Season 2 of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast has just launched! Keep your eyes — and ears — on bloginhood.com over the next couple of weeks for a new group of interviews with authors and editors from every corner of speculative fiction. There's also a "Voice of the Fans" episode.
Since podcasts are top-of-mind for me right now, I thought I'd share a list of the shows I enjoy. I've grouped them into five broad categories: Speculative Fiction, History, Science, Comedy, and The Dearly Departed (for shows which have wrapped up, but which are certainly worth listening to if you can still find them).
They vary in length. Some are host-only, while others are interviews or panel discussions. And, as a warning for those with sensitive ears or kids in the room, some contain explicit language or disturbing material.
Each has its own strength or set of strengths: most of the hosts are pretty engaging; some hosts have a solid, professional sound; some shows have fascinating guests, and some of the hosts are good interviewers; some 'casts are really well researched; some have great production.
By the same token, none of them is perfect (but who is?). I won't get into my critiques of each show because everyone's tastes are different, and what sticks out to one listener may not be an issue for another. Decide for yourself what you like.
Whether you need something to listen to on your daily commute, or while you're reorganizing your bookshelf, making supper, cleaning the garage, or working out (well, you might need something to listen to while working out, but, as somebody who legendarily avoids the gym at all costs, and has been known to taunt people with ice cream bars while they work out, I won't be needing any audio for exercise purposes), each of these podcasts is worth downloading. I get them off of iTunes myself, but some have their own websites, and you may be able to find them on other podcasting platforms. I've linked their titles to their websites where possible, and their iTunes pages otherwise. If you like them as much as I do, be sure to rate and review them on iTunes or whatever site is applicable. Enjoy!
Once upon a time, there were three members of the SF Signal Irregulars who started a podcast. Their knowledge of speculative fiction was vast and deep. They were like the Great Old Ones of fandom, except, rather than being a menace to the universe, they were only a threat to the bookshelves of other fans when they expounded upon the thousands of books and comics both new and old that you should be reading. For a while, Jeff Patterson, John H. Stevens and Fred Kiesche were content to write reviews and comments for the late, lamented SF Signal site, and later appeared as occasional panelists on the similarly late, lamented SF Signal Podcast. Frequently crotchety, always insightful and entertaining, they were, singly or together, many times the highlight of the show. And then they launched their own monthly podcast. In each episode, the Three Hoarsemen (sometimes accompanied by guests) discuss a particular book, the works of individual authors, issues in the genre, or other topics, and then opine about the novels, short stories, comics, movies, TV shows, and other culture they've consumed since their last show. Rarely is there an episode where I don't finish without adding a book or three to my to-buy list. But they've also been a good early warning system that's kept me away from stuff that maybe wasn't worth while. Episodes are usually in the ballpark of an hour, but can vary.
The Coode Street Podcast
Long-running and lively, the weekly Coode Street Podcast features critic Gary Wolfe and anthologist/editor Jonathan Strahan hurtling between discussions and debates about books and short stories, authors, awards, trends in writing, and issues facing the field of science fiction and fantasy and its fandom as a whole. The show frequently features guests, some of whom are authors interviewed about their own work, others there to discuss awards or issues the genre community is wrestling with. Episodes are generally longer than an hour, but with the brisk pace set by the hosts (even during prolonged and intense discussions about a particular topic) it certainly doesn't feel like it.
This show is about more than just speculative fiction — it's a catchall of interviews with writers and others about writing, pop culture, politics, history, and Afrocentric issues. But, because my main area of interest in the show is the interviews with sf authors and discussions about books, movies, comics and TV (although I do listen to the other episodes), I'm including it in the speculative fiction category of podcasts. It's hosted by author Minister Faust (whose books I've enjoyed for years, and who was a guest on my own show last season), who is insightful, funny, passionate about his subject matter, and has a good, professional on-air delivery. The podcast features new interviews, as well as archival material gathered over the years. It also has a nice, well-produced sound. Episodes generally run about a half-hour, though longer versions are available for show supporters.
The Black Tapes
A radioplay about a young journalist who, in the course of profiling a crotchety paranormal investigator, uncovers a cult's attempts to bring demons into the world, The Black Tapes podcast feels like the lovechild of The Paper and Poltergeist, midwifed by The X-Files. I first heard about the show when it was mentioned by a guest on The Nerdist podcast, not too long after the first few episodes of BT were posted online. It only took one episode to get me hooked, and pretty soon I'd made my wife into a fan. The show has a wonderfully creepy, claustrophobic, something's-standing-over-your-bed-leaning-right-into-your-face-while-you-sleep feel to it, good character development, and a nice, tight plot. While I might occasionally quibble about the ethics or likelihood of the protagonist's journalistic practices (yes, I know I said at the outset that I wasn't going to detail the weaknesses of each show, and yeah, I may have hung up my Electro-Voice 635 mic a few years ago, but I can never entirely stop thinking like a reporter), overall it's a good tale about how one story can lead to another, and how sometimes a story can threaten to consume the investigator. Definitely one of those shows that will have you eagerly waiting for each new season. Episodes are usually in the range of half-an-hour.
Myths and Legends
As the name implies, this show is devoted to retelling old (and sometimes not so old) myths and legends from around the world. That said, the host, Jason, makes a bit of a change and retells them in a modern style — which is the right choice, to my mind, in that it creates a consistent sound and feel from story to story, as well as a rhythm that lends itself well to the occasional editorial interruption. Rather than break the flow of the story, these comments serve to engage modern audiences and let us know that we're all interpreting the story the same way. If the host didn't interrupt the story from time to time to call characters — or the narrative itself — out for things that we of the 21st Century would deem odd or inappropriate, then the risk would be that the modern audience might become alienated by outdated values or ways of looking at the world. Something I also appreciate is that the host makes a point of noting when there are multiple versions of a story (or of a particular plot point within a story), and then explains his rationale for choosing one over the other, or for taking bits from several to synthesize a compromise version that sounds good and is consistent with the rest of the story. It's also interesting to hear about the origins of legends and fairy tales, especially when it's revealed that some come from different place than you'd expect. Each episode also ends with the "creature of the week", a short segment (unrelated to the main myth or legend) profiling critters from folklore from around the world. Overall, the show is well-written and produced, and the host has a good read and seems like a nice guy. Episodes usually run half-an-hour to 45 minutes.
Welcome to Night Vale
Imagine listening to a local radio news broadcast in a community in the US where pretty much everything from every episode of The Twilight Zone and all of the horrific supernatural strangeness from the depths of Lovecraft's mind happens all the time. In fact, weird things like the Sheriff's Secret Police, or the Dog Park with its menacing figures that no-one is allowed to talk about, hostile subterranean cities beneath the bowling alley, or faceless old women living in everyone's homes are so commonplace that the inhabitants take them for granted — or, in some cases, fervently embrace them because this is the only life they've ever known. That's the fictional town of Night Vale, and listeners become a part of it every time they tune in to anchorman Cecil's rundown of local news, sports, weather (which isn't a weather forecast, rather it's a slot where the show cuts to a song from a different musician each episode), gossip, community calendar listings — and sometimes events from his personal life. The podcast is brilliant for being so wildly imaginative, and for its total commitment to the world it has built, where Cecil delivers descriptions of all manner of unsettling creepiness in such a matter-of-fact — and sometimes giddy — way. Even the life-lessons that are occasionally given out (either in the podcast or on its Twitter feed) are framed in a way that's only appropriate for life in Night Vale ("Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but at other times it's a venomous snake painted as a cigar in an attempt to assassinate you."). Part of the genius of the show is the way in which the horror of Night Vale's world is completely undercut by the cheesiness of Cecil's earnest delivery of his newscast. It's also fun listening for old cliches from our world given a completely different, and frequently icky, twist for the show. The other thing I enjoy is how much (paranormal facts of life aside) Cecil's broadcast sounds like newscasts or DJ breaks at some small town radio stations I've known over the years. The ones where the community world-view is very insular, the station's focus is narrow, and the on-air talent is more eager than talented. I listen to Cecil and his forced, overblown delivery, or his gushing about his personal life, and I think "I knew guys like this when I worked in radio!" — broadcasters who weren't the best newspeople or jocks (broadcaster slang for DJs, not sports guys) in the business (some probably shouldn't have been on-air at all), but who were so committed, so gung-ho, and who loved their stations and their towns so much that they'd become fixtures in the community, and everyone in town loved them right back. Not much room left for personalities like that in these days of media contraction. Episodes are just shy of half-an-hour, and the producers take the show on the road around the world every now and again.
This weekly audio magazine has been around for years, and has built a solid reputation in the sf community. The podcast features narrators reading the short stories of various authors (usually one story per show), as well as other tidbits from the sf community, including occasional interviews. The host, Tony C Smith, is enormously and genuinely enthusiastic about whatever topic is at hand, and seems like someone you'd like to hang out with. The narrators do a solid job reading the short stories. Episodes can range anywhere from half-an-hour to upwards of two hours, though most are in the neighbourhood of one hour.
Emperors of Rome
The premise of this podcast is, as the title implies, fairly straightforward: each episode profiles a different Roman emperor in chronological order. The lineup is frequently interspersed with episodes about other luminaries of the ancient world, such as pre-Imperial rulers, generals, poets, senators, the wives and consorts of the emperors, and others. The format is a conversation-style interview between host Matt Smith (no, no the 11th Doctor) and a professional historian, which, for most episodes to date, has been Dr. Rhiannon Evans. Smith and Evans both sound personable, and they have a good on-air dynamic with each other which makes the show easy to listen to, while being very informative. The biographies in each of the biweekly episodes are well researched, and the hosts are good about naming the sources for various claims about the personalities or deeds of whichever historical figure is being covered. Production on the show is also good. If you found yourself missing The History of Rome podcast, then Emperors of Rome is for you. Episodes are usually in the range of half-an-hour long.
The Irish History Podcast
Covering different events and figures throughout Irish history, this podcast is broken up into several miniseries, each of which goes in-depth over multiple episodes to explore every facet of its topic. Because of the miniseries format, the show jumps around in time: from the medieval Norman invasion, to the rise of the labour movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, to the Black Death, to the Troubles, and more. And yet, despite going forwards and backwards through history, the show maintains a consistent feel and a comfortable rhythm. Rather than being locked into a chronology, it's like browsing through the shelves of a library and stopping here and there to pick topics of interest. Host Fin Dwyer, an archaeologist by trade, does an excellent job of researching his topics, and has a solid, friendly delivery. The show runs weekly and episodes are normally in the rang of half-an-hour.
The British History Podcast
Starting in prehistoric times and moving forward chronologically, this series profiles the major events and people in British history. Host Jamie Jeffers and his producer, Dr. Zee, do a great job of researching topics and historical figures for the show, and occasionally include interviews with experts on British history and archaeology. They also do a good job of identifying grey areas where different sources have different things to say about an event or a person — or when sources have nothing to say about something important that happened — and Jamie explains his rationale for going with one account over another. Jamie has a good delivery, and his personality comes through in his writing. One thing to keep in mind: if you're looking for a complete overview of what's happening across all of Britain in a given year, decade, or era, the focus of the show narrows considerably by the Medieval period — it's only a podcast about all of Britain until the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons arrive; after that it becomes almost exclusively about England. I gather from passing references that there's members-only content that pertains to Scotland and Wales, but you won't hear about those countries much on the main, free podcast. At least not at the point where the show is as I write this blurb, which is the time of Alfred the Great — though, as I write this, the most recent episodes have taken a detour into Wales by way of introducing us to the Welsh priest and scholar Asser, who was coveted by Alfred, and some of the fighting involving the Sons of Rhodri, which seems to have had some entanglement with English politics as well. Perhaps Scotland and Wales will be brought back into the show on a more regular basis at a later date. I certainly hope so. That said, it's a good podcast, and I certainly encourage anyone with an interest in English or British history to give it a listen. Episodes air weekly and run about half-an-hour.
History of Germany Podcast
Available for listening in both English and German, the History of Germany Podcast outlines the history of the region influenced by German language and culture chronologically (mostly) from ancient times to the present. The show occasionally makes detours when guests are brought in (usually as part of a crossover involving different podcasts) to talk about other subjects related to events in the main timeline (like a recent episode about power struggles between Holy Roman emperors and the papacy). Host Travis Dow does a good job of researching his topics, and you can tell he's hugely enthusiastic about his subject matter. The show is also well produced. Episodes are usually biweekly to monthly, and generally half-an-hour to an hour in length.
The History of the Crusades
Ah, the Middle Ages: knights in shining armour; high-stakes backroom politics pitting kings, nobles religious leaders, and peasants each other; land grabs spanning countries, regions, and even continents; and the wholesale, stomach-turning butchery of human lives and wanton destruction of property (committed by all sides) that was the Crusades. I started listening to Sharyn Eastaugh's podcast a couple of years ago when she was doing her first series on the various Crusades in the Middle East, and was thoroughly impressed by the amount of detail she put into researching the blow-by-blow events for every show, especially her use (and citing) of multiple sources from different perspectives. I thought the podcast had wrapped up when that series ended, but I've recently come back to it and discovered that during the intervening time, she's done another series on the Crusade against the Cathars, and is now in the middle of a new series on the Baltic Crusades. Needless to say, I'm currently binge-listening my way through the Cathar instalment to try to get caught up. You might want to give it a listen too.
The Scottish History Podcast
This show examines various events, figures, groups and other points of interest from Scotland's history. Rather than being bound to a timeline, episodes jump back and forth across Scottish history to cover everything from the Battle of Culloden, to Scotland's role in the African slave trade, to what Vikings ate. The topics are well-researched, and the hosts are enthusiastic and keep up a good banter. Episodes are usually around half-an-hour long, and air infrequently.
History of Pirates Podcast
Who doesn't love pirates? Or, at least our modern romantic notion of pirates as lively adventurers on the high seas, rather than the real thieves, slavers, and killers of yore. But as fun as our 20th and 21st Century swashbucklers like Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, and Captain Chunk may be, what's more fun is to learn about the fascinating scofflaws like Drake, Teach, Kidd, and Zheng Shi who preyed on ships and coastal settlements centuries ago. The History of Pirates podcast is well researched and host "Captain" Craig Buddy is clearly highly enthusiastic about his subject matter. The show is chronological (sort of), starting by exploring the seafaring nations of the Bronze Age that made piracy a part of their foreign policy, and moving forward towards the golden age of piracy. Occasional detours are made to talk about other issues, or to profile pirates of note from other periods. Episodes are infrequent and can run anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.
Quirks and Quarks
For 40 years, CBC's Quirks and Quarks has been the gold standard for science reporting in broadcast, and it's great to be able to download the show (or individual segments from episodes) in podcast form. Host Bob Macdonald and his producers interview researchers about breaking news from around the world in the fields of science (all branches — from astronomy to oceanography, chemistry, palaeontology, and everything in between) and technology, as well as ongoing issues (like global warming), and the effect of government policy on science and the planet. Macdonald has a friendly, solid delivery, and knows his stuff. The show is very well researched and guests (both those responsible for new scientific discoveries or developments, and those invited to comment about breaking news and issues) include leading international scientists. The show runs weekly, but takes a break for a couple of months during the summer. Episodes run 54 minutes, though segment lengths vary.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and a rotating crew of comedian sidekicks and scientific experts discuss all things science-related in this weekly show. Episodes vary from one-on-one interviews (accompanied outside the interview by commentary from Neil and his co-hosts) with special guests such as scientists and celebrities, to panel discussions about recent scientific discoveries or ongoing issues. Occasionally other scientists from the roster of regulars will take over hosting duties for special episodes. And there's usually a segment at the end of each episode where Neil and his guests will answer questions sent in by listeners. A separate closing segment features and editorial from Bill Nye the Science Guy. Episodes run about an hour.
This weekly dose of political and social satire is a necessity for maintaining sanity in a world that, with every update of daily news, seems to be sinking further into insanity. Host Andy Zaltzman and his gaggle of guest co-hosts are pretty much guaranteed to have me laughing within minutes of the opening fanfare. The show is so good that Zaltzman & co. can even make sports (or, occasionally their bizarre, alternate universe mockery of sports) entertaining.
Allegedly broadcasting from a pod floating high above... somewhere (though usually in a Toronto comedy bar, or sometimes from the host's kitchen, or an apartment on the road), The Seanpod is whatever comedian Sean Cullen feels like serving up. Sometimes it's the improvisational madness of his on-stage performances, other times, Cullen may just muse about new music he's getting into. During the episodes taped at his stand-up gigs, listeners are treated to everything from off-the-cuff songs, to new instalments of his "awkward family conversations" skit, to occasional "scenes beside the scenes" sketches (where we find out what background characters are discussing during famous cinematic moments), to interactions with the audience, to bits with other comedians and actors who join the show as guests. Cullen is apparently a science fiction fan, and, while the genre doesn't creep into every show, he does reference it from time to time. One of the funniest instalments featuring sf was episode 15 a couple of years ago, when Kids in the Hall star Scott Thompson joined Cullen onstage and they did a prolonged skit savaging John Norman's Gor series. At the time, I was listening to it on headphones as I walked home from work, and several people gave me odd looks as I cackled away helplessly. Episodes are infrequent, but it's worth subscribing for those times when The Seanpod does land on your playlist with something new.
The Nerdist Podcast
Comedian Chris Hardwick hosts this weekly show where he (sometimes accompanied by sidekicks) chats with other comics and various Hollywood types. His interview style is very informal — there's no official "welcome to the show" during the interview proper; Hardwick's producer just starts rolling when the guests arrive, and they start talking. Sometimes guests are taken a little by surprise when they find out the interview is already under way. Most of the episodes are reasonably funny, and sometimes you get to learn a lot about who the guests really are. The show runs weekly and episodes are usually about an hour.
My Dad Wrote a Porno
The name pretty much says it all for this one: a couple of years ago, a guy in the UK made the uncomfortable discovery that his retired father had started writing and self-publishing porn. Really, really bad porn. "Bad" as in catastrophically poorly-written (with a truly stunning lack of knowledge about the female anatomy). The son — Jamie Morton — decided the only way to cope with it was to share it with a couple of friends — and the world. Each week, Morton and his sidekicks, James Cooper and Alice Levine, sit down around the kitchen table and record an episode of the podcast where they read a chapter aloud and savagely mock it, pretty much on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The results are hilarious, though you'll never be able to look at a pomegranate the same way again. After two seasons, the show has amassed quite the following (including celebs Elijah Wood and Daisy Ridley, who've been guests on the 'cast), and they've taken it on the road for live performances... of the reading/heckling that is, not the porn. Episodes run weekly for as long as it takes to get through one of the books, and usually last for anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour.
Part of writer-director Kevin Smith's film and social media empire, this podcast pairs Smith up with his long-time collaborator, producer Scott Mosier, in a show where they talk about... whatever. Sometimes they discuss projects they're working on, sometimes they'll talk about people they know (such as episodes marking the passing of Carrie Fisher and Alan Rickman that were really quite touching), or stuff in general that's caught their eyes (like this past winter's news story about the guy in Alberta who beat up a cougar that was attacking his dog in a Tim Horton's parking lot). I'm not a regular listener, but the episodes I've downloaded have been funny enough to make it worth while checking out the occasional instalment from time to time.
The Dearly Departed
(Podcasts that have reached the end of their run, but are worth tracking down)
The History of Rome
Chronicling the history of Rome from its origins in legend to the crumbling of the Western Roman Empire, Mike Duncan's show set the standard for history podcasts. Well-researched from different sources, the show takes listeners step by step through one of the greatest civilizations of antiquity, profiling its leading citizens, covering its conflicts, and doing a good job of talking about life in general and how the empire was run. While the show has wrapped up, its episodes have been archived so you can still listen. Episodes run from about 10 to 30 minutes.
The SF Signal Podcast
Not so long ago, there was a marvellous online hub of all things speculative fiction called SF Signal. Over its span of many years, it spawned a group of podcasts, one of which was called The SF Signal Podcast. During its run, the show won a Hugo Award for Best Fancast, and for good reason: it featured a lot of interviews with interesting guests (writers, editors, critics, and others), hosted many rousing panel discussions, and pretty much everyone on it seemed to be having a great time — as did listeners. Episodes vary in length, and the show is still archived online.
A podcast devoted to examinations of all things weird, uncomfortable, dangerous, upsetting, lethal, or just plane gross. Like a sort of Three Stooges of the disturbing, hosts Joe Fulgham, Toren Atkinson and Kevin Leeson would irreverently explore the science, history and pop culture behind everything from shark attacks to fire, vampires, acid, elephants, explosives, and history's worst killers. The trio was frequently joined by expert guests to talk about some subject matter (including doctors for shows related to medical issues, scientists from various disciplines for relevant episodes, and others). The 'cast would also sometimes feature a musical interlude. If you're squeamish, have triggers, or don't appreciate deliberately tasteless humour, this show isn't for you. If you're curious about the bizarre and icky, and you don't mind jokes that tackle these issues head-on in an effort to take the edge off, Caustic Soda is definitely worth checking out. Episodes averaged between an hour and an hour-and-a-half.
Spider on the Web
A few years ago, author Spider Robinson launched a podcast where he shared his opinions on, well, everything; read excerpts from his stories and newspaper columns; and played and talked about music. Spider's a cool guy with a great voice, and if you like his stuff, it's worth while to dig up this show. Episodes run anywhere from a couple of minutes to two hours.
So what podcasts do you listen to? What should I be adding to my playlist?