful job of putting me to sleep. I don't know how, exactly but it's the only podcast I can recommend because it makes me fall asleep.
>> I want calm, intelligent, well-written podcasts about interesting topics that aren't scary or highly emotional (I'm trying to doze off)
My suggestions:
- 99% invisible talks about the design behind many things
- Freakonomics radio talks about the economy in everyday subjects
- Stuff you should know is exactly what it says on the tin
- Hello Internet is hosted by CGP Grey (from the YouTube channel of the same name) and Brady Haran of numberphile fame. They do make idle chat from time to time, but it's probably among the most intelligent idle chat you can find on podcastland, never the loud banter that might happen in Nerdist, for example (not that they are bad, but probably not what you're seeking right now)
posted by andycyca at 9:17 PM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Some of the episodes of The Memory Palace are emotional, depending on what sets you off (I would never listen to the first episode while trying to fall asleep) but before discovering Sleep With Me (which does not fit your criteria), it was my go-to for dozing off. You Must Remember This also mostly works for me (though probably not the later episodes in the season on the Manson Family, as great as it is). I also find The Rise of Charm City both informative and soothing to listen to.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:17 PM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Gravy by the Southern Foodways Alliance, is well scripted and always interesting. I dunno if it would put me to sleep, so much as make me want a midnight snack, but otherwise I think it fits your criteria.

There's also the classic NPR affiliated shows, like This American Life and Radiolab.

I like Mystery Show too. It's not exactly scripted, but it's very focused and well produced. I find the narrator/podcast creator's voice calming, but I suppose that's a question of taste. But it only produced six episodes and then ceased.
posted by dis_integration at 9:33 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I always fall asleep listening to podcasts. I used to fall asleep to star wars books on tape when I was a kid, and I almost have trouble sleeping if no one's calming voice is talking about something vaguely interesting but not riveting.


99% Invisible
You Must Remember This
Stuff You Should Know (after the first couple minutes where they visit)

and adding:
Stuff you Missed in History Class
The Age of Persuasion (about advertising/marketing)
White Coat, Black Art (about medicine/being a doctor)
The History of Rome
Hardcore History
posted by euphoria066 at 9:37 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've recently started listening to the daily news podcasts for this same reason. My "go to sleep" playlist is the latest "NPR News" (5 min), the latest "CBC News", (another 5 min) then that days "PBS News Hour" (~10 episodes around 5 min each). Not always the most interesting, but you are trying to sleep -- and people have been falling asleep to the 11 o'clock news for decades. Bonus -- typically few if any ad reads with obnoxious bumper noises to wake you from your near-slumber state (I'm looking at you Stuff You Should Know!!!)
posted by cgg at 9:40 PM on April 26, 2016

Seconding Stuff You Should Know; it's just two mellow kinda geeky guys (I say that in the most affectionate way) who are very good about staying on whatever their well-researched topic of the hour is (mainly sticking to topics that are interesting but nothing to heavy or provocative).
posted by lovableiago at 9:41 PM on April 26, 2016

To The Best Of Our Knowledge is my go-to sleepytime podcast. Each show picks a topic, and then has around 4 interview/chat segments on different aspects of said topic.
posted by O9scar at 9:58 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

You seem picky in the same way I am for podcasts (if I'm right, for example, you'll really dislike Here Be Monsters, which was recommended above, because of its inconsistent production and tendency to go hard for the annoying vocalized pauses and drama manufactury). With that in mind, yes to In Our Time, 99% Invisible, History of Rome (+Mike Duncan's Revolutions), and Hardcore History. Adding History on Fire, Slate's Whistlestop, Surprisingly Awesome (although a couple of the early episodes are right on the edge, but their production is improving as they go), the Allusionist, and History of the World in 100 Objects. If you like sports, check out Hang Up And Listen, and if you somehow like college football, check the Shutdown Fullcast, which is probably the single consistently funniest podcast I listen to (I also listen to a couple of humor podcasts, but tastes in such matters are weird).
posted by norm at 10:15 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not sure if this is "too emotional" for you, but I've been enjoying Dear Sugar Radio. It's the authors Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed answering relationship questions readers send in, and they'll sometimes have other author friends join them. It's mellow and reflective and their voices are soothing to me, maybe you'll like it too.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 10:32 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

BBC podcasts. They're adfree and tend to be scripted and the humor is dry if it's not a comedy podcast. There is a vast library and they cover a wide range of topics.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:35 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

When it comes to falling asleep, my first choice is the London School of Economics' lecture series. They churn out about 4 a week, more during their frequent festivals, and they're almost always on topics I find interesting enough that I don't get turned off, but rarely engrossing. The U of Chicago law school has a good series for sleeping as well, but in the last couple of years there's rarely more than one a month. For this purpose, you need a new episode each night. Familiarity is going to engage your brain too far to let you drift away.

Also, don't forget the educational part of the ITunes store. For me, foreign languages and scientific episodes don't work. But almost anything in the area of humanities and social sciences does. If it's too engrossing or too weird, I'll advance to the next episode, and make a note that maybe I should take a book out of the library for further reading.
posted by morspin at 11:15 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few more to try, mostly culture or history-related:

Myths and Legends Podcast tells myths and legends from all over the world, which make very good bedtime stories.
Presidential is about the lives of the American presidents, in order, and is extra thoughtful and features interviews with the likes of Bob Woodward and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The Sewers of Paris features interviews with gay men about the pop culture that has influenced them most.
The Dinner Party Download two pleasant and funny in a mild way guys walk you through little entertaining segments like cocktails inspired by a story from history, snippets from a five-song playlist put together by someone who is good at music, a short interview with someone great, etc.
And I feel like many of Gimlet's podcasts could be your thing: Reply All, StartUp, Mystery Show, and Sampler, which is super underrated and excellent IMO.

Can't stop myself from nthing all the other people here who also adore falling asleep to Josh and Chuck on the Stuff You Should Know podcast, the epitome of calm and well researched and non-rambly. Also need to nth You Must Remember This.

Hope you get some good sleep!
posted by moons in june at 11:20 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is Actually Happening
posted by toxic at 12:26 AM on April 27, 2016

posted by Dan Brilliant at 2:46 AM on April 27, 2016

If you can live with the libertarian tilt, EconTalk has some fascinating guests and topics, and a totally dry style.

BBC Radio 4 also has a few high quality shows with minimum affectation.

Thinking Allowed covers a wide variety of topics from a sociology perspective, and the host is knowledgeable, witty, and decided "old school."

From Our Own Correspondents usually brings a mix of stories from around the world, told in "narrative journalism" style. Usually it's a few "serious" stories ("Corruption scandal in Brazil", "new education bill in Japan") that are nevertheless a little too obscure to make the front pages if you don't live in that country, and a few eclectic ones "lantern festival in rural Cambodia!" and so on, told with warmth and verve by professional journalists.
posted by tempythethird at 2:55 AM on April 27, 2016

posted by pintapicasso at 3:36 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing 99% Invisible. It is aural Ambien. The host's voice is the ultimate in quiet, smooth, close-to-the-mic-talking npr style and the subject matter is interesting but not so interesting that I'm at all tempted to keep myself awake to hear the end (this happens a lot when I try to listen to more standard audio storytelling typed shows). I get super excited every time a new episode drops because I know it's going to mean an awesome nights sleep.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:38 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'll echo the suggestion of "In Our Time"; it's exactly what you want. You should also look into Ideas from CBC Radio and The Economist Radio. My wife also enjoys A Way With Words for falling-asleep purposes.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:49 AM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you might like BackStory.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:51 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Whistlestop: it's well-researched and well-scripted. John Dickerson is eonderful; enthusiastic yet soothing, and it's a great way to wind down.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:19 AM on April 27, 2016

Podcasts from the BBC sound like they're exactly what you're after. In Our Time is the Metafilter favourite (and matches your requirements) but really anything broadcast on BBC Radio 4 would do.

Coming in to say exactly this. Here's the link to their download page. Rotating cast of working academics each week, not some random bunch of dudes showing off or dicking about.
posted by tinkletown at 7:22 AM on April 27, 2016

You mentioned video games... It's hard to get away from the sort of "talk radio" format in this genre/topic, but I've found Crate and Crowbar to actually have a lot of discussion of the mechanics of the games they are playing and relatively little talk about energy drinks. They usually get right to the point. Designer Notes on the Idle Thumbs network is a series of developer interviews and they mainly stay on topic as well.
posted by selfnoise at 7:34 AM on April 27, 2016

I cannot tolerate the rambling, self-focused, chatty style podcasts that I keep downloading.

What you need, in general, are high production-value podcasts that are backed by a company that understands how to create media, not just content. There are some great independent podcasts out there -- but it's a hard thing to do right.

Therefore, beyond individual recommendations that you get here, I think you might do well by shopping around the various podcasts produced by NPR (and affiliates), Gimlet, Radiotopia, Panoply and to a lesser extent, Maximum Fun.

My Specific Recommendations:

NPR (and stuff)
Planet Money

I like all of their shows (even Surprisingly Awesome, which is not popular around here). On the one hand, I want to warn you against Sampler (because chatty), but on the other hand Sampler is a show focused on discovering new podcasts, which is what you want to do, so...

Pick something (not named "gabfest") that suits your particular interests. For me that's Amicus and Life of the Law. I do like the Political Gabfest (but: chatty), and I like the idea and the host of The Gist but I don't do daily podcasts.

99% Invisible
The Memory Palace

Maximum Fun
Actually... on reviewing their list of shows I realize that all the shows I like from them are pretty chatty chatty (but the people chatting are people I like, so I do like the network as a whole).

Hardcore History
Imaginary Worlds
A Life Well Wasted is the best videogame podcast that I've ever heard, but it is tragically defunct. If you haven't listened yet, it's worth it to savour what we got.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:08 AM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I regularly listen to ISIHAC reruns for exactly this purpose. It's entertaining but contains no actual content, and pretty structured so I know what to expect. I've rarely reached the end of an episode.
posted by katrielalex at 8:36 AM on April 27, 2016

I can fall asleep to : The History of Rome. The Archaeology News. Astronomy Cast. Myths and Legends. Norman Centuries.

I can't fall asleep to: any of the Stuff podcasts. Definitely chatty and bantery. Which I love for when I'm driving or cleaning house, but don't find relaxing.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:45 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hardcore History is good, but it would not put me to sleep!

Perhaps you would enjoy some of the BBC Radio 4 dramatizations? They are only available for a short time, though, so get them while you can. This week I have been listening to an older "Master & Commander" production they did some time ago as I drift off.

cough, cough
posted by wenestvedt at 8:55 AM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

99% Invisible for sure. Also try BackStory (definitely this one), Planet Money, Song Exploder (may be too loud to fall asleep to), and The Born Yesterday Podcast. All highly content-focused and interesting without being dramatic or scary.
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:22 AM on April 27, 2016

I think we're podcast twins so am watching this thread with interest. My absolute favourite is The History Hour which is a weekly compilation of the Witness programme - 'stories of our times told by the people who were there.' Really highly recommend this.

Ideas from CBS can also be great, but is a bit hit or miss.

Also nthing Thinking Allowed, Back Story and 99% Invisible.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 1:43 PM on April 27, 2016

Lore has a very even, drowsy cadence to it, and the intro and interstitial music is always very soft and conducive to sleeping. It's creepy, but not "scary" (YMMV). It also contains no banter.

I also find Welcome to Nightvale great for falling asleep, but I find that the often-ethereal music they use as the "Weather" portion of the show wakes me up in a haze where I'm both haunted and intrigued, and then I eant to listen to ot the next day to figure out what I missed.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:03 PM on April 27, 2016

I love Ideas from CBC but otherwise, like you, I find podcasts not very high caliber. Instead I'm now downloading non-fiction audiobooks from Overdrive to relax me.
posted by Coffeetyme at 6:06 PM on April 27, 2016

I finally made it through all of your great suggestions!

I am really enjoying 99% Invisible, In Our Time, UnFictional, The Organist, and To the Best of Our Knowledge.
posted by Stonkle at 1:19 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

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