The great podcast cull of 2020

I’ve been scrolling through Overcast (my podcatcher of choice) over the past few weeks and ruthlessly Kondoing all the podcasts that fail to spark joy in my heart. This morning I deleted one as I was halfway through listening to its latest episode. I can hardly name names because some of them were so forgettable I can’t remember the titles.

There’s a certain alchemy to podcasts, a combination of subject, voice, tone, and approach that creates either lightning in a bottle or a cold skillet full of lard. Radio, and what it has become, is the most intimate of the media, and there’s a special relationship between presenters and listeners. It’s close to pillow talk: in fact, I often wake (too) early and listen to podcasts with my phone on a low volume next to my pillow. So, for example, a podcast that makes too much of an unnecessary noise, with stingers and the like, doesn’t last long with me. And while I accept ads as part of the deal, a podcast that begins with a plug for a different podcast, or includes a six-minute Patreon appeal, rubs me the wrong way.

It’s like when your gran used to lick her handkerchief and clean your face with it.

Some of the survivors of the cull are only there because they are so soothing they’re conducive to a snooze. The Sleepers, I call them:

  • In Our Time (BBC) – always good for a 40-minute nap.
  • Heavyweight (Gimlet) – the human warmth is like a blanket.
  • History Extra (Immediate) – dependable shut-eye.
  • Revisionist History (Pushkin) – Gladwell’s nonsense is terrific soporific.
  • Hardcore History (Dan Carlin) – for those all nighters.

Anyway, history podcasts are great for sleeping, is what I’m saying. And you may think I’m throwing shade at these Sleepers, but if like me you’d struggled with sleep for a few years, you would know that I value these above almost all others. During lockdown, I’ve often gained an extra hour of sleep after waking way too early and resorting to the podcast pillow talk.

It’s very important that you don’t listen to any of the above while driving.

Special mention must be made to a couple of podcasts that have been great lockdown listens (over and above the Beatles podcasts that I’ve written about extensively). The first is More or Less, the BBC podcasts about statistics in the news, which is probably the only corner of the BBC with the backbone enough to point out when the government is lying or exaggerating (for example about coronavirus testing). They follow-up, too, so they’re like a dog with a bone when it comes to questionable stats.

The other is LeVar Burton Reads (Stitcher), which is just Star Trek’s LeVar Burton, you know, reading. He reads short stories from a range of writers – quite a lot of SF, but other genres too – and he reads very well. So you’ll find him reading stories by people as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Ken Liu, Nancy Kress, N.K. Jemisin, Michael Chabon, Ted Chiang, and so on. It really is very good, his voice is superb and his heart is in the right place.

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