Fun

’Casting New Light

Our favorite podcasts about history, science, outer space, sex, and other areas of inquiry.

stuff you missed in history classStuff You Missed in History Class
How Stuff Works

I’ve always been the BIGGEST history nerd, especially when it comes to the weird stuff that gets glossed over or skipped in textbooks and anthologies. Thankfully, I’m not the only person obsessed with the past’s more bizarro events. This podcast, run by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, reviews all sorts of historical occurrences that have faded into obscurity. The lethal London smog of 1952? They covered it. The New England vampire panic in the 1700s? Check. Cosmetic rituals in Ancient Egypt? Yerp. Wilson and Frey’s discussions of these and other long-forgotten happenings make history so much more interesting, unbelievable, magical, and funny than the subject is usually given credit for. As Wilson and Frey tell it, it is never, EVER boring. —Lucy

startalkStarTalk Radio
Curved Light Productions

If you’ve been watching Cosmos, you’re familiar with the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wonderful ability to make science accessible and magical to just about anybody. On his podcast, he is as likely to interview an astrophysicist about space probes as he is to talk about the science of hip-hop with the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA. Ever wondered about the real possibilities of time travel, whether alternate dimensions exist, or what would happen if you fell into a black hole? DeGrasse Tyson and his guests have the answers! Whatever the topic, though, he always keeps it fun. You’ll hardly notice how much you’re learning. —Arabelle

the splendid tableThe Splendid Table
American Public Media

In my early 30s, I had no money. I had to make bags of onions and potatoes go FAR, but I was also interested in learning the adult skills of feeding myself and being a little domestic. Luckily, I happened upon Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s show The Splendid Table around that time. Rossetto Kasper has written a bunch of cookbooks and is an expert on Italian cooking, but her knowledge of ingredients and food preparation is vast. She often has famous chefs and authors of food histories as guests, and from them I’ve learned about specialized cooking techniques and sundry ingredients and dishes from around the world. But my very favorite thing about the show is the call-in part. Invariably, someone comes to Rossetto Kasper with a strange quandary à la “My neighbor just gave me a barrel of lemons from her lemon tree—what can I do with them in the next week, before they rot?” Rosetto Kasper will laugh huskily and exclaim something like “Lemons! I love it!” and give the caller recipes for like four drinks and two lemon-themed menus, plus ideas for preserving the peels. Her advice is almost always to wing it and/or improvise, which is as helpful to me now as it was when I was cooking on a zero-dollar budget. —Jessica

nerdetteNerdette
WBEZ

On most radio talk shows, the guest is asked about the thing they’re known for—a book they wrote, a show they’re on, a political position they hold, et cetera. When the conversation veers into that person’s deepest, nerdiest, secret-est obsession, it is an accident and a delight. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a show that STARTED by asking someone what they geek out about most, and then tries to connect that with their main gig? Nerdette does exactly that, and listening to it is like overhearing the weirdest, most interesting conversation in the cafeteria. You get the nerd origin stories of writers, directors, editors of websites for teen girls, and other people whose work you’re familiar with but whose obsessions (horse stories, for example) haven’t been revealed anywhere else. —Lena

radiolabRadiolab
WNYC

I always think of myself as a science dummy. Sure, I can recall some of the basic stuff I learned at school (we’re made of cells, right?). But if someone’s talking to me about enzymes, molecules, recombination, or whatever, my brain seems to short-circuit, and I maybe whimper a little. When I listen to Radiolab, a radio documentary series about science, however, I feel like a curious and intellectually engaged person who wants to find out more about how the world works! For the most part, I think this is because the show’s hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, are really great at telling stories. They have a contagious enthusiasm for the endless questions and mysteries of the sciences (which they tend to link to more-emotional mysteries, such as the inner workings of love). Each episode is sound-designed within an inch of its life, which I love: The music and soundscapes evoke real-world atmospheres like the deep ocean, or hold your attention during stories about typically dry topics, such as numbers. —Estelle

audio smutAudio Smut
Audio Smut

There are some parts of life (e.g., sex) that are so delicate and fraught that the first time you talk about them it’s usually in the dark, over a pillow, to your best friend. Audio Smut reminds me of those intimate, tenuous conversations. Started by queer feminist sex workers in Montreal, the show explores subjects tied to sexuality and sex, including love letters, porn, whether true love exists, and STIs. The main difference between Audio Smut and BFF heart-to-hearts is that the podcast can call on thoughtful guest stars for their expertise. My favorite is this episode, which features an intersex romance that started on Second Life, a woman who charts her relationship history for clues about her own amorous motivations, and more. —Caitlin D.

judge john hodgmanJudge John Hodgman
Maximum Fun

You know that person in your life who’s always right? Not in an obnoxious way—I mean the person you go to when you need advice, and whom you introduce all your potential love interests to because you won’t commit to anything until you get their opinion. The guy or girl who could tell you the most outlandish story, but if they say it really happened, you know that it really happened. I’m lucky enough to say that John Hodgman is that person for me. You might know him from The Daily Show or those Apple commercials from a few years ago, but I know him as the kindest, cleverest, and right-est person in my world. Don’t be jealous, though—his razor-sharp sense of right and wrong is now available to everybody, via Judge John Hodgman, his weekly podcast, wherein people who are fighting with other people about matters big (how best to raise a bilingual child) and small (is a machine gun a robot?) call in and present their cases, and Hodgman makes a verdict. On the show, as in life, he is always right, which is so satisfying to listen to, plus he acts like a cranky old fuddy-duddy and really gives the callers the business, which is lots of fun. (I know that he’s kinda sick of cases involving couples, so if any of you Rooks is currently embroiled in an argument with a friend, frenemy, parent, boss, teacher, co-worker, classmate, etc., I’m sure he’d jump on your case.) —Anaheed

99percent invisible99% Invisible
99% Invisible

Design affects everything around us—all the things we see and inhabit and use and touch—but a lot of us go about our business without considering why certain objects or buildings are made the way they are. 99% Invisible is a podcast about the “invisible activity that shapes our world.” Ever wondered if there could be a scientific way to make high-heeled shoes more comfortable? Or stopped to think about whether there’s a better way to make money? Roman Mars, the show’s host, is here to make us take notice of these and other subtle ways design makes our daily lives better (or occasionally more annoying). I love finishing an episode and realizing I’ll never see the world again in quite the same way. —Estelle

htde2-21How to Do Everything
NPR

The mission of this show is to tackle all kinds of questions, both trivial and practical, and to treat each one with seriousness AND a sense of humor. I will probably never need to know how a manatee swims (thanks to the show, I do now) but I’m glad that someone finally cleared up how long you should wait before you talk about an episode of a TV show that your friends haven’t seen yet (at least a week, two if you’re nice). The hosts, Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag, also take listeners’ questions, which once included a query from a young girl who wanted to know if there’s a way to carry a Trapper Keeper and still look cool. It turns out there is! And when Danforth and Chillag helped her find it, they gained a forever fan. —Lena ♦

14 Comments

  • jenaimarley July 24th, 2014 11:12 PM

    AHHHH radio podcasts are my life!
    Thanks so much for this post!
    I gotta recommend Freakonomics and Snap Judgement as well though! And This American Life is the bomb, of course :)

  • rockwrenroll July 24th, 2014 11:41 PM

    My life is already entirely consumed by podcasts, I love them so much. Thanks for these recommendations!!!!!!!

    (i’d 1000% listen to a rookiemag podcast just sayin)

  • spools July 24th, 2014 11:50 PM

    Lucy, another really cool history-themed podcast is “The Memory Palace.” Each episode is only a few minutes long, and the creator has a lovely poetic way of recounting historical events.

    I loved everybody’s recommendations, by the way! I can’t wait to try out some new podcasts.

    • Lucy July 25th, 2014 9:17 AM

      Thanks spools! I’ll check it out! <3

  • NotReallyChristian July 25th, 2014 6:56 AM

    For British listeners I have to recommend In Our Time, the BBC Radio series presented by Melvyn Bragg. Basically every episode has a subject – like, say, Queen Zenobia (super-cool military leader from the Roman period) – and Bragg gets together a bunch of experts on the topic (usually university academics) to chat about it. I love browsing their archived episodes and picking something I know NOTHING about like the Kama Sutra, or the Borgia Family, or Fermat’s Last Theorem, and listen to some of the absolute best-informed people talk about it. There’s an episode on the real Pocahontas, and the Amazons, and the Ice Ages … no gimmicks and no messing around, just top class info for those of us who love to learn :)

  • Margar3t77 July 25th, 2014 9:01 AM

    I absolutely love podcasts! My favorite is definitely Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! from NPR. It is a consistently hilarious news-quiz show. I’ve found the best way to listen to podcasts is by downloading the (free!) Stitcher Radio app. The app allows you to make a “favorites list” of your favorite podcasts, and then downloads new episodes of the podcasts on Wifi. This way, you can stream/listen to them even when you don’t have internet access. I love using the Bluetooth in my car to stream podcasts on the way to school, and with Stitcher it doesn’t use up any data.

  • Elliekc July 25th, 2014 9:36 AM

    Another great science podcast is The Infinite Monkey Cage by Prof. Brian Cox. He usually brings in 2-3 guests that are a mix of scientists and comedians so it ends up being really funny and accessible but super informative too! Definitely worth a listen!

    Plus there’s a ‘space exploration’ episode with Patrick Stewart

    • jenaimarley July 26th, 2014 10:50 AM

      When is a strawberry truly dead??
      OMG YES!!! TIMC IS THE BEST!

  • die_mad July 25th, 2014 12:19 PM

    My very favorite podcast radio show thing is probably Welcome To Night Vale, which tells the story of a strange strange town through the eyes of Cecil, your radio host. IT’S FASCINATING AND FUN AND WEIRD.

    • WizerdGandalf July 25th, 2014 5:29 PM

      YASSSS! You are supah right, Welcome To Night Vale is probably one of the most freaking creative podcasts out there, and it’s so funny! Now, I don’t know how known or unknown this podcast is in your respective countries, or whether you have listened to it before, but dayum! It is brilliant entertainment, and especially during summer when we are all like in this stupor and bored and good ideas about how to spend our vacations are like flunking drained out of us or something. It’s during those kinds of moments when I like to pretend that I am a citizen of Night Vale sitting in the couch of my Courage-the-cowardly-dog kind of living room, in my weird house in the middle of nowhere, and just listening to Cecil giving all the city’s news and reports. I’m not gonna lie to you—the podcast is so weirdly authentic, you feel like it truly is your context at the moment, haha. Like you start worrying about the city council and wondering about the dog park, and all of these daily super strange and freaky events that Cecil makes sound so quotidian and mundane! I would say one of the main themes and inspirations for this podcast has been and is THE GREAT UNKNOWN, funnily convenient for this month’s theme! Throw endless mystery, fear, humor, Cecil’s cheerleader/fangirl facet and a bunch of unknown and frightening ingredients into a bowl, and there you go! That is Night Vale. http://commonplacebooks.com/ WARNING: You can get strangely philosophical as well. P.S. Great for ur creativity.

  • iamrachii July 25th, 2014 6:24 PM

    I’ve never really explored the world of podcasts but I think Nerdette is just what I’ve been longing for! I have been listening to a lot of the radio shows in the BBC archive though – my favourites are Witness (which explores moments in history with people who were around to witness them in 10 minute episodes) and Desert Island Discs, where a celebrity talks about their life and the songs that are most important to them. I think both are probably available as podcasts too!

  • Vlada July 29th, 2014 2:20 PM

    I’ve never tried and listen to podcast but I’ll give it a try thanks to this article.

    PS: this is my blog btw http://speakingofvlada.blogspot.com.es/

  • Emily July 31st, 2014 7:58 PM

    Fantastic!

    A really good one for random facts is a spinoff of the BBC panel show “Q.I.:( Quite Interesting)” (Hosted by Stephen Fry).

    It’s called “No Such Thing As a Fish,” and they discuss various facts they’ve discovered once a week and there are various comedians riffing off each other, so you’re laughing AND learning!

    But honestly it’s super funny, and it’s intelligent!

    http://qi.com/podcast/

  • wallflower152 August 8th, 2014 7:40 PM

    Cannot believe Stuff Mom Never Told You isn’t on the list. A feminist podcast from How Stuff Works (actually, all How Stuff Works podcasts are the best). They talk about women’s health, history, feminist issues and fun stuff. This is the podcast that made a feminist out of me! And the hosts are so fun and smart. Want Cristen and Caroline to be my friends so bad.

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