podcast review 2020

One of the nice things about having your own website is that you can do whatever you want. Today I am going to recommend/describe some podcasts I listen to. I usually do this directly to whoever speaks to me after I find a new one, but now I can do it to people on the internet too.

This will be more of a review than strictly a list of recommendations, so I'm not saying all of these are great. But I did listen to them.

Warning: some of these podcasts will try to sell you a mattress.

  • Reply All is probably the most generic podcast recommendation I could give. It's slickly produced, it's reliably entertaining, it has interesting trivia and moments of heart and touches on contemporary issues in a way which is not especially challenging. You sort of know what you're getting, even if you don't know what it'll be about. I have a strange memory of listening to the first few episodes of this when it started back in 2014 and being like "what is this podcast supposed to be about". Then I stopped listening for 5 years and I still don't entirely know. It's just about... stuff, you know? Stuff on the internet. Episode rec: Bedbugs and Aliens

  • 99% Invisible is another reliable recommendation. The host (Roman Mars) has a strange and specific way of speaking which subtly aggravates me, but the content is really great. It's about "design", which is pretty broad - they talk about cities, infrastructure, architecture, objects, history, etc. The stories are interesting and hopefully mostly factual and the urbanism bias is very much up my alley. Episode rec: Palaces for the People (spoiler: they are LIBRARIES)

  • The Adventure Zone is a RPG podcast, which is a genre of podcast where you listen to people play role-playing games (with some editing). TAZ features known podcasters "the McElroy family", who seem to be lovely people and also very funny. I listened to TAZ Amnesty, which was a Monster of the Week campaign. They managed to blend an interesting world, heartfelt story, and absurd humour. I understand there to be many RPG podcasts out there, but I have mostly only listened to this one. Episode rec: Episode 1 of Amnesty I guess.

  • Mythology (on the Parcast Network!) is dramatisations of stories from mythology, in that they get voice actors to play out stories from mythology. I'm not mythology buff and suspect this is some entry-level mythology content. Please do not @ me with mythology-related screeds. It's light-weight story telling, although the reuse of voice actors gets a bit confusing if you listen for too long at once. The oddest thing about this podcast is how I get the feeling it's made by aliens who want to blend in, but who are too enthusiastic about mythology to pull it off. I will not elaborate on what I mean by this. Episode rec: The Abduction of Persephone.

  • The Anthill is a podcast from The Conversation. Their sthick is getting academics directly to write articles (or be interviewed on a podcast) on topics of their expertise. The format seems to be multi-episode mini-series with long gaps, so it's not a "reliable weekly" sort of thing. Direct academic involvement means the quality of information should be pretty high, and they better not have lied to me. I've only listened to three of the mini-series (India Tomorrow, Conspiracy Theories, Recovery) and they were all great.

This concludes the list of reasonably generic podcasts I listen to. Now comes the more esoteric stuff, I guess.

  • Lingthusiasm is about linguistics. It's a podcast hosted by two linguists, talking about linguistics. The enthusiasm they have for linguistics is really charming. I don't listen to this one all the time because whenever I learn things about linguistics I forget things about computers, but it's another podcast where I will reliably come away having learned something. About linguistics. Episode rec: How to Rebalance a Lopsided Conversation or Sounds You Can't Hear.

  • Drilled is a "True Crime Podcast about Climate Change". It focuses on fossil fuel propaganda and it's absolutely enraging. I actually stopped listening to it because I don't like making myself so simultaneously miserable and angry, but I did find it genuinely very informative. The second season (about crab fisherman) was a very different sort of climate story to what I'm used to. Overall, it's got that true crime investigative energy and it will make you want to burn Exxon to the ground.

  • Maintenance Phase is about debunking wellness culture, health and weight-loss fads. It just started so I don't have a lot to go by, but the first few episodes have been strong. I find the discussion of dieting and diet culture very enlightening, because I'm a lucky person who eats whatever I want without thinking about it really. The hosts have something of a similar conversational style as Lingthusiasm, which is very enthusiastic in a way I feel is quite American, but neither of the hosts of Lingthusiasm are American, so that's on me and I need to think about that. Episode rec: Moon Juice.

  • Revolutions is my newest podcast addition and therefore the direct inspiration for this post. This is a history podcast about "great political revolutions" and has been a hard sell to my friends. I am shamefully ignorant of history and find myself going on occasional history splurges trying to catch up (I was really obsessed with World War 1 for a while after reading The Guns of August). It turns out that history is really interesting when it's told to you like a story, and not as a list of events to memorise. I've started right at the start of this podcast (in 2013) so am still learning about the English Civil War of 1642. I have good reason to believe there will be more revolutions to come.

  • Imaginary Worlds is about sci-fi and fantasy, with a focus (ostensibly) on world-building. I think it's broader than that though, and the episodes often touch on wider issues relating to the media, or more fundamental ideas which are explored in sci-fi/fantasty. I only listen when I've read/seen the thing, so I don't listen to this one all that often. I do love imaginary worlds, though. Episode recs: The Power of the Makeover Mage.

This concludes the list of reasonably generic esoteric podcasts I listen to. Now for the flagrantly political ones.

  • Mass for Shut-ins is the podcast version of Gin and Tacos, a somewhat snarky political scientist who writes about American politics. I mostly view the podcast as the extension to his blog, which I've been reading on and off for many years now. I find what he has to say about the machinations of American politics interesting, e.g. FDR's Court Packing Scheme.

  • Citations Needed is about "the intersection of media, PR, and power". This is a very well-produced podcast that will consistently point out how something you thought was benign is actually bad. It's interesting in a depressing way as a result, although it can be validating to have your suspicions (that something you thought was benign is actually bad) confirmed by someone else. Examples include The Pro-Gentrification Aspirationalism of HGTV's House-Flipping Shows and Incitement Against the Homeless (Part I) - The Infestation Rhetoric of Local News. My enthusiasm for this podcast started to wane after I felt like it was making me hopelessly cynical, so I only listen intermittently now.

  • Current Affairs is the podcast to accompany the magazine, of which I am also a subscriber. Current Affairs (both magazine and podcast) sit nicely in the intersection of serious leftist critique and frivolity. The typical podcast features some subset of the editors of CA talking about current events and more. My favourite segment is "Lefty Shark Tank", where someone proposes an absurd-sounding policy which will be judged by the others. Policies have included "Lower the voting age to zero", "Elected officials should have to wear burlap sacks", and other less memorable things that sound ridiculous but have surprising implications. It's difficult to select an episode to recommend as the panel episodes are basically miscellany and news, so take this Episode rec: An Analysis of Birds, Large and Small, or this horrifying/slightly inspiring one where two of the lawyers on the CA team talk about their work: Immigration Update: Detention and COVID. Not sure why CA has so many lawyers.

  • Working Class History is a history podcast, focusing on the role of normal (=working class) people in history. I got into it via a crossover they did with Srsly Wrong on mutinies. I find this podcast can be a bit dry or slightly more taxing to listen to than some of the other more podcasts, so need to be in an attentive mood, but the subject matter is generally fascinating. Slightly esoteric subject matter means even people who know more history than me will probably learn something, but you must understand I'm really starting with nothing here, August 1914 notwithstanding. Episode rec: miniseries on the Columbia Eagle Mutiny, or miniseries on The 43 Group if you're less interested in mutinies than I am.

  • General Intellect Unit looks at the intersection of technology and left politics. I only got onto this one recently but suspect I will have many thoughts on it in future (given I am a Tech). They're quite interested in cybernetics and a bunch of the episodes are essentially summaries of the main ideas of Stafford Beer, e.g. Designing Freedom, but they also cover the contents of related books, like Red Plenty, or sci-fi I already like, like The Dispossesed.

  • The Red Nation Podcast is about "Indigenous history, politics and culture from a left perspective". As an Irish person living in England, this podcast is like a dispatch from a totally different world, but it's a welcome change from the typical US-based perspectives. There's a bit of an academic energy to it at times, but mostly I find it interesting to hear what Indigenous people are saying about current and historical events. Episode rec: The Fourth of You-Lie.

  • We Don't Talk About the Weather is a podcast I found while trying to get away from American podcasts (sorry, rest of list). WDTATW is two London-based guys talking about current affairs, mostly in the UK. The podcast aptly self-describes itself as "sounding like screaming and crying", which captures some of the spirit if not the actual energy levels of the podcast. I mostly use this as a palette cleanser from all the US-based takes beaming into my brain 23 hours a day, especially if something has happened in the UK that needs analysing. Unfortunately something has always just happened in the UK that needs analysing, and it's usually terrible. I feel obligated to be at least somewhat informed about the politics of the country I live in, so here we are. "Boris Johnson is a pagan" comes up more often than I think is normal. Episode rec is a bit hard but take I Can't Believe I "Forgot" 5G.

  • Trashfuture is one I don't really listen to any more but want to include as part of the "Leftist Podcasts from the UK" genre, in case someone else likes it. It's a bunch of people discussing and making jokes about current events and politics. I stopped listening to it because it's too snarky and chaotic for me (people interrupting each other, etc), but if you like Spicy Takes and Internet Leftist Memes or whatever, you might like this. I will admit to enjoying the parts where they make fun of weird startups, though. Episode rec: MIT Media Lab After Dark Part 3: We Just Make Boxes here feat. Sarah Taber.

  • Srsly Wrong is a "utopian leftist comedy podcast", and it's my favourite podcast. The first time I listened to it I couldn't figure out what was going on because the format is "mostly serious discussion of ideas interspersed with bizarre sketch comedy". What I really like about this podcast is more the underlying ideology espoused by the hosts rather than the format of the podcast itself (contrast this to Reply All, where the content is somewhat irrelevant but the experience of listening to the podcast is generally pleasant), although I also greatly enjoy the bizarre sketch comedy. I will write more about different ideas from this show, or some steps removed from this show, in due time. Discovering this podcast probably made my 2020. Episode recs: Library Socialism and Usufruct, Trash!.

This has been a non-exhaustive list of podcasts I have listened to in 2020. If you have suggestions for other podcasts you think I might enjoy, please let me know using normal communication channels.

According to my podcast app (Pocket Casts), I have spent 19 days and 21 hours listening to podcasts since November 2018, which is about 477 hours. Is that a large number? Compared to the amount of time I have spent playing Dota 2, the answer is no.