Who To Listen to, and Why
For those who don’t know, NPR, in combination with a handful of podcast hosts and publishers, has recently launched #trypod in order to help expand podcast audiences and bring awareness to less-known podcasts. The idea is to share a podcast that you enjoy with a friend, family member, co-worker, etc., tell them why you listen to it, and perhaps most importantly how to listen. For podcasts with a lengthy backlog of episodes, jumping in can be daunting and it’s not always possible to know whether you can start in the middle, and if so where to start. On the podcast host’s end, this means not only reaching out to family and friends, but telling listeners about what we’re listening to and why.
Alice Isn’t Dead
Average Episode Length: 20-30 minutes
Recommended Episode: “The Factory by the Sea” Part 1 Chapter 4
Alice Isn’t Dead is a is something between a mystery/thriller/weird fiction podcast about a long haul truck driver, Keisha (voiced by Jesika Nicole, Kim Muñoz for any Scandal fans out there) who is looking for her missing wife, Alice. The series is formatted as a series of personal audio recordings that Keisha makes for Alice, even though she knows Alice will never hear them. It’s sort of like voicemails or an audio journal. There’s currently one season posted but the second season is on its way soon!
I generally recommend starting with the first episode of Alice Isn’t Dead because it’s an ongoing narrative. That said, if you want to jump in somewhere in the middle, “The Factory by the Sea” is the place to start. It’s a relatively self-contained story and is beautifully written. It’s one of the less upsetting episodes in the series, so it’s a bit easier to get into the series from here than some other episodes. It’s also very, very important both to me personally and to the media landscape for its open representation of LGBTQ people in lead roles and in a way that doesn’t make their sexuality an “issue of the week.” This is something that Night Vale Presents (which started with Welcome to Night Vale and has since launched a number of other podcasts, including Alice Isn’t Dead and Within the Wires) is very consistent about and does an excellent job of.
The Alexandria Archives
Average Episode Length: 25-30 minutes
Recommended Episode: “House Painting on Halloween” #2
The Alexandria Archives is something like a more Lovcraftian, more identifiably horror version of the Carmilla web series (https://www.youtube.com/user/VervegirlMagazine). The caveat to that is the episode I’m recommending here. Most episodes are pretty accessible for listeners who aren’t big horror fans, but the one I’m recommending here is far, far more disturbing and gory than is usual for the podcast, so if that’s a problem for you my secondary recommendation is episode 5, “Househunting.” It’s a little creepy at first, there are ghosts and a few graphic descriptions of death, but it has an adorable happy ending. The podcast’s format is part fictional college radio (there are some ongoing narratives here but they’re minimal and episodes don’t hinge on them) and part short story. The conceit, that the second half of each show comes from the school’s or nearby community’s archives, helps support external short story submissions. This means that if you’re reading this and you’re a horror/weird fiction writer, you can submit stories to be featured on the podcast (http://www.alexandriaarchives.com/submit/).
Oh, and in case you’re not convinced yet, the podcast’s tagline is “The South’s Answer to Miskatonic University.” Miskatonic University is a fictional school modeled after Harvard University and recurs throughout Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories. It makes me giggle every time I see it, which is always a solid reason to listen in my book.
Welcome to Night Vale
Average Episode Length: 20-30 minutes
Recommended Episode: “All Right” #94
Welcome to Night Vale is a formatted as a local radio broadcast hosted by Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin). The series is…strange, with homages to H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Neil Gaiman, Mark Z. Danielewski, Marisha Pessl and many, many others. It’s fictional ads also bear some resemblance to the ads in Six Feet Under. The show’s tone is generally nihilistic and morbid, with touches of science fiction, horror, and newsroom drama. I’ll also mention that the weather segments of the show are indie songs by great artists who haven’t gotten a lot of press, or are difficult to pin down in one specific genre or another. [Spoilers ahead]: The series features Jesika Nicole (see above note on Alice Isn’t Dead) as Night Vale radio station intern and later town Mayor, Dylan Marron as Carlos the Scientist and later Cecil’s boyfriend, and Wil Wheaton as Earl Harlan, the local gourmet chef with a macabre sense of taste, among other talented performers from theater and the arts.
This episode is probably, to date, my favorite piece of audio-based storytelling. Part of this is because I’m a big sound design nerd, my grandfather used to build sound studio mixing boards so it runs in the family I suppose. This episode is an example of using the tools, the formal techniques that audio formats afforded to content producers to engage and immerse the listener. As with most episodes on this list, I’m also recommending this one because you don’t necessarily need to be caught up on the main story to know what’s going on. It also gives you an idea of the series’ tone, so if you’re not in love with it, you know that it’s not going to be your thing. And if that isn’t enough the convince you, the episode features Speedy Ortiz, which is a fantastic band, so while I’m recommending things, I’d recommend them as well (https://speedyortiz.bandcamp.com/).
The Bright Sessions
Average Episode Length: ~15 minutes
Recommended Episode: “Patient #11-A-7 (Caleb)” #15
This science fiction podcast follows a handful of what it terms “A-Typicals,” or individuals with special, supernatural abilities like telepathy and time travel. The story is told through a series of recordings from therapy sessions between Dr. Bright and 4-5 of her patients. The series is relatively vague when it comes to actual psychological terminology and tends towards SF conspiracy narrative interspersed with talk therapy segments. The reason to listen to The Bright Sessions isn’t necessarily for the narrative, the story is fine, but it’s a character-driven podcast and the story arch doesn’t hold a candle to the brilliance that is Lauren Shippen’s character development. And then there’s the issue of representation. I’m recommending this episode in particular because it tells a familiar story for LGBTQ folx who’ve dealt with not only coming out, but coming out to a potential partner and doing it very poorly. The episode itself isn’t necessarily funny or heart-warming on its own, but with the right context it is its own kind of pick-me-up. There are some pieces of the story that might be confusing if you start this far into the series, so if you listen to this episode and like it, it’s a good idea to just back to the beginning. For the first season, if you only want to listen to episodes about certain characters that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but as the series continues stories intertwine so you’ll miss things if you’re not listening in order.
Within the Wires
Average Episode Length: 25-30 minutes
Recommended Episode: “Cassette #1: Stress, Shoulders” #1
This is a podcast where you absolutely must start at the beginning. The narrative isn’t easily discernible at first and it’s better not to try to guess at it or try to figure out what’s going on ahead of time. The point here is to immerse yourself in the mediation exercises, to let yourself be in another place and inhabit another way of thinking and understanding the world. There are a few moments that are creepy or unsettling, but this is more due to the tone and context. The series is narrated by Janina Matthewson, a psychiatric professional in a medical facility (read: prison) who produces guided meditation tapes for the audience-insert subject of the podcast (meaning that the “you” referenced in the tapes is “us,” the listener). The narrative is similar to quite a bit of YA/dystopian fiction, put particularly brings to mind The Giver, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (NOT 50 Shades of Grey, completely different books and once you read Fforde you’ll understand the need for this clarification).
This podcast is intentionally relaxing and comforting, so the uncanny moments are that much more upsetting because you’re not expecting them. Which makes it that much more effective at telling a story. I’ll also note that the structure here embraces Chekov’s gun fully, so when I say don’t try to put the pieces together early, I mean it, the experience is better when you let the story unfold itself as it’s meant to. Also, for those of you looking for some help with relaxation and self care but who are too cynical/weird/critical for more traditional meditation methods (I may or may not be describing myself here), this podcast is a surprisingly helpful tool for that.
Faculty of Horror
Average Episode Length: 60-90 minutes
Recommended Episode: “Kill is Kiss: Pontypool” #24
Of all the podcasts on this list, Faculty of Horror is the most similar to the Open Ivory Tower podcast in terms of format (because when I was starting my podcast I needed examples for how to structure it, and Faculty of Horror was one of the series I used as a reference point). I should also note here that I’m forever grateful to the show’s incredible hosts, Andrea Subissati and Alex West, because Faculty of Horror was the series that put the idea of podcasting in my head to begin with. The show is an academic analysis of horror cinema (and sometimes TV) that includes films from different eras, sub-genres, and regions. The analysis tend toward a feminist, critical theory approach to film analysis that’s grounded in cultural theory (Raymond Williams, Edward Said, and Roland Barthes come to mind) and philosophy (Foucault, Harraway, Kristeva). For the most part this podcast is fine for listeners who are interested in the analysis of horror films but aren’t great with watching them, except that Subissati and West use audio from the films they’re discussing, so you’ll need to be quick with the fast-forward button to skip those segments.
As to my choice of recommended episode, there were a lot to choose from, episode 13 (“Til Death Do Us Part: Monster Brides”), for example would be better for film history fans/non-horror listeners. I chose episode 24, though, because it’s an excellent analysis of the film and because it introduced me to Pontypool, one of the best zombie movies I’ve seen since 28 Days Later.
Donate: (link on main page)
Average Episode Length: 30 minutes
Recommended Episode: “The Castle” #8
Lore is, predictably enough, a podcast about folklore and urban legends. It is mostly those stories that involve monsters, murder, and mysterious deaths. Aside from an interesting premise and content, Aaron Mahnke is an excellent writer, a solid researcher, and an engaging storyteller. As far as episodes I’d recommend, it really depends on what you’re interested in, which stories grab your attention. I’ve been fascinated by H.H. Holmes for as long as I can remember, and these kinds of spaces (The Murder Castle, The Winchester House) will always catch my attention.
Irish History Podcast
Average Episode Length: ~30 minutes
Recommended Episode: “The IRA, the Boston College Tapes and Who Tells the Past?” May 12, 2014
As history podcasts go, this is, by far, my favorite. Sure, I’ve tried Hardcore History, and I don’t dislike it (so you may want to check that out as well if history is your thing), but Fin Dwyer is a historian for other historians/academics without coming across as inaccessible or pretentious. What I mean by this is that his research is solid and includes primary sources that help anchor his articulation of history, but he also uses oral histories, local accounts, and other sources that speak to lived experience. This is significant because of ongoing debate in fields that rely on historical convention regarding the accuracy, legitimacy, and general placement of oral history in the historical record. I’m recommending this episode specifically because, first, I’m especially interested in the history of The Troubles, the IRA, and decolonial struggle in Ireland in general. And second, in this podcast, Fin Dwyer, addresses some important issues and makes some excellent points about the placement of primary sources when we’re talking about the recent past (within living memory), especially in cases where the history being discussed is controversial.
Delete Your Account
Average Episode Length: 60-90 minutes
Recommended Episode: The Welfare State, February 1st, 2017
Remember when I gave a brief explanation of neoliberalism in my last TV horror blog on the 1980s? This episode of Delete Your Account came out just after that, and they do a much more thorough job of explaining the lasting impact of neoliberalism and the politics of the welfare state. Generally speaking, Delete Your Account follows an interview format similar to Lost in the Stacks (see below). The podcast is hosted by writers/activists Roqayah Chamseddine and Kumars Salehi. The podcast covers current events while providing political context and situating them in historical precedent.
Lost in the Stacks
Average Episode Length: 60 minutes
Recommended Episode: “The Library Freedom Project” #277
I’d like to note that it is very, very difficult to get your hands on archived episodes of this podcast (iTunes only holds onto ~8 at a time) so I’m listing my favorite episode that is accessible at the time of writing this list. That said, because of the nature of the show, if you read this post later and the episode is no longer available, it’s not too difficult to look through the episode notes to figure out which you’re most interested in.
Lost in the Stacks is an interview radio show with breaks for relevant music sets. It’s the academic/library science/preservation nerd version of most other talk radio. Since some of its funding comes from NPR, the tone and pacing are similar to a lot of NPR’s other shows. The episode I’m recommending here is especially pertinent in the face of increasing technological advances in surveillance and data mining. Also, it features excellent tracks from both PJ Harvey and Rilo Kiley, so of course it’s my current favorite episode.
*for any podcasters mentioned here, if you see any mistakes at all in the entry for your show, (anything from a missing “e” in your name to broken links or missing parts of a description) please feel free to reach out and I’ll correct the error immediately.*
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