A podcast for a podcast-hater
January 6, 2021 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I've been walking a lot but not going anywhere (so say we all), so I'm looking for some podcast recommendations to listen to while I walk. Important caveat: I hate most podcasts. I did like "Extremities" and "Nice White Parents" and I have lingering affection for "Wiretap" (RIP; not really a podcast I guess but you know what I mean). More picky details below.

I would prefer nonfiction, although I like the sort of variety-show-ness of "Wiretap" where there's some short stories here and there; I listen to "Tales from the Arcanist" and I like that the stories are short (this is key) and weird, so if you know of anything else like that, cool.

Otherwise, re: nonfiction, this is what I'm looking for based on what I liked about "Extremities" and "Nice White Parents":
- in-depth, well researched reporting about interesting topics
- lots of interviews and quotes and references while still having a clear POV
- they stay on-topic the whole time
- not dry!
- short episodes -- something with episodes in the 15-60 minute range is perfect, so I can listen to a whole episode on my walk

I am interested in most things if they're presented interestingly, so topic isn't a huge concern. Particular areas of interest if it's helpful: astronomy, geography/travel, education, medieval/Renaissance Europe, urbanism, bats, cults/MLM stuff, American football, wilderness adventure/exploration, Antarctica. But really anything is good.

The reason I feel like I hate podcasts is that so so so many of them are just people sitting around chatting about whatever, and I guess it's supposed to be charming, but it doesn't work for me. Even when they ostensibly have a topic I'm interested in, each episode is 2.5 hours long and is 90% some story about a dog and it takes 8 episodes to cover one relatively narrow topic. I do not want this. I would like a podcast with zero riffing.
posted by goodbyewaffles to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
If you liked Nice White Parents, do you like The Daily? You didn't mention news in your post, so this might not fit what you are looking for, but they are concise, usually current and well-told stories with minimal riffing (if any).
posted by Corduroy at 9:35 AM on January 6, 2021

Would the fictional podcast Welcome to Nightvale work for you? The episodes are short and a structured story and very, very weird. (If you don't like the first few minutes of the first episode, quit. It's not for you. My husband hated it immediately, I loved it immediately.)
posted by Aquifer at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Gastropod for science, history, and sociology of food and cooking

Rumble Strip Vermont interviews about life in Vermont
posted by moonmilk at 9:39 AM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: You might like The Allusionist, which is about language - often each episode is about one word - and tends to run in the 15-20m range.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

The Planetary Society has a podcast you might enjoy. It mostly focuses on current events in astronomy and space exploration.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:50 AM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: I'm basing these recs on "Nice White Parents" + "Wiretap"

The best podcast by far I've heard in the last few years was "Dolly Parton's America." I wasn't even a fan of Dolly Parton before I listened, but was one by the end of it. The pacing and editing is great, and it covers a lot of ground.

"S-Town" is maybe a little drawn out, but the main figure is interesting.

"Louder than a Riot" - I've almost finished this, looks at hip hop/carceral state, well researched and engaging.

"Ear Hustle" - provides a look on life behind bars unlike anything else I've seen/heard. There is no need to listen in order really, though some inmates appear multiple times over the seasons.

"No Compromise" - a fascinating and frightening look at the no compromise gun-rights movement, and it's use of Facebook.

"Richest Hill" - environmental/labor history of Butte Montana - a little slow in spots maybe, but it does a good job blending the present place with its history.

"Rough Translation" - some episodes are better than others, but many are excellent - try their recent "Radical Rudeness" episode, which looks are recent politics in Uganda with the case of one activist academic.

And because you liked Wiretap, perhaps you'd like "Oh Hello: The P'dcast" -short episodes, very silly.
posted by coffeecat at 9:50 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 99% invisible is great. It's about design, which means there are in depth episodes about topics as diverse as sound design for medical equipment, the intersection between modernist architecture and skate boarding, homelessness in the USA, food photography, color, all kinds of things, always meticulously researched and presented with interviews with experts.

"This is Love"is also excellent. Stories about (and interviews with)people who are passionate about something, or have had some kind of extraordinary experience. Usually not about love in the romantic sense.
posted by Zumbador at 9:51 AM on January 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I also have been slow to get into podcasts. Not sure I still count as a "hater" but a lot of what people like, I do not. Some from my list that overlap with your interests:

The Dream Season 1 is a seriously great deep dive into MLMs (Season 2 is ok but not as good).

The City Season 1 if you are interested in urbanism, environmental justice, etc. Season 2 is more about local politics and not IMO as good.

There Goes the Neighborhood is about gentrification.

Nice Try! Season 1 is about attempts at utopian societies/communities.
posted by misskaz at 9:51 AM on January 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Have you listened to "In Our Time", hosted by Melvyn Bragg? It's one of the few podcasts that could follow an episode on Cleopatra with one about the discovery of the neutrino. He always has experts in the subject on his show and while the conservation is a little wandering, he makes some effort to keep it on track (which usually involves him interrupting the guests. That can get annoying).

It's not perfect, but other than American football he has had episodes on each of the things you have mentioned above (maybe not bats, but it wouldn't surprise me if he had).

(I should note that I'm not familiar with any of the podcasts you mentioned, so my recommendation might be way off)
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:51 AM on January 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I’ve found that I like limited series podcasts that delve into a particular topic better than weekly ones that feel like people just chatting. My interests are different than yours but here are some I’ve enjoyed:

White Lies - Podcast from NPR about the murder of James Reeb, a white civil rights activist killed in Alabama in 1965. I’m generally not a true crime fan, but this felt more about race, history, and memory.

Dolly Parton’s America - It’s okay if you’re not a fan of Dolly, it’s really using her as a lens to look at US culture and politics more broadly.

Boomtown - 11 part series looking at fracking and the oil boom in west Texas - it’s origins, what it’s like working the rigs and living in one of these boom towns, climate change, and the economics of fracking. (High School Football does come up on this one!)
posted by radiomayonnaise at 9:56 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist history is very good, completely makes you rethink how the history you know may not be the whole truth.

And similarly, Freaknomics podcast, and Planet money, both are about how the world of money and business are not always what they seem.
posted by kschang at 9:57 AM on January 6, 2021

NPR's Planet Money fits the bill
posted by radioamy at 10:00 AM on January 6, 2021

You might like The Journal, from the Wall Street Journal and Gimlet. It does a deep dive into one big story from the news each day, with interviews of the journalists who reported it, as well as other experts or the people interviewed for the newspaper story. Always interesting, even on topics I didn't think I would be interested in. It runs 15-20 minutes each episode.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: Lately I have really really enjoyed "You're Wrong About" by Michael Hobbs and Sarah Marshall; it fits most of your criteria, but there is a tiny bit of riffing. However, they do great research, stay on topic, have a clear POV, and are not dry. Each episode is a deep dive into a story that the media got wrong; often a story from the 80s or 90s like "The Challenger Disaster" or "Amy Fisher" or "Monica Lewinsky." The show description is: "Mike and Sarah are journalists obsessed with the past. Every week they reconsider an event, person or phenomenon that’s been miscast in the public imagination." It was named one of the ten best podcasts by Time in 2019, according to the Wikipedia page.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 10:10 AM on January 6, 2021 [8 favorites]

Jamie Loftus has made two incredible series (so far) that sound like they'd be right up your alley: My year in mensa and Lolita Podcast. The second, especially, has a clear POV, but Loftus' thorough research and calm but character-ful delivery make them both engrossing listens.
posted by dbx at 10:13 AM on January 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: 99% Invisible has already been recommended, but I'll second it for one important reason. Usually their episodes are around a half hour, but every year around the new year (i.e., now), they run "mini-stories": things that their reporters and producers found interesting during the year but could not spend 30 minutes talking about. These are usually around 7 minutes, and it's a really easy way to see if you like the tone and topics of the show. The shorter length also means greater variety, which might be good for you considering how broad your interests are. The most recent episode included mini-stories about movie novelizations and the costumes worn by ABBA.

Revisionist History and Freakonomics have multiple episodes about American football. Most sports podcasts, like most other sports media, are insufferable, so I'd steer you away from football-specific ones.

More generally, look for podcasts produced by public radio stations or other media organizations instead of... I don't know, civilians? Think about it as the difference between an online magazine and someone's Livejournal. There's value in professional production and editing, but just like with writing, it seems only professionals seem to actually recognize that value. Public radio podcasts tend to be scripted, which is really the key, and the production is of the highest quality. Other media organizations (I'm looking at you, the Ringer) tend to have the production values, but tend to get a little chatty, IMO.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:16 AM on January 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

For short, focused series like Nice White Parents, Ii recommend:

BBC Intrigue, especially the Mayday season about the death of the head of the White Helmets organization and the Tunnel 29 season about a tunnel under the Berlin Wall.

This Land: about a recent [now decided] Supreme Court case about tribal land in Oklahoma.

Missing & Murdered: first season is about the horrifyingly frequent murders of indigenous women in Canada and the second season is about the sixties scoop when indigenous kids were taken to be adopted by white families.

Slow Burn: all the seasons have been interesting: Watergate, Clinton impeachment, murders of Tupac and Biggie, and David Duke.

Mogul: both seasons were good but especially the first season about the life and suicide of hip hop producer Chris Lights.
posted by carolr at 10:18 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

I found the first season of Slow Burn, about Watergate, totally engrossing. I also liked Seeing White, about the creation and role of Whiteness in history and the US. Seeing White has a conversational segment and a reported segment in each episode usually, but there’s no “riffing” per se, just a conversation about the topic of the episode.
posted by MadamM at 10:19 AM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: You should probably check out Ideas from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The only one of your criteria that it doesn't satisfy is that it can occasionally be a little dry.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:28 AM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: Dig:A History Podcast! Written by historians, lovely sound quality, and manages to deliver interesting educational content in an engaging but minimally chatty way - some great medieval/renaissance history (check out their most recent episode on papal elections!) as well as all sorts of social/cultural history particularly from north America.

For current affairs, the inquiry from BBC world service hits my attention span just right - as they say "four experts, a question, and a possible answer" - it's a really neat way of getting some in depth perspective on something in the news.

For twenty minute great medieval/renaissance Europe content if you like philosophy, I cannot recommend Peter Adamson's history of philosophy without any gaps enough - funny without being trivialising, fascinating, and illuminating. His voice is also so soothing that I fall asleep to old episodes.
posted by MarianHalcombe at 10:29 AM on January 6, 2021

You might like Reveal, and investigative reporting podcasts with almost no riffing and lots of interviews and research, but also a strong point of view.

Wiretap's Jonathan Goldstein now has a podcast called Heavyweight, which to me is amazing, but might not fit your tastes. It is non-fiction personal stories.
posted by catquas at 10:37 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Rick Steves has a travel podcast that’s pretty cool. He does a an interview with person/persons from a particular area, then interviews someone who’s working on a project tangential to travel, and then 15-20 min of either a monologue-type thing from another guest OR takes calls from listeners. YMMV, but it’s 50 minutes of interesting conversation with Rick’s soothing voice exploring topics and destinations I’d never even considered. I enjoy it.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 10:47 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Seconding This Land.
posted by joycehealy at 10:58 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you liked Nice White Parents, that means you'll probably like a third of This American Life episodes. Each week they follow a theme, and sometimes that means there is a coherent point of view. Other times, not so much. Chana Joffe-Walt is a producer there as well.
posted by lab.beetle at 11:11 AM on January 6, 2021

Seconding In Our Time. And it has a HUGE archive, so you will not run out of stuff in a hurry.
posted by Megami at 11:48 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think you might like the BBC's More or Less, about data. It does often focus on numbers in the news in the UK, though, so it depends on your tolerance for British topics. There are 253 episodes available at the moment - if you go back to page 4 you will avoid episodes about the coronavirus.

You might also like the National Archives podcasts (history) and the BBC History magazine's podcasts.
posted by paduasoy at 12:50 PM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: Stuff You Missed in History Class might suit you. Length ~ a half hour, mostly on topic with a few minutes, tops, of chatting at the beginning and end. References yes, interviews very rarely.
posted by momus_window at 1:33 PM on January 6, 2021

I liked Floodlines. I didn't think I needed a podcast about Katrina but there was a lot more than I expected in it.

I would also second White Lies and the first season of The Dream.
posted by vunder at 1:54 PM on January 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh! and Last Seen, about the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum heist.
posted by vunder at 1:56 PM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming you just skipped over it because its a big default, but This American Life is always recommended.

Johnathan Goldstein (you know, of Wiretap fame) is still going with Heavyweight, though its more inter-personal stories focused rather than the grab-bag of Wiretap.
posted by Snuffman at 2:55 PM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

You’re Wrong About is very good. The episodes are a bit longer than you have asked for, but I start and stop them on my runs and commutes and have no problem following the story. I look forward to each opportunity to listen.
posted by chuke at 2:59 PM on January 6, 2021

I also like "You're Wrong About". Michael has a new podcast with another host called "Maintenance Phase" which is about debunking diet myths. They just put out one on Halo Top ice cream. There's a previous episode about Snackwells cookies.

Quirks and Quarks from CBC is good. "The Weirdest Thing I learned This Week" is from Popular Science and covers a variety of topics
posted by kathrynm at 4:11 PM on January 6, 2021

Best answer: Unfortunately looks like it petered out in 2019 but I liked the episodes of Rob Reid's After On podcast I listened to, great longform science and technology non-fiction coverage centered on interviews with luminaries in their fields, on a variety of topics—well-planned, journalistic interviews with a minimum of aimless chatting. Seemingly inspired by Reid's activities as a science fiction author—I should note, IIRC in the episodes I listened to he'd mention his novels a few times so there was a bit of product placement, but he didn't get carried away.
posted by XMLicious at 6:02 PM on January 6, 2021

Also—back in the more chatty direction but a fixed-length, self-contained episode improvement on the format IMO is BBC Radio Four's You're Dead To Me, a history podcast in which the comedian host discusses a different historical topic in each episode with one professional historian and one professional comedian.

Designed for public broadcast I think so it's a tad cookie cutter production-wise involving holiday themes, quizzes, etc., but usually quite interesting with coverage of obscure facts and incisive analysis (and hilarious, frequently ribald jokes, if you aren't accustomed to the much-less-Puritan broadcast standards of Europe.) Also lots of loud sound effects so you definitely won't fall asleep.
posted by XMLicious at 6:15 PM on January 6, 2021

13 Minutes to the Moon. Probably the single best podcast series I have heard. The only flaw with it is, they don't have 10 more seasons . . .

Seconding This Land, Slow Burn, and In Our Time.
posted by flug at 9:15 PM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Try out "Cautionary Tales" from Tim Harford.

Also I do feel like (at least based on your description) you've not explored all the types of podcasts out there before you've made certain statements about "I hate most podcasts" . I'm constantly learning not only of new podcasts but also new categories.

Some examples: Technical podcasts related to just about any line of work, actual-play role playing podcasts, TV show review podcasts for whatever your fave show might be, horror stories, reimagined modern retellings of classic literature, detailed history podcasts, stand-up comedy, music recordings, analysis of music, musical documentaries, sketch comedy, news programmes for very niche interests, etc.

All I'm saying is look beyond the iTunes top 50 recommendations.
posted by McNulty at 10:09 PM on January 6, 2021

Seconding Nice Try.

There’s also Decoder Ring which focusses on a wide variety of cultural phenomena, from Jane Fonda’s Workout and why it became a success, to the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s article in The Atlantic about Lord Byron’s incestuous relationship with his sister. That was a wild ride.

I also like some episodes of Reply All for the style of storytelling you describe, but be warned that the hosts can sometimes do a bit of... meandering. They cover topics that loosely centre on Internet culture (kinda?). Google around for their best episodes; one that comes up a lot that I loved is about the hit song that disappeared.

Another favourite of mine is You Must Remember This, about the history of Hollywood’s golden years. The series on MGM stories and her recent series about Polly Platt were particularly good.
posted by LynnDee at 8:51 PM on January 7, 2021

Best answer: What got me into podcasts was Let's Talk About Sects, a monthly deep dive on cults that focuses on a different cult each episode.

The name of the podcast is the only thing jokey about it. Nowhere is the "Can you believe these people?"attitude.

Instead, the host, Australian journalist Sarah Steel, looks at the history of each sect's leaders, the recruitment of members, their experiences, psychological aspects, and notable incidents during each sect's existence. She's done interviews with former members and has a long list of suggestions for further reading on the podcast's website

I particularly like that Steel isn't US-based or US-focused. So many podcasts feel like the host is going down a bog standard list of topics -- Steel is way smarter and sharper than that.
posted by virago at 12:37 AM on January 8, 2021

I've long been a fan of In Our Time, mentioned above, but I thought I would say that it might fail your criteria of "not dry" and "zero riffing". Melvyn Bragg is constantly sidetracking the guest experts from developing their explanations, and I think he's gotten worse at it over time. That's one reason I might actually be about 2 years behind on listening to it. Maybe that's not the kind of riffing you were thinking of, but anyway it's very much unscripted.

One thing to consider might be Myths and Legends. It's only ever the voice of Jason Weiser doing retellings of a potpourri of myths and legends from around the world. He inserts lots of snarky modern commentary into the stories, and it's tightly scripted. Episode 183 "Indian Folklore - Revenant" might be a good one for a taste test.

I'll third 99% Invisible and second Gastropod. These are fascinating and highly-researched shows.
posted by polecat at 2:38 PM on January 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would recommend Futility Closet! Each episode has about 20 minutes of a well-researched history topic with no filler, followed by a little bit of letter reading and commentary, and then about 10 minutes of a lateral thinking puzzle. There's very little riffing and tangents, they stay on topic really well.
posted by faethverity at 5:35 PM on January 9, 2021

Best answer: RNZ has several that might fit the bill.

The Aotearoa History Show is just that. Episodic history of New Zealand.
Black Sheep is super well-researched and fascinating. Crime, but not the suspense whodunnit true crime stuff. Historical crimes. There's a fair amount of eugenics and racism in there, but told well and with feeling. The presenter is great. Serious, but engaging and not at all dry.
White Silence has interviews and archival audio, but no riffing. Air disaster in Antarctica.
posted by Gotanda at 6:58 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: Here are a few that are limited series that tell a focused story (or one story per season), like Nice White Parents:
The Dream
The Habitat
We Share the Same Sky
White Lies
Winds of Change
Scene on Radio
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 5:14 PM on January 12, 2021

Response by poster: These recommendations are amazing, thank you! I favorited the ones that especially stood out so that I remember to come back to them, but these all sound really great.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 1:36 PM on January 25, 2021

One more - BBC 4 has had a couple of similar series that I have listened to.
Tunnel 29
The California Century
I don't remember how I found these, probably ads/links on other podcases, but you might find other similar series on BBC 4 as well.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 7:20 AM on January 26, 2021

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