There’s an image we’ve become familiar with, a sight likely seen on a daily basis with some variation: people walking with a ubiquitous cord (usually Apple white) twining down their front, buds stuck in their ears. Sometimes it’s old-school headphones and sometimes there’s no cord. Regardless, when we’re on the move, we’re likely to be on the move while listening to something. What was once assumed to be music or even audiobooks are no longer givens. Instead, podcasts are becoming the new norm. Podcast listenership has steadily grown each month, thanks to the introduction of an increasing number of new podcasts that seem to cover every niche of popular culture and general knowledge, from self-help to murder mysteries to the making of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
So, what are podcasts? They’re similar to old-fashioned radio programs, except instead of gathering around a vintage Emerson, we listen through the Internet. A great example is This American Life from NPR. In fact, NPR is to thank for the surge in podcast popularity over the past few years. Back in 2014, Serial premiered, a spinoff of This American Life in which host/journalist Sarah Koenig traced the murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and the trial and conviction of her accused killer, Adnan Syed. That first season–a second, investigating the case of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, was released in Winter 2015–was a pop culture phenomenon, spawning heated debates over Syed’s guilt and a hilarious SNL sketch that lampooned Koenig’s distinctive style of speech. Koenig and her colleagues even discovered a new witness, which in part has led to renewed proceedings in the case, bringing Syed–who has always maintained his innocence–closer than ever to a new trial. All this from a 12-episode podcast! S-Town, also produced by This American Life and another labyrinthine investigation of sorts, is the latest water cooler podcast and was number one on the iTunes podcast chart.
There’s a voyeuristic quality about podcasts that I think can be especially resonant; it feels like we’re peeking inside a private conversation. Often, each episode of a podcast features the host or hosts talking with each other or with a guest/guests. The best podcasts, like the best interviews, don’t feel forced in any way; they’re coherent and organized, but still improvisational and natural. There have even been moments when listening to podcasts that you can sense the participants–hosts or guests–revealing more than they intended.
Loyal readers of Checking the Shelf have probably figured out by now that I’m more into fluff than hard-hitting data dumps. Let me rephrase that: I stay informed, but nine times out of ten, I would rather spend an hour or two listening to something light and funny. Case in point: though I have dabbled in podcasts (I binge-listened to season one of Serial), the only two podcasts that I have listened to on a semi-regular basis are The Shipping Room and The Blaze with Lizzie and Kat! The former is hosted by Tamar and Christine, two women passionate about “shipping” their favorite fictional couples. The latter, obviously hosted by Lizzie and Kat, is devoted to the amazing, the classic, the enduring Beverly Hills, 90210. (Comment below if you know why it’s called “The Blaze!”). If you are as fervent a fan of pop culture as I am, you have a lot of listening options. Aside from The Shipping Room and The Blaze, there’s Blank Check with Griffin & David, Gilmore Guys, How Did This Get Made?, and Pop Culture Happy Hour to name a few. You guys, there are even podcasts that talk about every book in The Baby-Sitter’s Club series and every episode of Dawson’s Creek. You mix these two with The Blaze and you can reach your monthly quota of 90’s nostalgia in a single weekend.
A recent, strange case of blurring the lines between pop culture and mystery is the insanely popular Missing Richard Simmons, a phenomenon that somehow hit a mark none of us even knew existed. Filmmaker Dan Taberski delves into Richard Simmons’ retreat from the public eye, prompting speculation on the welfare of the reclusive fitness guru, whom the LAPD recently assured us all was perfectly fine following a home check.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I discovered, thanks to Rainbow Rowell’s twitter feed, that there was a podcast in existence which gives a behind-the-scenes account of a little television program called The Oprah Winfrey Show. I nearly hyperventilated with excitement! You know that game where you have to pick three famous people, living or dead, to invite to a dinner party? Oprah Winfrey is on my list. Every. Single. Time. I listened to the three episodes of Making Oprah, at times overcome with emotion, remembering the many, many afternoons spent watching Oprah while doing my homework and usually eating some sort of cookie or potato chips. The great thing about listening to these types of podcasts–productions that are reverential, focusing on a beloved topic–is you can feel the excitement of the host, their sheer joy in being able to speak freely and at length about something they love. Jenn White, the host of Making Oprah, was unabashedly a fan of the show and of Oprah Winfrey herself. When the moment came for Jenn to actually speak with Oprah, interview the “queen of interviews,” I felt like I was the one speaking to Oprah, that’s how relatable as a fan Jenn felt to me as a listener. Bottom line: if you ever were and remain a fan of The Oprah Winfrey Show, listen to Making Oprah. It will make folding laundry so much more enjoyable.
Speaking of celebrity-driven podcasts…Did you know that some of our favorite stars have their own podcasts? Anna Faris and her friend Sim Sarna co-host Anna Faris is Unqualified— also the title of her forthcoming memoir–where they chat with other celebrity friends. Every other Tuesday, Alec Baldwin releases a new episode of Here’s The Thing. The Long Island native talks with a wide-range of guests, some famous and some much less so. Comedians, like Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, and Marc Maron are also in the podcast arena. Do you prefer your listening experiences to be more nostalgic? A bit more “old Hollywood?” Check out You Must Remember This, described as a “storytelling podcast about the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”
Let’s say pop culture isn’t your thing. I recognize that we can’t all pay attention to the very important Dylan/Brenda versus Dylan/Kelly debate. I’ve heard amazing things about Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin, who is not a historian nor a professor, is known for making typically dry topics far more riveting for the general audience. If you’re commitment-phobic, however, beware: there are some especially meaty topics that are practically epic in proportion, like a piece on the Mongols that ran for 14 hours, broken down into seven parts. Are you a news junkie? Check out FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast. Statistician Nate Silver crunches the numbers to determine the outcome of everything from baseball games to elections. Another option is Pod Save America, hosted by former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau, not to be confused with the Jon Favreau who briefly dated Monica on Friends and directed Elf, among other Hollywood accomplishments.
Are you a fan of libraries and books? I would certainly hope so, if you’re reading this! Good news: there are podcasts all about libraries! In 2016, four of our staff members were guests on Episode 5 of The Library Pros, a great production hosted by Chris DeCristofaro and Bob Johnson, Long Island library professionals who cover all things library-related. American Libraries, a magazine published by the American Library Association (ALA), produces Dewey Decibel, proving once and for all that librarians are the best at naming things. The New York Public Library also produces The NYPL Podcast, with some hard-hitting topics on journalism, social advocacy, diversity, and more. As a children’s librarian, I’m a fan of The Horn Book Podcast. The Horn Book is a journal that reviews children’s literature, and the podcast, not surprisingly, discusses literature for young people and often features children’s book authors and illustrators as guests, including Christian Robinson, Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen, and more. Listening to these podcasts gives you a peak behind the library curtain–or rather, the library stacks.
For more podcast recommendations, Time Magazine has a great list of the 50 best podcasts available now. For books and information about how to make your own podcast, call or stop in to speak with one of our librarians. The technology is accessible enough that any of us can become podcasting pros in no time!