5 Storytelling Podcasts That Keep Me (Somewhat) Sane


As an at-home mom and freelance copywriter, I spend the majority of my day interacting with small people whose brains have yet to fully develop. This daily interplay can lead to cerebral entropy if I don’t keep my mind sharp. One way I prevent my brain from reverting to toddler mode is by listening to podcasts of smart grown-ups talking about smart-grown-up-things.

I’ve come to depend on podcasts to help me escape my mundane existence, usually spent at the kitchen counter constantly—constantly loading and reloading the dishwasher. If I find myself without ear-buds when I finally get around to folding that pile of laundry, I feel naked. My podcasts are a link to my intellectual, pre-kid self.

Podcasts, for the electronically uninformed, are streaming audio programs that can be downloaded--usually for free--online.  Some podcasts are simply the online version of public radio broadcasts like This American Life or RadioLab. However, anyone can produce a podcast and many have, using easily-accessed recording equipment like their smart phones.  Some of the best shows out there are independently produced by people passionate about telling stories from a unique perspective.

If you search iTunes, you may be overwhelmed by the huge range of podcasts and not know where to start.  I’ve created a sampling of my favorites to get you on the right path. I left some of the more obvious ones (i.e. This American Life, RadioLab, Serial, etc.) off the list; you’ll probably see them at the top of the iTunes recommendations, anyway. This lists digs a little deeper for some gems you may not otherwise be aware of.

1)      The Longest Shortest Time- This online version of the 3am radio show on WNYC was inspired by producer Hillary Frank’s experiences as an at-home mom. Frank is a former This American Life producer, and her storytelling style is very similar to that of the public radio goliath. The show examines all aspects of parenting in a candid, thoughtful manner. Originally, Frank intended to only tell stories from the perspective of early parenthood. However, as her child has gotten older, she’s expanded her focus to stories from all stages of parenting from the newborn phase through the dreaded teen years.

2)      Strangers- Lea Thau’s smoky, vulnerable voice is one of the reasons to love this podcast. The Danish expat is one of the founders of the live storytelling show The Moth. She was informed by a public radio bigwig that the show would never get airtime if she was involved because her voice was not meant for radio. So the plucky producer went off and did her own thing. The result was Strangers: a deeply-felt exploration of the ways people who have never met can change one another’s lives.

3)      Here Be Monsters- This edgy podcast is a hard one to describe. The website says it’s “about the unknown:” science, drugs, death, religion, politics and medicine. Often the subject matter involves death or fear or insanity. The dark tone is beautifully set by the creepy stoner voice of host and lead producer Jeff Emtman. He sounds like the love-child of Norman Bates and The Dude. Listening to the show creates a great cognitive dissonance while folding laundry around my kids: there’s nothing quite like listening to a story about a guy on a bad acid trip while Daniel Tiger cavorts on our television screen.

4)      Criminal- This independently produced podcast tells the stories of people who have been perpetrators or victims of crime. The producers have a knack for capturing the humanity of even the most calloused of offenders.  I was jonesing for more true crime stories when Serial’s first season ended and I discovered Criminal. So far, it’s fed my crime fix and my compelling story fix, so two unarmed birds are the murder victims of one alleged stone.

5)      99% Invisible- Roman Mars’ “tiny radio show” purports to be about design, but it’s about much more. It tells the stories behind things we look at every day, but never see: highway signs, subway stations, state flags, etc. You’d think the stories would end up sounding about as interesting as an audio tour of a Greyhound bus station, but the folks behind this show end up bringing mundane things to life with richness and depth. I never thought I would find myself having an emotional reaction to someone’s lifelong quest to get the hideous San Francisco city flag re-designed, but after hearing Mars’ heartfelt episode on vexillography (flag design), I now find myself looking--really looking--at the flags I see every day. And that’s the sign of a good story: it stays with you even after it’s done and makes you see things with new eyes.

I’ve come to realize after making this list that podcasts are as much a part of my freelance copywriting as research or writing. I absorb a well-told story every time I listen to one. Then I tell my own stories and the stories of my clients in the thoughtful, evocative voice I connect to as a listener.

That--and I can only listen to the Sesame Street station on Pandora so many times before my head implodes into a starburst of rainbows and alphabet letters.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good podcast app, I highly recommend Stitcher. Create stations based on your listening interests and the app will stream related podcasts, a la Pandora.

Do you have any juicy podcasts to recommend? I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to tell me in the comments.